Monday, December 21, 2009

Just after last X-mas...

At 8.30pm on Friday 3 January 2009 I entered the Salones El Puente Restaurant on Calle Arrabal 16 in the town of San Clemente in the La Mancha region. I greeted the lady at the bar who appeared to me to be the proprietress and then in a clear voice asked her what time the restaurant was open for dinner. She replied that I must speak in Castellano. I told her I was speaking in Castellano. She put her finger to her ear and said "Well, I don't understand you."

I could see from the expression on her face and by the arrogant tone of voice that she used that she was attempting to insult me. I swore at her in English and left this restaurant.

Later that same night my family and I had a lovely dinner at a different restaurant nearby: the Restaurant Jacinto in the Plaza de la Iglesia. The food was excellent and the service was very helpful and friendly. We stayed for one night in the Hotel La Posada del Reloj and concluded that it was also good quality.

My family and I travelled for five days in the La Mancha region and we liked everything about this part of Spain very much. We will go there again I am sure, but we will certainly be avoiding the Salones El Puente Restaurant because of the rude (and probably racist) attitudes that I found there.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Islam and Sharia law in Catalonia

I am a strong believer in tolerance of others beliefs but the recent case of the Muslim women in Tarragona who had to escape twenty extremists wanting to kill her under Islamic “sharia law” is too alarming to quietly stomach.

I have worked as a teacher in an Islamic school, and in my personal experience, the average Muslim who just wants to live their life without trouble and strife would be very much against a death penalty for a 30 year old woman who has defied her husband over keeping her unborn child.

As usual it is the extremists who get the publicity. In this case it is obviously well-deserved, because they are, it is alleged, clearly breaking Spanish laws against kidnapping and attempted murder while holding up what they believe to be their own moral code.

A Muslim friend of mine living here told me that many of the migrants who come to this part of the world are from rural parts of north Africa and are often educated at a fairly basic level. Without a better understanding and acceptance of the laws of the land, ignorance can mean relying on fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran.

There is a strongly established idea on the left of politics and in Catalonia that there should be genuine, healthy separation between the law and religion (including Islam and Catholicism.)

This is exactly as it should be.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thank you, thank you for my job!

In an almost unbelievable recent story, a Spanish cleaning company called Emlicodemsa has bamboozled it's mainly female employees with a brochure that was handed out to them with the words: “COMPLAINING FORBIDDEN.”

The El Pais article quotes one worker who belongs to the union Sindicato Unitario, which represents some 20 percent of the staff, as saying “Nobody else wants to protest. There are girls who work part-time, or have no permanent contract. They are afraid to speak out.”

But this union activist says she will continue to ignore what she believes to be the employers threats. "“They won’t shut me up. They haven’t paid advances for months now — they are really necessary for some families [but] ...we are afraid we won’t get paid at the end of the month.”

But however hard times may be, the brochure comes up with “three tools for not complaining.”

The first heading is “Positive Technique.” The second, is a word of advice:
“Concentrate on what you can do instead of what you have to do.” The third is: “Transform complaints into solutions.”

The brochure's text has other recommendations, such as: “I must make an effort every day, and help to improve the viability and profitability of the company, so I can go on having a good job that enables me to support my family.”

It also includes “consolations” such as: “Change your outlook and you will understand that your job isn’t something you have to do; it’s something you can do… You can go to work, while many others are unemployed.”

Emlicodemsa has acknowledged the distribution of these pamphlets. “They are based on a bestseller, and are aimed at creating a positive attitude among the workers,” explains company manager Antonio Fernández.

The book in question, The No Complaining Rule, by the US writer Jon Gordon, is described as “a simple method” aimed at changing negativity in the work environment. The person in charge of putting these techniques to work in municipal companies, Alfonso Barroso, explains that they are not intended to “annoy” anyone. “In the middle of this crisis, you have to be thankful for not being unemployed,”he adds.

The aim is to invert negative into positive. “Yes, let’s invert,” says the same female union member. “I’ll get the chairman’s monthly salary, and he can get my salary!”

Sunday, November 29, 2009

When money can't buy you class

It might surprise you, but most kids with anti-social behavioural problems come from richer homes and a lack of parental supervision is the biggest cause, according to a Barcelona study by Foundation Jaume Bofill.

Looking at children between 7 and 12 years of age it was found that while Catalan families are generally “doing well,” a main reason for children’s bad conduct was affluent and “progressive” parents ‘contracting out’ their responsibilities to “school, out-of-school courses, domestic help or other relatives.”

