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.

What does Bill Gates want?

Por: | 28 de febrero de 2012

Gates
In Spain last week Bill Gates pointed at some “rigidities” that were stopping the Spanish economy function in a normal way, and the Microsoft founder found it downright eerie that wages weren’t falling at a time when the country is blighted by such a high unemployment rate. Because he also said he was not an expert on Spain, he has to be given the benefit of the doubt; let’s say he doesn’t know that in real terms wages in Spain have fallen since the advent of the euro and that’s why the generalized pay freeze for those in work is an even bigger sacrifice on the part of labor than it might seem. A recent survey said that Spanish salaries had risen by 14 percent during the first decade of the single currency, while the cost of living had risen by around 50 percent.

Gates was in Spain to ask Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to hold back his austerity ax when it comes to the international aid heading in the belated 2012 budget, so it would also make sense that he was voicing the ultimate aim of the government’s new labor reform: to cut wages. And it hardly comes as a surprise that the world’s second-richest businessman should stay true to the neoliberal world view.

And then something surprising happened...

On a more global level, Gates talked about unemployment as a “structural” problem: “There are plenty of jobs to do, in teaching, science, tourism and looking after the old. There is no shortage of work but it is a question of structuring it right.” So, on the one hand, the billionaire philanthropist believes in the capitalist cure-alls of fitter, leaner markets, including the labor market, and letting money do its thing without being held back by the kind of “rigidities” he sees in Spanish regulation; on the other, he seems to be suggesting that the economy needs to be restructured to better meet society’s needs, and not those of the market. And, yes, I think he is saying that these are not one and the same thing.

Let’s take teaching, for example. Private education has never covered any country’s entire demand. Only when the state, sometimes together with some other non-profit institution, such as the Church, takes charge do all children get a chance. In fact, in education as in health the private sphere can operate as a magnet, luring away professionals from the lower-paid state sector, which becomes an under-appreciated, residual safety net for the poor. Then there are the complications caused by globalization. A doctor trained in sub-Saharan Africa can earn many times more in Europe or North America, even if he performs a task other than curing the sick.

Gates said Spain needed to expose its labor costs to global competition in order to attract inward investment. By the same token, poor countries face the challenge of keeping their workers content on comparatively small salaries. How, in a genuinely open market, is a developing country to be able to pay professionals a competitive rate? Indeed, one of the criticisms of the international aid model where funds from Western countries are funnelled into the Third World so that Western professionals can provide much-needed services is that it shunts local initiatives into the sidings of economic irrelevance. Local governments cannot compete with the pay and prestige offered by international NGOs.

Having said that, The Gates Foundation’s bid to provide a malaria vaccine and protection against diseases such as polio and measles is entirely laudable and should be seen as the only decent response to the dramatic disparity between the world’s poorest people and the rest. Going back to the private sector, the big pharmaceutical companies spend far more on developing new cosmetic drugs for the world’s wealthy than they do on medicines to treat tropical killers such as malaria, river blindness and Chagas disease. In Madrid, the Microsoft founder was at pains to stress that aid money has a much greater impact in poor countries than in “middle-income” nations which have the resources to pull the entire population out of poverty but which, for whatever reason, are failing to do so.

Perhaps what Gates sees is a dual system, whereby those countries which have a minimal level of stability and social welfare should compete in a free market, while those areas where basic human needs are unattended must receive funds creamed off from the earnings generated by efficient capitalist enterprise.

Next time Bill Gates is in Spain I hope he is asked to join up the dots in his vision. In the meantime, let’s hope he serves as a philanthropic inspiration for the rest of the world’s mega-rich.

Photograph: Gorka Lejarcegi

Arctic Monkeys in Madrid - a lyrical conundrum

Por: | 22 de febrero de 2012

Arctic Monkeys photograph

The evening of Friday 27th January saw Arctic Monkeys take to the stage of the Palacio de los Deportes, the poster boys of English rock and roll, even their drum kit was plastered with Union Jacks, strutted out in front of a Spanish crowd. How would their wry, colloquial humour and fast-paced lyrics translate with a Spanish audience? 

