One of my short stories was published in the latest edition of Writer’s Block. You can find the entire issue in pdf form by following this link. My story is on page 30.
This morning my coworker, Erika, and I were interviewed for a local Spanish radio station, Santa María de Toledo, about being an English teacher in Spain. I was very nervous, since the interview was in Spanish, and at times I think I didn’t properly understand the questions. But, feel free to take a listen
Here is the final episode of season 2 of my podcast series about life in Spain. This one takes a look at history.
This is the link to the Apple Podcast:
And here is the video on YouTube:
See the transcript below:
As I mentioned in my last podcast, it’s pretty hard to do a podcast about Spanish life when everything has been turned upside down. Normally I take inspiration from what I can see in any given week, or from a recent trip. But I’ve just been seeing the inside of my apartment and, occasionally, of the nearby grocery stores. However, I can’t leave this podcast season incomplete. After all, I just have one episode to go to make a nice, round, even twenty episodes. And since it’s hard to talk about day-to-day Spanish life during the coronavirus times, I thought it would be good to revisit the last time in Spain’s history when daily life was so completely turned upside down.
I’m talking, of course, about the Civil War of 1936-39. Of course, in this podcast I can’t hope to do a real thorough history of this war. If you want that, there are plenty of great books on the market. If I tried to even list the major writers on the war, I’d be here all night. In fact, the Spanish Civil War is only behind World War II in the number of books dedicated to the subject. That is pretty crazy, considering that far more people died in World War I or even the Vietnam War. But the conflict has an enduring fascination, for quite a few reasons.
So here’s the basic background. Spain came out of the 19th century in pretty bad shape. The Napoleonic invasions, in the early 1800s, successfully introduced the idea of constitutional government into the country. After that, things were never quite the same for the Spanish monarchy. There were tensions everywhere: between the monarchy and the church, between the church and the people, between advocates for different branches of the royal family, between the rich and the poor, between liberals, monarchists, carlists, and anarchists, and that’s just the beginning. Spain was steadily losing its overseas colonies, a process that ended in the humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American war in 1898, when the decadence of Spain’s power finally sunk in for a lot of people.
In the early 20th century, Spain was economically backward. Industrialization had come late to the country, and for the most part hadn’t come at all. Spain was still mostly agricultural. Not only that, but the country was highly decentralized, as it is now. Each region had its own organization, its own politics, and many regions had their own languages. In the places where industrialization had taken hold, like in Barcelona and Asturias, organized labor had become a powerful force. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get rid of the corrupt and inefficient government, Miguel Primo de Rivera seized power in a military coup in 1923. (Spain has had a lot of military coups.) He ruled for about seven years, until he too had to renounce power. By then there was popular support for democracy. The king absconded, and the Second Republic was born.
The Second Republic survived for five tense years, 1931 to 1936. As you can imagine, democratic government didn’t exactly heal the rifts in Spanish society. Political tensions spilled into violence all too often. There were street fights, riots, brutality between bosses and workers, and even a violent uprising in Asturias (which was put down by Franco). Basically nobody was satisfied. There were conservative parties, fascist parties, liberal parties, and anarchists and socialists who thought the entire system was broken—which it undoubtedly was. An unsteady and ineffective center-left coalition was in control in 1936. But that was just the beginning.
The military had secretly begun planning an uprising to seize control, as they had done many times in the past. The spark that set off the conflict was the assassination of José Calvo Sotelo, a conservative politician, who was killed by the bodyguards of the socialist party leader. Shortly thereafter, all around the country, military units attempted to seize control. If the plan had gone perfectly, there would have been no war. But it didn’t go as plan—at least not everywhere. In the weeks following the start of the uprising, on July 17, the rebel forces controlled about a third of the country. This included most of Spain’s north, a lot of the center, and a pocket of the southern coast. The government maintained control of Madrid, as well as the prosperous eastern coast—including Valencia and Barcelona.
At this point, the government didn’t seem to be in such a bad position. After all, they had more fighting men. They had the big cities and the big factories. They had the money. Most of the areas that the rebels conquered had a low population density and were mainly agricultural. If no outside party had gotten involved, then I think it fairly probable that the rebellion would have been defeated. But of course that was not to be. Spain, instead, became the laboratory of Europe, where all of the newly radical ideologies came to clash for the first time.
Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany came to the aide of the rebels, while Stalin’s Soviet Russia offered supplies to the government forces. The rest of the world’s governments, however, wanted no part in the conflict. They were understandably wary of being dragged into another world war, after the terrible experience of the last one (though of course they couldn’t avoid it in the end). So England, France, and the United States signed a non-intervention pact, which forbid them to give or even to sell weapons to the Spanish government.
Meanwhile, people from all over the world began to pour into the country. There were lots of Italian and German soldiers, of course. (My girlfriend’s grandfather was one of these Italian soldiers, which is why she has an Italian last name.) On the Republican side, there were volunteers from all over—Ireland, England, the United States, France, and even some Germans and Italians. For the most part, these were inexperienced, idealistic young men who wanted a chance to fight against fasicsm. George Orwell was one of them. They formed the famous International Brigades.
Needless to say, the idealism and heroism of young volunteers wasn’t enough to stop German tanks and fighter planes and bombs. Simply put, the Republic soon found itself outgunned. Meanwhile, the organization of the rebel side soon consolidated under Francisco Franco, who was relatively young at the time, but who made a name for himself by leading the crack African troops in Spain’s wars to suppress its colonial uprisings in North Africa. (In fact, Franco had been sent to the Canary Islands right before the war, but he managed to return with his North African troops.) The Republican side, on the other hand, did not consolidate so easily. There were many different left-wing parties which had their own organizations, and which often did not agree. When George Orwell finally fled Spain, it wasn’t from the fascists, but from the Stalinists which had seized control in Barcelona.
In a series of bloody battles, the rebel forces gradually wore down the Republicans. Life for the civilian population had also taken a dark turn. There were summary executions on both sides of the lines. Neighbors denounced neighbors, and people were taken from their houses, shot, and buried in anonymous graves. The famous poet, Federico García Lorca, was killed, as well as countless others. To this day, Spain is the country with the most mass graves in the world, after Cambodia. Hundreds of thousands still remain buried across the country, many still undiscovered.
To make a very long and sad story short, the rebels won. Franco seized power in 1939, and he didn’t give it up until his death in 1975. His rule effectively kept the country poor and backward for another thirty years. To this day, the people who grew up in the opening years of his reign—people who are senior citizens now—are very noticeably shorter than their children and grandchildren, largely because of the widespread malnutrition in those years. After Franco’s very timely demise, Spain did finally make the transition to democracy, in no small part thanks to King Juan Carlos I, whom Franco had appointed as his successor. The Spanish constitution was voted into being in 1978, thus inaugurating modern Spain.
As you can see, Spain has historically had a lot of tensions running through it. And the same is true today. Spain still has regional tensions, most notably in Catalonia and the Basque Country. And it is still difficult to talk about the Civil War. Franco’s Spain didn’t end that long ago. Many people alive remember it well. Some people actively supported it. There are still living veterans of the Spanish Civil War, on both sides. In any case, Civil Wars are just inherently painful—the sense of betrayal and distrust is everywhere. Even though America’s Civil War happened a long time before Spain’s, it still causes controversy.It will be interesting to see how this current crisis affects Spain. Maybe nothing will really change, and we’ll all go back to normal. Maybe it will strengthen xenophobia and the populist right party, Vox. Or maybe it will engender a new sense of solidarity and unity in its citizens. I really have no idea. Spanish politics, as ever, are difficult to predict. But Spanish culture is a different matter. Spanish culture managed to emerge from a century of conflict, a bloody civil war, and a repressive dictatorship, and I know that Spanish culture will emerge from this crisis, too. It’s only a matter of time.
The next episode of my Spanish podcast is out, this one about Spanish eating culture. Here’s the link to apple podcasts:
And here’s the video:
See the transcript below:
It’s been pretty hard for me to motivate myself to do this podcast lately, now that everything is so crazy. After all, this podcast is about life in Spain, and life in Spain has basically stopped thanks to the coronavirus. The streets are empty, the cafés are closed. Here in Spain, we’re not even allowed to go on walks or exercise in the open air, unlike people are in most other countries. So I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of Spanish life lately.
