Letter from New York (2): Trump hits town, protected by garbage trucks.

Donald Trump was back in town yesterday – but only briefly. It was his first time back in New York since departing for Washington on 19th January to be inaugurated as president the next day (and it still feels surreal to write that). He recently said he has avoided visiting New York because the trips are expensive for the government and would ‘inconvenience’ New Yorkers. Yeah, right …

Yesterday, I counted up to 14 white ‘garbage’ dump trucks loaded with sand, all parked in line along the majestic Fifth Avenue, directly outside Trump Tower. They’re called ‘sanitation’ trucks here. A uniformed Secret Service cop told me that it was part of the NYPD’s ‘antiterrorism protocol’ and a ‘first line barricade’ – presumably to provide a dense, protective barrier in the event of a bomb. I don’t know how much it cost the New York City’s Department of Sanitation to protect the jewel of Donald’s real estate empire all day yesterday, but I find it ironic that they used garbage trucks.

Manhattan is where Trump made his name, transforming himself from real-estate developer to flamboyant property tycoon, to The Apprentice celebrity-businessman and now president. Whilst on the presidential campaign, he’d fly thousands of miles back to Trump Tower to sleep in his own bed (I presume it is ornate and gold-plated), leaving the impression that he’d make frequent trips home after he became president. But most New Yorkers genuinely loathe him – he received only 18 percent of the vote in New York in November’s presidential election – and so I wonder whether he’ll ever feel ‘at home’ here again.

Providing security for first lady Melania Trump, who has continued to live in Trump Tower whilst their 11-year-old son Barron finishes the school year, has been an expensive obligation for New York – and this has annoyed residents even more. The security costs for Trump and his family came to $24 million during the presidential transition period alone, and now surpass $300,000 a day since then – although Congress did vote last week to reimburse the city and other local governments for $61 million.

The police presence in and around Fifth Avenue’s Trump Tower yesterday was immense, to say the least. Just strolling by, we felt like extras on the set of an episode of Homeland or House of Cards. NYPD cops, counterterrorism officers and uniformed Secret Service agents were all on duty alongside numerous plainclothes agents, all with the essential earpiece, shades, cropped hair and bulging jackets barely concealing their weapons. What with the 14-plus NYC Sanitation Trucks, the concrete roadblocks and helicopters circling above, as well as keeping the protestors to one side and the TV news crews penned in securely across the other side of the road – well, I doubt $300,000 covered it for the day. And this was just on the Midtown East side of Manhattan … where Donald Trump finally didn’t even turn up …

The president was originally scheduled to spend about six hours at various locations in Manhattan, arriving at 3pm to meet Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia in the Peninsula Hotel on Fifth Avenue – just a block across the road from Trump Tower. He was then expected to make a ‘homecoming’ at Trump Tower before attending a black-tie reception and dinner aboard the Intrepid museum in honour of veterans of the Battle of the Coral Sea, in which the United States and Australia fought side by side against the Japanese in May 1942. As well as the scattered protestors waiting outside Trump Tower, therefore, across the other side of town on the West Side Highway with West 46th Street, a larger protest had been gathering opposite the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space aircraft carrier museum, relatively isolated from the rest of the city.

But all the plans changed whilst Trump was still in Washington yesterday morning, as he decided to hold a news conference to celebrate with fellow Republicans from the U.S. House of Representatives, who narrowly passed a healthcare bill that would repeal and replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare … pushing back his meeting with Turnbull by several hours.

By noon, the stops at the Peninsula Hotel and Trump Tower had already been dropped from the schedule – but I don’t think this news had filtered properly through to the media camped out in Fifth Avenue, nor the onlookers and protestors awaiting The Donald’s (non-)arrival. We hung around for awhile, speaking to some of the protestors – taking shots of some placards stating that Trump was ‘Russian Elected’, that ‘Trump Water is Bullshit’ (I didn’t quite understand that one), and ‘No Ban, No Gag, No Wall’ – but we gave up soon afterwards to enjoy more sightseeing.

By 6pm, we were over in Brooklyn, enjoying the views of Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights. It was from there, across the Hudson River, we could see Trump’s Marine One helicopter arriving at the Wall Street heliport, escorted by 4 or 5 military helicopters, constantly circling – with the wail of police sirens from vehicles awaiting to accompany his motorcade audible across the river. There were two Marine One helicopters – and I understand that is the norm. It’s an extra expense, but also a security to ensure that no-one knows which one the president is travelling in. Blue-flashing police patrol boats had blocked off a large slice of the river, and I later heard they’d intercepted two boats carrying activists from Greenpeace.

Apparently Trump finally attended his black-tie dinner on the Intrepid with Turnbull – and then he was expected to go to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, for the weekend. We ate by candlelight at the romantic Armando’s Italian restaurant in Montague Street on Brooklyn Heights. I had spaghetti all’arrabiata, and Juliane had the lasagna. Oh, plus a bottle of Yakima Valley Merlot. We had a better night than Donald, I’m sure.

