Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A bit of magic and witchcraft .... and there it was gone!

A queimada, in Castellano la quemada which means "burnt", is a drink, a kind of hot toddy. The ingredients are aguardiente, white sugar, lemon peel and coffee beans.

Basically, you mix lots of aguardiente
with the other ingredients in an earthenware bowl, stir the mixture up and then set light to a ladle containing a little aguardiente and sugar. Use the ladle to set light to the mixture in the earthenware bowl. Put some more sugar in the ladle and hold it over the flames to turn the sugar into a syrup which you then pour over the mixture. Let the flames go out and drink it.

I was told that it was very strong but, unless I am mistaken, the alcohol should all have been burnt off. Whatever the truth of the matter, it was certainly a tasty mixture.

Now, all the information will tell you that a queimada is not JUST a drink; it also part of the myth and mystery that is a strong part of Galicia. If the right spell is chanted before you drink it all the forces of darkness are chased away and you are protected from evil. The spell involves a lot of chanting about owls, toads, witches and other similar things that come out at night. The whole incantation can be found on this website.

The queimada is believed to date back to the pre-roman Celtic societies of Galicia, a strangely pagan ritual involving the elements of earth (the e
arthenware bowl), water (the aguardiente) and fire. It is described as one of the few rituals which are still maintained to this day in Galician society in a wide range of social gatherings. I came across it as the part of the closing ceremony and prize giving of the Galicia Chess Festival in Orense at the weekend.

It was clear that something more than a simple prize giving was going on as candles were placed here and there in front of the stage and tables were set up with what looked like small cauldrons on them. Finally the start of the ceremony was announced, the lights were dimmed and a fire-eating “devil” on stilts appeared, followed a rather elegant witch on roller-skates.

The cauldrons (the earthenware bowls of queimada) were set alight and someone who could only be described as a kind of druid or mage came onto the scene dressed in a most impressive cloak.

With great gusto he introduced the proceedings, requested the help of a virgin (a young boy from the front row) and made us all repeat the incantation after him, after which he successfully chased the witch and the devil out of the room.

All of this was staged, I later discovered, by EL Grupo Queimada who offer their services for just such occasions.

The mage dedicated this queimada to the memory of Fernando Marcote, who founded the Escuela Internacional de Ajedrez Kasparov-Marcote and whose name was given to the Rapid play Open Tournament at the Galicia Chess Festival.

As we moved on to the prize giving Elena Nuñez, the widow of Fernando Marcote, visibly moved, thanked the organisation for arranging the queimada, something her husband would have appreciated very much indeed. She assured us that although Fernando Marcote enjoyed queimada, he never sold his soul to the devil The vice president of the Deputación de Ourense quickly responded by saying that
if Fernando Marcote had sold his soul to anything, it was to chess. Huge applause all round!

Trophies were given to the big winners, lots of people received prizes and we were invited (if we dared!) to have a taste of queimada to protect us all from any spirits of evil that might be around.

And finally we loaded the equipment onto the bus back to Vigo and set off for home with that bit of magic all over for this year!

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Off to Ourense, where I almost met the President of Galicia.

I am spending the weekend in Orense where the mornings are now crisp and almost chilly, the sunrise is spectacular as seen from my hotel window and the temperature goes up to something phenomenal by midday.

We are here for the Galicia Chess Festival, taking place at the Pazo de Deportes Paco Paz. On Thursday when we arrived the GCF team was already busy transforming a truly impressing stadium from a venue for sports like basketball, football, volleyball and so on into the perhaps more sedentary but no less competitive sport of chess. Young volunteers shifted equipment around, organiser Roberto Páramos spent hours on the phone, the wooden floor was covered in protective sheets and the whole place was converted into a venue for a chess event. We left the sports centre at about 11 and headed for Orense centre to cenar, finally falling into bed at around 2 in the morning, not the best preparation for my Phil playing chess the next day but he seemed to survive it.

Friday morning saw us all gathered at the deputación de Ourense for an official reception with the vice president of the Orense District.

There were drinks and nibbles for everyone. This event has sponsorship from the local tourist office, the deputación and even Xacobeo 2010, so there has been a good deal of handshaking and press photography.