But all this isolation has given me a lot of time to think. And the lockdowns being carried out all around the world are creating rather interesting conditions to compare countries side by side. The way people will react to them is partly a result of culture, I think. To be honest, I’m quite surprised at how Spain is reacting to the lockdown. In my experience, Spanish people are being quite cooperative. The streets are mostly empty and I haven’t really seen any disobedience with my own eyes. It’s bringing out a sense of solidarity in Spanish culture that I’ve never seen before. Everyone seems quite willing to do their part. And every night, at 8 pm, everyone gathers on their balconies and cheers for the doctors and nurses. Some people are even cheering for the police!
I doubt that Americans will adjust so easily to a lockdown. Though they’re both recognizably Western cultures, I think Americans are more concerned with notions of freedom and rights than people are in Spain (where democracy is younger), and so I doubt many Americans will be comfortable with having police cars patrol their neighborhoods, giving big fines to anyone disobeying the orders. Speaking for myself, I admit that it does make me feel queasy. But maybe I’m wrong, and the crisis will bring out a sense of solidarity and cooperation in America, too. After all, I didn’t predict that Spanish people—who love going outside and being social—would adjust so easily to being inside.
Now that we’re seeing Italy and Spain hit hard by this disease, it makes me wonder if culture has something to do with this. In this podcast I’ve repeatedly talked about the Spaniards love of proximity. This is true on every level. They like high density living, they like getting real close when they talk to each other, they like crowded bars. Spanish people just want to be close. Also, physical contact is much more permissible here, and kissing and handshaking is done ritualistically. Another interesting point to consider is that Spaniards have a lot of cross-generational contact. Lots of people live with their parents well into their twenties, and Spanish people keep in very close touch with their elderly parents and grandparents, often going to visit them every other weekend. Unfortunately, all of these aspects of Spanish culture may have made them more susceptible.
Well, in this podcast I don’t want to speculate about the virus. Rather, I want to pay homage to one of my favorite aspects of Spanish culture: its eating culture. This is one of the things from my daily life that I really miss, and I very much hope that we can beat this virus as quickly as possible, so we can get back to the good life of food and drink.
There are some obvious differences between Spanish and American eating cultures. The most obvious is probably just the schedule. In Spain, you eat late. Typical time for lunch is 2-3, and for dinner it can be from 9 all the way to 11. Another obvious difference is the quantity of food consumed in each meal. In America we have pretty big breakfasts, medium-sized lunches, and big dinners. In Spain, breakfast is usually light, lunch is very big, and dinner is medium-sized. In general, portions in Spain are quite a bit smaller than they are in the US, but that’s not saying much I suppose.
To me, the most important differences in the eating culture aren’t the times or the portions, but the restaurant and bar culture. I think Spain has a claim to having the world’s greatest bar culture, and this is for a few reasons. One reason is that there are just so many. Spanish people love being in public, and the number of eating establishments reflects that. Madrid, for example, has over 15,000 bars and restaurants, which translates to 1 for every 211 residents. This means that everyone in the entire city could literally go to a bar or a restaurant at the same time, and there would be enough space. And the city basically does do that.* On any day, at any given hour, there are tons of people sitting in bars, cafés, and restaurants.
Becauses eating establishments are so common and so fundamental to Spanish life, they have a very different aesthetic as they do in America. In America we go to restaurants or bars on weekends, holidays, or for special occasions. For this reason, they put more effort into creating a special ambience with music and decoration. Many bars and restaurants in Madrid are not like that. They are bare-boned, no-frills (as one well-known website calls them). They’re just for hanging out. A big advantage is that there’s often no music, so you can have a decent conversation. Also, the lights are usually not dimmed, so you can see the people around you. The ambience is more like your own living room.
Another huge difference is the lack of a tipping culture. Americans don’t really realize how much tipping affects our eating experience. Aside from the simple fact of having to calculate and pay the tip—which I find pretty annoying, now that I’m used to not doing it—tipping has a big effect on the entire experience. Waiters are motivated to be ingratiating, accommodating, but also fast. They want you in and out as fast as comfortably possible, since more people in and out translates into more money for them. And they will bend over backwards to give you good service. In Spain, it’s not like that at all. Most places don’t care if you stay there all night. And getting the attention of a Spanish waiter is famously difficult. They don’t have to pretend to love you.
Personally, on the whole, I think it’s much, much better. I don’t like being rushed out of restaurants. And I find this whole ritual of deciding how much a waiter “deserves” to be demeaning. I think waiters should just be paid a living wage so they can do their jobs serving food without having to be actors, too. I can never entirely relax in an American restaurant because of the pressure I feel to finish, the constant questions of “Would you like anything else?” and “Is everything alright?” In a Spanish restaurant, you can be as comfortable as in your own living room.
Another interesting difference between Spanish and American eating establishments is that Spanish bars and restaurants can often be quite generic. Since eating out is sort of a special experience in America, we expect eat restaurant to have something special, something that sets it apart. But in Spain, where eating out is as common as eating in, restaurants can be pretty standard. I like this a lot, since you always know what there is and what you can get, no matter where you are. And it makes ordering a lot easier. For example, you don’t need to specify the beer you want. The beer is standard, and you just specify how big a glass you want. Also, you don’t need to choose the wine from an elaborate wine menu. You can just order “white” or “red” and you get the standard wine. It’s actually kind of liberating not to have to make so many choices. I’m not a connoisseur, after all.
The menus from Spanish restaurants can also be really very similar. That’s because, in Spain, the eating culture is much more based on a national tradition than it is in America. There are national dishes here and that’s what everyone eats most of the time. What sets restaurants apart is not anything special on their menu, but just the quality of a typical Spanish dish. One place might have really good paella, for example, and another place has really good tortilla. The funny thing is, if you haven’t had much Spanish food, you might not be able to appreciate the difference. But once you’ve eaten a lot of it, you realize that it’s worth looking for a really good tortilla.
To sum up, the greatest thing about Spanish eating culture is that it’s for everyone, all the time. It’s a beautiful part of Spanish life, and I think it is an important and even a fundamental part of Spanish life. I loved it before this crisis, and now that I am deprived of it I love it even more. So consider this my homage, my tribute, to a special part of the culture that I hope we will be able to return to as soon as possible.
*I made a mistake in the recorded version of this podcast, saying 1 bar per 21 residents. In reality, not every resident could go to a bar at once.
Here is the next episode of my Spanish podcast. This one is about the joy of Spanish cities (when there isn’t a pandemic, of course).
Click below for the apple podcast:
Here is the video:
See the transcript below:
It seems that I suddenly have an awful lot of time to work with. Because of the surge of coronavirus cases in Madrid, all schools have been closed, and I’ve been sent home for at least two weeks. On Friday they ordered all the shops and restaurants to be closed. And today was the first day of a nation-wide lockdown. Nobody is allowed on the streets, except to go to work, buy medicine or groceries. I think the Spanish people are mostly taking this well. True, there’s no toilet paper left in any of the shops. But people are keeping their spirits up during this difficult time. Every day, at eight o’clock, people have been gathering on their balconies to cheer the hardworking medical personnel.
It’s a pretty surreal feeling. A few weeks ago, coronavirus was just a thing happening in China. Two weeks ago, it was an Italian problem. Now it’s totally global.
Anyways, so far I am safe and sound. Meanwhile, the city of Madrid looks very, very different. It’s a complete ghost-town now. The precautions necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus go totally against the grain of Spanish culture. As I’ve talked about before, Spanish people love to be outside, to be in public, and to congregate. They greet each other with kisses and have no issues with physical contact. These qualities are—under normal circumstances—what make Spanish cities so great. In fact, I’d say that this is one of the most charming things about visiting Spain: that the city centers are always bustling with life.
A big part of this, I think, has to do with the layout of the cities itself. Every major Spanish city predates the invention of the car by centuries, and so the historical parts of these cities are always easily walkable. Really, the invention of the car was bad for city life. You can see the evidence of this almost anywhere in America, as well as in the parts of cities in Europe that have been built to accommodate car travel. On the outskirts of Madrid you enter into a kind of industrial park, where all the buildings are low-lying and spread out. When you don’t have any motivation to put things closeby, you also don’t have motivation to build up in any one place. The result is very ugly—endless asphalt, shabby buildings, and nobody on the street.
I think you can clearly see the bad effect that the car has had on city planning if you examine a place where I worked for a long time: Rivas-Vaciamadrid. Now, I don’t want to insult Rivas, because the people who live there are really quite lovely. But I think the town itself embodies everything that I dislike about modern cities. The major problem is the zoning. All the parts of Rivas are split up into discrete zones, which contain only one type of building. There are zones for single-residency houses, zones for apartment buildings, and zones for restaurants. Most of the shopping is concentrated in one giant mall. The result is deadening. There is hardly any variation to relieve your eye, since all the houses and buildings look exactly the same.
