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.

Speaking doggedly

Por: | 28 de enero de 2014

Following Laura Edgecumbe’s blog about the pet blessing in San Lorenzo de El Escorial (below), it seems that from the perspective of dogs, you may soon know exactly how your pampered pooch feels about participating in such an event. According to a recent article in El País, Scandinavian researchers are developing a gadget that can translate the thoughts of dogs into human language. Could this mean that, in future, man’s best friend may beg for nothing, and simply ask instead?

I blame Pavlov. He was the one who started dragging dogs into the laboratory and conditioning them. By conditioning, we’re talking in a scientific context, rather than giving them a quick shampoo and trim. Nevertheless, dogs that were previously happy just to take a walk, fetch a stick and provide some affection, were suddenly being investigated. Our curiosity, and no doubt their irritation, has never looked back.

The new device, which is a headset, uses sensors to monitor the bioelectric activity in a dog’s brain, so at least you won’t have to teach your pet any new tricks. After the gadget interprets a dog’s thoughts, an interface converts them into words, which are then voiced through a small loudspeaker.  The prototype works with simple expressions, so if you are currently watching your faithful hound scratching its ear or chasing its tail, don’t panic. The invention doesn’t mean that tomorrow you’ll be sweating over the intellectual challenge of responding to his thinking about the works of Nietzsche or Plato. But by taking the lead with the technology, is it a step in the right direction or, for want of a better expression, should we let sleeping dogs lie?

Whether in Spain or the UK, dogs show the same outstanding qualities: loyalty, affection, trust, and always eager to please or listen. In fact, all of the qualities that disappear from a human relationship within… well, you could complete your own time period here, but in a worse case scenario it could be thirty minutes. However, if your dog can answer back or give an opinion, life may change. EP_sheepdog_spilltojill
"Shall we discuss Nietzsche, or share some biscuits?"              Photo Flickr (CC): spilltojill

The patterns of activity that the headset can distinguish are basic sensations like tiredness, hunger, anger and curiosity. Tiredness, for example, may bring fetching a stick into question. If, when training your dog for that task, he had just sat on the grass and said, “I’m tired”, would the enjoyment have been removed? It may only be a few years down the line until you hear “You threw the stick. Fetch it yourself.” Your dog may already indicate when he’s hungry by staring at a tin of dog food, but voicing his thoughts could make feeding a problem. Questions such as “Is there any sauce with this?” or “What’s for dessert?” could arise, and that’s just for regular mongrels. Owners of pedigree dogs could face being asked for hors d’oeuvres and the wine list.

Perhaps anger is the biggest risk. With pet grooming parlours and little knitted jackets for our canine friends, comments like “Do you really expect me to go out looking like this?” may become commonplace. Curiosity could be even worse. Quite how long your pooch would remain your best friend if he can ask “If that’s your partner, who was the other person you brought home yesterday night?” remains to be seen.

Apparently, the researchers are still working on the sound of the voice and looking to provide alternatives for the breed and character of your dog. My feeling is that the accent for Irish Wolfhounds, German Shepherds and Yorkshire Terriers would be a forgone conclusion. Assumedly, a Husky demands to be husky, and every Old English Sheepdog should greet you with “Good morning, old chap. Fancy a quick cup of tea?”, ideally whilst wearing a bowler hat.

The headset should be available soon, with further developments planned. Your first question, having fitted the device, is likely to be “There! What do you think about that?” which may prove to be anything but rhetorical. Of course, as humans, we can have a healthy exchange of views, or as it’s commonly known, an argument. If technology takes us to the point when you can have the same with your dog, the only distinction between man and beast may be the action of last resort - the capability to throw the crockery. Will your dog still have a role to play? We can’t stop progress, and the biggest curiosity about canine communication will certainly be ours. We’d love to know what’s on our dog’s mind, and responses like “Yeah, I know how you feel”, “Don’t worry, I’m still here”, or “It’s not as bad as you think” may prove irresistible. So, no matter how much technology develops, I think there’ll be life in the old dog yet.