My role in all of this was to be the official interpreter so I found myself fielding phone calls from irate and bewildered Russian and Ukrainian chess players who were stranded at airports, usually with minimal or no Spanish, acting as a kind of go-between to help get them to Orense. So I have found myself on first name terms with some of the big boys of the chess world (not quite the Karpovs and Kasparovs but still) who before this were just names my chess playing husband mentioned from time to time.

I may have appeared on local TV, taking part in the opening ceremony where Carme Pardo, director general of Tourismo Galicia made the first move. I have had to try to remember where the loos were in a building I had entered for the first time the previous day and to respond to questions to which I only had half an answer. But it’s all part of the fun. I did draw the line at playing a quick game of chess so that someone could film it. That might have been negative marketing for the organisation.

And publicity and marketing seem to have a bigger and bigger part in everything; even as I sit here typing this one of the team has brought me a polo shirt to wear. Why? Because it has the organisation’s logo on it. I am part of the marketing!

Lunch was provided at a reasonable price at a residence for handicapped people nearby. Between rounds players relaxed. Some of the younger ones found another kind of activity to keep themselves busy.

On Saturday afternoon I escaped with the WAGS (well, wives, girlfriends, parents, small brothers and sisters and even a little dog) on an excursion. We drove through winding roads, taking a coach down tracks I would have been nervous about driving my car on. Our coach driver seriously deserves a medal. At last we arrived at the embarcadero, the landing stage for a catamaran which took us through the canyons of the river Sil, a truly impressive bit of Galician geography and well worth a visit.

We returned to the playing venue just in time to witness a visit by regional president, el Señor Feijóo. This visit was, of course, part of the reason for the push to have a corporate image earlier in the day. In a huge hall full of chess players and the assembled wives, girlfriends, parents, small brothers and sisters and even a little dog, in a pause between the last two rounds of a lightning tournament, Mr Feijóo made a presentation to the widow of Fernando Marcote, a local chess benefactor, and gave a speech about the importance of sport, how good it was to see so many people playing chess. Hopefully funding is guaranteed now for another chess festival next year.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Neither one thing nor the other!

Imagine, if you will, 250,000 16 to 24 years olds. This is the number of people in that age group in Galicia.

75,000 of them are still in mainstream education, most likely doing bachillerato or formación profesional.

65,000 are studying at university.

73, 000 are in employment.

The remaining 40,000 or so are “los ni-ni”, a new sociological term in Spain, apparently. It is short for “ni estudian, ni trabajan”, those who neither study nor work. In the UK they call them “neets”: Not in Education, Employment or Training.

The typical
ni-ni gallego, I understand, is likely to be a young man who completed or, more likely, scraped through ESO (more or less GCSE equivalent) and then did not continue with education or training or find a proper permanent job. He is quite happy to live at home depending on his parents and doing occasional temporary work to fund his leisure activities.

Because of the rural exodus of their parents’ generation, most ni-nis live in Galicia’s biggest cities, particularly La Coruña and Pontevedra.

Nowadays, of course, the push to become independent is not as urgent as it used to be. It is now perfectly acceptable for a young couple, each living with their individual sets of parents, to go away for the weekend or even go on holiday together, something that was unheard of 30 or 40 years ago. As someone commented, they have all the advantages of being married but none of the disadvantages.

And then parents are quite willing for the most part to help out their offspring in a way that they would have liked to be helped themselves, although one mother, remembering the long hours she worked in her youth, remarked that they have made life too easy for their children nowadays.

Not all expect to supported, however. Just last night I was talking to a young gallego, not a ni-ni, this one but repeating some subjects this year to complete his bachillerato, After that he plans to do a couple of years of formación profesional and then spend a year travelling, picking up work as and when he can, learning some foreign language and culture. After that, aged about 23, he might go to university. When I asked if his parents were financing all this, he told me, ¡qué va!, he is already working evenings to finance himself and intends to continue to do so. He even manages to save some money for going on camping holidays with friends.

Many of the parents of this generation emigrated to find work in the past. It was almost an accepted part of Galician life. Now, it seems, this is not happening, or at least not as frequently. Many of those who have gone away to work have returned home because the job market has folded internationally.