El Mundo’s article on this study quoted Javier Elzo, the coordinator of the research as saying “It is not true that troubled children particularly come from single-parent families, hard-working mothers, re-constituted families, separated parents, or other models different from the traditional one.”

He also stated that the so-called ‘troubled families’ include those characterized by being acquisitive, as well as immigrants who are not integrated into society.

Immigrants who have become integrated are part of the group that Elzo found “dedicate more time to their children.”

His conclusion was that for kids to have “pro-social conduct” it is best to be brought up in a “united family, which allows children to express their feelings with parents reinforcing correct behaviors and supportive discipline.”

My own experience here as a teacher of mainly rich students (older than those in this study) at an expensive private international school, is that it is crucial to show them that in the classroom you are not just another of their servants. This gets their respect and real behavioural problems are then very rare.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Local is best

I think part of the reason why the banks in Spain did not end up getting as much criticism as British banks was because (at least in Catalonia, where I live) some of the smaller ones that are called "social banks" are much more genuinely "local" (even though there are those such as Santander, a mega-bank.)

There is an old fashioned honesty to my bank (Caixa Penedes) where they know us by name. There are about a dozen branches in the town of about 30,000 people. If one branch is busy you can just go to another one only a few minutes walk away.

I think banking of this kind is less likely to abuse the systems.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

An up-coming reading

Along with several other local writers, I'll be reading some of my poetry at this event in Barcelona's Gothic quarter on Sunday 22 of November.

Modern Spain, according to Muñoz Molina

…"Ideology is often a form of laziness, a reason for learning nothing.

…What I see is a new crop of complacent anecdotes, adventures of old men who prefer to inhabit a realm of vague nostalgia undisturbed by introspection or the awareness of any error, any regret. This blurs the grandeur that the Spanish Communists possessed: that of choosing, when Franco died, the road of concord and reconciliation, shedding their ossified Soviet baggage, to put their intelligence and generosity to work in the construction of a new democracy. Justice can only be done to such lives in one of those biographies — the ones that Spaniards can’t be bothered to write.

A quote (well worth repeating) from Antonio Muñoz Molina in EL PAÍS, Saturday, November 7, 2009.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Spain's shame

Last Christmas in Spain six women were killed. On average in the previous year there was a woman slain every five days in this country.

One of the most significant factors here is that immigrant women account for 45% of the dead. The particular difficulties and pressures that immigrants have, account for only one of the reasons for this figure.

Antonio Garcia, a member of the coordinator of the Association of Men for Gender Equality said "The problem is essentially male…We need to change the mandates of machismo [ultra-male attitudes and behaviour.]”

One judge stated that "The solutions will come with our children. Meanwhile, we can not stand idly by.”

I believe that Spain is probably the best country in the world to live in and that domestic violence is a huge problem in many societies. But until there is a big improvement in levels of domestic violence, this wonderful land will be terribly and unnecessarily stained with the blood of women.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The trust at the bottom of the garden

People trust each other where I live.

I’m not talking about the kind of confidence where no one needs to lock their doors. I mean that you don’t see that look of suspicion in the eyes of a stranger that you consistently do in England, for example.

I think that in Western Europe most people trust those around them.

There seems to be a basic belief that the men and women next to you are not out to cheat you or somehow do you wrong. And this is despite terrorism, theft and selfish outlooks on daily display, in addition to a media that feeds on reporting crime

Of course this unstated faith is regularly abused. Maybe routinely so. Yet it continues.

I live on the outskirts of a medium sized town of about 25,000 people in Catalonia, northern Spain (or southern Catalonia, depending on your outlook towards the independence movement here.)

Behind my apartment building there are large grapevine plantations and paths running through them. Every day people walk there, jog, or take their dogs for exercise

But there are no fences.

It would be easy and cheap to put fences around these fields but nobody has felt this to be necessary. Thousands of euros of vineyards lie apparently unattended and unguarded.

If this was in Israel or near an English town would it be the same?

My guess is no.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Spanish intellectuals seeking a way out of the economic crisis

More than 250 prominent figures from Spain’s cultural and education communities have signed their names in protest against the current economic crisis.

They have called for more regulation against the market forces of finance and real estate speculation. Their belief is that this would be in the common interest.

This Friday they will be putting forward a manifesto for financial reforms that guarantee social equity and decent work that provides “worthy and sufficient " wages.

