Letters from Spain #14: Public Education

Letters from Spain #14: Public Education

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:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-14-public-education/id1469809686?i=1000465633689

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

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.

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #13: Cultural Comparison

Letters from Spain #13: Cultural Comparison

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:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-13-cultural-comparison/id1469809686?i=1000464935149

And here is the transcript:


Hello.

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 . 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. 

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #12: Crime and Punishment

Letters from Spain #12: Crime and Punishment

Here is the next episode of my podcast.This one is about crime and punishment in America and Spain:

Here is the Apple podcasts link:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-12-crime-and-punishment/id1469809686?i=1000464236724

And see below for the transcript:


Hello.

I must, unfortunately, begin this podcast with some bad news. Well, it’s bad for me anyway. This past Saturday, as you may know, was Chinese New Year. To celebrate, I decided to go to the big parade in Usera—the Madrid equivalent of Flushing, Queens. The parade was packed. It took us twenty minutes just to walk a couple blocks, and even then our view of the parade was obscured by the crowds. I still managed to take some good pictures, though.

But you will most likely never be able to see these pictures, since shortly after the parade ended my camera was stolen. I’m not sure how it happened. The most likely story seems to be that it was nabbed while I was sitting down at a Chinese restaurant. There were tons of people around and the place was very busy. For half the meal, both me and my brother had our backs to the door, and I carelessly placed my camera on the floor. When we got up, it had vanished. My theory is that someone walked in, spotted it, and nabbed it before anyone took notice. Either that, or I did something even more stupid and left it on a chair or something.

Anyways, this loss, bad as it was, did at least connect me with a universal experience for tourists in Europe: being pickpocketed. There is not a whole lot you can do after the fact. In my case, I looked up my camera’s serial number (which is encoded with every photo you take with it) and then filled out a police report. Though I’ve heard stories of people waiting for hours in the police station, I filled out the report online and then went over to the station to sign all the paperwork. It took me about ten minutes. Every pawn shop in the city is required by law to keep a list of all the serial numbers of its products, and to submit that list to the police. But thieves must have their own workarounds, since business in the pickpocket industry is booming. In fact, judging anecdotally, theft seems to be on the rise. So be careful out there. 

Well, to repeat, pickpocketing is a common hazard for travelers everywhere. Though strangely, it seems to be far more common in Europe than in the United States, and particularly bad in Spain. Barcelona is commonly called the pickpocketing capital, with Madrid not far behind. Again, judging anecdotally, the situation is really quite bad in Barcelona. Judging from the stories I see on Facebook, it can seem like half of the tourists who go there lose their phone. Pickpockets are quite good at what they do.

Pickpocketing statistics are naturally very difficult to collect. Many people don’t report the crimes, and even if they are reported it normally cannot be proven that a missing item was stolen and not merely lost. Besides that, pickpockets are only rarely caught by the police. The only figure I’ve been able to get my hands on is 10,000 robberies a year in Madrid, done by about 500 pickpockets who mainly prowl the city’s metro. But I’m not sure how far to trust those figures. In any case, I am constantly hearing about phones and wallets stolen in Madrid.

By contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pickpocketing story about New York City. This is really strange. There are lots of needy people in NYC, and the dense crowds would make it an ideal place for pickpocketing. So why isn’t there more petty theft? Is it a cultural thing? Better law enforcement? Harsher penalties?

While I’m on the topic of crimes, I thought that I would compare some other crime statistics across my two countries. I quickly found that, while Spain may be worse than the United States when it comes to theft, the US is a lot more violent. Here the relevant statistics are easy to find: In America there are a little more than five murders per 100,000 people. In Spain, the number is 0.63—eight times smaller. Now, call me a liberal snowflake, but I can’t help thinking that this huge difference is largely due to greater access to guns in America.

The American statistics on sexual violence are just as bad. The relevant figure for the United States is 27.3, while in Spain it is a measly 3.4. Of course, rape is also difficult to measure, since it is underreported and under-prosecuted almost everywhere. Here in Spain there have been notorious cases of rapists walking free. So it’s certainly not great anywhere.

Now, Spain may or may not be better than America when it comes to crime rates as a whole. But Spain—and the rest of the world, for that matter—definitely has America beat when it comes to incarceration rates. The United States has the highest percentage of its population behind bars of all the countries in the world: 655 per 100,000. Believe it or not, the United States also has the biggest total number of prisoners in the world—well over two million—significantly more than China, a country with a much bigger population, and which we usually disparage for being totalitarian. The incarceration rate for Spain is 126 per 100,000, about five times lower.

When you consider that Spain experiences significantly less violent crime than America, I don’t know how one can justify such an insanely high incarceration rate. To be honest, I really can’t see any way to explain it other than by drawing the conclusion that we are throwing way too many people into prison in America. (And of course a disproportionately high number of them are black.)