Unlike other British bands, endlessly popular in Spain, such as the Beatles, Arctic Monkeys´ lyrics are not easy to follow or foreign audience friendly. But that did not seem to dampen their appeal. Surprised the band was so popular in Spain, I wondered whether the crowd fully understood the lyrics they were singing along to...

With a tenuous link to an Arctic Monkey (my friend’s sister’s fiance is the brother of bass player, Nick O’ Malley) I arrived with the promise of being on the guest list. I approached the box office with trepidation, expecting the woman behind the glass to look me up and down condescendingly and tell me to be on my way. But, after having handed over my ID, it turns out I was on the lista de invitadas after all, and managed to jump the queue, that twisted and turned back into the night as far as the eye could see. Caught up in a fast-flowing stream of excited teenagers, my friend and I were carried along to the front of the pit, right in front of the stage.

Illicit cigarettes glowed in the dark pit, cupped in the hands of daring Spaniards, barely scanning the place for security guards who might enforce the, apparently lax, no-smoking law. Even before the main draw took to the stage, the drama had begun, with the crowd suddenly lurching to the left after a girl fainted due to the rising temperature. 

Support act, Miles Kane, one half of Alex Turner’s side-project The Last Shadow Puppets, sauntered out first. Clad in leopard-print shirt, songs from his solo album Colour of the Trap channelled Paul Weller and Mod-era cool. A huge cheer welcomed his most well-known single, Come Closer, which, with its la la la chorus, proved easy for Spaniards to ‘sing’ along to. The crowd were getting fidgety as Kane neared the end of his set. They knew the band they had come to see was only minutes away.

The crowd exploded into cheering and applause as the Arctic Monkeys ran onto the stage. The band held the adoring crowd in the palm of their hand. Lyrics were at times difficult for me to understand. How on earth did Spaniards get them, I thought? 

Of course, this is making a generalisation that none of the Spaniards there understood English. I’m sure some of them did, but only a handful, at most. Spain has one of the lowest percentages of English speakers in Europe, 27%. Twelve of the Top 20 singles in Spain this week, however, are in English, suggesting that, despite their struggle to grapple with the lingo, Spaniards prefer English music. The music populating the Top 20 though, tends to be of the Pitbull and Rhianna variety, with simple, repeated lyrics that are generally easy to understand, very different to the complicated, layered lyrics of most Arctic Monkeys songs. 

In When the sun goes down, Alex Turner sang of a “scumbag” who “must be up to summit” and a woman “scantily clad beneath the clear night sky”. I wondered how many people in the crowd realised how dark the lyrics of the song really were as they sang along, smiles wide, to a song about the gritty reality of modern day prostitution in a northern English town. 

In Don´t Sit Down Cos I´ve Moved Your Chair, from new album Suck it and See, Turner sang, “Wear your shell suit/On Bonfire Night”, surely both slightly alien concepts to a Spanish audience, shell suit is hardly standard clothing vocabulary and Bonfire Night is a uniquely British tradition.

It is amusing to think that perhaps Spaniards are singing along, mimicking the sounds but not understanding the meaning, especially when you think of the subject matter of some of the songs. The crowd, a vast expanse surrounding me, echoed Turner’s tones, lilting northern vowels and colloquial phrases, but with a distinctly Spanish twist. 

 For a band who became famous thanks to the energetic indie riffs of I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, their most recent album, Suck it and See, includes slower, more thoughtful and romantic singles. Turner´s songwriting has evolved and matured, without taking away from the cleverness of his older songs. 

Arctic Monkeys lyrics are refreshingly cliche-free, making them often, even more beautiful. Who could fail to have their heart warmed by, “You´re rarer than a can of Dandelion and Burdock”, in Suck It and See. The juxtaposition of the beautiful lyric and the song title Suck it and See a typical example of Turner´s subtle humour. 