What is happening though is that young gallegos are now wanting to travel for fun. Maybe the gap-year organisations which have profited from young Brits going off trekking or helping out in third world countries will do the same thing here in Galicia.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Where do YOU buy your tobacco?

It could be said that the French and the Spanish have their tobacconists in common – in more ways than one! First of all, the French tabac and the Spanish estanco are very similar institutions. They both started off as places where tobacco and salt were sold – a surprising combination perhaps but both involving taxes which needed to be paid. As a result nowadays both places now sell postage stamps as well as cigarettes, tobacco, Zippo lighters and the rest. Almost no-one goes to the post office for stamps. What’s the point when there is an estanco on every other street corner selling stamps for letters and postcard to all destinations?

Secondly, it seems that many French people prefer to buy their cigarettes from the estanco rather than the tabac. According to an item in the newspaper La Voz de Galicia, Spain is becoming el estanco de Europa. The newspaper tells us that 36% of the tobacco sold in Spain is bought by foreigners.

So it’s not just the British tourists who stock up with cheap cigarettes before going home. The French regularly pop across the border to stock up in Spain. A couple of years ago in San Sebastián I was amazed at how often I was stopped by French tourists who asked me “Est-ce qu’il y a un hypermarché près d’ici?”! Not only did they want to buy cheap booze and cigarettes but they assumed that everyone spoke French! And people say the British are poor at languages and expect all the world to speak English!!!!

Apparently it is this cross-border shopping that keeps the province of Girona in 5th place for sales of cigarettes. The first four places go to Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Alicante. These “foreign” sales also explain, according to the newspaper, why sales of tobacco have remained stable in Spain even though the number of smokers has gone down by about one million.

One million!!! Really??? You wouldn’t think so walking through the streets of Vigo or all the other places I’ve visited recently. Not only are you at risk from passive smoking but you are in danger of being burnt by gesticulating smokers, lighted cigarette in hand! And the Comité Nacional para la Prevención del Tabaquismo may well tell me that only 27% of over 18 year olds smoke, I find it hard to believe. All I can say is that the under-18s must be smoking a lot!

Meanwhile my largely fruitless search for non-smoking bars and restaurants continues. Even though 70.6% of people here believe La Ley del Tabaco has been good for the country’s health, a European Commission survey in March shows the Spanish to be the nation most opposed to a complete ban on smoking in restaurants and leisure venues with 14% completely opposed and another 13 % partly against the idea.

I suppose this is not very surprising given that 24.9% of the population smoke and 20.8% admit to having been smokers at some time in the past. Of these 28.6% smoke/used to smoke at least a full packet every day and 8.1% smoke/used to smoke two or more packs a day. In addition, 39.6% of smokers declare they have no intention of giving up.

The anti-smoking lobby has its posters up, however, reminding us, ¡Cuando uno fuma, fumamos todos! – when one person smokes, we all smoke.

I wait with interest to see what happens to the proposed changes in La Ley del Tabaco.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

To the Islands ... in the rain!

On Thursday, before the weather broke – later here than in other parts of Spain where they have had storms and torrential rain – we took a last boat trip to the Islas Cíes for this year before they close the service down until next Easter. Our son and his girlfriend were visiting and we wanted to show them the islands. So, despite a forecast that was less than good for Thursday, we set off for the 10.30 boat, armed with waterproofs, just in case.

Thursday had dawned fine and clear but by the time we boarded and set off across the water the clouds were blowing over from Pontevedra. Our plan was to explore a bit of the island, have some lunch, explore some more and head for home.

So, on arrival, after a warming cup of coffee – it’s cold work sitting on the top deck in the
wind – we trekked off past the lagoon, marvelling at the Atlantic waves pounding in at the causeway, went around behind the campsite and up the hill.

Our ultimate goal was the big lighthouse, the Faro de Cíes, at the top of the hill but we stopped every so often to admire the view, especially downwards.

We made it to the to
p in the end, after many a twist and turn in the path. Then the only thing to do was go back down, seeing the same sights from a different angle and looking down on another lighthouse far below, the Faro da Porta.

We were lucky with the weather, getting more than our share of sunshine on our way up the hill. We even managed to see a lizard! By the time we reached the self-service restaurant on the campsite, however, it was starting to drizzle. We did not mind though; our objective now was food.

