Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Walking in the dark

AOG, Madrid
Last Saturday, my partner and I walked out of my building unto a sea of darkness. The streetlights were all off. Save for a few street signs, and store lights, we walked in the dark for a couple of blocks before one of us noticed how pleasant the dark was.

True, you can't see the face of oncoming pedestrians, but that is ok. They can't see yours either. We both commented on light pollution and what a pain it was.

The street lights are still off, 3 days later, because of some street repair going on further down. I like this darkness. It gives the street a very pleasant stillness.

The Mayor who wants to sit in Congress

AOG, Madrid

These days, Madrid’s Mayor, señor Alberto Ruiz- Gallardón, has informed his party that he wants to become a member of the Spanish Congreso. His party, however, have ungraciously declined his offer and the whole country is talking about it.

Back in May, he mentioned much the same and was asked from high on up not to stir the waters. But last week, the story was that he was asked, and he just replied. It didn’t take long for his political adversaries to start showing their teeth. In short, his party, the Conservatives (Partido Popular), which for reasons unbeknown to be, call themselves “liberal”, have said he should remain as Mayor. Thanks, but no thanks.

This is all in the wake of next year’s general election. Some voices point to a victory of the left, and the ousting of the Opposition’s current leader Señor Rajoy. Others say the Right will win because of absenteeism on the part of the Spanish left.

I personally think the Socialists will win, but not with a majority in Congress. In any case, it may still be a few years before Señor Gallardón sits in Spain’s Congress. I think it may not happen until he leaves his party and joins the Socialists.

But will this happen? Probably not.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Haunted in Alabama

AOG, Madrid

It is a fact of modern life that the more gadgets we purchase to make our lives easier, the more complicated they become. How many of us are still in the process (20 years late) of setting the clock on the VCR? Or programming the thing? Hundreds, nay, thousands of us.

Technological companies, in their zeal to make us buy their products, normally add a zillion features which none of us really needs. Or wants.

I remember a few years ago when my sister bought me a mobile phone as a birthday gift. It was a Nokia clunker with a green screen and an antennae which stuck out on one side. Very de riguer at the time. I loved that phone.

You could change the cover to suit your mood. It stayed with me for years. Then, unfortunately, it broke. I don’t know what happened to it. It never came with me on vacation (unlike now) and it lived a pretty good life. I was very upset when I had to have it put down.

Given that, by then, I was hooked on wireless communication, like the rest of the planet, I had to find a replacement. My phone provider at the time (One to One, or as my sister lovingly called it, One to None) had accrued many points on my behalf.

It had also decided unilaterally to cancel my initial contract ( I used to get 30 minutes free calls per month for, I believe, ₤ 12.00 a month or something like that). I was incensed but they had a plan. I could get an upgrade of up to ₤80. Right. What a nightmare that turned out to be.

I went to local phone house on Victoria street in London. And so it began. First obstacle- price plans. “You get 350 free minutes every month and 30 free texts for ₤ 45 a month”. No.

We can offer you 20 personal numbers that you can call for a reduced rate and 25 free texts, and 100 free minutes”. “If I don’t use the minutes, do they carry over to the next month” “NO!” Then No. At the time, I didn’t have 20 people who I would call that often. I still don’t. Do normal people do? But I digress…

So it went for hours. I cannot recall what plan I choose. It didn’t matter. Either way I was a puppet in their hands.

Once the plan was chosen, thus began the choosing of the phone. My original model had been discontinued long ago. So I had to pick up a new one.

Basic, not too heavy”, said I foolishly. “We have this model for ₤ 99.99 No.

“This model comes with X, Y, Z, and it can connect you to the universe if you want it to”.

How much does a connection to the universe cost?” “On your price plan, ₤3,000.00 per minute”.


What does this one do?

That one is a direct line with God and the President of Nike Sports”.

Oh…how much? I like the color

₤700.00 and it comes with an earplug free of charge!” No.