Letter from New York (1): Trump’s 100 days & some stand-up comedy: never before or never again?

So far, here in New York, I haven’t heard anyone say a good word about Trump, let alone about his first 100 days in office. Yes, in tourist shops you can buy Trump mugs and fridge magnets, or baseball caps and T-shirts with ‘Make America Great Again’ plastered all over them, but I’m not sure anyone is buying them. Strolling in and around Central Park yesterday, I saw more than one stand selling anti-Trump ‘NOT MY President’ and ‘Dump Trump’ badges (or pins) – with a message stating: ‘Sorry, we have no pro-Trump pins … well, we’re not “sorry”.’

The area around Trump Tower, on 5th Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets, and where Melania is holed up (yeah, I think that’s the right term), has become an ‘inconvenience’ for neighbours, shoppers and office workers, or rather a ‘fucking traffic nightmare’ according to taxi drivers. Outside it looks like a fortress, with NYPD trucks, concrete blocks, and 5 or 6 burly cops with machine guns … but you can still stroll inside to gawk at the God-awful glitzy escalators and get free WiFi at the Starbucks upstairs. There’s an airport-style X-ray machine – but you can still take selfies near the Nigel Farage-famous gold lifts (sorry, elevators). Yesterday I was tempted to make a dash for one, to try and rescue Melania, but then I thought, nah, why bother? I might have been whisked off in chains and an orange boiler suit to Guantanamo Bay. Apparently there’s a Melania ‘actress-model-lookalike’ in the States right now called Mira Tzur, earning $3100 for each ‘Melania-appearance’. So the thing to do would be to turn up at the gold elevators with Mira. That would confuse them.

Right now, right here, they’re all trying to make sense of Trump’s first 100 days in office. It’s not easy.

‘I never realised how big [the job] was,’ Trump himself has said of the presidency in an interview with The Associated Press. ‘Every decision,’ he added, ‘is much harder than you’d normally make.’ Yes, I can imagine, Donald.

In a separate interview with Reuters, he said: ‘This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.’ Yes, I can imagine that, too, Donald … you poor thing.

The job might be tough, but Donald’s boastfulness is unrelenting. ‘I truly believe that the first 100 days of my administration has been just about the most successful in our country’s history,’ he said in his weekly address on Friday. How nuts is that?

It’s the phrase ‘never before’ that’s stuck with me from yesterday’s The New York Times (and it was great to feel the fat Sunday edition with all its supplements was still as heavy as a door-stop; no ‘app’ can replicate that feel).

‘As Washington pauses to evaluate the opening phase of the Trump presidency,’ the paper wrote, ‘the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that … [during] almost every one of these first 100 days, Mr.Trump has done or said something that caused presidential historians and seasoned professionals … to use the phrase “never before”.’

Never before. The 100 days are being remembered not for Donald actually achieving anything, but for him acting like no president has ever acted before.

Never before has there been a president who has ‘refused to release his tax returns and declined to divest from his multibillion-dollar real estate empire.’ Not only has he retained all his business interests, but he also ‘cultivates them with regular visits to his properties.’ Never before has a president used his very own and exclusive Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, as his ‘winter White House’ or played golf frequently at clubs he actually owns.

Never before has a president ‘gleefully taken credit on days that stocks have risen’, or then publicly commented on the strength of the dollar … ‘which presidents generally do not do.’

Donald Trump, president, seems to do many things that ‘presidents generally do not do.’ His Twitter account has been ‘the vehicle for all sorts of outbursts that defy tradition, often fuelled by the latest segment on Fox News.’ Presidents ‘rarely taunt reality-show hosts about poor ratings, complain about late-night television comedy skits, berate judges or members of their own party who defy them, trash talk Hollywood stars and Sweden, declare the “fake news” media to be “the enemy of the American people” or accuse the last president of illegally wiretapping them without any proof,’ wrote The New York Times yesterday … and which is not Donald’s favourite newspaper, of course.

Trump has pushed traditional boundaries, ignored longstanding protocol and discarded ‘historical precedents as he reshapes the White House in his own image.’ He’s been more aggressive than any other president in using his authority to undo his predecessor’s legacy, ‘particularly on trade, business regulation and the environment.’ And he’s dominated the ‘national conversation’ perhaps more than any president in a generation.

Trump’s presidency has presented the USA with a movie it has never seen before. Some have even said that there is no longer a United States presidency; instead, there is ‘organised crime in government control.’

And never before, concluded The New York Times has a president turned the White House into ‘a family-run enterprise featuring reality-show-style, “who will be thrown off the island?” intrigue.’

Never before … and I think many are praying that it will soon be ‘never again’.