As we ate ensalada mixta and empanada, washed down with a bottle of vino joven, we watched the rain grow heavier and spent a good while in the shelter of the restaurant, watching seagulls run across the awning and take off. It was just as well that it was late in the season. Had there been the same number of visitors as in August we would have been hard pressed to find shelter. As it was, we were a fairly select hardy bunch on the islands in the rain and there was plenty of room.

Eventually the rain eased off enough for u
s to walk along the path towards the high point of the island, Alto do Príncipe. We never got there, however. We were booked onto the 5.30 boat for our return journey and we did not plan to miss it. So once more we headed down the hill, had a quick stroll on the beach, even a paddle, and caught the boat home.

This morning Saturday, visitors departed as of yesterday, I woke to the sound of rain. The TV weatherman had been right. And the temperatures were lower than we have grown used to of late. For the first time in a long time I had shoes and socks on. On my way back from the bread shop I met a neighbour in the lift who commented that we seemed to have gone almost overnight from summer to winter.

It felt like that then but later on the day as the rain disappeared and the cloud cover thinned the temperatures crept back up, showing 17.5° or 18.5° outside chemists’ shops. By early evening the sky was blue again. So, not quite winter yet then! The day is definitely approaching, however, when I must put my sandals away and keep raincoats and umbrellas by the door instead of sun glasses and sunhats.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Back to the Botellón

As summer comes to an end and university terms start again, the botellón raises its head once more, either as an end of season bash or a great reunion bash. Whatever it is, it’s back in the news.

Not that botellón ever stopped, truth to tell. One of my August visitors, a smoker, used to go out for an early morning cigarette and come back with tales of the local youth making their merry way home at 6 or 7 in the morning. I myself ran into a group sitting cross-legged on the pavement one fine early morning, chewing the fat. We’ve heard them singing in the street parallel to ours in the small hours of the morning and just last week I discovered an uprooted tree, the consequence I assumed, perhaps unjustly, of youthful high spirits.

But the fight against el botellón has been in the news again because the weekend before last some young men in Pozuelo de Alarcón, a district of outer Madrid, got into a fight with police. It was during the local fiestas, a week of fairs and fun and games. The police went to remonstrate with a group who proceded to throw bottles at them and the whole thing escalated into a major battle with police cars set on fire and general mayhem. One young man who claimed not have been directly involved said it was the best night of the summer!!

The upshot of it all was policemen injured, young men arrested and indignant parents declaring that their boys did not do things like that. Now these were not “scum” from the outer suburbs of Paris (Monsieur Sarkozy’s description I believe) but middle class youths from one of the richest areas of Madrid. The judge, however, ruled that they needed a curfew and has made it obligatory for them to be home by 10.00 pm for the next three months!

Closer to home, in Mos this last weekend when the police were called to an incident outside a disco stones and bottles were thrown, three Guardia civil were injured and two young men were arrested. Some reports say they may face three years in prison.

In general there has been an effort to put an end to botellón or, at least, to control it. More and more areas are being declared alcohol free and those who drink there are being arrested, like three young men in Vigo last week. There is talk of raising the legal age for consumption of any kind of alcoholic drink to 18, still 16 for some drinks in Galicia. There are plans to make it impossible for young people to get on the noitebús, the late night bus service if they are clearly carrying alcohol ready for a botellon, especially since some 8000 euros’ worth of damage was done to a noitebús a couple of weeks ago. Quite how to “police” such a restriction raises some questions however.

It might all be too late, of course. Alcohol consumption has always been part of having fun in Spain (as in many other countries and we all know what a problem British binge drinking is). With alcohol banned last weekend at Pozuelo de Alarcón the feria closed at midnight for lack of public, something almost unheard of in a Spanish summer. It is worth noting that even MacDonald’s serves beer in Spain, something which doesn’t happen anywhere else to my knowledge, not even in France. It seems that they realised that Spanish papás would not take their kids to MacDonald’s if they (the papás) had to drink fizzy pop.

Maybe everywhere will have to follow the example of Pontevedra with its botellódromo where it seems young people can drink, dance, smoke what they like and, some say, indulge in other bad habits, with no interference.

