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 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

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 @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 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:

Segragated Islamic Schooling comes to Madrid

Por: | 29 de septiembre de 2011


Cut, slash, gash, incise, chop and even sever…strong words deeply atoned every day around the world. The twenty-four hour media then echoes this curious form of liturgical chant offered by the new high priests in suits and ties so that it reaches every hidden corner on earth. Their message is clear; that there is a newly-decreed desperate need to hack away at profitless ventures like universal health and education in order to appease the newest and latest deity to demand tribute from us humble mortals: God-Market.

For God-Market is voracious, all powerful and demands growth and profit at all expense, and your poor neighbor’s cancer treatment and little junior learning to read are not listed as exceptions in GM’s commandments.

But clear away the fog of incense, hymns and 24-hour misinformation and it becomes clear that the mantra of reduction may not always be what it seems. In fact, one person’s reduction may be someone else’s gain.

Gods very rarely get along and play well together, especially those which insist on being the ‘real’ and only one, but it seems that here is where we can find an exception. God-Market and other deities can get together if they share a common foe: hapless, profitless, public education.

Back in 2009 when the current economic crisis was well underway, the government of Madrid ceded 24,000 square metres of public land to an Islamic educational foundation based in Mecca, Saudi Arabia to found a school that would segregate girls and boys in Alcala de Henares.

This is the second piece of land, albeit slightly smaller than the first, that the regional government has given over to the foundation. The new agreement will give the Islamic foundation the exclusive right to use the land for the next 75 years. There were various bids for the land but in the end the Islamic foundation outbid similar projects from similar foundations from Iran, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.

The school, which will eventually give classes to children from zero to eighteen, will only start off with classes for children in primary school. On their web page, the Islamic foundation states that their reasoning for separating boys from girls is to attend to the diversity that inherently exists between boys and girls while respecting their dignity and their rights, allowing of course for the obvious differences that exist between the two.

The decision was greeted with surprise and disbelief from the opposition and from the local public school board which had also recently been granted the use of public land, although 10,000 metres smaller than the one granted to the Islamic foundation and clearly not big enough to meet their demand.

The foundation’s director however defended against the criticism by saying that the parents of the children who attended his school were also tax payers and had the right to educate their children in creationist ideals along strict lines of Islamic belief. He also emphasised that the parents of children who attended his school would take advantage of the fact that 90% of students with special needs are enrolled in public schools and that the great majority of immigrants also chose the public sector, thus making his school a much more attractive investment for the regional government.

Curiously enough, all of this comes at a time when the Spanish courts are trying to establish the exact legality of publicly funded schools that segregated girls from boys. The Spanish education law (LOE) clearly states that mixed schools will be given preference yet Madrid lies just behind Catalonia (15) and Andalusia (11) in the number of said schools.

The above is a startling piece of news and one that is of course (mostly) false. Many readers were surely ‘indignant’ at the thought of an Islamic foundation teaching their particular version of the world in schools paid for with public money. Yet take out the italicized word Islamic and replace it with another and for some reason the piece suddenly becomes less offensive to some. A reason that brings into the open that the war waged against public education is not something that arose solely due to the crisis, but a frightening amalgamation of deities set on eroding what should be free and available to all, a truly public education.


Sitting between two stools

Por: | 28 de septiembre de 2011

La policía acordona el Congreso ante la protesta de los indignados


Since last spring, the verb “indignarse” has become a key word in Spanish language textbooks. Whether you name it “Spanish Revolution”, “Indignados”,“15-M”or “Democracia Real Ya”, they all describe the movement that gotSpaniards out on the street a few months ago to show their feeling of political betrayal and worries for the future. The original demonstration grew in size and with a significant proportion of young protestors, the movement has now become representative of a generation that feels threatened by the current political climate.

So the future looks ominous: lack of jobs, education cuts, taxation and contested privatization so they cry out for help – and who to? The two main political parties, the PP and the PSOE that are battling away in sight of the upcoming elections on November 20. Even if the PP is predicted to win, many electors, still undecided, seem to believe that “they are all the same and that no matter what, nothing will change”.

Surprisingly, since the 15-M protests and the day the “indignados” movement put itself forward, reforms and constitutional changes haven’t slowed down; on the contrary, it has been a race without end, earning the disapproval of Spanish society. Whether Spain is making its own decisions or is just the puppet of the Sarkozy-Merkel-EU trio, Spaniards feel left out of the process of decision-making and underline the lack of democracy. No one seems to be listening to them and they no longer know who or where to turn to.

