20 December 2014

Dispatches from Spain 5

by Rich Gilbert

[Rich Gilbert is back now with his latest installment of the e-mail reports on his and Sallie’s six-month sojourn in Madrid.  They’re now about one-third of the way through the adventure—their apartment lease is up in May—and they haven’t decided what to do then, but they made a visit to Nuremberg, Germany, where Rich served in the army (after I got to know him in Berlin some years earlier).  This message arrived in my inbox on 15 December and as I promised, I’m posting it as soon as I can.  (I’ll endeavor to keep Rich’s reports as current as I can from now on, as long as he keeps sending them.)

[As previously, I’ve lightly edited Rich’s e-mail to delete personal information on him and his friends and family, and I’ve inserted bracketed side remarks where I think they’ll be helpful.  (Comments in parentheses are Rich’s own.)  If you are intrigued with my friend’s reports on this experience, be sure to follow up with visits to Sallie’s blog, Rambling Solo, which Rich mentions and to which he provides a link below.]

Madrid – December 15, 2014

Dear Friends and Family,

Sallie and I have now been in Madrid almost two months. She continues to produce her blog, Rambling Solo, http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es, which describes some of our experiences from her perspective. As before, I will separate my comments into sections, so you need only read what interests you.

Daily Life

We have settled into a general routine. Monday through Friday, Sallie goes to a Spanish class from 9:00 to 1:00, and has a fair amount of homework, which she is diligent about.  As a consequence, I have become the “homemaker” doing most of the laundry, shopping and preparing the meals. We have each arranged to get decent haircuts from people who did not speak English.  Maybe three times a week, I fix a big lunch and we have light dinner.  Other times, I go downtown to meet her after class, and we get lunch and do something.  We have year passes to the national museums, which includes the Prado [Madrid’s world-class art museum].

I also joined a nearby gym a 5 minute walk and in the direction of our favorite bakery and mercado [market].  There is no pool, but if I get there between 10:00 and 11:00, I have no problem getting on an elliptical machine and most of the weight machines.  Still, I was initially surprised to see a number of well developed young men and women working out at that time.  Then I remembered that the unemployment rate in Spain for young adults is close to 50%! Of course, some of those young people may have night jobs, but it is a sobering reminder that Spain still has its economic problems. (Despite the fact the President [of the Government, what we call the Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy] recently announced the crisis was over.)

I still read portions of El Pais [the national daily] every day, so my reading vocabulary is growing, but the speaking/listening needs work. We are both still having trouble hearing the Madrilenos when they talk. We need the practice.  We have some local bars and restaurants where the staff will talk with us, and but we probably have to put more work into it.  I will say that is some places when they figure out we are foreigners, especially  Americans, who are trying to learn Spanish, they are often pleased and will try to work with us.

I have reconnected with friends from 25 years ago who live outside town, but Pamela is from Bermuda and Juan speaks good English, so that is what we speak when together. It is the same for a local ex-pat that I sometimes watch futbol with at one of the bars.

Legal Troubles

We had a scare which we just resolved this past week.  Both Sallie and I recall that when we got our visas, the staff at the Spanish Embassy said we had to report to the police within 90 days to “register.”  There were no other directions.  Well, that proved to be a confusing endeavor, and no one was really able to give us advice I could understand.  I finally found out that we had to get national ID cards from the national police; the first step was to have our fingerprints taken.  I was supposed to get an appointment on line, but when I did so, it said there were no dates available.  The 90 day visa expires while I am back in the States, so it was important to get this fixed.  I finally reached out to an attorney with whom I had a mutual acquaintance and he put us in touch with a local firm.  It turns out we were supposed to get the ID card within 30 days, not 90 days! We were definitely not told that. So with the lawyer we went out to a station (in the far outskirts of Madrid).  We were prepared to show that we had at least started our way through the bureaucratic thicket before the 30 days were up.  However, thanks to the attorney having all the documents together (and possibly because we were elderly, middle class Americans), they processed us without an argument.  We should get the ID cards in 30 days – hopefully just before I return to the States. It was a necessary expense, but we are both angry that no one at the Spanish Embassy ever told us clearly what we needed to do.

Negative Aspects

We are having a great time, but it occurred to me that I should tell you some of the negative aspects of living in Madrid and Spain just to give our experiences some perspective:

1.   The bureaucracy.  (See above!) (I suppose our immigration bureaucracy is even worse, though.)

2.  The Spaniards are not consistent about cleaning up after their dogs (and there are a lot of dogs.)

3.  It is sometimes awkward to walk on the street or in the Metro as the Spaniards do not automatically move to pass on the left; but instead keep walking where they are. Also they often have their eyes on their phones. (Apparently mobile phone theft is not a big problem on the street or in the Metro or buses, which I suppose is a good thing.) So you have to keep your eyes wide open when walking around.

