Tag Archives: culture

Tradition: Holding Spain Back or Holding it Together?

Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has warned that the country is in “extreme difficulty”.  The statistics for Spain are shocking, even in a world becoming used to terrible economic data.  According to Eurostat, 5 million of the 17 million unemployed across the euro zone, are in Spain.  The unemployment rate here, at 24.3% is the highest in Europe (yes, higher even than Greece).  But even more socially devastating is the 50.5% unemployment among the under 25s.

Some argue that Spain’s enduring traditions, many of which I’ve written about in this blog, are contributing to their economic woes by taking too many working days out of the year.  During Semana Santa, for example, cities and towns stop functioning as normal and the streets are gridlocked for a week with parades and celebrations.  If it was only Holy Week, perhaps it wouldn’t have a significant effect on the economy, but in Spain, and particularly Andalucia in the south, one lengthy fiesta follows another.  Just two weeks after Holy Week in Seville, there is another full week of festivities for the annual Feria, when the whole city decamps to a fairground south of the river to party night and day.  Seville, as ever, does it bigger and better than anyone else, but every town and city has its own festival.  In May comes the annual pilgrimage of El Rocio; half party, half religious festival, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over Spain spend up to 4 days travelling to a small town in Huelva Province to pay homage to a statue of the Virgin Mary. 

On the positive side, all of this local colour draws much-needed tourist visitors to the country.  Andalucia, the most populous and impoverished region of Spain, which includes the Costa del Sol as well as being the home of flamenco, bullfights and the biggest and best festivals, has seen an increase of 10.4% in foreign visitors in the last year (and 8.1% nationwide).  Tourism is the only growth industry in Spain.  By contrast, the number of people unemployed nationally in the devastated construction sector is now higher than the number employed in it.  The various festivals also create employment directly, not just in the seasonal service industries, but for craftsmen whose products make an essential contribution to the festivities: from silversmiths and embroiderers to candle makers and florists, as well as the tailors who make the penitents’ robes and the party flamenco dresses.

On the downside, productivity is lower in Spain than anywhere in the EU, with the exception of Greece and Portugal, and it’s not only due to the frequent festivals.  As the European Working Conditions Observatory (EWCO) tactfully puts it “In Spain, official working hours differ from actual working hours. This imbalance is probably due to cultural patterns that are different to those of other countries.”   The long and late lunch break (usually 3pm to 5pm) doesn’t coincide with timings in the rest of Europe, making it difficult for businesses to communicate with other European countries.  Because of the heat (especially in the south), workers start the day early, but often don’t return to work after leaving for lunch at 3pm, especially during the summer.  The heat is punishing and it is understandable for manual workers, but less so for office employees, who have air conditioning.

Expats – here for the quality of life

The traditional lifestyle is bad for productivity, but great for morale.  Spain comes second out of 10 European countries in the uSwitch Quality of Life Index, while the UK is bottom.  Spain has the most holidays, the most sunshine and highest life expectancy – no wonder it’s also by far the top choice for Brits considering emigration within the EU.  While record numbers of young Spaniards are flocking to the UK looking for jobs, the number of Brits moving to Spain is still increasing year on year.

It is evident that morale is also sustained by the strength of tradition here.  In April, for example, after a week which included a general strike opposing labour reforms and an austerity budget, people put their worries aside to immerse themselves enthusiastically in Semana Santa.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s hard to imagine the atmosphere, with every street filled with tens of thousands of good natured people, united in their passion for this custom – the closest British equivalent I can think of is the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations at the Mall.  It’s impressive that such ceremonies have survived little changed in Spain over centuries, and are still embraced wholeheartedly by people of all ages.  The lack of cynicism is striking.  And it’s not only the rituals and fiestas which unite communities in the face of hardship, but the maintenance of traditional extended families and networks of friends who support each other in real practical ways, as well as providing emotional sustenance.

Dancing in the streets – even protests turn into family fun days out in Seville

It may appear old-fashioned while much of the western world is moving towards modern uniformity – but the solid structures of tradition seem to be holding together a society that, in the current harsh economic circumstances, you might expect to see collapsing.  Tradition in all its guises is both Spain’s strength and its weakness. Reform is inevitable and necessary in the face of the catastrophic economic situation, but it will be a struggle for the government to change a culture written into the country’s DNA – and I will join the Spanish in mourning its passing if they succeed.

