Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

The Thief of Time

You've no idea how long I put off writing this blog-post!
 
 
I remember the occasion that I learned the meaning of the word procrastination. It was 1974 and I was in my first computer class. Our teacher, a dear man called Stan Smith, who in a previous profession had been a scientist at Jodrell Bank, had taught us about loops and set us an exercise - to write a program that printed a phrase 10 times. That phrase was "Procrastination is the Thief of Time". Why he broke with the traditional convention in computer programming of having us print "Hello World" is a mystery to me, but for whatever reason I'd learned a new word.
 
verb [ I ]
uk/prəˈkræs.tɪ.neɪt/ us/proʊˈkræs.tə.neɪt/
to keep delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring
 
Perhaps he was being ironic because computers, machines, electronics and robots simply don't procrastinate. As John Conor said in the 1984 movie Terminator, "..when Skynet went live it decided our fate in a microsecond".
 
Humans do procrastinate and me more than most. I don't think I'm alone in this but I'll watch a movie rather than do something arduous like clean the bathroom, but then when I'm watching the movie I'll pause it at a dull moment to go and check Facebook before resuming the movie. In programming terms I'm a recursive procrastinator.
 
I've never found myself able to stop procrastination altogether, so over the years I've developed techniques for working around it. I split my tasks up so that I give myself divided targets, chunking a big job into several smaller ones, then give myself a foreseen ration of more interesting things to entertain myself with as procrastination treats.
 
As we identify procrastination with the evils of modern life like TV, Video Games, Social Media and worst of all, YouTube, one could be forgiven for thinking procrastination was a recent phenomena. Not a bit of it. The Stoic philosophers were writing about how to combat procrastination 2000 years ago. Seneca wrote (In 'On the Shortness of Life' https://archive.org/stream/SenecaOnTheShortnessOfLife/Seneca+on+the+Shortness+of+Life_djvu.txt )
 
It's not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it's been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it's spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn't notice passing has passed away. 
 
Seneca offered many insights into dealing with procrastination. He advocated structure and planning, anticipating work to be done and analysing it for the pitfalls that await to distract and divert one's attention. Many of the suggestions of Seneca and the other stoics distilled into the writing of Tim Ferris in his famous book 'The Four Hour Work Week', for example in the recommendation that one only checks email once per day. Ferris talks much of the stoics in his works and it amazes me how relevant their insights are when applied to modern life.

It's a shame then, especially with PM Johnson being a classics scholar, that the US/UK governments have not observed the lessons of the stoics. The pandemic crisis of COVID-19 engulfing the world as I write has been met by successive countries, not with decisive action but with procrastination. In fact the World Health Organisation procrastinated in declaring Coronavirus a pandemic. There were over 100,000 cases in all continents save Antarctica before the WHO yielded to the admission. Prior to this it was calling it an epidemic. The distinction may seem a small one but it is quite important. An epidemic can in theory be contained. A country can close its borders and maybe receive aid and medical assistance from outside its borders. A pandemic is confirmation that the whole world is an infected area. Closing borders no longer is an effective way to contain the spread of the disease so that each country has to take responsibility for containing its contagion domestically. It is a starting gun for governments to act.

When the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March it then became up to national governments to take effective action to battle the disease. Spain acted quite swiftly bringing in a total lock-down last weekend. Meanwhile Britain and America are still procrastinating. America has brought in local lock-downs in cities where the infections have been seen. Britain's government have advised people to stay at home but delayed 10 days before taking the decision to close pubs, restaurants and gyms. Most shops remain open and people still have freedom to leave their homes, unlike Spain. It's easy to understand why, they didn't want to cause an unnecessary panic and the economic cost of shutting down businesses will be severe. However the message from Seneca is the relationship between short-term pain and long term gain. The longer Britain and America stave off the decision to bring in a complete lock-down, the larger will be the strain on the health services, the more people will die and the greater will be the socio-economic impact. The thief of time will become the thief of life.

I won't bloat this post with more detailed description of the failings of the UK and US governments in their handling of the crisis but here are some links to stories documenting the issue.

