Trans-Iberian

Trans-Iberian

Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

What goes around comes around

Por: | 17 de septiembre de 2014

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Some might say that Richard Krugel is crazy; others may say he is brave. I think he must be a bit of both to even think of attempting to swim (yes, swim) around the 360 kilometre long coastline of Majorca, but that is exactly what he is intending to do this month to raise money for The Allen Graham Charity for Kidz. This swim, which has never been done before, will be taken in an anti-clockwise direction, starting and finishing in Portixol.

Richard will be traveling from South Africa early next week to prepare and intends to start the swim on September 20th. It will be the first time he has been in Majorca after leaving a decade ago.  “I was working in the Super Yacht Industry in Majorca when on 4th July 2003 I got the news that my brother, Ewald, had died back home in a motor car accident.  I couldn’t get a flight back to South Africa immediately so friends of mine took me to a quiet beach where I could cry, we drank a bottle of cognac, and I got the idea to dedicate a swim around the island to the memory of my brother.

“After my brother passed away I stayed with my parents for a month, I returned to Majorca after the funeral, but somehow it was never the same again, a piece of me had been taken away. In 2004 I returned to South Africa, I have been here ever since. The idea had always lingered in the back of my mind that I would return. I now work as a trader in the Futures Market: it’s difficult, but I love it, I don’t see it as a job. The idea of the swim remained a dream for me, until I heard of some other friends who had done a swim in Africa of a similar distance, this rekindled my idea and I started to train.

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“I’ve now been preparing for the past 3 years, lost weight, got a coach who helped me not to burn out, and got involved with Rosemary and Joanne from The Allen Graham Charity: they’ve been helping me to organise all of the paperwork and permissions for the swim. The thing which will really motivate me to keep swimming will be raising money for this charity; I really hope everyone will sponsor me.”

Richard is in a strict training routine, swimming for between three and six hours a day, six days a week. “If I had been doing another sort of job I wouldn´t have been able to train the way I have, the US markets open at 3.30pm so that leaves me the whole of the morning to swim and spend time with my children and my wife.”

“What do I think about when I am swimming? I just shut my mind off, the first two kilometres are the most difficult, once you are in a rhythm your arms go numb and you just keep going. It is really important to visualise what it will be like, what the start will be like, and visualise the end when you get out of the water. You can get into a meditative state, that makes it easier. The more tired you get, the longer it takes to get into that zone. Apparently I will be a zombie for the first seven days and then I will get better according to my friends who did the Madagascar to Mozambique swim. They say I will sleep a lot and eat a lot. I’ve been doing feeding practice in the water as I am not allowed to touch the boat during the stages, if I did so I would be disqualified. I will be taking energy smoothies, and supplements, and I have been getting B12 injections as training this hard really lowers your immune system.”

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“It’s called Mallorca 360 because of the distance in kilometres that I will have swum by the end of the challenge. I’m aiming at covering 20 kilometres every day with the intention of completing the swim in eighteen days, weather permitting. But rather than aim at distance I am swimming in blocks of time. I decided to come over in September because the sea temperature and weather is good for swimming at this time of year. Instead of saying how many kilometres I will aim to complete in each stage I will be doing it in blocks of time. Three hours, then two and then finally a swim of one hour. Three hours of swimming is quite a heavy strain on the body and the mind. I don’t want to swim during the dark; I really need to have sunlight, to have daylight. That’s the plan at least.

“I will be trying to swim from a beach towards another beach each day but there are a few places on the island where it won’t be possible to get to a beach at the end of the day so I will have to get on to the boat, take a GPS location reading and then start from that same point the next day. The open water swimming association have categorised this as a “stage swim”. For it to be recognised as a record you need to swim every day even if the weather is bad so I have to get into the water every day from the day I begin.

“I’m really looking for people to participate in this with me; I am hoping for people with Stand Up Paddle boards and Kayaks who can travel beside me, it will help to make me more visible to other vessels and give me much needed support: both physical and moral. I have also have a support boat which is sponsored by an old boss of mine; we’re going to have a traditional Majorcan Llaut which moves slowly. And I will also have a land based support crew who will be in communication with radios to bring me my supplies for my rest periods.

