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.

Why do they hate Garzón?

Por: | 19 de enero de 2012

Garzón in court
Is the trial of Judge Garzón a case of a country devouring one of its most brilliant children, or is it the downfall of a virtuoso who forgot that he needs an orchestra? If he loses, Spain also loses a great legal mind. But Spain is not given to the recognition of truly national figures.

Sporting heroes aside, it is hard to imagine a nationwide embrace of anyone, however much they may excel in their given field. Even when recognized the world over as an authority or a genius, back home the outstanding Spaniard is assumed to bear true loyalty to his or her clique, be it a region, a professional guild or political affiliation. While internationally, Garzón's reputation is that of a pioneering and ground-breaking lawyer in the pursuit of justice with a capital J, here he is typically viewed as a creature of the left in the interminable fight between two camps that poisons so many of Spain's institutions. And, apart from some 200 protestors at the door of the Supreme Court for the opening day of Garzón's first misconduct trial, few seem to be denouncing the fact that this revenge mission will probably lead to a terrible waste.

The suspended High Court judge is now facing the first of three misconduct cases, in this instance for ordering that jailed suspects in a corruption case have their phone conversations monitored, including those with their legal representatives. The judge says he took the step as part of investigations into the Gürtel-Popular Party network in order to frustrate plans to spirit ill-gotten gains out of the country. The Gürtel ringleaders are still in prison awaiting trial, but Garzón has been suspended from duties for almost two years, initially as a result of the second accusation he must face in the Supreme Court: that he deliberately overstepped his legal authority in opening a case on Franco-era atrocities which have yet to be investigated. For good measure, Garzón is also accused of accepting money from Banco Santander in exchange for organizing a conference at New York University.


Garzon-eneko-10-02-17garzonThe wiretaps were backed at the time by other judges, and Garzón's claim that money laundering was afoot and that he was not interested in spying on the Gürtel suspects' defense strategy seems perfectly credible. The Santander case seems to hold little fear for Garzón whose bank accounts came through a police probe with a clean bill of health. As for the Franco investigation, well of course he was pushing the bounds of juridical practice, holding up Spain's amnesty law and statute limitations to the test against international doctrines of universal justice. After the Zapatero government's Historical Memory Law had failed to provide a solid framework to help families seek relatives' remains and definitive truth, the judge was using the law to advance their cause.

Given the notorious leniency with which inept judges are treated by Spain's judicial authorities, is it the case then that Garzón's real crime is being a political judge? He became a Socialist Party member of Congress in 1993, but abandoned a year later, disillusioned with the González government's passive attitude to corruption. He would later say that he had been "arrogant" to think that he could affect change from the parliament benches.

But, if he had been a simple party man, intent on rising up as far as possible within the cozy networks that dominate the political and legal spheres, he would not find himself in the situation he is in today. Instead, he chose to act out his political and moral principles, seeking tools within the legal system to bring abusers to justice. The Pinochet case brought him international fame, but in Spain he had already taken on drug barons, corrupt figures such as Jesús Gil, ETA and its political networks, and, yes, Socialist government officials involved in the GAL dirty war against the Basque terrorists.

Other judges must have felt wounded in their pride by the outsized role played by Garzón. Foolish or just brave, he did not work from within the power groups in a legal system which is divided into political clubs and hence failed to be granted promotion into the higher spheres of the court system.

Clearly, this crusading judge is not to everyone's taste. But what the Spanish right really hates in Garzón is what it perceives as the self-righteousness often to be found on the left, a kind of moral monopoly. What his supporters see as zeal, his enemies dismiss as an arrogant application of an ideology that holds that the right is to blame for all evil in Spain.

For me, the real trial of Judge Garzón would be to look him in the eyes and ask if he had gotten wind of a similar kickbacks scam within the ranks of the Socialist Party, would he have pursued it as doggedly. I would like to believe him.

Photograph by Andrea Comas (Reuters).

Cartoon by Eneko.

 

Bona sort or bona drag - the Catalan conundrum

Por: | 16 de enero de 2012

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There comes a time in the life of every foreigner who lives in Catalonia when he or she must decide whether to confront the Catalan language head on or run scared from the curiously “x” filled beast.

It’s probably fair to say that for anyone living in a big town or city you’re unlikely to ever need Catalan, in the strictest sense of the word: people may prefer you to speak it but you’ll still be able to buy your daily bread, order a drink, chat to the locals and even deal with Catalan bureaucracy without speaking a word of Catalan.

What’s more, if you speak Spanish or French you will most likely be able to get the gist of spoken and written Catalan, even if the subtleties escape you.

On the other hand – and without wanting to fan the Catalan independence debate - there should be no doubt to even the most casual visitor to Catalonia that Catalan is the number one language here.