Eventually, I settled on an Eriksson that had a tiny little joystick in the middle. If possible, even more plasticky that the Nokia. But lighter, and smaller. And it had games.

Then one day that phone broke just outside the Isle of Wight on a ferry. So the whole cycle started again.

I will short hand it. “Do you have one that just makes calls and has no features?” “NO!”.

So now I am on my 4th phone and my 3rd Mobile (cell) phone company. Can do hundreds of things, including taking bad quality photographs and the ability to somehow play MP3 files if I ever get around to conjuring the Mobile Phone Gods to show me how to hook up the thing to the computer to download some music.

Something I dread doing. I am still recovering from the whole iPod fiasco.

Yesterday, I was talking to a friend in Alabama. He has moved home to a nice large house outside Auburn, Alabama. He’s there for a year. And, oh yes, the place is haunted he tells me assuredly. About 12 years ago a woman died in that house, and the lady is manifesting herself through modern day telecommunications and IT apparatus.

She plays havoc on his computers, cell phones (mobiles) etc. Things come on and off at random. It would appear that the Tivo is too advanced for her to tamper with. At least for now.

I know one day I’ll get a call because the microwave answered the phone and blew a fuse whilst trying to download a movie on the laptop which sits next to the television which switched itself off as my friend was about to call me across the ocean whilst sitting on his Jacuzzi.

Such is modern life.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Earth moves... again

AOG, Madrid

When I was a child, we lived in Mexico City for a few years. Mexico is a country where earthquakes and tremors occur with astounding regularity. Eventually you get used to them....sort of.

I remember my first one. We were then living in a hotel in the Zona Rosa (the Pink zone, Mexico city’s gay neighborhood…and we are talking the late 70s here, how’s that for forward thinking?).

It was early in the morning and I woke up because I could hear the hotel’s walls creak. It was a very odd sound. My mother got up and asked us if we were ok, and to be still. We were, and we did.

I remember I could see the wall see-saw and got a bit scared. Our hotel had about 10 stories, and we lived in the first floor at the time. I remember thinking that if the building collapsed, we were toast.

Then suddenly, it stopped. Within minutes, reception called asking if we were alright. We were. I never forget that first encounter with mother earth.

2 0 0 7

Today, many moons later, the earth shook once again. I woke up this morning with a headache (for some reason, in my family, whenever storms or tremors happen, we get headaches…or so we believe. It could be we get them anyhow, and then things happen?), and within 4 minutes of me just sitting in bed pondering the future of mankind and where my next job will come from, the walls began making a funny sound.

Then my bed was shaking. Not a lot, but enough to freak me out a bit. Then a few things on the edge of my bookshelf fell down. I looked over at the bottle of water I keep by the alarm clock, and the water was moving side to side. I was not imagining it, the earth was trembling. Here I was, living once again in a gay neighborhood (Chueca), and the earth was moving- though this time I live in a studio on the 4th floor, and not in a hotel on the first...gay part is the same though.

The funny thing is, time moved very slowly. I got up and bolted for the nearest door frame, and stood there for a few seconds (Earthquake Safety 101). Then it all stopped. All was calm again.

I switched the television on, and nothing. No news. Radio, nothing. I began to wonder if I had imagined the whole thing. The news were not picking the story up. I then got into one of my mental tirades. “I swear to God if this country ever gets bombed we won’t find out until the next day!!

Eventually, an hour and 15 minutes later, CNN+ (Spain’s CNN), reports that a small earthquake of around 5.1 on the Richter scale, struck the peninsula and that its epicentre had been on the province of Ciudad Real, South of Madrid.

I haven’t felt an earthquake since I was maybe…10 or 11 years old. Never felt an earthquake in Texas, or London. And I come to Spain, and I am greeted with one.

I wonder what else I haven’t experienced in years I’m about to experience again….

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Identity crisis? Television to the rescue!