Bunny blessing at the feast of San Antonio de Abad

Por: | 22 de enero de 2014

 

Blessing

‘Es muy español’ said Marisa who had brought her five year old Yorkshire terrier, Max to be blessed.  ‘Muy, muy preciosa!’ I replied as I held my pet bunny Coco ready for action at the annual San Antonio de Abad animal blessing.

How Spanish indeed.  Deliciously chaotic - horses and their riders, hermanos in their Zorro-like capes, baying hounds and fur clad ladies with their perritos, joined curious tourists, bands of musicians and delegations of little children in the maelstrom.  I had also joined the procession and followed the beautiful flower bedecked float of San Antonio de Abad through the cobbled streets of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.  To add to the magic, the fog had closed in and the setting became perfectly mysterious and almost gothic.

Following a procession and float was pretty standard fare for me.  With so many Spanish fiestas under my belt this was nothing unusual, the unique aspect of this occasion was the fact it was not just a camera I was carrying in tow but my rather reticent pet rabbit.  We had passed beside the monastery, and now stood beneath the set of grey stone arches beside the María Cristina University. 

"Through San Antón, receive this blessing," declared the white robed priest as he showered holy water onto me and Coco.  And Coco, what was her response?  Did she suddenly take on an aspect of beatitude?  Not a chance, by now she’d had it up to her teeth.  She panicked and immediately tried to bolt.  It was not surprising really given at this point she had been juggled through the streets of the town.  Her sensitive nose and ears had had to endure a hammer house of horrors including the scent of hundreds of dogs; the sound of drummers and bugle players and droves of chattering voices.  Then to add insult to injury somebody had dribbled water all over her shiny black coat.  To say she looked disapproving and indignant about the whole affair would be an understatement.  She was not a happy bunny!

Laura and Coco

She was blissfully or rather unblissfully unaware that she was in fact an honoured little rabbit who had joined a long line of sierra dwelling animals that have been brought here by their owners to be blessed for centuries.

On the 17th January each year, San Antonio de Abad (also known as San Antón in Spain) the patron saint of animals is honoured with a feast.  After a solemn mass, the float with San Antón’s statue, is carried by hermanos in procession to his hermitage in Plaza Los Alamillos.  On route, the procession stops under the arches of the María Cristina University for a traditional blessing of animals.  It is a charming and colourful affair where for once in a Spanish fiesta, animals are the blessed honoraries.  Or are they?

That is the case, unless that is you are a pig.  Unfortunately for animals of the porcine variety, San Antón is not such a saint after all.  In fact, a key part of the feast of San Antón is a pig’s slaughter.  Unfortunately for the intelligent pig, it is considered by Christians like in many faiths as an unclean symbol of lust, greed, gluttony and the Devil and as such is eaten instead.  However, as a Godsend for the squeamish, the pig slaughter is no longer done publicly in the main plaza, rather pig products are brought along for the feast.  And little pig shaped biscuits are distributed to children who find themselves hoisted up in the air to kiss the statue of San Antón. 

Luckily for Coco, rabbit was not on the menu this time.  Though I don’t think Coco’s bunny brethren had escaped scot free.  I was pretty sure, on that frosty day; I spied many a hat, glove and coat that looked to me like they may have been of the rabbit fur variety!

