Monday, 30 April 2012

Peaceful Protests, Past and Present

By Richard Morley

A couple of Saturdays ago I was on a bus bringing me into the centre of Madrid. I was meeting a friend and we had agreed to meet at eight in La Latina. My bus should have taken me close to the Puerta del Sol, which would have left me with a short walk across the Plaza Mayor and down the Calle de Toledo. Glancing at my watch I could see I would get there on time. Just! Saturday evening traffic flow meant the bus was making slow progress, but as the number 53 turned off Goya on to Recoletos with twenty minutes to go, I knew I would make it. It was just a matter of a right at Cibeles, the penultimate stop, and a swift final zoom up to Sol. But I was cutting it fine.

So I was not happy when the bus pulled into the stop at Cibeles and the driver announced he could go no further and we all had to alight. The last leg to the terminus might take the bus a couple of minutes, but it was a ten minute walk. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland I was going to be late. And yes! It was a very important date.

There was worse to come. My wished speedy walk from Cibeles to Sol was impeded by huge crowds of people waving banners and flags, and shouting slogans of every political persuasion. The Calle de Alcala’s final descent ( actually it’s up hill, but it’s the end of the road,) into the city centre carried a procession of extremely vocal protesters voicing their collective opinions about the government’s latest reforms. There were ambling families with young children in pushchairs, there were leaders with megaphones broadcasting repetitive slogans. A group of singers with guitars seated on the bed of a pick-up led the crowd around them in song. A group of communists waved a sea of red flags bearing the hammer and sickle and just behind them a very militaristic looking band of young, shaven headed young men of the right wing Frente Naciónal in perfectly spaced disciplined formation holding their flags high. This last group marched with precision and did not seem as affable as the rest.

As I weaved though this crowd of protesters and on-lookers taking photographs I was struck by the complete cross-section of society that were represented. The newly elected government’s package of reforms they claim are needed to combat the serious economical crisis that Spain is experiencing have met with severe criticism from the general population. Nearly everyone is affected in some way by these harsh measures. Taxes have been raised, salaries of government workers reduced which knocks on to a de facto pay freeze in the private sector. Budgets have been cut and we are all feeling the pinch. The ordinary people feel a need to make their displeasure of the government’s action known.

This was not the first demonstration, but the latest of many. At the end of March the unions called for a General Strike to protest a vote in congress due to take place the following day that would bring in strict measures. In Madrid, a city that always supports the party of the current government, the strike had minimal effect. In Barcelona there was violence on the streets. I visited several offices on that day and only one person had followed her conscience and had not reported for work, but there was disruption on public transport and picket lines forcing city centre shops to pull down their shutters. And we must not forget that last year that Sol was invaded by a protest camp that lasted several weeks.

And it was not the last: A few days ago, in protest at increases in the cost of public transport in the city, protesters brought much of the Metro system to a standstill one morning by a coordinated activating of the emergency alarms on thirteen trains just before nine o’clock. The protesters risked heavy fines and imprisonment, but so runs the feelings of injustice and impotence of the common man in the face of this New Spain.

I write “New Spain” because things have changed very much very quickly. When I first arrived here there was a great feeling of optimism and pride. Now the country has a huge unemployment problem, regional governments don’t have sufficient income from taxation to pay their bills and the country is suffering from the general malaise of the weak euro. Immigrants who came here for a better life are returning home and Spaniards are following them to find work. The Sol protesters are threatening to commemorate their demonstration a year later.

But “NEW Spain”?

When, in 1759, Carlos III became king of Spain, after having been king of Naples since 1735, he found a country much in need of reform. He was a believer in what was known as “Enlightened Absolutism”, in which, while a monarch ruled with absolute authority, it was with the intent of improving the lives of their subjects. This was a movement sweeping through Europe at the time and was followed, to varying degrees by several of the ruling families. Voltaire, and other philosophers, saw this as the “only way forward”. What it actually meant was that “the king knows best” and allowed little room for public discussion.

 Carlos III on horseback in the Plaza del Sol.

To this end Carlos did indeed seek to improve the lives of his subjects. “Enlightened Absolutism” claims to be tolerant of religion and allow free speech, but only to an extent. However, he improved sanitary conditions in Madrid, firstly by prohibiting the citizens from throwing their waste, human or otherwise, out on to the street, reducing taxes of foodstuffs, introducing street lighting and began a series of road building projects to connect Madrid to other cities. There were those in Madrid who opposed his restrictions, but he claimed they “were like children who cried when they had their faces washed”. Through this he gained the unofficial title of “The best Mayor of Madrid”.

Of course, he had help. During his reign as king of Naples he had in his service a man called Leopold de Gregorio. He had been employed as a supplier to the Neapolitan army and had so impressed the king that in 1755 Carlos had ennobled him with the title of the Marqués de Esquilache, named for the Italian town of Squillace and with the E added to make it pronounceable by the Spanish, and was made chief inspector of customs. An important, and remunerative, position.
 Leopold de Gregorio, Marqués of Esquilache.