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Preparing for Easter Madness

Children help prepare the paso at Hermandad de Los Estudiantes

Just one week to go and everywhere in Seville preparations are being made for the biggest religious festival of the year, Semana Santa.  Next Sunday – Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) – kicks off a week of highly theatrical parades through the streets, in a mixture of devotion and partying that only the Spaniards can pull off.

Seville is renowned for having the most spectacular Holy Week celebrations anywhere in the world.  Each church in Seville has its own brotherhood (hermandad) of laymen, who take part in processions wearing hooded robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, and carrying floats bearing life-size effigies of Christ on the cross and the Virgin Mary grieving.  Between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, 58 processions of up to 2800 penitents each, take place night and day, watched by crowds of close to a million people.

Costaleros in training for Semana Santa

The staggeringly heavy floats (or pasos), laden with church silver, statues, flowers and candles, are carried above the heads of dozens of heavily sweating men, the ‘costaleros’.  During Semana Santa, the costaleros will be hidden beneath the rich fabric that skirts the base of the float like an altar cloth, but during the weeks beforehand, they can be seen practising, unadorned in the streets.  The biggest guys get this job, and it is not a pretty sight!  Bellies hanging out of vests, trouser legs rolled up and protective fabric wrapped around their heads like turbans, they are packed closely together to maximise the lifting power.

Church silver coming out to be polished

For weeks, young people have been sitting in church doorways, polishing the huge and intricate silver pieces that form part of pasos, and last weekend the brotherhoods began to assemble the huge floats.  I was lucky enough to see this happening at the chapel of the ‘Estudiantes’ (students) brotherhood, allied to the University of Seville.  They make a lovely family occasion of it, inviting the youngest child in the families of brotherhood members along to help, followed by an afternoon tea.  It’s all pretty chaotic inside the small chapel.  As adults construct the float, which reaches almost to the roof, dozens of small children stand underneath in place of the costaleros, enclosed like battery hens in a cage.  The float is temporarily held up on supermarket trolley type wheels and is regularly moved to aid assembly in the small space, which results in all the little kids stumbling around underneath – quite alarming to watch for a health and safety conscious Brit..!

Children 'helping' in the construction...

I do admire the way Spanish people involve their children in everything though – all of the families’ youngest had been invited by personally-addressed letter to help with the preparations, and they clearly love being involved.  It may also help explain why the tradition has carried on unchanged over centuries, as each new generation takes ownership from an early age and children even play at Semana Santa, looking forward to being old enough to join the grown-up parades.

Children play 'pretend' Semana Santa

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Let’s Do the Time Warp

You don’t get jet-lag taking the short hop to Spain –  after all, they’re just one hour ahead of UK time.  There is however, a definite time warp to get accustomed to.  With lunch typically at 3pm, no one, but no one, goes out for dinner before 10pm – many restaurants don’t even open before then.  Spanish friends will always suggest meeting for drinks at 10, then going on for something to eat later – I’ve even been invited to start an evening out at 1.30am!  And it’s not just the youngsters – a recent post-Christening party began at 11.30pm (giving guests time to have dinner before they arrive…).  Luckily, for those not acclimatized, there are plenty of wonderful tapas bars which tolerantly allow you to eat tasty small portions at more or less any time.

Only the tourists fill the early tables, however.  In the Plaza close to my home, very much a place for locals, the bars are empty at 7 or 8pm (see photo above – you’ll just have to believe me that it was 7.30pm!).  Indeed, if I suggest to a Spanish friend that we have a beer or glass of wine at 7pm, they giggle nervously (in the way you might if I suggested such a thing at 10.30am…).  Closer friends just come straight out with: “At this time?”.  By 11pm the place is thronging –  with children as well as adults.  They all come out together and there’s a playground for the kids while their parents enjoy a relaxed meal nearby.  It’s very strange for foreign eyes to see children on climbing frames at midnight!

But it’s a lovely, inclusive atmosphere in the deliciously warm evenings, when the intense heat of the day has subsided.  And because the children aren’t made to sit up straight at the table, but are free to run around (within sight, but not around the tables), generally there is none of the intrusive wailing or whining, dreaded by adult diners.

At 9 the bars start to fill with the early crowd...