4.  The beer.  We found a brewpub in Madrid on Plaza Santa Ana, and the beer was awful.  The beer from the tap in most bars is almost always a lager, from different Spanish brewers. It is cold with a clean taste, so I am not actually complaining about it. I have found a place that serves Pilsner Urquell on tap; you can also sometimes find Guinness and German beers.  My expat friend has introduced me to a pretty good dark Spanish beer which our local bar sometimes has in bottles. Still, the wide variety of good beers we can get from American bars, and especially the brewpubs, is lacking. Sometimes you just want a good IPA! (We did find a good authentic Mexican restaurant though; not enough to make us forget La Plaza [a Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant on Capital Hill, where Rich and Sallie lived in D.C.], but good.)

5.  The food wrappings, both plastic wrap and aluminum foil, do not come with a nice metal cutting edge.  You have to try and tear them by hand or stop and use a pair of scissors.

So with the exception of the immigration bureaucracy, I admit these are minor points really, but they are also part of life here.

Back To Germany

Sallie and I flew up to Nuremburg for four days to meet our friends John and Nancy Y*****, whom some of you may know from the T-shirt party [an annual event Rich used to host], who were finishing a river cruise of Christmas markets in Germany. It was rainy some of the time, and cold all the time. Still, the food, the drink, the architecture, and the atmosphere were quite different from Madrid. It felt a little like I was coming back to familiar place after having lived in Germany many years ago.  [Rich did a second gig in the army after becoming a lawyer and was a JAG officer in Nuremberg.]  The most amazing thing to me was that my German came back almost immediately.  My Spanish reading vocabulary is much greater than my German, but I did not struggle in casual conversation there the way I do sometimes in Spanish. I found myself thinking in German, even for the first few days back in Madrid. (Kind of embarrassing to say “Danke Schoen” when I meant to say  “Gracias.”)

The Allies bombed Nuremburg to rubble during the end of WWII and there were pictures of it in a number of places. The Germans rebuilt the Altstadt (old city) with a combination of old buildings, including the castle, numerous churches, and the city wall, with modern buildings. It works and it was fun to walk around. Outside the Altstadt, it is all pretty modern.  We stayed in a nice, clean, convenient apartment we got through AirBnB. We would do that again.

News Of The United States

I try to look at the Washington Post online every day to stay roughly current with news in the United States, but it is interesting to see what is covered in El Pais and how it is covered. Given the importance of the United States in the world, we get a fair amount of coverage of major US news. The election was news of course, but so also was Obama’s immigration pronouncement. The coverage of the latter was relatively favorable here. Of course, the protests resulting from the failure of the grand juries to indict the police officers in Ferguson and then the Staten Island made the front page, although the pictures of the burning and looting got the most coverage, as is often the case.

The release of the Senate “torture report” was the lead story when it come out.  That will continue to reverberate for a while I suspect.  Interestingly though, the next day the President of Brazil [Dilma Rousseff] released a similar report about human rights abuses during the military dictatorship.  She was a torture survivor herself and cried during the press conference. Of course, the Mexican story of the murder of the students in Guererro is not going away either; there is much more continuing coverage here than in the Post.  This does not make our national embarrassment any less, but, hopefully, we can say this was aberration at a specific traumatic point in our history. I think it is unlikely to be repeated in such a horrifying degree regardless of future events and future administrations.

There is no coverage here of United States sports whatsoever, so I need to go online to follow the surprising Wizards, as well as that train wreck surrounding the Washington Football Team [i.e., the Redskins, whose name is controversial these days].

Spanish Politics

Spanish politics are a mess.  (Of course, our system seems pretty dysfunctional too, but in different ways.)  The corruption stories just keep coming. The sister of the King [Infanta, or Princess, Cristina , whose brother was crowned King Felipe VI just five months ago], for heaven’s sake, was charged with corruption stemming from her husband’s activities [Iñaki Urdangarín, Olympic medalist  for handball in 1996 and 2000].  The prosecutor eventually dropped the criminal charges, but is asking for a 600,000-Euro [nearly $750,000] civil fine as restitution.  He is asking for 19 years for the husband!   The amount of money floating around in dozens of these cases is in the millions.  Bob McDonnell [former Virginia governor convicted of corruption in September] clearly was not thinking big enough. Also, for those of you who have asked – I still have not been offered one of the “tarjeta oscura” credit cards which key figures in the government received from a bank, and which one does not have to pay back; I will let you know if that changes. [See Rich’s comments on this “dark card” in “Dispatches from Spain 3 & 4,” 10 December on ROT.]

Of course, this drumbeat of corruption charges is eroding the faith in the political system for many Spaniards.  The party in power, the Popular Party (PP), is taking the biggest hit.  If elections were held today, Podemos (“We can”), would win the most seats, but not enough to form a government on its own, so some sort of coalition is likely going to have to be put together.  Podemos is a populist party, with a charismatic leader [Pablo Iglesias], most of his circle of advisors are academics.  They have been vague about their specific policies, but are basically left wing.  They are talking about renegotiating or defaulting on the national debt, which has the Germans in a tizzy.

