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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Not Working

On Friday evening this week I heard that 1.6 million families in Spain had no one in the family working. That sounds bad, but I didn't know how many families there are in Spain. The population is about 47 million, and I know that families are larger in Spain than they are in the U.S., what with it being not at all uncommon for grandparents to live with their middle-aged children and for children who are young adults to remain at home.

Wikipedia has a list of countries of the world by number of households that shows that Spain has 16.7 million households. So if we assume that we can equate "family" and "household" for this purpose, 1.6 million families without someone working would be 9.5 percent of households without someone working. That is an awful lot of families affected by the economic crisis.

A very depressing article in The New York Times this morning gives a similar number. "Spain's Jobless Rely on Family, a Frail Crutch" says that government reports earlier this year acknowledged that about one in ten families have no working adult. It told too many stories of adult children who are dependent on their elderly parents' pension payments for their own livelihood, and older adults who do without vacations, dental work, insurance, personal services, and much more so they can house and feed their children and grandchildren. The stories from the NYT are about families in the large metropolitan areas north of us. We don't know anyone who is living under the extreme conditions detailed in the article, but I have no doubt that they exist. We do know families where there appears to be only one working adult--and that may well be part-time work.

Many of the out-of-work adults are those who used to be employed in the booming housing construction industry. We also read this week of astonishingly high fines levied on the banks that financed that unbelievable and unsustainable housing bubble, which started to burst in 2008. The banks, however, have received a bailout and have some money to pay the fines. The construction workers have not.

The Beat Goes On...

Did I say last Sunday that, even though we have all-night fiestas with loud music that goes on until 6:30 in the morning, that at least the music only comes on the weekends and never during the week? Yes, I did, and I was wrong.

I found out I was wrong on Wednesday morning. When I woke at a little after 6:00 AM I heard the music again. I had not heard it start and I was not awakened by the music, but it was clearly there after I awoke. Where was it coming from? This time I got dressed, unlocked the front door system, and went out to explore.

I walked along the east side of our development, up toward Monty's Bar. It was closed up tight. When I turned toward the west and passed slightly up the hill toward Bistro Alex, also closed, the music got dimmer. So it wasn't coming from the motorcycle hangout way past the Zoco market in this direction, I figured. I turned north and came down the hill toward our house and by then I could hear faint strains again. But soon after this, the music stopped.

Later on that morning we stopped for a cafe con leche and tostada at La Cata in Benijófar. I asked casually whether anyone there lived in town and had heard the music. "¡Si!" said the bartender; and it turned out he lived in the street right next to the source of the music, which he assured me was in the park next to the colegio [elementary school] in Benijófar. He said the music that morning had continued until 8:00, which was probably about the time that he had to get up to go to work. But he had not been out celebrating, and he told us that the festivities would still be going on for a couple days, and he was moving to his girlfriend's for the duration.

Wednesday, according to my Spanish-Norwegian calendar supplied by the Norwegian newspaper Spaniaposten, was the festival of Santiago Apóstol, the Apostle St. James, who happens to be the patron saint of Benijófar. That had been the reason for the festivities on the night of Tuesday going to Wednesday. As we left La Cata and drove through the plaza toward our home, we heard the church bells ring and saw that the church door was open, a rare occurrence. Apparently by noontime the celebration had shifted toward the more solemn spectrum. We should have stopped to see the inside of the church, which has never been open when we were near it on foot. Alas, we were no longer on foot, and there is no parking place near by, so once more we missed seeing the inside of the church. But we did learn that Benijófar is protected by its patron saint, St. James.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fiesta Season

It's fiesta season. We don't have loud music and partying every night of the week--only on weekends. Last week the Virgen del Carmen fiesta kept me awake Saturday night. This weekend, the party started Friday night. I didn't really notice it until I woke up at 3:30 Saturday morning. Even with windows shut, I could hear the throb, throb, throbbing of the drums through the loudspeaker of the fiesta that was going on across the highway in Benijofar. I knew it was Benijofar, because we had been there Friday afternoon for a nice luncheon at La Cata, a new restaurant run by the proprietors of Magica Gourmet, and verified that this town's local fiesta began this weekend. We thought it started with a parade Saturday evening, but obviously we were wrong.

