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.

Corruption: time to look in the mirror

Por: | 24 de abril de 2012

Camps

-- If wheels have to be greased, I don't know why we town hall employees, if they want us to work, shouldn't be greased as well. Because, after all, what are we but the administrative wheels of the municipal vehicle?

-- You have a point there... We are wheels, no more than wheels, in the town hall and in this filthy life.       

From La vida como es, by Juan Antonio de Zunzunegui.

According to a CIS poll some 60 percent of people in Spain think that corruption is a universal trait. The thinking is that, alas, it is human nature to favor you and yours with disregard to the common interest. Despite the flowering of so many high-profile cases involving people from the highest orders of society, the survey shows that Spaniards are not inclined to accept that there is a strong national component in these displays of moral laxity, with the same proportion of 60 percent denying that corruption is something particular to Spanish society.

Perhaps this could explain why the same people who say they dislike corruption continue to vote for parties and leaders whose reputations have been besmirched, notably former Popular Party premier Francisco Camps in the Valencia region, who got a bigger majority in 2011 than in 2007, despite the breaking of the Gürtel scandal.

Yet Spaniards clearly value democracy very highly. Turnout at elections is high, demonstrations are frequent and well attended, and the principles of assembly and majority decisions run right through society down to the level of neighbors’ meetings and parents’ associations at schools.

In the Transition, political parties were the vehicles charged with the responsibility of taking Spain from dictatorship to democracy. Great acts of reconciliation were performed, notably to allow the return of the Communist PCE to the fold without a purge of former Franco regime members. Power and responsibilities were shared out accordingly. The structures of the new democratic state had to be filled with the new democratic forces to create a protective buffer against the very real possibility of a backlash from the old order.

That was more than 30 years ago. In that time, the centrally funded major political parties and labor unions have laid down roots across the breadth of the state. Little goes on without their influence. How many public-school teaching posts will be made available via exams this year? The unions will propose a number to the local authority. Who will head up a police force or a cultural agency? It will be someone affiliated with the political party in control of the authority that designates. Officials occupying what are theoretically non-political posts will be swept aside by the result of an election, regardless of how good a job they are doing.

This is the chosen method in Spanish democracy. It was decided that this mechanical movement of political forces, which ultimately depend on winning votes in free elections, offered a certain guarantee of public service. Clearly, it is an improvement on the wholly opaque machinations within a dictatorship, but corruption is rife and the idea of meritocracy in recruitment is rarely served well. Perhaps the most depressing environment in which to see the party-bloc system at work is in village politics, where suitable candidates for a given role tend to be scarce. This is not to mention the coarse favoring of private interests linked personally to party chiefs.

Within parties too, the use of closed lists in elections helps to ensure a strict bloc mentality and allows a corrupt local leader to feather his or her nest with little fear of an internal challenge. The 15-M movement has questioned to what extent the current system can be considered a democracy due to the hegemony of the two major parties.

Now one of those twin giants, the ruling Popular Party, has put forward proposals for a transparency law, billed as a powerful tool against corruption. With serious reservations about the eventual scope and application of the law, it has to be welcomed as a potential first step on the road to making Spain an advanced democracy. Spaniards are wrong to be fatalistic. Corruption may be part of human nature, but there are countries where this particular beast has been put in chains. But those chains must be made. Nations such as Norway or Sweden are not transparent simply because they are more developed, but rather their greater level of development has been made possible by higher-quality democracy.

But the government reform is a top-down initiative which will make no difference unless civil society and the media make the effort to keep ministers honest in this regard. The real change will only come when Spaniards reject corruption with a small ‘c’ in their everyday life. This bottom-up revolution would mean no longer agreeing to pay for services rendered in cash; not asking friend A to give employment to friend B when the latter is clearly not cut out for the job; teachers not being asked to pass a student out of consideration for the parent; and many more similar situations.

Spain needs to take a step forward. We can do it.          