Even worse, compared to other Spanish cities, there is very little life on the street. I often had to walk from private class to private class, and I wouldn’t see more than three people during the whole time. It’s a place built for cars. There aren’t any good places to gather. True, Rivas has some big parks, but in my experience these were often empty, too. Personally I found it a bit depressing. (Again, this isn’t a reflection on the people of Rivas, who are very nice!) Going from the endlessly similar neighborhoods of the new part of Rivas to the tiny older center was always a relief. There, at least, there are some bars and cafes, and a central square with some benches.
The problem was diagnosed by Jane Jacobs. Cities are vibrant when they are mixed-use. That is, when there are lots of different sorts of things in the same neighborhood, there are that many more reasons for people to be walking on the street. And when people are on the street, the streets become that much more interesting and safe to be in. It naturally reduces the crime rate (at least for violent crime, maybe not pickpocketing), since there are always bystanders, and in general it is one of the chief delights of city life. After all, one of the constant fascinations of living in the city is seeing the human zoo on display.
A high population density can also support a wider variety of businesses, which is another of the great pleasures of city life. First and foremost, there are the cafes, restaurants, and bars. Nowadays they are much emptier than usual, but most of the time they are packed, especially on sunny days like today. I honestly wonder what is the furthest you could go in Spain from an eating establishment. You could be lost in the southern deserts and still be able to order a beer nearby. The omnipresence of restaurants is one of the great joys of Spanish life. If you want a coffee, a glass of wine, or a bite to eat, you can choose from any of the three to six establishments in eyesight. You may think I’m joking, but Spain is the country with the highest density of bars in the world. To give an example, the southern province of the country, Andalucia, has more bars than Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Ireland combined. (And by the way, Andalucia has less than half as many people as these four places.)
Another thing that’s not in short supply in Spain are the supermarkets. My neighborhood is a pretty good example of this. Within a ten minute walk from my front door there are 14 supermarkets. Fourteen! And many of them are quite big. These fourteen supermarkets represent 7 different brands, some of them Spanish, one French (Carrefour), and one German (Lidl). And this is not to mention the many butchers, vegetable shops, and bakery shops nearby. Just the other day I wandered across a very modern-looking butcher shop, which had every kind of meat you could wish for. There, I finally found a type of Spanish sausage I particularly like, called “crioll chorizo” (though the name doesn’t really make sense). My point is that you’re pretty spoiled when it comes to food selection, even if some things that are common in the US are much less common in Spain (like broccoli rabe, which I’ve never seen!).
There are two types of shops common in Spain that are often run by immigrants. One is the humble kebab shop, the most popular fast food option in Europe. I actually live on top of a kebab shop, and the smell of the spiced meats wafts up all day, giving me strange cravings. The other one is called an alimentación, which is sort of a corner shop where you buy snacks, basic amenities, and alcohol. (In Spain you don’t need a liquor license, so everywhere has booze.) Because these sorts of shops are often owned by Chinese people, they are usually called chinos by Spaniards—and I’m kind of unclear whether this is considered, or should be considered, offensive. Chino, by the way, is the standard way to refer to a Chinese person or a Chinese restaurant, of which there are a fair number in Spain.
Speaking of my own neighborhood, what else should I mention? I think by any standard there is an impressive range of businesses. There are several sports stores, for example, and they are not chains. There is a nice little one up the street that has good deals on sweatpants and sweatshirts, and a big one around the corner that has everything from fishing rods to weight lifting machines. Speaking of lifting weights, there’s also a gym—again, not a chain—a few blocks away, where my brother likes to go. And Retiro park is just five minutes up the street, where I like to go running.
Really, the longer I’ve lived in this neighborhood—which is called Pacifico—the more I have come to appreciate it. Though it isn’t a big place to go out at night, it’s a historical neighborhood that is right next to the central train station, Atocha. And I think it embodies a lot of what is good in Spanish cities. The streets are not too big and not too long, which allows for a high density of shops within easy walking distance. As a result, while usually not crowded, there’s hardly a moment when the streets are empty. A few years ago Pacifico was a sleepy part of the city, with lots of older folks. Nowadays the neighborhood seems to be gentrifying (and, no doubt, I am myself contributing to this process). There is an axe-throwing business, where you can take turns hurling a hatchet at a wooden target; there is a fancy dried-goods store, with all these different types of pastas, flours, and exotic spices; and there are lots of bio shops with organic produce and different medicinal herbs. There’s even a big technology store, and a cool book store that also serves coffee, carrot cake, and craft beer. (A specialized craft beer store just moved out of the neighborhood.)
Well, anyway, I think you get my point. There’s a lot of stuff in my neighborhood, and I think this is typical of many neighborhoods in Spain: they are mixed-use, walkable, and well connected with public transportation. In a way they are the antithesis of places that are built around cars. And I think that the result speaks for itself: it is more attractive, more interesting, and all around more livable. There’s another added bonus to living in a Spanish city: the history. Even in my quiet neighborhood, there are some important historical buildings to visit. Quite closeby is the Engine Hall, which is a kind of power station with three massive diesel generators, built for the first generation of the Madrid metro. Nowadays it is a free museum.
Not very far is the Royal Tapestry Factory. This is just one of many royal factories, which were established in the 1700s by the Bourbon monarchs in an effort to emulate the French mercantile model. These are basically state-run organizations that made luxury goods for the royal family. The glass factory, for example, is in the town of La Granja, near one of Spain’s great palaces. The tapestry factory is a brick building with a big smokestack, where some of the finest neoclassical tapestries were made for the Spanish court. No less an artist than Goya made designs for these tapestries, and his original paintings are hanging on the top floor of the Prado. Nowadays, the factory is run by a non-profit, I believe.
Quite close are two more historical landmarks: the Royal Basilica of Our Lady of Atocha, and the Pantheon of Illustrious Men. The first is an important church that is home to one of the many venerated images of the Virgin. The basilica has long been a center of religious and royal life in the city. Bartolomé de las Casas is even buried here—the monk who was one of the first Spaniards to raise awareness about the cruelty of colonization in the Americas. Nextdoor is the Pantheon, which used to be a convent. In the 1800s it was seized from the church and turned into a kind of celebration of civic Spaniards, with elaborate funerary monuments distributed around the old cloister. It’s actually quite a beautiful place, even though I’ve never heard of any of the people buried there.
Hmmm, it seems that I started a podcast about Spanish city planning, and ended up just talking about how much I like my neighborhood. But I do think that my neighborhood illustrates the ways that a city can be a joyous place. And personally I think that it is a much healthier and saner way to live than having everything spread out, like they’re on little islands, making a car necessary. Cars are convenient things, but you can’t have a car community. I think modern city planners should take a look at these historical neighborhoods and do their best to recreate them. Otherwise, we’ll be condemned to a life of seclusion and isolation, cooped up in our homes, driving from place to place—like we all have coronavirus all the time! It’s not a good way to live.
Unfortunately, even the good neighborhoods that exist are in constant risk of being rendered unlivable by rising rents. And this is a consequence of real estate investing and gentrification. Perhaps it is significant that Vienna, which is often considered the most livable city in the world, has extensive public housing projects—for almost half of its population. At the moment, Madrid’s own housing market is pretty unregulated, and I think this can easily lead to a situation of average, everyday people being pushed out of the center into the outskirts. This is a hollowing out that has already affected places like London and New York, since it basically kills the liveliness that makes these places so attractive to begin with—making them neighborhoods of empty homes owned by wealthy people, or else Airbnbs, with small businesses being bought out by big chains. Whatever the government can do to prevent this kind of situation, I’d welcome it.
My new podcast is out, this one on European Travel. (Yes, a little silly during the coronavirus crisis, but I didn’t plan it this way.) For the apple podcast, click here:
Here is the YouTube video:
For the (loose) transcript, see below:
Well, my podcast this week has been delayed because of a trip. It was my first international trip of the school year, and it was great. My brother and I went to Kraków, Poland—a lovely city, with a well-preserved historical center. Relatively nearby are two major tourist attractions: Auschwitz (very depressing) and the Wieliczka salt mines (very impressive). But maybe the best part of the trip was the food. Every dish was heavy, plentiful, and delicious. Even the coffee and the beer was good. And I was reminded how generally pleasant European travel can be. Arguably, it’s the best part of living here.
