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The Good Book

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I went to Toledo a day late.

I visited Toledo on Sunday instead of Saturday because Spain’s national railway company Renfe couldn’t get its act together to sell me a ticket.

Whole volumes could be written about the vagaries of of rail travel in Spain but I promise to keep my rant as short: my trip to Toledo was delayed a by 24 hours because none of the ticket machines at Madrid’s Atocha station were working, and because the staff in the ticket office seemed more interested in chatting with each other than flogging off tickets for the 10:20 to Toledo.

You can imagine the scene: crowds of confused tourists, irate Spanish grandmothers in fur coats, a slightly nervous, slightly overweight security guard. The minutes ticking away. I missed the train.

My first official complaint in Spain.

My first official complaint in Spain.

Anyway, it turned out the Saturday trip down to Atocha station wasn’t entirely fruitless. I didn’t make the train but I did have the pleasure of filling in my first bona fide complaint in all my years in Spain. That’s right: I actually resorted to the hoja de reclamaciones, or the official complaints book.

If you’ve spent any time in Spain, you’ve probably been vaguely aware of the existence of such things. These books — part of this country’s rickety consumer rights infrastructure —provide a way for people to vent their frustrations over anything from cheating taxi drivers to churlish taxidermists. In Andalusia, for example, the hojas are actually obligatory for all businesses, whether they be a religious artifacts shop or a first communion fashion store or a flamenco designer’s boutique.

After a while, you don’t really see these little signs, in that same way you don’t — in a bar — notice all the posters of waxy-looking Jesuses decked out in crowns of thorns or the mouldering stuffed bulls’ heads that line the walls. So it is with the hoja de reclamaciones.

But last Saturday at Atocha station I entered into the fray of civil society and demanded The Book. Driven along by indignado rage, I stormed into the Renfe customer service centre and noted down my litany of frustrations into a purple A4 jotter which felt like something you might use to decorate the set of a television show about a 1950s advertising firm. My complaint was then carbon-copied in quadruplicate — seriously – before each individual copy was decorated with a seal.

The Renfe staff on duty could not have been less interested. They handed me the book almost wordlessly and then silently presented me with two copies for my records. It set me wondering how many millions of these complaints forms have been filled out and filed away in dusty cabinets over the decades. Will anything ever come of my grievance? I wait with not-very-bated breath.

And Toledo? Well, given that – for reasons which remain mysterious — all Spanish towns have to be the capital of something, I can safely report back that Toledo appears to be the capital of Marzipan and swordmaking. Neither of these were items that I particularly felt like buying last Sunday, but it did occur to me a day or two later that some sort of sabre might have come in handy at the ticket office at Atocha station.

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Written by georgemills25

March 16, 2013 at 10:14

The great sell off

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Like many intellectually vain people, I tend to think I’m better at speaking foreign languages than I actually am. This means I spend a lot of time in Spain pretending I understand what is going on when, in fact, I haven’t got a clue. Every now and then, though, I get tired of faking it.

The other day, for instance, I went to a newsstand near my house to buy the El País newspaper. Because costs for most things have gone up since the start of the year, I had to check the price. The newsagent told me and said something else which I didn’t get but which – by the look on his face – was obviously supposed to be funny. So what did I do? I made a stupid grunting, giggling, spluttering noise and turned away.

Halfway through the door, however, I realised I wanted to know what the man had actually been going on about. At which point he said: ‘Sale muy barato, no? Todo El Pais, solo 1.30 euros’ (something like ‘That’s pretty cheap for the whole country, right? Only €1.30’).

‘Oh,’ I said, the penny finally dropping. ‘It’s a joke, a play on words!’ My newspaper, you see is called El País, which means ‘the country’. He was making a (rather bad) joke about how cheap Spain was.

I laughed again, mostly to make up for not having laughed harder the first time. But it was only when I got halfway down the street that I got to thinking: how much might it actually cost to buy a whole country? Was there actually a way to work it out?

A first quick internet search led me to a fairly standard economic equation on wikianswers. According to one author, when you are buying a business, a common formula is to take annual gross sales and add 10%. So if you were to sell a hardware store that grossed 500,000 dollars annually you would aim to sell it for $550,000. Applying the same model for Spain, if Spain’s annual GDP is $1.49 trillion, we could realistically hope to flog off the entire country for $1.582 trillion dollars. Not exactly a snip, but the sort of deal the US could seriously ponder given its GDP nudges 15 billion dollars annually. And if you were to factor in the debt Spain is carrying at the moment, you certainly might manage to chip a bit off the asking price.

But what if countries were more like houses? Could we measure their value by calculating their total land value? Let’s say, for instance, that I want to buy all the land in Spain. I’ll first assume – conservatively – that 90 per cent of Spain’s roughly 500,000 square kilometres is either undeveloped or agricultural land. The average price for this ‘unused’ land price is €177.6 per square metre and so for this 450,000 kilometres squared, we get a value of 76,950,000,000,000 Euros. To this we need to add the value of the other, built-up, 10 per cent, for which we’d have to fork out the staggering sum of 80,300,000,000,000. The grand total for Spain is now 157,250,000,000,000 Euros and things are starting to look decidedly pricier than the €1.30 I paid for my newspaper the other day.