“I am quite nervous. The magnitude of this has begun to hit home now. But I’m excited as well. My head’s there. If I can complete this it will be one of the three swims I want to do. I want to swim across the English Channel and swim across False Bay in Cape Town, which is like the English Channel, just with 100% more sharks.”

To contact Richard visit www.agrahamcharity.org or https://www.facebook.com/palmademallorca360.

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only English language daily paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki. 

Independence not patriotism for Scots and Catalans

Por: | 15 de septiembre de 2014

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As a Scotsman - or a man born in Scotland, anyway - living in Barcelona I’ve had more than my fair share of the independence debate.

It used to annoy me. I disliked the way people would assume I supported Scottish independence based on nothing more than my nationality and I found it galling that many Catalans would draw on the example of a country they knew little to nothing about (even down to assuming Glasgow was the capital).

More importantly, though, I saw the independence debate as fuelled by a patriotism for which I have no time and sympathy. Patriotism, I’ve always thought, is for football matches, when it makes sense to pick a side. Otherwise, feeling proud of the achievements of people born in the same patch of land hundreds of years before you feels ridiculous at best. 

Certainly, Scotland is a beautiful place and has birthed some remarkable people. But I feel no more right to claim the work of poet Robert Burns - who was born and lived most of his life in Scottish towns I’ve never even visited - as somehow my own, than I do with the work of Cervantes.

Don't get me wrong: defending shared values (as is sometimes put forward as an argument for patriotism) is important. But defining values on a national level never seems to work and I'd like to think I have more in common with socialist French President François Hollande than Eurosceptic UKIP leader Nigel Farage, just because he's British. 

Much of this unpatriotic feeling is down to my itinerant British roots, which - typical to many people of that seafaring isle - spread their tendrils over the globe. I was born in Scotland, my parents were born in England and my grandparents were born in Scotland, Ireland and China. I’ve lived in Scotland, England, Paris, Madrid and Barcelona and it was here, in the Catalan capital, that my own children were born.

I could, technically, play football for England, Scotland and Ireland, the latter a country I’ve visited for the grand total of one day. I speak with a southern English accent and I’ve never even been to Northern Ireland, one of the four countries that makes up the United Kingdom, whose passport I hold.

The idea, then, of fighting to create a separate country in 2014 when we are so bound by cross-border politics and political and cultural union, seemed rather futile and I resented the patriotic edge of many of the pro-independence arguments. 

Recently, though, I’ve changed my mind: while independence for national pride remains a pointless struggle for me, independence as a way to bring about wholesale change in society makes a great deal of sense.

Consider, for example, a Scotsman who is opposed to Britain’s ownership of nuclear weapons (as well he might be, with the UK’s nuclear arsenal based on his doorstep in HMNB Clyde). With Britain’s three major political parties all committed to keeping this nuclear force, the only realistic way in his lifetime to bring about a non-nuclear Scotland would be to vote for Scottish independence, thus forcing the British army to relocate. 

A vote for an independent Scotland, then, becomes less about patriotism and more about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make real change, to start again and see what exactly a country should be like in the 21st Century, freed from thousands of years of conservatism.

“If this [Scottish independence] happens, we are going to see the birth of a new nation, not forged in war or fighting, but peacefully and by consensus,” one Scottish friend of mine said on Facebook. “I'm so happy to be alive at this time!” 

Is this naive? Possibly. But what kind of sad world do we live in if we can’t even admit the possibility of peaceful change?

Many Catalans see this too. Of course, there are thousands of supporters of Catalan independence who hold their views because of simple national pride. But at the recent Diada I saw signs for “Independence and feminism”, “Independence and socialism” and countless other variations on the theme.

These are people who, like the Scot opposed to nuclear weapons, see independence as Catalonia’s best chance to do something different, to make things better for them and for their families and to try for a fairer world. Independence for them is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end, a way to bring about a better future that - wrongly or rightly - they don’t see happening within Spain.

Scotland goes to the polls this Thursday to decide whether it wants independence. As someone who lives in Barcelona, I don’t get a vote. Even If I did, like millions of undecided Scots I still don’t know where I would put my cross.

