Saturday, 28 February 2009

Fact is stranger than fiction or at any rate mirrors it!

Local government elections are upon us here in Spain. Inevitably the newspapers have been full of items about the different political parties and their various activities. Earlier this month I found a throwaway item in El Pais, biggest selling national paper according to its website, which reminded me of something.

In the American TV series The Wire at one point the drug dealers use disposable mobile phones: use them and ditch them! They were trying to avoid police wire taps and other surveillance devices: a security measure that worked quite well until their discipline fell apart.

Apparently the Comunidad de Madrid local government majority group, the Partido Popular, has been doing the same thing, more or less. They use pre-pay mobile phones which they change once a fortnight to prevent their political opponents from spying on their "conversaciones delicadas". Now it's every two weeks but during the 2007 electoral campaign it was every week!

"Funcionarios", civil servants, are organised to collect old phones and distribute the new ones which have all the numbers of all counsellors programmed in already. A wonderful recipe for chaos, of course! Some counsellors forget their phones and so yet more "funcionarios" have to spend time running around collecting them. Thus the phone swop is spread over a longer and longer period of time. And then, naturally, there are those counsellors who simply refuse to cooperate and just put the phones away in a drawer!

Mind you, maybe the PP has a point. I seem to recall seeing another item just the other day about someone hacking their way into Jack Straw's mobile!!!!

Friday, 27 February 2009

On fiestas and festivals and such.

At the end of October a little train appeared at the start of the Principe shopping street. In fact, it was not a train at all but a machine for roasting chestnuts, disguised as an old-fashioned steam engine. I also started to see signs here and there for magosto, the chestnut festival, a speciality of Galicia and a few other northern regions of Spain.

I had first come across
magosto a couple of years earlier when my college's international Comenius project took me and a few other teachers together with some students to a school in Cambre, la Coruna. On our first day in the school we discovered that lessons for the afternoon were cancelled so that students could take part in games and activities related to magosto. My students were perplexed and so were some of the teachers; as far as they were concerned, chestnuts were conkers and you didn't eat them but put them on a string and tried to smash your opponent's prize conker. It was just as difficult explaining that to the gallegos as it was persuading Salford seventeen year olds to eat chestnuts! But the roast chestnuts were delicious!

Hot on the heels of
magosto came Hallowe'en, an American (not even British) import which has overshadowed somewhat the more Spanish observance of Todos los Santos, All Saints Day. I had to correct the everso helpful Monica at the bank about the date of Hallowe'en. Her small son goes to a bilingual nursery where he spends part of the day speaking English, after a fashion. He had told her, correctly, that Hallowe'en was on Friday 31st October and she had tried to persuade him that he was wrong, that it was on Saturday 1st November, probably because some of his small friends were having parties on the Saturday.

The Saturday, of course, was Todos los Santos, when Spaniards traditionally take flowers to the cemetery and tidy up family graves, just like at the start of Almodovar's "Volver". In Mexico, so I am told, they go so far as to make a party of the occasion, taking food and drink so that the deceased members of the family can join in the celebration: maybe a little too extreme! Whatever the case, in Vigo bakers' shops were selling
huesos de santos (saints' bones), little marrow bones made of marzipan, the florists advertised special offers throughout the preceding week and all the shops, except the bakers', closed all day on Saturday 1st November.

That celebration was no sooner over and done with than Santa's little elves got busy. The shops started wishing us Happy Christmas, yes, in English, in all their window displays. El Corte Ingles began to play Christmas tunes, yes, mostly English. And the street decorations began to go up. We were woken in the middle of the night by the noise of decorations being strung across our street. Every street had stars, bells, snowflakes, angels and other Christmassy objects hung from their lamp-posts. Down by the harbour they had what looked for all the world like seahorses made of Christmas lights! Big, important shopping streets merited stars AND angels! Our street, however, being quite narrow and less visible, just had a series of sausage-like objects (all right, made of sparkly Christmas lights!) strung from one side to the other at regular intervals. I felt strangely let down!