I once said ‘never again’ about doing stand-up comedy but whilst I’m here in New York … why not? (How does that Sinatra song go? If you can make it here, or just ‘do’ it here, you can do it anywhere?). Anyway, I can’t believe it is over 4 years since I last tried two open mic evenings here at the New York Comedy Club and the Broadway Comedy Club (I blogged about it here) … and I’ve decided to give it another go. I’ve booked myself into the open mic session at the New York Comedy Club next Sunday 7th May. Why? I need to work on my sense of humour and ‘fearlessness-ness’ again. Juliane thinks I’m mad. She might be right. But I need to get some new comedy-writing practice in, as we’re about to launch a radio (and hopefully TV) comedy quiz game show ‘thing’. It’s coming soon … wait and see …

Letter from Barcelona (9): April in Barcelona, and Murray v Nadal?

Certain cities come alive at different months in the year. For Madrid it is May. In London, I’d say mid-June to early July. Edinburgh, August. New York, September. Munich, October … and so on. For me, April has always been one of the best months to be in Barcelona. The sky is bright blue and the light is just perfect. Spring has already become early summer. You can often survive without a jacket or sweater. Restaurant terraces are opening. The chiringuito beach bars are setting up. April is the month for the beautiful Sant Jordi (yesterday, April 23rd), when everyone gifts books and roses with love. Mid to late April is when FC Barcelona also normally play at home in a Champions League quarter-final (yes, it’s an annual, reliable fixture). I was very kindly invited along to see them play Juventus in the second leg last Wednesday, and although the result didn’t go as hoped, they made up for it against Real Madrid last night at the Bernabéu. Thanks to the genius Messi, it was the perfect end to a perfect Sant Jordi weekend.

During this last week of April, Barcelona also hosts the annual Trofeo Conde de Godó tennis tournament at the Reial Club de Tennis Barcelona, a sporting and social feast for the city, also known as the ‘Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell’. This year is its 65th anniversary, the oldest tennis tournament in Spain, and one of the most prestigious clay tournaments on the ATP World Tour circuit. I’ve been invited along on Wednesday and I can’t wait, especially as Andy Murray, number one in the world, is in town …

Murray was at the Reial Club de Tennis Barcelona yesterday, talking to the press, recalling the happy times he’s enjoyed in Barcelona, and where he was also coached: ‘I was here two years, two of the best of my life … I have incredible memories. Here was the first time I travelled alone, savouring what we call freedom.’ He also recalled playing here for the first time in 2012: ‘I remember it very well,’ he said. ‘This is Rafa’s tournament, but anything can happen. And we still need to reach the final match to face each other for the title.’

Rafa Nadal is on fine form, fresh from winning in Monte Carlo, and he’s looking for his tenth Barcelona crown. Nadal and Murray have played each other on 24 occasions (17-7 for Nadal), and Murray believes that doing it again would be great. His decision to come to Barcelona was very last minute. ‘I have not played many matches this year and we thought it was better to play games than to practice,’ he said. ‘And this tournament is perfect for the clay court players. I will do very well, no doubt.’

Barcelona’s perfect April month could end on another high next Sunday 30th, with a Nadal v Murray final …

Radio in Barcelona: Animated GiF Podcast (2)

I was invited back on the ‘Animated GiF’ show on Radio Kanal Barcelona yesterday, this time as a guest co-host with Carrie Frais. The REAL guests were Tulia Lopes and Liliana Lucero, from the ‘AWE Summit in Barcelona’. AWE stands for ‘Assertive Women Entrepreneurs’, so we talked about women and leadership, public speaking and high heels. We also touched on the British and French elections, younger men dating older women, and why the Spanish millennials need to drink more wine (like me) …

Here’s the podcast:



Letter from Barcelona (8): The inflated interpretations of an innocuous US Embassy communication about Catalonia.

Firstly, some backdrop to this: it is a known fact that the former Spanish Foreign Minister, José García-Margallo y Marfil, who served under Prime Minister Rajoy from 2011 to 2016, made ‘great efforts’ to talk to governments around the world in order for them to not speak up in favour of Catalonia having the right to hold a referendum on independence. Margallo himself admitted this only a few weeks ago on TV. ‘No one knows the favours we owe to a lot of people for making the declarations they made,’ he said. He also explained that it had taken up a lot of his valuable time and energy: ‘I was in the Baltic countries four times, and it is not that we have particular economic interests there … I have been to Canada, to the Vatican, I don’t know how many times … this takes up an enormous amount of energy.’ I think one can safely assume that Spain’s current Foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis, is equally anxious that other nations do not speak up in favour of Catalonia’s right to hold a referendum.

It is also a fact that the Catalan Government, particularly in recent months, has been very active in the international arena, seeking to drum up international support (and often simply awareness) for its bid to hold a referendum on self-determination, despite Rajoy’s conservative central government stating it is unconstitutional. Over the past few months, key figures (including Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont) have delivered speeches in Brussels, Paris, Lisbon and other European cities – whilst in London an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has been created by 21 cross-party MPs ‘to keep members of the British Parliament abreast of the on-going debates and events about Catalonia’s self-determination and to help ensure that debate is carried out in the most democratic way.’ Catalonia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Raül Romeva, even remarked that, ‘Sometimes, there is more interest in discussing the Catalan question here [in London] than in Spain.’ So much interest, in fact, that there’s another APPG debate this Wednesday 19 April in the Attlee Room at the Houses of Parliament in London, with the subject being, ‘A Democratic Solution for Catalonia.’

