Search "Sundays in Spain"

Showing posts with label economy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label economy. Show all posts

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Changes in the neighborhood

We've experienced a number of life-changing events in our neighborhood here in Montebello over the past several weeks.

A lady who lived just a few doors down from us died. It was not unexpected: she had been battling brain cancer for over a year, and by the time the end came, it was probably a blessing for her, for her elderly husband, and for the daughter who had come from England--several times and for long periods--to care for them both. During the last trip the daughter stayed for a few days after the funeral, taking care of details and managing the house for some relatives who had come from abroad for the services and stayed a bit. Then at the end of the visit, she and her father drove a couple of the aunts to the airport so the aunts could return to their lives. And in one of those tragic but perhaps right life-changing events, her father dropped dead of a heart attack just minutes after the aunts had disappeared through the security gate. The poor daughter, certainly shocked, organized and went through the funeral of her father just days after the funeral of her mother.

A happier occasion in our little corner of Montebello was marked at the end of May. On an unusually dreary Monday (Memorial Day in the U.S, but not here, of course) we returned very early from a quick morning run to the post office to find a young man applying jumper cables to his car. Not a happy site except for the fact that the man in question was the husband of a neighbor, a young woman with two teenage sons. Because of the economic crisis,  the husband had been working and living in England for the past two years and visiting only occasionally.

In spite of a dead battery, the man was cheerful, albeit in a hurry. "Not surprising to have a dead battery after many months of not using this car," he said, "but wouldn't you know--I start a new job this morning!" "Here?" I asked in surprise, and he answered, "Yes."  He got the car started, and when I saw his wife a few days later, she confirmed that he had just gotten a new permanent job in Spain, and that the four of them were, once again, a family living under the same roof. I walked around for days feeling joy for them.

A different life change happened at the beginning of June, but it was a positive one, too. This was the start of a new business, or perhaps it is better to say a revitalized  business. When we moved into our neighborhood five years ago, there was an on-site bar and restaurant, Monty's. Then a second bar and restaurant opened. Two establishments were at least one more than the community of 160-some houses could support. The second one closed, and then, with the deepening and apparently never-ending financial crisis, the first one closed. For a couple months Montebello was without any on-site bar and restaurant at all.

Then we got word that new owners had purchased Monty's. They took a couple weeks to gut the kitchen and replace everything, paint the interior dining room, and do some much-needed cosmetic work on the exterior building. Then they opened the bar. Nice, but we are not the type of customer that can provide sufficient support to keep a bar in business. But then, two weeks later, they announced the opening of the kitchen.

We had a pleasant evening dinner at Monty's at the beginning of June, celebrating our not-so-recent triumph in the neighborhood petanca tournament with friends, who happened to also be observing their 44th wedding anniversary. As it turned out, we realized, they had gotten married just two days earlier and two years later than we had. So we had a nice, relaxed dinner luxuriating in our neighborhood, supporting its revitalization and hoping for stability, and being able to walk to and from without getting into a car.

And now we are ourselves engaged in a major life change.  We are planning to reestablish our residence in the U.S. this summer. I will leave shortly and travel to Cincinnati to take possession of an apartment--and attend my customary summer conference of the American Library Association. Johannes will join me later, after his visa papers are in order. Once we are together in the U.S. again, we will stay there for six months.

We are not leaving Spain forever. For now we are keeping our car and our house here, and we know that we will be very glad to get back to the Costa Blanca when it turns cold and dark in the Midwest next winter. But we are going to be gone for a long time, and that means we have been having some sad good-byes. Or some hasta la proxima's, because (the good lord willing and the creek don't rise) we will return in February.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Back to the Land

We took a drive in the country last Friday morning, just because the sun was shining, and even though the wind was blowing strongly, but we had nothing urgent planned, and it had been a long time since we moseyed around in this part of this country. So into our German Ford Fusion we piled and tootled off through the countryside, headed away from the city and the sea, just to see what we could see.

Field in cultivation, La Finca Golf Resort. ©Johannes Bjorner 2014
It was green. As we made our way along roads we knew, we noticed a huge increase in the number of cultivated fields. Not once, not twice, but several times we came across great stretches of land that had formerly been scrappy looking, going to seed, or used as junk lots. Now there were row upon row of tiny new olive trees standing a foot above the brown earth, or furrowed rows of cultivated land just waiting for seeds or plants or irrigation hoses, or in one case, a line-up of medium-sized earth-moving equipment, just getting ready for leveling and plowing the land.