Mother and daughter

Bleeding Doñana dry

Por: | 13 de enero de 2014

Doñana conservation
April 24 1998 will long be remembered as the day Spain suffered one of its biggest environmental disasters.
A holding dam burst at the Los Frailes mine, near Aznalcóllar in Sevilla, releasing up to five million cubic metres of acidic mine tailings.
The toxic sludge entered the Guadiamar river, the main water source for Doñana National Park, one of Europe’s biggest wetlands.
The subsequent effect of the disaster was devastating.
Soil in the surrounding area was heavily contaminated with deadly substances including arsenic, while 37 tons of dead fish were recovered from the river.
The pollution quickly entered the food chain and tests on wildlife in the region found many species had ‘sub-lethal quantities of heavy metals in liver and muscle tissue’.
It has since been blamed for a legacy of beak deformities in the region’s white stork population.
Efforts to clean up the spillage took three years and cost around €240 million - although the effects of the spill could last for decades to come.
The disaster threatened to wipe out much of the progress made by conservationists based in the area.
In 1963 the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) had acquired 6,794 hectares of marshland in order to establish what is now Doñana National Park.
But recent celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the deal have been overshadowed by a fresh threat from the controversial mine.
The Andalucian government is pushing through plans to reopen the site and last month brought it closer to reality by issuing an executive order.
WWF officials describe the plan as a ‘terrible mistake’ and fear there could be a repeat of the 1998 disaster if proper safeguards are not put in place.
And while acknowledging that the region is in need of economic growth, the organisation argues that the proposal is environmentally unsustainable.
“We are concerned about the speed at which the Junta has worked on this issue and the hastiness of the decision to issue the decree,” said Felipe Fuentelsaz, the WWF’s project coordinator in Doñana.
“Everyone can remember the accident in 1998 and the problems associated with the restoration of the Guadiamar.
“We are concerned that the Junta is trying to turn the river into a drainage system for the mine.”
The ongoing threat posed by the site is not the first time the fragile ecosystem has faced the possibility of being destroyed.
In the 1950s, plans were in place to drain the marshland, as it was viewed by some as a source of disease.
The proposal would have condemned the region to the same fate as several other Spanish wetlands before it.
But thanks largely to the efforts of conservationist Luc Hoffmann and Spanish biologist José Antonio Valverde, a deal was struck on December 30 1963 for the WWF to buy the land.
In 1965, it became the first biological reserve in Spain, and gained national park status in 1969.
In 1994, the park was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site by the United Nations, seemingly safeguarding Doñana from future environmental threats.
These positive steps towards preserving the park have allowed it to establish its status as a final stronghold of the endangered Iberian lynx.
It is also home to species including the Spanish imperial eagle and is an important stop-off for thousands of migratory birds traveling between Europe and Africa.
But the WWF and other conservation groups associated with the park are fighting an ongoing battle on several fronts.
Besides the mine, Doñana is at risk from plans for underground gas storage and the dredging of the nearby Guadalquivir river.
Arguably the biggest threat of all is the use of illegal boreholes to irrigate the intensive agricultural operations around the perimeter of the park.
Farmers producing strawberries destined for supermarkets across Europe, including the UK, are accused of draining water from the park’s underground aquifers.
These aquifers are crucial for maintaining the park’s ecosystem and the vast number of species which live within it.
Plastic sheeting and pesticides entering the water supply are among the side effects associated with these agricultural activities.

The problem is so serious that last year Unesco threatened to remove Doñana from its list of world heritage sites if the Spanish government failed to address the issue.

“The World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) remain concerned about the cumulative impacts of a number of threats to the outstanding universal value of the property, in particular the issue of over-extraction of the Doñana aquifer,” read a Unesco statement.

“If these issues are not addressed the property could meet the conditions for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger in the near future.”

Spain must respond by submitting a report to the UN by February 1, outlining the steps it is taking to regulate water usage for agriculture.

The report is expected to include the details of a plan to declare an amnesty on the use of illegal wells by farmers in Sevilla and Huelva.

The Junta had failed to meet an earlier deadline set by the UN to implement a special management plan of irrigation zones around Doñana.

While the future of Spain’s biggest wetland remains unclear, one thing that can be relied upon is the tireless efforts of conservationists working for its protection.

“Thanks to visionaries like Hoffmann and Valverde, the marshes of Doñana escaped desiccation,” said Juan Carlos del Olmo, secretary general of WWF España.