A low rumbling began to surround me. A steady chant of “Maggie Boom”, “Maggie Boom” shook the crowd. My friend and I looked at each other, confused. Was this how Spaniards requested an encore, I wondered? Suddenly, it dawned on me. “Mardy Bum” one of Arctic Monkeys best known songs, when pronounced with a Spanish accent, morphed into “Maggie Boom”. That the crowd even knew the word “mardy”, hardly a standard English word, was impressive.

The crowd never got their Maggie Boom, whether because it was not included on the set list, or because the band could not understand the Spanish-accented cry of ´Maggie Boom´...who knows.  Arctic Monkeys proved here in Madrid that perhaps lyrics are not the most important component of a song, and that good music transcends languages and is simply good music, wherever you are in the world. And for those in the crowd that did understand, perhaps listening to bands such as Arctic Monkeys gives Spaniards an authentic flavour of modern day Britain, with a more gritty and real English than you are likely to find in the classroom. 

 

Photograph: Sara Houlison 

 

Foreign among foreigners - English takes a hike

Por: | 14 de febrero de 2012

Scotland in the snow

If you ever want to really confuse the average British person, I suggest sitting him or her down in a basic Catalan class.

If their experience is anything like mine, I can pretty much guarantee confusion, befuddlement and a powerful sense of dislocation.

It’s not that Catalan is a particularly difficult language to learn. Sure, the amount of “x”s might be a bit off-putting and the habit of pronouncing “e”s as a guttural grunt can prove a shock. But Catalan very obviously has the same roots as French, Spanish and Italian and appears to follow most of the same rules.

Nor is it anything to do with the teacher, who remains professional to the letter despite my systematic failure to remember that Catalan does not – and probably never will – use the word “hablar”, having its own entirely sufficient term for “to talk”.

No, what will really get your poor Brit is the almost total lack of English going on around them.

It’s shameful, maybe, but us Brits have got used to hearing English everywhere we go. Step into a bar from Moscow to Malaysia and you can order away in English. Check into a hotel in Helsinki and you may hear a visiting Norwegian querying his bill in perfect English. Sometimes I think it’s remarkable. Most of the time, though, it barely registers.

What this means is that when British people do learn foreign languages it’s always from English. Our native language is ever present so we get wedded to the concept of what a certain word or sentence means in English and forget that there may not be an equivalent. Try to translate “parturienta” or “zwischenraum” into English and you’ll see what I mean.

But Catalan class, in central Barcelona, is the land that English forgot. It’s not just that the class is in Catalan – thought that in itself is a shock – it’s that English isn’t the second language of the class and probably not even the third.

Generally, we all try to speak Catalan. But if anyone wants to briefly cheat or check what a particular word means, the lingua franca is Spanish, thanks to 10 students from Spain or Latin America. Second to this is French.

Indeed, in a 15-strong class, more people have Romanian as their mother tongue than English, with just the one Brit (myself) and not a sniff of Americans, Australians or Canadians.

It’s a dizzying experience. For three hours a day English is relegated to the linguistic dustbin, with just the odd word from my neighbours for comfort when they feel particularly sorry for me.

In a way it’s refreshing. English may be useful but it’s easy to get sick of its ubiquity, tired of its blunt vowel sounds and bored of its compact, unromantic structures.

The overall feeling, however, is one of happy confusion. Some days I get lost and start to wonder if Spanish may in fact be my native language, on the deductive grounds that A) I can speak Spanish B) everyone is speaking Spanish and C) Spanish isn’t Catalan.

Writing this now, I realise that I’ve made the class sound like a painful experience. But far from it: frankly I’d recommend it to anyone.

Learning a new language is useful in itself, of course. But equally important is the idea of learning to live without English, casting off the Anglophone safety net and drifting in the sea of linguistic diversity.

You’ll learn a lot about yourself. You’ll learn a lot about other people. And you’ll get an idea of what it must be like for the rest of the world when faced with the ubiquity of English.

It’s a lesson well learned. English may remain the world’s default foreign language for the time being. But with the rise of China and the inevitable decline of the United States, you can bet it won’t be forever. And that’s when you’ll remember your Catalan class.

El País

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