Political theory states that elections and democracy are made for people to be involved in what is decided for their country by choosing politicians who will represent their ideas and interests. A vote represents a bond of trust that is passed to the elected with the idea that he/she will make  the best decisions for the general well being of the society - so what happens when you don’t trust anyone anymore? Do you just stop voting? Isn’t the right to vote and the citizen’s duty to exercise it the product of a long history of conflict and a key element of political democracy as well as an indicator of the political life of a nation? So are we about to take a step backwards?

But the Spanish case is not unique. As we are trying to coin a term to define the general “European indignation” movement, political apathy amongst young people has been replaced by confusion and the need for change in many parts of the world. Starting from the riots in the “banlieues” in Paris a few years ago to the recent ones in London, the 2009 protests in Iceland, the Arab Spring, the Chilean Pingüinos (students) or the Tel Aviv hiccups, indignation is international.

In France, bipartidist country where elections are coming up next spring, the sentiment is similar to the one in Spain. On the one hand, the initial enthusiasm of the Sarkozy government has seen the president’s popularity rating plunge and on the Socialist side (PS), the original hope of Dominique Strauss-Kahn now calls for reconsideration after his international scandal.

In the UK, the choice between the Labour party or the Tory conservative government last year was joined by the Clegg’s Lib Dem that for many, had the potential to be an alternative that could maybe trigger the change that everyone was calling out for. The outcome was a coalition government that now finds it difficult to combine different political ideals with day-to-day pragmatism. The British budget cuts and particularly the education changes, including the introduction of astronomically high university tuition fees, are a prime example of entanglement. The initial Lib Dem promise to leave the tuition fees untouched was amended and the reform went through - due to the coalition partnership - a disappointing decision that widely affected public opinion.

Finally, on a happy note, in Germany, the recent elections in Berlin have shown that Angela Merkel and the traditional parties are aging and that new ideas and leaders are kicking in. Unlike other European countries, Germany presents a wider selection of parties.  The Piratenpartei (the Pirate Party), created in 2006 – mirroring the Swedish original Piratpartiet - and accounting for 9% in the Berlin votes is representative of the new European youth: young, qualified, web connected and informed, globalized and using ideas from several parties and with a new approach to the future.

The archaic bipartidist model is finally being questioned and new alternative parties need to gain support and credibility in order to win political seats and propose ideas democratically. For that, it is not only necessary to refresh our usual antiquated, male political representatives but also pressing to trigger change in society’s internalised voting habits and ways of thinking  in order to put aside the parties that have been present for decades but are now incapable of responding to the needs of the post modern generations.


Stuck on Limpets

Por: | 22 de septiembre de 2011


Spain’s enviable location bordering on three seas (Mediterranean, Atlantic and Cantabrian) has provided it with a rich gastronomic tradition of marine life that ranges from fish to mollusks, crustaceans and even tasty marine flora. The fish market at Mercamadrid, the massive wholesale market on the outskirts of the city, is said to be second to only Tsukiji in Tokyo, and to have the freshest fish in Spain. Indeed, if you were to sneak in at 4:30am, as I did a couple of years ago (it’s only for professionals), you’d be astounded, not only by the sheer size of this insanely large and seemingly chaotic operation, but also by the incredible variety of colorful sea creatures on display before you, many of which I had scarcely seen before or since.

While I’ve always thought of the United States as a country that loves its seafood, even reveling in less-common local delicacies like soft-shell crab and crayfish, it’s always interesting to see how one country’s inedibles can be another’s delectables. Years ago, when I was living in New York, a German friend told me that she would go down to the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan and ask for the scallop coral (the reddish orange roe attached to the white muscle), which was considered a delicacy in Germany but thrown away in the States. Along those lines, I read somewhere that Japanese immigrants used to go to the docks in North Carolina in the 1970’s and scoop up bucketfuls of the (now-priceless) chunks of o-toro and kama bluefin tuna meat that were once just tossed in the trash by fishermen who had no use for it.

In Spain, the most dramatic of example of this has always been percebes. With an outward appearance reminiscent of Yoda’s blackened toenails, these goose barnacles tend to give Americans quite an initial shock. Even my father, a marine biologist who spent his formative years with a net in one hand, wading around the Gulf of Mexico scooping up dinner, was surprised to see Spanish people sucking down these prized (and pricey) goose barnacles by the wallet-full. I believe his exact reaction was, “and to think, I could have been eating these right off the dock for years!”