Why I came to Spain

What am I doing here - well people do ask sometimes!
First Year in Spain 2003
 
Python sketch comes to mind - Shopkeeper "Why are you here?" Customer "Why are any of us here, its all so meaningless really..."
 
This might go back a bit further than you imagined. Europe was a mystery to me that revealed itself slowly over many years.
 
I cherished home a little too much as a kid. I grew up in a working class cottage with dad the janitor, mum the cleaner, grandad the ex-sailor/bricklayer and sister the audio-typist. I didn't know anyone 'foreign' or anyone who had been abroad. The world came to London to play us at footy in 1966 and we of course won. I had a 'World Cup Willie' in my Christmas stocking that year. Everything seemed cosy and local! 
 
Then something weird happened. One of my sisters moved further away due to her husband getting a better job. I'd never countenanced the idea of moving for such an unimportant thing as work before - what on earth were they thinking of? Looking back on it I had an insular mindset, but that was about to change. It turned out the cottage we lived in was tied to my father's job, and when he retired in 1973, we had to find another place to live. 
 
By this time I'd become dimly aware of the existence of Europe, primarily through TV There was the Eurovision Song Contest, It's a Knockout and European football, all of which I now know were designed specifically to create the awareness I was experiencing. Also my sister's husband's career was taking him all over Europe and we would get strange phone calls of the type "I'm pulling my hair out here - I've got three Hungarian executives coming around for dinner and I don't have a recipe for goulash!" My horizons were slowly broadening.
 
Our neighbours in the new house were a nice old couple with two bright young sons, Tommy and David. The boys were both toolmakers which was a much sought-after skill in the early 1970's. Due to Labour's 84% tax rate they both decided to leave Britain. David emigrated to America but Tommy went to live in Alicante in Spain. This fascinated me beyond measure. I couldn't believe this guy was going to relocate to a country the spoke a different language. This was really the start of a new mindset for me where I looked at the concept of international mobility and the pros and cons of living in Britain and living abroad. The subject haunted me thorough-out my adolescence. It seemed difficult to relocate abroad for work but the notion of retiring abroad was something I'd already considered was going to happen, even though I'd not been overseas myself yet.
 
On one occasion I remember sitting in a very dull A-level physics lesson and a thought struck me. Given current interest rates, how much capital would I need to acquire in order to live off the interest rate if I went to live in an inexpensive Mediterranean country? I did the sums and worked out I'd need about £100k. Though that was a chunk of money back then in the late 1970's it was achievable. Much of the next decade would see me revisiting this figure, adjusting it for various expenses as my naivety about the true cost of living was replaced with experience, as soon after, I started work.
 
One of my early jobs was a summer spent with the Department of Employment as it then was. I was a temporary administrative officer in the local unemployment benefit office and as such I had to attend a week of training. Part of the course covered the reciprocal rights that existed for workers in Britain and the EU. There were many of these but the one that lept out at me was that as an unemployed Brit, it was my right to sign on as unemployed and receive unemployment benefit was respected by the EU. I remember asking the tutor in disbelief, "So that means I could go to say, Italy for a month looking for work and sign on over there". Yes was the reply. From then on I really started to pay attention to this EU business. This sounded great!
 
However I didn't actually set foot in an EU country until 1985 when I went on holiday to Lanzarote. Then I was smitten. It wasn't just the weather, though that was pretty good. It was the smells, the taste, the vibrancy of the colours - everything seemed better than blighty. I later learned the vibrancy of the colour in sunny climbs is not one's imagination but a fact due to colour being a function of the quality of light, a fact noted by Leonardo Da Vinci many centuries ago. [Quote from the notebooks of Leonardo https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Notebooks_of_Leonardo_Da_Vinci/V]
 
Since we see that the quality of colour is known [only] by means of light, it is to be supposed that where there is most light the true character of a colour in light will be best seen; and where there is most shadow the colour will be affected by the tone of that. Hence, O Painter! remember to show the true quality of colours in bright lights.
 
I had many subsequent holidays to Greece, Cyprus etc, and while my wife was busy working on her tan, I'd be looking at the price of property and the work opportunities for possible emigration. The problem always came down to income as I didn't have any easily translatable skill at the time that I could use to find work abroad. 
 
