Spain In Pain

May-June 2010

The Pain in Spain falls mainly on the southern region, it is primarily here that the residential housing boom has proliferated – to a degree that is mind boggling, and now that the economy has all turned to mierda, this is where they are hurting. We are talking unemployment in the 25% region. And as the average Joe Bloke and his misses is expected to turn the economy around with tax increases, pay cuts if they are lucky enough to get a job, reduced pensions and increased IVA (GST), it will not surprise me if there were to be increased crime at the least and perhaps rioting in the streets. There will be many small business failures. Bargains in real estate will be picked up by the cashed up. At one small but excellent Moroccan restaurant we eat at in La Linea we were told by the owner that, in an agreement with his landlord, he had managed to stall paying his rent for six months. He had only been operating for two (good) years but didn’t think he could hang on much longer. This was typical of quite a few bars we frequented and asked questions at. We were told the clothing stores were also feeling the pinch. Just people not spending as they used to. Longer standing bars/restaurants we returned to seemed to have a reduced clientele too, but they would likely have the resources to carry them over. We saw familiar and often welcoming faces, after an absence of some seven years, in one or two of our old haunts. We were even recognised by some. One of the core pleasures about Spain is the longevity of its retailers, who, in spite of the avalanche of gigantic retail chains survive to this day. It is nothing to see a small vegetable shop with a queue out onto the footpath, the customers patiently waiting while the shop owner selects and wraps in a cone of paper the customer’s order. They could head for the Malls – some must do so, of course, but no, they are happy to just queue and wait.

May 15th. Off into the wild blue yonder with our favourite airline Singapore Air. Here we go here we go here we go-o-o-o-oh. Surprisingly, having to get up at 0300hrs isn’t really that difficult. Knowing that travelling westwards around the globe is easier on the brain & body than eastwards helps too I suppose. There is bound to be some scientific explanation for that latter fact. The coriellis effect? Who cares? This holiday is taking up Rachel’s four weeks annual leave, nothing more.

Our friends Yeo & DavidAh, Singapore. We’ve arranged 10 or 11 hours stopover on each transit here. What a pleasure it always is to arrive there. It must be the most hassle free airport in the world for passengers to enter and exit. We were met by our friend Yeo with a bag full of Tiger beer for us boys and small bottles of wine for Rachel. We crack into these in the airport, Rachel and I rather guiltily, but we’re repeatedly assured that in S’pore it is quite OK to drink in public – or any place at all. It’s lunchtime. We head into the city to eat and shop for a few treats we seek. Neither Singapore, nor the company of our friend Yeo disappoint. In a very happy mood we return to the airport, say farewell to Yeo and head for the showers to freshen up and change for the marathon flight to Barcelona.

I remain in awe of air travel. That these huge and heavy machines get off the ground at all never ceases to amaze me. And then, bizarrely, as if they were on an eathbound train or bus, people eat, sleep, chat, read, walk around or carry out their ablutions in those so-tiny-but-neat toilets. Think about it! We’re about 40,000 ft above sea level. It’s maybe minus 40 or 50degC outside so if you stepped out you’d be snap frozen. And, we’re being thrust along at about 900kph in this metal cigar shaped cylinder. Incredible! It’s just not natural.

With all this in mind and unable to sleep I lifted the blind: and immediately wished I hadn’t. Sheet lightening flashed all around in a continual display, pulsing like strobe lighting in a nightclub. Oh dear. Electricity! Conductive metal cylinder! Vulnerability! Worried? Me? Well yes, but I prefer to think I was ‘deeply concerned’. I decided not to wake Rachel. As she has since said – we could have worried together. It was somewhat hypnotic but didn’t send me to sleep. Resigned to my fate, rationalising that it would be very, very quick, I closed the blind.

Long distance travelling is as much about managing your laundry as organising accommodation, onwards flights or rental cars. Arriving off a fifteen hour flight – oh, and that includes a one and a half hour fuelling stopover in Milan where we were not allowed to get off the ‘plane – you already have one or three items that need washing.

