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:

A Lesson in Manners

Por: | 22 de junio de 2015

Pavements are pretty narrow in Seville, particularly in the cobbled, quaint parts of town. Sometimes I think it’s rather an insult calling them a pavement at all for the lot of good they do. It’s an everyday occurrence to find someone coming at you in the opposite direction, desperately clinging to the same precarious, concrete edge. And it’s at this point I find myself with the dizzying conundrum: step off or be stepped on.


So more often than not it’s me who leaps off into oncoming traffic, waits to let people pass, steps into a doorway or shimmies up a lamp post. It’s my choice obviously and one that’s based on that innate British horror at offending or inconveniencing the other. So here I am looking expectantly into the eyes of the fellow human being I’ve stood aside to let past and 80% of the time it´s a big fat nothing in return. Okay, if I’m honest, it’s not entirely nothing; eye contact is indeed made, but instead of a warm acknowledgement of my efforts, I'm met with a cold, hard stare that enters my hopeful heart like a burning hot arrow.


For the first year or so in Seville, I took it all very badly. Such pavement encounters were met with audible, narked off sighs (on my behalf) and an occasional 'both hands on hip in utter disbelief' stance. But then an English Reading Comprehension exercise entitled ‘Watching the English’ changed my perspective. Taken from the book of the same name by anthropologist Kate Fox, she studies the quirks and foibles of the English character, where fair play or the lack of it gets us extremely riled and sorry is every other word. After the first few paragraphs I soon began to realise that my expectations and concept of politeness were purely cultural and far from definitive.

So with a new ‘I know it’s not personal’ bravado I thought I’d use my observations of Seville etiquette and see what would entail. Which was, by the way, a complete disaster. A late night encounter on my bike with a street cleaner who very politely stopped to let me through, went completely unacknowledged by my new 'Sevillanoed' self, much should I say to his palpable disdain. Here was a perfectly nice man just being kind to a passing 'guiri' and all he got as thanks was a Paddington Bear stare and a gust of wind as I cycled past at break neck speed. I felt like throwing down my bike and pleading for his forgiveness, but instead I just kept on cycling cursing all the while at the utter failure of my attempt to fit in.

I would like to point out at this point that this is not a personal slight on people from Seville, Andalusia or Spain in general. But I just want to know what to do. Please someone tell me. All I’ve ever wanted to do is fit in, as much as I can being a 5ft 9 blond with freckles and pale skin, but at least if I know when to say please and thank you that will be a start. So, this is a kind of shout out to any Spanish or Andalusian social etiquette experts: Please teach me some manners.

Photo from GETTY

Spain’s first confirmed case of diphtheria in almost 30 years has rekindled a national discussion on vaccines — and the country should look to the U.S., U.K. and Chile for insight into how not to hold this debate.

Cases in these nations show us that the sciolistic, erroneous and sensationalist work of members of the mainstream media can affect the decision-making of thousands of people who might otherwise be sceptical of the anti-vaccine movement.

This subculture holds vaccines responsible for a number of health problems, in contradiction with scientific consensus. The movement also views side effects disproportionately in comparison with the graveness and historical frequency of serious illnesses.

While in the current debate, Spanish media has yet to adopt the hack health reporting that is the scourge of the British tabloid press, a downward trend in vaccination coverage in Spain suggests those with the ear of the public must be more rational and vigilant than ever.

Earlier this month, a six-year-old boy from Olot fell ill with diphtheria, and remains in hospital in a serious condition. So unexpected was the eventual diagnosis, to arrive at it the boy’s physician Dr. Stephan Schneider says he rounded up his colleagues for a brainstorm “like in the TV show House.”

The child’s parents had not inoculated him as they subscribed to the anti-vaccine movement, something they have now expressed regret over.

So far, eight children and an adult who were in contact with the child have tested positive to exposure, though all are asymptomatic and were previously vaccinated against the disease that kills 5-10 percent of victims.