Their group, in alliance with Cándido Méndez from the UGT [General Trade Union for Workers] believes that sound labour laws are the best foundation for economically sustainable growth.

They have also made the sensible suggestion that the State could increase social services as a "powerful force" in the economy.

I am happy to live in a country where the term ‘intellectual’ is not an insult (as it usually is in Australia, for example) and where the vital activity of public debate is not just left to politicians.

Friday, October 30, 2009

My neighbour, the winemaker

I go jogging next to his family’s land and his grandchildren go to my son’s school. He is setting ethical examples for other businesses to follow.

He seems to be a good man, despite being very rich.

This Guardian article by Elena Moya is a fascinating interview with Miguel Torres who runs Catalonia’s Torres winery.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Some bad journalism on Spain

[This blog was also published at NewsTrust’s News Hunt for Bad Journalism.]

In Jennifer Varela’s piece on a recent anti-abortion march in Madrid, the most important words in this article are:

"The bussing in of representatives from more than 40 countries..."

So, not all of the supposed 1 million people who attended the protest are living in Spain. This means that it does not accurately reflect the opinions of Spaniards, who re-elected the progressive Zapatero a couple of years ago.

This figure of one million at the march is also questionable. Some commentators have estimated that the crowd was closer to 60,000, though judging by the photo’s of the event this seems to me to be on the lower side of the truth.

Equally important is the fact that the journalist who wrote the story (Jessica Varela) is not living in Spain, though I disagree with commenters on the Guardian’s CiF [Comment is Free] pages who have argued that it is also relevant whether Jennifer Varela was born in Spain or not. But if she is not living here [in Spain] which is the case, then this can surely affect how accurate her story is.

A statement in her article that is not correct is her claim that “Zapatero has…taken religion out of state schools.” In fact, his government has made compulsory religion class an option to ‘Ethics’ classes.

Another part of the article that deserves a reply is this section:

the current uproar…reveals a darker truth about the collective Spanish psyche. In politics there will always be the power struggle between left and right, but in Spain, to push too far in either direction drives a sword into the national wound that was never allowed to heal.

This is dramatic language but it is essentially an argument for a national government to do nothing. It also ignores the possibility that the government relaxing abortion laws could actually benefit women’s choices about reproduction.

This part of Varela’s piece is mystifying:

To have a million people marching against a reform that effectively only removes the shame attached to abortion suggests that this has been deemed a push too far.

Who is doing “the deeming?” The church? The opposition conservative party? The supposed million protesters? If this change is in fact “a push too far” then is that because one out of every fourty Spaniards is against it? If so, this is hardly a democratic moment that she is defining.

Varela also makes the odd statement that: “Clearly the dignity of Spanish women was never considered as valuable a commodity as their honour, as it was buried alongside the [Civil] war's more tangible victims.”

Spanish women’s dignity was somehow ‘buried’ in the war? This, I don’t get. To me, if we can say that Spanish women are anything at all, they are generally very dignified (certainly compared to your average Japanese woman who typically still takes an inferior social position relative to men.)

To her credit, Varela has provided many of her sources as links on the CiF pages but The Guardian newspaper publishing pieces of reportage from someone outside of Spain is pretty poor. It is bad editorial decision-making.

This article is mainly well-researched but should never have got to print because there are too many fuzzy statements in it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Spain's schools start questioning Muslim dress

Four months ago I said in a previous blog about France that “in Spain it has not (yet) got to the point of banning the veil.

Now it appears that it has reached this point.

Senén Olano a resident of Lugo in the Galicia region complains in this Letter to the Editor about the case of a pupil at a public high school in Lugo who had been asked by the directors of the school to stop attending classes for the past month. Allegedly, this was due to her refusal to take off her hijab or headscarf.

He goes on to say: “What the media did not mention so often was that the school board had asked the Galician regional education department for advice on the matter, receiving silence for an answer.

Now it appears that the girl attends class with her ‘hijab’, which is not only a garment with a clear religious significance in a country with a secular tradition, but also one which, historically and culturally, reflects the oppression of women by men in Islamic culture and contravenes habitual customs in our classrooms. Such cases will become more and more frequent and a clear and uniform response is what is needed. Public officials are paid to make such decisions, so it’s time they got to work.

I agree with Mr Olano about only one of the points that he raises. A “uniform response” is needed.

That response should be that all public schools allow their students and staff to wear whatever clothes they wish to, as long as those clothes do not display offensive slogans (such as: “Ban the hijab!”)