This is a positive sign. Not only does it mean that there is some substantial money from somewhere going into investment, but that the money is going into investment in agriculture rather than more housing development. The last thing that Spain needs is increased  investment in holiday homes; thousands--probably millions--of apartments, quad houses, and villas are standing empty and/or uncompleted, the ugly symptoms of over-hype, over-development, and an unending financial crisis.

New olive trees on the road to Algorfa. © Johannes Bjorner 2014
We live in, and were traveling through, a semi-rural area of Alicante province, with small villages that were agricultural and isolated long before European holiday-makers and pensioners started coming to the sun in the 1980s and changed their way of life dramatically. We speculated that some of the old village farmers, rich in land but poor in cash, who had been sitting on their land until the right offer from the housing developers came through at an opportune time, have finally gotten tired of waiting and have smartened up. After decades of development and eight years of crisis, they have gone back to the land and are using it for Spain's and their own development.

And it's green.

News of the Day

While out on a drive Friday morning, we stopped (no surprise) for a café con leche and media tostada, and I was reminded of one of the special qualities of Spanish cafe-bars: they have newspapers. They don't thread them onto sticks in a stand, as they do, or at least used to, in Vienna cafes and in the Massachusetts public library where I worked an eon ago. Rather, they leave each day's selection--two or three papers--scattered on one end of the bar. There they lie when none of the customers, or the proprietor or servers, or cafe regulars are reading them. Friday morning around noon (yes, that's still morning in Spain) when we happened in to the Toscana in Callosa de Segura near the indoor mercado de abastos, there were three newspapers at the close end of the bar. My companion picked up El País, the national paper that has an affiliation with The New York Times, but I was wanting more local news, so I picked up Información, the regional edition for Alicante. Leafing through while enjoying my coffee and toast, I focused on four articles.

A front-page teaser noted that nine immigrants had been killed as they tried to climb a wall into Ceuta, a small Spanish territory surrounded by Morocco in Northern Africa. The economy may be bad in Spain, but apparently it is worse in Morocco, and the papers and TV news frequently tell of  would-be immigrants--usually arriving by boat--getting caught trying to enter European Union jurisdictions through Spain. I had never heard of a group trying to storm a wall from Morocco, but apparently that is what happened this time, with tragic consequences. What could have gone so terribly wrong to justify the killing of nine individuals seeking better opportunities? El País apparently has a later press time than Información, because it had a more detailed story, and here is one in English.

The AVE, the high-speed train, that was inaugurated between Alicante and Madrid shortly before we left Spain last November, has apparently turned into a big success. The train takes two hours and 35 minutes, as opposed to one hour for the plane, but that doesn't account for terminal time, with security and check-in requirements, for air travel. Headlines announced that the AVE "is eating" the air competition: what had been ten daily flights between Alicante and Madrid will now shrink to just three. This concerns me, as I don't really want to have to transfer from Barrajas airport in the outskirts of Madrid to the inner-city train station at Atocha when I return to Spain from the U.S., early in the morning after an all-night, transatlantic flight--with luggage--as I did just two weeks ago. Nor do I want to sit around Barrajas airport for hours on end waiting for the next flight. What is really puzzling is that we have taken the normal train to and from Madrid several times, and it usually takes only a little over three hours.

Story three: There have been big demonstrations at the Coca-Cola plant in Alicante city, which, it was announced earlier this week, is one of four in Spain to be closed by the global beverage concern. The news on Friday was that Coke has said, once again, that there is no chance that it can reconsider and save the jobs of its workers. I read later in the day, in an English paper, that 111 families will be affected by shutting down the plant, which first started operations 50 years ago. What a sad 50th year anniversary observance!

Story four: Another confirmation of the increasing presence and financial influence of Russians on the Costa Blanca: a big meeting of Russian real estate agents in the Torrevieja area had taken place, and there are signs of them joining together to develop a commercial center in a coastal part of Torrevieja that is unfit for housing development. Yes, there are real estate agents that specialize in serving Russians, and more than a couple. I had previously written about the Russians coming to this area, and the trend is continuing and expanding. This year, for example, there are four young Russian women in my Spanish class, out of about 15 students.

