November 28, 2008


Jesús is far from being the only victim of an off-plan property swindle - real estate scams are being uncovered here regularly - though I very much doubt if the latest revelation below will be of any consolation either to him or his erstwhile ‘fiancée’. (Having been defrauded of so much money, he says he can’t now afford to buy another apartment and so has had to postpone indefinitely any thought of getting married.)

Police in Andalucía have cracked open a fake real estate ring thought to have cheated 200 foreign property investors out of more than €65 million. So far two people have been arrested and 20 others charged with fraud.

The network, operating out of offices in Málaga, targeted foreign property investors, many of them British, at real estate fairs and through internet and telephone advertising, offering them the opportunity to invest off-plan in fictitious new developments on the Costa del Sol. To make their activities seem legitimate, the network had obtained land through offshore companies which it then foisted on front companies in Spain at inflated prices.

Furthermore, it exploited the fact that the investors were not in Spain to cover up their true intentions. After taking the investors’ money and having them sign apparently official contracts, none of the properties were ever built.

Property scandals, whether they involve foreign investors or Spanish nationals like Jesús, continue to cast a shadow over the Costa del Sol’s reputation. And it seems increasingly difficult to shake off the seedy, tarnished image of former Mayor Jesús Gil (above). But more on him in the next post…

November 26, 2008


Jesús looked even more dejected than usual today. After class, he told us he’d just had it confirmed by his lawyer that there is no possibility whatsoever of recouping any of the money he’d paid to a property developer for the apartment he bought off-plan a year ago in Estepona.

With no property to show for all the early-stage payments, he didn’t find any consolation either, he added, in the latest news that at least twenty arrests have already been made in Estepona in a multi-million euro investigation centring on real estate corruption.

Termed Operation Astapa, the investigation, Jesús explained, is similar to Marbella’s Operation Malaya which I’ll describe in a later post. Apparently, about two dozen police arrived to shut down the town hall, while in depth searches went ahead and arrests made.

Mayor Antonio Barrientos, up to ten councillors and seventeen businessmen face a number of charges ranging from bribery and influence-trafficking to prevarication and money-laundering. In fact, one of the alleged crimes of greatest interest to Jesús was the reclassifying of land to be sold off to developers at below market prices. ‘My apartment block was due to be built on reclassified land,’ he moaned. The group are also said to have taken bribes in return for issuing licences.

Mayor Barrientos from the socialist PSOE party was arrested at his home in the Bahía Azul area of Estepona, after which a full scale search of his palatial home was carried out by members of the specialist UDYCO anti-organised crime unit.

The mayor took charge of the town in 2003 after making a pact with the now-defunct GIL party, a party set up by the notorious former Marbella mayor, Jesús Gil, who perhaps more than anyone allowed Marbella to become a byword for vulgarity and, yes - corruption.

November 24, 2008


On the way back from yesterday’s intercambio, I stopped off at a bookshop that sells exclusively English language books to browse through its fiction and non-fiction stacks. However, unlike Waterstone’s, Borders and W H Smith's etc in the UK, bookshops here sell relatively obscure titles (presumably for an aging expat clientele. After all, the main English-language newspaper for Andalucia is full of ads for hearing aids, residential homes and funeral plans).

So for any current titles - including my own psychological suspense novel,The De Clerambault Code - you’ve no alternative but to purchase all your fiction and non-fiction online from Amazon. Plus, of course, all the considerable shipping costs. But worth every last euro - if you don’t want to be thinking, that is, about organising that funeral plan right now

November 22, 2008


What did we talk about in the intercambio yesterday? Apart that is, from the usual stuff about why I'm learning Spanish (to escape from a tiny apartment and even tiner office shared with P) and why they're learning English (to escape from a boring job and/or boring family).

So, apart from the theme of escape, what else? Well, Tony Blair for a start.

When he wasn't totally engrossed in stroking Pilar's knee under the table, our flamboyant businessman, Alfonso, had surprised me with some of his outbursts. Outbursts that were all the more striking given that they were delivered with the fluency of a near-native English speaker.