When Carlos became the king of Spain he brought Gregorio with him and put him in charge of the Hacienda, head of taxation, and in 1763, secretary of war. Spain needed the money. Following the “Family Pact” of the different branches of the Bourbon households Spain and France were obsessed by the idea of reducing the power of Great Britain. The Seven Years War by which France attempted this (and spectacularly failed) was going on and Spain joined in in 1762. Carlos thought Britain’s success would upset the European balance of power. However, he wasn’t very successful. Spain were thrown back when they tried to invade Portugal and lost the major trading ports of Havana and Manila. The 1763 Treaty of Paris also saw Spain give Florida to Britain for the return of the two ports. Which meant that the end of the war that sucked up all the funds coincided with Esquilache’s best money-making scheme ever. He inaugurated the La Primitiva, the mainstay of the Spanish lottery, which still, two hundred and fifty years later, is a source of income for the government.

Losing power abroad made Carlos return to reforms of Spain. Food prices were on the increase, taxation was high and, despite the creation of porcelain and glass factories, the building of canals, roads and drainage works, much of which was seen as creating work for works sake (much of this seems familiar in modern day Spain!) the people were not happy. The task of making these changes was put in the hands of Esquilache.

As king of Naples, Carlos had had problems with the Roman Catholic church. While being a religious man, he thought the church had no role in the the running of state affairs. He more or less reduced the still existing Inquisition to impotency and eventually had the Jesuits forcibly expelled in 1767.

But being a man who loved hunting and more peaceful pursuits like the arts (he built the Prado) and nature (he inaugurated the botanical garden) and preferring to live in his palace in Aranjuez, he delegated the job to Esquilache, who took to his role with more enthusiasm than the Spanish whom he was trying to reform.

As always, the climax came from something quite minor. As well as “Cleaning and Paving the streets” and creating “Boulevards” to modernise Madrid, as he claimed, Esquilache also tried to change the way the citizens dressed. Influenced by France, where short capes and three-corned hats were the common place, Esquilache decreed that Madrileños should follow this fashion as the longer over-capes that the Spanish habitually wore could easily conceal a weapon, such as a long sword, and the wide brimmed hats concealed faces, and was seen as a security measure to stop criminals.

 On the left is the new short cape and three/cornered hat. The man on the right in the old style is being reproved by his fellow citizens.

At first this dress code only applied to members of the royal court who were legally obliged to adopt the fashion. The common people had other things to worry about. Esquilache’s liberalisation of the trade in grain has resulted in increases in the price of bread and cured meat which had doubled, and oil and coal. Also, salaries had been reduced. (Again, we are seeing this today.) But on March the 10th 1766 notices were pasted up around Madrid that prohibited the wearing of the banned garments. The reaction was immediate with many of the placards being ripped down. Militia and the police trying to enforce the law were attacked by the people.

Two weeks later, the 23rd, which happened to be Palm Sunday, two men wearing the long capes were crossing the plaza of Antón Martín and were challenged by an official. One of the men reached under his cloak and drew his sword, threatening the official. Esquilache, Italian by birth, was seen as a foreigner and because of perceived interference by the Roman Catholic church in the affairs of Spain, there was a deal of animosity towards anything Italian. The official was told that if he thought an Italian could tell a Spaniard how to dress he had another thought coming! The official fled.

The scene was witnessed by many others who then processed along the Calle de Atocha shouting “Long live the king. Long live Spain. Death to Esquilache.” By the time they had reached the Plaza del Ángel there were two thousand of them - shouting for the head of the Italian upstart - and a document was written calling for the king to fire him.

The crowd continued to the Plaza Mayor, where it was witnessed by Luis Maria de Soledad Fernández de Cordoba y Gonzaga, better known as the 13th Duke of Medinaceli, who had just left the king at the palace. He was surrounded by the crowd and forced to return to the palace and take their petitions to the king.

The situation worsened. The rioters destroyed 5000 lamposts that that Esquilache had installed around the city. One of Esquilache’s servants was knifed and his portrait was burnt. And so began the three days that are known as the “Esquilache Riots”. The famous painter, Goya, was a witness and later painted “El Motín de Esquilache”.

On the next day troops defending the king’s residence shot and killed a woman. A priest took the rioters’ demands to the king. They stated that Esquilache and his family should leave Spain, that there should only be Spaniards in the government and that the wearing of the long cape and wide hat be allowed. The priest declared that if the demands were not met the palace would be reduced to rubble in two hours.

Carlos appeared to agree with these demands, then fled the palace with his own family and that of Esquilache and sought refuge in Aranjuez. But he did nothing to solve the problem. The crowd, now thirty thousand strong, besieged the residence of Madrid’s bishop, who they kept locked up while an emissary was sent to Aranjuez.

Without returning to Madrid, the king promised to accept the demands. He dismissed Esquilache, who he made ambassador to Venice. Years later he would claim that he deserved a statue for all that he had done for the city. Maybe, but he shouldn’t have told people what to wear.

His job was taken by the Duke of Aranda, who was given the title of president of the Council of Castile. Spanish and of quieter temperament than Esquilache, he managed to pacify the rioters. One of the things he achieved was to get together with citizens’ representatives and convince them that the long cape and wide brimmed hat was the dress of the much hated verdugo, or hangman, the official executioner, and that no respectable person should wear it. Soon, the populace adopted the modern dress.