By yesterday morning at 3:30 I had already slept several hours, so it was really hard for me to get back to sleep with all that racket going on. At one point I seriously thought about getting up and joining the party, only ten minutes away. However, I just read, and after an hour and a half I felt myself drifting off again at 5:00. The next time I woke up was at 7:00 and all was quiet. Not so this Sunday morning, when I came to consciousness at 6:00. The sound was faint, but I could hear the throb, throb, throbbing of that drum again. I had left the windows open Saturday night in order to catch some cool breezes. There had been no noise when I went to bed, but who knows when it started? The miracle, I guess, was that I had not awakened earlier. At any rate, the sound of the fiesta was much dampened Sunday morning. Had someone pulled the plug on the loudspeaker, or just cut the decibel level in half, or a quarter? Or was this only an echo from the previous night? Or was I just reliving the Friday night party in a dream?

No, the sound was definitely there, though quieter. And it stopped shortly after 6:00 AM, which must be curfew time for all-night fiestas. No wonder Sunday mornings are always ethereally quiet where we live. People have just then gone home and toppled into bed.

There are some who wonder how a country that is in such economic crisis can afford municipally sponsored all-night festivities in every village and hamlet throughout the summer season. And there are those who answer that it is precisely because the country is in economic crisis that the townspeople need to hang on to their traditions by throwing a grand fiesta to honor the local patron saint one weekend each year.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Austerity Measures

Agreement between Spain and the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund--are those all the players?--has now been reached, and Spain's president of the government, Mariano Rajoy, announced a new series of austerity measures this week. Here's the list, as I interpret it, from an article in El Pais the day after the announcement. Since there was an awful lot I did not realize or understand about the Spanish economic system before the crisis and the announcement of improvement efforts, it can certainly be that I don't fully understand some of the measures announced. 
  • Changes to IVA, the value added tax on almost everything, will certainly affect the most people--literally everyone. Spain having had "one of the lowest VAT rates in Europe," the current base rate of 18% will go up to 21%. I have previously written about the ins and outs of the IVA tax and I am sorry to see that now it is changing and becoming even more complicated. But I am glad to see that there will continue to be a reduced IVA for most food items, sanitary products, transportation, hotels, and admissions to cultural events--even though that category will go up from 8% to 10%-- and that the super-reduced IVA of 4% for basic necessities of bread and vegetables will remain the same. A subsequent story later in the week, however, alludes to several categories of the "reduced IVA" products being moved to the regular 21% category--primarily entertainment products like TV and entrance fees (Internet services?)--but not food.
  • Government workers--including elected members of parliament--will lose their annual Christmas bonuses for, at least, 2012, 2013, and 2014. A long tradition in Spain, the Christmas bonus typically was equivalent to one month's salary, so in essence these people are taking a 7 1/2 percent pay cut for three years. 
  •  Unemployment benefits will be reduced, starting in September, for new recipients. Nearly 25% of Spaniards are unemployed.
  • "Green" taxes will be increased, including at least a 3-5 cent per liter hike in fuel taxes.
  • The pension system will be reformed to make it more sustainable. It looks as though early retirement will be targeted.
  • The number of municipal workers will be reduced by 30%. Mayors and city councilors will be required to make their salaries public. Provincial government will play a greater role in order to maintain public services evenly throughout regions.
  • A popular tax deduction on the purchase of new properties will be eliminated.
  • Taxes on energy will be changed. Details to follow.
  • The government will continue reducing and even eliminating state-owned companies at the local level that "duplicate or even triplicate services."
  • Subsidies to political parties, labor unions, and business organizations will be reduced by 20% --they have already been reduced 20% this current year.
Lest anyone think that Spain has not already taken some stringent fiscal steps, let me tell you some of the ways that the country is already cutting back spending.