However, the latest and greatest on my list of newly discovered edible sea creatures is the lapa, or limpet, an aquatic gastropod mollusk, or more informally, marine snail, that clings to rocks. Protected on one side by a slightly flattened conical shell that ranges in color from white to darkish grey-black, there are four kinds of limpets living in the Canary Islands. Despite the fact that one is on the endangered list, the other three varieties are plentiful enough to land these delicacies on the menus of bars and restaurants throughout the Canaries. These flat oval creatures are similar in appearance and size to mussels, and their flesh is anywhere from pale orange to almost black in color. Their texture is also surprisingly different – harder and less yielding than mussels or clams, but not nearly as spongy or wriggly as your typical snail.

Limpets are almost universally served on the half-shell (they really only have half a shell) and grilled on a flat black pan on which they are brought directly to the table – hot and sizzling. They are eaten as either a ración or appetizer, and prepared with another Canarian staple, mojo verde, which is usually made with garlic, olive oil, vinegar and fresh parsley or cilantro. The best limpets are the ones that have been grilled over an open wood fire (a la brasa), although I suppose that’s true for just about anything. And while the expression “clinging to someone like a limpet” is not nearly as common in English as the Spanish version, “pegarse como una lapa”, I can now understand what it is about these delicious mollusks that might make someone want to turn around and cling right back.

How Did That Joke Go Again?

Por: | 20 de septiembre de 2011

Old classroom









 When I was a boy my father used to tell it something like this, “When I was your age, I had to walk 5 miles to school, uphill both ways, dodging wild animals through 4 feet of snow and all that with no shoes!” True, we lived in north-western Canada and while the part about the bears and snow was painfully believable, I couldn't imagine my grandmother letting him out of the house without proper footwear.

Years later and a continent away, I can foresee the day when my daughter starts to question things as family history repeats itself and I start telling her similar jokes. In fact, the 1970s world that saw me through school might seem even more fantastic to her in the future than her grandfather's slog uphill in both directions.

Exactly what will the post-crisis school systems across Europe look like when she has her big first day in about four year's time?

Here in Spain, the once sacred cows of certain officials' cars have gone to slaughter and even the ostentatious catering budgets have been dealt mortal blows. In the mad rush to find the supposed silver bullet that will, if not slay the insatiable beast called the market, those crafty politicians are desperately inventing ways to divert this beast's devouring attention towards the next Ministry down the hall.

For the past few weeks, you haven't been able to open a paper without reading about the imperative need to reduce spending whatever the sacrifice (just think of those poor well-dressed people without their official cars riding the Metro or heaven forbid, balanced on top of a self-powered, two-wheeled vehicle). Next in line for the chopping block: Education. The always loquacious President of the community of Madrid has perhaps been the most vocal in her attacks on the public school system but she hasn't been the only one adhering to the rallying cry for the need to cut spending on Education.

Teachers who were already working more hours than the majority of their EU counterparts were being told that they, unlike Mr. Rajoy's blessed 'savers', will need to take an even greater share of the burden to pull the country out of the hard times facing the nation. Their 5-10% paycut decreed by Mr. Zapatero simply didn't go far enough, more hours for the same salary has become the PP's contagious leitmotiv in Madrid.

But if we look beyond the blatant neoliberal-tinged rhetoric ringing out from the Republican halls in Washington and Mr. Cameron's 'free' schools in the U.K, both echoing in Esperanza's ever increasing hand outs to mostly-Catholic private schools and we will see that there is indeed room for criticism and reflection.

Spain continues to fester at the bottom of the international PISA test standings. No matter how you look at it, there is definitely a lot of room for improvement. Socialists will quickly blame the near 40 years of dictatorship for this lacklustre performance, while the right wing will drone on about the need for more discipline and a return to the days when memorizing the 10 Commandments along with the rivers of Spain was the panacea of pedagogy.

But perhaps it's time to ask about the elephant in the room. That huge beast that always seems to sit in the corner and avoids all mention in any debate on the subject. Tempers can rage about the ubiquitous crucifixes in public classrooms, the supposedly Stalinesque Citizenship Education that was recently introduced or the admittedly terrible drop out rate, yet no one seems to bother to reflect on the Finnish Education Minister's advice when asked about the secret to their ongoing success. He had just three words: Teachers, Teachers and Teachers.

But what the Minister, whose students consistently score at the top of PISA test, was referring to wasn't necessarily hours worked, nor the uniforms of the students, but what is probably the most important aspect of all when talking about education; the way teachers are formed and the importance of ongoing training and support throughout their careers.

