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Spain through the looking glass

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Traces (Rastro, Madrid)

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Written by georgemills25

June 30, 2013 at 20:42

Posted in Uncategorized

Whereabouts?

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I’m still not exactly sure where I live.

Here are some scraps of information I’ve digested: I live in Madrid in a short street with an African name. My neighbourhood is at the bottom of a long hill about two minutes from a river called the Manzares.  Around the corner from my flat, there’s a street called the Promenade of the Melancholics.  From my apartment, I have ungenerous views of the desiccated edges of the city.

It doesn’t add up to much. In fact, since I moved to Madrid,  I’ve mostly been on auto pilot. I walk to work and I go the supermarket. I visit the bank or jump on the metro, but much of my new city is a mystery to me.

One morning a couple of weeks back, I broke routine and took a slightly different route home from the centre of town. Not far from my home, I stumbled upon several police wandering among what could have been the remnants of a gypsy camp. On a pavement near a major intersection were piles of clothes, pieces of scrap metal, an old television. I saw a twisted jersey, a sock. A cable that connected nothing to nothing.

The police were listless. They kicked at old boots, or tapped at their mobiles or simply stared into the mid-distance as If looking for answers. I imagined homeless families fleeing in a hurry, shedding their possessions as they ran. What had happened here?

A fortnight later, perhaps, I found myself wondering through the same area, again quite by chance. This time, however, the streets were lined with dozens of market stalls. That’s how I found out I live five minutes from Madrid’s famous weekly flea market, the Rastro.

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Photo: gp314/Flickr

It was a mid-afternoon by the time I came across the market, and people were already packing up, stacking cheap Chinese clothing into the backs of battered vans. A group of gypsies arrived and tried to tempt the thinning crowds with wilted vegetables. There was little to see, and I was tired, so I decided I’d come back another time to investigate.

Just around the corner, though, I found again several mounds of discarded clothing. There were more stray shoes and lonely winter jackets and I knew now I had found the tidewrack of the Rastro, its unsellable remnants.

Another morning, I spotted the flotsam again. This time a hollow-eyed man on crutches was combing through the junk. He was filthy; the soles of his shoes had all but peeled away, and his elbows were escaping from his jacket. As I approached, he turned towards me, and I was already deciding I wouldn’t give him any money. Instead, this gentleman of the streets gave me the most courteous, the most humbling, of greetings.

It’s true. I don’t know exactly where I live yet, but I do know that I have a place to go home to, and food in the fridge and a piece of plastic in my wallet which lets me access money. Sometimes, that’s a fortune.

Written by georgemills25

May 15, 2013 at 15:27

Posted in Uncategorized

Easter, Madrid

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What better place to spend the start of Europe’s great spring celebration than in the woods among the rabbits and the birds?

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Written by georgemills25

March 24, 2013 at 20:25

Snow melt

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Cercedilla, Spain, March 2013

Written by georgemills25

March 18, 2013 at 22:27

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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.

Written by georgemills25

March 16, 2013 at 10:14

Accidents do happen

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A couple of months back I posted about the fact that there was no official word for serendipity in Spanish. Today, though, I spotted today the following blurb in the style blog of one of Spain’s leading dailies, the ABC. Perhaps ‘serendipity’ is finally on the rise.

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The blurb reads: On the 28 January 1754, Horace Walpole coined the word ‘serendipity’ in a letter that he wrote to Thomas Mann.

 

Written by georgemills25

January 28, 2013 at 19:34

Posted in Uncategorized

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