Opinion

Anya Schiffrin

The tide goes out in Spain

Anya Schiffrin
Dec 27, 2012 15:44 UTC

In his entertaining lectures at Columbia Business School, the economist Bruce Greenwald likes to employ cite the line often used by Warren Buffett: When the tide goes out, you can see who is not wearing a bathing suit. This is the feeling I have in Spain. In year five of the financial crisis, I can see which of my relatives and friends had no swimming trunks. The slow downward slide is horrendous for the people living it. Over and over we see the bewilderment of those who worked hard and paid taxes. They don’t understand why they are seeing their first-rate healthcare system being undermined, pensions and salaries cut, and their education system — still not up to par — being squeezed further, while being told they have to bail out the banks because that is what Germany insists on. The downturn is persistent enough that the country’s largest bookseller, Casa de Libro, had a shelf dedicated exclusively to books about the “crisi” (see picture).

Spain under Francisco Franco was often referred to “la vida en blanco y negro,” or life without color, because it was so grim and gray. Franco’s departure showed the pent-up energy and creativity of the Spanish people. It was but a short time before the economic disparity between Spain and the rest of Europe — large even before Franco but a yawning gap in the years of his dictatorship — dwindled. Barcelona, for instance, became a global center for design.

In this harsh new world, many people are now irrelevant to the daily functioning of the economy. Architects, graphic designers, book jacket designers–-these kinds of professions now seem like a quaint memory. No one needs them, and the fear is that, if and when the economy recovers, many won’t be needed then. The few friends who have jobs live with the threat of layoffs and repeated pay cuts.

In this new environment only the fittest survive. I’ve noticed that people writing about Spain tend to bring in their cousins as evidence for whatever point they want to make.  Well, two of my Madrid cousins didn’t go to college. They wound up in Amsterdam. One washed dishes in a hotel and the other sang on the street for change. Their mom was kicked out of a rent-controlled apartment in Madrid and now lives with a passel of other unemployed relatives in an old family house in a tiny town outside Seville. No heating or air conditioning, no car, and it’s a 20-minute bus ride to go get groceries. They would love to offload this white elephant, but no one is buying. Another friend inherited her mom’s apartment and before the crisis had the bright idea of buying a few fixer-upper apartments. She would spruce them up and resell them once the neighborhoods gentrified. We warned her not to buy more than one or two, but who listens to friends? Besides, in the days of the real estate booms in Spain and Ireland and the U.S., who could lose money investing in real estate? The naysayers were losing out on the opportunity of a lifetime!

She put down deposits on three or four apartments. Five years and multiple lawsuits later my friend (in her sixties) has lost everything. The good news is that after looking for a year she found a poorly paying office job.  “I don’t feel sorry for myself. I have food on the table every day, and that is more than many people in this country have now,” my friend said.

Austerity and the new Spanish poverty

Anya Schiffrin
Sep 24, 2012 16:19 UTC

During the parts of my childhood I spent in Spain in the sixties and seventies, life was what we call “de la vieja escuela,” strictly old school. My grandmother and her sisters, who were all widows or spinsters, had money left from their husbands and fathers but lived frugally. Ice cream (not artisanal but bought from the kiosk on the corner) was a treat for Sunday lunch. My great-aunt Clementina left an embarrassingly cheap 25-cent tip whenever she took me for an afternoon snack of hot chocolate and churros (fried dough). The same old leather address book sat by the phone in the living room for decades until it was all worn out, and even then no one saw the need to replace it.

I thought those days were over, but now every time we go to Spain we see the slow-motion unraveling of a world that was built after the end of the dictatorship that Spain lived under for nearly 40 years. With 50 percent youth unemployment and 24.6 percent general unemployment there is no hope and no end in sight. I no longer remember when the crisis began to hit the careful middle class that I grew up knowing, and the literary and artistic types I lived with in Barcelona in the exciting years after General Franco died.

First to go were vacations abroad, then it was buying clothes and eating out. Friends who had apartments left to them by their relatives tried to rent them out or sell them, but there were no takers. They moved in with each other to save money. They moved to the suburbs because it was cheaper. About 18 months ago, my friend Ana told me they had come up with a wonderful idea: Once a month her friends would come over and bring a dish, and they’d all watch a DVD together. It sounded like fun until my husband pointed out: “That means they don’t go to the movies anymore either.” Last June in Barcelona, Ana said: “We know none of us will work again. What we worry about is the young people. All those 20- and 30-year-olds living at home with their parents.”

Police and the 15-M movement

Anya Schiffrin
Jul 29, 2011 17:04 UTC

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.

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