21 July 2013 – Everything Passes

Our bus from Porto (Portugal) to Salamanca (Spain) stopped at the old frontier and a Spanish Guardia Civil officer came aboard demanding the passengers’ passports and IDs. This is not what we expected because if you’re in a car you just drive from Euro country to Euro country without stopping if you wish. He started his checks to the rear of us and the next thing we know he is asking to have the rear door opened and then marches two young Chinese blokes off to the old immigration office. We waited a while, everybody speculating, then the officer returned on his own, apologised for the delay and continued checking IDs – except, he didn’t check ours. The bus left soon after and we never saw the two Chinese again. Hmmmm.


The Open Till

You may have noted my comments on the effect that the Global Financial Crisis is having upon the countries that we have been visiting – Italy, Portugal and Spain. They, with the inclusion of Greece, are commonly known by the acronym PIGS and are the big losers in this mess which started across the Atlantic in the USA.

Throughout our travels we continue to talk with whomever, wherever, whenever we meet folk, questioning them about the economic situation. The theme is generally the same even though they affect an initial gloss-over. When we ask, their guard comes down and they tell how reality is biting: highly qualified people working in mundane positions; people working longer hours for less; people having to work for less than before simply to retain employment; people going back to the land/campo/country/farm because there is no work in the city; businesses closing down; Chinese opening local business in direct competition – they open longer hours and don’t close for siesta (in Spain); and then there is the case of my cousin in Seville, Spain: he is a survivor, but this Crisis has him barely hanging on. A brother-in-law of his apparently clung to his job as a Maître D’ for one whole year without pay after being told by his boss that he couldn’t afford to pay him. He even tried to sue for wages in arrears – unsuccessfully, lol.

I have found it interesting and somewhat amusing to find most of the places we spend our money always have their till open – meaning, of course, that they don’t ring up whatever you pay. As a person who appreciates the negative effect a government’s rapacious revenue-collecting can have on your business, I can only wish them well. Poor buggers are getting screwed to pay for the sins of the bankers and politicians.

An Atheist Boyo in the Lands of the Catholics

SalamancaThe Mediterranean lands abound with grand places of worship for the many different creeds, but it is perhaps here in Spain that these buildings reached figurative heights of, well, astounding frippery. We have done our share of visiting these edifices to the point where, now, we mostly pass them by with a token glance at their ornate exteriors. From the outside, alone, many of them are a marvel to wonder at. From the inside, and we went inside another one in Salamanca yesterday, they are just stupefyingly mind boggling. How? Why? How the – ? What the – ? The gilded, curliculed, fretted, carved, cast, sculpted . . . Look, they worked absolute wonders with wood, stone, stucco and plaster and, don’t get me wrong, the structures are often aesthetically very pleasing to the eyes, but it’s the scale of it all that staggers you. Vast, ornately worked arches, sculptures (bleeding Jesus’s, weeping Mary’s, winged babes, men and women :-), frescoes, fret-works, columns, podiums, domes reaching up to 30, 40, 50 or 60 metres above you and covered in painted, fanciful religious imagery; this was/is the work of a people not only driven by religious zeal and undoubted great skill, but with resource to massive wealth (the buildings are not to be confused with or compared to the castles built by mad, in-bred, moneyed royals such as the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany or the love-struck Maharajah’s Taj Mahal). There is no way any of these sorts of things could be built today; it is hardly likely, anyway, that there would be the artistic talent around to do it.

SalamancaWith the heat of summer, people of the Mediterranean frequently head out to the air-conditioned shopping centres – or to a cathedral whose thick stone walls provide a nice cool place to gather their frazzled senses. It was 35degC in Salamanca yesterday so we found ourselves in another cathedral, but I am going to tell you, the more I see of these places the more unsettling I find it. The vast wealth required to build these stupefying decorative edifices, in the case of Spain, was garnered by their murdering and looting a whole nation of innocent people in the new Americas – and yet we marvel, and are pleased by the results. It gets me down, this evil, showy side of religion. Italy and Portugal’s wealth of that period came from much the same sources: murder, looting and pillaging. The trade of these countries that carried and sustained them further, creating more wealth, was built on the back of these initial crimes against humanity. It’s not a pretty story, and many, if not most, of these architectural wonders – in my opinion – are way OTT in their gratuitous celebration of their excess/success. They verge on the ludicrous in fact, something that would not have occurred to them in their zealous madness. We have heaps of photos . . .

SalamancaAnticipating our long return flight I am reminded of another incident on our arrival in Italy during which my jet-lagged state led to more amusement for Rachel. Eager to intelligibly and audibly order some refreshments at our first bar in Bologna I put both my hands on the display case full of food on top of the bar and leaned forward – as one does; only to have the whole display case slide back off the counter-top. The barman, and I, stopped it just short of a total catastrophe. He wasn’t amused.