AOG, Madrid

About a month or so ago, the Spanish media concerned itself very much with Spain's national anthem. You see, Spain's
Olympic committee had asked the public to submit lyrics proposals for the anthem, the rationale being that Spanish sportsmen are only able to hum when their anthem- one of the oldest in the world- is played at sporting events. They are right.

The question at hand was its lyrics: it doesn't have any anymore.

Or rather, no official lyrics. The collective memory of Spain being what it is, they forgot (the media that is) that the anthem has, in fact, at least two versions of the lyrics: one drawn up under King Alfonso XIII's orders, and the other during Franco's time. The issue even made it into the pages of The Economist.

More of the same...

This week, the papers published a story concerning the soon to be approved law which will regulate Spain's national/state television network TVE.

Within its charter, TVE is meant to help define the country's identity.
And that is a tall order and a half if ever I saw one. One of the things which defines the Spanish sense of identity, is that there is no Spanish identity. At least, not amongst the Spanish themselves.

Other people can see here and there traces of which, in a very generalized way, can partially define the Spanish character, ideology, etc.
However, it is obvious that they, and I have yet to visit a country which suffers from this too, have a problem defining what is Spanish, without offending all the various regional identities which also make up Spain.

For example, Spain has more than one official language (funny how Congress has an issue with making Spanish the country's second official language). Aside from Castellano (Spanish proper) which the entire country speaks, Catalan, Basque, and Galician are also official languages.

But there are more: Aragonese, Aranese, Asturian, Balearic (Mallorcan, Ibizenco etc) , Valencian... some even say that Spanish as spoken in Andalucia, is its own language (Andalúz).

This is enshrined in Spain's 1978 post dictatorship Constitution. Since Franco had so sidelined and even prohibited the learning of anything other than Spanish, the transitional governments thought they would right this wrong.

No problem there, except that now, in Spain -perhaps it was always like this- many people are far more loyal to their region (Spain is a semi federal country divided up into 17 different "Autonomous Communities"- a la German Länder), than they are to an all encompassing concept of Spain.

Another example, is how some people in Spain see other Spanish people as being different from themselves. Of course, every country on Earth has local and regional clichés. But in Spain, they are not seen as a joke, but rather as something set in stone.

Andalucians are lazy and only care about music, Catalans are stingy but great businessmen, Galicians will never give you a straight answer and are mostly Fishermen, Madrilenos are arrogant. As with every cliché, for every ounce of truth, there are 2 tons of untruth.

Yet in Spain, these views continue.
Since the end of the dictatorship, many have said that Spain's "Patriotism 101" class has not been addressed by any government. Many say it needs to be.

Four years ago, the Conservative Party (Partido Popular) raised huge controversy when it stuck a gigantic Spanish flag on Plaza de Colón (Columbus Square) in Madrid. A few months later, the Socialist party won. The flag stayed. Nobody talks about it, but there it is. True, the Town Hall is run by the Conservatives, but there have been moot calls to it being taken down.

Perhaps now, the Socialist party (a group known for advocating an international brotherhood, and which dislikes shows of patriotism or nationalism). is slightly addressing the issue, via television. It has to help solve this problem.

How? Well, no one knows yet. But somehow.
And so Spain goes to bed talking about its self-image issues arguing there are no such issues....in all its languages.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The modern world...and Spain...Part 1

AOG, Madrid

When I began coming to Spain regularly in 2005, I remember that the press were slightly miffed at accusations made by an American writer concerning their country’s place in the First World. I cannot remember her name, but I recall she found the state of Spain’s basic services a bit, well, basic.

She even went to say that Spain was a bit of a Third World country in many ways. The Spanish do not like to hear this. Nobody does, unless they are the ones insulting their country.

This week they got a good chance to do so.

A fire in one of Barcelona’s power plants made sure that the city of Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, and one of the largest urban areas in the Mediterranean, was without power for about 60 hours. Not all of it, and not for 60 hours straight, but the power blackout lasted that long.