One concerned the recent presidential election in America. He couldn't understand why, given its hoopla and razzmatazz, the American campaign had all the gravitas of a Rio de Janeiro street carnival. Particularly, he added,compared to the Spanish and British elections. Now Spain has just had an election and, to call it dull, would be to give dullness a bad name. And as for a British election, well we're still waiting for that, aren't we?

But it was what Alfonso had to say about Tony Blair that was particularly incisive. Why, he asked, does a man who - more than any other politician of his generation - professes such a strong religious faith and, by extension, the moral high ground, stoop so low in "running after so much money with such empty speeches".

Before I could reply, Alfonso cut in to add that, earlier this year, he had been summoned by his company's head office to attend a speech Blair was giving in Barcelona. Because he was extremely busy at work, he hadn't wanted to go and had tried to get a junior to deputise. But no, he was told in no uncertain terms, it behoved him as a senior manager to attend and represent the company.

Well, I asked, was it worth it?

Alfonso momentarily stopped stroking Pilar's leg - a sign I'd come to realise that meant I now had his undivided attention.

'It was c*** - useless information, useless anecdotes, useless advice. But I had to sit through it for the sake of the company - just like all the others around me. In fact, one of the organisers told me afterwards - and there was much drinking afterwards I can assure you - that Blair had been secretly flown in before the speech and just as secretly flown out after.'

'Why was that?' I asked puzzled.

'Oh, to avoid the British press finding out. And Blair getting more bad publicity for the huge fee being charged. Quarter of a million euros for 90 minutes! That's why they were told by his people to keep the event as secret, as quiet as possible. And why I was forced to sit so near to him for so long.'

And as Alfonso, the wife swapper, continued to fume about Tony Blair, I couldn't help wondering if those words - wife swapper and Tony Blair - had ever appeared together in the same sentence before...

November 21, 2008


Just returned from our first intercambio or language exchange. In theory, this is supposed to consist of a one-on-one pairing of students of Spanish and English at similar levels for a 15 minute period in one language followed by 15 minutes in the other before exchanging partners and repeating the process until everyone has had, to coin a phrase, equal face time. However, it didn’t work out today quite as smoothly as that for two reasons.

Firstly, there are always more Spaniards in Spain learning English than vice versa so our English-speaking contingent was greatly outnumbered even though it was boosted by numerous Scandinavians! (Whilst there are large communities of Swedes, Norwegians and Danes in Andalucia, there is commensurately no demand for their languages and so the only way they can participate in an event like this is under the anglophone banner.)

Since there were then more than twice as many Spaniards present as anglophones, this meant, in practice, one anglophone to two (sometimes three) Spaniards. And you can just imagine how many more questions two people can throw at you in the course of each 15 minute exchange...

Secondly, the different levels of proficiency in English shown by individual Spanish students from the same class was truly remarkable, ranging from basic to the ultra-fluency displayed by one particularly flamboyant married businessman, Alfonso.

A typical conversation of the first type would go as follows:
‘My name is Nora. What is yours?’
‘Casares.’ Interesting, but I didn’t actually ask for your address.
‘Er, I live in an apartment. Do you live in an apartment or a house?’
‘Arantxa Lopez Zurutuza.’ Well, at least I know who I’m talking to now.

And as for Alfonso, it was his flamboyance rather than his fluency that struck me from the start - when he insisted on kissing every woman entering the room. Eventually, he sat down next to me and a beautiful, married Spanish girl about ten years his junior. Although Pilar and I were already fully engaged in the English part of the exchange, he didn’t hesitate to take over the conduct of the conversation and answer questions on her behalf which she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, seemed to expect, even welcome it.

It wasn’t, however, until I noticed his hand skimming her leg under the desk that it became patently obvious it wasn’t just a conversation he was conducting but an affair too - far from the prying eyes of colleagues and family.

Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe intercambio does include wife swapping within its range of definitions after all…

November 17, 2008


One of my oldest friends, Chloe, had long ago suggested a girls’ night out so P’s absence this weekend provided the perfect opportunity. Chloe, who lives in Malaga, proposed going to a bistro in the heart of Marbella’s casco antiguo or old town.