Admittedly, it seems like an awkward time to be writing a podcast about traveling, because of the coronavirus outbreak. Just last week, I had a brief layover in Milan, and now Milan is under quarantine, with the rest of Northern Italy. And I just received notice that Madrid will be shutting down schools for the next two weeks. Two weeks! What will I do with myself? Next thing I know, we’ll be under quarantine, too. So I guess it’s not the best time to talk about European travel, now that everyone is cancelling their vacations. However, this crisis will pass, and Europe will once again open its doors to travelers. So here I go!
The major difference between traveling in Europe and in the United States is that Europe is packed with variety. Traveling to another country is like traveling to another state—cheap, easy, and quick. You can get on a plane and, in an hour or two, get out in a place where the people speak an entirely different language, eat different food, where the architecture, music, art, and even the landscape itself is totally different. The whole continent of Europe isn’t bigger than the US. And when you consider that most people travel to Western Europe, you’re talking about an area of land about the size of one American coast.
The main reason why so much cultural variety is packed into such a comparatively small space is, simply, the amount of history that has gone by. America is one big country, and a young country, too; so a lot of the country can seem extremely homogeneous, since it is the result of rapid expansion. And a lot of this expansion happens when means of transport and communication were relatively rapid. Meanwhile, Europe grew out of ancient populations, and virtually every little town and city was relatively isolated for long periods of time. Cultural differences grow and accumulate during all this time; and this is why, in Europe, every region has its own traditional dishes, traditional dances, traditional music, and so on. This is true both within countries and between countries: there is an awful lot of regional variation packed into a relatively small space.
This naturally makes traveling in Europe quite endlessly fascinating. Poland, for example, is not too far away from Spain, but it is absolutely unmistakably distinct. And this goes far deeper than surface features like food and architecture. The two countries have been shaped by quite different historical forces, and so even their cultures have notable contrasts, such as their concepts of personal space and their senses of humor. But I don’t want to overstate my case and argue that they have nothing in common, either. Both Poland and Spain have been heavily influenced by capitalism, for example, and they have both gone through periods of totalitarian rule and repression in the twentieth century.
So the really fascinating thing, then, is seeing Europe as a kind of variation on a theme. Every country has churches, basilicas, and cathedrals, but they all build them somewhat differently. Every country has art museums and monuments to historical events, and these are all intimately interconnected. To give just one example, the beautiful gothic altar in Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica was sculpted by a German from Nuremberg, another city that was previously a part of the Habsburg Empire. (The Habsburgs controlled Spain for a while, too, to give you another example of their historical parallels.)
So national borders are real markers of difference, but they’re also fluid. Perhaps the most famous Pole in history, Nicholas Copernicus, studied for a time in Italy, and published his book with the help of German Protestants. Frederic Chopin, born in Poland, spent most of his professional life in French, as did the Spaniard Picasso and the Dutchman Van Gogh. The more you travel around Europe, then, the more you see a rich, interconnected story unfolding across this varied landscape. In short, it’s very cool.
Anyways, even if you don’t care much about history or art, there’s another factor that makes European travel so appealing: it’s cheap. Part of the reason for this cheapness are the low-cost flights. Sometimes you can find good deals are more traditional airlines, like Iberia; and that may be the best option. But often travelers looking to save money fly with EasyJet or Ryanair. I have a lot of experience with Ryanair. I used them for my outbound and inbound flights to Poland. They are far from being my favorite airline, but their prices are pretty irresistible. My flight to Poland, for example, cost me less than 20 euros. And that’s for a three-and-a-half hour flight!
Of course, you get what you pay for. There are no amenities on Ryanair. The seats are uncomfortable, there are no screens to watch movies, no plug to charge your phone, and of course food is not included. Besides this, you need to pay extra if you want to choose your seat or even if you want to take a bag for the overhead compartment. Since I bought the cheapest ticket, I had to fit all of my stuff under the seat in front of me. Worst of all may be the advertising. On every Ryanair flight the airstewarts give long, uninspired, rambling advertisements of various products—food, perfume, lottery tickets, and even model planes —over the plane’s crackling PA system. And they do this in two or three languages, so it takes a long time. I’ve never seen anyone buy any of this junk, so in a way it feels like punishment for paying cheap prices.
As much as I like to rag on Ryanair, the truth is that I wouldn’t have been able to travel so much if it weren’t for this infamous company. There are a couple other companies and services that also help in my eternal quest to save money. A basic one is Skyscanner, a website that reliably tells you the cheapest flights. I also have used Blablacar a lot, which is a ride sharing service. Basically, let’s say I’m planning on driving from Seville to Madrid. I can put up an announcement on Blablacar and charge riders to accompany on this trip. The driver can charge whatever they want, but typically the prices are quite a bit lower than, say, paying for a high-speed train. Of course, I felt a little hesitant at first about the prospect of getting into a car with a stranger. But the website is quite well regulated and I haven’t had any truly bad experiences. It’s also a good way to find people to chat with, if you’re trying to improve your language skills.
There is one more service I use that, I admit, makes me feel a bit guilty: Airbnb. The reason that I have some scruples about Airbnb is that it can have a potentially bad effect on the housing market of wherever you’re visiting. It’s often more profitable for landlords to rent their flats short-term to visitors than long-term to locals, and this limits the supply of available residences and drives prices up. In areas with heavy tourism, this can make it almost unliveably expensive. So there is that downside. On the other hand, hotels and even youth hostels can be much, much more expensive than Airbnbs—prohibitively so, for me. In any case, I hope I am reducing the corrosive effect of Airbnbs by normally renting individual rooms (which couldn’t be rented to locals anyway) rather than whole apartments. In Prague, for example, I stayed in a little room in the apartment of a family, far outside the center. This is not only better for the city, but also in my experience more fun, since the idea is to be with locals anyways.
Well, those are my tips. If you do some searching, you can find ways to travel around Europe on an incredibly short budget. And you get a lot for money, since there are so many things to see and do, all over the place. If you’re young—younger than 26, in most cases—then you can get added discounts on museums and monuments. Added to all this, there is also the convenience of the European Union. Now that I’m being paid in Euros, I don’t have to worry about conversion rates if I go to Italy, Germany, or Ireland. There is also something that’s called the Schengen Zone: a zone of countries where no visa or even passport is needed at the border. Flying from Spain to Italy, then, is legally the same as taking a domestic flight. You just walk right into the country.
Europe’s open borders are something that they should be very proud of, I think. It is a level of international trust and cooperation that is unique in history, I believe. And as a result of this, it is quite common for Europeans to have international experience. Though there is at least one case in which all this may backfire: during an pandemic. Now the virus is in every major European country, with over a thousand cases in Spain. And I’ve just heard that all of Italy is on lock-down. I really hope they don’t lock down Spain…
Anyways, I’m getting a bit off topic. My major point is that Europe is great for travel. There is a lot to see and do, it’s easy and cheap to get around, and borders are almost non-existent. And Europeans themselves take advantage of this. Blessed with lots of vacation time (unlike the United States, where vacation is entirely unregulated), Europeans in general take lots of trips: both within their countries and to neighboring lands. Indeed, one of the big reasons that so many people want to learn English is because of the travel industry. In a continent of so many different nations and languages, English is the only Lengua Franca available.
Now, does all this traveling help to make Europeans wiser, more tolerant, more cosmopolitan? The answer is not immediately clear to me. It’s certainly possible to travel and not learn anything. Go to any touristy area, and you’ll see what I mean. All the food is junk food (a lot of it from America), and everything for sale is junk, too. Many people travel, take a selfie with a famous landmark, stay in a hotel, and then go home. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily. It’s fun. But does it lead to anything more? I think it does, or at least I hope it does. Otherwise, what on earth am I doing? Just having fun?
Here’s the next episode of my Spanish podcast. This one is about Spanish food:
Here’s the episode on Apple podcast:
And below you will find the transcript:
I’m back, and the world is here with me. Bernie Sanders is winning the primaries, Harvey Weinstein is going to jail, and coronavirus is in Italy now. To be honest, I am a bit concerned about what’s going on in Italy, if for admittedly selfish reasons. On Thursday my brother and I are going to Poland, and our return flight has a stopover in Milan. So I hope that isn’t affected… I’m not too eager to get stuck in Poland.
Anyway, in this podcast I’d like to talk about a long-overdue topic. Spanish food. Food is a big part of any culture, and of course Spain is no exception. In fact, I’ve found that Spanish people are particularly proud of their food. This is apt to strike an American as very funny, since there are so many amazing things about Spain—its history, culture, weather—that its food probably doesn’t even make it on a tourists top ten attractions of visiting Spain. Many visiting Americans don’t really like Spanish food very much, actually, and this was also true of me at first, too.
