Spain through the looking glass

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You shall know them by their voices

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It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when I actually enjoyed the infernal racket of Spain. During my virgin visit to this country nearly a decade ago, I positively revelled in the honking traffic and the screaming waiters and the 3am grumble of garbage trucks; it all struck me as yet more evidence of this country’s inherent vital energy. Now, though, it just drives me spare (check out these charming gentlemen who visit my street everyday to sell oranges from the back of a van).

The general rule of thumb in Spain is that you should make as much noise as possible at any given moment. Why talk if you can shout? Why gently place a cup on a table if it can land with a deafening crash? There also seems to be some unwritten rule stating that all doors have to be slammed hard enough to shake at least a little plaster from the walls of any neighbouring buildings.

This Spanish passion for absurd noise levels is pretty much a national trait but there does appear to be a gradual intensification as you head south; by the time you reach the quasi-Africa of Andalusia, everyday life is cacophonous.  On many occasions I’ve wandered into an almost empty bar in southern Spain only to find that the three or four people sitting inside are making more noise than the entire crowd at a Swedish football final. And much of this brouhaha can be put down to the fact that most Andalusians place little stock in actually listening to each other; instead the general conversational style involves everyone trying to drown out the tiresome voices of their companions.

My upstairs neighbours here in Seville are fairly typical in their propensity to argue loudly about everything. While I have never actually met the elderly inhabitants of apartment 4D, I feel I know their habits intimately. I know, for example, that the woman who lives up there spends most of her time stringing clothes out on an ancient rusting washing line that – to judge by the way it screeches painfully every time it is extended and retracted – hasn’t been oiled since Franco transitioned to the other side. The husband, meanwhile, is either slow or has had a stroke (or both), and he’s definitely at least half deaf, the upshot being that his speech is a disturbingly alien-sounding slurred yell.

Every day, this couple host a woman and a child for lunch (I think they are the daughter and grandson). The daughter arrives at about half past two and then cooks with her aging mother – although perhaps ‘cooks with’ isn’t quite apt: their culinary collaboration is more akin to a running battle with the younger woman criticising everything her mother does. ‘Que non! Que no se puede!’ (No! But you can’t do that!), the younger woman squeals at least 20 times during the making of every meal. Then grandma will usually start doing something which involves a series of large thumps and which could mean she is tenderising a piece of meat or perhaps killing some small animal.

At some stage during the cooking, either mum or daughter will decide she can no longer tolerate the other’s company and will turn on the television (at full volume, naturally). The two women will then proceed to watch a show where two other women are screaming at each other while a belligerent studio audience claps or jeers their every utterance.

Before the family sit down to eat lunch – always at 3, for most Spaniards are exceedingly regular in their habits – the television will be switched off. It’s not always clear, however, when this has happened, so seamlessly do the television arguments blend into the real life feuds of the inhabitants of 4D.

During lunch, the grandson will finally come to life and decide he doesn’t want to sit still and that – actually – he would much prefer to run around the apartment and knock over random pieces of heavy furniture. This, in turn, sets off granddad who has, until now, been relatively quiet. Because of his extraterrestrial-inflected voicing, I can never make grandpa’s words, but it seems he is complaining about his lunch because every time he mouths off, his wife and daughter yell something about what an ungrateful old so-and-so he is.

When I first came to Spain five years ago, I didn’t grasp the critical importance of noise here. This caused me no end of grief in everyday social situations. Someone would be talking to me, and I would be nodding my head or smiling or grimacing and just generally doing all the usual things one does in my part of the world (Australia) to show that one is listening to and empathising with the other person. But because I was neither interrupting nor trying to talk over the top of the other person, and because I wasn’t spitting out a constant stream of empty interjections, people took me for dull, or even worse, thick. Now I have learned never to be a silent listener but always to be butting in and generally carrying my social weight.  

Recently I got talking with a friend for mine from Seville about the incessant noise in Spain and he nodded sagely. He told me that he had once spent a night in the country in a house that was so quiet it has led him to have some kind of a nervous turn. In the end, he’d grown so edgy that he’d been forced to get up and switch on the television and a couple of lights just so that he could relax enough to drift off to asleep. The peace of the countryside terrified him.

