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Lost in translation: The perils of being misunderstood in rural Spain

Heath Savage reveals the struggles of being a newly arrived Australian trying to understand neighbours who start a sentence in Castellano and end it in Gallego.

Lost in translation: The perils of being misunderstood in rural Spain
Don't ask for 'polla' when you mean chicken. Photo: THPstock/Depositphotos

Moving from an English-speaking country to a European country did not pose a huge challenge, since we previously lived in Belgium, where we picked up French quite easily, ‘though Flemish was a bit more challenging.

We pounced so quickly on our house purchase and migration process, that we had no time to begin learning Spanish before we arrived, although we did  try some online basic lessons.

On arrival, we relied on the patience of locals, Spanish-speaking friends, and Google Translate to get by. Our initial conversations began and ended with “hola”.

The long-suffering Isabella, in our favourite café, helped us to stammer our way through the Menu Del Dia each day until we could order things that we actually wanted to eat, not only those ítems we could pronounce!

Only one of our wonderfully friendly neighbours is English, the rest Spanish: old, established local families. They have embraced us as one of them, and as we have gained confidence and competence, we now manage to pass the time of day reasonably well.

We have also adopted the local obsession with weather in all its forms, ‘though even this can be tricky. I have now learned to say: “hace mucho calor”, and not “soy muy caliente” – which, to the amusement of our postman, I did one summer morning, when he delivered the mail! I don’t know whether the poor man thought his luck was in or out, but he smiled sweetly and said: “si hace mucho calor hoy!”

We Aussie chicas, apparently, have an unfortunate reputation for being a bit “free”, and, sadly, my efforts have done nothing to erase that slur!

On another occassion, while chatting about gardening, and the keeping of small farm animals with our lovely neighbour Belen, I cheerfully informed her: “Quiero tener cuatro pollas” then asked her: “Puedo entrar a tu granero para ver a tu coño?”  

To her eternal credit, her smile froze only momentarily, the corner of her mouth twitched almost imperceptibly, and she softly corrected me: “Conejo. Te gustaría ver me conejo?” From this Belen I have learned so much about local lore, customs and seasonal gardening. I am surprised that she still speaks to me at all!

We now have a weekly lesson with a local teacher, who also gives us examples of Gallego translation, which help immensely, as locals seem to mix the two languages freely, beginning a sentence in Castellano and finishing in Gallego.

We progress, like our renovations, “poco a poco”, forever grateful to the grace and generosity of spirit we encounter in our new countrymen. Our experience has made us much more empathic towards migrants to Australia who do not have English as a first language. And I am more careful.


Member comments

  1. I’m sure that we’ve all committed similar errors, Heath! Luckily many of us were pre-warned about those that you have mentioned above, although my husband told me that he was so concerned about not ever saying that he was “muy caliente”, that he blurted it out in a conversation with the head housekeeper of the complex that he was working in as a service technician. Apparently, she just smiled!

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Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.