Around 350.000 people were affected by the power shortage altogether. And the whole city was a mess.

70% of the stoplights were out, so policemen went on traffic duty. However, there were not enough of them to go around. The, the citizens of Barcelona went on a public protest using pots and pans, emulating Argentina's "cacerolada" protests not too long ago. This is August, and Spain is very hot in August. They all had a point.

Then, the trains that connect Barcelona with its suburbs and adjoining towns, also broke down partially. In a famous case, people were stuck in a train for over 2 hours without air conditioning until the Fire Department allowed them out and they walked to the nearest station.

And then it happened again, and on the same day that the Minister responsible for the country’s infrastructures visited Barcelona with some money under her arm and the usual promises Governments in a pickle tend to dish out when in need.

Then Summer happened

August is sacred in Spain. The entire country lulls to a halt and goes on vacation. Some by plane, some by train, some by boat, and some by car. And in the first week of August, the traffic outside Barcelona was so heavy - creating a 70 kilometer tail back- that the Generalitat, Catalonia’s regional government, was “forced” (here I have to chuckle a bit) to close the toll gate and let the people through.

There has been an ongoing argument between the local and the national government concerning all sorts of infrastructure problems in the region. The Minister, not one to take the blame, said that the chaos in the railways was due to the high speed train link with Madrid being built in and outside the city.

About a month ago Spain’s Prime Minister promised Madrid and Barcelona would be connected by Christmas day, 2007. Originally the date was sometime in 2008.

Never mind that this high speed link is about 10 years late in coming. But, of course, next Spring, Spain will hold a general election. The first since the Socialists came to power 3 days after a terrorist attack by Al Qaeda which many say put them there. And Catalonia, like Andalucia, is a Socialist stronghold. Has been since democracy returned to Spain in 1978. These days, the opposition are calling for the head of Señora Magdalena Álvarez, the Minister in question.

Don't get me started on the Internet

Did the American writer have a point? I think in some ways, yes. She did. Aside from these infrastructure problems, Spain also ranks very low on Internet speed.

Acording to iTWire, Japan, (not the US) is the number one country in the world; it has an average broadband download time of 61 megabits per second. South Korea is second with 45.6 megabits per second. Sweden is third at 18, France, fourth at 17, and Canada fifth at 7 megabits per second. In Spain, at home, I have 2 Mgs. And not all the time, only some of the time. And that is considered fast.

In the North, the Asturian Government is installing an internet speed of 100 Mgs. But only in Asturias. The rest of the country will have to wait. It will be operative by September. However, Asturias is not the country’s most connected area. So it’s a bit like saying everyone in Bandera, Texas, is connected to the Internet. And the rest of Texas? Oh, that’s a different issue. And Bandera only has 3 cowboys who own a PC. Semi ditto for Asturias.

Nowhere is perfect

However, Spain is not alone in this fight with the modern world. I have just left the UK, where, if you read the press on any random day, things are worse off than in Spain. Trains that don't run because of (one of my favorites) "leaves on the tracks", or that are constantly delayed, London tube being outdated, as well as very expensive (one stop in zone one is almost 8 euros- or about $9 USD), Heathrow being a total mess, etcetera etcetera...

When I came to live in Spain, I was told that it was best not to leave appliances and televisions /laptops, on if I was not in the house. A power surge might damage them. Everyone in Spain has a story to tell concerning power surges and the death of a beloved television, or a microwave.

I know eventually Spain will join the rest of First World Europe and install an Internet speed like Korea’s. Or better. It is just that, for some reason, Europeans are always so reluctant to embrace modernity. In that respect, Spain is very First World. It is also refreshing that they complain about things. All the time. Much like the French, only in Spain, they have more of a point. I tend to think French unions are designed to give everyone a week or two off extra every year because of a strike.

In the meantime, the Spanish laugh it off and complain moderately at how their country lags behind a bit, but is catching up.