First of all, the regional governments are paying some bills very slowly. This has been going on for months, but it is coming closer to home now. Local pharmacies were closed for at least two days in the past month in protest because they had not been paid by the Valencian autonomous comunidad for medications they had issued to customers.

Co-payments are being instituted for drugs and medications. Whereas you used to be able to have prescriptions filled for free, as long as you had the script from your local public doctor and a valid health car, consumers are now going to have to pay for part of the cost. How much? Some reports have said 10%; others imply more. A list of at least 400 drugs has been targeted, some for them for "routine but chronic ailments" such as diabetes, blood pressure, and heart disease.

Spain has cut down on those who qualify for free medical care. Undocumented residents, or those who have not successfully completed the process of acquiring accepted documentation (and I was in that category once) will no longer receive health services. Exceptions are made for certain groups: infants and children under the age of 18; pensioners, age 65 and older; pregnant and nursing women.

Life here is definitely becoming more expensive. Some will feel it more than others, but I think we will all feel it somewhat from now on.

Virgen del Carmen

Tomorrow is the festival of the Virgen del Carmen. It's a holiday that is celebrated in many communities along the Costa Blanca, and we were made aware of that last night, or rather early this morning.

There were no signs of celebrating when I went to bed early last night, at 9:30, to read in peace. But just as I was thinking of turning the light off and getting some sleep a little before midnight, the fireworks started. And then the music started. At first I thought the music was from one or both the bars in Montebello, just a regular Saturday night party, though we don't usually hear signs of nightlife in our house five short blocks from the commercial area. 

But the noise went on longer than those bars are open. It was still going on at 2:00, and at 3:00 and even at 3:30. That's the last time I looked at my clock before I thankfully finally fell asleep. When I woke up this Sunday morning at 8:00, it was to blessed sounds of silence.

We still didn't know exactly which town the loud music had come from, but we were pretty sure it had come from a municipal fiesta rather than a private party. Every town has a fiesta during the summer, and we had seen signs in Benijofar this past week that its fiesta was coming up. But this morning after we made our usual Sunday purchases of frutos secos and vegetables from the Zoco market, we drove along the roads of La Finca golf resort to our small town of Algorfa, thinking to enjoy a cup of coffee in the refreshing coolness of the morning breeze.

Assembling for the Virgen del Carmen Parade in Algorfa. ©2012 Johannes Bjorner.
Our timing could not have been better. As I made my way through the narrow streets of the town, I suddenly came across signs of a procession. People--old and young--garbed in traditional costumes and carrying flowers, were assembling in the streets. We parked quickly, got out of the car, and followed the parade.

Flowers from all. ©2012 Johannes Bjorner.
We didn't have long to wait. It was a small parade, but festive. First came the musicians (two of them) and then townspeople, some--especially the children--decked out in red, black and white, and bouquets of flowers everywhere. I had read this week that IVA, the value-added tax, is going up on flowers, but that didn't stop the florists this morning from doing a bang-up business.

Algorfa, like other communities, was celebrating the Virgen del Carmen festival. But the Virgen del Carmen happens to be the patron saint of Algorfa, so the celebration here is especially festive. First the parade this morning, with musicians and children carrying flowers to the church. We followed the parade down two blocks, then it turned toward the plaza, and crossed the plaza to the church.

These musicians led the parade.
The musicians stopped outside the church and people proceeded inside to lay the bouquets in front of the statue of the Virgin, I imagine. Another parade, with carriages and a local queen and princess, will take place this evening, and tomorrow at 9:00 PM the statue of the Virgin del Carmen will be brought out of the church and carried through the streets of Algorfa in a solemn procession.

