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.

Authors (Bloggers)

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 @chrisjfinnigan

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

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

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

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 daily English language 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.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

Ode to...Ceiling Fans

Por: | 26 de mayo de 2011

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I first became aware of your sublime beauty while anxiously awaiting the end of the world. No, it wasn't last week's apparently miscalculated rapture, but while tipped on a barstool waiting for the winds of the apocalypse to hit in a bar called the Green Parrot in Key West, Florida.

It must have been September and hurricane season was in full spin. On TV an enormous, mean looking eye in the middle of a cottony swirl took a sudden left turn out in the Atlantic and before we knew it, it was too late to evacuate the island. The series of bridges that link the Keys to mainland Florida were closed and every other drink was on the house.

Although the storm of the century was twirling somewhere between us and Cuba, the air outside was unnervingly still. Damp heat dripped off of koozied beer bottles and the black pavement outside the windowless walls literally melted under the midday sun. But inside it wasn't hot...and it wasn't totally because of the margaritas.

Above the bar an open parachute flopped up and down, danced by the beat of the fantastic jukebox and the accompanying spinning blades that spun their cooling mana across the crowd below propping up the bar.

It wasn't that sickly A/C cool that snapped at your heels when you walked past the open doors of the posh shops a few blocks away on Duval street nor that throat closing clamp that clings to the back of your neck as you went from 37º to 19º in the space of the three small steps it took to enter a store. Just a refreshing breeze that was enough to keep the drips off your forehead at bay.

It was while sitting at that bar that I fell in love with ceiling fans.

Many hurricanes and crazy pastors have come and gone since then and in many corners of the world I have saved a shirt or three from immediate washing under their gyrating gaze. From devising improvised paper weights to combat their mischievousness in Yemeni classrooms, to growing accustomed to their constant hum in my living room in Laos, it's a love that has taken on tinges of blind faith while lying prone under suspiciously wobbly blades in an August hotel room near the desert ruins in Palmyra, Syria.

So why aren't they as common a feature on ceilings as legs of jamón are on walls in Spain?

Granted, Spain is not a tropical country. As sunkissed as tourist brochures make it out to be, anyone who's toughed out a winter in a poorly insulated flat in Madrid knows that December through February isn't exactly beach weather. Thankfully though, the chill is comparatively brief and after one of the fastest springs in the world, summer rolls in- and with it comes the heat.

It's not even the end of May and I saw one of the ubiquitous street corner thermometer/clocks reading 37º yesterday. Spanish proverbs about not putting away your winter clothes until the 40th of May aside, this year's going to be a warm one, whether you're a climate change denier or not.

That same afternoon I sat and watched thirty-odd university students sitting in a classroom that is woefully exposed to the southern sun as they wiped the sweat out of their eyes and tried to focus on an exam paper under an unfortunately nude, stationary ceiling.

For what it costs to run the old-style 100W bulbs, paper wilt and smudging could have been greatly reduced, not to mention the litres of cologne and perfume that could have been spared if only a few fans had been spinning above.

In the end, that hurricane never hit the Parrot. Exorbitant bar tabs that in the end would have to be paid suddenly loomed larger that the storm that at the last minute hooked right. Its threat, like those that predict the end of times, ended up bringing rain to Newfoundland and little more. Who knows, maybe its propitious curve right had something to do with those wonderful spinning wheels?

 

Joining the Spanish Revolution

Por: | 21 de mayo de 2011

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Madrid is in the midst of a peaceful revolution of ever-increasing proportions. The ‘Spanish Revolution’ is challenging not just the political status quo at a national level, but the very foundations of the international economic system which has brought about the shocking social inequality which fuels the protests. But what is the secret to the Spanish Revolution’s astonishing success?

Joining it.  

The metro of Madrid advises on crackling loudspeakers against getting off at ‘Sol’. Madrid’s iconic Plaza is already packed for another day of passionate demonstrations. ‘2011 System Update’ reads one of hundreds of signs already placed all around the pulsating square. Those thousands and thousands of people still heading with all shapes and sizes of humorous (and not so humorous) cardboard signs to the week-long demonstration that has let Spain hold its collective breath simply get off at the next metro stop. Or walk there from the various streets leading up to the main square. The way to get there does not matter. What matters is being there.

Walking to Sol, revolution is in the air. It feels soft, warm, happy in this mass of moving people. Fuzzy expectations abound. But hope is everywhere today. To combat all those depressing numbers, the lack of jobs, the complete scarcity of real opportunities, youngsters are actually living in the square. Some can be seen carrying entire cupboards towards ‘Sol’. They are here to stay.

