Imprecise – how long is a piece of string?

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DOUBLE-CHECK: Plot sizes in Spain may not be as described on the title deed.

AN Englishman, a German and a Mallorquin are discussing the length of a piece of string over a few copas in a local bistro. Measured with a ruler, the string notches up 50 centimetres, exactly. Two of the people present accept this as a fact. One does not. Can you guess the odd one out?

This is actually not a riddle, but a true story; one that is worth remembering. And yes, the answer is the Mallorquin. Here in Spain, things are not always what they seem – measures are not precise, but fluid and adaptable. ‘Set in stone’ is not something they say very often, though ‘más o menos’ pops up in nearly every conversation.

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This is a charming oddity until perhaps the day you decide to double-check the measurements of the plot of land you purchased in good faith; it could well be rather less than you bargained for. It is all down to an old law called ‘Acta de Notoriedad de Constancia de Excesos de Cabida’ – or ‘Mayor Cabida’ in short, which is popular with architects and anyone wishing to make a round peg fit a square hole.  

“Of course,” claims the Mallorquin, “you measure the widest point – where the shadow of the stake at the periphery ends, the nearest tree or something…” The German is incredulous at this level of ambiguity, but protest as he may, this is something that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Typically, a building project must relate in size to the land it occupies – but when there are a few metres missing, you need only look to this alternative measuring system to clear the project. With a shrug of his shoulders and a ‘claro que sí,’ the man from the council stamps his approval.


This level of imprecise measure can, of course, be found in almost every aspect of life in Spain if you look closely; dinner at 9pm means 9.30pm at the earliest; in court it is the gut feel rather than letter of the law that prevails, which is fantastic for putting away criminals that think they can dupe the system, but less so if you end up with a 20-year jail sentence because the judge takes a dislike to you.

With both time and law so flexible, it should come as no surprise that measurements, too, are subjective.  Of course, the savvy expat can use this to his advantage: Plagued by parking tickets? Demonstrate your car was firmly within the white lines, using Mayor Cabida techniques. Selling your boat? It is remarkable how it is bigger than it seems… Need an extension of your kitchen? Re-measure your plot to unearth those hidden, yet crucial metres to gain approval.


In fact, there is a lot to be said for the Spanish way – though you may want to decide on which measurement system you and your spouse are using at the outset as they are guiding you into a tight parking space.

Meanwhile, back in the bistro, the German, Englishman and the Mallorquin decide to differ over yet another bottle of wine; the length a piece of string remains uncertain, but they all agree that time flies when having fun and there is invariably less than the advertised quantity of wine in a bottle.




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