“But 50 years later, our flagship wetland is surrounded by multiple threats that compromise its future.

“We still have much to do so that future generations can continue to enjoy the beauty of Doñana.”

Photo: ccaa.elpais.com

Barcelona: from the Catalan Manchester with love

Por: | 09 de enero de 2014

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Tucked away in a quietly fashionable part of Barcelona, there is a part of the Catalan capital that will remain forever Lancashire: unknown to many, the city’s Poblenou district has worn the title of the “Catalan Manchester” since the 19th Century thanks to its history of textile manufacture and industry.

Having lived for three happy, if rainy, years in Manchester and two years in a slightly sunnier Barcelona I was charmed to discover the historical link between the two cities, not the least because I had already decided that Barcelona and Manchester had a lot in common.

Of course, both cities’ textile industries have now largely departed and there’s not a great deal of likeness to be found in weather, geography or architecture. But there remains much to bind the two cities in Trans-European fraternity.

There’s the football, for a start. Both cities are obsessed with the beautiful game and no wonder, as they each host globe-straddling teams, whose success and stylish play are admired the world over.

Neither is a one-team city, of course, but, with due respect to Espanyol and Manchester City, Barcelona FC and Manchester United have historically grabbed the lion’s share of success, headlines and acclaim in their native cities. (In fact even the proudest of Manchester City fans would probably admit that their recent English and European success is something of an anomaly in a history dominated by heroic underachievement).

Music, too, unites the two cities. Both Barcelona and Manchester have strong musical identities and an ever-evolving array of live venues and nightclubs, which play host to up-and-coming musical talent.

And, while Manchester’s musical history of Joy Division, The Smiths, the Happy Mondays et al may prove unmatched by Barcelona on the global stage, the success of acts such as Manu Chao, Ojos de Brujo and, more recently, John Talabot prove that Barcelona can draw on its own well of musical talent.

There are even two Manchester Bars in Barcelona, described rather brilliantly on Foursquare as offering a “soundtrack Manchesteriano”, for Catalans who want to drink in the Manchester spirit.

More importantly, perhaps, the two cities have histories of radical politics, from the role of socialists and anarchists in Revolutionary Catalonia during the Civil War, to Manchester’s position as birthplace to influential works from Marx and Engels.

These influences continue to be felt today: Barcelona remains one of the last strongholds of anarchism in Western Europe, while Manchester is a heartland of left-wing politics, dominated by the Labour party in defiance to the more Conservative south.

Underlying this and yet bringing it all together is the independent spirit – one that defies comparison with the national capital – running through the blood of both towns.

In England, London’s influence as a world city is so large that it can throw a shadow over regional capitals. However, Manchester – with due respect to Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield etc – is the English city that seems to defy the influence of London the most. From music to politics, Manchester is frequently a pole apart from London, wielding its own sphere of influence that envies nothing of the capital.

Barcelona, meanwhile, is fiercely independent of Madrid and proud of its own historical role as a global city of trade, which has seen foreigners flock to the city for business and pleasure for hundreds of years. Barcelona, people will tell you, is not the second city in Spain. It is the first city in Catalonia. That’s a sentiment most Mancunians will understand.

In 1845 Richard Ford wrote in his highly influential travel book A Handbook for Travellers in Spain that “Catalonia is the Lancashire of Spain and Barcelona is its Manchester”. 

His reasons – “Besides being wholesale manufacturers, the Catalans are amongst the best retail tradesmen, innkeepers, and carriers of the Peninsula” - may no longer apply in 2014 (although the bars of Barcelona remain worthy of esteem). But, for me at least, Barcelona and Manchester will forever lie twinned, their similarities written into the fabric of these great European cities, never to be unstitched by time.

Picture: Antigua fábrica Alier (Can Ricart), on the calle Pere IV in Poblenou. By Carmen Secanella

 

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