That was the news of the day, Friday, February 7. All for the price of a coffee and tostada.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Foreign Aid

When I had to roll my very heavy Spain-bound suitcase from house to car in Cincinnati earlier this month, I was lucky that two of my sisters were there to help. They insisted that they do the deed, perhaps because they didn't want me to damage the threshold, which I had done under similar circumstances on a previous trip. And after they got the suitcase out, and closed the door so the cat would not escape, they were lucky that a maintenance man was within steps on the other side of the door--a very polite maintenance man, who offered to help and had the suitcase in the car in a jiffy.

"He spent a year in Spain when he was in the service," they reported to me after scooting back in and closing the door so the cat would not escape. "A year! It must have been at that U.S. military base I've heard of over in the western part of Spain," I said, though that pretty much summed up my total knowledge on the subject, and not wishing to expose my ignorance, we didn't even stop on our way out to chat with him. Anyway, it was hot.

So when I got back on Spanish soil and opened up one of the newspapers that had come in my absence, I was rather surprised that the first article that caught my eye on the inside cover was "Spain paid to host missile shield." It started out by saying that Spain and the U.S. are expected to formalize  a 200 million euro agreement allowing the U.S. to station four destroyers at the naval base in Rota, Cádiz. I've been to Cádiz, way over to the west on the relatively short Atlantic coast of Spain. I did not know about the base then, but according to one of those "needs improvement" articles in Wikipedia, this is the largest U.S. military community in Spain, with Navy and Marine Corps personnel, along with small Army and Air Force contingents.

Those who share my sentiments about the U.S. single-handedly erecting defenses outside its own borders will be glad to know this is a NATO effort. The destroyers will be equipped with "Aegis combat systems capable of intercepting ballistic missiles." Two ships, the Ross and the Donald Cook, are scheduled to arrive in 2014, to be joined by the Porter and the Carney in 2015. The 1,100 military personnel and their families who will arrive with the ships will be greeted warmly as long as they provide the expected boost to the local economy.

Common Sense

We were shocked this week to hear that an English charity is under attack by the Spanish tax authorities.  Paul Cunningham Nurses is a registered charity in Spain; it was founded years ago by Jennifer Cunningham in honor of her son, Paul, who died of cancer at an early age. Paul Cunningham Nurses (PCN) provides free nursing and care to terminally ill patients and their families. It gets much of its funding through sales in several shops of donated clothing, DVDs, and household articles. We have taken several cast-off items to the shops to donate, and we have also made many purchases. I particularly like to stop in before I take a little vacation to northern climates, because I can usually find a couple pieces of warmer clothing in good condition there, that I can't find in regular stores here in southern Spain.

We first heard of the Paul Cunningham problem from friends who had read it in one of the free weekly newspapers. When we went out the next morning to do errands, we looked, unsuccessfully, for the newspaper, and we also stopped in one of the PCN shops to ask about the situation. The attendant gave us some information about the problem, but not in detail, and I was a little hesitant to sign a petition in support of the charity with so little knowledge, but I did. Since then I have found two written articles which generally say the same thing, so I'm taking them as a fairly accurate statement of the facts.

A year ago, one of the PCN shops was approached by a Spanish official from Social Security (Seguridad Social), who asked the two volunteer workers to show her their national identification and Social Security papers. Social Security is the system in Spain that provides national healthcare: either your employer pays your social security premium, or you as an independent contractor/freelance worker pay your own (and it starts at a minimum of 320 euros per month, I have heard from various sources).

The volunteer shopkeepers, older English women, did not understand the detailed Spanish and contacted the PCN accountant, who explained, in Spanish, to the Social Security representative that PCN was a registered charity, as indicated by a G above the door of the shop, and that the "workers" were volunteers and thus should not pay Social Security. The officer, however, levied a fine of 6,000 euros and demanded that the charity present all relevant paperwork to an authority in Alicante city--and accused PCN of violating the human rights of the volunteers by not paying salaries.

In due time the charity's official papers were taken to Alicante, the papers were accepted, and the fine was withdrawn. However, another fine was levied: 10,000 euros--for obstructing an officer in the carrying out of her duty.

PCN appealed the new fine twice, then heard nothing until recently, when a registered letter arrived saying that if the 10,000 euro fine--plus 2,000 euros in interest--is not paid within 21 days, the bank account of the charity will be embargoed and money withdrawn to pay the fine and interest until it is paid in full.

PCN is continuing its appeals, to the European Court, it says, if necessary. For the time being, as far as I know, PCN shops are still open and accepting donations, people are still buying--and signing petitions, and nurses are still attending to end-of-life needs of any resident of Spain--not just English or foreigners--who asks for help.