As a (tolerant) atheist, I worked in an Islamic school in Australia for several months and was never told to change my usual work clothes to anything more pious or Muslim-like.

I would question why the writer of that letter, Mr Olano, does not explain which “habitual customs in our classrooms” are being contravened.

I also wonder whether he has had more than a fleeting involvement with any Muslim.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Barcelona's vultures

"Her smallest daughter had to be taken out of her room, because its ceiling is falling in, as is that of the bathroom, which is held up by a makeshift prop. In another room part of the ceiling has already collapsed."

Pere Rios and Jesus Garcia detailing some of the latest cases of mobbing.

"A Barcelona court is investigating a group of comapnies which allegedly specialise in hounding tenants who pay very low rents so that they can then purchase the property and make a profit. This kind of harrassment...has reportedly been going on for the last decade...and in every case the alleged victims are people who benefit from old rent-control laws because of old age or low income."

Until governments take full responsibility for rental housing this kind of unethical profiteering will continue. And it will continue to damage the lives of those who deserve it the least.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Who needs Ahmadinejad when we’ve got this guy in Spain?

Now Spain has its own Holocaust denier to rival Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And perhaps unsurprisingly, he is a newly appointed Partido Popular official.

As reported by MIGUEL OLIVARES in El Pais today, César Augusto Asencio one of the incoming secretary generals and spokesman for the PP in the Valencia parliament, in 1979 published an article in the Alicante daily Información denying the scale of the Holocaust.

“There is much I could say about the concentration camps and about the myth of the six million Jews exterminated. A detailed study demonstrates that it is all false,” he wrote.

“The majority has been made to believe this thanks to the strength of the finances and propaganda in the hands of Jews on a global scale.”

In another extract, Asencio wrote: “The Jew has lived at the expense of others throughout history through usury...undermining the state and influencing the government through the power they hold over money.”

Asencio yesterday asked forgiveness for an “adolescent error.” At that time, he was a member of the fascist Organización Juvenil Española as others were members of the [communist] ORT,” he said.

Asencio was affiliated to the Popular Alliance, a right-wing political grouping under the auspice of Franco-era ministers including Manuel Fraga.

I made my own ridiculous statements when I was naïve and stupid enough to have ultra-conservative views as a university student. But Asencio has apparently not yet renounced his mistake.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Antonio Muñoz Molina

"I have never known the tranquillity of living and belonging in one particular place. I think this is the fate of many people of my generation and social class.

We grew up in a world that bore little resemblance to that of our childhood. Education opened doors to us that had been closed to our parents, but the rooms they led into were foreign to us.

During vacations, we returned from the university to our small towns, but felt at home in neither place. Academic failure or an economic setback might easily send us back to the small town and some dull job there.

We thought we were divided between the old world of our roots and a new one in which we were citizens.

I worked in an office, but in my other life I was a novelist — although nobody knew it. I published a novel and the rift, instead of closing, grew deeper. I would take a train to Madrid for a literary get-together, only to feel like a municipal employee who had shown up at the wrong meeting. But back at the office in Granada I would feel even more foreign.

I always seemed to be surrounded by people whose position in the world was far more solid than mine.

I thought it would be a question of time, of maturity, but the feeling of impermanence and uncertainty stayed with me whatever I did…."

[A translation of the Spanish writer ANTONIO MUÑOZ MOLINA seemingly speaking for many writers (as well as others) in El País earlier this month.]

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dealing with domestic violence in Spain

Domestic violence is a real problem in Spain (just as in many other parts of the world) and recently there was an interesting proposal from the Spanish government for dealing with it.

If we accept that attempts to educate offenders should still be a part of sentences (as much as punishment or deterrence) then this new plan deserves to be seriously considered.

As reported by J. GARCÍA in EL PAÍS last week, the Interior Ministry is studying an initiative that would replace community service sentences for those found guilty of committing gender violence crimes with a series of workshops intended to raise awareness about the problem.

In Spain there are currently 19,000 gender violence offenders who are fulfilling community service obligations.

The government argues that this type of sentence is unrelated to the crime, and that sensitivity training could be more effective.

“Perhaps we won’t get through to them all, but the idea is to educate the abusers and make them conscious of their situation and that of the victim. The goal, in the end, is to reduce the number of repeat offenders,” said Miguel Ángel Vicente, sub director for the government’s cutodial policies.

