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LIFE IN SPAIN

Meet the Madrid English teacher sharing his love of dance during coronavirus lockdown

The Local gets to know Ashley Orr, an English teacher in Madrid who is offering free Zumba classes online during lockdown.

Meet the Madrid English teacher sharing his love of dance during coronavirus lockdown
Photo: Ashley Orr

Who are you and what are you doing in Madrid'

I’m Ashley Orr. I’m 36 years old. I’m originally from Birmingham, UK, but I’ve been living here for the past ten years in Madrid. I work as a language teacher in an academy during the week and at the weekends I teach Zumba classes. 

How do you feel about the lockdown?

Actually I think I’m coping with it pretty well. I understand why we need to have it, I’ve accepted it and now I’m just trying to get on with it. I’ve always been an optimistic person so I am trying to focus on the positive and use it as a learning experience and as an opportunity to discover new things, find new ways to do things and grow not only personally but professionally too. 

What is the hardest thing?

I'd have to say the hardest thing is not having face to face contact with my friends and students. Although I speak to them now regularly via the internet, it’s not the same online as it is in person. When you live abroad, your friends become your family and your lifeline, so when you take that away, it takes some getting used to.

What is the best thing?

I must say I’m loving not having to commute to work. I have two extra hours a day for myself a day that I can use however I want. I’m trying to use these extra gained hours productively and not waste them. The lockdown has also been an opportunity to get back in contact with people I haven’t spoken to for a long time and reconnect. 

What will be the first thing you do when lockdown is lifted?

Maybe go for a beer on a terrace in the sunshine. It’s one of the little luxuries that I love most about Spain.

Has anything really surprised you since lockdown started (either about other people, the world  in general or yourself?

Well, firstly I’m surprised about how many dogs there are suddenly in Madrid. Apart from that, I’m also surprised about how easily and quickly I’ve managed to adapt to living my whole life online. It’s week two and already things this week have started to feel more “normal”.

The idea of online teaching before sounded horrifying, but actually I’m growing to really enjoy it, and I would even dare to say that actually some of my classes have been better online than in person. It might be the novelty factor, but I’m surprised how much I’m enjoying teaching online. It’s definitely food for thought for my future.

How are you staying sane?

Keeping busy. I’m lucky I still have a job and I’ve been very busy with that transferring everything online. In the initial days of the lockdown, I was watching the news a lot, but I realised that this isn’t a healthy habit so I try now just to get a summary at the end of the day. With the extra time I have, I’ve also been trying out things I’ve never done before.

I’ve tried Pilates classes, learnt some sign language and I’ve been experimenting in the kitchen.  I’ve also been doing jobs around the house that I have never found the time to do; sorting out the important paper drawer, organising my external hard drive, Marie Kondo-ing my wardrobe.

My Zumba classes have also been a big distraction. People just see the hour of class, but there is a lot of preparation that goes in before that can happen and I have had many a late night recently trying to make sure the classes are up to the standard I hold myself to.

Will this period have a lasting effect on your life?

Right now I don’t see this having a long lasting effect on my life. But I guess it depends how long this goes on for. But I will definitely appreciate the smaller things in life that I took for granted before. Even taking a bus right now seems attractive.

Tell us about the Zumba sessions?


Ashley Orr bringing his live Zumba sessions to the living rooms of the confined. Photo: F Govan / The Local Spain

When I originally told my regular students I had to cancel our Zumba classes because of the corona virus they immediately asked me if I could do them online instead. 

I have students who come to class religiously week in week out and even arrange their holidays around classes so I knew it was very important for them to be able to keep the classes up through this crisis.

For many of my students, our Zumba class together is the one hour a week they can forget about their problems and enjoy themselves. We normally have two classes a week, but I thought it was important to offer them classes as often as possible seeing as for many people now, it’s the only exercise they do a day.

So I’m currently teaching 5 classes a week online and people tell me it’s the best part of their day and the thing they most look forward to each day. I’ve asked everyone who takes part in the classes to donate money to La Cruz Roja to help them combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Who is doing them with you?

The online classes originally started out just being for my regular students. They told me how good they made them feel and how much they were helping them cope with the lockdown so I thought it would be a good idea to open the classes up to others going through similar situations in Madrid. Word seems to have grown quite quickly and I’ve had messages this week from people as far afield as Dubai and the USA.

People are even connecting with their families and friends from back home on Skype and doing the classes virtually together. It’s humbling to think that my Zumba class, that I make up mostly sitting on the number 9 bus, can help so many other people not only in Madrid as I originally intended, but also all over the world.

What sort of feedback to you get?

I’ve received positive messages from all the world. I know I will never be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s one of the first things you learn as an instructor; you can’t please everyone, but so far the reaction has been amazing. I love sitting down with my phone after the classes and seeing the photos people have taken during the class and comments they have written me.

Obviously when I do my class, I’m doing it to an image of myself on my laptop. I don’t know who or how many people are watching. I try to reply to all the messages I receive but it’s taking up a lot of my time and I’m spending maybe a bit too much time recently on my phone!

How does that feedback make you feel?

When you see photos of things like three generations of a family all united dancing in the living room together, to mothers and their toddlers having fun together to your choreography, to 5 roommates all sweating up a storm together, you can’t help but smile. Zumba classes have helped me in the past go through some bad times and I’m just so happy that I can share this with others and hopefully help them get through this too. I’m grateful that I can put all the money my mum spent on dancing school fees when I was younger to good use!

How do you think Spain is handling things?

So far from what I can see in my neighbourhood, Prosperidad, I think Spain is doing a pretty good job at dealing with the situation and people on the whole seem to be respecting the new restrictions and just trying to get on with life as best they can. I love that going out to clap at 8pm for the people working in the health service has become as much as a daily habit as brushing my teeth in the morning.

It's a great moment in the day that brings the whole neighbourhood together. Luckily, the initial panic buying seems to have calmed down and if you ignore the masks and one metre distances you have to keep, going to the supermarket is almost a pretty normal experience again.

What do you tell people back ‘home’?

The UK seem to about ten days behind us here in Spain so I’ve been trying to warn them of what’s coming and make sure they are prepared. I’ve always been quite independent so I don’t think they worry too much about me.

What are your biggest fears right now?

My mum is suffering from a rare form of cancer right now back home. I was lucky that I was able to go back to visit her just before this all started but I’m worried about when the next time I get to go home will be. She has been told now by the British government she has to self-isolate for three months so I am worried how she will manage and I feel bad that I’m not there to help. 
 
To find out about joining Ashley Orr's Zumba sessions follow him on Facebook and Instagram 

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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.

READ MORE:

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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