Here in Spain, the only way to get on with the public school system, once you get your Education degree (where in some public universities, it's possible to fail a course up to eight times, each heavily subsidised, but that's another spending gorilla in the corner...) is by taking what is called an oposicion. Anyone who's been in Spain long enough has surely heard about these exams but the sheer cultural weight that this term entails is often lost on most foreigners.

A look down the list of the possible translations of the word makes it, if not clearer, at least less opaque. We start to see (public) competitive examination and on another page competitive public examination for employment in the civil service, education, legal system etc, or perhaps the most precise, Oposiciones are exams that applicants for lifetime public-sector jobs must pass (more at link). All plausible translations at a literal level but completely lacking the utter panic that this nine letter word can provoke in your average Spaniard.

The test itself for those wanting to teach the language in which you are reading, at least out in the community where I live, consists of the applicants, or opositores, attempting to memorize 25 temas or topics. These topics range from phonetics to the extremely useful (when you keep in mind that these teachers will be teaching words like dog, cat, rain and run) history of the United States and its structure of government.

During the test, three of the topics are chosen at random and the candidates are then given two hours to regurgitate the information that they were most likely given at a private academy. They are then called to read aloud what they have written at a later date. At the end of which, no questions are asked about the content of their essay. They are then asked to present a year's syllabus and depending on the amount of times the candidate has taken the exam, they must then present a unit. Once again at the end of their presentation, there is no questioning in regards to the reasoning behind each stage in the lesson plan.

The tribunals judging these would-be-teachers are made up of teachers. The sole examining criteria they are given to mark each candidate with is a sheet of paper with a few vague guidelines, regardless of which of the 25 topics is chosen. Clearly assuming that the jury remembers enough of the information that each topic should contain. That's it.

Once a teacher does get their position, their classrooms become tiny feudal states where few can penetrate. More than thirty years after the catholic theocracy fell, you can still walk by state funded classrooms and hear students forced to recite the lord’s prayer every morning, Moroccan, Yiddish and non-believer dialects included in melody. There are no teacher observations and no periodic checks to see that the curriculum is being followed, no weekly lesson plans to hand in and no generalized testing at the end of each year. Each teacher is literally on their own.

Few countries can boast more overhauls of their education systems than Spain has experienced in such a short time. So many acronyms have been thrown out that most parents, and even some teachers, don’t even know what the current system is called. Since Franco slipped away in his sleep, six different systems have tried to bring together views so opposite as biology classes that would teach that women came from Adam’s rib to ethics classes where same sex couples are single parent families are seen as acceptable. Kids now study under a program called LOE, a few years before it was LOCE, before that LOPEG, LOGSE and LODE.

With all of these changes, you might think that the curriculum would be a mess, but if you take the time to read the Spanish education laws on language, it’s fantastic reading. Cutting edge stuff for the new millennium. The only problem is, who’s listening and more importantly who is prepared to put this brilliant theory into practice? Without the proper formation and ongoing training, only the most motivated teachers even bother to consult with the curriculum to see what and more importantly how they are actually supposed to be teaching.

Cuts in education is not the silver bullet to the crisis the bankers, speculators and generalized corruption have put us in. What we need to do is spend more money, more wisely, investing in this generation who will be the next in charge. Neither Socialist fairy tales of a laptop for every child, nor Popular returns to the rod will save the day. What is needed is a real and concerted effort to better the teachers available and to make sure that their replacements are the best, full stop.

If nothing is done however and the cuts continue, perhaps the joke I tell my little girl will go something like this. 'When I was your age, there were only 22 kids per class, the teachers had training centers loaded with extra material and even specific days where they would go to workshops, assistants helped integrate students with special needs...and all of this for free!'

I can just see my daughter's eyes rolling now.


Welcome E-Book. Goodbye bookshelves?

Por: | 17 de septiembre de 2011


This September, online book giant Amazon arrived in Spain.

Since June we’ve been looking, with persistent futility, for a new flat in Madrid; preferably one with a nice big bookshelf. But what about couples looking for flats in 10, 20, 50, 100 years? Will the entire concept of a bookshelf eventually become as outdated as the flying racism faced by Iraqi psychologist Mo in my Madrid-based novel ‘Selfishness’, which is out now as an E-Book on (

As you can see, authors of electronic books still need all the publicity they can get. In Spain the percentage of digital books sold does not yet amount to 1%, whereas in the US it is already a considerable 20%.