For some reason, however, recent trips to the United States and discussions with US congressmen and a former US president appear to have been a step too far for the Spanish central government – and rumours have been circulating as to whether this triggered the communication concerning Catalonia from the US Embassy in Madrid last week.

A link to the simple, innocuous press note from the US Embassy in Madrid was released (and posted on Twitter), in Spanish only, last Wednesday 12th April. Just 3 simple paragraphs. The first and second paragraphs delivered the usual diplomatic-backslapping: Spain and the United States are united by history, common values, ‘global challenges’, peace and security, striving for economic prosperity, preventing violent extremism, and ‘Spain is a vital ally, partner and friend to the USA.’ The last paragraph, however, was used to ‘reiterate that, as we’ve said before, the US Government position is that Catalonia is an internal matter [my italics] for Spain.’ And finally: ‘We are deeply committed to maintaining a relationship with a strong and unified Spain.’

So … what really provoked this?

Just two weeks previously, Catalan president Puigdemont had given a talk on ‘Catalonia, Today and Tomorrow’ at Harvard University’s Centre for European Studies in Boston. The next day he’d been in Washington DC, meeting US Congressmen (two Republicans and one Democrat), before travelling to New York for further meetings with groups that have cultural ties to Catalonia. Then he was back in the USA a few days later, travelling to Atlanta to attend the Annual Executive Briefing and Presidential Reception at the Carter Center, where he also spoke with the former US president and Nobel Peace Laureate, Jimmy Carter, in a private meeting. His entire agenda in the US was organised in secrecy in order to avoid possible interference from the Spanish diplomatic corps.

The press note issued by the US Embassy in Madrid last Wednesday was curious for several reasons. At the moment, and since Trump’s presidency begun, there isn’t a US Ambassador in Spain – although the acting ‘Chargé d’Affaires’ is Krishna R.Urs. The fact that the press note was issued only in Spanish also appeared odd. Then there was the ‘coincidence’ that it was swiftly followed by a communication from the Carter Center, too, stating that ‘neither President Carter nor the Center was able to become involved in the referendum process.’ Whilst it was also peculiar that the US Consulate in Barcelona (the current Consul General is Marcos Mandojana) did not at least re-Tweet the Embassy communication, the most remarkable of all was the complete over-gloating headlines from the majority of the Spanish press.

ABC newspaper called it a ‘slap’ for Catalan independence (‘Bofeton de EEUU al Secesionismo Catalan’); El Mundo called it ‘humiliation’ for president Puigdemont (‘EEUU humilla a Puigdemont y defiende una Espana unida’); El Periodico in Barcelona said the USA was ‘turning its back’ on the independence process (‘EEUU da la espalda al process soberanista’); and the El Pais online English version stated: ‘US snubs Catalan independence drive in latest setback for separatists.’

I don’t think it is any of those, really.

Saying that ‘Catalonia is an internal issue for Spain’ is not a snub. On the contrary, it is recognising that it is an issue. Of course the USA will try not to get involved, in the same way they won’t get involved with the independence referendum on Scotland. Yes, of course Catalonia is an internal issue … but the real issue here is that it is not being resolved internally within Spain. Of course other nations will say they want a strong and unified Spain – they’re hardly likely to say the opposite.

This morning I spoke with David Connell, who is an Information Officer in the ‘Public Diplomacy Section’ of the US Embassy in Madrid. He was charming, but chose his words carefully, saying that the statement speaks for itself, and that it simply reiterated US government policy that already existed. He also politely explained that he wouldn’t and couldn’t comment on any other internal discussions that might ever take place, back and forth, between the Spanish and US governments. You can interpret that how you like.

Letter from Barcelona (7): Operación Catalunya and a ‘mamporrero’.

I think my Spanish is pretty good, and so does Olga – although there’s always room for improvement, especially with the imperfecto de subjuntivo, and I’ll always have a guiri accent. Olga is my ‘Spanish conversation’ teacher. We meet once a week for coffee in a hotel just off the Plaza Catalunya, and I talk to her in Spanish for an hour and a half about Spanish politics, whilst reviewing the newspapers. For Olga, I suppose it’s a bit like having her very own weekly Andrew Marr Show, although I don’t think she knows who Andrew Marr is.

Often a word or phrase crops up that I don’t fully understand. This week, thanks to politician Gabriel Rufián, the spokesman for the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), it was ‘mamporrero’. It’s not the first time my Spanish vocabulary has been enriched (if that is the word) by Mr.Rufián. His 8-minute speech on why his party would vote ‘no’ during the investiture debate of Mariano Rajoy in the Spanish Parliament back in September kept me going for weeks. Often when he Tweets something, I find myself Googling or reaching for the dictionary – but some words he uses don’t appear. I’m thinking of inviting him along to my weekly sessions with Olga but I’m not sure if he’ll accept.

