The Spain of my childhood was a dictatorship. It was a country of beggars, priests, old women in black, guardia civil in their ominous hats. It smelled of garlic, cologne, dark tobacco and sometimes sewage. It was dangerous to speak of politics in public and my grandfather, an officer in the Republican Army, died in exile.
I visited often throughout the Franco years and lived in Barcelona during the tail end of the chaotic days of the movida so I’ve almost stopped being surprised by how much Spain feels like another country now. It’s a model of peaceful transition and many Spanish politicians have been trying to help Egypt and Tunisia move toward democracy.
I was impressed all over again this week when we wound up staying in a Madrid hotel that was surrounded by the indignados of the 15-M movement. The movement was named after the date, May 15, when protestors set up camp in the center of the city, the Plaza del Sol. Most of them left after several weeks but last weekend they staged a protest and demonstrators from all over Spain converged on Madrid.
They set up tents on the grassy avenue in front of the Prado museum and the police were deployed to keep order. Several times a day we stopped by to see what was going on and to talk to police and the demonstrators. We sat in cafes near the protests and we watched.
Over several days we saw protestors carrying signs that called for bankers to be put on trial and that complained of injustice and the high cost of living. We stopped by a seminar on economics in Retiro Park and we watched late at night as the protestors teased the police and gently tried to get through the barricades set up to protect the parliament.