Reports From The Road, Travel

Report from Spain #11

December 17, 2012

It was a mild, rainy November in Marbella. The rainiest since 1989. The rains came hard and fast, like in the tropics. On those rainy days I had the seafront promenade to myself for my morning walks.

On sunny mornings it was a different story. A regular cast of characters were out early (8:00 A.M. is early by southern Spain standards). Every morning I walked by the little girl with thick glasses and a flower headband sitting at a small table outside her father’s cafe eating her morning croissant with a knife and fork; next door at The Parrot restaurant the burly British man worked tirelessly setting up tables and chairs; workmen swept and power washed the promenade, painted the railings, trimmed the palm trees, replaced broken tiles; policemen rode by on their white horses or motorcycles. At the Cafe Cappuccino the smell of fresh coffee and baking bread mingled with the salt air and night blooming jasmine. By this point on my walk I usually overtook the two elderly sisters who shuffled in step with each other, arm in arm, wearing matching cardigans, shoes and skirts (no matter what the weather).

As the sun warmed the morning the promenade got crowded with runners, bikers, dog walkers and baby pushers. The beach had eroded from the heavy rains. Most of the grass umbrellas and white plastic sun chairs were put away for the winter. The town and the promenade were left to the locals once again.

On clear days I can see the Rif Mountains in North Africa, where the Pillars of Hercules guard the Strait of Gibraltar; the Rock of Gibraltar (in the British territory of Gibraltar) on the European side and the mountain Jebel Musa in Morocco, Africa. According to Greek mythology the pillars were part of one mountain range until Hercules tore them apart instead of climbing the mountain. The opening connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and was considered the western edge of the world. Plato believed the lost realm of Atlantis lay beyond the opening and the pillars warned Non plus ultra – “nothing further beyond” – telling sailors and navigators not to go further.

The Strait of Gibraltar is nine miles wide at its narrowest point. The area is one of the main smuggling routes for illegal immigrants. Boatloads of Africans attempt to cross the treacherous waters of the Strait in rickety boats. Just recently ten immigrants made the crossing in a plastic blow up dinghy. They made it, but hundreds die each year trying to reach their dream of a better life in Europe.

In recent years Spain, backed by the European Union, has increased its border security. The Guardia Civil, Spain’s federal police force, patrol the Strait twenty-four hours a day. Ferries cross between the two continents in thirty-five minutes but agents keep a close eye on cars and trucks coming in. Surveillance cameras and radar systems also scan the coastline. Because of the extra security the flow of illegal immigrants into Spain has decreased by 80% from its peak during 2005-2007 when tens of thousands of illegal immigrants crossed the Strait. They have now turned east and try to get into Europe through Greece instead.

The economic news in Spain keeps getting worse. Many people across the country continue to work without a paycheck for companies who cannot afford to pay them (including, I’ve heard, the city workers in Marbella). They’re afraid to complain and lose their job. More elderly people are having their children and grandchildren move into their small homes and are supporting three generations on their pensions alone (the average pension is 950 euros a month). Because of austerity measures pensions for five million retirees have been frozen as of last year and won’t be adjusted for inflation. Some desperate families are moving their relatives from nursing homes, sometimes against their will, because the state provides a monthly stipend of a few hundred euros to take care of an elderly spouse or parents at home.

There is no welfare system in Spain for the long term unemployed. With increases in taxes, wage cuts, record high unemployment, and a reduction of unemployment benefits the already depressed economy is falling further.

In the U.S. when a bank forecloses on a property the owner is freed from the outstanding mortgage. Not so in Spain where the mortgage laws are in the banking industry’s favor. The borrower cannot return the property to the lender to settle his debt. He loses the property and still owes the bank the full purchase price until it’s paid off. The debt follows them forever.

After a number of suicides directly related to evictions and wide spread protests from people who feel the government is too soft on the banking industry, Spain has put a two year hold on evictions for the most financially vulnerable; the elderly, families with three children (but not one or two children), families with a monthly income below 1,600 euros, people with disabilities, jobless people who are not eligible to claim unemployment benefits and domestic violence victims.

There’s one big catch to this plan. During the two year hold on evictions the penalty interest rates will keep running, up to 30% with some loans.

Some people who have been thrown out of their homes by the banks for lack of payment have become squatters in bank owned properties that have been left vacant by other families who defaulted on their mortgage. The banks have become “ghost owners” on thousands of properties, but many do not pay the homeowner’s associations for their share of the building upkeep. It’s estimated they owe between 75 to 150 million euros to apartment blocks across Spain.

At the same time the government just passed new regulations to speed up the eviction process of defaulting tenants. This seems like a very Spanish move to me, the push and pull of the government stops any real change to the system and the banks are the only winners – the same banks who are being bailed out with taxpayer’s money.

We’ve left Marbella for Tucson, Arizona where we’ll be for the next three months. Not to follow the sun, but to help my eighty-nine year old mother. We’ll return to Marbella in March.

News of the World

BBC bosses told Professor Brian Cox that he could not listen to a newly discovered planet on the TV show Stargazing live in case aliens breached the corporations editorial guidelines.

Brussels Belgium – Alfred David, 78, has an obsession with penguins. So much so for the last 43 years since a car accident he has walked with a waddle, and has been given the nickname ‘Mr Penguin.’ Dressed as a penguin he walks the streets of Brussels collecting memorabilia from people who pass by and greet him with cuddly toys.

When he decided to change his name to Alfred Penguin his wife left him.

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