On Wednesday, during the parliamentary enquiry into what has become known as the ‘Operación Catalunya’, Gabriel Rufián came out with some gems. The Operación Catalunya focuses on the alleged smearing of pro-independence Catalan politicians during the Spanish government’s last term of office. The questions on Wednesday were aimed at the former Interior Minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, and the former Director of Catalonia’s Anti-Fraud Office, Daniel De Alfonso. Whilst Fernández Díaz got away relatively lightly by being called a ‘títere’ (a puppet) by Rufián, the former Anti-Fraud boss was called a ‘mentiroso’ (liar), ‘gánster’ (you can guess that), ‘mafioso’ (ditto), ‘corrupto’ (ditto) … and mamporrero’.

I originally thought that ‘mamporrero’ meant ‘a person who clouts other people’, but thanks to the research of others using the authoritative online dictionary of the ‘Real Academia Española’, I discovered that it is a ‘person who helps horses breed, placing a colt’s penis in the mare’s vagina’.

Discussing this with Olga on Thursday, she seemed a bit embarrassed, and said I didn’t need to know the meaning of ‘mamporrero’ because I’d probably never have to say it. In a sense, she’s probably right. I can’t really imagine myself in any situation where I would end up accusing someone of being a person who helps horses breed, placing a colt’s penis in the mare’s vagina. I can’t really imagine any British politician standing up in the Houses of Parliament and saying it, either – (‘You, my right honourable friend, are the type of person who puts a colt’s penis in a mare’s vagina!’) – but you never know. Nigel Farage likened the EU Parliament to the mafia this week, so anything’s possible.

But the beauty of the Spanish language (and why I love it so much) is because the whole thing – that ‘person who helps horses breed by placing a colt’s penis in the mare’s vagina’ – can be summed up with just one word: ‘mamporrero’. Olga then said it wasn’t as simple as that. She explained that Mr.Rufián was probably using the phrase in a ‘suggestive way’, not necessarily related to horses, but perhaps ‘between men’. We decided not to pursue the definition further, because others were giving us odd looks.

On Tuesday, I interviewed Germà Bel in a debate for the ‘Our Future in Catalonia’ group in Barcelona, with the subject matter being ‘The Economics of a Catalan State’. Germà is a renowned Professor of Economics and a member of the Catalan Parliament’s ‘Junts pel Sí’ coalition group. It was a lively discussion, very well attended, and not an insulting word was uttered by anyone. Hopefully there will be more civilized discussions and ‘dialogue’ here in Barcelona. Watch this space …

Letter from Barcelona (6): Expats & Gibraltarians. Rajoy should focus on trying ‘dialogue’ with Catalonia instead of laying claim to ‘the Rock’.

It’s interesting how it has taken Gibraltar to shake things up a little bit. Since last night it’s been one of the top stories on BBC and Sky News, with the inevitable “rock in a hard place” headlines (ho-ho-ho). It is on the front page of most of today’s papers, here in Spain and in the UK: ‘Fear on the Rock: EU’s Gibraltar ambush’; ‘Future of Gibraltar now at stake in Brexit talks’; ‘Brussels takes tough stance on Brexit with Spain handed veto over Gibraltar’; ‘Rock bottom: May’s Brexit blunder sparks Spanish land grab’. The worst gloat, however, comes from Spain’s ABC newspaper: ‘The triumph of Spain’s position on Gibraltar irritates the United Kingdom’. Oh, and of course there’s Boris-the-buffoon already bellowing about his ‘implacable and ‘rock-like’ support for Gibraltar. That must really placate Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, the Hon Fabian Picardo QC MP, who’s been on every radio and TV news programme for the past 24 hours, proudly sitting in front of a photo of Her Majesty in his Union Jack adorned office. Boris will save and protect you, Mr.Picardo. Good old Boris.

Now, look, I know that Gibraltar is officially a ‘British Overseas Territory, ceded to Great Britain ‘in perpetuity’ under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 – and so, I mean, it really is British (and the 30,000 Gibraltarians have repeatedly voted to remain linked to Britain). But what about the San Miguel Bowls Club on the Orihuela coast in Alicante, adjacent to ‘Cheers Bar’ in the Urbanization of Eagles Nest? Only a couple of weeks ago The Guardian filmed there because it was ‘effectively a little Britain’ … ‘effectively a British enclave’ … and they were all suffering the ‘Costa Brexit’. What will happen to that British bowls club? Will Spain want to reclaim that, too?

Before I get loads of Brexiteer comments telling me that Gibraltar is not the San Miguel Bowls Club … er, I know. I’m trying to be a little ironic. But the fact that Prime Minister May forgot to mention Gibraltar in her Article 50 letter, described by many as an ‘astounding error’, is simply par for the course from now on, if you ask me. The whole Brexit ‘thing’ is a chaotic shambles and it’s going to get worse and worse. There is no plan. I repeat: There Is No Plan. There’s no plan for the rights of the 300,000 registered Brits living and working in Spain, nor for the rights of the 200,000 Spanish in the UK. The ‘rock bottom’ and ‘rock in a hard place’ Gibraltar Rock is just the tip of the iceberg.