The commotion begins long before the entrance into the Plaza. Posters on walls. Television cameras. Photographers clambering for the best shots from above this unusual spectacle.

There are people of all kinds here, not just youngsters. University professors. Unemployed, balding men. Foreigners. Just no politicians.

One mother holds a sign reading: ‘your parents are with you, keep going.’ A young protestor sways a sign saying: ‘For sale: my life to the bank’. A third finds that ‘Revolution is sexy’. They are all entirely peaceful, so the police keeps wisely back. The atmosphere is somewhere between a local carnival and a football match. Some football style chants can be heard. Whistles too. Musicians play their instruments in the middle of the crowd.

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A young girl sits wide-eyed on her father’s shoulders. Behind her a traffic signal turns green. But there are no cars here anymore. Above her head, on the building where the iconic ‘Tio Pepe’ sign usually greets visiting tourists, activists have just hung up a large white sign reminding protestors not to drink alcohol. A cheer rushes through the crowds gathered below.

Something untouchable is in the air. Solidarity. Even the pushes of people passing through seem entirely friendly. Couples hold hands. Grandmothers smile wise but astonished smiles. On the roads leading up to ‘Sol’, where there is a little more space to walk, sit-down councils are discussing the best way to solve entirely evident social problems. A young man inside the square hands out flyers explaining the aims of the protest. No one here believes that it will end this Sunday.

Spain gets indignant, at last

Por: | 19 de mayo de 2011

 

Sol demonstrators Samuel Sánchez 

“PP and PSOE, they’re both just as pooey!” (PSOE y PP, la misma caca es.) Apologies for the loosely rhyming translation but this slogan and others like it seem to encapsulate the protests taking place this week in Spain’s major cities ahead of nationwide local elections on Sunday.

Yes, unemployment and the economic crisis have clearly brought people’s anger to the surface, but what is fascinating about the nascent Spanish youth democracy movement is that it is not serving the interests of any established political group. It is, and some would say AT LAST, a political movement of young people; it is inclusive, because the great majority of Spaniards are suffering the effects of dysfunctional political and judicial systems; and it does not line up the left in front of the right, but rather the young in front of the old – the latter in this case meaning those who are benefiting from the status quo and whose paternalistic complacency at a time where around 40 percent of young people are unemployed and most of the rest endure exploitative working conditions is finally under attack. Just when they did not want it to be, in the run-up to an election.  

Unemployment and precarious employment on short-term or nonexistent contracts and low pay has been a norm in Spain in recent decades. When I first moved here I was taken aback by the general acceptance among Spain’s middle-class youth of a kind of social contract whereby a period of exploitation was considered part of the rites of passage, and that before you could really plan your life and do things such as get married and maybe start a family, first a kind of apprenticeship period had to be observed. It was like being an intern – but for a whole decade until you reached your early or mid-thirties. In the meantime, you stayed at home as part of another unwritten social contract, where little was spoken in either direction.

The older generation, the one in power, seemed to be trusted to keep this system of slow renewal in place. Then things began to go wrong. First, market forces, fanned by a neoliberal government, saw a pool of cheap labor as a desirable resource that should be maintained and the numbers of temps and fake self-employed workers grew and grew. Meanwhile, property prices took off, pricing a large chunk of society out of the housing market. Then, under the current Socialist government, the wheels fell off what was shown to be a fragile boom thanks to the global credit crunch. Zapatero is right when he says the crash was not his fault; but he had done little to offset the imbalances built in to an economy based largely on construction and low wages.

So what issues have the PP been clashing over since the crisis started in 2008? Mainly, questions such as which judges (progressives or conservatives) should occupy seats in the top courts; what was said to which terrorist and when during ceasefire negotiations with ETA; excluding religion from the school syllabus… In short, a whole series of interesting topics, but hardly ones which are central to the lives of most Spaniards. It might not be all Zapatero’s fault, but to hear the Socialist leader blame today’s unemployment on the policies of Aznar’s 1996-2004 administration is the kind of sterile two-party game-playing which those in need of genuine leadership are sick of. Then there is the fact that corruption is widespread in Spanish politics, but it is hard to hear a politician of any stripe make so plain a statement. Instead, they point to an honorable majority who must not be tarred with the same brush, or cling to the technicality that few are ever convicted of any crime (thanks to the chronic sclerosis in the courts).           

