Sunday 28 March 2010

Eternally hoping for Spring.

By Richard Morley.

Still chilly, but sunny in the Parque Juan Carlos last week.

A couple of weekends ago I took Sunday lunch at Casa Mingo, one of Madrid’s oldest restaurants. Rightfully famed for its delicious Asturian Chicken and chorizos, together with its thirst quenching cider, this unpretentious restaurant is a firm favourite. We ate outside on tables in the sun and later crossed town to meet with friends and sit at an outside table as we sank a few beers in the Retiro.

The weather this year has been depressingly awful with rain, wind, cold and yet more rain. Not what the average holiday maker would regard as normal Spanish weather. “It’s an El Niño year”, people have remarked as they battled the massed forces of umbrellas on the pavement. But two weekends ago the clouds relented and we were bathed in glorious sunshine.

The following day, Madrid’s local TV news had shots of happy, smiling people sunning themselves and there was almost a festive mood in the air as those interviewed expressed their joy at winter’s departure.

The next day it rained.

It was cold, miserable and following that sunny weekend, very depressing. Like an unwelcome house guest, the rain stayed for the rest of the week.

It made one think that perhaps global warming was not such a bad idea.

But Spring summoned up a little more resolve and a week ago made a brave attempt at a resurgence. On the Saturday morning I had to attend a meeting and found a colleague sunning himself on a street bench in Conde Duque before the event. It was almost a shame to have to go inside. Five more days of sun followed. Temperatures reached the high teens. On Wednesday I met with friends and felt brave enough to forego the sweater and replace the thick winter jacket with the light summer one.

But as we say here, “Hasta la quarenta de Mayo, no te quiter le sayo”, which roughly translates into, “Until the fortieth of May, don’t put your jacket away”. The English expression, “Don’t cast a clout ‘till May is out”, means the same thing. Those are wise words. That false spring preceded an evening of thunderstorms, more torrential rain and a myriad of comments on Facebook that a collective depression was taking hold.

But hope springs eternal, or rather, in Spring we eternally hope, and all this week my local bars have been setting up their summer gazebos and arranging the outdoor furniture. It hasn’t rained since Thursday, so with any luck those terrace tables may soon see some use.

The clocks went forward last night. We will have an extra hour of sunlight in the evenings. Holy week, Semana Santa, has just begun. The population of Madrid has decreased as those with holiday homes flee to the coast or the hills. The kids have a couple of weeks off school. Next weekend is Easter with its religious parades. Then we look forward to San Isidro.

I remember my four lines of doggerel from last year:

It’s Spring in Madrid
And the warmer weather
Brings Hemlines and Necklines
Closer together.

Now I remember why I love to live here. Happy Springtime everyone.

PS. Given that my usual optimism regarding the weather often has adverse results, I am not quitting my winter jacket just yet.

Friday 19 March 2010

Far from the Madding Crowds.

By Richard Morley.

If you look very closely at the photograph above, below the towering, grey limestone cliffs and set among a sea of trees, you will spot a remote hotel. Six long hours south of Madrid, far from any other civilisation, with no chance of escape, it is a place of peace and harmony with nature. And a wonderful place to meet and scare the living daylights out of some new Spanish victims.

I have written before about the English Villages I attend here.

This is where a group of Spaniards eager to improve their use of English are thrown together with an equal number of Native English Speaking volunteers. The idea is to immerse the Spaniards in English for an entire week. (Speaking Spanish is a hanging offense!).

This time I went with Pueblo Inglés to a new venue hidden deep in the Sierra de Segura not far, as the crow flies, from the town of Cazorla. Straddling the border of Andalucía and Murcia, a brief glance at the map with a rule to convert the scale would have put us about 120Km north east of Granada.

For a week we hid ourselves away in a deep valley in the heart of the Parque Natural de las Sierras de Cazorla Segura y las Villas, which is quite enough of a mouthful and from now on will use the name of the hotel: Coto de Valle.

The word “Coto”, in this case, refers to an estate or hunting reserve and the hotel is used by hunters during the season. The walls are liberally decorated with the heads of deer and wild boar the hunters come to shoot. Some of the boar were not so wild and a family of a sow and her two piglets would arrive most evenings outside the hotel gates to be fed with the left-overs from our meals, of which there were plenty – but more of that later.