Sitting here in Barcelona, however, I have one thing very, very clear. Spain, and in particular Mr.Rajoy, should focus on trying some ‘dialogue’ with Catalonia instead of laying claim to Gibraltar.

Letter from Barcelona (5): Since when has ‘dialogue’ been a ‘demand’?

I dreamt the other night that a 72 year old man called Mr.Margallo was begging and bribing me to stop writing anything nice about Catalonia. In exchange, he promised to drop all his plans to take control of Gibraltar after Brexit. Then I woke up. Or at least I think it was all a dream …

The truth is that it has been a bit of an odd week, although it started amicably enough.

On Monday an op-ed piece written jointly by Catalan President Puigdemont and Vice President Junqueras was published in El País newspaper. The heading of the article was ‘Let Dialogue Win, Let Ballot Boxes Decide’. Let’s focus on the ‘dialogue’ bit for now, as the word cropped up many times in the article.

There’s ‘no need for courts to become involved with what could be resolved politically’ they wrote, but that ‘Spain cannot even sit down at a table for a dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan governments.’ They continued: ‘There is not only a worrying absence of any will to create a dialogue, but also the fact that Spain keeps going in totally the opposite direction: indictments, and politicizing the courts while judicializing what is a political problem in a dirty war, with threats of exceptional measures against Catalonia.’ The article accused Madrid’s central government of hiding ‘behind the Constitutional Court, behind the Supreme Court and the regional courts, with no concern about compromising the separation of powers and the role of the courts as neutral arbiters.’

The article also made reference to those in Catalonia who do not want independence, but would still like a referendum to put the issue to rest. They claim that the ‘Spanish state has abandoned all Catalans, even those who don’t want independence.’ They asked for ‘political dialogue’ and a ‘political solution’. They reiterated that ‘in a democracy there is no right to refuse dialogue’. And they concluded the article stating that they were ‘already seated at the negotiation table. How long before the others arrive? Or will they even come?’

No, is the answer – at least that’s the message from Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy’s PP-led government.

That very same day, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría compared the request for ‘dialogue’ as a ‘demand’. In response to the article, she said that, ‘Dialogue is not what is being offered or asked for; a referendum is being demanded that goes against the Spanish Constitution, and that would deny Spaniards as a whole their capacity to express an opinion about what they want the whole of the Spanish nation to be. It is a demand by those who have a poor understanding of dialogue in their country.’

I don’t get it … I really don’t. Define ‘dialogue’. Define ‘demand’. I’ve re-read the article, in both Spanish and English. They write: ‘the scenario of an agreed referendum’ [ie, ‘agreed’ after ‘dialogue’] ‘is what we would like in Catalonia.’ That is their final aim, yes, but from what I understand, they’re not even demanding a dialogue to try and ‘agree’ an eventual ‘agreed’ referendumthey are just politely asking for dialogue. And they’ve been asking for it for a very long time.

I believe Madrid could quite easily have defused this entire situation several years ago by proposing something as simple as an external ‘seminar of dialogue’ (call it what you like) with a date ‘yet to be decided’ to discuss the ‘concept’ of the ‘possibility’ in the ‘future’ of a parliamentary ‘discussion’ which ‘might eventually lead’, subject to ‘conditions’, to a ‘potential’ parliamentary ‘study’ for the ‘future publication’ of a document to be entitled ‘The Outlines for a Possible Parliamentary Debate on Catalonia’ – or something similar. Isn’t that what politicians are supposed to do? Be ‘diplomatic’? Delay things as long as they can, if necessary, but at least be ‘political’ and show they’re up for some ‘dialogue’?

For heaven’s sake, Mr.Rajoy, talk to Barcelona about all this. Sit down at a table, any table, and start a dialogue. Even I’ll offer to mediate and moderate if you can’t find anyone else, but just do it – before it’s too late. In the meantime, stop treating Catalonia as the disruptive child in the Spanish classroom [The New European]. Stop banning Catalan politicians from public office for ‘disobedience’ (believe me, from an international perspective it is looking absurd). And stop fining people for speaking Catalan at Barcelona airport’s passport control (yes, it apparently happened).

And then there’s that 72 year old man of my dreams (you know what I mean), José García-Margallo y Marfil … but let’s just refer to him as Mr.Margallo.

Well, it turns out that he’s a bit of an old rascal, isn’t he? He was the Spanish Foreign Minister from 2011 to 2016, serving under Prime Minister Rajoy. He’s made a number of very silly comments in the past, mostly about Gibraltar, but he seems to have surpassed himself on the TV this week, revealing some worrying facts on the ‘El Cascabel’ programme on 13TV. It follows a debate he’d had in Madrid with the former President of the Catalan government, Artur Mas (who’s been banned from public office for 2 years).