There then followed a whole series of letters to the local papers about the rights and wrongs of switching on the Christmas lights. Was it ecologically sound? What about the carbon footprint? In this time of crisis, could one justify spending huge amounts of money lighting up the city? On the other hand, did we not all need some brightness in our lives to lighten the gloom of winter and the great economic problems facing us all? In the end a compromise of sorts was reached and the lights were switched on for about two hours in the late afternoon, early evening. On a December visit to Pontevedra, though, I noticed that their lights were still blazing away as midnight approached!

When we returned to Spain after a Christmas visit to the UK, the street decorations soon disappeared. The Happy Christmas signs in the shops were replaced with
SALES, REBAJAS, REBAIXAS, SOLDES, SOLDI. Every language imaginable encouraged us to SPEND, SPEND, SPEND. Only now are we getting the notices of the last days of the sales rapidly approaching.

However, I began to suspect some of the street decorations had been forgotten. At the junction of Urzaiz, Principe and Colon (Columbus Street - not a part of the human body), at Puerta del Sol and in Plaza de la Constitucion huge canopies of lights had been constructed and remained there, unused! Maybe someone believed in the old superstition that if decorations were not taken down by Twelfth Night they had to stay up for the whole year on pain of bringing misfortune down on one and all? And then, it all became clear; they remained in place for

Principe was festooned with carnival masks. Across Urzaiz, in big, bold lights, veryone was welcomed to "ENTROIDO", Gallego for not actually carnival but "entrance" as this festivity marks the beginning of Lent.

Spanish friends tell me that their city does not do as much for Carnaval as some places do. "Mucho mirar, poco participar" : a lot of looking, poor at participating.

But there were verbenas or street concerts taking place, lots of competitions and games and plenty of clowns, Zorros, Snow Whites and Minnie Mouses (Minnie Mice?) around.

Now, in the United Kingdom, we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, to symbolise giving up rich foods and sweet things for Lent. Here they have a whole carnival, culminating on Ash Wednesday with the
Entierro de la Sardina - the Burial of the Sardine.

There are processions through the streets, lots of audience participation and finally, at around ten thirty at night the sardine is buried.

Aside from the fact that they appear to be starting the period of abstinence a day later in Spain than in the UK, I wondered why they buried a sardine, of all things. And it's not just in Vigo. Television news teams reported the burying of this sardine all over the place in Spain.

Apparently, it is a tradition which began in the nineteenth century; the sardine symbolised the meat which was not to be eaten throughout Lent. Nowadays, my Internet source told me, for most people it just symbolises the end of
Carnaval, which, of course, includes in its name the meat - carne - which will not be eaten for a while, a hard thing for the Spanish, but that is a story for another day!

Monday, 23 February 2009

If you go up hill from the crazy horses ....

Still on the subject of what the cruise people do not get to see in Vigo, let us imagine that, having arrived at the crazy horses statue in your walk up from the estacion maritima, instead of turning left back down into the centre, you turn right and continue up the hill of Gran Via.

As you walk along you will see the coloured rooftops of a housing estate. Just like people in almost every other country, many Spaniards also crave a house of their own with a patch of land or at the very least a little garden. Most still live in flats in high rise blocks in the centre of town, one of the things that makes city centre living in Spain so vibrant and safe. But those who can afford it often buy themselves a "chalet" in the outer suburbs. Arranged around quiet, fairly narrow streets, they are like, and yet strangely unlike, a Britsh housing estate. The most modern have underground parking spaces to avoid congestion.

What they lack, however, is the collection of small shops which are almost always there on the ground floor of the blocks of flats: bakers and greengrocers, haberdashers and hardware stores, small supermarkets. Instead, the inhabitants of these well-designed modern houses with their little gardens and views over greater Vigo, have to head for the Centro Comercial Gran Via, a glass and concrete affair with all the shops imaginable and a huge Carrefour hypermarket to boot.