The whole thing has led to a huge debate once again – (lack of) discipline, (lack of) manners and (lack of) respect. There is justifiable concern about 13 year olds taking part in botellon. The judge who restricted the freedom of the young madrileños from Pozuelo, though, said it was largely down to children not learning respect at school. This has been exacerbated by the modern habit of pupils and teachers addressing each other as . The obligatory use of usted in the classroom should be brought back and the distance created by formality would ensure that respect returned. Then the young would know how to behave properly.

Hmmmmm, I can think of any number of schools in the UK where calling the teacher “Sir” does not automatically guarantee respect.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

THE IDEA – one year on: reflections on Vigo.

A year ago today we flew into Santiago de Compostela and caught a train to Vigo to put into action THE IDEA described in my very first blog. So here we are; we have spent a year in this city of granite, often reflected in other kinds of surfaces:-

in the strange metal constructions in the Plaza Elíptica;

in shaded glass windows on García Barbón;

in the windows of A Laxe Centro Comercial;

and even in puddles.

No-one could call Vigo a pretty or picturesque place. It is far too much of an imposing sprawl for that.

Aerial photos of Barcelona show symmetry, evidence of town planning with corner buildings angled to give maximum light and space.
Similar views of Vigo show a mishmash, buildings constructed in whichever space became available, higgledy-piggledy all over the place. Streets have rooflines at all different levels as small old building have been replaced by larger ones and then by tower blocks, interspersed with the odd old one or two storey building stubbornly refusing to disappear. And yet in its way it works as the city staggers up the hillside, creating a city of ups and downs which must keep its citizens fit (or very tired) if nothing else.

Vigo remains, of course, a work in progress. We have seen advances (of sorts) in the work of mellorando o futuro but the obras still continue all over the city. The stone merchants must be making money hand over fist. Everywhere there are piles of paving stones, not concrete slabs but huge chunks of good solid stone!

Meanwhile the reformas in our building appear finally to be coming to an end. The expanded polystyrene protective covering in the lifts has disappeared as have the sheets of cardboard protecting the floor of the lobby as building materials were brought in and rubble taken out.

During the last week I have watched workmen abseiling up and down the patio de luces doing some kind of electrical installations involving a good deal of high pitched drilling and noisy hammering. The place is getting back to normal just in time for us to move out.

Moving out but not really moving away, we have spent the weekend shifting our clutter from one end of Vigo to the other. Our year in Vigo has been a good one and now we are getting ourselves ready for another year in a different part of the city to see what life has to offer us.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Literary Lunches

I always find it rather interesting to read a novel set in a place that I have visited. When I read Iain Banks’s "The Crow Road" I was amused to find that the story took place in Lochgilphead, a small place in Scotland where we once spent a summer holiday. Donna Leon sets her detective stories in Venice, a place I love but would hesitate to say I know well. Such presumptuousness might lead you to fall into a canal.

So it was an extra bonus when I read Domingo Villar’s "Ojos de Agua" to find his hero strolling along Príncipe and visiting places I recognised in and around Vigo. One of the favourite haunts of detective Leo Caldas is a restaurant called El Eligio, made to sound so enticing that I decided to investigate it. After some hunting around, I found it tucked away in Travesía de la Aurora, just behind Príncipe, small and unassuming. I’ve not seen it mentioned in any guide books but then I get the impression that the restaurant critics didn’t stray far from the port and I suppose El Eligio is a bit off the beaten track.

Opened in the 1920s by Eligio himself, I understand that the restaurant initially served little more than octopus, meatballs and pimientos de Padrón washed down with ribeiro wine. The writer Valle Inclán is said to h
ave eaten there and many local painters such as Lodeiro, Barreiro and Laxeiro made it their meeting place. It went on to become something of a centre of cultural life in Vigo, especially in the 60s, 70s and 80s, rather like the more famous restaurant Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona. In 1985 it was taken over by Eligio’s son-in-law Carlos Álvarez who, as far I know, still runs it, serving a range of tapas by all accounts. The artist Barreiro still frequents it when he is in Vigo, apparently.

Naturally enough, having found out all this, I wanted to go and eat there. So toda
y we went along at lunchtime, only to find it shut. The friendly lady who was locking the kitchen door informed us that the owner was lunching with friends elsewhere and so the place was closed this lunchtime. I told her what had led us there and she let us take a peep inside before she finished locking up. It is open in the evening so we promised to return some time in the near future to try out its culinary delights.