That leaves a great margin for development and growth in the digital book market in Spain. But there are those too who oppose the new arrival (

Before the late summer inauguration of, I talked to Roberto Dominguez Moro, a literary agent at ACER Literary Agency Madrid. And it seems that the oldest literary agency in Spain is entirely conscious of the need to adapt to the digital book revolution.


“We’re negotiating all the digital rights for all our already existing authors,” Roberto told me, “with caution still, working with short term contracts because we don’t know how the market will evolve, but all the books we have need to be negotiated to transfer them to E-Book, Kindle, and so on.”

So is a complete shift to the digital domain likely in the coming decades? Will a one-click buy and instant read at home eventually make that regular visit to the bookshop a rarity? And can bookshops continue to cope with the speed, flexibility and pricing of their online counterparts?

Amazon’s arrival on the Spanish market has given these anyhow relevant questions a renewed urgency. For as everything moves to the digital domain with increasing ferocity, isn’t it overtly romantic to think that the paperback book still stands a chance in the long run? Will it soon develop into a co-existence like payments with card and cash? A few of your favourite books in paperback, perhaps, but the rest in electronic-format?

There are the obvious E-comforts. A high capacity E-Book is obviously much lighter to carry than a stack of heavy books, giving it relevance not just in the private sphere but also in schools and universities. And digital reading can also be much lighter on your budget.

So prices may eventually become the determining factor in bringing about the decline of the paperback (see also: Many young authors like myself are already delaying paper publishing and going straight for the electronic option. For the author, an E-Book saves a great amount of time. Finish writing novel. Edit frantically. Upload.

A further 24 hours later it is already available to the reader. And it’s not just available for those with a Kindle reading device; there’s the option of PC, BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad or Android reading.

As compatibility continues to increase, the boundaries of digital reading seem to be fading. I’m currently organising my first E-Signing for readers of my book. While I do so, I’m debating whether I really need such a big bookshelf in that new flat.   


What’s your opinion on the future of the E-Book and that of traditional paper publishing?


Matthias Krug is a Madrid-based writer of fiction and journalism. His first novel ‘Selfishness’ is available in English as an E-Book on Amazon.

A constructivist approach to identity in times of economic slowdown

Por: | 15 de septiembre de 2011

When my father came to meet my mother’s family for the first time in the 1970s, he was the first Chinese my family had ever seen. There were a lot of stares and the communication was difficult and limited.

Coming from a small “pueblo”, about 15 kilometres from Vitoria-Gasteiz, my mother moved to Paris when she was 20 and met my father who had also immigrated to France from Hong Kong, where they ended up staying and raising a family.

So I spent my life moving from the Basque country, to Hong Kong, to Paris and other destinations to finally graduate from High School in Paris, move to London for university, and decide to spend my Erasmus year in Berlin, to now being in Madrid.

No matter what (European) country I ended up in, I was always intrigued by the repeated “identity” debates in the media. The demographic changes that immigration is causing have triggered reactions everywhere in Europe, and to my disappointment, mostly negative ones - truly worrying - as “foreigners” seem to be the cause of all problems and the easiest solution we found so far is to kick them out of our countries (“Roms” in France) or close up borders that took so long to be open (Denmark).

I must admit, until the age of about 18 years old, I never asked myself “nationality” questions, or should I say “identity questions”. The closer I got to that topic was when studying the American integration models of “salad bowl” and “melting pot”. Truth is, the fact that I was in an international school also helped - we all seemed to think that having three passports and that having to “fly” for family dinners was normal.

But I guess it isn’t. And I only realised it as I grew older and started meeting people from completely different backgrounds. Most people started asking me questions that I had never thought of or that just seemed trivial to me. Did I mix my languages when I spoke them? What language did I dream in? Was it hard to have friends and family spread around the world? And finally, the dreaded ones – where did I consider myself from? Which nationality would I chose if I could only have one? How did it feel not to “look” like the country that I was from? I couldn’t answer most of those questions and to be frank, I probably never will be able to.

