10 December 2014

Dispatches From Spain 3 & 4

by Rich Gilbert

[This is the second installment of my friend Rich’s messages from Madrid.  Like the first set, this post contains two e-mails and goes back a few weeks.  Later “Dispatches” will be posted closer to their composition date.  For anyone who’s caught up enough in Rich and Sallie’s Spain adventure, I recommend logging onto Sallie’s own blog, Rambling Solo, the link for which is below in the first message and also in the introduction to the first installment of this series, “Dispatches from Spain 1 & 2,” 30 November.]

Madrid – November 3, 2014

Dear Friends,

We are now in the middle of our third week in Madrid. The biggest news in that Sallie finally has her blog up and running. You should be able to reach it at http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es.  Some of you have asked for pictures. I am not really a photographer, Sallie is, so you can find some on her blog.   

In other news, it finally rained yesterday. We had over two weeks of clear blue skies until then. It makes laundry a bit of a challenge as we have a washing machine but no dryer. There are clothes lines on the rooftop; in sunny weather – a piece of cake.

Sallie closed on her (former) house last week. It was expected as the new couple’s financing appeared all in order, but it was a formal cutting of ties. Now we have no physical home except here. We finally went down and got basic cellphones, mostly so we can communicate with each other as we go our different ways. International calls are pretty expensive, especially just to chat, so email is still the best way to reach us, but if you have to, the pertinent numbers are:

            House – (#xxx-xx)-xx-xxx-xxxx
            Sallie cell – (xxx-xx)-xxx-xxx-xxx
            Rich cell – (xxx-xx)-xxx-xxx-xxx 

If we are going out together we might not bring the cellphones, so we are not always in constant communication with the world, which is cooler than you might think.  The phones cost about $50, but included $25 in minutes. There is no monthly plan. The phones are very basic, as we can use our old smart phones to connect with the Internet and take pictures, if necessary. (Spain is very connected to the Internet, with free Wi-Fi at lots of places.) The telephone number for Sallie’s smart phone has been disconnected, and mine will just ring to my office answering machine, so do not try to reach us at the old numbers.

If you need it, our street address is

            Xxxxxxx xxx Xxxxx
            Passaje de San Martin de Valdeiglesias xx,-x-X
            xxxxx Madrid Espana

I have just resumed studying Spanish, but am still buying a paper every day. The referendum on Catalonia independence is still in the news. The Spanish government is seeking an injunction even on the “non-binding” one.” The Catalans seemed determined to go ahead. The vote, if it takes place, is next Sunday [i.e., 9 November].  Meanwhile, the front pages are full of stories about corruption. There have been a string of high-profile cases, but just recently, the Spanish police arrested scores of politicians and businessmen for corruption, and things seem have blown up nationwide. Members from most major parties are implicated, but the ruling party, the “Partido Popular (PP),” has the largest number and is really taking a beating. They would lose the next election if held today.  I am learning all sorts of Spanish idioms. One cute one is “tarjetas oscuras” [literally, “dark cards”], which means the free credit cards given by the banks to the politicians to use as they wished with no limits and with no repayment expected, but with no public record either.

In “real” futbol news (Sorry, Washington Football Club and DC United!), Real Madrid won the big game against Barcelona the weekend before. Then, this weekend, both Madrid teams won again and Barcelona was upset at home, by a team from Vigo in the northwest. Now the two Madrid teams are 1 and 2 in the league, with Barcelona in third. Everybody here is happy!

Tomorrow we are going to take our first trip outside Madrid, a bus tour of El Escorial, a huge palace built by Phillip II in the 1500’s and home to the Spanish Inquisition , and then the “Valley of the Fallen,”  a huge memorial to the victims of the Spanish Civil War. All in all, what promises to be a somber day. It will call for lots of tapas and cervezas [that’s finger-food and beers, for the non-Hispanically inclined] when we get back. Tuesday might be a somber day in the U.S. too, albeit for different reasons [for those who’ve already forgotten, Rich is alluding to the mid-term elections on 4 November].  Since we are six hours ahead, we will not know the results until Wednesday morning – if then. I gather several key races may be too close to call early. All of you, and our country, will be in our thoughts.