Our initial, pre-booked hotel is a four star, real “hotel” booked ahead on the internet at a good discount price – very nice – but their laundry prices have me weighing up buying a new shirt for the price of its wash: a new shirt would also be ‘pressed’. So we scout around. It’s nothing new for us. We can pass half a day arranging the laundering of our dirty linen in any country. Not the ‘smalls’ as the Americans call them, or ‘ropas interiores’ as the Spanish call them. Smalls we wash and hang to dry in our rooms. It is merely a part of travelling – well, ‘travelling light’. I understand some people simply throw so many clothes into their one, two suitcases that they never have to worry about washing their clothes. They simply harbour a malodorous bag of unwashed duds for the duration, and spend a day or two running it through their own machines at home upon return. One hopes that Customs don’t choose to rip their suitcase apart upon return – in front of fellow travellers!

Is there a laundry around here? – We’re in Bilbao northern Spain, fresh off the second flight and this is said in unpractised Castilian Spanish. It’s OK, they are Basques here. They speak Basque, French, Castellano and English and I suspect many more languages: so competent. I’ve been struggling with my second language for . . . well, forever. It pays to keep in the back of your mind as you struggle to make yourself understood with these bi, tri and god-knows-how-many lingual people that it is your incompetence that is the cause of the misunderstandings that sometimes ensue. With that in mind, it is good fun.

Bilbao is a delightful and manageable city with interesting, attractive and diverse architecture. We cringe at the sameness of city buildings that awaits us upon return to Oz. Weatherwise; we’ve done well. The northern hemisphere spring weather proves balmy to hot. The food and drink is as we anticipated from our recollection of previous journeying here: wonderful, and the inseparable ambience that the Spanish lend to eating and drinking is . . . awakening. It is however, unfortunately nestled in a large valley with considerable industry at one end. The resultant pollution sits as a smog every day along the whole valley. I’m sure with certain wind direction it would clear rapidly, but for the duration of our stay, about a week, we smelt it daily with our sensitive fresh-air Perth noses. It was also interesting to note the criss-crossing vapour trails that scratched the sky above, testament to the vast quantity of air traffic around Europe.

We spend a day tramping the countryside, up hill and down dale as they say. It’s lush; it’s very green with idyllic pastoral scenes and a distinctive northern European, rustic rural architecture which is very easy on the eye. Underestimating the weather, my face the next day is severely burnt. I’ve done this before on our travels – in different countries. I’m a slow learner.

We’ve rented a car and will drive it from Bilbao, way up north, to Algeciras, way down south. It’s a 4 door Peugeot 207 Diesel. Amazingly economic. The charming antiquity of many of the towns we visit has us smiling. And they’re functional, not show pieces with people in period costumes. In and a part of them are the little shops. Stores that are all but gone from our new and brash NZ and Oz. Do you remember? small shops where you may have to wait behind other customers, where the shop keeper will serve you, where your goods will be wrapped up in a funnel of plain paper. I don’t want to dwell on this, but throughout our travels in Spain this trip we were delighted to find these sorts of small shops (from greengrocers to plumbing supplies to shoe repair shops to butchers to fish shops to deli’s etc) still in existence. Not only that, but down south in La Linea where we have spent most time, we recognised the same shopkeepers and bar owners (many of whom actually remembered us) from seven years before – and they had been there in the five years before that. It gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling. So, in spite of the onset of the EU, Spain hadn’t changed too much. Like I say, charming. Oh yes, they have supermarkets and hypermarkets, but there is a core of Spanish life that is constant. I would hazard a guess that a small store that has been operating for twelve years would be better able to withstand the economic downturn than some large, brash and relatively newly placed business (usually a chain store). And Spain is in dire economic straights.

The centre of British investment in the huge sherry and port trade in the last century (or two) was based in and around the town of Jerez in Spain, giving the English name ‘sherry’ to all the various wines and fortified wines from that region (and port from Oporto in Portugal). It is a misnomer. In a small bodega in the back streets of Cadiz we indulged ourselves in various, glorious ‘sherries’ direct from the barrels at refreshingly little cost but impactful potency. We were educated. Each nectar is named from its region or town of origin and is called, simply, ‘wine’, perhaps with the differentiation of “fino” or dulce. Asking for “sherry” in Spain will get you a bemused smile. One has to be more specific. We had, from past visits, settled on Manzanilla as our preferred “sherry”, but that is also the name for a camomile tea infusion so one has to assure them that you want el verdad vino fino del región de Sanlucar de Baramaeda – – – – – – – – – or you’ll end up with a cup of tea.