This, I must be honest, surprised me, as there simply isn’t an equivalent in Britain. The UK might have five native languages – English, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Scots and Cornish – but even the most widespread of these, Welsh, only has around 600,000 native speakers.  Catalan, by contrast, has 11.5m, far more than the population of Catalonia itself.

So while Glasgow’s main train station may well have its Scottish Gaelic name on the welcome signs (Glaschu in case you’re interested), this seems more of a heritage exercise – albeit a very noble one – than a part of every-day life.

In Catalonia, Catalan is a living, breathing language that people speak simply because, well, that’s what they speak, rather than through a desire to preserve a particular culture or through wilful obstinacy.

Nevertheless, for the average monolingual English speaker, the ease with which Catalans flick from Catalan to Spanish can be quite fascinating.

For most British people a second language is something that has to be learned in school through rote and repetition or picked up painfully using text books. Speaking a second language typically requires intense mental effort in a culture that – sadly –doesn’t see the value in multilingualism.

For most Catalans, however, speaking Spanish seems to take no effort at all. So much so, in fact, that many of them couldn’t even tell you when they learned Spanish. It was just sort of there, on the TV or in the playground and somehow seeped in.

Many is the time I’ve seen a conversation among Catalans flip from Spanish to Catalan as I leave the room, then back to Spanish as I return, with little more than the flicker of an eyelid. I’ve seen Catalans talk to other Catalans in Catalan and Catalans talk to other Catalans in Spanish in much the same circumstances and they can’t really tell you why.

Indeed, for many Catalans, the Spanish language seems to operate in a weird shadow zone somewhere in between mother tongue and foreign language but somehow not quite either.

For a Brit, struggling with a table of irregular verbs and baffling tenses, it’s a hugely impressive sight. For anyone with even a passing interest in linguistics, it goes to show what a bafflingly complex thing language is, far beyond the simple use of words and grammar to convey set meanings.

In the end, I’m sure I could go on living in Barcelona for many years without learning a word of Catalan. Catalan people are, in my experience, eminently practical and if they need to speak Spanish or English they will.

But they are also justifiably proud of their language and culture - and not without reason: in an ever-shrinking world, where one language drops out of existence every two weeks and where English is omnipotent, the Catalan language stands as a symbol for thriving linguistic and cultural diversity.

So that’s why I’ll be knuckling down for my first Catalan lesson this very Wednesday. Wish me good luck, buena suerte or even bona sort. Quite frankly I’ll need it.

Photo: Alexandra Sans Masso

Recovering from Turrón de Michigan and other holiday folly

Por: | 07 de enero de 2012

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Apart from a bit of teetotalling, I've never felt much need to cleanse my body after the holidays. My true vice is wine and apart from that, I don't particularly like sweets and tend to steer clear of them. Therefore, if I can manage to abstain for a few weeks during the month of January, I can usually get myself back on the healthy track. That is, until this year, when I decided that Christmas would be a wonderful time to recreate those confections that define the holidays in both my home country and my Spanish home.

For the American in me, I made Red Cross Fudge, a recipe from the 1940s that my parents have been making for as long as I can remember. Despite having to trek all over Madrid to buy marshmallows (the little ones work best), which I finally found at La Tienda Americana, this sinfully chocolatey-nutty fudge stirred up all the right feelings of nostalgia. You wouldn't think so, but the recipe makes a ton, which is nice because I was able to send friends and family home with ample boxes of it. This also meant that I have been gorging myself on this treat for two weeks straight, as if trying to stuff my tender memories of my childhood Christmas celebrations down my adult throat.

For my Spanish alter ego, I decided that this would be an excellent time to amaze my Spanish in-laws by making Jijona-style turrón, also called soft turrón, or turrón blando. I recently published an article in Spain Gourmetour magazine about this traditional confection, for which I traveled to Jijona in Alicante to learn about the turrón-making process. Made out of only sugar, honey and almonds, the Protected Geographical Indication Turrón de Jijona (along with the hard Turrón de Alicante) has been made there for hundreds of years. For some reason, I decided that I would be able to repeat this traditional and time-honored process in my humble kitchen. I was wrong.

I chose this recipe chiefly because it had photos. I was unable to find toasted ground almonds, so I toasted them myself and then ground them in the food processor using only the pulse button, as the recipe recommends. I followed the recipe to a tee, something that I seldom do, and in retrospect, I continue to be amazed by my own misguided over-confidence. To say that my turrón blando was soft would be a gross exaggeration. The color was more or less correct, and it had the appropriate flavors of almonds and honey. The texture however, when one managed to isolate a piece of it, was like 100 year-old salt-water taffy left in the Kalahari Desert. My Father in-law, a turrón connoisseur, diplomatically dubbed it Turrón de Michigan, in honor of my birthplace.