 

Elephantgate and Spain's ‘elephant in the room’

Por: | 20 de abril de 2012

Don Juan Carlos with a dead trophy elephant

This week King Don Juan Carlos made an ‘unprecedented’ public apology for his Botswana hunting trip following outrage at such extravagance during Spain’s harsh era of austerity.  He also infuriated a legion of animal lovers following claims he not only killed an endangered African elephant but did so while president of Spain’s World Wildlife Fund (WWF).  

But if the 74-year-old-king, who has held the WWF role since 1968, thought his apology: ‘I'm very sorry, I made a mistake. It won't happen again.’ would be the end of the matter he was mistaken.  By the time he said this on Wednesday, an online petition calling for his WWF resignation had reached 85,000 signatures.  And his words did little to placate WWF supporters when it was further revealed that this was not a one off error of judgement.  Media reports claimed over the years he has gunned down everything from leopards and endangered European bison to a defenseless Russian zoo bear spiked with vodka.  

The CEO of the WWF Dutch office Johan van den Gronden put the position simply: ‘Outrageous! If this man were an honorary chairman of the Dutch WWF, and if I had the authority to do so, I would have expelled him from his duties today.’  However, the WWF in Spain has refrained from taking the swift action many of its members had called for.  Its response has been to request an ‘interview’ with the King and to put the scrapping of his honorary position to a member vote. 

But even if the vote leads to the groundbreaking decision to remove the honorary post, the question is how has the King remained head honcho at the WWF for so long? 

WWF Spain, it seems has turned a blind eye to the actions of its honorary president just as the rest of Spain and Europe turns a blind eye to a culture of animal cruelty that finds support at every level of Spanish society - from its royals, celebrities and politicians to the man-on-the-street.  I even discovered that the ‘John Lewis’ of Spain, El Corte Ingles, organises trips just like the King’s to shoot elephants in Botswana.

Animal Equality protest outside Hospital de San José de Madrid

A culture of cruelty

Anyone who has visited and lived in Spain cannot help but fall in love with the place and its wonderful vibrancy.  And of course, many people in Spain have a deep compassion and respect for animals and in no way support blood sports.  But even lovers of Spain cannot brush the ‘elephant in the room’ as it were under the carpet and ignore the scandal of blood fiestas.

Animal rights group, Animal Equality suggests that over 40,000 bulls are tortured each year at bull fighting festivals.  The powerful bullfighting lobby defends the practice as a sacrosanct ‘cultural right’.  And the tourists and Spaniards, who shamefully participate as audiences in this sadistic spectacle, are collectively responsible.

The bullfight is simply an evolved form of the Roman amphitheatre where gladiators were pitched against wild beasts.  The text books tell us how barbarous it was 2000 years ago, so surely it beggars belief that it still goes on in the 21st century. 

And bullfighting is just part of the story.  It is claimed there are thousands of other fiestas that include the torture of animals across the country.  Some feature ritual donkey bashing like the Pero Palo festival in Extremadura, where annually a donkey is beaten viciously by a baying mob.  In the Becerradas in El Escorial calves are tortured to exhaustion by local lads.  On collapse they are stabbed and their ears and tails are hacked off as they writhe in agony, then the still living butchered bodies are dragged out of the ring by their horns. Countless other fiestas see lambs mutilated and bulls speared and crudely castrated live without sedation. 

Becerradas de El Escorial

At state and EU level this abuse is supported and encouraged, often using EU money paid by tax payers in countries that deplore such cruelty. The Daily Mail reported in 2010 that the EU’s annual subsidy to the industry totalled £37 million and annually a further £4.3 billion in agricultural support and £1.1 billion from the EU’s Rural Development Programme, had partly been used for animal sacrifice and to renovate bullrings.  

Celebrities such as Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have made their name starring in films such as Matador (1986), Jamon Jamon (1992) and The Passion Within (2007) that glamorise bullfighting.  Pedro Almodavar was accused of animal cruelty and breaking the law when four bulls were slaughtered in bullfighting scenes in his film Talk to Her (2002). 