Then we could also probably get a bulk discount. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson effectively doubled the size of the United States by buying up Louisiana for the bargain basement price of $15 million, or less than 3 cents per acre. Some half a century later, Alaska was snapped up for the even cheaper sum of $11,250,000. So perhaps we could knock a quarter or even a third off the price in the paragraph above, especially given that some of the land in Spain is, for various reasons, going to be unusable.

Beyond economics, there are other ways to value countries. One method would be to count the cost in lives lost through wars related to nationhood. Estimates show, for example, that some 20 million Soviet citizens died to protect the USSR against the Germans while tiny East Timor saw around 100,000 people lose their lives in a long struggle to gain independence from Indonesia. Meanwhile, in the Spanish Civil War as many as half a million people died to defend the version of the country they believed in. Thus Spain was ‘bought’ at the cost of 500,000 deaths.

Then there are the instances of soft power as way of ‘buying’ countries. Some commentators argue China is currently buying up slabs of Africa with its policy of exchanging infrastructure for trade opportunities. For instance, China currently buys 60 per cent of Sudan’s oil exports and a whopping 71 per cent of Sudanese exports while promising to invest heavily into water infrastructure and air and sea ports for the country. At the pointier end of the spectrum, private investors are engaged in turbo-charged land grabs in both Asia and Africa as first-world countries rush to ensure future food security. The UK charity Oxfam says 30 per cent of land in Liberia has been sold off in the last 5 years; as a result, people have been forcefully evicted and left without access to food sources. In such cases, countries are effectively being sold out the back door.

And with the Spanish government drawing up privatisation plans for everything from the country’s rail network to the nation’s water supplies, there may well be a few opportunities for private companies to grab their own bit of Spain for a lot less than you might think. Stay tuned.

Written by georgemills25

January 26, 2013 at 13:34

AVE prices to fall in new year

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Tickets for travel on Spain’s high speed ‘AVE’ rail network are to come down next year, Spain’s Minister for Development Ana Pastor said yesterday.

Speaking to the national broadcaster TVE, Pastor said the government planned to introduce a new pricing structure from January to make Spain’s high speed trains more competitive.

‘The AVE is a quick and efficient mode of transport but there are plenty of people who have never used the service because the AVE is still very expensive,’ Pastor said during her 20-minute guest slot on the TV program Los Desayunos de TVE.

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During the program the development minister also said the AVE line between Barcelona and Figueras would open in January and that Alicante would be linked to the network by late June.

And in a move that Pastor described as ‘historic’, Pastor said the first quarter of 2013 would see Spain and France standardise the railway systems so that a high speed train could travel directly from Madrid to France.

Pastor also used her appearance on TVE to talk about possible reclassification of those train lines considered of ‘public interest’ for which the state guaranteed service provision. She highlighted the fact there were currently more than 174 stations in Spain which were used by ‘only one or no passengers’ per day and that – in such cases – the state was subsidising each ticket to the tune of as much as €120.

According to Pastor, it made more sense in those cases to offer alternative transport methods. But the minister for development was also keen to stress that any changes to the rail network would respect the guaranteed right of all citizens to mobility.

Written by georgemills25

December 21, 2012 at 08:38

Iberia staff to strike in Christmas lead-up

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Staff at Spain’s national carrier Iberia will be striking in December to protest against airline plans to slash workforce numbers by around a quarter.

Unionised staff at the national carrier will walk off the job on the 14,17,18,19,20 and 21 of December to vent their anger at management plans to scrap 4,500 jobs and cut the salaries of remaining staff by as much as 35 per cent.

The unions say they have chosen the six days of their strike to minimise disruption to Christmas traffic and avoid busy weekend periods. Ground crew and cabin staff will be downing tool but pilots will clock on as usual during the rolling stoppages.

Iberia’s owner International Airlines Group announced a major revamp of the airline’s operations earlier this month in a bid to stop the profit rot. The company reported third quarter operating profits of €270 million this year, down from the €363 million notched up by the company in 2011.

The holding company – also owners of British Airways – said it now planned to stage a return to profits by cutting staff numbers and scaling down Iberia’s network capacity by 15 percent in 2013. They also plan to slim down their fleet by 25 planes and focus on the airline’s most profitable routes.

Responding today to news of the stop-work, Iberia chief executive Rafael Sánchez-Lozano told Europapress: ‘The strike at Iberia is like a hunger strike, if you win you die’. Clearly in combat mode, the airline boss also said he couldn’t see the advantage in a strike that would damage both the product and the brand.

Sánchez-Lozano added that Iberia would take a responsible attitude to talks with staff and was willing to listen to all options including ways to save on job losses ‘given that every person has a mortgage, or a school to pay’. He said, however, that the airline’s objective of return on equity of 12 per cent by 2015 was non-negotiable.

IAG have set a January 31 deadline for unions negotiations over planned changes at the carrier.