Left: The wild boar came down to feed each evening. Mum was very protective of her children.
Right: The author posing at a safe distance. Seconds after this we had to run for it.
Photos: Brigitte McKay

We travelled by bus, which was a little un-nerving as from the town of Cazorla we climbed a very steep mountain road cut into the side of a cliff-face. I seriously suspect the road builders followed the path of some nimble-footed mountain goat. Sheer walls of rock on one side, a deep descent on the other. I seriously got the jitters when we met another bus coming the other way!. We inched past and was glad that we were on the inside, realising later that on our return to civilisation our bus would be the one teetering on the edge. (But we were lucky and there was no bus that day.)

We climbed ever upwards and eagerly scanned the vertiginous valley walls for our hotel when someone pointed down and said, “there it is!” And there, many hundreds of feet below us, in what seemed a small clearing in the forest, lay our hotel and I wondered just why had we climbed so high? Once over the hump of the mountain we descended rapidly into the valley. Around us mountain gullies poured with snow-melt engorged streams. Above us the mountain tops were wreathed in cloud. Below we watched the valley emerge and noticed the ruins of cottages, now abandoned from the flight into the towns and better paid, less back-breaking jobs.

It had been a long, six hour journey from Madrid. Several of the braver students and had taken advantage of that extra time to get a lead on the cowards who came by car, although some feigned sleep! Now, on arrival at the hotel we met others who had arrived by personal transport. They had but one thought: What the *%!” are we doing? Suddenly faced with a range of English accents that ranged from “Sarf” London esturian with unpronounced “Ts” and “THs” pronounced as “V” through standard English to Canadian with their “oats” and the broad spectrum of US American. It was slowly dawning on them – there was no escape.

The Hotel Coto de Valle is a hunting lodge. As Spain is emerging from a drawn out winter I have to state we probably saw it at its worst. The trees were naked of foliage, the unused, outdoor pool murky and green with algae. But the staff were welcoming and despite having very little English, did their best to make us feel at home. Most of the rooms are built around a central courtyard. A terrace overlooked the valley where patio tables and chairs dotted the stone floors. There would be plenty of places to have our English conversations – assuming the weather allowed.

But first, the serious job of assuaging the hunger of forty tired travellers. The hotel was more than up to the task. Used to feeding ravenous hunters fatigued after a day in the woods, the kitchen staff made sure we would want for nothing. In fact, a joke circulated at the end of the week: “What did you gain from this course? About 5 kilos!” I reproduce the menu blow.

They brought more - and more!!

Suitably stuffed, we went to our rooms or explored the extensive grounds.

One tourist guide describes the Sierras de Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas as one of Spain’s best kept secrets. It is the country’s largest national park and one of the most “beautiful, peaceful and biologically diverse” areas in Europe. Continuing, it claims the area “combines the natural beauty of mountains, rivers, waterfalls, forests and wildflowers with the charm of ancient villages”. I wouldn’t know. By late afternoon banks of dense cloud had slithered in between the peaks and obscured everything.

However, we were not there to admire the scenery, but to terrorise our Spanish victims and improve their English. Those who have been to an English village here is Spain will know what I am talking about. There are two main companies that run this programme, Pueblo Inglés and Vaughan Town.

They offer similar programmes in that they put together diverse groups of Native English Speakers with Spanish Students. Throughout the week they are thrown together to speak, speak and speak some more. I guarantee you will find out more about the country in that week than you would from years of vacational visits. And as the conversations are all in English, there is no barrier to understanding.

It’s not just head to head chat though, as there are group discussions, theatre, and many presentations. And one should not forget that the nattering continues through meals, walks, parties and over a few drinks at the bar – probably the most unstructured, but important part of the course. This is known as “Liquid English”, where the barriers of timidity, low confidence, and nervousness are diminished by the alcohol and bonhomie of the activity. (Actually, I doubt this is an official teaching method, but it definitely works!)

Among our victims that week was a potato farmer from Valencia, engineers, civil servants and an inventor who claims to have invented a green alternative to detergents. He was off to Chicago the following week to promote his product. You can be sure of many intelligent, interesting, funny and varied conversations.