The tone of the current protests reminds me of the tongue-lashing meted out to parliamentarians by Pilar Manjón, the mother of a March 11 victim, when the two major parties were squabbling over the influence the terrorist bombings had had on general elections three days later. “PSOE y PP, la misma caca es.”

And the decision by Madrid’s electoral board to prohibit Wednesday’ gathering in Sol could only serve to strengthen the conviction that politics in Spain is a stitch-up between the two major parties. From such a decision one can only think that either they fear that the message of rejection will spread before Sunday’s ballots and they will lose votes to a broad abstention campaign, or that the red and blue factions simply cannot bear to cede limelight to a gray mass of indignation. The kids in the squares are stealing primetime coverage and spoiling the parties’ meticulously planned parades of ticker tape and chiming anthems.  

So are there, as the BBC has suggested, echoes of Tahrir Square in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya? Well, there are some superficial similarities. The spark of protest has been spread on social networks and can draw on a large mass of well-educated but disaffected youth. Then there is the desire to display maturity in the autonomous organization of litter-cleaning parties and information points where protestors can get legal and technical advice. We are not here just to shout, sing and befoul the square, is the message. But in Tunis and Cairo, the demonstrators occupied the streets until a dictator was removed. These protests are sensibly planned to continue up to Sunday’s elections. The point is not to challenge democracy but to demand better-quality representation. The issues raised by the Real Democracy Now platform are not leftist utopias, but a reminder of how some basic human rights are being abandoned and a demand for an ethical cleansing of Spain's political system. Nothing to get indignant about.  

Photograph by Samuel Sánchez. 

Abandoning the abandoned?

Por: | 17 de mayo de 2011

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A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to interview Cesar Millan, the charismatic ‘Dog Whisperer’ of international TV (his show is aired in 109 countries, including Spain) and book (some 3 million copies sold worldwide) fame, in an idyllic garden of a hotel in central Madrid.

Just a short train ride away, in the Southern Madrid suburb of Getafe, this newspaper reported that dog activist Beatriz Menchén was in the middle of a hunger strike to protest against what she called “extermination” of abandoned dogs in her locality: https://www.elpais.com/articulo/english/Hunger/activist/dogs/the/pound/elpepueng/20110506elpeng_7/Ten

She put forward substantiated numbers to the effect that a new company in charge sacrificed 66 % of homeless animals in the shelter in question.

Back to the idyllic hotel garden.

“Every country where my program is shown wanted me to come, but Spain has wanted me to come for the past six years,” Millan told me after having been photographed next to two of the canines he touches with such innate feeling and firm authority. One of those was a lovely one-eyed female, who was an adopted dog from the shelter ‘El Refugio’ in Madrid. The dog was clearly unnerved at all this unusual attention, but Cesar’s expertly touch helped to sooth her somewhat as the cameras flashed.  

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(Both pictures by Luisa Urrego Bolaños)

Not at all soothing are the official numbers of 8016 abandoned dogs and cats in the community of Madrid alone last year. This is after all just one small region in Spain. Meanwhile, a writer from Madrid who frequently travels South privately voiced outrage at how dogs are treated there, while a Murcia resident said that “we have numerous homeless dogs running around here, which is really very sad.”

Back to the idyllic hotel garden.  

“The difference between the human and the dog is that dogs don’t rationalise. So retaining the past is something they don’t want to do. Animals live in the now, in the moment. So if you allow them to experience a different moment, the brain will change right there. That’s what you see on TV; the transformation of the dog. A lot of people find this unreal, because they feel that a dog is going to be just like them and retain the past.”

The abandonment of dogs and other domestic animals exists of course, in different dimensions, in every one of the 109 countries where Cesar Millan appears on TV. Indeed in many more countries besides. But in order not to abandon the abandoned in Spain, in order to give these animals a ‘now’ which is more agreeable than their past, an adoption website for the Madrid area exists (www.madrid.org/proteccionanimal).

The month in which I talked to Cesar and in which Beatriz Menchén went on hunger strike is indeed one of the months with the greatest number of abandonments in Spain, according to the experts. It’s the post-Christmas effect; when pets given as presents start to lose their novelty and become tedious.

To reverse this trend, much responsibility is needed. It begins with small details like telling the child asking for a cute puppy as a present what responsibilities that entails on a daily basis. Two walks per day. Feeding. Grooming. Caring. Not abandoning your pet when the going gets tough.