And though him, Carlos III continued his reforms until his death in 1788.

I doubt any modern day politician would attempt to legislate on dress, although any who outlawed teenagers from wearing their jeans so low to reveal their backside would get my support! There were moves in Britain to ban hooded tops from public spaces and recently the case of Trayvon Martin shot by George Zimmerman in the US because of the boy’s “suspicious behaviour” in wearing a hooded top has brought to the fore the perceived concealment of clothes and of course, there’s the on-going discussion about the concealing abayas of Moslem women

In living memory there was a time in Spain when any form of public dissent was not allowed. I have lived in countries where this is still the case. The protesters’ marches in Madrid or elsewhere will probably continue to disrupt the streets. In fact that were at it again yesterday.

I am no advocate of mob rule, but peaceful demonstration should act as a conscience for democratically elected governments. It is noteworthy that Madrileños in 1766 did not call for the head of Esquilache, just his removal from office. In this they succeeded. No government should ever disregard the views of the people it serves. It took a lot of noise and a few lamp posts damaged, but eventually Carlos III did listen to his people. In 1952 George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher, said, ” Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”. Perhaps our modern day politicians should go back to school.

The photographs of the present day demonstrations in Madrid are taken from the pages of 20 Minutos and credit should go to the publishers.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Madrid - No solution for pollution?

By Richard Morley.

Let’s begin with something quite disgusting. During my first winter in Madrid I caught a cold. That’s not unusual, it’s normal to catch colds in winter and I had had them before. What was new to me was that this was the first time I had to visit a pharmacy and declare myself “constipado”, and that when I blew my nose, (this is the disgusting part) what came down was black. Soot black.

I had been in Madrid for just a short time and this was the first time in my life I had lived in a city and I knew that the stuff my nose was ejecting was Madrid Pollution. At least it showed that my natural filters were working. Now, after a lifetime of smoking cigarettes this surprised me. How much stuff, far more than I suck in from my cancer sticks, was I breathing in from the air of the city?

Speaking with a friend’s wife I remarked that she would probably have no need for a tumble drier to dry her washing as for most of the year hanging linen took almost no time at all to dry on the line. Her reply was that if she hung clothes out where they lived, not far from the city centre, because of the pollution in the atmosphere, they would probably become dirtier than before that had gone into the washing machine.

I had read that Madrid is one of the world’s most polluted cities, but thought nothing of it until I caught that cold, but I started to wonder.

Then I got used to city life and thought little about it. The authorities assured us that things were getting better. The use of public transport that ran on natural gas rather than diesel or gasoline were, according to them, bringing huge remissions in the level of noxious gases in the air. The city have promoted, with dismal results, the introduction of electric cars and planted lots of trees. They had sensors all over the city and they wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

Except it is rumoured that the placing of the sensors was carefully selected to produce the best results. A huge screen over the tourist office in Colon displays colour-coded, red for bad, green for good, indications of the air quality. They are invariably green!

And yet, according to World Health Organisation, Madrid has seen a constant growth of polluted air over the past twenty years. Pharmacists say they have seen a steady rise in cases of asthma in the centre.

I am not surprised. Last month, when I briefly left the  city to report on the church at Majorada del Campo, I stood on one of the towers and directed my camera back to the city. The result is the photograph that heads this post. It shows the city smothered in a black blanket of nastiness. While I was out there breathing in that wonderful clean country air, my friends in the city were breathing that in to their lungs. A news report on television that evening told us that due to a combination of still air and a temperature inversion over the city the atmosphere was officially dangerous. That the city has seen very little rainfall recently hadn’t helped. Apparently the situation was to last another day until winds rose to blow it away.

A few days later, the group Ecologists in Action, presented some interesting findings and some damning criticism of Madrid’s plans to make our city a nicer place to live. The figures showed increasing levels of nitrogen dioxide and stuff called PM10, which is basically fine soot particles that can be carried deep into the lungs where they cause inflammation and worsening of heart and lung diseases. They often carry surface absorbed carcinogenic compounds into the lungs. The nitrogen dioxide also irritates the lungs and can lower resistance to colds and flu. Constant exposure can cause acute respiratory illness in children.

I’m no expert, so I’m quoting medical websites here. There’s also carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds and something called “TOMPs”, or “Toxic Organic Micropollutants”. These last two come from the un-burned residue of internal combustion engines. There’s a long list of what happens when you breath them in. Suffice to say none of them are pleasant.

So, the Ecologists in Action then took a look at the remedies the Ayuntamiento had drawn up and found them lacking. Among their suggestions was a need for more areas of the city where the internal combustion engine is totally banned. To give Madrid its due, much of the centre from Sol and Callao to the royal palace do have that in place and electric buses do thread the narrower lanes of the city.

They also suggested lowering the fares on public transport.

Right now in Madrid this is a contentious issue. After raising the fare of a single ticket by fifty percent last summer, (while giving an eighty-percent reduction to the participants of the religion driven World Youth Day for a week – shakes head and wonders who’s in charge of PR for the city,) the metro is running a publicity campaign about how inexpensive it is compared with other cities around the world. For instance, they point out that London is nearly four times as expensive. The buses are just as cheap and they are all cheaper if you buy a multi-trip or season ticket.

