Spain – a more sombre look

Dear Friends:

Several of you have asked me about the economy of Spain, and so when I took this photo I was thinking to write something on the subject. 

The sign says: “In solidarity with the times, we have cut the price of coffee. One Euro: always, any time.” (One Euro = $ 1.40) 

Being a tourist hardly gives one a true picture of how the Spanish people are faring in these times. We know the unemployment rate is near 25% (and even higher for young folks.) We know the economy is still shrinking, though not as seriously as in Portugal. We know that Germany’s Angela Merkel has called for more belt tightening. And in Cañar, Michael and I have acquaintances and neighbors who, after years of working as legal immigrants in Spain, have come home to Ecuador to become taxi drivers or construction workers. 

In the small town Basque region where we’ve been traveling, we see things obliquely, and probably not a representative picture as northern Spain is a more prosperous region. Certainly there are empty storefronts, and paralyzed building projects, but every village is bustling with small, family-owned shops specializing in meat, cheese, fish, hardware, and lighting, and more,. Employees and customers – all seem to know one another, exchange news, and warmly greet visting tourists buying food for a picnic.

And in the surrounding cities, central markets seem always busy, the vendors knowledgable, professional, and friendly, providing excellent service. This woman had a line-up of customers, so we got to watch her at work – managing alone, keeping an eye on the line while filling orders slicing jamon, chorizo, mortadella, and cheeses, all with this great smile.  

At the market fruit stand, Michael wanted a single orange and the woman helping him asked, dead serious, if it was for juice or to eat. She tested several before she handed him one, saying, “perfect for today.”

And during the hours between work and bedtime, every bar, cafe, tavern and restaurant is full, as are the surrounding streets if the weather is nice. Customers take their wine or beer to nearby walls, benches, or stand-up tables, to watch their kids play ball or chat with friends. (Smoking is prohibited in bars and cafes, but many many Spaniards still smoke, and every establishment has an outside area for this.)   

We are also seeing, I think, an effect of the crisis in family dynamics. Daytime babysitters, it appears, are mostly grandmothers. During work hours, these gray-haired nannies are ubiquitous on the streets, deadly serious, rolling elaborate stollers with babies cozy in fancy sleeping bags, transparent rain tents and parasols, or they sit in cafes with sleeping creatures beside them. And if you meet these grannies in the streets, you’d better get out of the way, because they ALWAYS have the right of way.

From about 4:00 to 8:00, the (presumably) working parents join the action on the streets…and it is a wonderful sight to see. Every town we’ve been has great open spaces, plazas surrounded with sidewalk bars and restaurants. Babies in strollers peer around while parents have drinks at an outside table, toddlers stick together doing what the do, and older kids play soccer or race around the space in the middle, screaming with delight. Dogs are out too, in little sweaters or padded jackets in the cold weather. No traffic, so the adults are relaxed and everyone looks out for the kids, their own and others. By 8:30, it’s time for home for dinner and bedtime, and everything gets quiet…(until the adults come out again for dinner, around 10:00)


(On the other hand, I’ve heard that few young marrieds can afford to have their own places, so they continue living with one or another set of parents. Apartments are small, so maybe all this street life is to keep everyone from going crazy.)

We see much evidence of the boom years, when the EEU and Spain were spending wildly to bring the country into the 20th century: beautiful road systems, from local byways to super highways, all well marked and maintained. Attractive housing for retired people, even in smallest villages, and tourism infrastructure that would be the envy of any country. Michael and I hang around the one-two-star level of hotels and hostals (40-50 Euros) and all our accomodations have had wonderful beds, excellent plumbing, new fixtures, efficient heat, TVs and wifi. Prices and services are carefully regulated, and personal service is exceptional, everywhere.  Cities and towns are clean and green, with recycling bins around every corner, lots of sports facilities for youths, parks, plazas and pedestrianized centers, and our most recent city, Vitoria, even had a series of covered escaltors to get folks up the hills.


So Spain, at least this part of Spain, feels prosperous and lively. 

But read the national papers and you get another picture. Drastic cutbacks of public servants, bankruptcy of big companies, scandals  of corruption and graft, and always, high unemployment. 

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6 thoughts on “Spain – a more sombre look

  1. Very good analysis of what we experienced in Northern Spain last year! We also looked at fixer upper real estate and remodel or construction costs, still high for our budget. Thanks Judy, Magdalena.

  2. What a delight to travel with you, Judy! It is lovely to see things through your eyes – insightful, warm and filled with humanity. Thank you!

  3. Judy, Our recent experiences in Andalucia corresponded with your own. We loved the open city squares chock full of family life. Saw very few people fondling their Smart Phones. Instead, people talked and laughed with one another. Despite economic problems, Spain obviously adheres to a high level of civic engagement and suffers from no poverty of spirit. Spain appears very committed to the environment and public health (solar & wind power, recycling, etc.), yet so many people heedlessly smoke. Too bad that such a progressive culture replete with sweet and intelligent people seems hellbent on rampant lung cancer. Hope your weather has turned sunny. In Portland, it feels like winter again.

  4. Thanks for the post. It’s interesting to get an on-the-street view of what we just get economic reports on. I guess the real hard hit places are in southern spain. When we were in Argentina and Uruguay in ’05 it was striking how the streets and cafes in BA were packed with folks and it was hard to get any sense of hard times, but in Montivideo it was very obvious, many cafes near empty, not many people on the streets.

    Your cold weather came our way now, after a long stretch of warm, we’re back in almost a winter mode, with longer days, of course.

  5. Dear Judy,
    I remember Buenos Aires in the crisis: people asked for one cola with two straws.
    Enjoyed specially the part of the plazas and people beeing outside at the evening. That´s the way I still remember Salamaca, many years ago.
    Saludos a Michael, abrazos, Susana

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