Indeed, the responsibility of becoming a dog owner is very like that of having a child. It may not always be idyllic, but it certainly has plenty of rewards.

What is your experience with dogs in Spain?

 

'Viridiana' at 50: Lonesome Palme

Por: | 16 de mayo de 2011

 
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La piel que habito
(or, The Skin I Live In), the latest film by Pedro Almodóvar, is competing in this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but you have to go back 50 years to find the last - and only - Spanish winner of the Palme d’Or for best film. Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana took the honor on May 18, 1961, sharing it with French film Une aussi longue absence. The celebration was short, however. The very next day an article appeared in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper, decrying the movie as blasphemous and leading to its immediate banning in Spain. If that detail alone weren’t enough to make you check out Buñuel's scandalous masterpiece, here are a few more to whet your appetite...

Based on a wet dream Buñuel took the name of the main character, Viridiana, a novice nun given leave to visit her rich sick uncle, from an obscure 13th-century Italian saint (aka Verdiana), a contemporary of St Francis of Assisi who was known for her charity and for walling herself up in a tiny cell for 34 years. However, the first part of the film, in which the uncle drugs and tries to rape Viridiana, stems from a teenage fantasy Buñuel used to have about Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, the Scottish wife of Alfonso XIII and grandma of the current King Juan Carlos. In the dream, after being undressed by her servants, the queen gets into bed and drinks a glass of milk spiked with a powerful sleeping drug. At which point, Buñuel explains, he slips in besides her and accomplishes “a sensational debauching.”

Produced by a cockfighter’s son The film marked Buñuel’s return to Spain after two decades of exile in France, the US and Mexico, and was produced by Gustavo Alatriste, a colorful Mexican whom he met on his first post-Civil War trip back to Spain in 1960. Son of a cockfight impresario, Alatriste was a magazine publisher, furniture entrepreneur and land owner, who was prompted to propose he finance Buñuel’s next film by his then wife, actress Silvia Pinal. “Look, Gustavo," responded Buñuel to Alatriste’s suggestion, "I earn a lot of money and I don’t like anyone interfering with my plots.” “I also have my conditions,” replied Alatriste. “You will have to let me pay you double what you earn and we will film your movie in Spain, where you haven’t been back since you were exiled, and the star will be Silvia Pinal.” Thus, Viridiana was born, with Pinal in the lead.

Starring a down-and-out The guy who plays one of the 12 beggars who Viridiana takes in - as penitence for the guilt she feels over her uncle's suicide - in the second half of the movie was a real-life down-and-out who was allowed to live in the studio courtyard during filming. “The man paid no attention whatsoever to my directions, yet he’s marvelous in the movie,” remembers Buñuel in his autobiography, My Last Breath. As Buñuel recalls, some time after the movie the actor was apparently recognized on a bench in Burgos by some French tourists, who praised his performance. Jumping up, he collected his belongings and marched off, saying, “I’m going to Paris. There, at least, they know who I am.” He died on the way, notes the director.

Improved by the censors The Spanish censors rejected the film’s original ending in which Viridiana knocks on her male cousin’s door and goes inside, with the door closing gradually behind her. Instead the censors’ suggestions led Buñuel to come up with the idea of having Viridiana join a card game between her cousin and his mistress, thus coyly suggesting a ménage à trois between the characters. “It’s a magnificent ending, much better than the original,” said Buñuel.

Burnt to a crisp Following the banning of the film, José Muñóz-Fontán, the director of the Spanish cinema institute who had collected Viridiana’s Palme d’Or, was immediately sacked and all copies of the film in Spain were burnt - though one thankfully found its way to Paris. After a screening in Milan, the pubic prosecutor closed the theater, impounded the reels and told Buñuel that he would be thrown in jail for a year if he as much as set foot in Italy. The film was also banned in Surrey, England. The movie caused such a stir that Franco himself asked to take a look and, Buñuel’s producers told him, “found nothing very objectionable about it.” “After all, given what he’d seen in his lifetime, it must have seemed incredibly innocent to him,” commented Buñuel. Nevertheless, Franco decided not to overturn its prohibition and the film wasn’t screened in Spain until April 9 1977, the same day the Communist Party was legalized.

On Wednesday night TCM Clásico will be showing Viridiana at 10pm alongside a short documentary, Regreso a Viridiana (9.30pm). The same evening, the channel will also host a special screening of the movie at Madrid’s Berlanga theater.