However, the posters proclaiming this value for money have attracted graffitied scrawls comparing costs of living in those countries. They point out that Spain has some of the lowest wages in the western world, and that the cost of a metro ticket as a percentage of an average income actually makes Madrid’s public transport expensive. And it is actually more expensive than they think. Central government heavily subsidises the city’s public transport. Realistic pricing of the metro and buses would be a serious political mistake an lead to huge demands for wage increases. With so much unemployment and low wages I see the graffistas  point, but think it misguided and that they should be happy with such a cheap means of getting around the city.

But the Ecologist want to see it cheaper still to encourage commuters out of their cars and on to the trains and buses. But they also want to limit the hours of using taxis. Gulp! Right now the only way to get home after the last metro is by taxi. Ok, there are the “owl” buses that circulate through the night, but they are not frequent and have limited routes. So the solution is to run the metro 24 hours a day. Assuming there is no maintenance on the track, of course.

The ecologists do have a couple of very good ideas, though. One is for motorists to pay a charge for coming into the centre: this has worked well in many places such as the London congestion charge. Apparently a similar colour-coded scheme used in Mexico City, which only allowed a limited number of vehicles in each day, reduced pollution by twenty percent. They claim that ninety-percent of cars coming into Madrid only carry the driver. That the idea of car-pooling is unknown to Madrid commuters. Passenger-less drivers, they say, should pay a surcharge. As a pedestrian I agree with this. It might also make the roads safer for their other suggestion which is to encourage more cycling. Barcelona have the “bicing” (pronounced “beething”) scheme, which is a bicycle sharing program and last time I was there seemed to be working well – in the downhill direction at least. Madrid does have some cycle lanes, but in many places they have to be shared with the buses and taxis, and a big bus looming over your rear wheel can be unsettling!

The Ayuntamiento has a plan outlining more than seventy measures to combat pollution, but the ecologists deemed this a “papel mojado”, a “wet paper”, which contained nothing which would limit the amount of traffic in the city.

Visitors who come here in July and August often comment on the lack of traffic on the streets, which produce hollow laughs from us residents. If we do not wish to walk around in a cloud of toxic waste we will have to change our ways. This will not be easy. Madrileños love their cars, though I have to say I do know some who keep their vehicles garaged and only use them when they escape the city. At other times they use public transport, which is very good indeed.

But I can’t help remembering an evening when I was complimented on a show of respect for not lighting up while enjoying a coffee with a non-smoking friend. At the time we were sitting in a terrace café situated on the central reservation of the calle de Juan Bravo. On both sides of us traffic spewed out noxious exhaust fumes, which didn’t seem to bother my friend one bit. But she was pleased I hadn’t lit a cigarette.

But she has always lived in the city. Some things will take time. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

God's work in progress

By Richard Morley

In Barcelona, the somewhat eccentric shape of Antonio Gaudi’s church of the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família looms over the city. Construction began in 1882 and is still not finished – and no one really knows when it will be. It’s a magnificent building and has taken the work of tens of thousands of man hours to arrive at its present condition.. In November 2010 the pope consecrated the building as a minor basilica. I am intrigued by the word, “minor”. If the impressive bulk of the Sagrada Familia is only classed as minor, then I would love to see a major one.

The design of the building makes one stare in impressed amazement. That one man, Gaudi, could contemplate such a structure and communicate his vision to those who came after his sudden death under the wheels of a tram in 1926 and that his successors should also follow his dream, is almost a miracle. The architects that came after him would surely have wanted to put their personal stamp on the building. But no! His strange design continues to climb heavenward.

I am sure that not everyone who sees the church thinks it is beautiful. All builders of monumental works have their detractors. There were probably those who while gazing at a growing medieval gothic cathedrals complained that they were too big, too ugly and that they should never have been allowed to be built.

Here, just outside Madrid, this is happening now. In a small town called Mejorada del Campo a man is building a church. And he too has his critics.

Justo Gallego Martínez was born in Soria in 1925 and became a monk. He contracted tuberculosis and it was felt the monastic life was detrimental to his health. He swore that if he could regain his health he would build a shrine to the Lady of Pilar, another name for Mary, the mother of Christ.

Don Justo began building work in 1961 on an old olive grove belonging to his family. He had no money – he still doesn’t – and so made use of anything lying to hand. One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure, it is said, and this is definitely the case here and the church is an exemplar of recycling.

When you think of a “shrine”, you think of a small construction built into the side of an existing building or standing by a roadside. What Don Justo is building here has gone way beyond that. After fifty years of work this monument to the Lady of Pilar is nothing less than a small cathedral.

The Barcelona edifice has had the guiding hand of architects since its inception. It is regarded as the principal work of Gaudi, but he was not the first to work on the design, taking over from Francisco de Paula del Villa in 1883. Since Gaudi’s death, when Doménec Sugrañes i Gras continued the work, there has been a string of Architects and designers running the show. The methods of construction have been updated to the latest technology, which includes the off-site cutting of stone by computer controlled  machines so the whole thing fits together like a giant three dimensional jigsaw. Tall cranes loom over the building like storks watching over a newly hatched brood. Safety regulations apply.