On national television last week Teresa Forcades — a Benedictine nun, high-profile political activist and big pharma critic — publicly backed parents who opt-out of vaccine use, while content from the anti-vaccine movement has been promoted from the blogosphere to mainstream media.

While such groups have failed to generate hysteria in Spain, vaccine coverage is 3 percent lower than it was in 2002. This is concerning, as a continued downward trend would lead to a lack of herd immunity. Such immunity prevents outbreaks and protects many people who cannot be vaccinated, including newborns and those with immunodeficiencies.

Spain’s current vaccination coverage of 95 percent remains above the herd immunity threshold for measles, but only by a few percentage points. Lack of herd immunity among individuals aged under 35 is thought to have been a factor in the 2006-7 measles outbreak in Catalonia.

Those who refuse to vaccinate undermine herd immunity, and vaccination coverage plummets past thresholds when the media mismanages its role as moderator in the debate on jabs.

In 2002, the MMR vaccine was the most frequently reported on subject in Britain. That year, Tony and Cherie Blair declined to reveal whether or not they had inoculated their son — the MMR vaccine was under scrutiny in the media at the time due to a minor and fraudulent 1998 study that linked it to autism.

Inexpert journalists exploited layman’s level knowledge in their readership with stories that fed off health-related paranoia and political and celebrity intrigue.

Soon after the furore, MMR vaccination coverage in the U.K. hit a nadir of 80 percent, below the herd immunity threshold for measles, mumps or rubella. In 1998 there were 56 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales. In 2008 there were 1,348. Out of all the news articles on MMR in 2002, less than a third pointed out that the safety of the jab was supported by overwhelming evidence.

A similar downturn in vaccination rates and subsequent disease outbreaks occurred in the 2000s in the U.S., where actress Jenny McCarthy and the medical research community were afforded equal footing by the media in the vaccine debate.

Irresponsible reporting triggered an incredible series of events in Chile between 2009 and 2014. Last year, Chile came close to being the only nation to ban by law vaccines containing the preservative thimerosal. Several parents of autistic children unsuccessfully sued the state over accusations the disorder was brought on by the mercury found in these shots, at odds with the scientific consensus. Riding the tide of sensationalist media coverage, two members of congress championed the families’ cause and drafted a bill aimed at outlawing the use of the vaccines.

The bill cited the effect of the toxicant methylmercury on humans. The catch is, thimerosal metabolizes in the body to ethylmercury, not methylmercury. The latter is toxic in low doses, the former isn’t. Interestingly, this detail was not widely reported on — what did catch the media’s attention was a portion of the bill that was copy and pasted from Yahoo Answers, presumably because this was seen as more embarrassing for the parliamentarians than basing the premise of their legislation on the effects of an irrelevant substance.

The “thimerosal bill” passed through both chambers of government, and only a presidential veto prevented it from becoming law.

The media in general is far from even-handed when it comes to the vaccine debate. Deaths that occur some time after a vaccine is administered are widely covered — medical examiners’ official cause of death reports are not. Profile pieces on the families of victims of rare and serious vaccine side effects are common — similar portrayals of parents watching their children succumb to, for example, measles encephalitis, are hard to come by.

There is no doubt that we need to monitor side effects and their frequency, as well as promote debate on vaccination policy and the conduct of pharmaceutical companies.

There is already a discussion underway in Spain on the merits of mandatory vaccination. Over the past week, a petition calling for the obligatory vaccination of children has gathered 111,000 signatures. Health Minister Alfonso Alonso came out against such a move on Thursday, saying vaccination should be promoted through medical recommendation rather than government mandate.

Such healthy discourse should be encouraged. We must remain aware, however, that this debate has on some occasions opened the door for the systematic exploitation of our greatest fears.


Should you ever kiss a nun?

This is not a question I ever expected to be asking myself. And yet, as I edge towards my fifth year in Barcelona, it is a question that has moved to the forefront of my mind, bringing together two of the key themes of my stay in the Catalan capital.

