Friday, 31 December 2010

End of year push.

Well, 2010 is rushing to a close. A year ago we were wondering if we would get back to Spain because of snow and ice and ash clouds possibly preventing planes from taking off. And here we are this year in the UK still undecided about our future but still feeling the pull of Spain in general and Galicia in particular.

One thing I’m not missing from Galicia is the percebe, the goose barnacle, which is apparently selling around €170 a kilo and is being snatched up for the Nochevieja feast. People were queuing up at O Berbés fish market in Vigo for this and other shellfish ready for tonight’s celebratory meal. While I love most mariscos, I have to say that the percebe doesn’t do a great deal for me.

On the subject of food I came across a gastronomic blog by one Mikel
López Iturriaga the other day. He was listing things he hopes will disappear in 2011: badly soundproofed restaurants where you can more easily hear the conversations of all the other diners than the one going on at your own table; piped music in restaurants making conversation impossible; what he describes as “froth”, in other words restaurants trying to mask poor ingredients with fancy presentation; boring interviews with celebrity chefs; the continuing rise in the price of tapas and pinchos, a consequence according to the blogger of the increased popularity of cocina española.

Meanwhile there are rather a lot of ladies in Spain hoping to end 2010 by giving birth before they have to eat the 12 grapes which herald in the New Year. Back in 2007 the Spanish government introduced a payment of €2,500 for each child born in the country, as a way of encouraging couples to have more children and thus reverse the falling birth-rate. It even led to a scurrilous cartoon in a satirical magazine suggesting that Prince Felipe and his wife should get busy and earn their bonus. Now the government has decided to cut this bonus payment because of the financial problems of the country.

Consequently ladies whose babies are due on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd of January or even later into the month are doing all they can to bring forward their delivery date. Requests for induced birth and arrangements for elective caesarean have increased. Doctors are faced with another ethical dilemma. And we have a strange reversal of New Year’s birth stories. Usually there is a kind of competition to have the first New Year’s baby and get your picture in the paper. Now, if the baby is born at one minute past midnight the new mum is going to be disgruntled at being out of pocket by €2,500, missing out on the cheque bebé.

Feel sorry for the poor child: not only should she have been a boy but she should have been born a little earlier and earned a bit of money for mamá and papá. Poor thing!

That’s one source of income out of the way. Maybe, in Galicia at least, they should be taking heart from a little something that came my way recently. As part of the Christmas madness we had a visit from my brother in law who brought us, as he often does, a collection of cuttings from newspapers, mostly chess-related but this year including an advertisement placed in a financial magazine by the Xunta de Galicia. Asking the question “Why Invest in Galicia?”, it invited people interested in investing in Europe to take a look at to find out about the grants available to new investors. Let’s hope it attracts some money to the region and creates a few jobs.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

On laws and awards and other matters.

It’s that time of year when you go out of your way to meet old friends you’ve not seen for ages and ages. That’s just what I did last week. Knowing that my former work colleagues were coming to the end of term on Tuesday and knowing that they are almost all creatures of habit, I set off for the hostelry where they usually have an end of term drink in the early afternoon. And I was not wrong; there they all were, relaxing happily and celebrating the prospect of two weeks without getting up to go to work. It was very good to see everyone again.

It was also very good to be able to have a drink in a smoke-free atmosphere. That was one pub that didn’t seem to be suffering a drop in customers because of the UK smoking ban. And then, probably the following day and certainly for a few days after that, I kept reading about Spain’s new smoking ban, due to come into force on January 2nd. I find it quite amusing that they have decided to “spare” New Year’s Day. People can still go out and celebrate the start of 2011 with as much tobacco smoke as they like.

The next day, however, it all changes. There will be no smoking allowed in bars or restaurants, hospitals or health centres (not even in the doorways), schools, entrances to schools, children’s playgrounds or open air swimming pools where there are children’s playgrounds nearby, nor in bingo halls or casinos. Hotels will be able to keep their 30% of smokers’ rooms but airports and railways stations will lose their smoking areas. And the list goes on and on, including a nicely vague ban on smoking "en todos los demás espacios cerrados de uso público o colectivo". When will they ban smoking in the street?
I particularly liked the report that said that smoking will not be allowed in trains or taxis and not even on the upper deck of tourist buses, despite these being “al aire libre”. Similarly I was amused to read that “Clubes de fumadores” can be created but they must be non-profit organizations and can’t have any employees. Only members will be allowed in and no products can be sold there. Oh, and in prisons and psychiatric institutions there will be special smoking areas. I would have thought that completely banning smoking in prison could be a suitable extra punishment.
Somehow it seems especially Spanish that they have gone from a very half-hearted smoking ban where bars could decide for themselves whether they were smoking or no-smoking places to a possibly stricter ban than in many other countries. There have been some protests about the arrival of the nanny state – el Estado-padre- and an “exceso de proteccionismo”. Opinions are divided on what the effect will be on the hotel and catering industry and there is some discusión of what constitutes a “terraza” and whether one can smoke there or not..