It’s a little different in Mejorada del Campo. There is a large sign that tells the visitor that inspection of the work is permitted, but absolutely no responsibility will be taken for any injury suffered in the course of the visit. You can see why. The materials of construction litter the floor. Unfinished hand rails wobble to the touch. Unguarded levels hang precariously over ten to fifteen metre drops. Reinforced steel sticks out ready to snag the unwary. It is wise to tentatively test the rigidity of anything before using it for support.

There are no towering cranes. There is an old bicycle wheel with a rope thrown over it used to hoist heavy items into place. There are bouncy planks for wheeling wheel-barrows up slopes. There seems to be no scaffolding at all. The builder relies absolutely on the previous construction below to allow him access to the next level, which demonstrates a certain faith in the strength of construction.

The one mechanical aid - an old bicycle wheel with a rope slung over it.

The plans. 

Pinned to a wall near the entrance is a single sheet of paper with a neatly drawn outline of the form the builder hopes the church will eventually take. But this is not a plan as such, more of an inspiration. The Barcelona building may appear to take an organic form with hardly a straight line in sight, but Don Justo’s church really is the product of one man’s gut feeling of how something should be – on the day. Consequently there seems to be an evolution of ideas as the visitor climbs from the crypt, through the nave and up to the clerestory and then to take the narrow spiral stairs of the towers towards, on the day I was there, the bright blue Madrid sky and Don Justo’s heaven.

I write “The Builder” and “One man”. For unlike the thousands who have toiled on the Barcelona Basilica, this smaller, but no less grand edifice has only ever had one permanent worker – Don Justo himself. Friends and relative have been drafted in to help with the heavy lifting at times, but the hand if its creator is seen everywhere.

Don Justo is not a rich man. Far from it. He is quoted as saying, "I have no gold or silver; what I have I give to the Lord." What he does have is unbridled enthusiasm for his work. Everything else, every scrap of rebar, every brick and stone, each bag of cement, and the myriad of other items he has called into service for this project  has been reclaimed from other people’s junk, donated by sympathetic patrons or bought from donations.

The nave and crypt

And tennis balls!

Yes, you read that correctly! The external decoration of the eves is terminated by tennis balls dipped in cement. The man is a genius when it comes to the creative use of material. Reclaimed brick, cracked tiles, glass once used in other people’s houses and thrown out when double glazing was installed, broken bottles and what looks like the steel wire reinforcement found in car and bicycle tyres are all pressed into service.

 Concrete covered tennis balls along the bottom.

There seems to be more cement than brick! Kiln rejects used in construction of one of the towers.

The church occupies the complete site, so it is its own storage warehouse of materials. But don’t get the impression the floors are strewn with rubbish. As best as can be the place is kept tidy and clean. It’s the odd corners and crannies where the most danger of tripping over cement bags or tangled steel is found.

The visitor enters into the east side of the nave. To the left is the altar. Above, just below the clerestory are painted frescos depicting religious scenes. Tilting the head right back the roof of the nave soars twenty metres overhead, cut through with the circular aperture of the dome. The roof offers protection from the elements. Not yet the dome, which while having its steel prefabricated skeleton in place, does not yet boast any covering.

 Above and in the two pictures below: Don Justo working on the dome.

However, along the western cloister, which features three much smaller domes, I spied and photographed Don Justo himself, standing precariously on a couple of narrow planks, attaching what seemed to me to be diamond shaped metal plates to the domes’ framing. The main dome, I presume, must wait until more material arrives.

Indeed, the church will not be completed until more material arrives. Substantial as it is, and the church’s final form is more or less evident, much still needs to be done. Exploring the levels above the floor of the nave, stepping gingerly through heaps of as yet unused rebar and stone, I touched the balustrade and found it wobbled. Two very narrow, minaret like, towers that delineate the north transept are crammed with supplies. The climb to the top, on very steep, rather insubstantial steps, is not for the unsure of foot. And when you reach the top there is – nothing. Just a precarious overhang, which while giving wonderful views over the surrounding countryside and a bird’s eye view of the church, also infuse a severe feeling of vertigo. Don Justo must have the daring and balance of a mountain goat.

 Garden and cloister.

It is sad to think that all this work might be for nothing. The diocese in which it stands, Alcala de Henares, has never given Don Justo their blessing for the project and have been quoted as saying they want nothing to do with the project. Mejorada del Campo has several churches already. It doesn’t need another, and not on this scale. The temporal authorities, the local council, while entertaining Don Justo’s whimsy have remarked that the building has no official planning permission (difficult when there are no plans!) and have commented on the strength and safety of the construction and have even suggested that they could demolish it after his death. However, anyone who visits can tell that this is a very solid structure. I doubt that Don Justo, taking his lead from the Bible, would have built his house on sand. My observations are confirmed by an architect, Carlos Luis Martin Fernandez, a doctor in structural engineering, who has said, “It is possible to say it is safe. It has the proper structural stability”, although going on to suggest that some additional strengthening be applied in a few places and there should be “appropriate” monitoring of the work.

