Letters from Spain #5: Elections and Opera

Letters from Spain #5: Elections and Opera

Here is episode five of my podcast about life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-5-elections-and-opera/id1469809686?i=1000456741892

For the full transcript, see below:


Winter is in the air here in Madrid. It’s not just the cold that lets you know, but the smell. The churro trucks have now taken their positions in the city, selling that most wonderful of Spanish junk foods. I was surprised, when I first came to Spain, to learn that churros, by themselves, are not particularly sweet. In fact, if anything they’re a little salty. The secret is chocolate. Spaniards dip their churros in a thick liquid chocolate. And when they’re done with the churro, they drink the chocolate. At first I could not understand how old women managed to chug down such a viscous, heavy drink. The first time I tried it, I thought I would choke—the chocolate is nothing like our American hot chocolate, which is so milky. But, now I can happily have two or three of those chocolates.

The other staple of Spanish streets in wintertime are the chestnuts. Vendors roast chestnuts on charcoal grills, creating a wonderful aroma that spreads everywhere. It’s fantastic.

Well, another week has rolled around. And it has been an eventful one. Most notably, this last Sunday, the tenth of November, Spain has had its elections. Now, there is nothing that makes me feel quite so much like a foreigner as when there are elections. Of course, not being a Spanish citizen, I cannot vote. And even though I live in Spain, I don’t have very much to gain or to lose by the results of the elections. So I feel very left out. Besides all that, like many Americans I have had trouble understanding how a foreign country’s government—Spain’s government—works.

I will try not to bore you with the details—which I don’t even know anyways—but here’s what I have learned so far. Spain’s democracy is quite young, since it only began in 1978 with the death of Franco. The country has had literally dozens of constitutions throughout its history, beginning with the Napoleonic invasions, but the current constitution is only the second fully democratic one. (The first one, of 1931, lasted only five years until the Spanish Civil War and ended when Franco took power.) Before his death, Franco groomed the prince of Spain, Juan Carlos, to be his dictatorial heir. But the young monarch surprised everyone after Franco died by moving resolutely in the direction of democracy. And so, to make a long story short, the current government was born.

Like many countries around the world, Spain has a parliamentary system. This is confusing for Americans. In America we vote separately for the legislature—our representatives and senators—and for the president. In Spain, on the other hand, the president is not directly chosen by the people (or even the electoral college), but instead by the legislature. So basically, if one party achieves a majority in the parliament, the leader of that party will become the president. This means that you can’t have the president be of one party and then the congress controlled by the opposing party, which so often happens in America. For this reason, parliamentary systems are often more decisive than the American model, since there aren’t so many checks and balances between the legislature and executive, and the two are much more closely involved.

Now, the situation is more complicated if no single party achieves a majority. This is what happened in the recent elections. Then, the government must be run by a coalition, which usually means that the party with the most votes needs to cut a deal with a smaller party (or two…) in order to achieve the necessary majority. To be specific, the country’s socialist party, PSOE, won the most votes this last election, but not enough to have an absolute majority. To achieve a majority, they teamed up with a party called Podemos, a left-wing populist party. Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the socialists, is therefore now the president, and the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesías, is the vice president. So Spain, unlike many European countries nowadays, has a leftist government. But to maintain power these two parties not only need to work with each other—which has been difficult for them recently—but to work with several smaller, regional parties, most notably those Catalonian parties that favor independence. We’ll see if they can work it out.

I should mention another curious aspect of parliamentary systems, at least from the perspective of an American. In Spain, there is no fixed timing for elections. The Spanish don’t, like us, automatically vote every four years, even though politicians do have term limits. Rather, elections happen when there are special circumstances. For example, a government may call a snap election in the hopes of bolstering its majority—this is what happened this past April, which was the last election. (So the last election was just a few months ago.) Or elections may be held if the current parliament fails to form a working majority or coalition, maybe because one party is holding out in the hopes of better election results. This is what recently happened. (It didn’t pan out for the socialists.)

Oh, and I should mention that Spain is still technically a monarchy, even though the king does not have any real power. King Felipe VI is the head of state in Spain. From what I can tell, though lots of Spaniards don’t like having a monarchy, and though some Spaniards are die-hard monarchists, most people don’t seem to pay the monarchy much mind. It’s not like England, where the royal family are tabloid celebrities.

Anyways, anyways, I don’t want to bore you with a treatise on Spanish government. Even Spanish people don’t talk that much about Spanish politics, at least compared to how much we Americans talk about American politics. Ironically, however, the voter turnout in Spain is higher than it is in America! This can be hard for us Americans to believe, since we like to think we invented democracy, and in any case we spend so much energy on politics. But most of Europe has us beat in that regard. Maybe it helps that elections in Spain are on Sundays, and not Tuesdays.

