Andalucia Steve the dream

Work. What is it Good For?

(Apart from the money)
A work colleague from long, long ago recently got in touch to wish me a happy birthday. I don't want to blow smoke up his arse but if I drew up a list of people I'd met in my life blessed with both high mental agility and being a good hang, he would be top percentile. In our email exchange, we both waxed sentimental over the team of extraordinary people we used to work with all those years ago.
This got me thinking. I've had quite a varied and somewhat chequered career in public and private companies of various sizes in various countries, or indeed online, with no particular country at all. The thing that struck me is that one doesn't remember the money. It's always the people, their interactions and incidents that stick in one's mind, which in some ways a better indicator of what makes a particular period of one's career good or not.
I hardly remember my first job at all. It was really just the first thing that came along and I was all but bullied into it by the sour-faced woman in the job centre. It was in a factory that manufactured 'architectural metal' which is unbelievably dull. I was appointed as the 'works clerk'. I soon found out I was really just a go-between, relaying the dictates of management in the office to the workers on the shop floor, then batting back their discontent to the boss. It was an extraordinarily dry, uninspiring job and I lasted about five weeks. The only memory of any richness that stays with me was a prank played on the first of April. There was a young labourer working there who clearly wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. He used to cycle to work and always brought his bike inside the factory and parked it in a particular place. The prank was simply that his colleagues hid his bike. The poor guy went to jump on his steed to cycle home for lunch but it wasn't there. He started ranting, running around asking if anyone had seen his bike. Looking on as an outsider, it seemed mildly amusing but all his work-mates were creasing up in fits of hysteria. Eventually I had to ask someone what was so funny. A chap told me "We did exactly the same thing last year. Daft bastard still hasn't twigged it's April the first!" 
Humour is a great thing to have in a team, as it binds people together. There was plenty of "esprit de corp" in my next position that arose as a variety of gallows humour. I snagged a three month summer job working in what used to be known as the local 'dole' office, where folk would come to sign the famous 'UB40' form to declare themselves out of work and therefore eligible to receive benefits. In actual fact, the UB40 was only one a several types of form used for people that depended on the type of their employment. For example, actors who were in and out of work all the time, had a yellow form and were known as casuals, but I digress. Anyway, there was never a dull moment in the dole office. With several hundred members of the public coming in every day we saw all walks of life from Royalty (we had a Baron signing on) to tramps. These were the days before security screens. It wasn't unusual to be verbally abused, spat it and occasionally, violence occurred. One guy who was refused benefit showed his displeasure by returning to the office with a bag full of refuse which he emptied out all over the floor. On one occasion my supervisor was in an interview with a claimant who slit his wrists and sprayed blood all over her. There was clearly then an 'us and them' dynamic between the public and the staff. It was curious to feel this social pressure from outside the team, strengthen the ties between the people within it. Very soon I was bonding with my work-mates, playing in their five-a-side team, going out boozing and swapping stories about the events of the day of which there were many. This must be a phenomenon that happens in other walks of life like the police, fire service etc. I was only there for the summer but when I left, I felt curiously closer to these people than most of the kids I'd been at school with over the past seven years. 
I had several jobs in the Civil Service. Once you get in it's hard to leave! I was in the Ordnance Survey for a while. If I had to rate all my work experiences, excluding the contribution of people, this was probably the most enjoyable because of the travel. I was part of a small unit with a surveyor and two labourers and each day we would pitch up at eight in the morning to get the day's assignment. It was a bit like Mission Impossible! We never knew where we would be going until we jumped in the van and hit the road. We were limited only by the geographical bounds of our area, SE8H, which covered a big chunk West of London, kind of a square from Slough to Wembley, down to Dorking and Guildford. I found getting out and about everyday enormously enjoyable, as was the unpredictability.  I never knew if I would be clambering up scaffolding on a new build block of flats or measuring the distance between street furniture that was the scene of a recent traffic accident. Variety is the spice of life! The public were always curious about what we were up to. During one routine survey a guy came up to me and asked if we were building a new bypass. I assured him it was just a remapping job but he wouldn't let it go.
"I know! You can't tell me. I completely understand, but it's a new road isn't it? All these buildings will be coming down. Come on now, don't deny it, no names no pack drill!", and so he went on, putting words in my mouth, convinced that his little town was soon to be flattened by bulldozers. Eventually I leaned into him, and glancing conspiratorially right and left, I winked and said,
"Loose lips sink ships".
He returned a gleeful smile and doubled-tapped the side of his nostril, which I considered was to indicate that our little secret was safe with him, at least until five minutes later when he would probably share it with the rest of the village. Such are the joys of working with the public.