To get to it, you have to make your way through a hotchpotch of meandering marble-tiled lanes and alleys, miniature orange trees and overflowing wheelie bins lining the high walls on either side. Eventually, after trekking for seemingly ages especially on a cold Saturday evening, you arrive at a small central plaza where, facing a tapas bar and set back within its own enclosed garden, the nondescript hideaway is located.

Though tiny, this Belgian-run bistro is extremely popular particularly with fellow Belgians and other ex-pats in no small measure due to its consistently high-quality yet reasonably-priced typically bistro cuisine. Typical, too, is the well-trodden terracotta stone floor and polished wood tables a tad too close together. What distinguishes the interior from other bistros, though, is the quirkiness of its décor. While the ceiling is decorated with odd mauve-coloured swirls and curlicues which snake down the sides of some of the walls, the main wall is covered, top to bottom, with a patchwork of large satin cushions in a palette of vibrant rainbow hues.

Chloe and I had just started our main course when guests took their seats at the adjacent table. And that’s when I came face to face - just like all those contestants across the boardroom table before me - with Sir Alan Sugar.

It wasn’t though Siralan, though, who drew my attention and had me mesmerised for the rest of the evening. That feat was achieved by one of his companions. In addition to two blond ladies d’un certain age, who I assumed to be spouses, there was the most odd-looking person imaginable. Dressed in a powder blue ski jacket with matching scarf double-wrapped around his neck, the ends trailing down his back, he sported on his dome-shaped forehead a matching powder blue baseball cap on top of which was propped a pair of outsize sunglasses. And though the restaurant was very warm - everyone routinely removes scarves and jackets on entry - he steadfastly retained his full regalia - sunglasses included - throughout the evening.

Toad of Toad Hall instantly came to mind as I recalled those childhood images of Toad in his open-top motor car tootling along the banks of his riverside home, scarf flying in the breeze, beetle eyes enclosed by huge goggles. I had to avert my gaze for the rest of the meal to keep myself in check. After all, the last thing I wanted to hear directed at me from Siralan’s table were two words - to some the most dreaded sounds in the English language.

So, from then on, I continued chatting to Chloe as if I wasn’t aware of Toad sitting diagonally across from me. I did notice, though, that Siralan, like another Eastender I’ve also had the pleasure of sitting next to - Sir Michael Caine years ago at The Canteen restaurant which he then owned - is as lively and voluble in private as in public. In other words, what you see is what you get. Unlike a few other celebrities who sometimes are a tad different from what you expect. Michael Winner, for instance, who though opinionated and assertive in a public forum, is quite the opposite in a restaurant setting. On all the occasions I’ve seen him - whether at The Ivy, The Wolseley or Caprice - he was supremely unobtrusive, the epitome of discretion.

Eventually we left the restaurant, half expecting Max Clifford, another Marbellan homeowner, to burst in too. Siralan and Max: now that would be an interesting pairing.

As we walked back through the lanes and alleys to the central market underground carpark, I couldn’t help wondering how Siralan would be getting home. We’re so used to seeing him enter and alight from that gleaming black Rolls, the one with undoubtedly the UK’s most recognisable registration plate, that it seemed somehow difficult to visualise AMS Mark 2 parked in my dingy underground carpark or, equally, on one of Marbella’s narrow, windy streets jammed 24/7 with double/triple-parked dented delivery vans. Dressed as he was though in leather bomber jacket and jeans, he’d probably be just as happy in one of its ubiquitous, nondescript white taxi cabs.

As I was parking the car on our return - Chloe was spending the night in the apartment - I could see her approach our block when Sra. Noriega unexpectedly emerged from the shadows of her ground floor apartment, Lola at her heels. But how would this ‘vicious, snarling attack hound’ deal with the sudden arrival of a stranger?

Lola swiftly approached the stranger, sniffed the air quizzically for a few seconds and then, some half-hearted barks later, rolled over on her side.

And those two words that had hung in the air all evening suddenly boomed deafeningly in my ears.

Lola, you’re fired!

November 16, 2008


As usual ran downstairs to Sra. Noriega's apartment early this morning to collect Lola for her daily run when I first noticed attached to the side of the front door the sign. A large, glossy sign. Of a huge, black rottweiler snarling and barking ferociously, labelled, in outsize font, cuidado con el perro.