It seems that while people in some countries prefer to keep silent about their fears, the Spaniards have chosen to shout theirs down.


Written by georgemills25

January 17, 2013 at 20:49

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Gift giver turns nasty

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Nasty Santa – with thanks to Jiglenn

Police have busted a gun-toting Father Christmas who tried to rob a car in Spain’s Granada province.

According to Ideal, the ill-fated robbery took place on New Year’s Day in the small town of Íllora. The car’s owner had just bought churros and was heading back to his vehicle when he was attacked by the dodgy Papá Noel.

Armed with a pistol, the crook tried to claim the car but the vehicle’s rightful owner wasn’t having a bar of it. After a brief struggle, the 44-year-old crook took fright and fled. He was picked up Guardia Civil officers shortly afterwards.

Written by georgemills25

January 8, 2013 at 19:52

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The people is hungry

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The people is hungry

One of the hidden dangers of Spain’s crisis: incorrect subject-verb agreement.

Written by georgemills25

January 7, 2013 at 13:56

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Autumn in Aracena

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This week’s photos are from Andalusia’s Sierra de Aracena National Park, about an hour and a half from Seville. Autumn is particularly beautiful here.





Written by georgemills25

December 19, 2012 at 08:47

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Spain does not exist

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Dear spainwatch readers,

You may or may not have read about this in the newspapers already, but a little after 9:30 last Thursday morning after a light breakfast of toast and orange juice I formally declared my apartment in Seville an independent republic.

Let me start by saying that I did not take this decision lightly. I spent many sleepless nights seeking a more palatable alternative but the sad fact is that events of recent months have left me with no option but to cut my ties with the country which – until so very recently – I had chosen to call home.

I know my decision may come as a shock to many of you, my dear readers. Some of you will even be angry, and I understand that too. But before you accuse me of treachery, please let me try and explain my reasoning.

Now, the more astute among you will have spotted that the timing of my declaration coincided with Spain’s Constitution Day. It’s not accidental. That magnificent document (here, in English), signed on December 6, 1978, formally ended Franco’s rule in Spain and established the fundamental rights and freedoms that Spain’s citizens continue to enjoy today. Just as critically, though, the 1978 constitution curbed the power of Madrid by creating a Spain made up of 17 autonomous provinces, each with wide-ranging powers to arrange things to suit themselves.

Theoretically, Spain’s 17 autonomous provinces are equal. Of course, a little bit of dynamic tension in the system is to be expected. Some of the provinces are much larger and wealthier (Catalonia) and some have special historical positions (Navarre and the Basque County, for example). But the basic idea is that everyone runs their own show. OK, so there has been some duplication of functions and a fair amount of argy-bargy over the division of tax spoils among all the various regions but basically this federal system has worked pretty well. Until now.

Because it seems that the latest victim of the global economic crisis is Spain itself. Now the provinces are spinning away from the centre like the galaxies after the Big Bang, and the longer the crisis continues, the more Madrid resembles part of a distance universe glowing as feebly with remnant light like some dead star.

Apparently, it’s perfectly OK to be an Andalusian these days, or a Catalonian or Basque, but the business of being just plain old Spanish is increasingly difficult. To be Spanish is to be right-wing and centralist and against the rights of the regions. In short, the only place where it’s OK to be Spanish these days is when it comes to football, and even that is under threat.

At the same time, the provinces – without their father (Madrid) at the helm and starved off his once-famed generosity – have become like a bickering bunch of brothers and sisters at the meeting of a family business. All of a sudden, they want more of a say in how things are run and the eldest siblings have even started to mouth off about taking their client lists with them and establishing some kind of hot-shot start-up company.

For a while I followed this all with dispassionate curiosity. Then this turned to annoyance and finally to despair until suddenly, just the other day, it dawned on me: Spain does not actually exist.

Imagine my predicament! Having spent 38 years never questioning the fact that there was an entity called Spain, and having even chose to live there, I have now been made aware that this nation, like the fabled Sandy Island, is no more than a dark stain on Google Maps. It is, in short, a Phantom Country, a mirage, a myth.

