Flat Earth

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Big brother in

flamenco fall-out

RELATIONS between Spain and Portugal strike me as being rather similar to those between England and Scotland: the sensitivity of the smaller nation to slights is merely amplified by the bigger partner's bland ignorance that it is giving offence.

Take a recent misplaced Spanish attempt to combine the two cultures. Madrid put on a show combining flamenco dancing (stamping feet, violent display) with fado singing (introspective, melancholic nostalgia), in what you might consider a display of national stereotypes.

The Portuguese ambassador to Madrid sat through the concert grim-faced, and left without applauding, news which persuaded the Spanish ambassador in Lisbon to drop fado from Spain's contribution to the Expo opening in Lisbon in May.

So far, so sour. Within days, Hispano-Luso relations hit further turbulence, this time over the single European currency, which both countries are panting to join. Euro coins, according to a poster issued by the European Monetary Institute in Florence, show a map of all EU members with borders clearly marked, even those of minuscule Luxembourg. Spain and Portugal, however, are lumped together as a single country, with no border between them.

The European Commission variously described this as a "typographical error", "an oversight" and "a rough draft yet to be approved", but amid the outrage in Portugal, one diplomat found time to sniff: "I notice the Spanish haven't complained."

Mr Biglietti

IT IS not difficult to defraud the Rome public bus company, as every resident, and quite a few visitors, have learned from long experience. All you have to do is travel without a ticket and your chances of being caught are minimal.

But that is obviously too simple a solution for the city's hard-core criminal fraternity, which has hit on a more ingenious, if more cumbersome, way to take advantage of the Eternal City's beleaguered transport system - stealing tickets.

An enterprising band of brigands broke into a bus company depot one night last week, bashed a hole in the wall of a particularly well-locked room and made off with a staggering 897,000 tickets. Since each one is valid for 75 minutes, that's enough tickets for a gang of four to travel on the bus network non-stop for 32 years - the kind of marathon transport use you have to contemplate if you are ever going to meet one of the city's semi-fictional ticket inspectors.

As it turns out, contraband and counterfeit bus tickets are big business in the Roman underworld - proving that some passengers do indeed buy tickets, even if they are not legal ones. The other week, police arrested a young Chinese man at the airport whose suitcase contained 150,000 counterfeit bus tickets. Asked what they were for, the young man replied: "I'm going to wrap my Christmas presents in them." Is this a marketing ploy that London Transport Museum should try?

London Irish

I CAN'T decide whether this indicates that the Irish are behind the times or ahead of them. A friend receives an advertisement from Ashford Castle, a country house hotel in County Mayo, of forthcoming events such as a "pre-hunting course" conducted by Captain Mark Phillips - hardly a name to conjure with these days - and a "health and vitality week" in the company of Princess Diana's former personal fitness trainer. Neither prospect would have me rushing to County Mayo.

Ashford Castle was breaking new ground, though, in addressing its missive to "London, Ireland". I didn't realise that the latest wheeze in the Northern Irish peace talks, the Council of the Isles, had already got so far in blurring national boundaries. But the letter was delivered, so I must be the one missing a trick.