 Bits stick out everywhere.

The way I see it, the church is just about the only reason to visit the town. Bar and Café owners should be pleased with the extra income. Opinion about the church in the community seems to be divided, but like the Sagrada Família it will become a landmark. One, if it is still standing in a hundred years time will be the pride of the town. The Catholic Church might not want it, but it took more than a hundred years for the Barcelona edifice to be accepted and consecrated.

The church is built from recycled materials. Isn’t resurrection what the Christian church is meant to be about? What better example could it have?  At 86 years of age, Don Justo’s time is running out. I hope his legacy continues after him. After all, no one thinks of Barcelona without thinking of Gaudi and his work. It might well be prophetic that after visiting the church in Mejorada del Campo, with one last look at the high ceiling of the nave, the light streaming in through coloured windows, and then to descend the steps leading down into the street in which it stands the visitor can take note of the sign bearing the name of that street, the “Calle del Arquitecto Antonio Gaudi”, and ponder if divine providence does indeed work in mysterious ways.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Marmite and what's this Radio Four?

By Richard Morley

We all have our rituals. One of mine is to start each Saturday with coffee, toast and Marmite and to listen to either the News Quiz or the Now! Show on BBC radio channel 4. (They alternate.) Both programmes give a satirical slant to British politics. Why should I be interested in British politics when I haven't set foot in the country for five years is a good question, to which the answer is that one can never really escape your home country.

I mean, did you notice the reference to Marmite. In the UK this foodstuff divides the nation. For the uninitiated, it is a dark, salty, almost black, paste made originally from the grunge found at the bottom of brewer's vats. You could almost describe it as industrial waste! And we eat it. No one would ever say, “Well, I sort of like Marmite”. You either love it or hate it. But in the rest of the world that thick, gooey paste is almost universally despised. I remember some French ex-colleagues throw several jars in the trash because they sniffed it and assumed it had gone bad. When we Brits explained it's meant to taste like that the look that passed over their faces was one of relief that they had eventually won the hundred years war, otherwise the perfidious English would be forcing it down their throats as a form of heinous torture. (Much like they do to geese!) My Spanish landlady asked me for a taste once. She's never asked again! It follows then that if you like Marmite you will, probably, be British. The opposite does not apply – it divides the Nation, remember!

All nationalities have their own tastes. US residents in Madrid make this plain with their own store called, openly, “A Taste of America”. Us British tend to be more subtle, so the shop that caters to our food predilections is called, “Things you miss”. This shop sell everything from Frey Bentos Steak and Kidney pies to Sherbet Fountains and Wine gums, Tetley's Teas to Branston Pickle.They don't seem to have updated their website recently, hence the archive link, but you can find the shop in the Calle de Juan de Austria, 11. Nearest Metro is Bilbao.

Spain has a wonderful cuisine. Those of us that live here permanently, as opposed to the ten day holiday-makers on the costas, learn to appreciate and embrace the tastes that the country has to offer, but from time to time it is natural that us guiris want a taste of home. Just last Saturday I was asked if I knew where one could buy porridge. I have no idea as I am not fond of the stuff. Perhaps one of my readers could enlighten us.

But the Spanish are very chauvinistic about their food. For them, all other cuisines are at the least, suspect, and at most, horrible. I have a friend who when visiting Ethiopia, lived on sandwiches and completely missed the delicious, spicy dishes of that country. Another, who while telling me she liked foreign food, back-tracked quickly when I suggested an Indian in Lavapies. And when I first arrived here, just six years ago, a taste of anything British usually came in the form of food parcels sent by concerned relatives.

Parsnips - You can see why one of the assistants in Gold Gourmet calls them "Zanahorias Blancas" or "White carrots".

That, I am happy to relate, has changed, but not by a lot. When I posted last year on Facebook that I had obtained Parsnips I was inundated with requests asking me from where? I have to admit I was of two minds whether to pass on the information. Suppose I went to the shop and found some earlier Brit had cleaned them out – on my advice? The shop, GoldGourmet, (actually shops – in the plural, forming as they do a short high street of their own,) can be found at Calle José Ortega y Gasset, 85. Don't worry about that address – it's the cheap end of JOyG. Not anywhere near the Diors, Jimmy Choos, Burberry etc at the posh end. Nearest Metro is Lista (L4).

Much the same happened when I posted about mature cheddar cheese and Branston Pickle. Where, where, where? Were people that desperate?

Branston Pickle and Cheese.

Some of the larger hypermarkets on the outskirts, Carrefour et al, (but not their smaller branches in the centre,) now carry many food items of foreign origin. Since they finally extended line 2 of the metro to Las Rosas, my expeditions in search of British products have taken me to the Carrefour hypermarket there. The nearest metro stop is actually Alsacia and then its a two minute walk. There, recently, I loaded my trolley with English cheeses, Branston Pickle (they had piccalilli, but I didn't buy it), proper English back bacon, (Spain does ham very well, but not bacon,) Marmite, Bovril gravy granules and, amongst other things, it being Christmas, Mr Kipling's Mince Pies. Moving along the aisle a little I picked up a selection of Sharwood's Indian sauces. I have been experimenting with “fusion” food, which I call “Spindian” - Spanish - Indian. My albondigas jalfrezi are delicious! Even my Spanish landlady's kids like it! And Bovril seems to have replaced the Spanish caldo as a hot drink on a cold day. Spanish tastes can change!