Because of the heat, office workers start early (about 7.30/8am) and stop for lunch at 3pm – to return to work at around 5pm after a siesta.  On occasions when a return to work isn’t required late afternoon, there is the potential for a serious boozy lunch – and no one does a boozy lunch like the Spaniards!  The last one I was invited to began at 3pm and ended at 7.30pm…  Everything is taken at a leisurely pace – I have had to curb my natural tendency to scoff everything in front of me as if it’s about to be confiscated.  Shared food in the middle of the table is picked at slowly, while drinks slip down rather more quickly and the focus is on the chat, the teasing, the joking.

I’m half way acclimatised now… Going out with English friends for supper this evening and not meeting till 9.30.  It’s fine when, as in my case, getting out of bed on a morning is a ‘when I feel like it’ affair and you always have time for a siesta in the afternoon – everything just shunts forward a few hours and pans out rather well.  I certainly couldn’t do it if I had to start work at 7.30am – hardy people, these Spaniards!

Kids still enjoying the Plaza at 11.30pm

Only problem is, by the time I get my butt into gear and want to grab some shopping, the shops close for a few hours (2 till 5 or 6) – maddening!  This brings me to a more serious point about Spanish working hours.  A Sevillan friend tells me that, though enjoyable in many respects, Spanish working hours are a problem currently under review by a National Commission.  For a start, parents’ and children’s work and school hours don’t coincide.  Of course this is often a problem in the UK as well, but it’s exacerbated in Spain by their different social and eating habits.  For example, almost all children go home from school for lunch at 1.30 – but lunch time for parents is not until 3pm…  Then they still have the problem of needing someone to collect them after school, as we do in the UK and elsewhere.  This means that Spanish people spend a higher proportion of their household budget on childcare than other Europeans[1] – and given that the Spanish value family life so highly, it’s an anomaly.  It’s even been suggested that it may partially account for the low birth rate in Spain!

Not surprisingly then, a Government report* found that Spanish workers were experiencing high stress levels in trying to reconcile work and different aspects of their personal lives.  Added to this, their working hours don’t coincide with the rest of Europe – either in the timing or duration of their lunch break – making it difficult for businesses to communicate with other European countries.  The same  report found that while Spanish working hours are among the longest, their productivity is in the bottom 3 (beaten only by Greece and Portugal).

High unemployment has led to widespread protests

Given the economic problems the country is currently facing, this is clearly a problem which needs addressing urgently.  But these practices are so deeply engrained in the life and culture of the country, it’s not going to be easy….  I’m pleased to say that one of the recommendations is that shops should open at hours which suit customers!  Looking forward to its implementation….


[1] Ministry of Public Administration and University of Navarra, ‘White Paper on working time structure in Spain’ 2005

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Carmona – historic town

Chicas, you will be proud of me – with ‘The Spaniard’ away in Madrid on some pretext or other, I determined to have a very cultural weekend in his absence.  It started on Friday afternoon when my lovely friend Miguel kindly took me to visit Carmona.

All the streets in Carmona are beautiful

Carmona is a small and ancient town about 30km outside of Seville and I highly recommend a visit there.  It’s one of those places that is so full of history, beautiful buildings and local colour that you want to photograph absolutely everything you see (which I pretty much did!).  Like Seville, you can see evidence of all of the stages of Carmona’s history, with its power battles and changes of rulers and culture, in the impressive buildings that remain.  The main city gate, dating from the 9thcentury, has remnants of wave after wave of settlers: Eastern Mediterranean, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors and finally Christians.

Ancient city gate 'Puerta de Sevilla'

The Alcazar (fortress palace) which majestically dominates the highest point in Carmona, was originally built by Muslim rulers in the 11th century, but later taken over and redeveloped by Christian King Pedro ‘The Cruel’ (he sounds an interesting type…).   This magnificent building is now a very swishy Parador (state owned hotel), where it is almost impossible to get a booking as it’s permanently full.

The palace fortress (Alcazar) now a hotel

However, they do let ordinary folk like you and me come in to have a drink on the terrace balcony, with fabulous views over the vega – which Miguel and I took full advantage of.  Miguel had just had his family lunch (it was 6pm for Pedro’s sake!), but I was ready for a tapa too.  He chuckled indulgently when I said I would have a beer, implying that it was a bit early – our Spanish friends really are on a different time schedule to us Brits!