My last and longest Civil Service job was in the Department For National Savings as it was then called (now re-branded as NS&I). I was there for about twelve years and  met a lot of bright, interesting people, some of whom I am still in contact with today. This was a much larger outfit such that from our ranks we were able to put together a half-decent rock band. Despite a rewarding social life though, I felt frustrated by continuing pay and promotion freezes. In 1995 the boom was clearly going to be the next big thing and I wanted to be a part of it. So I left the service and became a freelancer.
Working for one's self is a double-edged sword. While one has freedom, with that comes responsibility, the most problematic of which was to actually find work. I'd planned to be a web consultant, however I was a little ahead of the game. I thought it would be a piece of cake to get clients as there were so few people at the time who knew how to build websites. As I found when I started hustling for business, there were very few people who knew what a website was nor why it could be of value to them. I eventually fell back on more familiar IT support roles, grabbing bit of work here and there which kept me going for a year or two. It was really all down to sales and marketing and I quickly came to realise that I wasn't very good at either!
Then I had a stroke of luck which led to me joining the company I mentioned at the beginning that prompted me to write this piece. A relative phoned me one Friday afternoon. He said he had a friend that had a start-up business in Richmond and they were looking for people. He gave me their number and I phoned straight away. I exchanged a few words with the guy who answered the phone and within minutes I was on my way to work. They were so busy they wanted me to come right away. I was with them for two and a half years. It was a blast. 
The way they hired me was not untypical. Most people seemed to be there through word of mouth, networking or even chance meetings. One of the owners had apparently met the General Manager at a trade show and pretty much hired him on the spot to run the thing. I later learned the company had been formed by some high-ranking ex-Dell employees. They had a business plan and didn't seem to find it hard to find funding. As the company grew, many bright and interesting people came on board. It was a broad mix of people from super-brainy graduates like my mate to plebs like me, but everyone seemed to fit in and bring something unique to the table and nobody was denied a voice. It was a joyous time.
I should mention at this point, that this company revealed another important factor that can make work enjoyable beyond money alone. There is a special energy and dynamic working in a start-up company which can be its own reward. When you go to work in a well established outfit, each day knowing that the challenges you face will be little different from the day before, well, there is something a little soul destroying about that. In a start-up, things are much more fluid and one meets new challenges all the time which can be quite thrilling. I met an accountant from America who was seconded to us for a while there and he told me he only ever worked for new companies for that reason. Once things are organised and setup to run, he told me that he was out of the door, off to work for the next one.
Regrettably the UK branch in which I worked later folded with much of the management moving to the larger, American twin of the company. I didn't want to move to Texas so I decided to move on and set up my own venture. 
I'd met a graphic artist while I was there who seemed to know what he was doing and also claimed to be a sales & marketing whizz, so we decided to join forces to setup a web design company. We worked out of a small subsidised office in Kensington and this time I found myself in the right place at the right time. This was 1998 and everyone wanted a website. Pretty soon, we were the ones doing the hiring. I must say I found being at the top of the company generally far less rewarding than being down below. There were endless meetings and far less of the coal face work that I'd enjoyed as a programmer. However one thing did reward me more than anything work related, either before or since. It was a surprise that came like a bolt from the blue.
I arrived in the office early one morning to be greeted by a young lady we employed as a designer. She had lots of seemingly ancient slips of paper written in 'Copper Plate' spread all over her desk. She explained to me that it was her intention to buy a house with her boyfriend. The documents in front of us were share certificates given to her when she was born. She was trying to figure out how much she would be able to sell them for in order to raise the deposit. I suddenly had the epiphany that the company I had conceived of, co-founded and was a half-owner of, was actually going to be paying for someone's house! It gave me a strange sense of satisfaction and pride that I find difficult to put into words. I've never had children but this must be something like hearing your child's first words or seeing their first steps. Several more employees later obtained mortgages against the salaries we paid them and each time I was really blown away by the feeling.
My business partner and I disagreed over some fundamental issues over the direction of the company and I eventually sold out to him and moved to Spain. My career has slalomed most unpredictably since then, mostly downhill and never bringing forth anything like the job satisfaction that I experienced in the first half of my career. These days I far prefer to be playing my bass guitar than working in an office, though who knows? If an interesting opportunity came along with the chance to work with nice people, I'd probably jump at the chance!

Making money in Spain

The hardest thing about moving here is the income problem.