When I first heard about this absurdity I thought, "It's because the Spanish system does not understand volunteer activities and charities." And it is true that the extraordinary system of grassroots fundraising by charity shops, lotteries and raffles, entertainment benefits, quiz and game nights, and all sorts of activities routinely offered by the British population here has no equal of which I am aware. But I have checked, and my English-Spanish dictionaries do show Spanish words on this topic. A charity organization is an institución benéfica or an organización benéfica. A charity shop is la tienda de una organización benéfica. A charity sale is una venta benéfica. A volunteer is un voluntario or una voluntaria, as in a volunteer army or to volunteer information. But the verb for volunteer is ofrecerse, to offer oneself, which does have the aura of self-sacrifice about it. And I didn't see anything at all about volunteer workers.

All of which does reinforce my feeling that the concepts of volunteering and charity are not something that Spaniards have in common with the Anglo world as I know it. But I do hope that common sense will prevail in this case, sooner rather than later.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

"The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming"

Never in all my wildest dreams when I was growing up during the Cold War did I envision the Russians coming to save an economy in trouble.  They probably aren't going to save Spain's economy single-handedly now either, but the new prosperous younger Russians (who were not around during the Cold War) are certainly having a positive effect in tourism and immigration to Spain.

We sat this morning in one of the outdoor cafés at the Sunday market, enjoying sharing a bratwurst and a beer, listening to the voices of what sounded like a Russian couple at the next table, and reading a story in RoundTown News reporting on a group of 30 Russian travel agents that had visited Torrevieja this past week and, apparently, painted the town red. They saw more sights in their week-long junket than I have seen in the four years I have been here! Well at least I have a number of events to put on my "to-do" list--the "floating museums" in the port area being at the top.

There are now almost 5,000 Russians on the padron (the town register), which means that they stand second only to the British as the largest group of foreign residents in the area. Lots of Russians are coming here to make this their permanent home, and lots more are coming to buy second homes--there are reportedly two direct flights each week between Alicante and St. Petersburg during the summer season.

I have never studied Russian and am not really sure that I can distinguish the language from some others, but I may have an opportunity to get more familiar with it in the coming years.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Poverty in Spain

The CoastRider, in an especially informative issue dated April 2, put some statistics about poverty in Spain to the faces of distress that we have begun seeing even in our area along the Costa Blanca. The research came from the FOESSA Foundation, the Fomento de Estudios Sociales y de Sociología Aplicada, which was founded in 1965 to provide "the most objective and continuous research possible on the social situation and changes in Spain," according to my reading of its mission statement. I downloaded its 2013 report and looked through it, but because I find economics tough going in any language, I rely mostly on The CoastRider's interpretation:
  • 10 million people in Spain--21% of the population--are living in "relative poverty." Relative poverty is defined as having an annual income less than 60% of the national income. A family unit of two adults and two children living in relative poverty live on less than 15,330 euros (about US $20,000).
  • There are now 3 million people living in Spain under "extreme poverty." That is 6.4% of the population. Extreme poverty is defined as having an annual income of 30% or less of the national average, or 3,650 euros (about US $4,750).
  • A total of 38% of one-parent families are living below the poverty line--11.7% in extreme poverty.
  • The percent of households with everyone out of work has grown from 2.5% before the crisis to 10.6% at the end of 2012. That is more than 1.8 million people.
Elsewhere in the issue, the Bank of Spain says that the jobless rate could reach 27% by the end of 2013 and that not until 2014 is "the pace of job destruction ... expected to moderate substantially ... and ... job creation ... begin."

The visible signs of the economic crisis have moved beyond half-finished building projects, empty holiday units, reduced hours of service in medical and government offices, and shuttered or ever-changing cafés, restaurants, and shops. We don't know a lot of Spanish people, but I know two women whose husbands have not worked for two years. One is young enough that he can at least use the time to care for their infant daughter while the mother works; the other is old enough that he will probably never have another job in his lifetime. Another young family is working hard to remain in Spain; she is running the business that had supported them here for several years, but he has had to return to another European Union country for work and is now able to join his family only once a month. We know a retail shop owner who owes two suppliers 15,000 euros and doesn't have it, and is being taken to court--as if that is supposed to produce money from somewhere. We know a middle-aged divorced woman who worked for less than ten years before she lost her job and whose public unemployment benefits have now run out after two years; her former husband had already stopped all financial help. While in Madrid a few weeks ago, we saw numerous street beggars, whom we had rarely seen in the city before. And even down here on the costa, the street musicians who greet you with a cheerful song as you approach the grocery store and always thank you for your change when you come out are singing a little less brightly now and smiling only rarely.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Working on Hope