Building on Slippery Slopes

Por: | 13 de mayo de 2011

AZ-20I remember a cold wind off the Caspian blowing at my back. Just in front up the hill towered the huge Soviet style statue of one of the first Azeri Bolsheviks, Nariman Narimanov. A local boy done-good-in-the-party who was rumoured to have been killed on Stalin’s orders. His imposing statue that was erected high atop the hills overlooking the city in the early 70s was said by some to be a less than subtle reminder to those below of what happens to those who cross the powers that be.

For years his cold glare of bronze somewhat scowled over this claw-like peninsula that juts out into the world’s largest body of fresh water, that is until the USSR melted and cowboy capitalism took over.

Today, this moderate Azeri nationalist’s once outstanding view is clouded by something slightly more opaque than Soviet dogma, high-rise luxury apartment buildings.

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When the Wall came down, an enormous potential for gas and oil opened up beyond the Caucasus mountains on the fringes of Europe. Statues of Lenin came down and neon multinational signs went up, Baku was open for business to the highest bidder. Expat workers began to flood the streets, a pressing need for accommodation to match their salaries appeared and old Nariman lost his view.

I remember the real estate agent detailing the modern appliances and comforts that we were about to see in the brand new building we were about to enter on the left but I couldn’t take my eyes off the tower being built to the right. Thirty or more stories of brick soared into clouds and try as hard as I could, not a piece of rebar in sight.

Then another memory came to mind. Sitting in a bar drinking beer and eating chick pea tapas near the UNESCO core of the old city, a geologist friend of mine told me that Azerbaijan is located in an extremely seismic area (think of their neighbour Iran) and that Baku was built on a type of soil that would simply liquefy if there was a shaker above six or so on the Richter scale.

These buildings weren’t only missing rebar, but were built sticking out of a vertigo inspiring hill that would turn into an enormous mudslide into the Caspian if the earth began to shake. In his defence, the estate agent however did insist that every kitchen was equipped with alarms and fire extinguishers.

What he didn’t mention is that building permits were for sale to anyone who wanted to build, however they wanted to build, provided of course that an appropriate piece of the pie reached the right plates. The changes that had brought the most advanced oil drilling machines in the world had left the country without roads, hospitals or the security of knowing that your new flat wouldn’t come down in a strong wind. This was freedom on the march first hand.

According to Transparency International, Spain ranks #30 in transparency and accountability, slightly ahead of Portugal and just behind Israel and the U.A.E. Azerbaijan is tied at #134 with the likes of Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leon, light years from Iberia but corruption is something that if it isn’t stopped, corrodes and grows.

This is of course a survey that is based on the public’s perception of corruption and the frequency and/or size of bribes in the public and political sectors and perception can be a funny thing. I for one have never been asked for a bribe by your funcionario de turno that isn’t on a coffee break and the Guardia Civil has never recounted my passport pages looking for a 20€ bill inside. That said, this is a country that votes on party lines and perhaps because of this, people don’t seem to mind voting for politicians who are always impeccably dressed or whose daughters seem to get ahead faster than most. Like I said, perception seems to be a funny thing.

The tragedy in Lorca however reminds us of the corrosive danger of corruption. The news is still fresh and conflicting reports are coming out every moment, things change by the minute. One headline tells us that 80% of the buildings in the city have been affected and later we’re told that 10% have structural damage, but even the president of the Spanish College of Geologists, Luis Eugenio Suárez, has already stated that the buildings of Lorca shouldn’t have collapsed due to such a relatively moderate (according to some one million times weaker than the 9.0 that hit Japan) earthquake.

20110512elpepunac_48It’s election time and accusations will surely fly before the dust even settles.  A stricter building code law was passed in 2002 that revised an early 1970s law that had first introduced anti-seismic measures nationwide, but the question now is how closely that code has been followed in the mad construction boom that brought about the current economic crisis? Buildings built before the first law won’t be covered, but I’ve scratched my head many times while walking past building sites that are supposed to comply with insulation codes yet seem to have only one line of brick between kitchens and the southern exposure summer sun.

Is this law akin to the Ley de Costas that was passed back in 1988 but only recently enforced? Or will the laws simply be changed if the majority of buildings are found not to meet the standard? Will politicians on all sides have the courage to overlook partisan views and ensure that an even bigger catastrophe can be avoided when, not if, the earth shakes again?