[Once again, I’ve lightly edited Rich’s message to delete references to his and Sallie’s phone numbers and their street address as well as any other locating info he might have included.  As for other refs that might be obscure to readers, I gave a very brief rundown of that Catalonia vote Rich wrote about above in the last “Dispatch, so if youre not up on Spanish politics and current events, look back for that explanation.  The rest of that brouhaha you can look up yourselves.]

*  *  *  *
Madrid – November 15, 2014

Dear Friends,

It has been a month since Sallie and I left Washington, D.C., and we are now finishing our first month in Madrid.  I thought I would separate my observations by rough topic, so you need only read what you like.  (I can take you off the list altogether, if you let me know.)

Daily Life

We are getting to know the city better, partly by continuing to walk through different neighborhoods as well as our own. We are also getting more accustomed to daily life in Madrid. We are still not quite accustomed to starting dinner at 10:00; fortunately, many restaurants will start serving at 9:00.  We have, however, gotten accustomed to another eating pattern, which is the practice of bigger lunches and smaller dinners.  We have found several little restaurants where we can get a good two course menu of the day for around $10 at lunchtime. Then we will either have a light evening meal at home, such as salad, cheese, ham, and the great bread or we will go out and  taste the usually free tapas at the local bars.

We have discovered various shops we prefer for different types of food, such as a bakery, a stand for sausages and cheese, a fish and meat market, a produce store. We enjoy the shopping process and some of the merchants are beginning to recognize us (as does the newsstand owner where I buy my El Pais every day [literally, “The Country”; the highest-circulation daily newspaper in Spain and one of three Madrid dailies considered to be national newspapers of record for the country].) I must say, however, that if one were a truly busy lawyer in Madrid, one could skip the numerous shopping trips; the nearby Carrefour supermarket has all of these types of stores under one roof and it is open until 10:00 most nights. So, while it is a matter of preference, it is rather amazing that all of these small shops stay in business. It seems every block has its own produce shop, for example. I guess to be honest, the average age in the small shops is older and there are mostly women shoppers, while you are more likely to find younger people in the Carrefour. So possibly, this tradition may die out over time.

Sallie has signed up for an intensive Spanish class starting Monday. I will use the time to study my grammar more seriously. I confess that I have spent much more time reading El Pais.  Along with a really big dictionary, it has expanded my vocabulary, and my reading comprehension is pretty good, but I still need to work on spoken conversations. Apparently, my accent (or pronunciation) is not always clearly understood, and the Madrilenos speak very quickly. I can usually formulate the right question, but often cannot understand the reply. Still, we are trying; a few nights ago we went to an Improv Comedy night at a local restaurant; since it was in Spanish, it was a “desafio,” which means “challenge,” for us, but they (the restaurant owner’s daughter was part of the troupe) appreciated that we tried.


We have taken a trip to see El Escorial and then the Valley of the Fallen. The tour of the former was less complete and focused a bit more on the tombs of the monarchs than the art and accouterments of life 400 to 500 years ago than we would have liked. The Valley of the Fallen was impressive in its own way, but I doubt I would visit again.  Supposedly some 40-50,000 dead from both sides of the civil war are buried there inside the mountain, but the only tombs you can see, which are prominently displayed in the huge basilica, are the tombs of the founder of the Falange, or Spanish Fascist party, and General [Francisco] Franco who ruled in its name for over 30 years [1939-75]. While emotions may cool over the generations, there are families of Republicans who resent their loved ones being buried underneath Franco. (They are called Republicans because Franco took power as a result of a military coup against the elected civilian government of the then Republic of Spain, and those who fought against Franco were generally more liberal or even Communist.)

Yesterday, we visited the city of Avila.  We took the train, about $30 each way.  Avila still has its whole city wall intact, much like Carcasonne in Southern France, and you can walk along the top for half its distance, well over half a mile.  Avila claims to be the highest city in Spain, and there are spectacular views from the walls. It was very impressive. There are still businesses, lots of hotels and restaurants, inside the walls, but a much larger, more modern city has grown up outside the walls. Avila is also a very religious city, the home of Saint Teresa [1515-82], and many convents and monasteries, with a cathedral and many other churches, all of which I noticed were Catholic. Not really my interest personally, but I suppose it cannot be separated from its history, which dates back to the Visigoths [4th-8th century CE].