Beyond the Centro Comercial, not far from the houses with the coloured roofs, threading your way through allotments where people grow sprouts, herbs, potatoes, you name it, you will come eventually to the Castrelos park, a wonder of greenery where you could imagine you had escaped from the city if it were not for the incessant hum of traffic, everpresent in the background.

Magnificent in the autumn, now that we are heading towards the end of February, the park is already showing signs that spring has arrived.

The Castrelos Park houses the "pazo" or "palacio" Quinones de Leon, a stately home still with formal mazes in the garden, which is now a museum and art gallery.

Other odds and ends that the cruise folk might miss!

It's very likely that, having come to Vigo on a large boat, the cruise folk will not be inclined to get on another, smaller vessel to cross the bay and visit Moana, which is a pity as they will miss the splendid view of the small town in the early evening. This is how I saw in on the evening of the great chess victory in mid-November.

My Phil had entered a chess tournament there so we took the boat across and I went walkabout while he played. On my way back to the venue I walked along the beach a
nd came across a strange contraption, looking from a distance like a huge wheel with a motor of some kind attached.

As I approached from one side to examine it more closely, so did someone else from the other, carrying a bundle which he proceeded to spread out on the sand. As he did
so it became apparent that this was the canopy of a motorised hang-glider; the wheel was the motor. He was not sure if there was enough wind for him to take off but he managed to do so and set off into the sunset over Vigo.

The chess tournament also had a happy ending of sorts, not a great win but a grading prize which was sufficient to pay the entry fee, our ferry tickets and a couple of beers on the way home. Not bad for a mid-November evening!

Another beach beyond the reach of those who have only a few hours to get to know the city is Samil, about a fifteen minute bus-rid
e away from the city centre, unless, like us, you get on the circular bus in the wrong direction and visit other, less fetching parts of Vigo en route.

On a crisp, cold, windy winter's day, Samil was bracing to say the least but the views were excellent and the promenade was clearly well equipped for the visitors who would be there in the summer months.

Friday, 20 February 2009

One end of Vigo to another - what the cruise ship people may not see!

Every once in a while a cruise ship calls in at Vigo, on its last stop before heading across the Bay of Biscay and back to Portsmouth or Southampton. Sometimes there can be two or three in a week, less often in the winter months. On one occasion a British cruise ship and an American cruise ship were in at the same time. The city had an additional eight thousand visitors that day!

Even without going down to the harbour you can usually tell when a ship is visiting. Every cafeteria on Urzaiz and Principe, in Plaza de la Princesa and Plaza de la Constitucion is full of (usually) British tourists, the me
n (usually) clad in long shorts, loud shirts and sandals with socks, the women (usually) in strappy tops showing off sunburnt shoulders and sandals, even when the Spanish ladies are in fur coats and boots.

Puzzled gr
oups stand on street corners studying maps or stop passers-by to ask where is the best Zara store. Excited shoppers exclaim about the contents of different floors of the department store, El Corte Ingles. Disappointed shoppers discover that Sunday shopping has not yet hit Spain. Bewildered Britons comment that it must be half day closing when they find that shops on Principe and Urzaiz close for lunch between two and four thirty. All, in their own way, even if not dressed in tourist uniform, are recognisably not Spanish.

Because the Estacion Maritima comes out almost directly into the A Laxe shopping centre, many cruiser folk find themselves shepherded towards the pedestrian walkway which takes them across the street, skirts the Casco Vello, gives them the chance to see some of Vigo's seagulls and leads them before they know it to the crazy horses statue at the top of Gran Via.

If, however, they were to turn left on leaving the Estacion Maritima, cross at one of the pedestrian crossings and head up the hill towards the city centre, they would go through the

Plaza de Compostela with its fountains and gardens: a lovely spot for a coffee before tackling the rest of the climb into the centre.

Only the hardiest of hill-walkers among the cruiser folk find their way up to the Castro park with

its splendid views over the estuary to Cangas and Moana on the other side and the Islas Cies out to sea, protecting the city from winter storms.