The first is kissing. In Spain, as you probably know, it is traditional to greet women with a kiss on each check. That sounds simple enough - certainly compared the the bewildering variety of cheek kissing combinations that different French regions offer - but has nevertheless raised a number of questions in my head.

The idea that I had formed over many years of visiting Spain is that you kiss all women on greeting. This seemed admirably simple when compared to the uncertainty around British greetings, where you never quite know if a handshake, air kiss, cheek kiss or even hug may be in order.

But the reality of the greeting kiss in Spain, as I have painfully discovered through years of misadventure, is a far more shaded experience, with ifs and buts and escape clauses littered liberally throughout.

Should I, for example, kiss my daughter’s playgroup teacher who I see every morning and night, I wondered? Yes, you might think: I know her well enough and we get along. But no, according to my Spanish girlfriend, who explained that there is an “if-you-see-them-every-day” sub clause to the kissing contract which dictates that it is a bit too much to kiss someone you see on a daily basis.

I thought I had grasped this. But it turns out there is actually an exception to this exception and you SHOULD, then, kiss someone you see everyday if you’re then not going to see them for a while (if, say, your child’s playgroup is about to go on Easter holidays).

OK: but what about for people in authority, for want of a better word? Should I, for example, kiss Ada Colau, the mayor-elect of Barcelona if introduced to her.

No. And - possibly you saw this coming - yes. 

It all depends on the context, apparently. If I were introduced to Ada Colau by a mutual friend in a casual context then a kiss would be the right option. But if we were to be introduced in a more formal setting then a handshake would be better. And if, I asked my girlfriend, I were to be introduced to Ada Colau by a mutual friend in a formal context, would I kiss her? 

No, she said, after a moment’s thought.

“How do you know this stuff?” I asked.

“I just do,” she replied. “It’s like British people knowing when to buy other people a drink.”

But how about a nun? Should you, I asked my girlfriend as we made our way to a social do at the local nunnery, kiss a nun when first introduced?

Maybe I should explain. In Britain I don’t think I met a nun in my whole 33 years there. Nor do you tend to see them around: nuns are less widespread in Protestant countries - a legacy of the first Protestant reformers - and only 45 women became nuns in England and Wales in 2014, up from just 15 in 2009. 

By contrast, in Spain some 400 young people became monks or nuns in 2013, some 76% of these women, joining one of more than 6,000 religious communities country wide.

It is little surprise, then, that nuns are far more prevalent on the streets of Barcelona than in London and I quickly became accustomed to seeing them pass by, friendly smiles on their faces, as they went around their daily business.

Even then, I was still slightly surprised when my girlfriend suggested we had check out a local nursery that was run by nuns as we looked for a place for our young son to spend his days. I didn’t have anything against nuns, of course. But I had little notion of what they do in their day-to-day business and the idea that they looked after children was unexpected.

In the end, we decided to go for the nun nursery and it proved an excellent decision. The nuns there - who work alongside “standard” (in the sense that they aren’t nuns) nursery teachers - are always brilliantly friendly, a serene look of calm on their faces that is hugely welcome to any parent that has spent half of the night wiping child’s vomit off their pyjamas. I’ve come to look forward greatly to my brief chats with them when I go to pick up my son.

But how on earth do you greet them? Is a kiss too overly friendly? A handshake too cold? These people spend seven hours a day with my baby son, after all, so I didn't want to mess this up.

In the end I went for a handshake. There’s no guidebook on etiquette in Spain to govern how you should greet a nun. But if my ever-informed girlfriend is in the right, then men should shake nuns’ hands in greeting while women who know them well can give them a kiss on each cheek. And in the end, that felt about right.

So there is one conundrum of Spanish life conquered. Give me another five years and I’ll get onto the rest.

(NB should I be wrong on my kissing etiquette, then please do let me know in the comments.)

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