The low cloud brought rain; too much rain, but the hotel was large enough to cope with twenty couples in search of somewhere to have quiet conversation. In the occasional breaks in the inclemency it was possible to escape the grounds and walk the twisting roads or explore the forest path behind the hotel with a stroll across a narrow bridge over the torrential crashing stream. Breaks in the cloud would reveal the surrounding mountains and occasionally, just occasionally offer a view down the valley towards the village of Arroyo Frio.

And then it snowed. Twenty centimetres overnight. “Brrr!” Some of us moaned. “How wonderful”, remarked others. It certainly produced some great photo opportunities. As one American lady commented, “That’s my next Christmas card picture problem solved”.

Unfortunately the snowfall meant that a planned excursion had to be scrapped. The steep mountain roads were unsafe. Despite the continual efforts of snow ploughs and gritting trucks, the road were treacherous. Locals mostly owned four-wheel drive vehicles, but even so, the climb outside the hotel proved too slippery to make much progress. Released from the worries of normal life, the participants regressed into childish ways and snowball fights broke out. It was wonderful to hear threats of retaliation declared in English.

At midday, on the snow covered terrace, the owner provided a table of jamons, cheeses, salads, stewed meats, bread and wine. Over a log fire he cooked a local dish. To my ear I understood him to say “Cashmiga”. This was not, I was told, the traditional “Migas”, a meal made with day old breadcrumbs in other parts of Spain. However, given the Andalucían tendency not to pronounce the s at the ends of words and the fact that the resulting meal looked like “Migas”, I am going to say that that is what it was. However, he did not use stale breadcrumbs (“migas” means crumbs in Spanish), but instead used mixture of flour and olive oil formed into a dough which was then cooked, absorbing the delicious smokey flavour of the fire. With the addition of some “Padrones” peppers (are they hot or sweet? – only a bite will tell!) and slices (ok, they were lumps) of fatty bacon he produced a feast fit for a king.

An hour later we sat down to a “proper” lunch!

However, it was not all cloud and gloom, snow induced jeopardy and depressing rain. Ok, forget the last. We were having too good a time for depression. But it was fantastic when eventually the bad weather gave way to sunshine. Now the sheer walls of the valley could be seen in stark clarity. The hotel sits at the bottom of this natural sun gathering bowl. Facing the hotel is grey limestone cliff, behind a sweeping slope of trees. Birds chattered. There were noises of unseen animals. Vultures circled overhead.

“Richard”, asked one Spaniard, as I sat on a wall with my face turned sunward, “What do you mean when you say you are working on your tan?”  At nine hundred metres above sea level, our pale guirri skins were starting to turn to lobster pink in the new sunlight.

I am pleased to report that mine had darkened sufficiently by the following week that I received just comments on my darkened complexion from my Spanish friends and not the normal guirri jokes. Still, it introduced a new idiom to discuss.

This was a part of Spain I had not visited before. It was a welcome relief from the “Jungla Cristal” of Madrid. With the disappearance of the clouds the air was clear and fresh. The scent of the forest a joy to the senses; the openness of the forest trails a contrast to the bound pathways of the city; the silence uplifting.

Spain is such a diverse country. Those whose only impression is of the costas, of the bustling resorts, should take time to explore the interior.

Far from the madding crowd, this was a perfect location to exchange our language for good company and glorious solitude. I am always amazed at how the level of English and confidence of the students improves on the sixth and seventh days. I am no psychologist, but I think, for some students, it takes as much as four or five days to overcome their timidity and to trust us. We would never make fun of their use of English, but it takes time for them to realise that. Then the damn breaks and they never stop talking. One shy lady would disappear during breaks as if to avoid the chattering groups. By the end of the week she was deliberately joining those gatherings and having fun with her new found confidence. Yet another English Town miracle!

I hope to be part of many more.

Postscript: This week I met with a lovely Spanish friend who I met for the first time at an English Village. She told me that the first time she attended she was so afraid of looking stupid that before leaving her room she would check that there were none of the Native English speakers outside. Her confidence in using English was so low she did not want to speak. Now she is super confident to the point of reprimanding me for my Spanish mistakes – and I do feel reprimanded, believe me! Yet another success for the English towns.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

In Times of Crisis

By Richard Morley.