Back in Baku I kindly thanked the well meaning agent and declined to see any more of the marvellous new flats he had to show and ended up settling in a rather squat yet practical Soviet building that had been built back in the 50s. From one window my view was of Chechen refugees hanging colourful clothes in the courtyard and from my other the Foreign Ministry. At the time the Minister himself was said to only earn about $500 U.S a month, yet the parking lot was always filled with brand new Mercedes Benzes.

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Obviously the civil servants who worked there were extremely good with their modest salaries…and every time the wind blew freely through my window panes that hadn’t been changed since Brezhnev, I knew I had made the right choice.

 

Digging out those roots

Por: | 11 de mayo de 2011

Anyone who has worked on their genealogical family tree knows how addictive the enterprise can be. I have been searching for my family’s ancestors and stories about them for more than 25 years as part of an off-and-on project that really began when I was attending the University of Texas at Austin. Coming to Spain six years ago has also been rewarding in terms of my search because I was able to dig even deeper into the records of the early Spanish settlers who made it to Texas and Mexico in the early part of the 18th century.

My Spanish roots are little more recent on my mother’s side. My great-grandfather emigrated in the early 20th century with his young family from Ramales de la Victoria, Santander province and settled in the border city of Brownsville, Texas because, as the story goes, it was the best place in the United States at the time for someone to be able to communicate in Spanish. He worked all his life as a grocer, never returning to Spain and dying in 1922 (a flyer announcing his death, a common practice in early Texas then, can be seen below) while leaving behind many relatives, countless cousins in Cantabria whose descendants still share the surname Carral.

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On my Dad’s side, the Spanish roots delve even further. One of our direct ancestors came from the Cádiz region and was a soldier at the now-long lost settlement of Los Adaes in Louisiana, which the Spanish setup in the early 1700s to keep an eye on the encroaching French. My great-great-great-grandfather Juan Ximenes Losoya (below), whose father Juan Francisco Ximenes was also from Andalusia, was a veteran of the Storming of Bexar – the December 1835 house-to-house battle in San Antonio waged by the “Texian” militia against the invasion of the city led by Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cos. Months later, his brother Damacio died at the Alamo fighting General Santa Ana’s army along with the other rebel volunteers on March 6, 1836.

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Juan Ximenes (erroneously spelled Jiménez or Gimenes in early state records) went on and helped the defeat the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto, forming part of Colonel Juan Seguin’s volunteers from San Antonio.

There are so many forgotten and unknown stories about the early Spanish settlers who helped forge a rich history of America’s southwest. Genealogical research has helped me uncover some amazing family histories. The internet has made the search much easier than it was 25 years ago when one had to go to the local county courthouse and dig up birth and death records. One of the best sources in the United States for family tree research that includes records from Spain, including passenger lists of Spanish immigrants, is the Family Search engine.

The National Archives database, where there are thousands of records dating back to the US Civil War, is another good place to look. There are hundreds of family trees of Spanish settlers and their descendants posted at Genealogy and Genealogy Today. In Spain, of course, the General Archives of the Indies in Seville, which was set up by King Carlos III to keep records of all the settlements in the new colonies, is loaded with information for visitors, but unfortunately it has a limited online database.

 

Mario, or the great writer’s wrestlessness

Por: | 07 de mayo de 2011

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Nope, that’s not a typo there in the title. Rather, it’s a literary blend of ‘wrestling’ and ‘restlessness’ which I observed in the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa in Madrid this past week.

On Wednesday in the buzzing Paraninfo San Bernardo, just off the bustling Gran Via, it was simply Mario. Our Mario. Because after picking up that much-coveted Nobel Prize in Literature at the end of last year, Mario was coming home; to the University Complutense of Madrid (UCM), where he studied as a doctoral student from 1958-1960.

Madrid then was rather different, as he recalled luxuriously: “It was unrecognisable compared with the Madrid of now; a modern, European city, cosmopolitan, open to the world. Back then, the city was small and closed, with a very strict censorship in place.”  

Some fifty years later, with no one dreaming of censoring a single word of his, Mario arrived a few minutes late on stage.

He was forgiven. The inevitable cameras flashed. Then the introduction was pronounced, and Mario sat there, looking rather wrestless. What was he wrestling with, and why was he restless, you ask? And is this all not a little exaggerated? Perhaps he was simply tired. Used to being introduced in wonderful terms. Bored by the prospect of yet another extended interview.