Along the same aisle were Filipino and Mexican delights. It just annoys me that I have to travel out of town to buy this stuff from a Carrefour, when my local Carrefour, just thirty metres from my apartment block, does not. It does sell HP baked beans though – another successful change in tastes I have brought to my Spanish family.

But loving Spanish food as I do, most of these items will last quite a while. So I can happily shop locally. But I despair of my local shop-keepers. Gold Gourmet, mentioned above, requires a half-hour walk for me, but there are three vegetable shops just minutes from my home. Shopping in my local market last week I asked Pepe, of Verduras Pepe, if he had Parsnips. (This was a repeat of the conversation I had three years ago which you can read here. ) History repeated itself as he shrugged and replied that, no, he hadn't, but then added that I was the third person who had asked him that day. An Englishman and a German Lady had also been searching for that wonderful vegetable. “So perhaps you will stock them in future”, I enquired. It seemed a market for them was developing within the barrio. “No”, he replied, “There's no demand”.

Ok, perhaps us three do not a “demand” make, but we surely cannot be alone?

But to return to the other half of my Saturday ritual – listening to the BBC's radio 4 programmes.
Should I not be listening to Spanish Radio to improve my listening skills? I should, and I do. Other rituals include always watching the early evening news on TV and occasionally tuning in to COPE radio. (I don't share their politics,but they do speak clearly!) But as a teacher of English it is also necessary to keep my skills in that language current. I am surrounded all day with such English as, “My sister, she work in Barcelona”, or “I am very fluently in English”. If I didn't have regular doses of mellifluous BBC English I might not notice those lapses in grammar and syntax. In fact, out of lessons I don't, so normal have these mistakes become to my ears. My professional life maybe in English, but I live in Spanglish.

Incidentally, the English of visiting British youth could also do with infusions of Radio 4. I was sitting opposite some English youths on the metro recently and could hardly understand a word! And the double negatives in their sentences made me wince.

Perhaps I should return home to teach English there. It seems to be needed. But then I would miss all that wonderful Spanish food and that is something up with which I shall no longer put.

Incidentally, if you live in Madrid and know of places where you can buy your favourite "missed" food or other items, perhaps you would like to tell us where in the comments below. If you are looking for something, you could ask and someone might have the answer. 

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Trains of Thought

By Richard Morley.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans”. Well, I have made a plan. It faces me from the cork board on the wall behind my computer. It is a printed spread sheet telling me where I have to be from now until the end of the year. My life has suddenly become more than busy.

Too busy, I am afraid to maintain this blog in the way I would wish. Gone is the time I could devote to the visits and research I love to do. I haven't stopped completely as life always brings new questions to be answered, new places to see and wonder about.

This year I have visited parts of Spain very new to me. I have experienced new delights and met new people. I have tried new food and learned more about local cultures. All of which are recorded for future blog posts and I will try to find the time to write something about them.

One chance encounter led to a twenty five percent increase in my teaching duties – and took me to new areas of Madrid I had not seen before. I have written about Madrid's public transport system, it's wonderful Metro, both heavy and light, and its convenient bus service, before. One thing I have only mentioned in passing is Madrid's local commuter rail network known as the “Cercanias” - the system that brings thousands of workers into the city each day from the neighbouring suburbs and towns. It was this rail network that was attacked by terrorists on March 11th 2004, that took the lives of nearly two hundred people. If the metro and buses are the arteries of the city of Madrid, then the Cercanias are its lungs and throat, bringing into the city the “alimentación” that keeps it alive.

I have only occasionally used the Cercanias up to now. Now I have to count myself as a regular commuter, well, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at least.

I however, go in the other direction to most commuters. Madrid continues to expand. The cost of establishing a business in the centre of town is high and companies are setting up on the fringes. My job takes me from one office to another. I spend quite a lot of my time on the move. I enjoy this. I wouldn't like to be set in one place all the time. For me, each day's commute is in a different direction. But this new job is taking me, twice a week, to the very limits of the city.

Yet its cost to me is the time it takes to travel. In monetary terms the fares here are so ridiculously low I can pay for my journey with the change I get from buying a pack of cigarettes.

The first railway line of the system, and indeed the first anywhere in Spain, was the line that ran from Madrid to Aranjuez, forty eight kilometres south of the city, which was completed in 1851. From those early beginnings the Cercania system has now grown to almost three hundred and fifty kilometres of track reaching out over most of the greater “Comunidad” of Madrid, and one line takes you into neighbouring Castille y Leon.

On the way to the mountains north of Madrid.

You can find a map of the system here.

Once a diverse amalgamation of different companies the Cercanias were nationalised, like all the other railway companies, in 1941, and come under the control of RENFE, (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles). Some of the local lines were narrow gauge and continued to be so until 1970.

