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CHRISTMAS

‘Strange but spicy’: How our Christmas in Galicia defines us

Heath Savage describes celebrating the holidays in rural Galicia where she and her partner relocated from Sydney.

'Strange but spicy': How our Christmas in Galicia defines us
Vigo puts on a great display of Christmas lights. Photo: AFP

The chill mornings of early December arrived at last. I’m a January baby. Born at dawn on a freezing morning in 1961. I love winter. The sky comes alive with a silvery light. A chill mist cloaks the village and fields. The shimmer of the moon is still bright when I rise at six o’clock, and one brave little bird sings from an oak tree in our garden. The Robins have finally, chittering in the neighbour’s magnolia tree; another robin answers from our naked cherry tree.

The car is iced with crystals of this year’s first frosts. The last fallen leaves from our walnut tree are stiffened and glittering, turned from slushy brown porridge into sculpted shiny shapes that make the dog hop when he walks on them. Raphael’s morning pee steams in the chilly air. This is not Chihuahua weather! I fetch wood from the shed while still in my pajamas, and light the wood-burner in the kitchen. The stones of this old house do hold onto the warmth from the night’s fires, but they soon relinquish it.

Christmas is around the corner. We joined a coach trip on Advent Sunday, to Vigo to see the splendid lights. At home, I put up our tiny tree. On a high window ledge, so the dog doesn’t get the wrong idea. I forgot about the cat. Tree duly mauled, she repaired to her cushion on the bedroom windowsill to intimidate the robins.

Our first Christmas in Galicia, 2018, was celebrated in style. Even though our kitchen was not quite finished, and the upper floor of the house was a building site. New friends, with their Workaway volunteer, came from a neighbouring village and shared a meal of Indian food with us. I decided to prepare something unusual and spicy, which we all craved as an antidote to the (quite plain) local food. I made a chicken jalfrezi, beef rendang, potato and cauliflower biryani, chapatis, raita, and an onion chutney.

Exotic foreign spices infused our local, seasonal, meat and vegetables, and, in a way, the meal symbolized us, I think. Perhaps this is how our village friends see us:  strange and a bit “spicy”, but blending nicely with local life? I hope that, like our recipes, we are a welcome change from the usual fare; enhancing what is already here without altering or replacing it too boldly. This year we have friends coming again, into a finished kitchen, to eat with us and share the firelight, wine and games. More traditional fare this year – roast turkey and vegetables. Maybe a good old Aussie “Pav?” because we are a feeling a little nostalgic for Australia. Soon it will be 2020 and we will enter our second year in Galicia.

On New Year’s Eve back in Sydney, we always watched the Edinburgh Military Tattoo on TV, then the Sydney fireworks. Australia is second place in the world to kick off, after Singapore. We ate meat pies and drank glasses of champagne. Our New Year celebrations henceforth will be different; we will eat 12 grapes – one at each stroke of midnight, and will make a wish on each. We’ll drink Galician beer or cider, with a little “chupita” of a neighbour’s family recipe aguardiente, just to warm us! We will sing Auld Lang Syne, in a nod to my mother’s Scottish ancestry. Certainly, old acquaintances will not be forgotten.

As midnight chimes in Panton it will be 7pm in Sydney. We’ll ring and text-message all our friends and family, who will have spent their summer’s day swimming in the warm sea, barbecuing, and basking in the sun. We’ll spend a cold New Year’s Day wood-stacking and gathering kindling. I’ll prepare some potato pasties for us, and anyone who might drop by for a drink.  We’ll sweep the floors of 2019, leaving them clean for 2020 to enter.

We’ll look back, and forward. We will meet and greet the challenges and changes of this new year that knocks upon our new front door, bearing gifts; in our new house, in our new country.

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MONEY

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.

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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.

Santander

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.

BBVA

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.

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