Perhaps her first Virgen del Carmen festival.
We did not go into the church, but we joined lots of other people refreshing themselves at a cafe bar in weather that by now had begun to turn hot. There were lots of townspeople on the church steps, and we heard the sounds of the organ playing various hymns. It wasn't just foreigners who skipped out of the mass, though. Lots of children who had laid their flowers and shown off their finery were now playing in the plaza while their parents chatted with friends and family. We sat for awhile and enjoyed their enjoyment, and then walked and wheeled back through the streets to find where we had parked the car in haste when we first saw the signs of this celebration parade.
Playing hide-and-seek in the plaza outside the church. ©2012 Johannes Bjorner.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Spain 4 - Italy 0

Well, that was decisive. The firecrackers started toward the end of the first half, when Spain made its second goal, and they are still going on. And will continue all night, probably. But we are going to bed.

I thought Italy had the ball for a lot of the game, but fortunately for Spain, Spain had a very good goalie. It was exciting.  We watched the match on Spanish television, which makes sense. Danish TV (our main station, the one we pay 300+€ for per year) was also showing it, but they don't have rights to show it outside of Denmark, so even though we pay what they pay in Denmark, we don't get it. My understanding of spoken Spanish is improving, but it's still no match for the excited voices of two male Spanish commentators and one female one, all telling me what's going on. Thank goodness our screen is large enough so I could see it myself.

¡Viva España!

Football Fever

Spain meets Italy in the final match of the European Football (soccer) championship at 8:45 this evening. This is disappointingly late--I would have preferred to watch the match during dinner time--but nevertheless I have now planned dinner and my evening activities around it.

Until a few days ago we thought that it would be Spain against Germany. That would have been an interesting match, since Spain has been sparring with Germany over economic matters in the European Union for weeks now. I was rather hoping that an outcome to that game might be some sort of a talisman to tell what really is the correct answer for how to resolve the euro crisis and solve Spain's economic problems. But Italy beat Germany in the semifinals, so now it's just us two Mediterranean countries, both accused of faltering economies, to battle it out between ourselves.

We've done what we can for the Spanish economy and the EM championship--we bought a Spanish flag for 3€ yesterday that would have cost only 1€ last week and maybe less than that in the coming days, and it's mounted outside the sunroom in a flower pot. We'll stay awake until the final minute this evening, but we won't be moving to the streets to celebrate.

There will be a gigantic celebration tomorrow in Madrid, I read earlier. Spaniards love a fiesta. If Spain wins, they'll be celebrating that they won the championship. If Italy wins, Spain will be celebrating that they got to the finals. That's a pretty good way of looking at it, I think.

Key Issues

I've been meaning to write about locks and keys and security in Spain for a long time, but now that circumstances have forced me into being the one in the family who locks the locks, remembers the keys, and worries about security, it's time.

All houses in Spain, I believe, come equipped with numerous locks and keys. There are four locks between the inside of our house and the sidewalk in front, a space that I can traverse in about a dozen footsteps.  First there is the lock for the wooden front door. Then there is the lock for the wrought iron grate, or grille, that protects the front door. On the other side of the grate is the sunroom, formed on two sides with sliding glass doors. There is a lock for one of the sliding doors, too, which needs to be used when leaving the house. Then when you walk down two steps and over the tiled terrace, you pass through the metal gate that separates our terrace from the public sidewalk, where the car is usually parked. That gate has a lock and key, as well. That's four.

We lock all four locks every evening before retiring for the night, and when I am going to spend the afternoon upstairs in my office, I make sure the gate and the grate are locked. The sunroom door has to stand open enough so Goldie can wander in and out, and the front door itself has to stay open or ajar so she can find her way all the way inside the house. Goldie hates to get stuck on the wrong side of a locked door--the wrong side being whatever side she is on.