The funny thing about the recent elections is that, from what I can tell, most Spaniards aren’t talking about who won, but rather but who lost. During the rise of Trump and the whole Brexit fiasco—not to mention similar right-wing populist movements in Europe—many commentators noted Spain’s seeming immunity from this phenomenon. Commentators said, “Oh, they remember Franco.” But that is no longer the case. A new, far-right party, Vox, surprised everyone by winning more seats in congress than either Podemos or Ciudadanos (a centrist party that used to be a major player), making it the third-largest party in the country, after the socialists and the old conservative party. Vox conforms to many of the far-right stereotypes: anti-European Union, anti-Islam, anti-femminist, anti-LGBT, and so on. One would have hoped that this strain of Spanish politics had died with Franco. But history is never so tidy.

Well, I’ve given you this whole spiel about the Spanish government, and yet this was not the most interesting part of my weekend. Not by a long-shot. I recently discovered that Madrid’s opera house, the royal theater—a massive building right next to the royal palace—offers discount tickets for people under thirty. This, for the moment, includes me! So this last Sunday I went to the box office two hours before the show, and got myself a good seat for only nineteen euros. Keep in mind that this could have cost me five times as much if I were older. The opera was L’elisir d’Amore, by Donizetti—a kind of farcical Romantic comedy. Let me tell you, I have seldom felt both so fancy and so shabby as when I went to see an opera in a red t-shirt.

Opera is only the tip of the performance iceberg in Madrid. Largely thanks to my girlfriend—who is a theater maniac—I have discovered that Madrid is extremely rich in theater of every kind. To name just a few of the city’s excellent theaters, there is the Teatro Lara, the Teatro del Canal, the Teatro de la Comedia, the Teatro Español, and so on. Dozens and dozens of theaters, some of them small holes in the wall, and some of them elaborately decorated spaces. I have seen Shakespeare’s Othello performed as a sado-masochistic dystopian work, and I have seen classic plays from the Spanish Golden Age performed with perfect correctness. Besides being simply fun, visiting the theater is a wonderful way to practice my Spanish and to immerse myself in Spanish culture.

Like the Opera, many theaters—particularly the fancier ones—offer generous discounts to young people. This is common all over Europe. If you are 26 or under (unfortunately not me, at the moment), you can visit many of Europe’s famous monuments for cheap or even for free. The Prado in Madrid, for example, is free if you are under 27. You can even get discounts on public transportation. Up until the age of 26, you can get a transit pass that includes all of the trains, metros, and buses in the entire Madrid metropolitan area—going all the way to Toledo—for only twenty euros a month. Although I am obviously biased, I think this is a wonderful idea. It certainly helps to encourage young people to take advantage of all of the available cultural experiences they can. My girlfriend, for example, could never have developed such a terrible addiction to the theater if it weren’t so cheap for her. 

The idea of a “youth discount” is one of the many small ways that life in Europe can seem so much more accessible and accommodating than life in the United States. It is certainly difficult to imagine the New York Subway letting you ride the entire network for only 20 bucks a month. And imagine if the Metropolitan Opera offered 19 dollar tickets to anyone under thirty! Now that I’ve discovered these youth tickets, maybe I’ll take the opportunity to become an opera addict. It’s certainly better than being addicted to politics.

Letters from Spain #4: Spanish Banks

Letters from Spain #4: Spanish Banks

Here is episode four of my podcast on life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-4-spanish-banks/id1469809686?i=1000456144590

For the transcript, see below:


This week I wanted to concentrate on what I have discovered to be one of the greatest differences between Spain and the United States: Banks. It is a telling contrast, as I hope to show. Most Americans, after opening bank accounts here, are astounded to learn how limited are the hours in which the banks remain open. My local bank back in NY, for example, is open until six o’clock Monday through Friday, and until two in the afternoon on Saturdays. A typical Spanish bank schedule is to be open until two in the afternoon Monday through Friday, and possibly later on Thursdays. Nothing on weekends.

You realize, of course, that this means there is no time that a person with a normal working schedule can visit the bank. Consequently, half the time I visit a bank, most of the clients inside are retired. This is certainly an odd situation. Normally, the limited hours of banks are not really a problem, I admit, since I just need an ATM. But there are times when it is desperately necessary. All government fees, for example, cannot be paid in the government office itself, but must be paid in a bank—don’t ask me why. So if, like me, you need to visit government offices to do the paperwork for your visa, or even if you want to sign up for language classes at the government schools, then you need to figure out when you can visit an open bank.

But the differences between Spanish and American banking cultures goes far deeper. To illustrate this difference, here are two anecdotes.