So I was left with no recourse but to found my mini-republic. And I can’t help feeling it’s all probably A Good Thing. I have always, in some essential way, felt myself to be different! We have, after all, so little in common, the Spaniards and I, and as such coexistence is no longer feasible. Our attitudes and opinions on issues as vital as television volumes and dinner time and children’s clothing are so discordant as to untenable. We cannot live together and thus it is with great regret – but with some degree of pride – that I have made this declaration of independence.

To date, life in my little republic in the sun has been quite peaceful. Admittedly only a short time has passed and the future may throw up unexpected challenges. My republic is a relatively small one (at 80 square metres) and this could lead to certain feelings of claustrophobia. I do, however, have leisure facilities, a (small) botanical garden and access to running water and power off the grid, at least until the authorities decide to shut those off. I also envisage no problems with my immediate neighbours and expect daily life to continue as usual. And I will shortly be in communication with the European Union to see if some arrangement can be made for my little nation to participate in that grand theatre, even if this should only be in an observer capacity for now.

Lastly, some of you may demand to know why I did not hold at least hold a referendum before I took this bold step towards independence. Believe me: I did consider all options, including – briefly, foolishly – an informal pact with Gibraltar. However, recent experience in Catalonia shows that going out to the people is not always very clever. They have a horrible habit of telling you things you may want not want to hear. So I have taken a unilateral step into the great unknown.

Soon I will draw up my own constitution. In the meantime, I wish all my former compatriots all the best and hope they will find the strength not to follow the independence road I have chosen for myself.

Yours most humble servant now and always,

George Mills

Duke of Rabbits, Independent State of Francisco de Ariño

Written by georgemills25

December 13, 2012 at 17:08

Posted in Uncategorized

Hash stash leads to drugs bonanza

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Law enforcement officers in southern Spain’s Cadiz province are still scratching their heads over recent events in the village of Bonanza.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ customs official Santiago Villalba told the Diario de Cadiz newspaper as he described a night in which men, women and children from the little fishing village cornered and threatened security officers during a drug bust.

The incident took place on November 28 just outside the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. Just before eight in the evening, customs surveillance agents working out of a helicopter spotted a suspicious launch travelling down river and occasionally dropping off small bundles. These were then picked up shortly afterwards by other individuals.

The officers decided to land their helicopter to intercept the suspicious vessel at which point the drug traffickers fled on foot. The customs officials then secured the large stash of hashish they found on board the vessel.

Suddenly, though, a group of as locals arrived to claim the drugs haul. Agents on the scene told the Diario de Cadiz this crowd numbered around 50 at first but soon swelled to some 100 people, including children as young as eleven or twelve-years-old. This irate group began to threaten the customs agents and pelted the stationary helicopter with stones and other objects. Fearing structural damage to the craft, the pilots decided to go for backup, leaving a single colleague on the ground to defend the stash.

This lone officer held out as long as he could against the mob, even showing his weapon at one point to defend himself. Meanwhile, members of the crowd quickly carted off around 2,000 kilos of drugs in as many as 80 separate packages.

At this stage, the helicopter pilots turned back to rescue a colleague they say was at serious risk.

Villalba said the scene was like a king tide of people who filled the beach and that it even looked as if entire families had come down to participate.

Backup soon arrived but all the drugs were gone. Police officers only managed to catch a single man in possession of a 30-kilogram stash of hashish. He is now in prison.

Written by georgemills25

December 8, 2012 at 11:34

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Serendipity strikes back

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Serendipity stikes back

My November blog post on serendipity has just been reprinted in The Guardian newspaper.

If you missed it the first time, check it out here, or by clicking on the link above.

Spain letter serendipity

Lucky break … a man touches a Saint Pancras mosaic in Seville, Spain. According to legend fresh parsley must be placed before him to bring good luck. Photograph: Marcelo Del Pozo/Reuters


Written by georgemills25

December 6, 2012 at 18:22

Posted in Uncategorized