On the TV programme, Mr. Margallo stated that when he was Minister, the Spanish government made ‘great efforts’ to talk to governments around the world in order for them to not speak in favour of Catalan independence. He said, ‘No one knows the favours we owe to a lot of people for making the declarations they made’. He even explained that it had taken up a lot of his time and energy: ‘I was in the Baltic countries four times, and it is not that we have particular economic interests there … I have been to Canada, to the Vatican, I don’t know how many times … this takes up an enormous amount of energy.’

Whether or not Mr.Margallo had been travelling to all these places on Catalan tax payers’ money or not is yet to be clarified. Or at least it should be clarified …


Radio in Barcelona: Animated GiF Podcast (1)

I was invited on the ‘Animated GiF’ show on RKB Radio Kanal Barcelona yesterday, hosted by the brilliant Carrie Frais and Deborah Gray. We talked about many things: the attack in Westminster, Brexit, Expats, Bowls Clubs, Escape Rooms, crime books and a TV series … and how long Russians spend in the loo. Here’s the podcast:

Letter from Barcelona (4): Surely The Guardian can make a better video of ‘expats’ in Spain?

In the 20 years I have lived and worked in Spain (in Madrid and Barcelona), I’ve always tried to avoid reading any British newspaper article containing the words ‘expats’ or ‘costa’ in the headline, especially if illustrated with an image of a sunburnt-tattooed beer-gut in Union Jack shorts, or someone vomiting on a hen-night in, say, Magaluf. It’s not easy to avoid it, though – even more so when the word ‘Brexit’ is thrown in alongside ‘expats’ and ‘costa’.

This week, I could sense something very wrong had been written about ‘expats in Spain’, simply from all the comments on social media. By ‘wrong’, I mean not totally ‘balanced’, nor totally fair or honest. When I traced the reason, it turned out to be a video, not an article.

Look … I am actually a ‘fan’ (if that is the word) of The Guardian (if it is possible to be a fan of a newspaper). I admire it. I always have done, despite a lot of Private Eye/Grauniad spelling mistakes. I know (or knew) people who write and work for it. As far as Spain is concerned, I also believe that The Guardian, at least traditionally, has been one of the best British newspapers in its coverage of historical, political, economic or cultural issues across the Iberian Peninsula. The Guardian has boasted excellent foreign correspondents in Madrid over the years, as well as historians and professors as regular contributors – experts in their field who have written authoritative works on Spain, or about the Spanish civil war, or biographical gems on Franco or Spain’s monarchy. So why, I wondered, did The Guardian descend upon the ‘San Miguel Bowls Club’, which apparently lies adjacent to ‘Cheers Bar’ in the Urbanization of ‘Eagles Nest’, on the Orihuela coast in Alicante, and then publish a 7-minute video, practically describing it as a definitive portrayal of ‘British Expats in Spain count the Costa Brexit’? (And the ‘Costa Brexit’, gettit? Very effing original. Did someone come up with that headline before actually shooting and editing the video?)

Above the video there is a quote: ‘Effectively, they are living in little Britain.’ Below: ‘How do the largest community of British expats living in Spain feel about Brexit?’ Does The Guardian really, seriously, believe that the San Miguel Bowls Club on the Orihuela coast in Alicante is the largest community of British expats living in Spain?

The video starts off by stating there are approximately 900,000 British citizens living in the EU, with a third of them living in Spain. An ‘expat’ at the San Miguel Bowls Club is then asked to explain the difference between an ‘expat’ and a ‘foreigner’. ‘First of all, expats are British,’ he says, ‘and a foreigner is probably someone living from another country in Britain. They become foreigners. The British are never foreigners, wherever they go.’ He grins and laughs whilst saying all this, but he seems very serious. It is quite worrying, and it gets worse.

This lazy, shabby, almost cynical ‘video journalism’ from The Guardian tries to investigate how ‘the largest community of British expats living in Spain’ feel about their rights to healthcare, pensions and their British citizenship, which are all ‘hanging in the balance’ with Brexit. Where these expats live is ‘effectively a British enclave’ and ‘effectively a Little Britain’ – ‘they have British TV, British newspapers, British shops, British bars’. The expert-expat who can perfectly distinguish himself from a ‘foreigner’ goes on to say that where they live is in ‘posh ghettos’, and that they hardly speak to any Spaniards, and that many there ‘can’t leave the coast, because once they leave the coast, they can’t use English, and they can’t speak Spanish, so they are confined to the coast.’

The whole thing is hideous, and it is accompanied by soft Gypsy King-style background music … it is embarrassing, it is cringing. The worst bit, however, is when a red-faced beer-gut expat lounging around at the sun-drenched San Miguel Bowls Club says, ‘I voted for Brexit because I thought it was right for the country. What the UK needs is control of its own borders, its own land.’ When asked if he’ll move back to the UK, he laughs and points at the sun, saying, ‘No, I can’t take this with me!’ Well, I’m still trying to recover and come to terms with this part of the video. I feel traumatised. I can’t make sense of it at all. It baffles me.