Now Sra. Noriega's apartment is on the ground floor and she lives alone. (Whenever she and JA meet, it's always at 'his' apartment at Los Monteros.) And I know she feels vulnerable and exposed notwithstanding the high walls enclosing the apartment complex and the thick security gates encasing each individual block.

Doubtlessly though she's been advised by her elderly and equally nervous friends to get that sign which you see plastered beside the outside gate of practically every house here - whether or not an animal resides within. Invariably not.

Now Lola is a tiny, white bichon frise no bigger than the sign itself who likes nothing more - apart from the comfort of her basket - than to roll over on her side whenever she's petted. And, as I looked down at the snow-white curly bundle waddling beside me, I couldn't help laughing at the image conjured up of the other Lola, that snarling, savage beast intent on attacking all foolish enough to approach...

It's true Sra. Noriega may now have a sense of extra protection and security behind those reinforced doors and windows of hers. However, as Lola and I turned the corner (I running, she waddling - you get the drift) into yet another deserted street, it occurred to me that if anyone should feel vulnerable and defenceless at that godforsaken early hour, it certainly wasn't her!

Such bleak thoughts were abruptly interrupted by my mobile, however. It was P who's been briefly away on business and due back later today. I couldn't wait until then though to tell him my news.

About my meeting last night with Siralan and Toad of Toad Hall.

November 13, 2008


Before he rushed off after the last class, Jesús briefly described where our upcoming intercambio de conversación fits in the Grand Plan or plan de educación bilingüe de Andalucía as it’s called here.

He explained that thousands of pupils throughout Andalucía (39,000 to be exact) are learning mathematics and other social and natural science subjects through English, French and German, as part of the ambitious bilingual education project introduced in 2005. Since then, a total of 80 primary and secondary schools in Malaga province alone have been participating.

The idea is, apparently, to improve the overall level of foreign languages by using these languages to teach other subjects on the curriculum. In primary schools, these include Knowledge of the Environment and another non-language course chosen by the school such as physical education while in secondary schools, the school chooses from Social and Natural Sciences subjects such as mathematics and technology.

However, according to Jesús, there is already a sense of anxiety about the entire project. Parents are asking if their children are receiving the same standard of education when they take a subject in a language of which they have only scant knowledge. (The level required in the target foreign language provides them with merely a general knowledge and is generally agreed too basic to be of any real practical value.)

Many pupils, too, have enough problems in learning the subjects in question in their own language. The qualifications of the teachers involved in the project are also being scrutinized since many of them have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language through which they are teaching!

And finally, a problem familiar to those of us in the UK. The case of those successful schools and academies where demand outstrips supply and where a selection system by lottery still arouses enormous controversy. No such qualms here in Andalucía though. Wherever demand outstrips supply, schools simply hold a lottery to decide who’s in and who’s out.

And parents can complain in vain that, while some classes in a subject are given in the desired foreign language, parallel ones in Spanish are all that are available for those who are out…

November 11, 2008


Jesús is very preoccupied these days. Which we’ve learned to put down to his wrecked housing plans - and marriage hopes too no doubt. But today he seemed even more distracted than usual, rarely finishing sentences or questions, his words tailing off into the ether, seemingly in hot pursuit of his thoughts.

Anyway, during one of his less lucid moments, he asked us if we’d be interested in taking part in an intercambio… At this point, his voice broke off completely as he jumped up and rushed outside with his mobile, vaguely apologizing with flailing arms as he did so.

Immediately the whole class perked up, noticeably one or two of the men who started exchanging sly glances with one another. Whilst they’d recognised the "intercambio" bit, none of them - or us - had caught the rest of it though doubtlessly it was precisely the "intercambio" part that had grabbed their attention.

Now, whilst intercambio on its own means ‘exchange’, what the two men had understood (or hoped) Jesús’s final muttered words to have been was intercambio de parejas or ‘wife swapping’. Little wonder we’d never before seen these two (singles) look so happy or animated. They could hardly contain themselves until Jesús’s return ten minutes later.

He too looked considerably happier, though with Jesús you can never be sure. It could have been something relatively minor like whose turn it was- his or his fiancee’s - to do the shopping this week or something really important like fixing, at long last, their wedding day. Jesús simply doesn’t do self effacement; Jesús does ebullience.