There was a country-wide general strike in Spain on Wednesday. The pictures from Madrid, where it turned violent, were terrible. Down here on the Costa Blanca, we were hardly disturbed. School buses were not running and schools themselves were on skeleton crews, according to the two women (from different towns) in my book group who are mothers of school-aged children; they still managed to make it to book group that morning. I didn't notice any other disruption throughout the day as I drove by the usual commercial centers on the way to and from afternoon petanca. Our house cleaners came as usual and the results of their work were clearly evident upon our return.

Being a long way from industry, we have been removed from much of the economic turmoil caused by la crisis. Disruptions have stepped up recently, though. When we returned from a two-week vacation and went to fill a routine prescription, we found the pharmacy closed on a weekday morning. The pharmacists have not been paid by the regional comunidad--in our case, Valencia--for the prescription medicine they used to hand out free upon presentation of a personal health card and the doctor's RX. When you pick up a prescription, the pharmacists cut out a square of code from the package, plug some numbers into the computer, and presumably the data gets collected  and each quarter, the pharmacy is reimbursed by the comunidad. It seems those bills have not been paid now for a couple quarters, and the pharmacists have given up hope of prompt reimbursement. During the summer, new reforms went into effect that made most retirees pay 10% of the price of a prescription. That is not a problem for us, and I am glad to see that the pharmacies get at least a few timely euros. Now, a couple weeks into this particular crisis, I have learned that most pharmacies are open two days a week, and when one of our local drugstores is closed, the other is usually open. When at the regional medical center on Friday this week, I noticed a paper taped near the window of the reception area that listed six or seven pharmacies that were open. Presumably this list is changed often.

We have already had discussions with a physiotherapist, a nurse, and a doctor about the 15% cut in salary they have taken. I don't think that includes the Christmas bonus (equivalent to one month's income) that they were told in July would not be forthcoming this year. They are still working the same number of hours, just for less money. I am beginning to understand that this cut must include all public workers. Health and education, services for the handicapped--and jobless benefits, ironically--have been hard hit as Spain's conservative government makes promises to get out of its economic troubles. The European Union is apparently satisfied with the president's measures, and I hope it will be disposed to help pick up the burden of the long-term effects of such stringent budget cuts.

Budget cuts are one thing--just not paying people is another. I was shocked to hear this week about a town engineer who works as a contract employee two days a week--he has worked all year but not been paid since June. He hopes to receive the money owed him by the end of the year. And for months now there has been a light construction crew building a stone wall, landscaping, and generally creating a park at the entrance to our neighborhood, near an old train station that has been restored but never yet opened to the public. We knew it was a sort of make-work situation and speculated that the money was coming in some way from Brussels, because the area has been designated an "environmental project." Like any construction crew that I have ever seen--probably true the world over--many of the times you pass the work area, half the workers are standing around, apparently doing nothing. Now I can't say that I blame them, for now I have learned that, though they have worked for months, they have only the promise of pay at the end of the year, or the end of the job, or the end of the crisis. They have come to work for months without any paycheck.

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.

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.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Economic Changes

One measure of the way the worldwide economic crisis has hit Spain is the statistics about unemployment: approaching 25% according to the most recent reports, and nearly 50% of youth between the ages of 16 and 24. Another measure is the general strike of March 29, which did not cripple the country by any means, but was inconvenient, especially if one was traveling, and a noticeable reminder that government workers and services are being especially hard hit in the search for remedies. The slowdown in government services was one reason we found ourselves this past week in the waiting rooms of San Jaime, the private hospital in Torrevieja, for a third cataract operation.

This operation was not for me, but for Johannes. I have had two cataract procedures in the past two years, one on each eye, both successful, and both paid for by the public health system of Spain (which generally pushes costs for non-Spanish European citizens back to the "home" European country as in typical EU fashion, but the system is administered and services delivered by Spain). In 2010 when I needed my first operation, I waited for a few months after getting approval from the ophthalmologist and then I got a letter from the hospital that was to do the surgery: since the three month waiting period had been reached, I now had my choice of waiting until my name came to the top of the list, or going to the private hospital, where an immediate operation would be performed at public cost. I did not need a second invitation, and after I had had one eye done this way, I was able to get the second done several months later by the same hospital, same doctor, and according to the same overflow conditions.