This left us with a dilemma: where to go for lunch. There is no shortage of eating places in Vigo but we were rather set on trying
somewhere new and different. Our problem was quickly solved though and once again thanks to Mr. Villar and his detective story. Our hero, Leo Caldas, arrives late for lunch with his father one day at a restaurant at the end of El Arenal, a place called El Puerto which we have passed many times but never at lunchtime. So off we went to try it out.

We definitely made the right decision. It turned out to be one of the few places we have found with a PROHIBIDO FUMAR sign in the window and it was full of local people having lunch, always a good sign. In this no-nonsense place with its plain decor and checked tablecloths we enjoyed zamburiñas, ensalada mixta and pescados variados, a plateful of assorted fish which, according to what I read in Mr. Villar’s book, should have been freshly caught in the ría and certainly tasted as if they had.

Now, Domingo Villar has recently published the second of his Leo Caldas detective stories. Maybe if he continues to develop this into a series a new kind of Vigo tourism will spring up: The Leo Caldas Trail. It could be a more enjoyable gastronomic alternative to eating in Compo’s Cafe in Last of the Summer Wine’s Holmfirth or something like visiting Wordsworth’s Lake District or Hardy’s Wessex but with better weather on the whole.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off re-cycling we go!

Every so often I gather a motley collection of plastic bags and sally forth to do my bit to save the planet. Glass bottles and jars go to one container, paper and cardboard to another and then I trek a bit further afield to the big yellow bin for plastics. I must look a bit comical with my bags but it’s all in a good cause and if we all do our bit ..... well, you know the theory.

In the supermarket of El Corte Inglés they sell re-usable bags in a range of colours – fluorescent pink, day-glo orange, even sea-sick green – all labelled “Esta bolsa es verde” – This bag is green. No-one has yet pressed me, or even politely invited me, to buy one of these at the very reasonable price of 50 céntimos. No, they continue stuffing my shopping helpfully, tidily, very efficiently, into plastic carriers. Froiz and Eroski supermarkets do the same.

This is all going to change though. The big French supermarket chain Carrefour with two huge hypermarkets here in Vigo has started a campaign to encourage recycling and is stopping giving free plastic carriers. Instead you can buy biodegradable bags made, I understand, from potatoes!! (Yes, I find that hard to believe as well but it must be so as I read it in a newspaper. Does this mean that Galician biodegradable bags will be the best in the world, made from the best potatoes in the world? Or will they use inferior potatoes to make the bags? Will we see people eating biodegradable bags as an accompaniment to bacalao?)

And now I learn that Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia are thinking of recycling telephone boxes. As a way of encouraging the use of non-polluting electric cars in the three biggest cities in Spain, phone boxes could be converted into recharge points for electric cars’ batteries.

Now that just about everyone has a mobile phone, many phone boxes stand abandoned and unused on street corners, ideally placed to be converted to battery chargers: close to the kerb and already supplied with electricity. The Spanish government plans to spend €10m (£8.7m) on kick-starting the use of electric cars over the next two years, with €1.5m going on recharging points.

Barcelona apparently plans to use lampposts as well, attaching recharging points to “intelligent lampposts” (not the stupid ones!) and aims to install 191 recharging points over the next two years.

Other incentives could be: -

• offering extra points to companies tendering for services to town halls and government
offices if they can show they intend to use electric-powered vehicles;
• free parking in the city for owners of electric cars;
• a 75% cut in car tax for electric cars.

The aim is to introduce some 2000 electric vehicles into cities over the next 2 years and the mayor of Madrid, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón foresees electric cars becoming obligatory in city centres.

A brave new world is just around the corner – a la vuelta de la esquina.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

One-upmanship in action?

After my comments on the cost of going back to school (a volta ó cole here in Galicia) I found this cartoon in one of the free papers:-

The little girl comments: Look at him, giving himself airs because they bought him designer trainers to come back to school .... but then all his pens and pencils and stuff come from the Chinese shop.

Two examples of school snobbery there!