Unlike the commuter trains of other cities, the Cercanias do not stop at terminal stations,leaving the journey to work to be completed by other modes of transport. The Cercanias come right into the heart of the city, underground, and completely hidden from the sight of tourist who might not even suspect the system exists.

Ok, that last statement is not as true as is used to be. Following four long years of tunnelling and construction, the Cercanias arrived in the Puerta del Sol, the most central point in the city. Visitors may well have noticed the signs directing those using the Metro to descend even deeper into what has been called “Europe's largest man-made cavern”, but they will have passed through towards their subway line and not really given it a thought.

Similarly, if you have ever changed metro lines at Nuevos Ministerios, and you will have if you have travelled into the city by metro from the airport, you might not have noticed that part of that sprawling mess is a very extensive series of platforms for the Cercanias. From there you can travel south to Aranjuez or north to Colmenar Viejo. You can now, if you wanted to avoid the four stops on line 8, take the Cercania to terminal four at Barajas.

They have been promising us this direct link from the airport to the city centre for years. Up to very recently the only way, using public transport, into the city has been via the metro, with at least one, sometimes two changes of line depending on the destination, or on the regular, but subject to traffic, shuttle bus. Now we have a direct line Cercania – BUT IT GOES TO THE WRONG PLACE!
The new line, C1, from the airport passes through Nuevos Ministerios, but from there, instead of going to Sol, where most tourists will want to go,being a) central, and b) within walking distance of hundreds of hotels and hostels, and c) connects to three Metro lines, it passes through Recoletos, which has none of those three advantages mentioned. In fact Recoletos is pretty useless unless you work nearby. Sol, on the other hand is the most used station in Madrid. So why RENFE, why? The main advantage of running a direct link from the airport to the city centre has been lost. And Recoletos connects with nothing. If you alight there, you will have to carry your bags three hundred metres down to Cibeles where you can catch a bus or a single metro line. On behalf of several friends who visit Madrid often I feel annoyed at this stupid bit of routing.
Oh, and you can only take the Cercanias from Terminal 4. So if you arrive at 1,2 or 3, won't have the option anyway.

But if you do arrive at terminal 4 and take the Cercanias, you will either have to change at Chamartin station, (as recommended by RENFE) Nuevos Ministerios, as you did before, to Cercanias lines C3 or C4, or travel on to Atocha to change to line 1 of the metro – possible the worst and most over-crowded line on the network. At great expense, nothing has been improved.

Be that as it may, the Cercanias are clean, cheap and are only crowded during rush hour. They are also quiet. Totally electrified and running on the smoothest track imaginable, you can read or listen to music in peace.
The inside of one of the carriages. Obviously this is not rush Hour. 

They also run on time – and in the mornings, very frequently. On the route I use, at least, a train leaves for my destination every ten minutes. And I always get a seat!

Changing the subject:

I was attending a meeting with other teachers recently. All of them were reporting, like me, if they wanted it, an increase in workload. We may well be in a recession, but language teaching seems to be hardly affected. It's not just English. French and German are also, it seems, needed by Spanish businessmen and women. Not all companies have been affected by the crisis. They might not be enjoying the boom times of recent years, and this is probably, and not too late, making them reflect on their marketing strategies. The companies I teach at are telling me something very interesting: it is not a priority for their employees to pass an exam in English. They want their employees to close the deal, sell, get the contract signed, advertise and network – and whether this is done grammatically or not is not important, so long as communication is established.

Grammar teachers – don't send me hate mail. I will state here and now that conjugation and syntax are vitally important when communication needs to be precise. Dates and terms of agreements have to definitely understood on both sides. What these employers mean is they want to concentrate on practical communication. And if that means slipping out of the grammatical and into the vernacular, then that is what they want.

Luckily, that is exactly what I teach. Coming from a technical / scientific background that morphed into management seems to have worked in my favour. The business student wants useful language skills and I have lost count of the number of times one of my students has commented that vocabulary within that business context that I introduce into my lessons was never taught to them at any “academic” language establishment. And they wonder why?

Business English (BE), English for Special purposes (ESP), and other forms of useful language skills should be our priority if we have those types of students. Get away from the academic and into the realms of the practical. And if you don't know the vocabulary, you can learn it. In recent months I have taught British and American Legal, Accountancy, Marketing, Technical and Scientific, (where I had to learn all the terms needed in meteorology incidentally!) and Financial English. In business, a basic vocabulary, while useful, is not enough. And employers here know it.

In the light of that, one of the teachers I met with thinks that the market for business English will remain strong for at least the next decade. That should see me into my dotage nicely!

Another change of subject:

I bought Parsnips and Brussels sprouts a couple of days ago. A sure sign that Christmas is nearly with us. After the aforementioned teachers' meeting, I wondered down to the Plaza España and lunched on Chestnuts

The Christmas illuminations have been turned on and nativity scenes (belensare starting to appear in shop windows. I love this time of year in Madrid. Everyone seems to be even more friendly than normal and the Christmas parties, at least for me, begin next weekend.

I just hope I can find the time to enjoy them!