Yes, I hold a French passport and no I don’t “look French”. But what does it mean to look French? In Berlin, the majority of my French friends were not your typical white-baguette lover-chain smoker: most were coloured. Black, from Martinique, Guadeloupe or Senegalese heritage, Asian from Laos or Cambodia, white from the movement of Portuguese and Spanish immigration of the post World War II period, and, of course, Tunisian and Algerian resulting from colonization. Germans were amazed at our diversity, yet, similarity – so my answer would always be: doesn’t Berlin have almost 300.000 Turks? Surely a lot of them are German… I got a lot of empty stares of confusion. Maybe that’s what Angela Merkel meant when she said “multikulti has failed…”

This situation is not an isolated case. Living in London, a city representing globalization and cosmopolitanism at its highest, I can assure you that being “British” is a topic of debate and sometimes the source of intolerance and division. Here in Spain, it’s the same old chit chat.  Oh wait, let me add another difficulty – my decision to come to Madrid makes me a “traitor” to the Basque Country and in Madrid, I am no longer French, or Chinese or Spanish – I am Basque. Oops.

Immigration in Spain is a recent phenomenon. Fifteen years ago, only 2.5% of residents in Spain were foreign, a figure that went up to 14% last year. It has also been very fast and I am the first one to be surprised by the fast demographic change. In my small Vitoria, it is now normal to hear that Spanish families went all the way to China to adopt and now put their children in “Ikastolas” (Basque schools) where they will receive a bilingual Spanish-Euskera education. In my flat in Madrid, we are a mix of French, German, Venezuelan, Nigerian and Spanish and guess what language we interact in? Spanish.

So much for problems integration and identity. The EU has put forward a model of cultural openness:  from free trade and free movement of people to European education agreements to the implementation of the euro. But, to my dismay, it seems that everyone forgets about those ideals in times of economic crisis. Protectionism replaces cooperation and cultural curiosity turns into a growth of nationalism. I guess I was mistaken; being mixed race is not always an advantage. Maybe ethnic diversity only works in times of economic growth.


Students of the Príncipe de Viana de Lleida school in Cataluña where 60% of the children are of non-spanish origin.

9-11 in New York

Por: | 10 de septiembre de 2011

For the past ten years, I've begun to dread my birthday. There’s little to look forward to when you live in New York and the date of your birth is September 11.

The days leading up to it are usually the worst. Toward the end of August, stories of tragedy and horror and heroes start filling up the pages of the local papers. Come September 1, around-the-clock coverage of the “anniversary” begins. By September 11, I just want the day to end so I don’t have to ever hear about September 11 again.

For me, September 11 is a reminder of the great paradox that is America. It has forced me to confront my mixed feelings about the country that I live in, to realize that the United States can at once be awesomely tolerant and unapologetically ignorant. It is a place where you can be overwhelmed by human generosity one minute, and appalled by brash arrogance the next.

September 11, 2001 was a terrifying and traumatizing day for tens of thousands of people, and, arguably, for an entire nation. It was eventually exploited by politicians, pundits, and profiteers. But in the first hours, days and weeks after the planes crashed in New York and Washington, September 11 provided evidence of the kindness and humanity of the people of the United States.

Most estimates put the total dead from the attacks (at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on the four planes) to be around 2,760. It's an approximation because many remains were pulverized beyond recognition. And the number changes because people continue to perish from injuries sustained at the site. Just this week, several New York lawmakers presented a bill that would include cancer on the list of conditions that people living or working near ground zero can apply for funding to help cover the cost of their medical bills.   

Some 50,000 people worked in the Twin Towers in 2001, and on any given day up to 200,000 people could cross the World Trade Center area. When you hear the stories of the sacrifices so many made that day to make sure complete strangers survived,  you begin to understand why the death toll was lower than it certainly could have been.

People like Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz, the Port Authority employees who worked on the 89th floor of the North tower, and went up and down 14 floors, prying open shut exits so that people could escape. They, themselves, didn’t make it out. 

Or Brooklyn firefighter Stephen Siller, who was on his way back home from Brooklyn when he heard about the explosion at the World Trade Center. Hearing the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was closed off to vehicular traffic he ran, with all of his equipment on, until a truck from another fire company spotted him toward the exit  and dropped him off near the World Trade Center. He was not seen again.

When President Bush announced soon after the attack that he was sending troops to Afghanistan to hunt down the perpetrators, there was little resistance, domestically or internationally. But as the months and years passed, opportunists seized control of a vulnerable population. Inflated with the confidence of waging a war that was deemed “just” in Afghanistan, the Bush administration conflated 9/11 with Iraq to drum up support for an unjust and unnecessary war in Iraq. Employing a harsh rhetoric that confused jingoism with patriotism, the U.S. government of the time  made it clear that you were either with them, or you were against them.

And the members of the American media, the watchdogs for the citizenry, collectively looked the other way. Some have apologized. Most have not.