Enjoying the view from the Alcazar balcony

The historical power changes are just as visible in the religious buildings.  At the church of Santa Maria de la Asuncion, for example, a 15thcentury Gothic building full of the gold and silver treasures and ornamentation of a Catholic church, the orange tree patio of a mosque remains, where Muslims would perform their ablutions before praying.

Muslim courtyard and Christian bell tower

Within this courtyard is the last remaining evidence of the Visigoth temple which existed before the mosque, in what I am reliably told, is one of their calendars.  I know you’ll be imagining some colourful pictures of Visigothic children at play, with days of the month neatly set out underneath, but no, this was a white pillar with some messy carving on it.

Visigoth Calendar

OK, on Saturday I just lounged around in a lazy manner, but on Sunday the cultural theme continued when I went to the Book Fair (Feria del Libro) with my new friend and published poet, Lola Crespo (not to be confused with the British Lola implicated in my first blog post – in fact I’m going to change her pseudonym to Krissie, to avoid confusion…).  Spanish Lola (her real name, she is a respectable person who needs no protection!) was doing a book signing at one of the stands.

Lola signing her book 'Gramatica Malva'

Afterwards, she took me to a remarkable performance by a poet called Fernando Mansilla. Even though I couldn’t understand all of it, the rhythm and music of the words and his very deep gravelly voice, were amazing.  He did some of the poems to the accompaniment of music.

The guy on the double bass (see below) was just back-up, but I thought he was fit and you deserved a treat after the history lesson…

Hasta pronto chicas! x

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Speaking the Lingo – some handy hints

The Spaniard is very strict about making me speak and write in Spanish – almost all of the time.  In fact, we just had our first row about it.  Well, to be fair, I had a row with him about translating something I’d written into Spanish for me.  I went off on one when he had the temerity to suggest I should try it first and he would correct it – instead of reacting to my rant, he graciously capitulated and did it for me.  Frankly, I think this was a clever ploy on his part to move me from righteous indignation and fury, to shame-faced sorry person in seconds – and it worked!

The Spanish language has fewer words than English, (have a look at the relative thickness of the Spanish and English sections of an English/Spanish dictionary – Exhibit A).

Exhibit A

I guess this is because the English language stems from many different sources – all those people who conquered our shores gave our language a lot of sources and nuances, whereas Spanish is mainly Latin, with a bit of Arabic thrown in from when the Moors occupied the Iberian peninsula in the Middle Ages (any word beginning with ‘al’ comes into this category).

Having fewer words means one word is often used for many different meanings, almost to a ludicrous extent… Take the word ‘pasar’ – even in my poxy little Oxford Minidictionary (the only one that would fit into my Ryanair baggage weight allowance) – it lists its meanings as: pass, put, strain, spend, swallow, show, tolerate, give, happen, come, go (come and go!).  I guess it’s all in the context, but this makes it quite difficult.  For example, my friend Miguel introduced me to his wife’s aunt, Tia Esperanza, last week, who kindly said I was ‘very blonde and very fine’.  Unsure what she meant by ‘fine’ (fina), I checked out the OM when I got home, to find she could have meant: slender, shrewd, keen, polite, refined or dry (pretty sure this last only applies to sherry!). I still have no idea which she meant…

The Trusty OM

It’s also difficult for them trying to translate into English – the Spaniard told me I was really hitting him the other day.  Bewildered (I am not abusing the poor man, I assure you), I looked up ‘hitting’ in the OM – it seems to have an implication of ‘affecting’ someone emotionally, as well as punching them.  Hope it’s a positive effect – still not sure….

One thing that makes Spanish easier for us Brits however, is that every word we have that ends in ‘tion’ or ‘sion’ is the same in Spanish as it is in English (e.g. education = educacion, television = television).  This means, you start out already knowing 100s of Spanish words – just put the emphasis on the end of the word and lisp a bit when there’s a c involved (e.g. educacion pron. educathion).

On the other hand, there are occasionally what are known in the language teaching trade as ‘false friends’ – that is a word that sounds exactly the same, but has a different meaning… I discovered one of them in a rather embarrassing manner at the pharmacists, when asking for something for my constipation (I know, too much info, but bear with me).  I couldn’t understand why she kept offering me Lemsips, until, on consulting the trusty OM, I discovered constipacion is having a cold – bunged up nose… The word for constipated, in case you need to know, is ‘estrenido’ – you can remember that, sounds like ‘straining’….

Back soon with more startling insights.

Hasta la vista x

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