Personally I think the Chinese shops are excellent: - stationery items, kitchen equipment, household tools, novelty mugs shaped like cows, almost anything you might need and dirt cheap! What more could you ask for? Well, in Madrid the Chinese shops also sell frozen bottles of water in the summer months to keep tourists cool and hydrated!

For parents of back-to-schoolers it’s a pity they don’t also sell schoolbooks. I read that the price of text books has gone up by 1.78%, which doesn’t sound much until you discover that parents will spend an average of 183 Euros per child this year on text books, many of them used for only one year.

For those just starting school the books are usually one-off workbooks, intended to be written in. Then the government amends the Ley Orgánica de Educación every once in a while, leading to changes in books. This year it’s the turn of years 5 and 6 of primary schools. Some parts of Spain actively encourage the re-use of text books while others prefer to give subsidies and grants. Galicia does a mix of the two.

There are huge amounts of money available for grants but I read somewhere that in order to qualify you need to be a family with four children and earn less than 1500 Euros a month.
Apparently about 45% of Galician households survive on less than 1500 Euros a month and it is expected that this percentage will increase with la crisis and el paro.

What is hidden, of course, is the number of young people earning that sort of money and finding it impossible to leave the parental home for that reason. I recently read a report in which a young man explained how he lived on 800 Euros a month. Part of the secret is going back to his pueblo after finding life in Madrid too expensive. In his pueblo he shares accommodation with two others and only pays 50 euros a month in rent. Then he is able to use the produce of la huerta del abuelo (his grandfather’s kitchen garden) to supplement his diet and reduce the food bills. He is fully aware that he could not survive on his current income if he moved to somewhere like Vigo but for the moment he is content and even manages to save enough to go on holiday for a month in the summer.

On the education front, they are still discussing the feasibility of bilingual and even trilingual education, English being the third language. Further up the educational ladder there is FP, Formación Profesional, vocational education which, to an outsider at least, seems to work. For a long time it was the poor relation of secondary education as everyone wanted their child to follow the academic route of the bachillerato, just as when I was a child everyone wanted their offspring to go to the grammar school and not the secondary modern.

Nowadays, FP seems to be recognised as an alternative route into both work and university. Some sectors of FP even get more than 70% of their students into jobs. But even there not everything is rosy. Many of these successful job-finding areas – carpentry and furniture making, maritime and fishing industry, vehicle maintenance, electronics – are having difficulty filling their classrooms this school year here in Galicia. And this is a region where the value of FP is recognised; FP has six times the take-up here as in the rest of Spain!

Is this problem still a little bit of educational snobbery?

Friday, 4 September 2009

On your bike!

Channel hopping the other evening, in the hopeless search for something halfway interesting to watch on TV, I came across la Vuelta Ciclista a España, Spain’s answer to Le Tour de France and Il Giro d’Italia. The usual suspects were there on their bikes – the brothers Schleck, who both did so well in the Tour de France, Oscar Freire and other well known riders.

The odd thing was that the scenery, the architecture and the weather were not right. All three could have been somewhere in deepest Cheshire. These
cyclists might be doing a Spanish cycle race but they certainly weren’t in Spain. What was going on? It turned out that they were in fact in Belgium. The Vuelta has had a few stages in the Low Countries, prompting this carton in the local free paper.

One oldie worldie Spanish cyclist asks the other, “So, you say we still have an empire? We never lost Flanders?” His mate replies, “How else do you explain the Vuelta a España going through Belgium and Holland?”

Now, Spain lost its possessions in the Low Countries centuries ago but maybe there’s enough of a connection to merit transporting all the cyclists over there for a few days. Then again, maybe it’s just part of the “internationalisation” of cycling events. After all, the teams are internationally sponsored and made up of cyclists from all over the world. The Tour de France regularly has stages in neighbouring countries, although I wouldn’t really call Belgium and Holland Spain’s “neighbours”.

The weather in Belgium was so bad that riders were falling off all over the place, including one Ezequiel Mosquera of the Xacobeo Galicia. Patched up by the first-aiders and helped back into the peleton with the help of his team mates, Ezequiel benefited from the rest day that followed to overcome his injuries as best he could and is back in the race with a rather sore knee and hip.