Whatever the outcome, though, I want to believe that things in Britain have changed for ever. The British government expected the “no” campaign to trot to an easy victory, propelled by the economic uncertainty of leaving the Union.  Instead the people of Scotland seized the chance to tell the wider world exactly what they thought of Westminster rule, stifling Conservative power and weakling Labour opposition, immigration scaremongering and nuclear force. 

Win or lose, then, the British political establishment has taken a bloodied nose at the hands of the independence movement. If the Catalans can do the same, then maybe all Spain might benefit.

'Academias Fachadas' are degrading the TEFL industry in Spain

Por: | 12 de septiembre de 2014

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There are few who would argue that la crisis hasn’t been the worst thing to hit Spain in the last decade, because it most definitely has. Yet out of the ashes of it all one industry has benefited immensely: TEFL.

Intensive exam courses that can equip young Spaniards with the means to escape their never-ending nightmare have become the cash cows of the trade. Such is the importance now placed on learning English that many reputable and certified academies are having to turn students away due to an insufficient preexisting level with which to tackle the strictly assessed B1 or B2 exams. It happens in the small academy where I teach in Granada on a near daily basis. 

The ‘B1’, also known as ‘PET’ (Preliminary English Test), is the official intermediate-level qualification in English, and the B2, also known as ‘FCE’ (First Certificate in English), is the official upper-intermediate qualification, according to the Cambridge English Language Assessment framework. The B1 tends to carry greater importance than the B2, since it is a mandatory requirement of numerous university courses, mainly those involving primary education.

Unfortunately, high demand has led to an inevitable popping up of shoddy language academies with little to no regard for the sort of integrity that is shown by legitimate competitors. That is to say, students who are more likely to solve the crisis itself than pass the B1 exam are being invited to try their luck, at a knockdown price.

Earlier this year, Andalucía’s official institution for foreign language teaching, ACEIA, announced that it would be taking action on the matter. Based on evidence that showed ACEIA integrated academies were being consistently undercut and the quality of teaching and pass rate in those culpable academies was much lower, ACEIA has presented an information campaign designed to offer consumers all the possible information and mechanisms needed to avoid such cases of blatant but often undetectable fraud. Borja Uruñuela, president of ACEIA, has labeled these centres ‘Academias Fachadas’– a rather fitting description.

There are numerous points suggested in the campaign, but some of the most key principles for consumers to consider are:

  • Whether there is a written and oral level test before a level is determined.
  • Whether the academy is fully licensed and its teachers are properly qualified and native or bilingual English speakers.
  • Whether the academy is insured and associated with a professional body with which consumers may take up issue in case they need to.
  •  Whether there are any hidden costs (textbooks, enrolment fee etc)
  • The existing percentage of students who have passed any official exams studied for at the academy.
  • The standard of resources available at the academy (digitalised classrooms etc).

Here in Granada, one or two academies fitting this ‘academia fachada’ profile had come to our attention, so we did what any self-respecting and industry-interested language school would do: we gave them a ring. Or rather, a Spanish friend of mine, posing as a prospective student, gave them a ring.

The objective was simple: grill whoever answered with a series of hard-hitting questions that addressed several of the key points outlined in ACEIA’s campaign. The first subject, which was offering clases superintensivos at €2.80 an hour, proved unreachable (lamentably), but the other, which, according to its flyer, offered a flat rate of €128 a month for ‘B1, B2 and C1’, yielded some telling results.

In short, a few of the principles did seem to be in place– a level test and native teachers, for instance –but most of our inquiries were met more imperviously than we would have liked. Questions about its teachers’ formal qualifications, pass rates and affiliation with any professional organisations repeatedly rebounded off a wall of ‘I don’t knows’ and ‘The director isn’t available at the moments’.

The €128 per month package (plus a €25 enrolment fee) apparently amounted to four 2-hour long classes per week, so, assuming there are 32 teaching hours in a month, that’s an hourly rate of €4.

Fully licensed, insured and ACEIA associated academies simply cannot afford to come down to that figure, and any unapprised, budget-conscious student will almost certainly plump for the more economical option.

There is, of course, another way of looking at it: some startups, whether legitimate or otherwise, often cannot afford to take the moral high ground, given that their loss will probably be a larger competitor’s gain, and often need to advertise lower fees in order to get a foot on the ladder. Nevertheless, students who are clearly well off the mark– 70% in the case of the B1 –still deserve to be told straight, rather than duped for weeks on end before failing abysmally and having their confidence shattered into a thousand pieces.