Those who make it to the top might see a seagull playing king-of-the-castle

or a group of old ladies, playing cards in the sunshine, some of them sporting home made sun hats.

Monday, 16 February 2009

On libraries and librerias - bibliotecas y bookshops!

It has to be admitted that I am addicted to books. I find it hard to go into a bookshop without purchasing something. At home in England we have accumulated books over the years, filling shelves to overflowing despite occasional culls and attempts to give books away to friends and relations. Now, although we have vast amounts of empty shelfspace here in our Vigo flat we really would prefer not to fill it all. Whatever we decide to do when our lease runs out here, we would prefer not to have to transport boxes and boxes of books. Minimalism is the word of the year: minimum clothes, minimum kitchen clutter, minimum books. Our music collection has been reduced to the MP3 player plus speakers and the DVDs we have brought with us have come without their boxes, causing some confusion if we want details but reducing the space they took up in suitcases for transportation.

So we investigated, found and joined the local municipal library, an old building just off Plaza de la Constitucion, on the edge of the Casco Vello. Joining was easy: fill in a form, hand over two photos and receive a card giving you the right to borrow up to six books and four DVDs. In most respects it is just like libraries everywhere but the system of cataloguing and placing books on shelves has no obvious rhyme or reason. If you know exactly which book you want to borrow, and if the computers are up and running, the computer system works fine: you note down the number of the book and go and find it on the shelf. But should you want to browse, looking for ideas and inspiration it is a completely different story. All genres are mixed; all authors are mixed; nothing seems to follow even alphabetical order. Amongst "literature" you will find "Learn English in six weeks". It is a total nightmare as the works by any one author can be spread all over the place.

This is a problem shared by most bookshops in Spain in my experience. Books seem to be placed on shelves according to, perhaps, their ISBN number rather than in alphabetical order of writers or according to genre. However, La Casa del Libro, the bookshop on Calle Velazquez Moreno here in Vigo proves to be an exception to this rule. A wonderful place, it has a section for Spanish and South American literature, others for foreign literature, works in Gallego, historical works, thrillers, best sellers and so on. Even better, the books are nicely, logically arranged in ... wait for it ... ALPHABETICAL ORDER!! It is a pleasure to browse the shelves, being very strong and resisting the urge to buy too much or too often, noting down names of authors and titles of books to seek out in the library.

La Casa del Libro, like many modern bookshops in many European countries, has its own cafe area. Not quite as stunning as the patio-garden cafe of the Feltrinelli bookshop in Pisa, where you go through the bookshop into an open patio with trees and plants, the Casa del Libro cafe is nonetheless a haven of quiet where you can sit and read the paper or chat with friends without the incessant babble of a TV set (omnipresent in Spanish bars and cafes) and, even more pleasant, in a smoke-free environment. Wonderful!

What the library has in its favour is the range of activities it organises. They do guided tours of the building itself every week, have visiting speakers and exhibitions and a range of activities for children, encouraging them to read and be creative. It also serves as an after-school club for children whose parents work full time and the basement of the building is regularly full of busy children aged from about six to twelve.

It was in the library that I discovered the existence of Clubs de Lectura. So in October I signed myself up for the reading group for Spanish and Gallego, one of the best things I have done. Once a week I go along and discuss books with a group of ladies - there was ONE brave young man but unfortunately he only lasted a few weeks. Perhaps we opinionated, vociferous, enthusiastic, mostly middle-aged ladies were too much for him. The library provides copies of the books for all the members of the group. Discussion goes on mostly in Castellano (standard Spanish) but there are a couple of members who INSIST on speaking Gallego all the time. So far this has not proved to be a problem. Since January I have also been attending the Club de Lectura de Frances, making sure that I continue reading and talking in French.