The first anecdote is about my brother. Upon arriving to Spain and opening a bank account—I won’t say the bank’s name—he transferred money from his American to his Spanish account, in order to withdraw it without fees. Something went wrong with this transfer, though, and he received three times the amount of money he had sent. You can imagine he was very happy. That is, until the bank automatically froze his account.

Now here’s another curious thing about the way banks are set up here. If you have any serious administrative issue to resolve, you can’t just go to any office of your bank. You need to go to the office where you opened your account. So my brother couldn’t go to the bank around the corner. He had to travel half an hour in the metro.

When he arrived, the interaction went something like this.

“There’s a problem with my account,” he said. “Let me see…, no, it’s fine,” the clerk said. “But it’s not working at all.” “There’s no problem with your account.” “My ATM card doesn’t work and there’s too much money in my account.” “Let me see…” At this point the bank clerk got up from his desk and accompanied my brother to the ATM outside, to see for himself that the card didn’t work. Then, after witnessing it, he went back to his chair. “Ah, I see now,” the clerk said. “Your account is frozen.” “Yes,” my brother said. “How do I fix it?” “We’ll take care of it,” the clerk said. “It will be fine in a couple of days.”

This sounds reassuring. But this exact conversation replayed itself four times before the problem could be properly addressed. My brother arrived for several weeks in a row, and each time the clerks would insist that nothing was wrong with his account. Then, they would insist that the problem would be taken care of. The solution, it turned out, was rather complicated. Somehow my brother ended up with money from a Lithuanian bank, and he had to send it back.

What was striking for us Americans was the behavior of the bank staff. How could it be that their computer system did not clearly indicate that there was a problem? Why was it so difficult to figure out how to fix it? And why were the clerks so keen on insisting that there was no problem, or that it would be taken care of very soon? 

As you contemplate these questions, let me tell you an anecdote of my own.

I know that I’ve been in Spain for quite a while, since my debit card, the one that I had gotten during my first weeks in the country, was about to expire. Foreseeing an issue, I went to my local bank a month before its expiration. Trying to avoid any delay, I requested that the card be sent to this office, which is around the corner from my house. That way it would be easy to pick up. The clerk assured me that he had put a notice into the system and it would be there before my old card stopped working. All well and good.

The month rolled around, and I got a text message saying that my new card had been sent. But there was a problem: it had been sent, not to the office near my apartment, but to the original bank where I opened my account. To add to the annoyance, the message sent to me told me the street where the bank was located (I hadn’t been there in years) but not the number. As I learned from Google, there are two of my banks on the same street.

I proceeded to call both banks. After I figured out which was the right one, I asked if they had my card. Two people looked, and told me no. So now I was lost. Was the card sent to my local office after all? The next chance I could, I went to my local office, and I asked the same man if they had my card. “No, it’ll be at the office where you opened your account,” he said. “I called,” I replied, “and it’s not there. Can they send it here?” “It’s better to just go there and get it,” he said. “Well, the problem is that I have a job,” I said, “and I don’t work anywhere near this bank.” “What do you want us to do?” the clerk said, adopting the typical Spanish strategy of throwing the guilt back on you. “You should’ve had the card sent to your apartment.” “Ok,” I said, becoming impatient. “But what should I do now?” “Find a way to go to that bank,” he said.

To emphasize, this bank office closes most days at 2 p.m., and I work until 4:30 p.m. over an horu away. The only chance I had was to go on a Thursday, when the bank closes at 6. If I went straight there from work, I could just barely make it in time. I should also mention that, despite my calling twice and having two separate people check for my card, the office really did have it. The problem was that they filed the card under A, for my middle name Andrew. In Spain people have two last names, you see (one from their father and one from their mother), and no middle names, so the bank staff confused my middle name for one of my last names.

Ok, so my card was going to expire soon. Thursday came around. I had to rush from my job to the office. I left work and walked to the train station. A train was waiting. Perfect. I got on board and began to read. But there was a problem: the train sat for a long time without moving. When it finally did begin to move, it went slowly, and spent a long time parked at each stop. What was going on? It took us fifteen minutes to go three stations, which normally takes less than five minutes. At the next stop the train stopped completely. It was packed with people desperate, like me, to get into Madrid. Nobody knew why the train was stopped, or when the next train would be. Even the security guards in the station had no idea.

Another train pulled up across from us, and then, obeying a herd mentality, everyone switched to the new train. Then the original train began to move. We switched back—hundreds of people rushing across the platform. By this point I gave up and sat down on a bench. The train was too packed to get on, anyway. As I contemplated my next move, the other train, the one without anyone on it, closed its doors and left the station. The crowd erupted in anger. A man began to shriek in a falsetto at the security guards, blaming them for telling everyone to switch trains.