Then in around 1989 I changed jobs and started working IT. At first I was trained as a small-systems developer but after a few short years I found myself working in the latest 'big thing', the Internet.
 
While still working in government I started working at home as long ago as the early 1990s. I was running a Unix computer network at the time and there were certain jobs that had to be done while everyone was offline. I'd previously been doing these on the weekend earning a bit of overtime, but I hated the commute - there were less trains than during the week and more likelihood of meeting a group of drunk footy fans on the way to a game. So I had a word with my boss and pointed out that if I he let me dial in remotely to do these jobs from home, I'd only charge him for the hours I was on-line and not for any travel time. He agreed and over the next couple of years I became a part-time teleworker. 
 
During the decade of the 90's the Internet became vastly more important with the development of the web. I voluntarily retired from government, setting myself up as an Internet consultant, which eventually led to me co-founding a web design agency called Datadial Ltd which is still running today. 
 
Towards the end of the decade, on another holiday in Lanzarote I met a chap who caused me to rethink my plan to retire abroad. He was a Brit who retired to the island on a police pension. We had a conversation about the Spanish language.  He had been there a number of years and could hold a conversation in Spanish well enough to identify the accents folk had from different towns in the island. He impressed two things upon me.  Immersion was essential and each decade that goes by it gets exponentially harder to learn Spanish. So the notion that one would wait until retiring at 65, coming to Spain to live and starting to learn the language was a fantasy. I've since found that to be true. Clearly the longer I waited the harder it would be. Curiously I went back to the UK, started to learn Spanish, but unlike previous occasions where I'd read a book for a week then put it down out of boredom - I kept the learning up month after month. I'd clearly made a decision that this was going to happen.
 
I was not very happy working in the company I'd started. My business partner and I had various differences of opinion as to how things should be done. Also the notion that the longer I waited, the harder it would be to learn Spanish was niggling away at the back of my mind. Finally in 2003 I hit upon a solution. I was working at home a lot of the time anyway since my role as technical director meant a lot of time was spent in software development.  I decide to let my business partner effectively take over the reigns of the company while I relocated to Spain. I would keep working part time on a reduced salary. Once agreed the move became very simple. I sold my house and within three months I'd moved to Spain. I was living the dream.
 
Incidentally I'd been battling away learning Spanish for nearly four years at this point. I wasn't very good. 17 years later I'm still not very good, so I hate to think how bad my Spanish would be if I'd waited any longer. Much to my chagrin, my wife, who had been brought up in a Polish speaking household and excelled at French and German at school didn't do any preparation before moving to Spain but was fluent after about three months of getting off the plane!
 
A lot has happened since I moved here. I've gone through two long term relationships, lost a house due to the financial crash and been through lots of jobs. I've worked as a software developer, translator, estate agent, labourer and a busker! Today I'm clinging on by my finger-tips, hoping the exchange rate doesn't do any more harm to the tiny income I get from the UK. Like many Brits here, I really didn't believe Brexit would happen, but now it has, I'm so glad I made the decision to come to Spain when I did. Hopefully I will retain the rights conferred on me from the EU by virtue of being a Spanish resident next January which is much more preferrable than if I were living in the UK and about to have those rights stripped from me. The one thing that sticks out as a problem for us expats is Freedom of Movement. It looks as though we're stuck in our chosen country of residence because we're British passport holders. After January 2021, unless a deal emerges to the contrary, I couldn't go to say, Germany and apply for a job as easily as I could pre-Brexit, which is something I had considered as I see a lot of adverts for jobs in Germany with my IT skills.
 
My battle with the language continues. In another blog post I'll explain some of the issues that make the language in Southern Spain so difficult (possible title - The Gargoyle People - that should get you thinking!)

Spanish Bureaucracy

Often cited as the least favorite thing about life as an ex-pat, bureaucracy is the bête noire of living in Spain
 
A viral video appeared on social media video a while back that took a humorous look at the nature of administration in Spanish offices.
 

 
All the issues in the video, the plethora of documents, the need for copies, the importance and finality of the rubber stamp, will be familiar to those of us who live here and bear the scars of many battles in the offices of local and central government, utilities and even many commercial organisations such as car-hire companies (which can be one of the worst IMHO).
 