I wanna job in Spain and basically need to know if there is work out there for me, I’d do anything I just wanna move for the sun.  Please help!!

The above quote was a genuine question asked a few weeks ago on an online forum for 'expats' in Spain. I kid you not that I see these sort of requests all the time. 
Sifting through the three hundred or so replies reveals an interesting snapshot of people's experiences of having moved here in search of work.
"Most men get off the plane and become builders, while women become cleaners and dog sitters" says one.
"Learn Spanish". says another, "you'll improve your chances of finding a job no end".
There was quite a long thread about teaching English in which one camp said it was dead easy to get a TEFL certificate (Teach English as a Foreign Language) in order to get a job teaching the queens, where as another camp were saying the language schools were in decline and rejecting applicants with the cheaper certificates earned on line, preferring instead the residentially earned certificates of schools perceived to be of higher value.
Curiously nobody mentioned becoming an estate agent, which many do. This can be a ludicrously easy way to make money in a bull market, but as I found during the last recession it's not much fun when you go over a year without selling anything. 
Generally most commenters agreed that it is hard to find work in Spain. As one chap said, "it helps if you have a lot of money to support yourself while you're looking for work as it can take some time".
In my humble experience, I've found the the main problems are the language barrier, the extremely high unemployment rate of the country as a whole and the fiscal system here which seems deliberately to act against people starting up their own businesses.
Not speaking Spanish, or speaking it very badly as I do, severely limits one's ability to find a job with a Spanish company. That means people coming from the UK will struggle to find employment in inland areas where English is not so widely spoken. This less of a problem on the Costa Blanca or Costa del Sol where English is more common. A nephew of mine worked as a waiter in Fuengirola for six months without speaking a word of Spanish.
I knew a young Spanish girl years ago who confided in me the dark secret of her employment status as an office worker. I think her hours were nine until two then five until eight. She had a contract with her employer who officially declared that he was paying her 800 euros per month, and so he paid her employer's contribution towards the equivalent of her tax and national insurance contribution based on the sum. In reality he only paid her 400 per month in cash though. I was astonished she worked all those hours for so little take home pay, but she explained to me it was hard enough to get a job at all. Getting one that paid her stamp and had her plugged into the system was a big plus compared with many folk here who work cash in hand and cannot afford to go self employed.
From what I've seen, one has to be rich in the first place to go self employed in Spain. If you want to set up the equivalent of a limited company you need to prove you have 5000 euros in the bank. The contribution to the health and welfare system here known as 'autonomo' is a big chunk. It was a shade under 300 euros per month last time I looked, though there is a scheme now to pay much less in the first year of trading. VAT starts from the first euro earned if your business is dealing in rateable goods or services. Income tax is even more full of pitfalls for the unwary. One chap I know told me his accountant advised him to use a system where he paid a quarterly sum on his predicted earnings. Half way through the year he lost his contract and still had to make the two remaining tax payments for the remaining quarters.
Worse still, the tax office or 'hacienda' is so grossly avaricious. It has the power to monitor your bank account and grab money out of it as it sees fit. One chap I knew stopped trading but didn't inform the hacienda. Some years later he found they had taken 6000 euros from his account for unpaid taxes. It took a devil of a job to get it back. The hacienda clearly has an army of spies. For an interesting insight into how they operate, read the recent article in El Pais (In English) called How the Spanish Tax Agency followed the trail of Shakira. They left no stone unturned, even to the fine detail of  tracking down details of her hair-dresser and Zumba teacher!
Elsewhere the hacienda has its beady eye on your private sales. If you flog stuff on websites like Ebay, Etsy, Facebook Market place etc, they want a chunk of your profit. How this works exactly varies from region to region but typically in Madrid, sales of over 500 euros are subject to a 4% IPT (transaction tax). I've read where they have had tax officers trawling through listings trying to identify sellers. More recently talks have been taking place to make the websites to supply transaction details to the hacienda digitally. Being a cynic, I suspect when they do, the minimum sales on which these taxes apply will be decreased!
Perhaps the most successful group of people I've come across in Spain are the ones whose work is not, i.e. people who work remotely. If you have the right skill-set and the right contacts it is possible to have the best of both worlds, e.g. an American sized pay packet with a Spanish style cost of living. Finding such work is not without its problems as there is a very broad base of people in all corners of the world competing for remote jobs. Websites such as Freelancer and Fiver allow one to pursue work in a wide range of countries but the downside is there is a mountain of competition from all over the world, so bidding for work is more often than not a race to the bottom. It is almost always preferable to seek work by personal contact, word of mouth, networking etc. 
Disclaimer. I'm not an expert on Tax or Employment law or any of the topics mentioned in this blog post. These are just the rantings of someone who has lived here for fifteen years and seen the work situation up close and personal!  Nor am I selling anything so I have no skin in the game (which is probably why my postings are a little less 'ra ra' than you might read elsewhere!!)