The America of tolerance and generosity become the America of fearful obeisance and ignorant hostility, not to mention ridiculous inanity. Two years after Le Monde declared “We are All Americans”, U.S. Congressman Bob Ney, incensed by France’s opposition to an invasion of Iraq, ordered the cafeterias in the U.S. House of Representatives to rename "French fries" to "freedom fries". It was ridiculous. It was embarrassing. And it wasn’t changed back until 2006.

The dedication of journalists’ and politicians to their country was questioned when they opted not to wear an American flag lapel pin. And “national security” was used as an excuse to permit everything from domestic spying to warrantless raids of homes to torture.

When I moved to Spain in 2003, it was a much-needed respite from the lunacy that had taken hold of the United States. And then on March 11, 2004, the bombings at Atocha happened. I watched from Granada, where I was living, as 191 people died and more than 1,800 were wounded by the bombs planted on four commuter trains. What struck me most about the country’s reaction was that, unlike in the United States, people did not feel a blind obligation to rally behind Aznar or his party simply because he was president.


For the past three years, I have worked three blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood. The neighborhood has been completely rebuilt. According to the Tribeca Tribune, nearly 100,000 people lost their jobs in lower Manhattan alone after September 11. Over 700 companies moved or shut down in the first two years after Sept. 11, and almost 25,000 residents were displaced from their homes. Ten years later, there are now more businesses than there ten years ago, and the population has doubled.

It’s a testament to American persistence. But it's also proof that America is a capitalist society before anything else. New York is a city driven by money, and all of that valuable real estate had to be developed.

The only glaring reminder now of the events of September 11, 2001 is the construction site at “ground zero.” It is still, 10 years later, a gaping wound that funding disputes have not allowed to fully mend. The PATH train station is finally starting to install the arches for the Santiago Calatrava-designed roof it was promised, but in a scaled-back version. The memorial’s fountains and gates will finally open this weekend. At the far corner of the site, 85 stories of the Freedom Tower already loom over Lower Manhattan. The site is only halfway repaired. Somehow that seems appropriate for a nation that, while showing signs of its fortitude, also is still trying to come to grips with its unjust and unnecessary reactions to tragedy.

Pedro Almodóvar: a woman’s director?

Por: | 09 de septiembre de 2011


I haven’t bothered to go to the cinema to see a Pedro Almodóvar film for two decades: Kika was the final straw. A year or so ago, I downloaded a bunch of them to see if either Pedro or I had changed. We hadn’t.

But the presence of Antonio Banderas in Almodóvar’s latest cinematic offering encouraged me to trot along to the Cines Ideal in Madrid to take in The Skin I Live In on the big screen.

As we all know, Almodóvar is celebrated for creating dramatic subversions of popular culture and accepted norms. Almodóvar acknowledges and celebrates that grey area between masculine strength and female sensitivity, is the line usually trotted out. He subverts Spanish stereotypes of machismo by presenting strong, independent women who take on and improve on male roles. His films are odes to femininity, the maternal instinct, and the thirst for drama. In short, like so many gay men he is somehow closer to women’s sensitivities, he understands them, he is closer to them. And when it comes to transsexuals, well, who ya gonna call?

Almodóvar breaks clichés about transsexuals. In his movies, they are not reduced simply to men who believe themselves to be female and who wish to, or do, live full-time as women as some would have us believe. Oh no, instead they choose to mainly express the feminine part of themselves, but still live outside of common sex and gender dichotomies.

For example, in The Law of Desire, Tina, played by a woman (Carmen Maura), is a post-operated transsexual who has had a daughter with a lesbian. She nevertheless used to be in love with her father and still has affairs with men. In the same movie, the transsexual actress Bibi Andersen plays a lesbian character who is a real woman. Letal, in High Heels, is a well-known drag queen who performs imitations of Becky, a famous singer whose daughter he wants to seduce. During the day, he becomes either Hugo or the hyper-masculine Judge Domínguez. Both of these transsexuals differ from Agrado, a half-operated transsexual, played by transsexual Antonia San Juan playing a genuine woman in All About My Mother. Finally, if a real transsexual playing a post-operated transsexual appears at some points in Bad Education, the story mainly focuses on Ángel, a straight actor whose ambition leads him into sleeping with a gay director and to play a transsexual in order to succeed in cinema. So, no stereotypes or clichés there, right?

In The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar comes up with a new twist on transsexuality, which I won’t go into here for fear of being accused of a plot spoiler.