Meanwhile, in the Northeast, the Catalan separatist story keeps humming along.  The latest is that Artur Mas, head of the Catalan government, wants to call new elections and run a single slate with all of the separatist parties represented.  His thinking is that if they win a clear majority, this would be the effective equivalent of a referendum, as the whole slate would be committed to independence.  If they win, Mas wants to declare independence in 18 months after negotiating a separation from Spain. Mas is having trouble lining up all of the separatist parties, some of whom do not want to wait the 18 months. No guarantee that the Spanish government will go along with it.  Vamos a ver! (we shall see).

One aspect of the story which I found interesting as a criminal defense attorney, concerned the response of the government to the “consulta,” the informal referendum held last month [on 9 November]. The national Constitutional Court ruled that it, like an earlier formal referendum was unauthorized, but the Catalans held it anyway. At the time, the Constitutional Court, while saying that the vote was not authorized, ignored the national government’s request to issue a specific court order to Mas and his government not to hold it.  Well after the vote, the national chief prosecutor and his counterpart from Cataluña [Spanish for Catalonia] met to discuss whether to pursue criminal charges. The Catalan chief prosecutor decided to call a meeting of his subordinates to seek their advice – an interesting step which has no counterpart in the U.S. legal system.  The Catalan prosecutors decided that there was not enough evidence that Mas had violated a specific order and recommended that he not be charged with “disobedience.” While not binding, the Catalan chief prosecutor accepted the recommendation.  That left the national chief prosecutor out on a limb, so he called his own meeting.  Not surprisingly, his prosecutors voted to charge Mas and some subordinates. 

Of course, this is just what Mas wanted as it threatens to make him a martyr for Catalan independence, thereby enhancing his stature going into the elections. Although the chief prosecutor is not officially part of the Justice Ministry, clearly there are politics at work.  In the end, there has to be a political resolution of this, not a criminal one. For what it is worth, given my imperfect grasp of legal Spanish, I also think that the Catalan prosecutors had it right.  Even at the time, I noted the significance of the refusal of the Constitutional Court to issue any orders to Mas or the Catalan government. I think you have to have an unambiguous order to be convicted of failing to obey it. (Ironically, we have a strikingly similar issue in one of the cases I will argue when I come back to the States next month.

Spanish Futbol

The “big three,” Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid are 1-2-3 in the Spanish league, and all won their groups in the European Champions League tournament. Unfortunately, that is not the lead story any longer. While we were in Germany, a brawl broke out between fans of Atletico Madrid and A Coruna (in the far northwest of the country) and an A Coruna fan was killed. This has put violence in futbol squarely in the sports pages for weeks now. It turns out most of the clubs have fans that purport to support violence, like the “hooligans” of British soccer. They are called “ultras” here.  In some cases, they make up only a segment of the fan club, which is true of Atletico Madrid.  El Pais described some as “ultra left” and “ultra right.”  I guess the “ultra right” are like skinheads and often express racist, xenophobic, and homophobic views; a group of Atletico Madrid fans were caught on camera this past week giving the fascist salute at their match in Italy. I am not sure what the “ultra left” groups stand for; they are apparently equally prepared to take up violence, so I am not so sure they are any better than the “ultra right.” (No one has made this clear, but I think much of the distinction may date back to the Spanish Civil War.)

After the death, the Spanish futbol association announced that clubs who cannot control their fans would be held responsible, which can result in a loss of standing points, and even possible demotion to the next lower level.  This would be a huge deal, so maybe the clubs will take more action.  There are things which can be done to reduce, if not eliminate, the risk of violence. There are plans to install facial recognition and fingerprint technology to keep out known trouble makers. Since apparently being in these groups is considered a “point of honor,” many of the leaders are not shy about making themselves known.  The clubs can also close down sections where the groups have seats, or disperse the fans. It would be like breaking up the Barra Brava fan club of DC United (who are not violent; I’m just giving an example). The synergy of having all the fans in one place would be dissipated. In addition, the leagues wants to cut down on the racist, xenophobic, and homophobic chants and songs, which add to the potential for violence.  Both Real Madrid and Barcelona have already taken this step for some time; their international advertising revenue is too valuable to allow a group of hooligans get caught on camera being fools.

So now that people are talking about the problem, maybe it will get better, at least in and around the stadiums. (By comparison, 15 people have been killed in soccer violence in Argentina this year; they even had a gun battle between rival gangs!)


Sallie’s son David, daughter-in-law Heidi, and granddaughter Emily, will all be here for the holidays.  We may make a trip to Avila, Segovia and Salamanca, and another trip to Barcelona for a few days, but Sallie still wants to spend Christmas and New Year’s here in Madrid. We have still not decided what to do in May when our lease is up, but we will be staying in Europe, and probably Spain (although Sallie has a yearn for Italy too.)

I will be back in D.C. for work from January 15 through February 3; hope to see a number of you then. In the meantime, we both wish you all happy holidays.


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