The proposed treatment would have the offender attend between 15 and 20 sessions with “different itineraries” depending on the seriousness of the offence.

I believe that this kind approach is likely to be better for many than simply incarcerating all offenders inside a brutal jail system or just punishing them with a fine.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Spain sees a rise in anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Spain, with increasing cases of public racism and greater acceptance of violent anti-Jewish attitudes according to a new report.

Polluting the Public Square: Anti Semitic Discourse in Spain highlights examples of purportedly anti-Semitic political cartoons in the mainstream media, anti-Israeli demonstrations, and vandalism of Jewish community centres.

The Spanish newspapers El Pais (who, quite fairly gave coverage to the report)and El Mundo came in for particular attention.

What the report justifiably suggests to me is that too many journalists and cartoonists think that Judaism is the same thing as the state of Israel, or even the Israeli government.

There are plenty of Jews inside and outside Israel who do not support the Israeli government and strongly disagree with the excess force and other discriminatory policies it has undoubtedly imposed on Palestinians. (I would argue that self-defence against terrorists across its border makes moral sense though.)

Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, has stated that the Spanish government would investigate these allegations and report to the New York-based publishers of the report at a later date.

Friday, September 4, 2009

While unemployment grows…so do the big bank’s profits

There is now another reason for putting our money (and faith?) in smaller ‘socially-minded’ financial institutions

An editorial in the business daily Cinco Días
says experts believe that the case of the Spanish banks proves that ‘the crisis’ can open up opportunities for those who know how to take advantage of them:

“They are making the most of [this world-wide economic recession] because they're seizing opportunities at a good price.

And thanks to the acquisition of banks that were in trouble they have grown larger.”

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I couldn't put it any better myself...

"You can [easily] find middle-class people who think that the unemployed should not be helped because they are lazy and don’t want to work.

Strangely, these same people do not think that helping banks perpetuates the economic cancer made up of using taxpayers’ money to finance private banking."

Emilio Iglesias Delgado from Seville, in a Letter to the Editor, El Pais 29/08/09.

Made In Catalonia Film Festival in Australia

Click here for festival poster

Thursday, August 27, 2009

To steal or starve?

It’s not surprising really. We all have to eat.

News this week that an increasing number of ordinary people in Spain are stealing food from shops and supermarkets.

With an unemployment rate currently at 18% and countless thousands working shorter hours, why would it be any different?

This new phenomenon is being called ‘robo famelico,’ literally "starving theft."

As Cristina Mateo-Yanguas writes, “the most vulnerable sectors of the population to the economic crisis are currently undocumented immigrants and the jobless whose subsidies will be up shortly.”

What I find astonishing and (even somewhat encouraging) is that there is little supermarkets can do to stop those who shoplift because non-violent theft of goods worth less than 400 euros apparently isn't considered a crime in Spain.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Can migrants save the trade unions?

Olle Sahlström looks at trade unions in Catalonia, Spain and across the continent and writes in Eurozine:

“The trade union is at a crossroad. Immigrant workers must be included in the unions. Either one chooses to try classic methods of organization, or entirely new directions which risk a widening of the gap between the white, male worker aristocracy and the poor, exploited migrant worker.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"Yes, we finance bomb-making...and that's fine!"

Spain’s Santander bank is indirectly and directly involved in weapons production and exports, according to Miquel González from the organisation Justicia y Paz.

In a recent speech to fellow-shareholders of the bank he listed the investments that Santander has in military companies:

Santander bank owns 23% of MaxamCorp Holding through its hedge fund Vista Capital. This company owns Explosivos Alaveses (Expal) among others. Expal only manufactures bombs and explosives and had been producing cluster bombs until recently, a type of bomb now illegal in Spain. Also, Santander bank owns 14% of CESCE, an agency that insures exports, which includes arms exports.

As stated in the “Guía de Comercio”, in April 2008 Santander bank (along with others) gave a €554 million loan to finance two CASA-EADS contracts with the Brazilian Air Force. These contracts involved the sale of twelve C-295 airplanes and an upgrade of eight P-3 airplanes. This export finance operation has been one of the largest of the last few years.

Mr. Botín, a Santander Bank spokesman has replied stating:

“These companies are highly technological ones. We run all kind of checks when they come to us and I can tell you that they fulfil regulations and international agreements in terms of manufacturing, sale and exports and in terms of the Dublin Convention. And they fulfil the Santander bank criteria for approval as one of our clients”