What I know about economics could be written on the back of a postage stamp with room left over for doodling. What I do know though, is that Spain has felt the full force of this global recession and will take a long time to recover.

Last month Spain’s unemployment climbed by a further 82,132, bringing the number of people looking for jobs up to 4.1 million people. This is bad enough, but the actual number of job lost is more than that. Many immigrants, particularly eastern Europeans who came to Spain for a better life, have now returned home. I can’t quote figures on that, but we are on our fourth Romanian cleaner in two and a half years because her predecessors returned home. In every case this was because they were here with their husbands who had jobs in the construction industry and those jobs vaporized. And our present “asistenta” tells me that she is losing friends right, left and centre as her compatriots return east where, apparently, there are jobs.

By putting most of its eggs in the construction basket, and quite a few others in the one labeled “tourism”, (which many people now feel they can’t afford), Spain has felt the brunt of these economic woes.

Spain’s economy might have received its first blow from the downturn in construction, but the knock on effect into other industries has been widespread. A loss of four million earners and tax-payers, many of which are now living on unemployment benefit paid for by those still lucky enough to have jobs, mean that Spanish consumerism has taken a serious blow. And those who supply the good to the consumers are now being buffeted by the same wind that led to the collapse of the building trade.

The worst of the recession, of course, is being felt more along the coasts where huge construction projects have either slowed right down or just come to a stop as the income from sales disappeared. The jobs those workers did before the building boom, mostly farm work, have now been taken by immigrants. We have stories from Murcia and Andalucía of this leading to discord in those communities, but also of supposed “exploitation” as the now jobless construction workers complain that they couldn’t live on what the immigrant farm workers are being paid. (Remember, this is work that they used to do - for the same money!)

Here in Madrid there is a similar story in the catering industry. Most of our wait staff are immigrants because Madrileños found better paying work, but now they have no jobs and the immigrants do. However, the Madrid situation is nowhere near as bad as it in along the coast.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Headlines that scream “20% Jobless” also mean that 80% of the workforce do have jobs, but good news never sells newspapers. It has also meant that retailers have become more competitive. Now the shops here seem to having sales all the time and supermarkets are falling over themselves to present us with special offers. Three years ago this was almost unheard of.

In fact, when I hear my friends grumbling about “La crisis”, I will often ask them to stop and tell me how “La Crisis” has affected them personally. Then I hear that because of the reduction in interest rates their mortgage repayments are now small enough for them to afford a foreign holiday or some other luxury, and the price wars in the shops has made things much more affordable. Certainly the bars and cafés of Madrid seem to be full. A short time ago I was with a friend in a bar in Gran Via as the audience from the theatre over the road poured out and entered the bar with their glossy programmes and proceeded to continue their evening of fun with a few cañas and copas. My friend turned to me as said, “Crisis, what crisis?”

So, it could be said that so long as you have work there is no crisis.

But that’s the crux of the matter. “If you have a job ….”

I do have friends who don’t have jobs. They have not had jobs for many months. In a couple of cases it has been two or three years. These are not work-shy people, they really do want to work, but the current climate is making employers more selective.

These are not people who lost their jobs though incompetence, but because their employers were feeling nervous and rethought their strategy. Consequently there are many good, qualified, experienced people on the job market who have had good jobs all their lives and have been thrown into the wilderness of unemployment. They have had to come to terms with the fact that there are no more “jobs for life” in Spain.

When you have had a good job and received regular promotions to a high level, this is hard. The initial reaction is suddenly you are worthless. An acquaintance who was rejected by the military in the days of conscription had the word “INUTILE”, useless, stamped on his papers. This is how many made redundant through no fault of their own must feel. There working life has reached a full stop (period to my US readers) and they can see no way forward.

One of my oldest friends here in Madrid, Concha Zancada, is in exactly this position. She was working for a company that restructured in the wake of a merger and her position was no longer necessary and she went from being a busy, responsible executive into the world of the jobless. Thanks to the recession, despite many job interviews, for which the competition is fierce, she is still unemployed.