In any event, on his return he put matters right - and the two singles in high dudgeon. Referring to the "intercambio" he’d mentioned earlier, he went on to explain what he’d had in mind. And as soon as he wrote the words on the whiteboard, no one was left in the slightest doubt as to their meaning. Intercambio de conversación. Or face to face conversation with native speakers which is taking place more and more in ‘bilingual Andalucia’ - probably more frequently than wife swapping …

But more on that (bilingualism, that is) in my next post.

November 8, 2008


Surprisingly, Jesús didn’t comment in the Spanish class this week about Lewis Hamilton’s recent win. In fact, he seemed a bit preoccupied.

At first, to get us to practise the conditional tense, he asked us what we would do with the "‘Gordo’ " as he put it. As this was the same day as the crucial (for Gordon Brown) Glenrothes by-election, I exchanged glances with the other Brits who fell about helplessly laughing. For a second, Jesús’s face registered, firstly, surprise then total bafflement at our unforgivable pig ignorance of such an essential part of Spanish life.

As we did our best to stifle the laughs, he gamely tried to educate us in Spanish culture as he went on to describe in detail precisely which ‘Gordo’ he had in mind. Namely, an event so important that many Spanish regard the day it takes place, December 22nd, as the real start of the Christmas festive season. El Gordo - ‘the fat one’ - the Spanish National Lottery jackpot.

The draw, he patiently explained, is shown on television in the morning while newspapers publish special editions solely with the list of winning numbers and photos of the winners spraying champagne on one another and around the ‘lucky’ place they purchased the ticket.

Finally, by way of bringing the class to an end, he said that if we wanted to get rich fast, we needed to start buying straightaway our participaciones, either from lottery vendors in street kiosks and shopping centres or from organisations ranging from bars to charities which buy numbers and redistribute them in smaller sums to clients and friends.

He’d already bought a large number, he added with a pained look on his face, since he was desperate to recoup some of the money he’d now unavoidably, categorically lost to a developer on his recent apartment purchase.

He looked so crestfallen we almost forgave him his earlier tirades against Lewis Hamilton. For we’d only just read in the local press reports that Spanish developers are so indebted they can’t drop prices any further without making a loss. "You can forget about prices falling 30%to 40% – I’ll give it to the bank before that," said Guillermo Chicote, president of the Association of Constructors and Developers of Spain, at a recent conference.

However, despite Chicote’s fighting talk, that’s probably what will happen. Dozens of developers, including Martinsa-Fadesa, one of Spain’s biggest, have already been forced into administration, causing mayhem for many British investors who have no property to show for their early-stage payments. And only goes to highlight the risk of buying off-plan in the current market: better to snap up something newly built, but already finished. Indeed, unless the government steps in and bails out the sector, large-scale repossessions of even new developments by the banks look likely too.

Well, let’s hope Jesús is equally lucky with El Gordo next month as Gordon was this.

Who needs Obama when there's El Gordo? Yes, we can!

November 7, 2008


As soon as I mentioned the photos, her face immediately lit up. And she was pouring over every image, recounting every detail as if the wedding had only just taken place.

"You know, it’s scandalous what happens in that church in Ronda!" She paused dramatically for effect, pretending to fuss over Lola who was loudly snoring at her feet.

"What do you mean?" I asked, unsure where this was leading.

"Well, you could book your wedding now and find someone to marry later…"

I wasn’t certain now if she was joking or serious because I’ve known her even take joking seriously.

After a long, theatrical sigh, she at last looked up, enjoying every second she was keeping me guessing.

"It’s the waiting list! It runs there into years!

Allowing herself a sly smile, she continued. "I know at least three couples who changed their minds and ended up marrying someone else! And," she added, as if it were the final straw, "And you are forced to attend weekly pre-matrimonial courses. Every single week until the wedding!"

She gave a grim laugh. "And that’s not all," she mused. "The Ronda church is so popular it schedules weddings so tightly on busy days that if the bride arrives a few minutes late, she gets told off by the priest; regular church-goers arriving for Mass stand impatiently by ‘their’ pews and the newlyweds are not only forbidden from hanging about in the aisle after they’ve signed the register but instructed to move away from the church doors before the throwing of rice or rose petals!"