This time three months passed after approval for the procedure, but no letter was forthcoming. In due course we went to the hospital for which Johannes was in line, and they would not give even a guess as to when he would make it to the top of the list. Apparently the public system is no longer paying for overflow procedures at the private hospital, which should not have been a great surprise since the newspapers are filled with stories of short-term strikes at pharmacies that have not received payments by the provincial governments for the drugs they have delivered free to participants in the public system.

On the day of Johannes' operation, the waiting room was not as crowded as it was when I had my two procedures, and instead of waiting several hours from beginning to end, it was less than two. As I sat in the outer waiting room and listened to the voices around me, I was surprised that most of the patients were Spanish. We were surrounded by families in which the women were well-dressed, with beautifully colored and styled hair. I had expected that they were European citizens who had elected to pay for a quicker procedure. But there was only one other English-speaking couple and at least four Spanish-speaking. It seemed as though Spanish women of a certain age were the patients; as this was cataract surgery, they were probably in their seventies or near them on either side. When Johannes came out an hour later from his procedure, he gave me the inside story of the conversations in the inner waiting room.

You have to disrobe and put on a hospital gown when you have cataract surgery here, and apparently that prompted the subject of clothing. The women were chatting about how, when they were growing up, they would have been dowdily dressed in straight black, dark grey, or navy blue skirts at this age, and certainly not undressing for cataract surgery. It is true; even today you see many short, older Spanish women, whether  in cities or pueblos, in their tight black skirts, nondescript dark blouses, dark hose, and flat black shoes. I look at them and guess that they are in their seventies or eighties, but I know that some, especially in the small towns, are only in their sixties or maybe even fifties. Only a generation, or perhaps two, separated the stylish women I saw in the waiting room from their mothers or grandmothers in the old-Spanish uniform. A generation, probably an education, jobs, the invasion of their country by northern Europeans, and presumably a little more wealth.

But the younger generation of today is probably not going to see the positive change that their parents did, if the country does not find a way to save its economy from itself and from the "Overdose of Pain" prescribed by the EU.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Helping Lorca, and Lessons in Philanthropy

The two earthquakes that hit Lorca on May 11 have passed from the headlines, but we still think about what is happening in this city and how it is rebuilding itself. We were reminded of Lorca in a very clever way this past week when we did our customary monthly banking. So far Spain seems to have escaped the frenetic bank mergers that the U.S. and other countries have experienced over the past decade, and for reasons that I will not detail, we have accounts in three or four different banks. It is not at all difficult to pass six or seven or even more banks while walking a single block in the commercial areas close to us.

So last Monday, according to our monthly ritual, we went first to the bank up the hill to pull money out of "his"account, and then we stopped at one half-way down the hill to press the buttons and collect a little more cash from "her" cajero. Then we proceeded quickly to the bank that assisted us with our house purchase and where we maintain a joint account for regular monthly expenses. Spain is still a cash economy in some ways, so we placed our accumulated euros and the bank book on the counter and waited while the teller performed the usual paperwork. Part of that paperwork involves bringing the bank book up to date with the previous month's automatic deductions, which is done by sliding the open book all the way into a machine; the machine pulls the figures and notations from its wide-ranging memory and puts it all down in neat rows in the book, even automatically turning the page of the book inside the machine when necessary.

It was while we were waiting that we noticed the strategically placed poster, asking us to donate money to the Cruz Roja, Spain's Red Cross, for the recuperation of Lorca. This was not a small round container with a slit on the top in which we could slip a few coins--it was a paper form with the bank account number to which we could easily--now that we were in the bank and knew exactly how much money we had--make a transfer from our account to theirs. It took no time at all for us to decide to give and for the bank teller to process that paperwork, and we gave much nore than we would have if someone had come to the door.