One final advantage for me, quite inintentional, was that my Vigo library card served as a form of ID. I was accompanying my daughter and her children to the airport in Oporto, across the border in Portugal. There is a handy bus service from Vigo to the airport and it was only as we got close to the bus station to catch the bus that I thought about my passport. I had come out on automatic pilot, leaving my passport safely tucked away on the desk in the bedroom. The last time I had done this journey no-one had asked to check passports and our taxi driver reassured me that he crossed the border all the time without problems: "somos vecinos". Famous last words!

At the first stop in Portugal the border police got on the bus and asked to see everyone's documents. I watched one young man being asked to leave the bus while they searched his bag. Uh, oh! Was I about to be thrown off the bus, obliged to phone home and ask Phil to come quickly with my passport? Would I be arrested? How had I managed to be so stupid?

But no, there was no problem. I explained to the very polite policeman that I was simply going to the airport and back into Spain. My only means of identification was my Vigo library card, complete with its photo. My daughter curled up in embarassement. "What is your nationality?" he asked me. The Portuguese like the British by all accounts. He wished me a nice day and we went on our way. Phew!!!!

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Playing the numbers game again ....

14.02.09: today's date.
6.00 pm: the time I saw the temperature on the chemist's sign in town.
13.5 degrees: the temperature at that time.
13.5 + some: the (unrecorded) temperature it must have been at midday.
45 degrees (approx): the angle of shadow in the photo.
5: the number of sunny days this week.

Those figures come from my own observations. No comment. Just a reminder of the date: 14th February!

And these figures come from Manuel Rivas, a local writer, and his excellent book, "Una espia en el reino de Galicia":

30,000 square kilometres: the surface area of Galicia.
1,200 kilometres: the length of the coastline of Galicia.

2.8 million: the number of inhabitants of Galicia in around 2005.

1,000,000: the number of cows in Galicia at that time.

500: the number of wolves (!!) in Galicia at that time.

1 (whereabouts unknown): the number of bears (!!!!) in Galicia at that time.

500 million: the number of trees in Galicia at that time.

77: the number of different kinds of apples grown in Galicia at that time.

Muchas gracias, Manuel.

Now for some figures of a different kind!

**** is my "numero secreto" for my Spanish bank debit card.
12 euros is the amount the bank charged me to activate that debit card.

About 8 weeks is the length of time it took them to give me a "numero secreto", despite my having phoned to activate the card and their having debited the account for the aforementioned 12 euros!

In the meantime, I had given the bank our NIE (Foreigner's ID) numbers so that they could be added to the database. This caused instant chaos with online banking. Until then I had used my passport number as ID, together with the "llave", customer number, provided electronically by the bank, without any problems whatsoever. Suddenly this did not work. Logic said that perhaps I should use my NIE number as ID instead. However, when I tried this I still had no success. Having consulted the wonderfully helpful Monica at the bank, I realised that the ball was in my court and I plucked up courage to phone the bank.

After the usual round of security checks, they confirmed that, yes, I needed to use my NIE. Fine, I told them, but now neither my passport number nor my NIE number worked. The bank employee asked me how long ago I had given the bank my NIE number and then informed me that it should take about ten working days for the database to be updated. So much for modern, instantaneous technology. I feared that bureaucracy had been at work again!

Once enough working days had elapsed, I tried the online banking again. Still no joy! Once again I phoned the bank's helpline, told them all sorts of intimate details by way of checks, explained the problem, gave my NIE number for the umpteenth time and was told that the problem was undoubtedly the result of my number beginning with a Y(?!?). They had not got around to them yet. This was getting beyond a joke. However, if there was anything I needed to do, bank-wise, I could always use their telephone banking service. Grrrrr! That was not the point! But I waited ... again! It did not work ... again!

Third time lucky? Another phone call, another round of security checks, another time of giving all the numbers and the by now rather lengthy saga and the bank employee this time declared herself to be totally flummoxed. She promised to investigate, sort it out and get back to me by email or phone within five days.