"Are all church weddings here as stern as the Ronda one?" I asked.

"Oh no, not at all! At some, the din made by all the children playing at the back of the church makes the proceedings impossible to hear anyway!"

We carried on chatting a bit longer about wedding receptions and also the fact that here there is no ‘best man’ - and no speeches. It was a topic to which she had clearly given quite a lot of thought recently and, from time to time, a faraway look crept into her eyes and I could see she was picturing herself as she spoke.

Suddenly though she got quite agitated and her voice faltered. "You know, wherever the wedding is held in Spain, it’s supposed to bring good luck for the bride to arrive with her father, the ‘padrino’ and for the groom to be accompanied by his mother, the ‘madrina’. But Juan Antonio’s parents are dead as are mine too. Does that mean our marriage is doomed?"

I had no answer to that one.

November 5, 2008


Got back from an early morning run today with Lola to find Sra Noriega ushering both of us into her apartment. "You must see these pictures of Juan Antonio," she added conspiratorially, brandishing a huge, red leather photo album displaying outsize photos of Juan Antonio taken at the wedding I’d recently taken her to.

Now, the mere mention of the words ‘photo album’ or, horror of horrors, ‘videocam’ usually send me running for cover. However, something in her manner stopped me in my tracks. When I had a chance to look at her face more closely, I could see she’d been weeping.

"You know, I’m likely to lose not only that apartment I bought for Juan Antonio but him as well", she said by way of explanation. "As soon as it goes, he’ll go… He knows I can’t afford to buy him another because of the crisis de crédito."

"But is it so certain it will be demolished?" I asked.

"Look, I love Juan Antonio but he is no Antonio Banderas! The only thing they share is the name…"

Faced with my look of blank incomprehension, she continued, with a faint hint of impatience. "Banderas lives in an illegal property nearby also due for demolition. But his won’t be demolished because he is the prodigal son of Marbella. He has a square named after him in Puerto Banús! He has a major role every Easter during Semana Santa as Mayordomo del Trono de la Virgen de las Lágrimas y Favores! He’s just received from King Juan Carlos Spain’s Fine Arts Gold Medal of Merit! He’s now producing a film about Granada and bringing much needed work to the area! They won’t dare pull his home down… Too much bad press. Bad press for Marbella. Bad press for tourism. But as for Juan Antonio’s…"

She stopped to dry her eyes. "You know, back then I was fooled by everyone. By the Registry, the notary, the State, the Junta, the estate agency. Nobody told me there were problems with the property. The headaches began much later when the courts annulled the so-called ‘building permit’ and ordered demolition. But then Angela Munoz was elected, and we thought all our problems were over … but we hadn’t taken into account, you know, the local Property Owners’ Communidad."

She was referring to the policy of the recently elected Mayor of Marbella to demolish only unoccupied illegal buildings and to the fact that the Property Owners’ Association of Juan Antonio’s urbanización responded by suing Marbella Town Hall in the Andalusian High Court and winning! And further that, since Marbella Town Hall refused to demolish either the Banderas house (above) or JA’s apartment block in open defiance of the High Court's ruling, the Association was continuing its cruzada, as she put it, regardless.

With that, she broke down, starting to sob so loudly even Lola looked up from the rubber toy she’d been trying, with a remarkable lack of success, to decapitate.

Sra Noriega eventually pulled herself together and looked so embarrassed that I had to think of something quickly to take her mind off her problems. But what? She loves to talk and she loves weddings (her dearest wish, after all, is to marry JA if her family would only let her).

So the answer seemed obvious. To show me all those photos…

November 4, 2008


But racism in Spain isn’t just confined to motor racing. England's footballers were subjected to racist chants during a friendly against Spain at Real Madrid's Bernabeu Stadium in 2004. Sections of the Spanish crowd made monkey chants when Ashley Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Jermaine Jenas touched the ball. The same year former Spanish coach Luis Aragones was fined more than £2,000 for making racist remarks about Arsenal player Thierry Henry. Indeed, more than one commentator has asked himself if Spain’s geographical position isn’t perhaps a major contributor to its insularity - and an explanation for its racism and, admittedly, less pronounced homophobia.