In keeping with the “Galicia is the centre of the universe” project which I follow with interest (Miss España is from La Coruña, Miss Universe comes from a family of Gallego emigrants, originally from Nigran and so on) the rider’s progress has prompted a letter to the free paper, encouraging him to keep up the struggle, or should I say a loita:

“¡Ánimo, Ezequiel Mosquera! Ogallá o ciclista teense poida seguir na Vuelta tras a caída en Liexa. Ánimo, Xacobeo Galicia.”

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

La Vuelta al Cole!

It’s that time of year again. In France it’s all La Rentrée, in the United Kingdom it’s Back to School and here it’s La Vuelta al Cole. The shops contrive to take the edge off their last few days of summer freedom as, just a bit later than in the UK, Spanish children prepare to go back to school. Children are seen clutching bags of school “stuff”, parents look gloomily at their rather empty wallets and a load of websites give advice on how to deal with the stress of it all. After all, the kids have had almost three months of holidays, enough to make anyone feel reluctant to get back to the old routine. The child psychologists, however, assure parents that if they deal with it all calmly everything will be back to normal after a few days.

And going back to school can be an expensive business these days. An article in El País today puts the average cost of la vuelta at 825 euros per child, with Madrid hitting a high average of 1072 euros. Ouch! The costs vary from 1486 euros at a private school in Madrid to 384 euros at a state school in Galicia. ¡Menuda diferencia!

So what does the money go on?

• Clothes – even if your child does not go to a private school and so does not need a school uniform, s/he needs new clothes – obviously, didn’t you know that? – so that s/he is not shown up in front of all the other kids.
• Text books – one expense that (so far) doesn’t usually apply in the UK. Sometimes the course books change from year to year so it’s hard to recycle big sister’s copy. Then there’s the controversy here of whether you buy the books in castellano or gallego and if you get a subsidy or not – life is NOT easy!
• Equipment – I have long wondered how it is that pens, pencils, geometry sets, school bags and so on disappear into a black hole called summer EVERY year!
• Meals – they do have to eat!
• Transport – yes, and get to school!

I’m sure that going back to school never used to be so complicated, so costly or so scientifically calculated when my kids were doing it.

Another thing I’ve been reading about concerning school is the problem of the working mum. The young woman in the article I read had just found herself a new job and was having trouble with what to do with the children. Her youngest child was about to start pre-escolar, the stage between nursery for small babies and obligatory schooling at 5 going on 6. Now she was going to work longer hours and she needed to be there before the school starting time of 9 o’ clock. In the event her problem was solved because the centro was offering before school care for the pre-escolar age children, not schooling, just babysitting. Children could be dropped off at 8 o’ clock.

With increasing numbers of working mothers (yes, and fathers!) a system of before and after school “clubs” has been a feature of English primary schools for a good while now. The article I read here suggested that the service was only available for the pre-escolar group. What happens to the 6+ age group, I have no idea. Traditionally the family, especially Grandma, stepped in but nowadays many grandmas are also working and cannot fulfil that role. The library here in Vigo offers an after-school service for children, with a range of activities but it means that some children have a very long day. This is one of the concerns: that some children will be in “school” in one form or another from 8.00 am to around 7.00 pm. Such is the price of modern society.

Getting back to holidays and stress, I read in the local free paper, back in circulation after its August break, that there is now something called o sindrome pos-vacacional, post holiday stress syndrome. This was not talking about children going back to school after 2-3 months of freedom but adults returning to work after a month off. It’s a recognised social disease, a psychological (or psychosomatic according to the writer f the article) problem: stress caused by the need to demonstrate that despite having been away from the office for a month you can still operate at full capacity.

Apparently it affects 8 out of 10 Spanish women as compared with 5 out of 10 men. This is because we have more responsibilities – how many of us confess to returning from holiday only to wash ALL the holiday clothes, AT ONCE, and then clean the house before going back to work? Be honest ladies!! And I don't think that's just Spanish women. Add to that the fact that we women set ourselves higher targets in a loita, the struggle to prove ourselves not only as good as but better than men. Of course, now that the so-called syndrome has a name, lots of people will discover that they too suffer from “o sindrome pos-vacacional” – what better excuse for having another couple of days off?

All I can say is that I am unbelievably glad that I no longer have to worry about either of these sources of stress, getting the kids back to school and getting me back to work after the summer hols! There are some advantages to growing older!