Getting Old is Rubbish!

OK It's my Birthday. Go Easy With Me!


Happy birthday to me! I've reached 58 which is in some regards an admirable milestone. From the Paleolithic era to the days of early modern England, a male commoner like myself would have been considered exceptionally lucky to see out his thirties. Most of the credit for this probably goes to vaccines and antibiotics, though the stable social period through which I've lived has seen little in the way of war and much in the way of an affordable, nutritious diet which has probably helped a lot.

Grateful though I am then, I can't help feeling a little less like celebrating my birthday as each year passes. One doesn't realise it but as a youngster, time appears to pass incredibly slowly. Then, as we age, the years soon start whizzing by faster than a Japanese bullet train. This is due to a phenomenon that I've mentioned before (in Things that wind me up ) called Weber's law. Weber noticed that how we humans perceive change, varies in proportion to the thing being measured. Although a year is always the same length, when we are children we compare a year to the total years we have lived, five or six of them or whatever. As we approach retirement, we maybe compare a year to say sixty or sixty five years. We can't but help then, thinking that years are getting shorter. Our perception of the length of a year varies logarithmically as we age. It is quite chilling to extend this notion, as author Anne Rice did in the 1984 Gothic novel 'Interview with a Vampire', to a life-form that has achieved immortality.  The vampire Louis in the book describes the ' terrible tedium of a perpetual earthly existence', as the years become centuries and the detachment from mortals grows, and as the world changes and the vampires do not. Imagine years passing as seconds. What a horrible thought!

OK you might think I'm writing this from the perspective of some grumpy guy who 'got out of the wrong side of the bed' this morning. You would be right. I just got my first spam-email for a funeral plan. That makes me feel more than just old. It makes me feel 'one foot in the grave' old!

It wouldn't be so bad if it was just a case of the years accelerating before our eyes but they seem to do this with such malice. I saw a meme on Facebook the other day which captured this very succinctly. It read "Getting older is just one body part after another saying 'ha ha, you think that's bad, well watch this!"

Temporary Kings is a novel by Anthony Powell, the penultimate in his twelve-volume novel, A Dance to the Music of Time. It was published in 1973 and remains in print as does the rest of the sequence. In the penultimate book of the sequence, Powell describes ageing as like being increasingly penalised for a crime you haven't committed.

It certainly feels like that My first pubic hair scared the hell out of me at aged ten. More recently I discovered my first grey pube which nothing on earth had prepared me for. One wonders what is next? Male-pattern pube-baldness? I hate to even Google it!

Alexander Smith wrote "An essay on an old subject" which captures the mood of ageing far better than I ever could. He starts with "The discovery of a gray hair when you are brushing out your whiskers of a morning—first-fallen flake of the coming snows of age—is a disagreeable thing. So is the intimation from your old friend and comrade that his eldest daughter is about to be married. So are flying twinges of gout, shortness of breath on the hillside, the fact that even the moderate use of your friend’s wines at dinner upsets you. These things are disagreeable because they tell you that you are no longer young,—that you have passed through youth, are now in middle age, and faring onward to the shadows in which, somewhere, a grave is hid."

Another insightful piece about ageing was in something written by Ernest Hemingway which I read years ago. In fact it was so long ago I can't even remember if it was from a book, an essay or possibly someone else's recollections of him. I've been trying to track it down but without being able to remember any of the key words or phrases other than 'wine' I've had little success, as this is a topic he raises often. Anyway, the general gist was that he considered it a travesty of life that, as one ages, one learns to appreciate more and more the value of a good wine, while at the same time one's body conspires to reduce one's ability to drink the stuff. Having had the odd bout of gout I know what he means. Thank god for Allopurinol. There is a big slice of virtual birthday cake to any wizardly researchers out there who are able to locate the source of the original quote.

Being a bit of an introvert I've never much enjoyed the concept of celebrating my birthday with a party or other get-together. It seems oddly narcissistic to say "This is all about me" and to force my friends to come along, buy me gifts and express their liking of me and sing to me for no other reason than that is what birthdays are supposed to be for, i.e. sucking up to me and kissing my behind. I'm really much happier with a simple message on my Facebook wall, or maybe a valued card from those rare and special people who are not online. The less fuss and the less reminder that I'm getting older, the better I like it!!