And now the usually discreet Queen Sofia of Spain has added to the dispute in La reina muy de cerca, The Queen Up Close, a biography to mark her 70th birthday that appeared in El Pais last week. In it, she reveals her thoughts not only on the Clintons, Obama, former Prime Minister Aznar and being fed meat by former King Hassan of Morocco (even though he knew she was a vegetarian) but, most controversially of all, gay rights.

"I can understand, accept and respect that there are people of other sexual tendencies, but should they be proud to be gay? Should they ride on parade floats and show up at demonstrations? If all of us who aren't gay came out to protest we would cause gridlock," she said in the book, written by Spanish journalist Pilar Urbano.

She then proceeded to an even more sensitive area, referring to Spain's recent law to legalize gay marriage, which provoked the fury of the Catholic Church. "If those people want to live together, dress up like bride and groom and marry, they could have a right to do so, or not, depending on the law of their country, but they should not call this marriage, because it isn't," she is quoted. "There are many possible names: social contract, social union".

The State Federation of Lesbians, Gays and Transsexuals immediately asked the Queen to withdraw her comments. "Many mothers of gays and lesbians are going to ask why the Queen understands that the Prince (Felipe) would marry a divorced woman (Letizia Ortiz), but she can't understand why other mothers wouldn't want that same happiness of marriage for their children," said the federation president, Antonio Poveda, who called her comments "a tremendous surprise". Sofia is known for her discretion, having seldom expressed herself publicly - let alone controversially - since arriving in Spain 46 years ago.

Returned to the throne by Franco, the Spanish monarchy generally enjoys strong support from the Spanish for its role in the transition to democracy. The favourable opinion stems in some measure from the pact of neutrality by which the monarchs do not take sides in national politics – allowing all parties to believe royalty on their side. This, however, didn’t prevent her from commenting on former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who was said to have a difficult relationship with the monarchs. "He wasn't unpleasant with us," she said. "Perhaps something about his demeanour, his serious expression, didn't help him?"

By contrast, both she and her husband, King Juan Carlos, "connected very well" with the Clintons. "There was good chemistry very quickly," she noted.

However, lately some regional nationalists, especially in Catalonia, have been increasingly vocal in their anti-monarchist sentiment, with some youth activists burning photos of the king and queen, once unthinkable.

Jesus will probably use this as a topic for conversation in today’s Spanish class. Less certain though is if it will deflect his rage at Lewis Hamilton’s World Championship win at the weekend…

November 3, 2008


As soon as I got home, I looked at the Spanish press to see how the event was being handled here. And that’s when I got the second shock of the day: Jesus is far from alone in his views.

My attention was immediately drawn to a Spanish website. Called Pincha la Rueda de Hamilton – ‘Burst Hamilton’s Tyre’ – it not only encourages visitors to leave virtual nails on a computer mock-up of the Interlagos racetrack to stop Hamilton becoming world champion on Sunday but is full of racist, personal abuse directed at formula one’s first mixed-race driver.

The website suggests that, if enough people take part, placing either nails, pins or, weirdly, porcupines on the track, they will be able to ‘will’ punctures in Hamilton’s car just as voodoo practitioners stick pins in a doll.

Among the racist messages left by some of the 27,000-plus visitors to the site, a continuation of the vendetta begun 12 months ago by fans of Fernando Alonso who found himself last season embroiled in a battle against Hamilton for the drivers’ championship, are those dubbing Hamilton a "n*****", "monkey" and "son of a b****".

One, calling himself ‘Carillo’, tells Hamilton: "Half-breed, kill yourself in your car." Another from ‘Alberto’ says: "I hope you run over your dad in the first pitstop, Hamilton" while ‘Charly’ writes: "If you don’t get a puncture, then Massa will crash into you". Yet another, referring to Hamilton as a ‘conguito’ ( a type of chocolate sweet with racist overtones) writes: "Conguito, you are going to die". And numerous ‘nails’ have been left out near the finishing line on lap 12.