But what is the ultimate objective of the campaign? It’s not about closing these academies down– that is as impractical as it is idealistic –it’s about all academies competing on equal terms within the necessary legal framework and offering students honesty and every possible chance of success.

The integrity and guarantee of the absolute highest standards of Spain's TEFL industry depend on it.

 

Follow Josh Taylor on his personal blog and Twitter: @spain4pleasure

Watch Your Step

Por: | 08 de septiembre de 2014

 

Dog poster
All images courtesy of Aileen Hamilton

When you live in a city for four years, you get to notice some changes that are sometimes so subtle that they´re almost imperceptible. Back in 2010 I was new in Seville and as I meandered through the cobbled streets that were so beguiling and mysterious, I found that I could never wholly relax. Not for fear of falling victim to some opportunistic street crime, but more to avoid the very distinct possibility that my foot might unwittingly stray onto the soft, squidgy mass of a freshly laid dog turd.

There were some places that appeared to be high risk zones, including the very street on which I lived, which after being converted into a pedestrianized zone, found itself perfectly suited to owners escorting their beloved pets for their early morning business trip. So effectively I was living in a dog public toilet.

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I mean it isn’t any surprise that Seville’s streets are poo havens. Dog ownership has increased generally in Spain over the last few years, with studies estimating that there are currently up to 5.5 million dogs in Spain and with a population of 47 million, you do the maths. So at a guess there’s probably around 70,000 pooches defecating the streets of the Andalucían capital. And compared to the UK where even in urbanised areas many houses have small gardens for that late night/ early morning toilet visit, in Seville parks and gardens are comparatively few and far between, most people live in apartments, and when nature calls, it’s a quick dash down a few flights of stairs, a few strides along the street and what a dog’s gotta do, a dog’s gotta do.

None of this would be a problem (unless you ponder as I often do about whether a dog might really prefer a grassy knoll to relieve itself), if it weren’t for the fact that the whole poo picking up idea has been much slower to gain popularity than the exponential growth of dog ownership.

So, a visit to the historic centre can be a combination of staring up at the glory of the Giralda Tower while at the same time, picking your way through excrement lined pavements.

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Such was the experience of Irish Artist and Seville resident Aileen Hamilton. After eavesdropping on a group of American tourists bemoaning the fact that Seville’s beauty is spoilt somehow by the extraordinary levels of dog faeces, she decided to undertake an unusual photography assignment entitled ‘8 Bienvenidas a Sevilla’ in which she catalogues eight specimens of uncollected dog excrement found while walking around Seville’s cobbled back streets.

Says Hamilton ‘I wanted to highlight the contradiction between the beauty of the historical centre and the poo that smears it. And I wanted the piece to be a little ambiguous. Instead of explaining the problem or complaining, I presented it in a playful way, hoping to engage the viewer’.

And this ‘playful’ element is executed by the tiny, numbered flags carefully positioned in the excrement, emblazened with the official symbol used by the Spanish tourism to symbol ‘to add irony to the fact that the poo welcomes the visitors to the city’.

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But thankfully the potential damage to the city’s image, plus the health consequences of coming into contact with canine faeces has led to some affirmative action headed up by the Local Police and the Andalucian government’s cleaning firm Lipasam, who amongst other measures have installed 65,000 bag dispensers throughout the city. Earlier in the year they proudly announced that there had been a reduction of 45% in uncollected dog mess and 104 police reports filed against dog owners failing to compile with regulations.

And the truth is, now I come to think of it, Seville’s streets are a lesser shade of dog dirt brown, maybe because that civil duty, so close to my British heart, appears to be finally filtering down to the canine owning masses. I just hope the person whose dog’s welcome home present I nearly stepped in as I got out of my taxi on arriving back after a summer in bucolic exile, remembers to pick up after their pet in future.

http://8bienvenidas.blogspot.com/

 

The perils of being a busker in Madrid

Por: | 03 de septiembre de 2014

“It’s taken away the essence of the streets”

I’m sitting in El Gato Verde in Lavapiés talking to Dario, the flautist from one of Madrid’s most recognisable busking bands: The Swingdigentes. Playing tight (original) songs with break dance dancers and a nice line in audience repartee they are an act that has been honed on the streets. Dario, with his long black hair, winning smile and finely tuned flute chops is one of the most recognisable musicians on Madrid’s street scene.