An illustration of the frustrations associated with Spanish administration is my recent attempt to pay a water bill. How hard can it be? A lady knocked on my door and presented me with a 'notificación providencia de apremio' an urgent notification. This is a registered document which I had to sign for. Sent by the office that collects money on behalf of the water board, it contained advice of an outstanding bill. I've been in the process of trying to get the bill in my name and the money taken from my bank account for some years, but that's another story! Anyway, the notification doubles as a bill and contains a bar-code with which I can go to the ATMs of most Spanish banks to make the payment in cash. I was just off to the shops and since the bank was on the way I decided to strike while the iron was hot.
 
I went to the cash-point, scanned in the code and was greeted with the message 'The payment date of the bill has expired'. I laughed out loud. This was less than 15 minutes after I'd signed to say I had received the damn thing!! So the next day I had to visit the office to get another document. I took this one to the bank, scanned it into the machine and got another message saying 'Sorry but I cannot issue you with a receipt at the moment'. The message disappeared after a few seconds and returned to the previous screen inviting me to scan the document in. I was clearly in a loop as there was no option to escape by paying the bill without a receipt. Mired by thoughts of impending doom I entered the branch and joined the queue. After a quarter of an hour I reached the teller and explained I wanted to pay the bill but the machine wouldn't let me. 
 
"I can't pay it here for you, you must use the machine" the lady replied.
 
From previous visits I'm familiar with her lust for automation which I presume she sees as work avoided for her.
 
"I've just tried, it doesn't work" I said, trying my best to appear genuine and pathetic at the same time, in the hope that she might take pity on me and actually choose to help instead of scowl at me which had been her posture so far.
 
"OK I try" she said and frog-marched me outside to the machine. She stood over me while I repeated the same steps I had previously taken and unsurprisingly achieved the same result. 
 
"The machine is not working. You will have to use another bank." she said and returned to her lair. So I trudged off in search of another bank. First world problems I know but kill me now!
 
It's worth noting that this bar-code malarkey is relatively new. In the past one had to take such bills into the bank in person. Since the 2008 crash all the banks seem to have introduced measures to restrict the days and hours during which cash payments can be made, so one would, for example, have to wait until the next Thursday and join a long queue between the hours of 8:30 to 10:30 and deal with the teller face-to-face. It was a grim affair. 
 
I recall an incident regarding this in Murcia a few years ago. Cutting a very long story short, I'd found a renter for a property that was just about to get its electricity cut off. He gave me a wedge of cash as a deposit, so I went to see the electricity people and got a chit to take to the bank to clear the outstanding bill. I took it to the Santander bank but the gentleman refused to take the payment because it was on the wrong day. I should point out the bank was empty except for he and me. I asked to see the manager. He said he was the manager! I remonstrated with him for a good ten minutes, pointing out the imminent demise of the leccie supply but he remained smugly resolute - he didn't want my money!! It was nearly closing time and, realizing that I was achieving nothing (other than entertaining this chap's fantasy of how he would treat people were he a guard in a Nazi concentration camp), I decided it was prudent to leave in search of another bank. Fortunately a nearby branch of La Caixa was more accommodating. I understand why banks have these rules to streamline transaction activities in order to reduce costs etc but Jesus wept, whatever happened to 'the customer is always right?'
 
Incidentally there appears something institutionally evil about Santander. A friend of mine visited the local branch with his elderly incontinent mother a while ago. She was 'took short' and asked if she could use the staff toilet. They refused. Her son pleaded but to no avail, so they had to forego their place in the queue so she could be taken elsewhere for a pee. The branch closed down some months after. Karma is believed to be the cause.
 
Another incident of bureaucratic madness got my gander up recently. Very kindly and proactively, the department of health in Andalusia sent me a letter offering me the opportunity to volunteer to take part in a regional colon cancer screening programme. I was thrilled to be included and immediately returned the letter signifying my agreement to be so. Soon after, I received a screening kit through the post. One is instructed how to take the sample (not a great deal of fun) and to return it to the local medical centre, recommending a Monday or Thursday. This I did. The medical centre lady quizzed me when I brought it in to make sure the sample was fresh - apparently it only lasts a day even when refrigerated.
 