But back to the women. The real ones. Looking over his illegally downloaded films I came across one after another dumb, neurotic, fucked-up, emotionally backward, sexually rapacious, or sexually confused clichéd female character. Of course Almodóvar himself is the main source of the myth that he is a woman’s director: he rarely misses an opportunity to bring up his childhood in rural Spain, surrounded by capable, tough, straight-talking women.

“La Mancha at the time was a very, very conservative part of the country to live in. Very chauvinistic, as well, very male-dominated in its attitudes. But men never realised that it was actually the women who were running the household; they were the ones in charge. I think that came through in the films that I made because it was part of my own natural makeup. I was surrounded by all these women and they were the ones that really made me,” said Pedro in a recent interview for website

So how come he doesn’t ever include any of these intelligent, developed, clear-minded, or substantial women in his films?

The widely accepted myth that Pedro is the man who loves women simply doesn't bear scrutiny. Approach his films without the background chatter and the idea is clearly preposterous.

What’s really puzzling is why this big lie about Almodóvar is so endlessly peddled by so many people in the media, and why so many people have chosen to swallow it.


Oops, I joined a racist party

Por: | 01 de septiembre de 2011

One of the most bizarre news stories of what has been a blistering Spanish summer came from within the ranks of the far-right Plataforma per Catalunya (PxC) party, whose number of councilors in the town of Salt was suddenly depleted by an outbreak of apparent racism. No, surely not. Oh yes. Joana Martínez, one of three politicians who had claimed seats in Salt's town hall after the previously miniscule party's strong showing in May's local elections, felt forced to resign due to internal pressure after it emerged she had a black boyfriend - albeit one who "has his papers," as she told EL PAÍS. Then in the same week in August another dark-skinned lover emerged, this time the male partner of the also-male councilor Carles Bonet. Apparently shocked at the negative reaction from party comrades to his having a Dominican boyfriend, Bonet was heard to bleat about “Nazi tendencies" within the PxD. Well, yes, you joined a xenophobic party, remember? 

What were they thinking? It is not as if there are no other options for a right-leaning would-be politician in the Catalan region. The CiU conservative nationalist bloc is not short on concern over the possible threat to Catalan identity brought by the influx of immigrants. The Popular Party also enjoyed better results in this year’s elections in the region, rising to third overall ahead of the leftist ERC. Martínez says she had okayed her situation with party leader Josep Anglada (pictured above), but this is the same Anglada who started out as a member of the neo-Nazi Fuerza Nueva and who is now engaged in a mutual-admiration love-in with France's Marine Le Pen.  

While the reactions of the aggrieved councilors do seem somewhat naïve, and indeed bordering on the bizarre (are they in fact double agents working to bring down PxC from within?), they do serve to call the xenophobes' bluff. Officially, according to its manifesto, and indeed like most far-right groupings around Europe, the PxC is not a racist party, but rather one concerned about the impact of uncontrolled, unregulated movements of people, who may happen to be of other creeds, colors and so on. Its stated fear is that public services will be saturated by these chaotic throngings of mankind. Nothing to do with a visceral hatred for foreigners... until a member turns out to have a Senegalese partner. Papers or no papers, it just isn't right. "They told me I was filthy, and asked how I could go to bed with a black man. […] If we were going out to have a drink, it was made clear that my partner was not invited." 

In the end, though, the rise of anti-immigration politics in Catalonia is no joke. The PxC may rise further, or it may be made irrelevant as other parties to the right of center make increasingly regular forays into the land of xenophobia to mop up those votes that have leaked into the hands of overtly racist groupings. This week the Catalan regional government, run by the CiU rightist nationalists, has proposed that the licensing of new religious buildings must take into account the "tradition" and "history" of the neighborhood concerned, reforming a 2009 law that prioritizes concepts such as public safety and hygiene. It is a mealy-mouthed way of banning minarets without the need for a Swiss-style referendum, but it lets local Muslims know where they stand just the same. Arabic façades will also be out, and what about the color green or those suspicious arches?

"The religious communities themselves will have to figure out whether the most important thing is the façade or what is inside,” explained the director of religious affairs in the region, Xavier Puigdollers. Of course, those architectural elements do, broadly speaking, have a tradition in Spain. What is Seville's Giralda cathedral tower if not a converted minaret? But when it comes to winning votes or taking power, complex truths regarding race and cultural identity seem to be all too easily forgotten. 

Photograph by Pere Duran.


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