How I kept cool during the long hot Spanish summer

Tips on battling the worst of the summer heat


OK I'm a tad late with this as the worse heat of summer seems to be behind us now we're in September. So many topics to cover, so little time! You never know though as there is often a last-blast mini-heatwave during September to October. In fact, as I sit here writing this I've just taken off my T-shirt as I'm feeling the warmth of the afternoon. My AccuWeather app is telling me it is 29C RealFeel 30C
There are a number of inexpensive things one can do to remain relatively comfortable when the mercury is blowing the top off of the thermometer. The most simple is to keep your doors and windows closed, and shutters down. This is really basic stuff but I've lost count of the Brits I've seen with their windows wide open during the middle of the day when its 35C or over. When you question them about it they say "Oh I'm just letting the breeze in"! No, you're letting air in that is 35C and will warm your house up to 35C too!. The Spanish don't do this. In fact its safe to assume if you walk down the street on such a day, any open windows you see will be houses occupied by Brits! The trick is don't open your windows until the evening when the temperature has fallen sufficiently outside that it will have a cooling effect. Then leave them open all night until the temperature starts to rise the next morning, which at the height of summer might be as early as 8am. Easiest way to know when to do this is to open the window and stick your hand out. If the air outside feels warmer to the touch outside than in, then close the window!
If you want a breeze in your house, use a fan. In my experience, larger, slower fans like ceiling fans are more effective than smaller desktop fans at circulating air. If like me you're unable to afford air-conditioning, your next best friend is an aerosol spray. Fill this with water and add a small quantity (2% or so) of surgical spirit (alcohol estetica in Spanish). The alcohol aids evaporation and lubricates the spray-bottle, helps stopping the plastic tube getting gunked up. The evaporation takes heat out of the surface it is escaping from. You will feel this most if you spray it directly on your skin but it also produces a cooling effect if you spray some onto surfaces such as curtains, doors, furniture etc. Obviously if you go mad with it this may generate quite a bit of humidity so it's a good idea to secrete a dehumidifier somewhere in the room to suck up the water. I use the small plastic ones they sell in the supermarket here with replaceable desiccant cartridges. Another trick is to hang ice at the back of the fan to cool the air as it blows. The ice can be held in a plastic bag but as it will melt you need one with no holes in it. Alternatively there are various designs of gizmos and gadgets to hold the ice and to collect the water which are documented in numerous YouTube videos.
Another good trick for cooling down in summer is to have a nice hot cup of tea. Really!! The first time I heard this I thought it was crazy but it makes more sense when you think about it. When you consume something hot, the body's reaction is to cool you down which it does by making you sweat. This is the same reason scorching hot chilli is consumed in meals in Mexico and the Indian subcontinent. Hot food and drink helps cool you down. Try it!
While on the subject of food, your best gambit is to keep heat generation to a minimum in the kitchen. It might be glaringly obvious, but if you're cooking a roast dinner in the oven you will be generating much more heat than if you were making a tuna salad. That heat will find away to escape the oven and contribute to the rise in temperature of the inside of the house. As a general rule then, stick to cool food like salads, or cook outside on a BBQ or portable grill so the heat doesn't hang around in your house. Also a crock pot is another good choice as they generate far less heat than a conventional oven.
Getting to sleep can be really tough in the summer here. Fortunately I don't work a 9 to 5 job so it doesn't matter what time I rise or fall in to the sack, so I tend to stay up late, maybe 3am or so then get up about 8am. Then later I'll have a cheeky siesta in the afternoon. For some reason that I don't understand, I find it really hard to get off to sleep a night when its hot, but during the day when it's sweltering I go out like a light! Again, if you don't have air-conditioning, an upstairs bedroom may be the worse place to get off to sleep as heat rises. You may find sleeping downstairs more agreeable or if you have a quiet roof-terrace, sleeping outside is a good option. I've never had much luck with the latter. I tried it years ago on holiday and heard fruit bats swooping over my head in the dark, which has forever put the kiybosh on the sleeping outside business for me!
Another good idea for helping you sleep is to dampen a bedsheet. I find very wet sheets a bit uncomfortable myself but I've had success in the past in putting a dry sheet in the freezer for a few hours. It soon unstiffens and on a really warm night can give just enough relief from the heat to set you off on a good nights sleep!