Goldie leaving for a stroll. Photo Copyright 2012 Johannes Bjorner.
Although four doors are locked at night only three have to be unlocked in the morning, but you can guess who is the first one demanding that the doors be opened. It used to be that we opened the back, kitchen, door to let Goldie out for her morning inspection tour. There we could leave the protective grate shut and locked--we have told Goldie that she can get as fat as she wants as long as she can still squeeze between the bars of the grate. Two petty break-ins in the neighborhood recently encouraged us to have a deadbolt installed in the back door. It's such a pain to unlock both the deadbolt and the regular kitchen door lock that now what I usually do is open the front doors instead. That means unlocking the front door itself and the front grate, as I am not thin enough to slide between its bars. All those locks have to be opened and shut with keys, but the side sliding door in the sunroom can be unlocked from the inside by removing a round center bolt that prevents the two adjoining sliding doors from sliding. I've decided that at 6:00 AM anyone prowling around will probably not notice that the side door is ajar--and if they do, they are probably too big to slide through the bars, too. After Goldie springs out, I can retrace my steps, lock the front grate and push the front door to where it is slightly ajar, and have a cup of coffee or return to bed to read, or both.

What with marble and tile floors, no wall-to-wall carpeting, stucco walls, no insulation to speak of, and tile roofs, there is little flammable material in most houses in Spain, so my fears of having to use four keys to get out of the house in event of fire are somewhat allayed. Still, we keep a second set of keys inside the front door, with the three keys we need to get out (the sun room key only works from the outside, so we don't need an extra for that). This extra set saves me from going up and down stairs a hundred times a day to the purse where I try to always keep my keys, except when they are in my pocket. I don't keep my keys in my pocket all the time because they are too bulky and because, in spite of extreme vigilance and determination for several years, I have still managed to buy a few pairs of pants without pockets, or without serviceable pockets.

Car keys are also a trial. We have two sets of car keys. Since I am usually the secondary driver, my key is the one that does not have the automatic door opener and lock. My key just opens the door--and only the door on the driver's side, I discovered to my dismay--and the trunk. By hand, by inserting key in lock; not remotely. I keep this key on my master key ring, which is another thing adding to the bulk.

Since I've graduated to being major car driver for a period of time, I have appropriated the main car key. This is a separate key ring that contains the key that can be used to open any one or all car doors remotely. There are only three buttons on the remote, but I still hit the wrong one sometimes and lock the car when it is already locked, or open the trunk when I don't want to. Heaven only knows what I would do if we had a device that rolled the windows down or turned on the air conditioning automatically.

Getting ready to leave the house for morning errands or an outing has become an activity that can take several minutes. First I have to make sure that I have both sets of keys--the house keys and the car keys. I go out to the car and move it to the optimum curbside position, where the walker can stand steady at not too much of a slant. The weather has been hot, so I generally leave the keys in the ignition, power down the front windows, and turn on the air conditioning. Then I return to the sunroom and help the patient with his walker out the door, across the terrace, and into the car. Fold up the walker and stuff it in the back seat. Return to the house with my own set of house keys and shut the front door, lock the front door, shut the grate, lock the grate, shut the sunroom door, lock the sunroom door (but leave the side door open for Goldie), and shut the gate and lock the gate. Then I get in the car and try to remember to stop at the recycling station with one of the bags of bottles, containers, or paper that I have previously stuffed into the car.

Photo copyright 2012 Susanne Bjorner.
Returning, there is also a procedure, with the addition that we usually stop first at the mailbox, where I use one key to open the master mailbox area for the community, and a second to open our private mail box. Then I park along the curb, leaving the patient in the car until I open the gate, the sunroom, the grate, and the door--where all too often I find that Goldie has gotten herself locked on the wrong side of the closed door. Then the patient hops in, and I go out to move the car, lock the car, close the gate, lock the gate, leave the sunroom open for the cat, and close the grate and lock the grate. We usually leave the front door open until after we have had lunch, and then we push it to just ajar, turn on the air conditioning, and settle down for work or siesta. We have had our outing for the day. Goldie is the only one (we hope) who can elude the locks and come and go as she pleases.