Meanwhile it remains true that Spaniards smoke a lot; around 30% of Spnaish adults smoke regularly, despite the fact that sales of cigarettes have gone down slightly. However this latter fact may be because the amount of rolling tobacco sold has gone up; the crisis has forced many people to roll their own cigarettes.
Another law being considered for the new year in Galicia is the possible intrduction of compulsory school uniform in state schools. This will apparently avoid the problem of deciding whether headscarves, veils and other religious odds and ends are allowed in school. If they aren’t on theuniform list, no point in trying to wear them. It would also allow schools to prevent boys from wearing lowslung trousers and girls from wearing tops which reveal their belly buttons (with or without piercing). This rounds like an old argument to me!

In the meantime some old friends have been in the news. One of Spain’s favourite acting couples, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, are about to have their own nativity scene any day now. However, since they have recently been seen at a Lakers’ game in Los Angeles it would seem they have decided the baby will be born in the USA alter all. Pé has had a busy pregnancy, filming the third Pirates of the Caribbean film during which her sister Mónica had to stand in for her for some risky bits of acting.

My hero Alberto Contador, still under investigation for possible use of performance enhancing drugs, has been tweeting or twittering about how positive he feels about 2011 and his new cycling team, Saxobank. He has declared, "el año que viene será histórico".

And, finally, the late Paul the Psychic Octopus, predictor of Spain’s World Cup triumph has won an award, despite being dead. I read in the free paper left lying around on all our local buses that Paul has won the “Dafta”, an award that celebrates the best weird news story of the year. There you go!

Well, we still have an average temperature of around 0° here and I see that most of Spain is on yellow or orange alert for cold weather. So there’s no escaping the cold then.

I just hope everyone has been having a Feliz Navidad and that Santa has brought or the Kings will bring lots of excellent gifts.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Traditions and rituals

Christmas rushes towards us and I see all the traditions coming out once again.

tree is up and decorated, with a few new baubles as per family tradition: this year a new fairy, a sparkly robin and some of the tiniest little glass bauble imaginable, about ½ an inch in diameter and looking altogether too pretty to take out of their box at first. We managed it in the end however and soon had a production line of grandchildren and me, cutting red string to the correct length, threading it through each bauble in turn, knotting the string and finally hanging the bauble on the tree. You have to take Christmas seriously, you know!

I’ve been to the Nativity play at my grandson’s school, seeing lots of small children dressed up as stars, others dressed as
animals and watching said small grandson trying to use his shepherd’s crook as a makeshift machine gun. I’m sure that’s not what the Christmas message is all about.

Having watched the Jesus story as seen through the eyes of 5-7 years olds (Mary didn’t so much “l
ay” the baby in the manger as swing him around and hurl him in!) I went into Manchester for what is becoming a part of our personal Christmas ritual for a friend and me.

We meet up in the late afternoo
n/early evening in Manchester, go and have an early something to eat and then head for the cathedral for the carol service which is a fundraiser for an organisation that helps people overcome addiction to alcohol and drugs. Manchester’s cathedral is quite small and intimate and looks delightful when we all sing Silent Night to the light of candles and nothing else. And my friend and I do love a good nostalgic singsong!

Of course, since then I have also been into the ritual present buying thing: what on earth can I buy for so and so? You know the kind of stressful thing I mean!

And then there’s the ritual family argument as we try to coordinate a get together for everyone without anyone feeling left out or put upon. No-one must feel obliged to do too much and no-one should have to travel further than anyone else. It is Christmas after all and there has to be fairness.

We’ve also had our Christmas crisis for this year: the central heating boiler packed up, plunging us back into our 50s/60s childhood of icy cold bedroom and the desire to stay in bed all day or at least to get dressed under bedclothes. Fortunately we found a friendly plumber who was able to restore a semblance of normality and promised to provide a more permanent solution in the New Year.

I’ve not even mentioned the weather! As usual, you just get rid of one lot of bitterly cold weather than the next lot turns up. The weathermen promised us a pattern for today: rain, turning to snow and then freezing nicely. And that is just what happened, precisely when I was going to ToysRus, one of those shops which claim to be toyshops but are really a modern version of one of the circles of hell: wall to wall toys displayed from floor to ceiling in the most unattractive way possible. Children should never be allowed in that shop. It encourages acquisitiveness without stimulating the imagination. However, today I took my courage in both hands and ventured in, having phoned in advance to check they had the item I wanted. A successful foray!

The afternoon ended well though as I went from there to Waterstone’s bookshop which does still manage to give the appearance of employing people who enjoy books and like to help you find what you are looking for. In the middle of hunting for quite specifically requested books for the granddaughters I ran into an old friend.

This is another Christmas ritual: come across each other quite accidentally and get in the way of everyone else as you spend half an hour catching up on ALL your news in the middle of the shop floor. And that is precisely what we did. Anyone would have thought we were Spanish!