For our first trip of any length, we will be traveling to Nuremburg for four days at the end of November to meet friends and see the Christmas Market. I hope my German comes back.  I will be coming back to Washington, D.C., between January 15 and February 3 of next year, as I have an oral argument in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit at each end. I was lucky to have them both two weeks apart so as to have to make only one trip. I hope to see many of you while I am home.

Spanish Politics

This is a very interesting time in Spanish politics.  Although corruption charges continue to mount, the real story has been the Catalan “referendum,” which was held this past Sunday [9 November]. The Spanish Constitutional Court had earlier ruled it was illegal, but the Catalans claimed this version was different because there was no “official” call for the election, a technicality only a lawyer could love.  The Constitutional Court rejected that argument last week and the president of the Catalan government, Artur Mas, announced, in defiance of the Court, that they were going to hold it anyway. The national president, Mariano Rajoy, finally announced that he would not oppose the vote as “freedom of expression,” but only as long as the Catalan government did not play a role, whatever that meant.

The turnout was about one third of the Catalan electorate.  Of those that voted roughly 90% voted for Catalan independence. The turnout is significant, however, because the conservative parties boycotted the referendum, so one does not know how a true vote would have turned out. After the referendum, Mas announced that he wanted to negotiate with the national government about holding a true, and binding, referendum. The head of one of the parties in the independence coalition went further and demanded new elections within Catalonia and announced that if his party won a majority, it would simply declare its independence without further elections. Meanwhile Rajoy, who is from the “conservative” Popular Party, came under severe internal criticism for even allowing the Catalans to vote.

As a result, Rajoy announced there would be no negotiations about any referendum on independence. Meanwhile prosecutors started to develop criminal charges against Mas and other leaders of the independence movement on grounds of “disobedience” and “prevarication” with respect to holding the vote despite the Constitutional Court ruling. I get the former, but not the latter, since Mas did just what he said he would do.  I am hoping to have lunch soon with a lawyer in Madrid to whom I have been introduced; maybe he can explain. Tensions are rising and positions are hardening.

This may seem like a purely local matter, but it is not. It impacts all of Europe. There are numerous other separatist movements in Europe. The Scots had their vote, with UK permission, but there is a Welsh independence movement. The Flemish Belgians also have a movement to split from the French speaking part. All of this, of course, takes place in the shadow of the “elections” in Eastern Ukraine, as well as the earlier referendum in Crimea. Parts of Moldava and Georgia are effectively occupied by Russian “peacekeeping” troops.  Thus, the question of whether a region of a country can unilaterally separate itself, either as a legally independent or merely de facto independent country, is a critical one today. If the Spanish government holds firm and other Western European nations support it, perhaps even with a boycott, an otherwise relatively prosperous independent Catalonia would have a difficult time surviving. 

There is another interesting development in Spanish politics involving a new party, Podemos (“We Can”).  This party is less than a year old, and yet, if Spanish elections were held today, they would win over a third of the seats in Parliament, which would give them the largest share.  They are a very “populist” party.  Undoubtedly, its rapid rise is due is no small part to the dissatisfaction of the average Spanish voter with the existing two dominant parties, both of whom have been scathed by the corruption investigations, as well as the persistently poor overall economic situation. In some ways, there are strong parallels to the rise of the American Tea Party.  The big question, however, is what exactly the party does, or will, stand for, other than dissatisfaction with the current government. It has been vague about its platform.

Spanish Futbol

In the world of Spanish futbol, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona continue to win in the European Champions League, ensuring they will go on to the next round. At home Real Madrid took over first place as both Barcelona and Atletico lost league games. Now there is a two week break so that national teams can be assembled and play friendly matches or start the long qualifying process for the European Championship (for national teams, not to be confused with the ongoing club championship), and other such competitions in the world. As explained below, the top European leagues gather the best players from around the world, so those players need to travel back to join their national teams, which often means Latin America.