Five days later, I was on a bus, heading for Vigo airport to catch a plane home to visit family for Christmas. The bus was extremely crowded. We stood, jammed together, suitcases at our feet, rucksacks on our backs, barely able to breathe as more and yet more people crammed onto our bus. Then I felt, rather than heard, my phone ring in my bag which was pressed against hip. There was absolutely no chance of getting the phone out let alone answering it. When we reached the airport I checked the phone: one missed call, number withheld!

Some twelve to eighteen hours later I managed to check my email. The bank had sorted out the problem, although I still do not really know what caused it, and gave instructions for how to access my account online. And since then it has worked like a dream!

Monday, 9 February 2009

Let me take you by the hand ..... again

So, back on the streets of Vigo, as Urzaiz is about to become Principe the pavement narrows to allow for an exit from an underground carpark. There, at the point where people will have to pass close by him, you will often see "Nadie da". Never moving, this young man kneels on the pavement holding up his begging bowl. He keeps up a whining singsong, explaining that he is hungry and that nobody gives any money: nadie da! In December he reminded us that Christmas was coming but still nobody gave. Despite this apparently miserable aspect of his existence, however, he is not always miserable. I have seen him at around lunchtime on a Sunday on the way to the Casco Vello - the old quarter of Vigo - comparing takings with a friend, a perfectly ordinary, cheerful young man.

"Nadie da" is one of a number of beggars to be seen on the streets. One fine day I counted five in the space of about two hundred yards. But even in the rain there are still a good number around. Often they are men in their fifties, sitting quietly with a notice telling passers-by that they are out of work, without resources and have a family to maintain. Spanish friends of mine give regularly to these people, explaining that the benefits system here makes it hard for the unemployed to keep going. And now that la crisis has struck everywhere it can only get worse.

Sometimes you see South American Indian women in long skirts selling packets of tissues to motorists who stop
at the traffic lights. Recently I saw a lady deep in conversation with one of these women, asking her what she needed: clothes? food? things for her children? and giving her information about a centre where she can go for help. Some of the women who go to the Club de Lectura I attend at the library help out at such centres and give extra classes to children of immigrants.

Most of the people begging money one way or another on the streets appear non-threatening. However, rather frightening is the wild-eyed girl who approaches people directly, staring straight into their face and asking for money. She must be in her late teens or early twenties and is dirty, thin and ill-looking, possibly having drug problems. Flitting suddenly from one side of the street to the other, she rarely approaches individual women but will address the man of a couple or individual men, usually choosing men over fifty or so. Maybe experience has shown her that older men might be more likely to give her money, thinking that they would like someone to help their daughter if she were in such a plight. The wild girl does not approach the young. She seems to have learnt who are the most likely sources of income.

And then, just beyond Puerta del Sol with its statue of the swimmer, across the road is the place where the local winos seem to gather. Sometimes there are only two of them but often there are half a dozen quietly sitting on the window ledges, shooting the breeze, not causing a nuisance to anyone. If the weather is fine they appear to enjoy the sunshine in their chosen sheltered spot. Lately though, it has been colder and on one cold late Saturday afternoon I saw that they had managed to get into the doorway of one of the banks, probably when someone went in to use the hole-in-the-wall cash machine, and looked as though they were settled for the evening in a relatively warm place.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the steets of Vigo

I would like to introduce you to some of the characters of the streets of Vigo's busy centre.

At the bottom of Gran Via you will see another huge statue to balance the crazy horses at the top. This time it is a group of fishermen, hauling in an enormous net, provoking a chorus of "Yo, heave ho!" from certain British jokers each time they go past.

More seriously, of course, it is a tribute to the many gallegos who have earned, and who still earn, their living from the sea.

Turning left from the bottom of Gran Via, you move onto Urzaiz, one of the main shopping streets of the centre and then onto Principe, what you might call The Main Drag, a broad pedestrianised street where people stroll around and where the street musicians compete with the piped radio music.