Isn’t serendipity wonderful?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Enough is enough

Hibernation is beginning to look more and more like a serious and rather attractive option. I’m not really talking about the total thing of curling up and going to sleep. No, what I mean is the idea of laying in stocks of food, reading matter and the DVDs of films and TV series you missed the first time around and sitting in a nice warm room, looking out occasionally to admire the beauty of the snowy exterior. For no matter how much the weathermen may assure us that we are due for a minor thaw, around here the Narnia-impression (always winter but never Christmas) has been going on a little too long. And besides, as far as I am concerned there really isn’t a great deal of difference between 0°, -4° and -8°. Of course, I understand that there is a serious difference but in practical terms of putting on multiple layers of clothing, stout boots, a couple of pairs of gloves (at least!) and woolly hats and scarves it’s pretty much the same.

Naturally, I have made forays into that icy exterior: the supermarket, collecting small people from school when our daughter has some vital reason for not being there and then Christmas shopping because, despite the Narnia impression, Christmas is approaching rather quickly. However, I do look forward to being able to venture out without having to go through all the wrap-up-warm procedure, if the ice and snow ever clears!

I feel very sorry for all the motorists who have been trapped in their cars up in Scotland and, according to something I read this morning, in the Paris region where the airport was once again brought to a standstill for a while. Since it was a Spanish newspaper I read this is there was, of course, a story about Spaniards suffering in this situation. A group of Spaniards was returning from Buenos Aires to Madrid, changing in Paris. Having landed safely in France they were unable to continue their onward journey because of the weather.

Their plane was constantly listed as delayed and finally, after being issued with several lots of boarding cards all to no avail, they were told that they would have to wait overnight in the terminal and fly out the next day. Now, because their plane was classified “delayed” and not “cancelled” they were not entitled to be put into a hotel for the night. Air France kindly gave them blankets to wrap themselves up in but that was it, this despite the fact that on the Air France website the plane WAS listed as cancelled. Oh, and the terminal turned the heating off!!!

Now, this was not a cheapskate budget airline from whom we might expect such shenanigans but Air France. That’s funny; I seem to remember in October of last year having a great deal of difficulty helping to sort out the return journey of a group of chess players from Vigo to Manchester, flying with … wait for it … Air France.

This morning, apparently, the intrepid and probably rather chilly Spanish travellers were issued with new boarding cards but these were pending confirmation and quite clearly labelled “not valid for embarkation”. Excuse my lack of understanding but what exactly is the point of such boarding cards?

However, all is not ice and snow everywhere. In the Faro de Vigo online I came across a video clip about Alicante. It began, “Mientras el resto de España tirita de frío, en Alicante … hace calor”. (While the rest of Spain shivers with cold, in Alicante … it’s hot.) Temperatures of 24° have encouraged people to go sunbathing, to stroll around in shorts and t-shirts and in the case of one hardy soul, to go for a quick dip. Climate change is obviously creating some very odd effects!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Snow and stuff here and there.

We’re rather picturesquely covered in snow here, although we have come off rather lightly compared to some parts of the country by all accounts. Friends in the North East report three feet of snow, which is rather a lot in my opinion. But here in Greater Manchester they have managed to keep the main roads clear and it’s still possible to get out and about.

This hasn’t prevented schools from closing however
and for a good part of the week our daughter has been dealing with the problem of not knowing which of the three schools in her life are open: the one she works at, the one her elder daughter goes to and the primary school the two younger children attend. Even the college I go to on a Thursday evening for Portuguese classes closed early last night in view of the weather conditions.

Looking at reports online I see that some of the same is going on in Galicia. The La Coruña to Santiago de Compostela road has been closed because of snow and ice, there has been snow on the walls of Lugo and in Galicia too schools have been closed. Even Vigo has had chilly weather with minimum temperatures of just below zero. That doesn’t quite compare with -11° reported by a friend in another part of Manchester this morning though.

As regards school closure, I do wonder how they get on in countries wh
ere it regularly snows a lot. Mind you, they are almost certainly equipped for it and have winter tyres on their cars and so on. We’ve got out of the habit of having such extremes of weather and just go into panic mode, especially in this age of litigation where head teachers are afraid of being sued if someone slips on an icy playground.

In the meantime, it’s very nice being a retired lady and not having to go out in the weather unless I choose to do so. It makes it a lot easier to appreciate the Christmas card prettiness of it all.

Reading comments on Facebook this morning from a young friend of mine who has been doing some interpreting on the radio in Spain, I was reminded of the funny things that happen when you go from one language to another.

When we were in Portugal recently – is it really only a few weeks ago? – we were amused to put a notice on the door of our hotel room saying, “Please may clean”. Sun umbrellas became “sun heat” and “espreguiçadeiras” was just not translated but since the notice told us, “It is not allowed to reserve espreguiçadeiras in advance by putting towels on them”, I assume they are sun loungers. Interestingly this little notice was there in French, German and English but not in the Portuguese version of the information for guests. Putting towels on sun loungers must be purely a North European habit.

But who are we to criticise the English of foreigners? This morning I came across a short item in the newspaper written by the wife of a certain well known political figure. Talking about Aung San Suu Kyi, she wrote, “It has been a privilege for my husband and I to have supported her campaign over so many years”. I’m sure it has and I fully agree with all the other comments she made. However I believe that a good number of people will agree with I that this is an incorrect use of the English language.

Even the spelling and grammar check programme on my computer wants to change it!!!