Like many visiting Americans, I was absolutely ignorant of what Spanish food would be like. I had the vague notion that it would be sort of like some of the Latin American food I had tried. But that’s totally wrong. It is actually rather amazing how unaffected Spanish food is by the food of its former colonies. It’s not like Great Britain, where curry has become universal and standard. Or like the Netherlands, where Indonesian food is very influential and popular. Spanish people hardly eat chili peppers and eat corn even less. Mexican food is more popular in New York than in Madrid. True, potatoes are from the New World, and Spanish people love potatoes. But in this regard Spanish food isn’t any more similar than Ireland’s or Germany’s to the food of Peru or Argentina.
Anyways, suffice to say that Spanish food isn’t like any Latin American food I’ve tried. In fact, my most persistent sensation was that Spanish food was rather plain and bland. You see, before moving to Spain I had been eating a lot of Chinese food. So I was used to intense flavors: salty, savory, spicy. When you eat really good Chinese food, the effect is overwhelming. In fact, American food in general can have this quality. Whether something is covered in melted cheese, or drenched in barbecue sauce, or packed with sugar, American food is not known for subtle flavors.
Spanish food is very different. For one, there aren’t a lot of spices. Aside from salt and pepper, the most common flavor is paprika. And Spanish paprika is really wonderful stuff—smoky and rich—but it isn’t exactly overwhelming. Indeed, the whole Spanish philosophy of food is diametrically opposed to what you often find in, say, Chinese food. In the latter case, a sauce gives all the ingredients a uniformly wonderful flavor. In Spanish food, however, the focus is on the ingredients. The flavor of the individual meats and vegetables is not covered up. Instead, you’re supposed to enjoy the subtle flavors of each component.
As a result of this, Spanish food can seem sort of simple, plain, and even uninspiring to visiting Americans. In general we Americans expect intense flavors, and in restaurants we expect food that we probably wouldn’t be able to make at home. This is definitely not the case in Spain, where most of the stuff you can order at a restaurant is extremely simple: a sauteed chicken fillet with french fries, a fried egg with a vegetable medley, or simply a plate of sliced ham. It’s as simple as it can possibly be. But on the plus side, it normally doesn’t leave you feeling bloated and sick—like so much American food does.
You can get an idea of the Spanish conception of food from the case of Jamie Oliver. Now, in case you don’t know, Jamie Oliver is an English celebrity chef. A few years ago he released a paella recipe that uses chorizo—the typical red Spanish sausage—and Spanish people freaked out. The whole country rose in rebellion against this foreigner’s handling of the iconic Spanish dish, and it was mainly because of the chorizo. Traditionally, paella is made either with seafood, with chicken (and possibly rabbit), or with both. There are other variations, but the important thing is that it’s never made with chorizo. Spanish chorizo is very greasy and has a strong flavor; so any chorizo could potentially overpower some of the more delicate flavors in paella, such as the saffron that is traditionally used.
Now, to an American—or to an English celebrity chef, presumably—this is not at all how we are used to thinking about food. For us, the more the better. How could you make a dish worse by adding delicious sausage? It doesn’t make sense! Jamie Oliver’s paella is sure to have a stronger, more intense flavor than the traditional variety. But, again, the way Spanish people approach food is different. The point is not to have a kind of out-of-body experience and find god. It’s to have high-quality, traditional flavors. Thus, food culture tends to be a lot more conservative than it is in America, since we have almost no allegiance to any recipe whatsoever. The only thing that matters to us is that it tastes good. In Spain—as in much of the world—there are traditional rules that must be followed if we are going to call something “paella” and not just “rice with chorizo.”
So I already mentioned that most Americans have no idea what Spanish food is. And this especially shows when journalists talk about the Mediterranean diet. The fact that Spanish people eat a Mediterranean diet is often given as the main reason why Spain is such a healthy country whose people enjoy long lifespans. In these articles, they always talk about the fruits, nuts, vegetables, and fish that Spanish people eat—and the low levels of carbs and meat. You’d think that the country is full of people eating salads and munching on mangos. But that’s very far from the case. Let me dispel this image with one example. The most typical dish of Madrid is called cocido madrileño, and this is what it consists of: sausage, blood sausage, panceta, ham, beef, and chicken, boiled for several hours and served with a big serving of potatoes and chick peas. Does that sound like a light meal to you?
(By the way, the other typical meal of Madrid is called callos a la madrileña, which is cow intestine stewed with sausage and bacon.)
In truth, Spanish people eat a lot of meat. I mean, pork is fundamental to Spanish cuisine. Aside from the many varieties of jamón—all of them succulently good—there is the holy trio of chorizo, panceta, and morcilla (blood sausage), which are used as the basis of so many Spanish stews. My understanding is that pork became intensely important to the Spanish identity since eating it was what distinguished Christians from Jews and Muslims, back when Spain had a diverse religious populace. In any case, pork is treasured in all its varieties, from pork chops to little fried bits of pork fat, called torreznos. There is scarcely any part of the animal that isn’t used. And in many small villages in Spain, the annual pig slaughter (matanza) is a big festivity.
Madrid isn’t the only place with heavy food, by the way, It’s everywhere. Maybe the capital is Asturias, where the two most famous dishes are fabada asturiana (a bean stew with lots of sausage) and cachopo (thinly sliced pork with cheese and ham inside, breaded and fried). But heavy food is everywhere. The last time I was in Extremadura, my brother and I tried to order a plate of vegetables to go with our big plate of pork. But the restaurant literally didn’t have any vegetables to offer us. Another time, down in Andalucia, where you’d think the food would be lighter, the closest thing a restaurant could offer us to a salad was a plate of cheese. So where are all of these fruit and vegetable eating Spaniards? You certainly don’t see them in the restaurants. Maybe they eat very well in the privacy of their own homes.
Admittedly, one way that Spanish food is definitely healthier than American food is the popularity of seafood. They eat lots of fish, squid, octopus, shellfish—you name it. Even in Madrid, which is right in the middle of the country, there is a ton of seafood. My personal favorite is pulpo gallego, Galician style octopus. It’s prepared so that its texture is not at all rubbery or chewy, and it is instead tender and succulent. I also love the fried cod that you can get in many bars around the center. And calamares are always good to order. If the Spanish diet is definitely healthier than the American diet, I think the popularity of seafood plays a big role in that. Well, it’s also worth remembering that Spanish portions can be about half the size of American portions. So obesity is comparatively low.
So that’s the basic rundown of Spanish food, the best I can do in the span of a single podcast. But I haven’t explained why I’ve come to like Spanish food. To grasp the beauty of this cuisine, consider one of the most typical Spanish dishes: the tortilla. This has nothing to do with the corn tortillas from Mexico that you use for tacos. Instead, a Spanish tortilla is a potato omelette. There are only three basic ingredients: potatoes, eggs, and onion. In fact, a lot of Spanish people like their tortillas without onions (though I think that’s crazy), which makes it only two ingredients, not counting salt. Like so much Spanish food, it’s as simple as it can be. But when it’s made well, there’s nothing as satisfying as a good tortilla. I personally prefer it when it’s quite salty and when the egg isn’t fully cooked, so the inside is guey.
In fact, I’m so passionate about the tortilla that I think it should be embraced worldwide, much like pizza is. It’s relatively easy to make, it uses cheap ingredients, its filling, and you can eat it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You can even put it on a sandwich. What more do you want?
Here is the next episode of my podcast. This one is about some of the social and economic problems besetting Spain.
To listen on Apple Podcasts, click here:
See the transcript below:
I realize that I’ve spent the last few podcasts comparing Spain and the United States, usually to show how my own country is lagging behind. But I am afraid that I am painting an overly sunny picture of Spain. It’s not a paradise by any means. But I admit that it is a bit harder for me to talk about Spain’s shortcomings. Like most people, Spaniards are not overly keen on foreigners criticizing their country. And there is a long tradition of foreigners criticizing Spain. Spaniards sometimes refer to the leyenda negra (the “black legend”)—which is a tendency among historians to treat Spain as backward, cruel, conservative, and uncivilized.