First there is the violinist who plays on the street itself when the weather is fine and warm or in a doorway when it is cold or damp. Mostly he plays bits of Carmen, quite badly but recognisably and with a ready smile. Occasionally he switches to Lara's theme from Doctor Zhivago. Terminally cheerful, he greets passers-by and wished us all "Felices fiestas" as Christmas approached. Not tall, quite skinny, dressed in a rather long, worn brown leather overcoat and since the weather turned colder he has been sporting a woolly hat.

To accompany, or possibly to compete with, the violinist there are a few accordeon players, usually spread out along Principe but sometimes teaming up to play together. They are younger than the violin player and may be something South American from their appearance. They play lots of schmaltzy waltzes and you may find your feet quickening to the sound of Piaf's "Padam, padam, padam". Having seen an old couple quietly waltzing as the accordeons played one day, I almost imagined a scene from a film where all the shoppers and strollers drop their bags, choose their partners and begin to dance down the street.

For a while there was a very professional trio, from some Northern European country according to their notice, playing classical music very seriously and well. A woman and two men, very formally dressed, they had a collection of CDs on sale. However, Vigo must not have been an appreciative enough audience as they did not last very long on the streets.

Marching up and down Urzaiz and Principe, and occasionally seen on our own street, is the cigarette seller with his cry of "A do-o--o-o-o-o-o-o-os el paquete de Winston!". I have never seen anyone stop and buy cigarettes from him but he is almost always around.

And then, of course, there are the umbrella sellers. Galicia is rightly known as "green Spain" and the locals will tell you that it rains a lot here. We have arguments about whether it rains more here or in Manchester! Be that as it may, when the rain clouds gather so do the umbrella sellers. They appear as if from nowhere, usually the same Africans who sell fake designer handbags and sunglasses, with stacks of umbrellas to sell. And gallegos leave their umbrellas everywhere. They pop into a cafe to avoid the worst of the downpour and leave their wet umbrellas in the inevitable brolly stand in the doorway when the rain stops. So there is always a ready supply of customers for the street brolly sellers.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Taking a look at Vigo

Before I start to rant and rave about numbers, Spanish customs and so on again, I thought I'd take a little look around Vigo.

One of its main thoroughfares is Gran Via, a huge dual carriageway going through a large chunk of the city but with a walkway up the middle with trees and flower beds. Even in February, there is colour in the flower beds and blossom in the trees. Some of it may be shaken off by the wind at night but enough remains to brighten up the day.

Way up at the top of Gran Via is one of the strangest equestrian statues
I've ever seen.

About half a dozen horses race up a spiral staircase, leaping up against the sky.

If you head to the right at the top of Gran Via, you will come eventually to the Castro park. As its name suggests, it is the site of an old fortification.

This is the high point of the city. I am told that there was snow there over Christmas but, if so, it did not wait for us to come back and see it. We have mainly seen the Castro park in the sunshine. We first saw it one boiling hot day in August 2007, climbing to the top and thinking that we might die of heat exhaustion and dehydration. Now we trot up without a care.

From there you get a tremendous view across the bay to Cangas and Moana, which are both accessible by ferry from the port.

When the family came to stay in October, that's just what we did. Our Tasmin overcame her fear of boats and became a brave sailor. The little ones ate piles of chips and in general we had a good day out.

The fact that poor Phil ate some dodgy cockles is neither here nor there and must be a story for another day!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Numbers, weather, numbers, identity ...

While Britain suffers the worst winter in 18 years and I'm not there to be able to luxuriate in NOT having to go out to work in it, Spain is apparently changing it's attitude to weather. According to something I read in El Pais yesterday, up to three or four months ago they were really hoping for rain or snow. The reservoirs were empty, they were discussing piping water from the north to the south and there had been so little snow the previous winter that there was almost no run-off from melted snow. Now, in January, they regard the threat of storms with the same trepidation as the rest of Europe. Madrid has been brought to a standstill by snow (just like London, Paris, Milan), winds have brought down high-tension cables near Valencia causing forest fires, the Basque country has had floods and the weather charts have shown the whole of the peninsula covered in little clouds with rain or snow falling from them.