Now we have read in several sources that Lorca is taking another step toward its own recovery. Its office of tourism has opened a "tourist route" in town for visitors to see its historical spots from many centuries, many of which suffered severe damage, and also to see the progress toward restoration. Lorca's second annual Medieval Market took place as usual the second week of June, and a previously scheduled professional trade show for rural tourism will still use its planned Lorca venue this coming week. So a little later this summer, after I am finished with travels farther afield, I intend to visit Lorca and follow the tourist trail to see its historical sites, but even more to see the effects of the earthquakes and what is being done to recover. As the head of the tourist office says, it is a unique opportunity to see how the forces of nature can touch the lives of the people and the history of a city, and to continue helping by coming to visit, spending money, and securing jobs.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Agurketid and the Media

Agurketid is a Danish word that denotes the boring and inconsequential television programming that often sprouts in midsummer, when everyone is on vacation, but the airwaves still need to be filled with something. Literally, agurketid means "cucumber time." So it is fitting that we were in Denmark when we first heard reports that killer cucumbers from Spain had infected several people in northern Germany with E.coli bacteria.

I have to admit that initially I was glad to be out of Spain and in a place where I could still comfortably indulge in cucumber salad such as the one I had enjoyed just one or two days previously with friends from Tåsinge, an island in the south of Denmark. But then I remembered that we were not very far from northern Germany and that Denmark, like Germany, gets a lot of fresh produce from Spain. And the reports got worse. Soon cucumbers from Holland were also suspect, and then it wasn't just cucumbers, but tomatoes, and lettuce, and--according to some reports--any fresh vegetable.

By this time we had moved on to Warsaw and the only news reports we could understand were from CNN. Perhaps the Polish news was not reporting on the cucumber story, or not taking the danger seriously, or not being as alarmist as some media outlets, because at our first evening dinner in Warsaw, while we waited for some elegant entrees, we were offered complimentary appetizers, one of which was a spread of white cheese on huge slabs of raw cucumber. (I declined, but my friends and family know that it was the cheese, not the cucumbers, that turned me off.) A couple days later, I enjoyed a lunchtime green salad of mixed vegtables, and I continued to eat raw vegetables in moderation.

The agurk problem kept on spreading, affecting people in other countries (though almost all were reported to have visited northern Germany recently) and the story escalated. We were, of course, aware of the economic impact on farmers in Spain, where people are already suffering severely from the financial crisis. Soon reports began saying that Spanish cucumbers were not to blame. Now Germany is promising financial compensation to Spain for its premature and erroneous accusations, but how much money will trickle down to the individual farmers? And the cultural cracks between countries in the European Union are surfacing again.

I'm back in Spain. One of the first things I had to do was to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for our lunchtime salads. I filled my shopping cart with iceberg lettuce, spinach, multi-colored peppers, carrots, mushrooms, and a pepino holandés, as the long, thin cucumbers are called here. We are once again enjoying a little agurketid.

But the TV pictures of European farmers sweeping unsellable cucumbers into dumps are still disturbing. The Perishable Pundit has a good report on the serious consequences and causes of this agurketid, which has been anything but boring and inconsequential.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Austerity Measures

I've been hearing from U.S. colleagues about various measures taken by their employers to cope with the economic crisis. Everyone seems to have more work to do and less time to do it. Sometimes that is because colleagues have been laid off, or vacancies not filled. But more than one I know has chosen across-the-board furloughs of limited duration--designating previously paid holidays as unpaid holidays this year, or mandating five or more days of unpaid time to be taken during the current fiscal year. Such decisions have the effect of spreading the financial hardship around so that it hits everyone, and generally equally, or at least proportionally to their salary.

In an effort to avoid becoming "the next Greece," Spain announced austerity measures last week that sound drastic by any standard. Beginning in June, all civil service workers will take a salary cut, the total amount to be 5% of current expenditures. The plan is being implemented on a progressive scale, however. Lower-salaried workers (those earning up to 1200 euros per month) will take a 2.6 percent cut; higher-salaried workers will lose up to 8 percent. Non-civil service government workers stand to be cut by 15 percent. Even president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who gets 5,000 euros a month (a bit less than $100,000 per year, by the way), will now only get 4,200.

Reportedly the reduced salaries will hit 2.8 million Spaniards, but those are not the only people affected by the measures. Pensioners payments, here-to-fore adjusted annually for inflation, have been frozen (though the lower value of the euro has been having a favorable effect on some us who bring money in from outside the euro zone). And unemployment in Spain continues at the astonishing rate of 20.5 percent.

An early snap poll on a news site showed positive results for the government economic measures: 100% approval. Results coming in later weakened support, and I've watched the figures slip to 86% in favor and now to 83%. It will be interesting to see what happens on June 2, also, when a general strike has been called by two trade unions for the public sector.

But in spite of how cost-cutting measures are affecting you, to me it still seems good to have a job.