 Two months ago in the Circulo de los Bellas Artes on Gran Vía The Swingdigentes headlined a night called Las Noches Bárbaras. The night is an annual celebration of street music. The irony is that The Swingdigentes are seen less and less on Madrid’s streets these days. They have been pushed to the fringes; one of many victims of the council’s decision to require buskers to carry a license and to ban the use of amplifiers and percussion.

Madrid originally considered banning busking completely. Instead they held the now infamous auditions in Conde Duque. Musicians had five minutes to convince two musicians and a member of the council that they were good enough to play on Madrid’s streets. The musicians on the panel were recruited from local conservatories. ‘They seemed very nice’ Dario says ‘but they had no experience of playing on the streets.’

 The combination of being judged by an unknown panel of judges with no relation to the street scene, the classification by the regulation of the music that they were playing as ‘noise’ to be regulated and the sheer emotional objection to the regulation meant that many street musicians didn’t even apply for the authorisation.

Since coming over three years ago from Mexico with his orchestra, Dario has supported himself by playing on the streets. Despite this he was one of the buskers who refused to apply for the licenses. His refusal is not that of the dilettante who didn’t fancy giving up an afternoon in the sun. It is the result of a deeply held objection to the regulation of street music by the authorities. What The Busking Project: a website dedicated to helping the busking community has described as the “wholesale privatisation of our public spaces” 

Of course, Madrid is not the only city in Spain to clamp down on buskers. The Swingdigentes have racked up at least twenty fines in their travels around Spain. In Ibiza their instruments were confiscated with the police demanding 240€ per instrument for their return. A crippling fine for anyone who makes their living playing in the street. It could have been even worse; the band managed to convince the police that the percussionist’s cymbal was part of the saxophone and thus avoided a separate charge for a further instrument. An amusing anecdote, but one that illustrates the disconnect between the musicians and the law enforcers.  Dario tells me in contrast the police in Madrid are not quite so heavy-handed and generally just move them along.

 Indeed, a brief walk through the centre of Madrid is enough to confirm that busking hasn’t been eradicated, not even close. But it has noticeably decreased and without any tangible increase in quality. As Dario says: “The people are the judges, if you are no good, you won’t get any money”  

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Authors (Bloggers)

Jessica Jones. Hailing from the north east of England, Stockton-on-Tees native Jessica has had a passion for all things Hispanic from an early age. She has lived in and written about France, Chile, Spain and Germany and has been contributing to the Trans-Iberian blog since 2012, when she moved to Madrid after graduating from Durham University.@jessicajones590

Joseph Walker. A graduate of Leeds University, Joseph is a sports journalist based in Madrid, and has written on and covered a wide range of events, from the Champions League to Gibraltar’s first ever UEFA match and Spain’s national rugby team. He writes columns for several websites and will pen his thoughts on the latest goings on in sports-obsessed Spain. You can find him on @joe_in_espana

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Jeff Wiseman is an experienced journalist and comedy writer. He was formerly editor of ‘InMadrid’, a monthly English-language newspaper in the Spanish capital, and has contributed scripts and sketches for radio and television in the UK. Published his first book, ‘Shawley Nott: Comic Tales from England’s Strangest Village’, in 2013.

Billy Ehrenberg is an Journalism MA student at City University in London. He lived in Spain for three years, in Granada, Madrid and A Coruña, translating and teaching English. He has written for The Times, The Western Morning News and The Plymouth Herald in the UK and has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2013. He enjoys telling stories with numbers and infographics, data visualisations and general statistical tomfoolery. He tweets from @billyehrenberg

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisf3757

Eloise Horsfield is a writer and translator currently based in Seville. Her work has featured in various UK nationals including the Daily Telegraph and The Sun. Originally from London, Eloise cut her journalistic teeth at the Olive Press, an expat newspaper on the Costa del Sol. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @EloiseHorsfield

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