But as she says, she might not have a salary coming in, but she has not stopped working. To improve her chances of getting a job she is taking a masters course in Marketing and management at the ICEMD-ESIC, el Instituto de Comercio Electronico y Marketing Directo, and has worked hard on improving her English.

She also met others in the same position. They compared experiences, told each other how they felt, shared their fears and their hopes. From the beginning of 2009, led by Concha, they combined their experiences into a book. She says it was a privilege to work with such a high level of participants. It also allowed her the experience of negotiating with publishers and to manage both the pre and post production of the book.

She tells me it was an experience she enjoyed as it offered the chance to collaborate with the other six authors who were in a similar situation and hopes the book will give encouragement to those who are in a similar situation.

Last week the book was published. Titled "Punto y Seguido", Stop and Continue.

The book’s premise is that the loss of a job is not the end of your life. It is a period of transition, a time to review. As the song says, “To pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again". It is a handbook, a guidebook, for the jobless, or those who might one day find themselves in that position. So, all of us!

After the book launch I asked Concha to tell me what the book contains. It is in Spanish and I haven’t had time to read it yet.

She wrote:

“There are a lot of situations in life which cause a lot of stress: The death of a close person, a divorce and the loss of a job are just three of them.

How many of you know someone who is unemployed?. Do you think that sometimes they feel disoriented, confused or lost? Don’t you believe they need optimism? So, if you’ve answered “yes” you should read “PUNTO Y SEGUIDO. Cómo gestionar el desempleo y crear nuevas oportunidades profesionales” (Empresa Activa).

STOP and CONTINUE: How to manage unemployment and create new professional opportunities.

The book was written by 7 authors and more than 25 contributors and with their real testimonies in 14 chapters they are trying to help other professionals in their transitions.

The reason is that unemployed people feel that they have reached a full stop in their professional career. But actually they should be thinking that this is only a period of opportunity.

It is a book filled with optimism, suggestions, feelings that allows readers to understand better that kind of experience.

People who were, are or will be in a period of transition should read it. A job isn’t for ever !!! We have in Spain more than 4 million people who are waiting for their own opportunities.”

There are plenty of trite clichés that deal with this situation: "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, and so on. Repeating them won’t help. This book, though, will go some way to alleviating the personal anxiety that the unemployed feel. Even the knowledge that you are not alone can be a help in itself, although the fact that you are just one four millionth part of a national problem can make you feel somewhat insignificant. PUNTO y SEGUIDO should go someway to restoring your self worth.

The global economy still has a long way to go in its recovery. For Spain, perhaps, that journey will be longer than most. It seriously needs to rethink its strategies, to diversify its industry. I am not clever enough to even suggest how that should be done, but it too should view this time as an opportunity to weed out the mistakes of the past and to strive into a better future. It has the educated and skilled workforce willing to do it.

And it might help to know that most of the authors and contributors to PUNTO y SEGUIDO have, in fact, found employment. It might also be inspiring to know that just before Christmas my friend M was faced with the dilemma of choosing one of three jobs she had been offered after several months of unemployment and her friend A, after a short time off work, also now has a job.

This, though, is not helping the construction industry get back on its feet. House prices are the most depressed that have been for years and no one is buying if they are about to see an immediate reduction in the value of the property they have just bought.

But the following story might be slightly inspirational. At the beginning of 2006 I met a man in the Spanish real estate business. He explained to me that in that year property prices were climbing at an unprecedented rate of 17%. This cannot last, he explained, somewhat prophetically. The bubble will burst. He told me that the following year, 2007, the rate of increase would slide to 12%, the year after that, 7%. In 2009 prices will either stabilize or even drop. As far as I know, this man had no crystal ball, yet he was pretty nearly correct to the percentage point.

Nothing much will happen in 2010, he prophesized, until the end of the year when we will see a slowly increasing rise in values.

I hope he is right. But I also hope that governmental and industrial efforts to kick themselves out of European Union funded complacency will be beginning to show signs of fruition. It would be good to live once again in a country where my friend Concha’s book is no longer needed.

Incidentally, here's the advertisement:

PUNTO y SEGUIDO is published by Empresa Activa at €14.50. It’s in all good bookshops and I saw someone reading it on the bus yesterday, so it’s selling. Snap a a copy soon – you never know when you might need it.