As an example of this, many people know that the Jews were expelled from Spain. (This happened in 1492, under the reign of the Catholic monarchs. They were officially given a choice between conversion or exile, or death I suppose.) This is sometimes used as the basis for portraying Spain as particularly intolerant. But you may not know that, in the course of history, the Jews were expelled from nearly every European country, and sometimes multiple times. Of course, a multitude of wrongs doesn’t make a right. Intolerance is always bad. The point, however, is that Spain was not exceptional in its intolerance.
Well, I’m not here to talk about the black legend. Rather, I want to talk about some of the shortcomings of Spain’s economy now. Along with Portugal, Ireland, and Greece, Spain was among the EU countries that took a big hit during the 2008 financial crash. Recovery was long, painful, and slow. But Spain did turn itself around, and now has an economy well ahead of Greece’s, or Italy’s, or Portugal’s. Still, there is cause for concern. I can report some anecdotal evidence. During my time as a teacher, I’ve come across doctors, lawyers, and engineers who couldn’t find work, or at least couldn’t find good work. That’s concerning enough as it is—highly-skilled workers who can’t find a job?! And even now, over ten years later, unemployment is still alarmingly high. While it is now well below 5% in the United States, it is around 14% here. That’s huge. And unemployment among young people (below 25) is about double that. Obviously this is a huge problem for an economy.
I have a pretty distorted picture of Spain’s economy myself, since I work as an English teacher. In general, native English teachers are in high demand in the country, so for me finding a job could hardly be easier. You’re basically hired on the spot. So from my point of view Spain’s economy is just great. But of course, the reason why a lot people want to learn English in the first place is so they can work in international business. In other words, it’s a sign that the best business opportunities are not to be found within Spain itself. But why is this?
The main explanation I’ve heard for Spain’s economic sluggishness—and admittedly it’s an explanation from a particular ideological camp—is that the EU’s economic policies are to blame. For one, because it shares the euro with so many countries, Spain cannot control its own currency, which means it can’t exert the kind of control that the Federal Reserve uses to adjust the American economy. Another commonly-blamed culprit is the economic philosophy of the German-dominated European Union, which insisted on imposing austerity in response to the crisis, and it’s generally preoccupied with keeping the deficit smaller than some pre-ordained limits. Now, please don’t ask me to explain any of this in detail. For this, you can read Joseph Stiglitz’s book The Euro for more. (Or just read my review.) And also, please don’t think that I’m anti-European Union. I love my euros. All I’m saying is that there’s a reason so many young professionals go to Germany and that so many people are out of work. Something isn’t working right.
This very high youth unemployment rate, by the way, is a major reason why so many young Spaniards live with their parents for such a long time. It’s not just because Spanish men are mama’s boys—although that’s true, too—but often from economic necessity that people live with their parents until adulthood. I should also mention that Spain is suffering from the same economic maladies that we often complain about in the United States. Inequality is only growing, while social mobility is not high. According to an OECD report, it would take a low-income family four generations to reach the country’s average income. (What does that mean?) Like most places, if you’re born poor you’re likely to remain poor, and the same goes for people born rich. This is not the society most people want to create.
The most obvious evidence of Spanish poverty are the shanty-towns. For three years, on the bus ride to work, I could see what was unmistakably a shanty-town out my window. It was just like you see in pictures from the great depression: improvised shelters made of bits of metal and wood, all huddled together. This was a settlement on one of the old shepherding trails given a royal license back in the middle ages, called cañadas reales. According to El País, almost 8,000 people were living on this illegally developed land, although admittedly not all of them in a shanty-town. In fact, some of the houses belong to middle-class families; and this wouldn’t be the first time in Madrid’s history that an illegally developed land became a thriving neighborhood. But obviously many of the people living there are abjectly poor, without access to basic services or infrastructure.
For many years, you could also see a shanty town in a bit of undeveloped land behind Madrid’s railroad museum. The authorities were pretty slow in dealing with the situation. From what I’ve read, they came in, performed a census, and then tried to arrange public housing for the residents who qualified. Then, they came in and bulldozed the shelters. This happened in the cañadas reales, too, I believe. Even now, you can see bits of rubbish and blacked concrete left near the railroad museum.
Now, many of the people who were living in these shanty towns were ethnically Romani (they are often called “gypsy,” but that term is now considered offensive). The Romani area substantial ethnic minority in Spain, ultimately originating from India (though they left a long time ago). The word “gypsy,” by the way, comes from the word “Egyptian,” since this is where people thought they were from. Even though the Romani culture has had a great influence on the culture of Spain in general—particularly in the southern province, Andalusia—there is quite a bit of prejudice against the Romani people. They are imprisoned in huge numbers, and the vast majority are living below the poverty line. Many Spaniards are openly hostile to Romani people.
Admittedly the situation is quite complex, since the Romani are traditionally itinerant and thus tend to live outside of the norms of sedentary society. But as usually happens, it is difficult to say what is a cause and what is an effect. Are Romani pushed to the margins by choice, or is it a reaction against the prejudice of society? I suppose you’d have to ask an anthropologist. But I think it’s fair to say that the poor living conditions of so many Romani—and there are over one million in the country—is one of Spain’s most obvious social problems.
Another sort of person often pushed to the margins are migrant workers. Just last week, Philip Alston, an ambassador from the United Nations, visited a migrant workers’ camp in Huelva, in the south of Spain. What he found was yet another shanty town, with people living in what he describes as some of the worst conditions he’d ever seen in Europe. Here’s a little quote from an article in El País: “people cook by the light of their cell phones, fetch water from a tap two kilometers away and store it in plastic bottles that were once used for weedkiller. They shower outdoors with water heated on a stove, and go to the bathroom in the field.” Now keep in mind that some of these people have been living like this for a decade. They are agricultural temp workers, some of them without work permits, who make about six euros a day.
Not too far away from Huelva, in the province of Almeria, there is a huge conglomeration of green houses—so many that you can easily see it from space. (Just try it using Google’s satellite view.) This used to be totally arid land, but the greenhouses have made it incredibly productive. In fact, this relatively small space provides a big chunk of Europe’s fresh produce. But conditions inside the greenhouses are so brutal that the labor is mostly done by migrant laborers from Africa or Eastern Europe; and just like in Huelva, many of these workers live in slums and shanty towns, making much less than the minimum wage. Thirty percent of the workers are undocumented. Now, you can talk about illegal immigrants taking jobs all you want, but the fact is that Spaniards don’t want these jobs. And Europeans are happy to have cheap fruits and vegetables. But someone is paying for those cheap prices. It’s these migrants who are being exploited, and who live and work in unsafe conditions.
To round out this picture of the economic and social woes of Spain, I also have to mention the depopulation of the interior. Many villages in Spain are emptying out. In the least densely populated area in Spain—in the mountains between Cuenca, Guadalajara, and Teruel—the population density is less than it is in Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland. For years, the whole province of Extremadura has been struggling. Almost half of the people in Extremadura are living on less than 700 euros a month. It’s no surprise, then, that young people are trying their best to move into the cities. Meanwhile, in the cities, decent housing is getting harder and harder to find. Rents perpetually rise. Partially this is because so many houses are purchased at a high price and then mostly left empty by wealthy people. According to El País, there are almost three and a half million properties left empty. That’s pretty crazy to think about, when you keep in mind the people living in shanty towns on the edges of the city. In fact, the current socialist government is trying to create legislation to solve this problem.
Well, so there you go. That’s the best I can do in talking about the shortcomings of Spanish society. A sluggish economy, lots of people out of work, inequality and a lack of social mobility, and lots of people living on the margins of society. But I do want to end this podcast on a less gloomy note. As even the UN ambassador noted, Spain’s public healthcare system is working quite well, achieving universal coverage. An immigrant named Eva Costizo recently shared a “symbolic” invoice of what her medical bill would have been had there not been public healthcare. To an American that’s hard to fathom, someone publicly celebrating not paying a medical bill. Meanwhile, I just saw an article in the NYTimes about a person who received a “surprise” medical bill for $145,000. So I don’t think we have much to be gloating about.
Here is the next episode of my Spanish podcast. This one is about the enormous price differences between Spanish and American universities:
Here is the Apple Podcast:
For the transcript, see below:
I’ve come back to work from a rather pleasant weekend. To celebrate our anniversary, Rebeca and I took a little trip to the Madrid mountains. It’s a beautiful place. The geography is dominated by grey granite formations (a material that also forms many of the local buildings) and the landscape is covered in pine trees. There are endless trails for hiking and lots of cute little villages to visit. The pueblo we happened to be in was populated by a bunch of hippies, eating vegetarian meals and drinking craft beer. It was a nice escape from the city center.