Anyway … I’m not saying these pockets of ‘enclave’ expat communities don’t exist in Spain. They clearly do – and I’m sure they exist in France, Italy and Greece, too. But a newspaper like The Guardian could have at least come up with a more balanced video-documentary of ‘expats’ in Spain … surely? Surely? In fact I’d like to insist that they do.

I realise that the popular media only feel they’re covering Spain if they can also show a stereotypical backdrop of the beach, the sea and the sun, preferably with some paella, flamenco, ‘fiestas and siestas’ all thrown in. They see Spain as the ‘costas’, the south of Spain; they want to show expats in Andalusia or Murcia, and not in cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao or Valencia. But, hey, you Guardian video-‘journalists’, do some bloody research, at least.

If you need to be in Andalusia, then why not take your cameras along to somewhere like Marbella Rugby Club for the weekend, and see how ‘expats’ and ‘foreigners’ have integrated perfectly with the native Spanish down there for nearly 30 years, and in fact with the entire Federación Andaluza de Rugby (which means the Rugby Federation of Andalusia, for the benefit of members of the San Miguel Bowls Club).

Or take your cameras to film some of the ‘expats’ who have set up many excellent cooking schools or culinary tours and businesses in Andalusia, immersing themselves entirely in the local language and culture (as well as the region’s delicious ingredients, wine and sherry), all the time employing locals, collaborating with locals, living and working with locals. Go to Sotogrande, to Seville, to Granada, to Cádiz – see how the ‘expats’ and ‘foreigners’ have integrated there, setting up Spanish businesses, working with Spaniards, and even (God forbid) learning Spanish. I can point you Guardian video-journalists to film and interview Andalusian-based ‘expats’ working in the media, in PR, in advertising, in photography, in property, in finance, in law firms, even in the business of international polo, and I know they could all talk about healthcare, pensions, and ‘citizenship’, in perfect English and fluent Spanish. Or, hey, come to Madrid or even (dare I say ‘better still’), Barcelona …

You know, I’m not even sure about the word ‘expat’, which is why I keep putting it in ‘inverted commas’ (but I’ll stop now). I don’t know if we are really expats, foreigners or immigrants (and some of us, me included, often travel backwards and forwards to the UK, thanks to the low-cost routes). I personally like to simply refer to myself as a ‘guiri’.

Some of us expat-foreigner-immigrant-guiris I even like to label as ‘F-I-L-T-S’. I believe I invented the term – it was for an article I once wanted to write for a UK glossy magazine (but I won’t now, obviously). It’s not even that original – there was a term used for expats once called ‘F-I-L-T-H’s – which meant, ‘Failed in London, Tried Hong Kong’. I thought I’d identified a new species called ‘F-I-L-T-S’ … ‘Failed in London, Tried Spain’. Most of them were (or are) chinless, crushing bores – and for some bizarre reason they always seem to target me at parties, as if they know I will be sympathetic and listen to them. Some of them are even FILTHs who have become FILTS. They’ve Failed in London, Tried Hong Kong, but then Failed in Hong Kong and so finally Tried Spain. Good for them, but you know the sort (yah?).

Anyway, where was I … yes, Barcelona. The place to be.

Come here, you Guardian video-journalists, you. Come here. Come to Barcelona, come to Catalonia … we’ve even got a ‘costa’ here, as well, so you can also get some shots of the beach and sand (and calçots).

Here, I can introduce you to expat-foreigner-immigrant-guiri-FILTS who’ve not only integrated into the Spanish culture, but the Catalan culture, too. A lot of them could talk to you for hours about healthcare, pensions and citizenship, in perfect English, fluent Spanish, and some Catalan. I can introduce you to people who have moved here to work in the media, launch magazines and newspapers, start radio stations, work in graphic design or advertising – actors, comedians, musicians, DJs, film directors, casting agents – entrepreneurs who’ve organised comedy festivals, music festivals, short film festivals, or set up dance schools and performing arts colleges – health and therapy professionals who’ve set up dentistry practices, or yoga, pilates and mindfulness classes – pilots, lawyers, journalists, career-CEOs, cruise and travel reps, international trade executives, foreign office staff and diplomats – professional sports coaches, start-up venture capitalists, economists – people who’ve renovated old masias and created new businesses for events and weddings – builders, drivers, hairdressers, photographers, teachers, web designers, models, bar staff, charity workers … the list goes on and on and on …

Every single one of them has integrated, works or collaborates with Spanish and Catalan businesses, or employs Spanish or Catalan staff, and pays taxes, or sends their kids to local schools. These are the people creating jobs, culture and trade. Please do some research before you publish or illustrate any more expat articles with boozy-sunburnt Union Jack images. Talk to the British and Spanish Chambers of Commerce, the UKTi in Spain, the British Consuls or Embassy. Talk to the ‘Bremain in Spain’ group. Talk to the Anglo-Catalan Society, the British-Spanish Society … in fact talk to anyone other than the members of the San Miguel Bowls Club on the Orihuela coast in Alicante. Por favor.