Written by georgemills25

November 29, 2012 at 14:02

Scorpion bites airline passenger

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In the brave, almost-new world of cyberspace it’s comforting to know that companies are tracking our every mouse click so as to be better able to sell us the products we all know and love so much.

Sometimes, though, this targeted marketing strategy crashes and burns as was the case with easyJet’s recent attempt (web capture below) to sell me tickets while I was reading the story of a woman who had been stung by a scorpion on a long-haul flight (backstory follows).

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So here’s the background: a couple of months ago, I jumped onto to easyJet’s website to check the prices of return flights between Madrid’s Barajas airport and Basel in Switzerland. Since then, the low-cost carrier’s friendly little orange ads have appeared on every webpage I visit that contains even a sniff of a reference to either Madrid Barajas airport or airline travel.

Unfortunately, this time easyJet didn’t quite hit the mark. The picture above tells the sorry tale of a Swiss woman who, a few days back, was bitten by a scorpion while flying Spain’s national carrier, Iberia, between Costa Rica and Madrid. She was subsequently rushed to hospital where she remained under observation overnight.

All this was a red flag for easyJet. The flood of relevant terms on the page I’d opened (Madrid! Airport! Airbus! Swiss woman! Iberia!) must have lit up their control panels like a landing strip. The presence of a scorpion on the page was immaterial to the logarithmic masters in orange. It was patently clear: this man wants to book a fly with us!

Still want to fly from Basel to Madrid Mr Mills? Hmm, I think I might pass for now if that’s OK.

Written by georgemills25

November 27, 2012 at 09:14

Silver linings part 1

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It’s not easy to find positives to what’s taking place in Spain these days, but the country’s Traffic Directorate have provided a silver lining: road deaths are down 10 per cent this year.

Commenting on these figures in El Pais, the traffic directorate (DGT) highlighted the ‘history-making fact’ that just one person died in a traffic accident in Spain last weekend (October 27/28).  And while the DGT concede that little can be read into this isolated stat, they are also choosing to view it as symbolic of what has been – from them at least – a relatively good year.

In 2011, Spain saw 1,117 road deaths up to the end of October. This year that figure was 1,012. The total number of accidents also dropped – from 1,237 to 1,116.

The Real Automóvil Club de España (RACE) said that while better driving habits could be part of the picture,  both rising petrol prices and a reduction in the overall number of trips being made – down somewhere between 3 and 4 per cent according to the DGT – were certainly playing a role.

Meanwhile, a study carried out by Spain’s National Road Safety Foundation, FESVIAL, reveals that 69 per cent of Spanish drivers are trying to drive more economically these days, with 70 per cent of those keeping their speed down to cut costs. The fear of being fined is also playing a role with 73 per cent of people driving more carefully as a result.

But FESVIAL said Spain’s economic woes could also be hampering road safety efforts. A study conducted by the agency found that a third of all drivers weren’t getting their cars serviced as often as they should. And FESVIAL also stressed that cuts in infrastructure spending were an issue of serious concern.

Written by georgemills25

November 4, 2012 at 12:18

Posted in News, Spain, transport

Taken for a ride

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One of the most depressing stories I’ve come across since my return to Seville – and there have been a few – involves the city’s notorious gremio del taxi, or taxi union.

Seville’s taxi drivers often make cameo appearances in the media here, and almost never for the right reasons. Yesterday, for example, the local Diario de Sevilla newspaper reported that two taxis have been set alight in Seville in the last fortnight – apparently as part of ongoing turf war between factions of the taxi union over pre-arranged pick-ups at the city’s airport and main train station.

But the story I’m referring is of a darker hue. For years, the company that operates Seville’s city urban lines, Tussam, has ran a cheap and efficient service out to the airport. It departs every half an hour from near the city centre and a single ticket for the 10-kilometre trip sets you back a very reasonable €2.40.

I’m very happy with this arrangement: I’ve always considered the presence of a cheap public transport link to an airport as one of the hallmarks of a civilised city. It appears, though, that some of Seville’s taxi drivers are of a different philosophical bent. Because apparently – as Tussam management chose to phrase it – ‘certain taxi drivers’ have been threatening the drivers of their airport buses for months.

These threats have taken the form of blows to the side of Tussam’s buses when their timetabled departure time swings around. The taxi drivers then yell at the bus drivers to get a move on, even if there are people still trying to board the bus.

The idea, of course, is to leave those waiting passengers stranded and with no option but to fork out for a taxi.

Journalists from the Diario de Sevilla recently went out to the airport (presumably not by taxi) to get a feel for the situation on the ground and discovered that, while things were a little calmer, Tussam’s employees at San Pablo Airport remained on edge. A ticket seller serving the waiting passengers had chosen not to wear company identification and was keeping his head down.

Unfortunately there is no happy ending here. In response to this intimidation from what may only be a handful of sinvergüenzas, or scoundrels, Tussam have upped their one-way airport fares to €4. That’s a rise of around 160 per cent. Meanwhile, the taxis will continue to charge their minimum €21.89. Those ‘certain taxi drivers’ ought to be crippled with shame right about now.

Written by georgemills25

October 25, 2012 at 11:19

Posted in bullying, mafia, seville, transport

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