Well, anyways, in this podcast I don’t want to talk about Spain’s many vacation possibilities. Instead, I want to talk about something that is a source of envy for many Americans: public education. Specifically, public higher education. As with the cost of medicine, the cost of university in Europe is strikingly lower than it is in America. To give you an extreme example, going to New York University for one year costs (according to the internet) over $70,000. Now, admittedly NYU is one of the most expensive universities in the world. But even if you want to go to a much more modest college in America, like I did, you can still pay quite a lot. In my case, I went to a public university, Stony Brook, and had to pay well over $20,000 a year.
Meanwhile, my girlfriend went to the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid—one of the best universities in Spain—and paid around 3,000 euros per year. And a chunk of that was covered by a scholarship. Needless to say, she didn’t need to go into debt to get an education. Meanwhile, I graduated with well over $20,000 of debt and I’m still paying it off. So what is the deal with this huge price difference? It’s worth remembering that this wasn’t always the case. Every millenial has heard stories of Baby Boomers working their way through college. Just the other day I heard an economics professor say he paid for college by lifting boxes during the summers. Clearly, that’s impossible nowadays in America, so it’s worth asking what the deal is.
Obviously a big difference is how much the state subsidizes higher education. In Spain, as in many European countries, the government foots the bill. You could make the argument, therefore, that in Europe college isn’t really free after all, since the people pay for it in higher taxes. That’s one side to the story—and, of course, it’s a big one. But I think there is another, less-mentioned aspect to the college cost debate, and that is the culture of college.
In America, going to university is a rite of passage. It has been turned into a basic phase of young adulthood. You live away from your parents for the first time, and you live in a dorm with a bunch of other young people. Suddenly you find yourself in a world of young people with very few responsibilities. It’s a crazy time. People go to parties, fall in love, form close friendships, and very occasionally study. And campuses can be very comfortable places. My campus, for example, had free gyms all over the place, and even a pool to use. I joined an a capella club and volunteered in a local rock venue. The point I’m making is that college consisted of a lot more than just going to classes.
In Spain, college is not nearly such a huge personal step. It’s not mythologized like it is in America. I’ve never met a Spanish person who has a lot of pride for where they went to school, or strong nostalgia for their college days, or who has even really talked about their college experience at all. Meanwhile, I know Americans who dreamed of going to specific schools and whose whole friend group is from their college days. Really, university in Spain—and in much of Europe, I think—is a continuation of high school. It’s going to school. Most students don’t even move out of their parents’ house to get their undergraduate degrees. And if they do, it’s quite rare to move onto a dormitory on a college campus.
So one significant reason that college in America is so expensive, I think, is that it has become so much more than just going to school. Think about college sports. Each university in America has its own mascot, its own spirit band, its own star athletes. This doesn’t exist at all in Europe. My girlfriend doesn’t know her school’s animal. (My school’s animal is entirely fictional: it’s the Seawolf. And we had our own cheer: “What’s a Seawolf? I’m a Seawolf.”) In America, we expect a high profile guest to give a speech at our college graduation, where they praise us for being the best and the brightest the world has ever seen. Leaving college is a major ritual, too, after all. Again, nothing of the sort happens in Spain. There are no viral Spanish graduation speeches.
Since moving to Spain, I’ve come to see the American rituals of college as a bit ridiculous. A lot of it is fueled, I think, by our culture of competition. In the United States there are a handful of extremely prestigious schools with a limited number of spots, and where you go to school is a big determiner of your career. It thus becomes a part of your personal journey (and Americans love talking about their careers as personal journeys) and even your identity. This is partly why we demand so much from our college experiences. We don’t just go for the knowledge, but to take our rightful place in the hierarchy of society. We are supposed to emerge transformed, imbued with the prestige of our institution. If you don’t believe me, just talk to anyone who has gone to an Ivy League school. Either they reject it or it’s a part of who they are.
When universities are responsible for providing such an all-inclusive package—dormitories, food, social life, entertainment, psychological and physical health, and a life-defining education—it is no wonder that they cost a lot. What you are paying for is basically the brand itself. Even public universities in the United States pay huge amounts of money in marketing, in order to bolster the university’s brand. The better the brand, the higher the ranking, the more prestigious the university, and the more money it can charge to bestow its prestige on its clients—I mean students.
I’m getting a bit carried away here, but I hope you see my point. In Spain, you are paying for your classes and little else. You emerge from university with a degree—more knowledgeable, hopefully, but not transformed into a vessel of prestige. To me, I think it’s a healthier system, not least because people don’t drive themselves crazy competing to get into the best university possible. Where you go to school does not determine your social status.
I have a limited experience going to a Spanish university. Last year, I completed a masters at the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, in the Instituto Franklin (which specializes in American studies and courses for Americans abroad). The masters took one year to complete and cost me about $4,000. That’s not a bad deal. As an aside, Alcalá de Henares is worth visiting just to see the historic university buildings, which are quite beautiful. The oldest continuously operating university in the country is in Salamanca, which was founded in the 12th century. If you are in Salamanca—a beautiful city—this is also worth a visit.
Anyways, I didn’t want to talk about higher education the whole time. I also want to mention about the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (the official school of languages). This is an initiative of the Spanish government to subsidize low-cost language classes outside of the university, mainly for adults. This year I began taking classes at one of the official schools in order to revive my atrophying German skills. And it’s been a great experience. I paid a little more than 200 euros for a whole academic year of classes. That works out to—what… about two euros per hour of class? It’s a very, very good deal. And the classes are quality, with properly qualified teachers and a well-established curriculum. I’m learning a lot this year.
There are dozens of official schools in Madrid alone and about half a million students enrolled in Spain. My particular school has a very wide range of languages on offer. Besides German, there are other major European languages like French, Italian, and English. There is Spanish for foreigners—quite useful for immigrants—and there are also the other three official languages of Spain: Basque, Catalan, and Galician. Aside from this, the school offers Dutch, Danish, Arabic, Greek, Gaelic, and Chinese (to give you the short list). If you want to become a polyglot, this is a place to be. And the school’s resources extend beyond the classroom. There are language exchanges, where you can find someone and “trade” languages, and also lots of cultural talks and events. There’s even a choir!
Of course, being run by the government, there are a few things to be desired. The school is in an ugly old building. One of the two elevator’s has been broken for two months, so I have to walk up the five floors to my class. And enrolling is a pain. But for what you pay, it’s really a great deal. In fact, I think that having a public school for language training is a wonderful idea, and one that we should embrace in the States. At the very least, it would be a great resource for immigrants. And it might help us with our famous monolingualism. I’d go even further, and suggest that the model of the Official School should be extended for other sorts of things. Computer coding, for example, or even photography—any kind of skill that adults might need to learn. Even on purely economic terms, investing in education usually pays off. After all, a multilingual workforce can outcompete a monolingual one.
In general, my experiences in Spain have made me a strong believer in public education, as uninspiring and inefficient as it can admittedly be sometimes. I think we lose a lot more than we gain by conceiving of college as a giant competition for limited amounts of prestige and status. Education should be about equalizing opportunities and not exacerbating differences, which it so often does in America.
And needless to say, graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt isn’t ideal. Let me give you a concrete example of the difference that debt makes. A few weeks ago I met a man from Scotland living in Germany. He had begun to study German language and literature, but a few years into his undergraduate he decided he didn’t like it—since he didn’t want to work as a translator or a teacher—and he stopped. Now, in America he would have been deeply in debt and without a college degree to help him get a job to pay for it. He would have to start working like mad to try to pay his loans off, and he’d have a difficult time for sure. (Even the loans we get from the federal government in America can have a high interest rate.) But this guy didn’t have to do that. He didn’t sink under the weight of debt since he didn’t have any. A few years later, he re-enrolled as an undergraduate to study music. And now he’s working his way through college—just like we used to do in America—paying for his living expenses with a part-time job as an audio engineer.
To many millenials in America, stories like that seem too good to be true. But are we willing to give up our mythologized college culture and settle into treating university as just additional schooling?—schooling that isn’t necessarily transformative and which isn’t necessarily the right step for every person? That’s hard to tell.
Here is the next installment of my podcast. This episode is an attempt to compare the deep values of Spain and the United States. You can see the YouTube video here:
Here is the apple podcast:
And here is the transcript:
Yet another week has passed—this time of year always seems to go by so quickly—and there is nothing special to report from Madrid. According to the news from America, impeachment is a farce, the Iowa caucus is a farce, and we’re all going to die of coronavirus. Oh well. At least the weather in Madrid is unseasonably warm. Of course, that could be a concern, too, if you think too much about hot and sunny February days. But it’s best just to enjoy it while it lasts, I guess.