The future

However, the tide could be turning at last.  Even before this scandal broke some animal rights groups such as Animal Equality had exposed terrible instances of hidden animal cruelty in Spain which has led to a number of arrests.  In one example the organisation revealed through undercover footage the horrific mutilation of live pigs by farmhands wielding swords.  Miguel Rodriguez Castaño at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Madrid, said it was the most horrible treatment of animals he’d seen his career.  

Last year Catalonia banned bullfights in the autonomous region; and according to Fight Against Animal Cruelty in Europe (FAACE) some significant victories have been won such as prohibiting the tossing of a live goat from the bell tower in the town of Manganeses de la Polvorosa in Zamora.  And the economic situation in Spain could also be playing a role; El Escorial town hall said to me that they were not sure the Becerradas would be take place this year due to budgetary reasons. 

What now though?  Will a new generation of Spaniards mobilised by global social media networks drive change and help wean Spain off its gory entertainments?  Or, as we gear up to fiesta season will the recent furore be forgotten and the bullfights, blood fiestas and day-to-day abuse of farm animals continue as before? 

As Laura Gough of Animal Equality says: ‘The animal rights movement in Spain is increasing in size, and awareness about the suffering of animals is commonplace. But we clearly have a long way to go and must continue to aim for a better society for animals.’

 

 

 


Calçots Sweeten Winter Gastronomy

Por: | 17 de abril de 2012

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“500 organic calçots were pulled from the ground today in Tarragona and have been picked up by the messenger service. The butifarras are taking the AVE from Madrid to Malaga, and will arrive on Friday. The arroz con leche will be driven down from Madrid and assembled in Malaga...”

The email read like the official itinerary of a royal visit. Its recipients, however, were not a bunch of photo-crazed paparazzi, but rather a gaggle of hungry gastronomes, eager for their annual taste of the Catalán delicacies that to many might as well be referred to as the Kings of scallions: calçots.

Collected from November to April, the most famous calçots are from the area of Tarragona known as Valls, which was designated with the Indication of Geographic Protection, IGP Calçot de Valls, in 1996. Essentially, calçots are white onion shoots that are pulled up, replanted in another area, and grown partially covered with dirt so as to leave the longer portion of the stems white and edible. Although these delicacies are enjoyed primarily in Cataluña, often at typical large gatherings of family and friends known as calçotadas, over the years their popularity as a unique gastronomic and cultural treasure has led people all over Spain to repeat this enviable tradition. The calçotada that I’ve attended for the past two years, for example, is hosted annually in roving destinations that in the past have ranged from Segovia to Cazorla (Jaén), but the basic premise remains the same: calçots are roasted and turned over an open, wood fire, wrapped in newspaper (to help remove their charred outer layers), dipped in homemade salvitxada or Romesco sauce, and then devoured as quickly as possible with blackened fingers.

While the roasting method of the calçots is important, I’ve been told that it’s the preparation of this pinkish-orange sauce that often distinguishes one calçotada from another. Every family has their closely guarded secret recipe for this incredible concoction and my friends Valentín and Lourdes still won’t reveal theirs. In general, Romesco sauce consists of toasted almonds and hazelnuts, roasted tomatoes and garlic, olive oil, vinegar, parsley, salt and small nyora red peppers – all blended together with a mortar and pestle. The salvitxada differs from Romesco sauce in that it is thickened with toast that’s been rubbed with roasted garlic and dipped in vinegar. Following the rapid and rabid consumption of these delicate and characteristically sweet onions, which are usually eaten standing up while covering ones clothing with a giant bib, the open fire is then used to grill other typical foods like white and black butifarra sausages, morcilla and lamb.

The whole process constitutes a gastronomic ritual in the true Spanish sense – something that I absolutely love about Spain. Groups of family and friends come together with the excuse of preparing and eating a truly unique regional specialty, which is often available for only a few months out of the year. The planning is intense, the preparation exacting and accompanied by bottomless glasses of delicious red wine, and the company unbeatable, with the food tasting all the better for it. I wonder if this is what the nineteenth-century Catalán farmer who is attributed with the discovery of calçots had in mind. On second thought, I’m sure it was.

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