But no. There his broad smile flashed out as he applauded at the end of the introduction. Suddenly, Mario sprung to life. A joke here on his liking for huge university ‘bocadillos’ as a young student. A marvellous, meaning-filled statement there on Flaubert (whose masterpiece ‘Madame Bovary’ was actually slumbering half-read in my bag at the time), praising the French genius and the writing fanaticism which turned him from a ‘bad writer’ into a masterful one. For the young writer, there can be no more assuring words. Having just published my first novel (fittingly entitled ‘Selfishness’, available at: https://www.ucm.es/BUCM/escritores/matthias_krug/obras/obr1900.pdf ) on the UCM writer’s website in celebration of the ‘I Semana Complutense de las letras’ culminating in Vargas Llosa’s visit, here was a chance to learn from the master.

And the master did not disappoint. He talked of the writer’s omnipresent insecurity. He joined together beautiful sentences, as if indeed writing in the air. And he complained that the Nobel Prize has taken away his time for writing, and at times even his energy to do so. And therein lay the essence of Mario’s restlessness on this balmy Madrid spring evening. No writer, he said then, could ever be completely satisfied; with their work, with the time they’ve invested, with the effort they’ve made.

Wrestling internally with the oil-drenched, impossible to grip menace of insecurity. Restlessness which comes with the knowledge that every minute wasted is one minute spent not writing. Those inspired minutes which Mario dedicated to his Madrid public on Wednesday were well worth the short wait. Wrestlessness. Indeed.

Matthias Krug is a Madrid-based writer of fiction and journalism which has been published across six continents. He is currently working on his second novel 'The Dream Sweeper'.

 

How do you like your Coffee?

Por: | 06 de mayo de 2011

Img_1531Can you tell which side of the border we're on?

You start to get a feel for Portugal the moment you head towards the sunset out of Madrid. Shiny blue EU-friendly road signs pop up indicating that our neighbor to the west really isn't as far away as some Mapa del tiempo would think. Drive a little farther and the gaping black there-be-dragons hole on Spanish weather maps becomes a tangible reality as you cross into Extremadura. As the beautiful dehesa forests spread out before you, the numbers on those signs become much more easily digestible.

You can follow a connect the dots Sierra map as you trace the way from Guadarrama to Gredos through the Sierra de Bejar, then a leap from the Sierra de Francia into the Sierra de Gata and finally drop an I and change an E to an A and end up in the Serra da Estrela in another country.

From the celtiberian Toros de Guisando near San Martín de Valdeiglesias to the Jewish quarter in Hervas, the lilting Mañego language that's spoken in three little villages in the Sierra de Gata to the enormous granite boulders that sprout all over the Serra. From where I'm standing, Portugal just isn't that far away.

You can't open a newspaper today without reading about our quieter neighbor. Unfortunately, the headlines aren't about upcoming Fado festivals or Madredeus concerts but an impending doom and gloom that only an IMF-approved bailout can miraculously solve. We hear that our neighbors with so many different /s/ sounds have too many public servants and are constantly being reminded about the created need for mass privatizations. Big business’ other favourite victims, education and healthcare, are of course on the carte-blanche menu. An Atkins style diet that blackmails the Portuguese into becoming another domino about to sign away their future to those that caused the crisis in the first place. Soon the descendants of Vasco de Gama will have to promise that everyone fortunate enough to have a job will take lunch at their desks in order to please the productivity deities on a street called Wall.

The mantra that is constantly heard on this side of the border, even by the most antagonistic of politicians who are usually so willing to exchange negative international headlines for a chance to take a swipe at the government in power, is the slightly condescending intonation, "Spain is not Portugal."

From where I'm standing, I'm not so sure about that. Enjoy that single-tiered healthcare system while you can and don’t forget to get a bigger piggy-bank as Jr’s university just might get a lot more expensive in the not-so-distant future. The Shock Doctrine is spreading and you don’t have to look very far for proof.

Take a drive along the tiny Ex-207 through Holm and Cork Oak forests and at some point you'll cross the Roman bridge at Alcantara. At least here, the Tagus river that eventually empties into the Atlantic in Lisbon, doesn't divide Extremadura from Estremadura. This mass of stone has seen Roman legionnaires, Caliphate soldiers, French troops and retreating Portuguese armies, all of whom have left their mark on the 70m high span that is plied by back and forth lorries to this day. A word of advice, when crossing westbound try not to look to the right at the huge hydroelectric dam, it tends to mar the moment.