A couple of observations about futbol here. The composition of the teams in the major European soccer leagues is not permanently set the way that American professional leagues are.  While I suppose there must be some sharing of TV revenues in the course of a year, there are no salary caps, no drafts, and no players unions, Moreover, each country has several levels of clubs and each year the bottom few teams in the top leagues are demoted or “relegated” to the next lower league and an equal number of clubs from the lower league are promoted to the top league. In theory, this gives hope for the underdog; a club of humble origins could in a couple of years make its way up the tiers to the pinnacle of soccer in its country. In truth, this system serves to preserve the economic, and thus athletic, success of the top clubs, as this means that each year, the top league will have several new teams who have lacked the same resources from the year before, and provide a number of almost certain easy wins for the top clubs. Not surprisingly, the teams going up and going down each year are often from the same pool of say eight to ten teams. Since there is no draft, players are free to sign contracts with the highest bidder. Even when a lower rung team discovers a true talent, selling his contract to a richer team is often a major, and necessary, revenue source for that lower rung team. So the rich teams keep getting the best players.  Meanwhile the top echelon of teams continue to qualify for the international tournaments, like the Champions League, which earn them dramatically more revenue.

This means a team like Real Madrid can actually accumulate more star players than it knows what to do with. In a local controversy, Real Madrid paid tens of millions of dollars to acquire Welshman Gareth Bales, a prodigious goal scorer who became its number two scorer (after Cristiano Renaldo); when Bales got hurt another star Spanish player, Isco, replaced him and the team continued to flourish, albeit with a different style of play. Now Bales is back healthy and debate is on as to who should play. Think “quarterback controversy.” (The team is otherwise so stocked with other world-class players that there is usually no room for both men on the field at the same time.) A similar debate is occurring at Barcelona, where questions have arisen as to whether the addition of Uruguayan striker, Luis Suarez (yes, the infamous biter from the last World Cup), will affect the chemistry with Lionel Messi, considered perhaps the best player in the world, and Neymar, the star Brazilian forward.  After all, Barcelona lost two of its three game since Suarez served out his suspension for the biting, despite Suarez individually playing well.

While this system is far different from American professional leagues, there may be a cautionary tale as to major college sports, where a handful of big conferences, dominate not only the football games, but more importantly the revenue from football, and to a lesser extent, basketball. These big conferences even have their own TV deals. This means that Central or South Florida Universities are never going to be able to compete, at least over the long run, with Florida State (of the ACC), much less the University of Florida (of the SEC.)

I was also surprised by the very public advertisements for sports betting businesses, which are legal here. In one televised game in Almeria, a town in the south of Spain near Valencia, there was an entire advertising ring all of the way around the field advertising an on-line gambling business (and a free 100 Euros to use for the first bets.) It is no wonder that soccer is periodically rocked by match-fixing scandals reaching even to the qualifying matches for the World Cup. While I suppose it is pragmatic to acknowledge and tax gambling, I understand why sports in the United States try so hard to keep their distance from gambling.

Of course, it is not as if the world’s governing body for soccer, FIFA, has clean hands. They hired a former federal prosecutor from New York to investigate allegations of corruption in the selection of Russia to host the next World Cup in 2018 and Qatar!!! in 2022. Not surprisingly, he produced a 400 page report finding exactly that, despite Russia purposely deleting the email communications he asked them for. FIFA then rejected the investigation, claiming not enough evidence (only 20,000 pages worth), and refusing to release the full report because of “promises of confidentiality.” The prosecutor is going to “appeal” this decision within FIFA, but no one really expects FIFA to clean its house.  On the other hand, no one expect the millions, if not billions, of the world’s soccer fans to stop watching the matches and cheering for their teams.

I hope you find these posts, and Sallie’s blog, Rambling Solo, http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es, interesting, and that you keep us in your thoughts.


[Nuremberg is where Rich was stationed as a JAG officer on his second hitch in the army.  (See my introduction to the first installment of this series for an explanation of this bit of his bio.)

[The question Rich raises above, “of whether a region of a country can unilaterally separate itself”: I just want to observe something.  Ummm . . . didn’t we fight a war over that very question some 150 years ago?  Seems our official stance was that a region couldn’t secede.  I guess it all depends on whose ox is gored.

[When it comes to the breakdown of Spanish futbol, you’re all on your own.  As someone once said in another context: It’s all Greek to me.]

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