In the meantime, listening to the rain falling down in the "patio de luces" (central open area in our building where you can hang your washing to dry and so on - patio de luces means patio of light but in our case, being on the second floor of a thirteen storey building, it's more a "patio de sombras", a patio of shadow) I consult my weather chart to see how we are getting on. Yes, I'm just geek enough to set up a chart on my computer to monitor the weather! I find that since I started the chart back in mid-September we have had 40 days of all-day sunshine, some of them a mite cold but still sunshine, some of them very warm, 21 days when the sun shone but then the weather changed to cloudy or even rainy or vice-versa, and 32 days with some rain but only during the last couple of weeks have we really had days of continual, sometimes torrential, rain.

All these numbers! It sometimes seems as though our lives are governed by numbers - bank accounts, cards, PIN numbers, phone numbers, passport numbers - that we try desperately to remember: a kind of over-arching sudoku that we have to complete.

Be that as it may, an important number for us, having sorted out accommodation, bank and internet, was the NIE, Numero de Indentificacion de Extranjero, foreign nationals' ID number. So in early October we set out to get one of these. This involved going to the police station for nine o'clock in the morning, having scoured our street map to find the street where the police station was situated, following several false leads and eventually discovering it tucked away quite near the port.

You have to get to the police station early to collect a number (there it is again, the importance of numbers!) which entitles you to an appointment later in the day. If you arrive late, all the numbers have gone and you must return another day. A helpful policeman gives you an approximate idea of what time to return to the police station and off you go, about your business, making sure that you put your number, in fact a ticket just like the ones you collect at the deli counter in the supermarket, in a safe place. However, it pays to arrive early for your apppointment because if your number comes up and you are not there, you have to get another number (an official notice tells you this - no ifs or buts!) or, if they are feeling especially helpful, you may be allowed to wait until the end of the day and hope to be seen then. We saw at least two instances of this and several of people turning up, as we did the first time, hoping to be able to sort it out at once.

Once you have sat around for a good while, anxiously watching the number counter, wondering why some people are able to go in apparently without a number (discovering later that there are in fact two offices in one) and making sure that no-one steals your turn, eventually you get into the office. There you are given a form to fill in. If you have not brought a photocopy of your passport, you will be sent away and probably have to return later. We were well-informed and took copies!! So we were given two copies of the form to fill in there and then, instead of taking it away to photocopy as well.

It seems not to have occurred to the stressed officials, who express great concern about how many "numeros" remain to be seen, that they could give out forms WITH the numbers, thus saving time by having people fill them in before going into the office. Are they afraid that "foreigners" will take away the forms and not return them? Is it a form of extreme paranoia which demands that they see you complete the form. Whatever the truth of the matter, the harrassed lady we saw showed no sign of checking what we had written nor even of looking at our passports, which struck me a strange! We were intructed to return in the middle of the next week, present our forms and passports to the policeman at the desk, pay him 15 euros and, hopefully, recieve a document with our NIE. According to my sister who has lived in Spain, for more years than she ever lived in the UK, until recently she had a neat little ID card with her NIE which she could carry around in her card wallet as proof of ID. When she went to renew it recently, it was taken off her and replaced with a paper document, the result, it seems, of some new EU ruling.

Further fun and games ensued when we went back with our forms and passports to pay our 15 euros. The police station does not accept payments. That has to be done through a bank. Why had we not taken the relevant form to a bank? Possibly this was because we did not have the relevant form! The poiliceman tutted, retreated into the office and came out with the correct papers. Off we trotted to the nearest bank, only to discover that this was the WRONG BANK! Our NIE numbers began with the wrong letter for this bank. We needed to find a branch of the Banco Popular. There it was again, the rather picky bureaucracy of this lovely country. However, having paid our dues, we returned to the police station, handed in the papers and received another one each in return, complete with A NUMBER! It was something of an anticlimax but at least we were now completely legal.