The road winds on until you come to another less auspicious, though equally elegant Roman bridge spanning the Eljas river. Just across, the whitewashed town of Segura climbs up the oak tree dotted hills that are punctuated with wild lavender and blooming rock rose, all of which is crowned by an imposing church steeple. Faded and tattered bullfight posters flap from the limed walls behind grubby rubbish bins and parked cars seem to spurt from the cracks in the narrow streets.

Push through the hanging beads and stroll into a bar after the curvy drive and order a coffee in your best Spanish, squinting your eyes to adjust to the contrasts of light. As you adapt to the semi-darkness, you might notice that there isn't a glass covered display of tapas sweating in the heat on top of the bar, but nevertheless there is a TV murmuring in the corner.

Img_1522
It's not until your first sip that you realize something is different. Were the bottoms of the houses painted blue in this village? Or was it yellow? What was that tiny sign on the bridge that you missed as you drove by? The newspaper on the bar is slightly different but vaguely understandable. It's not until the second sip that you realize...that's the best coffee you've had in recent memory, the rest...well at least around here, it's pretty similar.

 

Five things I’ve learned about Real Madrid vs. Barcelona

Por: | 03 de mayo de 2011

Dani-alves
The unprecedented four-game series between archrivals Real Madrid and Barcelona has ended. But while Madrid won the Copa del Rey and Barça reached the Champions League final, there was plenty more to take away from these games than mere results:

  1. Soccer is politics. Some say the series of games Real Madrid and Barcelona have played against each other over the last three weeks has been like a war, made up of four battles. But I see it as more akin to a political campaign; a US primary, maybe. The build-up and spin are almost as absorbing as the game (or vote) itself, as is the “buzz” from each camp. In addition, each game’s result has enormous consequences on the upcoming clash, creating a potentially crucial momentum: the 1-1 draw in the first, liga game gave Madrid heart and when it won the Copa del Rey 1-0, I couldn’t help but think of Hillary Clinton keeping her presidential hopes alive in 2008 by taking the key Pennsylvania primary from Barack Obama.
  2. Possession isn’t everything. Barça take pride in keeping the ball. This means they control the game and get less tired chasing their opponents. For much of these four encounters, the Catalans enjoyed a possession rate of around 80 percent. But there were times when the possession-is-everything ethos started to look a little shaky. For example, in the Copa del Rey final, when a breakneck Madrid counterattack won the game. After all, it’s not control of the ball that actually wins games, it’s shots on goal. Even when greedily hoarding the ball, Barcelona rarely dominated when it came to shots on goal, although they were certainly more pleasant to watch than their opponents.
  3. The end justifies the means. This applies to both teams. For José Mourinho, any tactics are justified, as long as they get the desired result. Thus his ultra-defensive line-ups against the ultra-attacking Barça. This Madrid has one of the world’s finest groups of offensive players, but when it plays Barcelona, it is one of the world’s most defensive teams. Just ask Mesut Özil, Madrid’s most creative asset, who has spent a good deal of this series of games on the bench. But Barcelona’s players also understand Machiavelli’s maxim. Daniel Alves’s Oscar-winning collapse after Pepe nearly made contact with his leg got the Portuguese player sent off and, arguably, swung the balance of the Champions League tie. Alves’s Brando-esque method acting even included getting stretchered off the field (before bounding back on once Pepe had got the red card).
  4. Knowing how to lose is as important as knowing how to win. “Life is like that. You can’t always win,” said Barça coach Pep Guardiola after losing the Copa del Rey final. Eventually, even the hyper-tactful Pep was riled by Mourinho’s proddings. But the Barça coach’s mature acceptance of a bad result was welcome during a series of games that saw too much petty tension and too little of the kind of sportsmanship this great rivalry demands. In the face of negative tactics, unhinged provocation and intense media pressure, Guardiola was one of the few individuals to emerge with credit from this quadruple clásico
  5. Is José Mourinho barking mad? His conspiracy theories reached a new, frenzied peak, when, after losing 2-0 in the Champions League semifinal first leg, he wondered aloud whether UNICEF’s sponsorship of Barcelona had something to do with the result. Sports writer Simon Barnes says Mourinho is like the madman on the subway who thinks he’s Napoleon. No, it’s much worse than that. If I say the Portuguese coach is “a player or two short of a team”, you’ll realize I’m not talking about red cards.

Guy Hedgecoe is co-editor of Iberosphere, a website dedicated to comment and analysis on Spain and Portugal.

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