Eventually the security guard began to shout back, and a hilarious screeching contest ensued. I was too amused to feel very worried. Then, without any warning, the doors of the original train—the one with people one it—closed, and the train left the station. Now, this has nothing to do with banks, but I was dumbstruck that the people driving the trains did not simply announce over their PA systems which train was going to leave. Such an absurd situation would never have occurred on the Metro North, where I live in New York. Then again, I later learned that the delay was caused by a strike, which is another thing that seldom happens in my country.

Anyways, I wait for the next train, which slowly makes its way to Madrid. By the time it arrived in Atocha, I only had about twenty minutes. I ran into a cab and told the driver to take me to the bank on X street. In the few minutes of the ride, I asked the driver about her job. She works over twelve hours a day, with hardly a break for meals. And they say Spanish people are lazy! Undoubtedly this gruelling schedule is partly a result of the new competition from other services like Uber. But that’s another story.

The cab pulled up to the bank, I paid and got out. Here at last! I marched into the bank and asked for my card. The man searched for my name in the computer. “Hmmm,” he says. “Your card isn’t here. It’s at the other bank on X street, about eight minutes away.” Of course! I had forgotten that there are two of these banks on the same street! I rushed out of the office, running like mad to the other bank. I got there about seven minutes before they close.

The only clerk at the desk was occupied with somebody. It looked like a rather complicated issue they were resolving. I began to panic. All this for nothing! Yet just when I was on the point of giving in to self-pity, a woman came walking in, talking on her phone. “Ah, sorry,” she said, seeing me. “Ok dad, I’ll call you back.” This, by the way, was another perfect little moment of Spanish culture: a bank clerk happily strolling in after going outside to chat with her dad. To add to this absurd impression, the clerk actually took a call from a friend in the middle of giving me my card. They are a social people, the Spanish.

Well, after going on for such a long, long time about the inconvenience of Spanish banking, I ought to add that I managed to lose this debit card within two weeks of this ordeal. Thus the circle of incompetence is completed. This time, I asked for my replacement card to be sent to me in the mail. It arrived in three days. The banks, as usual, have the last laugh.

Review: The Red and the Black

Review: The Red and the Black
The Red and the Black

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Good heavens! Is being happy, is being loved no more than that?

Few books have so totally engrossed me as this French novel written nearly two hundred years ago. Stendhal has aged very well. The novel is just fun to read: with short chapters, simple prose, and a plot that keeps the reader constantly wondering. That the novel was not widely appreciated during Stendhal’s own lifetime shows how much literary taste has changed. Whether this change has been for the better is difficult to say. But at least we can now appreciate Stendhal’s masterpiece.

For me, Stendhal’s signature effect is the interplay of Romantic idealism and deflating realism. Like his contemporary Balzac, Stendhal catches the world in his net. Every character, scene, and situation is carefully realistic. Though hardly a political novel, Stendhal succeeds in painting a subtle and compelling portrait of his age—the dynamic between the provinces and Paris, the political clashes between liberals and royalists, the relationship between the peasants, the clergy, and the old aristocracy. His characters, while individual, are also recognizable types, which he uses to dissect and analyze the social realities of his age.

Yet acting as a great counterweight to the ballast of detail is Stendhal’s famous psychological acuteness. This turns what would potentially be a dated social study into a gripping story of universal import. For his protagonist, Stendhal creates Julien Sorel—passionate, brilliant, stubborn, naïve, calculating, ambitious, and manifestly unfit for his social station.

Stendhal, a liberal himself, could easily have written a kind of morality tale about what happens when a man of great gifts is born in the lower ranks of society, with hardly any legitimate way of advancing. This is indeed Julien Sorel’s position. This morality tale would show us a good-hearted man, doing his best to be recognized for his genius, but overcome by circumstances. Yet Julien is infinitely more interesting for being both flawed and devious. Stendhal does not only show us how society makes his lot difficult, but, far more subtly, shows us how society deforms his psyche.

Deprived of any external encouragement, Julien’s motivation must come from worldly ambition and an egoistic pride. Since his only path to advancement is through people he despises—the clergy and the aristocracy—Julien must be dishonest, hypocritical, and ever-cautious. Forced to suppress his own emotions so constantly, and forced so frequently to act against his inclinations, whenever Julien is given a taste of kindness, love, or happiness, he loses control and threatens to undo all that his calculating subtlety had accomplished.

This psychological portrait is so perfectly realized that we both sympathize with, root for, and yet see through Julien Sorel. He is extraordinary, and yet painfully limited by his surroundings. His tragedy is that circumstances deprived the world of what he could have been had he been born in a different time and place. That Stendhal could create, at the same time, a universal morality tale, a realistic sketch of society, a vivid psychological study, and a thrilling novel—complete with a burning love story—all in the simplest prose, is a testament to the author’s high art.



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