Some weeks passed and I was sent another kit and a letter saying something had gone wrong with the previous specimen. So once again I waited until Wednesday evening, did my sample, popped it into the fridge and brought it to the medical centre the following morning, as again the accompanying letter said to return the sample Monday or Thursday. This time there was a huge group of people queued outside, but I caught the lady's eye in the hope of dropping my bag of shit and making a run for it.
 
"Can I leave this with you" I said,
 
"No" she said, and officiously tapped her Bic on a paper notice that had been sticky-taped to the door,
 
"Colon sample deposits Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday 8:30 to 9:30" she said.
 
"You won't take it?" I pleaded. Then another woman in a white coat chimed in.
 
"Tell him to come back in the morning..."
 
Her colleague pointed out tomorrow was Friday so I wouldn't be able to come until Monday, by which time the sample would have expired. The other lady said it looked as though I would need another kit. Both health workers lost interest in me and drifted back to their business without really giving me a satisfactory answer as to what I should do.
 
Then an old lady in the queue took to scolding me, wagging her finger and reminding me it was 'Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday only - 8:30 to 9:30', as though this was blindingly obvious to all, however half-witted, not least the old hags like her who have nothing else to do all day save occupy queues at the local medical centre. I reveled briefly in the contemplation that due to her advanced years, the blight of her visitation on humanity would soon be at an end. Then I took my leave. 
 
It's hard to nail a common theme in such anecdotes, though I submit that while the Spanish are normally the most lovely, kind, helpful humanitarians one can imagine, put them behind a desk (or a steering wheel, or handle of a Zimmer frame) and it's as though they have taken a large swig of Dr Jekyll's potion. Fronting such people with the straight-jacket of computer systems magnifies their power creating an edifice that at times seems completely unscalable. A friend recently remarked on how impenetrable Spanish Government websites are to human navigation. He's not wrong. A week of exploration has gone by and I'm still trying to figure out how to get my hands on another colon cancer testing kit!
 
 
 
 
 

Fruit picking, a personal perspective.

Thoughts on fruit picking of an ex-pat whose ancestors were agricultural labourers for three centuries.
Fruit picking, a personal perspective.

One of the consequences of Brexit often visited by the media is the future of fruit and vegetable harvesting. The reporting comes in two stripes. The anti-Brexit media report the downsides of course. In a nutshell the 'hostile environment' created by the Tories towards foreigners and Brexit uncertainty has deterred immigrants from EU countries filling the seasonal vacancies in the industry. There are many reports of fruit rotting on the ground and farmers fearing they will be driven out of business completely or forced to relocate abroad. Then there is the Brexit positive media who claim this is all scaremongering. They report on the job opportunities for picking fruit in Britain soaring e.g. "£700 per week job boom" says 'The Sun'. Another common theme in the pro-Brexit media are reports about the development of fruit and veg picking robots, so clearly there is a fall-back in case Britain's youth don't care to relocate to a field in East Anglia to pick strawberries in July.

I've never picked fruit commercially myself. Well I owned a small-holding in Spain for a couple of years but apart from trading several tree-loads of olives to the local co-operative in exchange for virgin oil, I never sold anything, nor was I paid.
 
However that wasn't the norm for my ancestors. A friend of mine who is a whiz at these things came to stay for a few weeks and her parting gift was a family tree going back to 1740. For generation after generation my forebears were agricultural labourers.
 
I knew my grandfather was a farm labourer but not that the entire stock of my family were so as well, male and female. All lived and worked in the same village, Froxfield Hants for centuries. Grandfather Alfred though was a little different. He moved where the work was, over some considerable distance.
 
My father Edmund was born in Tolworth, Surrey in 1908. He told me he didn't see his father very often when growing up. Alfred did seasonal work which meant he was away for much of the year. One month he would be hop-picking in Kent, another harvesting turnips in Suffolk and so forth. Money was good when Alfred came back and my father and his seven brothers and sisters ate well. However one year, Alfred did not return. This was before the welfare state remember, there were no benefits to take care of single mothers with eight children, so the siblings who could work did, while my father and his younger brother George were found a place in Bizley Farm School, a charitable institution for borders, where the children would tend crops, manufacture wickerwork baskets, produce honey, cheese and so forth all of which was sold to pay for their farm education. 
 