Having felt the need to finish both the fudge and the Turrón de Michigan (so as not to offend either), I briefly toyed with the idea of baking our roscón de Reyes, before deciding that enough was enough. I therefore decided to skip over Reyes altogether (in the culinary sense) and start the New Year with a cleansing diet inspired by the excellent Food Lover's Cleanse found in Bon Appetite magazine. I should point out that this is not a crazy maple-syrup-drinking, cabbage-soup-slurping, grapefruit-sucking cleanse, but rather a suggested menu of healthy and delicious food that fills your cupboards with things like quinoa and bulgur - minus the foie gras, caviar and bacon-wrapped dates, for example, that typically make the holidays so delightful.

Now, if only I can manage to extract my new favorite knife from the sticky-hard clutches of the remaining homemade "turrón", I might actually have a chance of getting healthy for the New Year.

Adrienne is a Madrid-based food and wine writer (www.gastronomican.com).

Merry Christmas (again)

Por: | 03 de enero de 2012

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Arriving back in Barcelona this week after a holiday in England it appeared time had stood still in my absence.

While Christmas had definitively passed in the UK, with attention there turning to the excesses of New Year and the dreaded return to work, the Catalan capital was in full festive flight, with shop windows lit up by garish Christmas lighting and carols blazing from El Corte Inglés.

For a moment I was confused: had everyone simply forgotten to take the decorations down? Or could holding two Christmases, one after the other, be some kind of clever move to boost the Spanish economy?

Then I remembered: Reyes.

It’s not like I didn’t know about Reyes, of course. I remember being impressed by the idea of a second day of presents when introduced to it by my Spanish friend back in my youth.

But somehow, as a Brit, it’s hard to imagine anyone REALLY getting their presents any day other than December 25 or from anyone other than Father Christmas himself.

I suppose I also worried Reyes might have somehow been subsumed in the same rush of globalisation that has made Halloween such an international festival, a fear not helped by a prominent Father Christmas in the doorway of the Corte Inglés from the first of December.

But, really, I shouldn’t have worried. Because, if there is one thing I’ve learned about the Spanish in my time here, it’s that they take their holidays very seriously indeed: if it isn’t the celebration of some previously unheard of religious event, it’s the rather brilliant Constitution Day or a local holiday that brings the entire town out into the streets to parade around with fireworks in a way that would be closed down within seconds in an overly Health and Safety conscious UK.

The festive period, then, seems like an obvious extension of this. Spaniards celebrate Christmas Day with vigour – if maybe a few presents less than elsewhere – enjoy a night out for the New Year and then, just as much of the world is settling down to a back-to-work hangover, stretch out in another day of presents and food.

Of course, I’m being slightly flippant: Reyes – or Epiphany - is one of the oldest religious holidays on the calendar and has been celebrated in Spain for hundreds of years.

Nevertheless, there is something about the second celebration day that reminds me of the joie de vivre that I have long respected of the Spanish and which makes such a refreshing change to the work obsession of Anglosphere.

That’s not to say that the British and Americans don’t like to party: one look at any British town centre on a Saturday night would be enough to blow that notion clean out of the booze-addled water.

However, there is something in the Anglo Saxon work culture that makes holidays somehow frowned upon: the British have among the lowest number of public holidays in Europe – despite the longest working week – and many Americans get by on 10 days holiday a year.

But it’s not just the number of public holidays in Spain that is notable - it’s the way the Spanish go about them. I was lucky enough to be in the Catalan village of Querol (pictured above) for its fiesta mayor last summer and witnessed the kind of inclusive, good-natured celebration that makes you want to extend the hand of goodwill to all and sundry, even when you wake up the next day hung over and hurting.

Surely this is what holidays should all be about? In Querol almost the entire 40-strong population gathered in the town square to dance the night away to a two-man band, with no one too drunk or too cool for the Macarena or Shakira’s ubiquitous Waka Waka.

Very different – but yet equally representative of the Spanish art of the fiesta in its own way – was the Barcelona Mercè one month later, which brought experimental Manchester guitar rockers Wu Lfy and two-step garage don Wookie to massive open-air stages in the Catalan capital, in a move of quite outrageous élan and musical experimentation.

Of course the art of the fiesta won’t fix the Spanish economy – more’s the pity - nor will it bring down youth unemployment. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t count.

The Spanish people I have met are industrious and entrepreneurial. But they also know that there are other things that count, among them a dance, a drink and a kiss for the neighbours. Frankly, it’s a lesson that other countries could learn.

And happy Reyes to you all.

Photo: Alexandra Sans Masso

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