Alonso's ignominious departure at the end of the season so enraged his Spanish fans that, during a pre-season test at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya in February, Hamilton was greeted by racist insults (" a black s***") and Spanish fans with blackened faces wearing Afro wigs and T-shirts embellished with the words "Hamilton’s family".

That episode led to the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the sport’s world governing body, fining the circuit and instituting an anti-racism campaign. The FIA is now likely to raise the issue with the Real Federación Española de Automovilismo, having previously threatened the Spanish motorsport authority with losing the Spanish Grand Prix if it didn’t get to grips with racism. Which it clearly hasn’t.

One final note about the website. In addition to the racist comments, it also contains homophobic references ( the Spanish gay community, meanwhile, is still reacting to remarks attributed to it recently by Spain’s Queen Sofia), attacks on Ron Dennis, the McLaren team principal, and Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One commercial rights holder and, surprisingly, one message of support for Hamilton ("I’ll love you for ever"). Not from a Spanish fan then.

November 2, 2008


Got back from the Spanish lesson yesterday fuming.

About Jesús, our teacher, and racism. And all the sympathy I’d begun to feel for his current property predicament immediately evaporated.

Let me explain. Jesús bought off-plan an apartment in a nearby block intending to move in on its scheduled completion next summer - and marry his long-term girlfriend at the same time. However, the property crash in Spain has put an end to the one - if not the other.

At the beginning of the class, he’d been moaning about his doomed purchase and equally doomed marriage plans. And had everyone nodding their heads in sympathy. But the mood abruptly changed - at least for me - when he asked us in turn to give a short talk (in fractured Spanish) about a sport we enjoyed.

No sooner had the word ‘motor racing’ been mentioned than Jesús launched into a tirade about Lewis Hamilton and this weekend's Brazilian Grand Prix. His words, such as I could follow, weren’t abusive per se but certainly ‘dripping with poison’ as George Osborne so delicately described Lord Mandelson’s.

The rest of the class - mainly Germans with a sprinkling of Ukrainians and Icelanders - were again nodding their heads, this time in agreement. The former irked at the likelihood of Schumacher’s legacy being vanquished by a British champion, the latter simply glad to agree about something other than the failing economy of their respective homelands.

And so the class continued. And I managed to hold my tongue. Just...

November 1, 2008


Eventually the motion was passed by Nerja (street scene above) to separate from the central organisation and be more inclusive. There had been, apparently, a discriminatory practice in place for 34 years, namely that Spanish law required a 55 per cent American membership. A practice that Nerja claims is illegal for, in the United States, you can’t have a club which throws people out or bars them from elected office based on nationality. Nerja’s view was that national origin is immaterial; if someone has the knowledge, skills and ability for a job, that person should be elected.

Furthermore, Nerja believes that if a club doesn’t change that which doesn’t work, it becomes stagnant. It won’t attract, retain or stimulate members. In this respect, the website, too, is important for, if people look at its pages and it’s boring, never changes, they simply won’t join. Indeed, whilst Nerja has 100 per cent of its members connected to the web, there are those running other Chapters who allegedly don’t have e-mail, don’t even know how to use a computer!

And as for the American International Club of Nerja’s future plans, it’s sending an email to all members saying, ‘Same fun, new name’ and making itself better known in the local community. There’s already been an increase in membership and Nerja’s new logo incorporates several different countries’ flags with those formerly termed ‘international associates’ now more involved and engaged.

Finally, Nerja is continuing with its motto: ‘If it’s not fun, we don’t do it!’ And urging everyone to keep logging onto its website for all the innovative events planned.

Well, what has all this to do with the presidential election, you may ask. Not much it would seem. The only politics on offer among the Americans I met seemed more of the local office variety than national. Scarcely a mention was made of either candidate. Washington isn't so very far from Southern Spain geographically, but in many respects it's a world away.

In the end, elections - presidential and local board - are won on a combination of message and candidate. Obama’s message is a clear one of change and his appeal is deliberately crafted to cross racial, gender and geographic lines. The American International Club of Nerja’s message is also one of change - after 34 years of stagnation - and its appeal crafted to cross national lines to the farthest reaches of the community.

And what a change! Obama himself would be proud!