Dad also picked fruit but he did so to survive. In good old Dickensian manner, the children at the school were largely fed on bowls of gruel, apart from Easter when they were treated to a boiled egg. My father and his friends therefore foraged in the countryside scrumping whatever fruit and veg they could find. They would trap birds, game, pigeons etc. A particular favourite was a hedgehog rolled in mud and cooked on a bonfire. It is a sobering thought that this is not a fairy tale from long ago - this is the real story of my father and these events took place less than a century ago.
 
Anyway, I didn't think too much about picking fruit again until in 2003 when my wife and I moved to Spain. We bought a country house in a small inland village in the north west of Murcia which is very much an agricultural economy. We became friendly with many of the local farmers and after a time, a picture of the black economy emerged. Fruit picking is obviously an activity where time is of the essence. As a crop is about to ripen, people have to be there in numbers not required throughout the rest of the year. In a somewhat 'backward' area of Spain at this time (by which I mean few people had email), there was an unspoken seasonal tradition. Come say, June, the apricots would ripen. A convoy of battered cars would arrive full of itinerant fruit pickers as if out of nowhere. At six in the morning the 'workforce' would gather at a point on the edge of town, and farmers would haggle to get the amount of workers they need at the lowest price. These people were working in black money so they would invariably earn below minimum wage, perhaps two to three euros per hour. After a twelve hour day in the blazing sun the workers would return to their cars, which were normally parked near the river where they could bathe and wash their clothes. This is tough work too. An Ecuadorian woman of my acquaintance appeared one day with her hand in a sling. When I enquired she said she had slipped from a tree and sliced off her little finger. She shrugged and said live goes on, explaining she needed return to work quickly to continue sending money back to her family.
 
As far as I could gather, the itinerant labourers in Spain have a similar lot to my grandfather. They move about, not just in Spain but in other EU countries, providing work where it is needed, often (mostly as far as I could see) in black money. There seemed to be a mix of Moroccans, Bulgarians and South Americans, all of whom had the common thread of being so far down the food chain they never get out of the black money trap.
 
However I have since seen another class of migrant workers in Spain with much better terms and conditions. Indigenous Spanish who are already in the system get much better 'gigs'. I knew a builder, a very industrious chap called 'ni' (short for Antonio) who would go to Switzerland each summer picking grapes, for which he got good money, stamp paid for etc. I understand that the building trade is quiet in Spain during the summer months so this is a popular way for workers who would otherwise be picking up unemployment to get some good money in. Now the Spanish unemployment money is not bad anyway so for this to be the case I reckon the Swiss money must be pretty good. I've heard of similar schemes where town halls in Spain organize groups of people to go fruit picking in France and Italy, again on legal money that is high enough to make it worthwhile. One woman told me she will be doing three months at 3000 euros per month and she will be taking most of that home. 
 
What these subjective, personal and somewhat random observations suggest to me is the future of the farming of fruit and vegetables in Britain is this. With Britain leaving the EU I see it as unlikely that the lot of fruit-pickers in Britain will get any better. On the 19 December 2019 the Johnson government published a revised version of the EU withdrawal agreement which no longer contains clauses on the protection of EU-derived workers’ rights. Robots aside (fruit picking robots are a long way from being viable), a demand for fruit pickers (which has apparently gone from four fruit pickers to each job to four jobs for each fruit-picker) will inevitably drive up wages, so I doubt the British supermarkets will accept the corresponding increase in the price of produce required by farmers for their operations to remain profitable. There are therefore two ways this could go. Either the government will takes steps to make the environment for the unemployed so unpleasant that they will be induced to chase low paid agricultural work to avoid starvation as my ancestors did, or alternative suppliers to British farms will fill the void on the supermarket shelves. The countries that may gain the most out of the latter are non-EU countries with low labour costs that are not the other side of the world and have climates that suit agricultural production. The British government has already had preliminary talks with several North African countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and these may well be smart places for investment in a post-Brexit economy.