Today I wanted to try a higher-level cultural comparison between my two countries: Spain and the United States. Now, of course I am constantly comparing these two places on my podcast. That’s pretty much what I’m here to do. But a lot of cultural comparisons focus on details—diet, fashion, rituals, and so on. Culture goes a lot deeper than that, though. And if you want to really get to the heart of a cultural difference, you have to try to focus on these more fundamental values. Geert Hofstede, a social psychologist from the Netherlands, developed perhaps the most famous framework for comparing cultures. Basically he breaks down a culture into six independent factors, and then tries to measure them.
While I don’t know how far I agree with his theory or his methodology, I think this is at least an interesting place to start when thinking about two different cultures. Specifically, I want to focus on what Hofstede calls “power distance.” This is basically the degree to which a society accepts a hierarchy as legitimate. In other words, you can think of it as the difference in respect granted to a boss or an employee, or a parent and a child. Now, according to the Hofstede consultancy website, Spain scores significantly higher than the United States in this regard, meaning that it is a less egalitarian culture. But I have doubts about this. Much of the data was collected in the 1970s and focused exclusively on IBM employees (Hofstede worked for IBM). A lot has changed since then.
Instead, I’m prepared to argue that the “power distance” in Spain nowadays is, on the whole, quite a bit lower than it is in the United States. A lot of little things lead me to this conclusion. One obvious clue is in the Spanish language itself. Spanish, in case you didn’t know, has two forms to say “you,” a casual version (tú) and a formal version (usted). However, in Spain the formal version is rarely used. Even when you meet a total stranger or you’re in a shop, it’s expected to use the casual tú. To be honest, I’ve used the usted form so rarely that I’m not even good at it. Now, this is not the case in many Latin American countries. And a few decades ago, it wasn’t the case in Spain either. The language itself has stopped encoded differences in respect.
Another striking piece of evidence of this is how teachers are addressed. In America teachers are called by their last name. So I would be Mr. Lotz. But in Spain, teachers are universally called by their first name. So here, I’m Roy. I’m not even Mr. Roy or Teacher Roy. Just “Roy” to my students. This isn’t just some curious fact. Believe me: the relationship between teachers and students is very different in Spain than in the United States. Growing up, I remember seeing my teachers are unquestionable authority figures, someone to disobey at your own risk. In Spain, students just don’t have this fear of teachers like I did. There’s a definite casualness in the relationship that can drive you crazy if you’re trying to quiet down a class.
Here’s another example from the classroom. (As a teacher, this is where most of my experience is.) In American high schools, there’s a definite hierarchy among the students. There is a continuum from cool, popular kids to uncool, unpopular kids. Think of any American movie about high school you’ve seen. Besides this, there are quite noticeable cliques or groups of students in any given American class. Certain people hang together. In a Spanish classroom, these factors are refreshingly absent. At least from my perspective, there is no definite hierarchy of popular to unpopular, and the students mix pretty freely. So most of the time you can randomly group students together without fearing any issue.
But there are other signs of this cultural trait, too. One thing that’s striking for an American is how rarely Spanish people talk about their jobs. In America, it’s one of the first things we ask about a person. And we kind of assume that a person’s job defines them, at least partially. But in Spain people often don’t ask, and never seem to want to talk about their work very much. Now, again, I don’t think that this is just a curious fact. In America, your job defines your role in a grand hierarchy. This, I think, is one of the main reasons we want to know it: because our attitude changes if we are talking to a janitor or a lawyer, even if we’re not aware of it changing. If you’re an American listening, try to imagine knowing someone for weeks and weeks without knowing what their job was. Would that make you uncomfortable?
I also think that power distance is encoded into forms of politeness. Specifically, I think about the American tendency to say “please” and “thank you” rather obsessively. Spaniards say please and thank you, of course, but not nearly so often or in so many different situations. To me this is very telling. The words please and thank you are for making requests and receiving benefits. The fact that you have to say it implies that you are not owed anything by the other members of the group, and so every benefit you receive should be treated like a generous gift (even when it obviously isn’t). The funny thing about it is that you normally say please and thank you when you’re in a situation where there isn’t a lot of choice. For example, an American might say “thank you” when a worker in a restaurant fills up their glass with water, but of course if that worker didn’t do so in a timely fashion, they might get fired. Similarly, you say “please” when ordering in a restaurant, but not when asking your friend to pass you a beer.
My point is that these words, far from indicating a situation with equal power, are most often used when there is unequal power—such as a boss telling a worker what to do, or ordering in a restaurant, and so on. Please and thank you serve as a kind of respectful mask for unequal power distributions. This is why, in some cultures, inappropriately thanking someone can be seen as disrespectful. Even in Spain, if you impulsively thank your waiters in a restaurant for everything they do—take your order, give you a beer, serve your food—then they might look at you funny. The attitude is that it’s their job and that’s it. You’re paying for a service and receiving it.
And while I’m on the subject of Spanish restaurants, I think the attitude of waiters also illustrates an important difference. To be a waiter in many American restaurants, you need to be an actor as well as a server. Waiters are expected to smile and be chipper and pleasant. In Spain, there really isn’t nearly as much of a notion that waiters should take on this role so completely. And I think this applies to many jobs: even while they are working, Spanish people tend to treat their jobs as jobs, not as roles in a play. This, to me, signals an unwillingness to identify with their level in the hierarchy of status, maintaining their primary identity as independent of their temporary social role.
This, in short, is why I think Spain’s culture has a lower score on the “power distance” scale.
While I’m on the subject of these big cultural differences, I thought I would also mention another important way that cultures can differ: individualism vs communalism. As is often noted, the United States is highly individualistic. As a Western country, Spain is pretty individualistic, too, though significantly less I think. Here, again, I think that forms of politeness give us a clue. While saying thank you and your welcome are not as important as Spain as in the US, it is significantly more important to say hello and goodbye. Spaniards take greetings seriously. When you’re introduced to a group of people in the United States, you can just wave to everyone and say “hello.” But in Spain, you need to make your way around the circle.
Similarly, you have to say goodbye (technically, “see you later”) when you leave a space, even if you’re talking to perfect strangers. This applies to a lot of situations that strike Americans as strange. You walk into the staff room at school to pick up a pencil, and you have to say “hasta luego” as you leave. Or if you visit someone and leave their building, you say goodbye to the doorman. Or even if you’re in an elevator in a crowded office building, you say “hasta luego.” This strikes an American is really bizarre. But it makes sense in a more communal culture, where being together, in a group, is a strong value in itself.
You can even get a taste of this if you look at the two countries on Google Earth. Americans live alone in big houses, separated by wide spaces. Spaniards live all bunched up together in apartment buildings, even in rural areas they bunch together in a heap rather than spread out. You can drive for miles without seeing a sign of human habitation, and then all the sudden you can see a dense village. As an American, you naturally think: why don’t they spread out? But Spanish people love being together.
As a last cultural aspect to consider, there is what Hofstede calls “masculinity,” which I think is a bad name for a useful concept. This is (and I quote) “the degree to which a society will be driven by competition, achievement, and success.” You can just call this competitiveness rather than masculine, I think. In America, life is conceived of as a struggle of all against all, a universal rat race, a giant zero-sum game. Americans want to have high status, and there is only so much status to go around. Spanish culture is not nearly so competitive.
You can see this very clearly if you teach high school. In America, we separate students into tracks: normal, honors, and AP (advanced placement). Not only that, but students in American high schools must constantly scramble to accomplish as much as they can—get high grades, engage in extra-curriculars, sports, music, dance, theater, etc. Again, in America status depends on success, success depends on money, and money partly depends on education—and, of course, there are only a few coveted spots in elite universities. Spanish high schools are not like this at all. They don’t even have official sports teams that compete against those of other high schools. And in general getting into university has none of this rat race quality that it does in America.
To me it’s obvious that all of these cultural qualities are interrelated: a culture that is more egalitarian will be more communal and less competitive, and vice versa.
Well, this podcast has already gone on long enough. But I hope I at least gave you some food for thought about cultural differences. I wasn’t trying to argue that either one was better, by the way. In some cases it’s nice to have a low score on the power distance scale. But believe me, as a teacher, sometimes you wish there was more of a power distance between yourself and students. On the other hand, I think that the competition to get into good colleges is psychologically and socially unhealthy. So, pick your poison I guess.