Apart from this, prisoners are generally treated better in Spain than in America. The prisons are less crowded, for one thing, and are therefore more comfortable. Prisoners can pay to have a television or radio in their cells, and can even vote in the elections. Most shocking for me, conjugal visits are allowed, even for non-married partners (they are only permitted in four states in America, and they are not easy to arrange).

But maybe the biggest difference is the death penalty. The United States is the only country in all of the Americas—north, central, and south—to maintain the practice, and also the only so-called Western country to do so. In Europe, only one country (Belarus) continues capital punishment. Spain is a typical European country in this respect: the death penalty has been abolished since the 1970s, and even abolished in the military since the 1990s.

If you ask me, it is way past the time that we do the same in America. There’s little evidence that capital punishment serves as an effective deterrent. And since such a disproportionate percentage of our population is in prison, it stands to reason that we are in general over-prosecuting, and sending many innocent people to jail. Morally speaking, I think it’s worse to kill an innocent person than to insufficiently punish a guilty one.

As a last little piece of data for my informal comparison of crime and punishment, we can look at police killings. In America, there were 119 police killings in 2019, and 390 before that.* And of course the victims are, as usual, disproportionately black. Meanwhile, I can’t even find any statistics about police killings in Spain, and I’ve never heard of it happening. Once again, I suspect that a big culprit is guns. When the population is armed, it naturally makes police officers more prone to panic and overreact with deadly force, since there is a substantially higher risk for them. But if guns are extremely uncommon, then police officers can more easily remain cool. And a calm officer is obviously one less likely to open fire. (But this is just my little hypothesis about this.**)

Well, there you go, a little picture of crime and punishment in Spain and America. All told, Spain looks pretty good by comparison—with significantly less violent crime and far fewer people locked up in prisons. But all this doesn’t change the fact that I’m still missing my camera.


* According to this database, these numbers should be much higher. Apparently there is no government agency that collects statistics of this kind, or any mandate that the data get reported. So it is up to journalists and activists to do so. The database also contains lots of information on the factors that influence police violence.

** According to this article, police killing in America is far worse than in any other Western country. (The Guardian also collects its own statistics on police killings, which don’t quite match the above database, but it’s close.) The portrait that this article paints of American police violence is grim. My gut feeling is that the most likely way to explain this huge disparity is the presence of guns in America, though I’m sure this must be an oversimplification. The database above mentions several policies that are proven to reduce police killings, such as requiring that use of force be reported and that using deadly force be a last possible alternative. Considering America’s abysmal record in this regard, I think it’s clear that we should do something. We shouldn’t accept a situation as inevitable that does not exist elsewhere.

Letters from Spain #11: The European Way of Life

Letters from Spain #11: The European Way of Life

At long last, here is my first podcast of the new year. Some of my older podcasts are unavailable on iTunes now, but they are all on YouTube, including this one!

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-11-the-european-way-of-life/id1469809686?i=1000463500918

(For the transcript, see below.)


Hello.

Happy New Years to all five of my listeners! It feels good to be back.

For this letter, I want to finally talk about something that has been on my mind a long time, and that is the contrast between the American and the European ways of life. I think this is especially relevant now, during our endlessly long election season back in America, because this contrast between America and Europe has actually exerted a strong influence over progressive American politics. You could arguably boil down the progressive platform—championed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—to the following statement: that America should be more like Europe. So what’s Europe like?

One of the most obvious contrasts is healthcare. Spain, like Germany, France, or Denmark, has a nationalized healthcare system. That means that every citizen is automatically covered at all times, free of charge or nearly so (although some people do supplement their public healthcare with private insurance). This is radically different from the United States, where most people have private healthcare, usually tied to one’s job. The difference is profound. In America, people really worry about the cost of healthcare. Even relatively well-off people.

The cost of an ambulance is one example. If you pass out in the street and somebody calls the ambulance for you, you can wake up in debt. There’s a famous story of a woman who fell between the subway car and the platform, who begged people not to call an ambulance because she couldn’t afford it. People go bankrupt in America because of illnesses and injuries—something almost unheard of in Europe. It’s not uncommon in America to see GoFundMe campaigns for people struggling with medical costs. But this isn’t just a question of insurance. It’s also because anything related to healthcare is absurdly expensive in the United States. A hip replacement, for example, is six times more expensive in the US than in Spain. That means you could take a nice long vacation in Spain, and then get your hip replacement, and it would still cost less money. And medication prices are wild in America. Insulin is so expensive that some people try to ration it, and a few have died in the process.

There are lots of reasons for the high cost of healthcare in the USA. One is the bureaucratic complexity needed to deal with all the different private insurers. Some hospitals need just as many administrators as hospital beds to process all the intricacies of insurance claims. Another reason is that, in most countries, medicine is bought in bulk by the government from the drug companies, while in the United States each person buys directly from the drug companies—and there’s no bargaining power in that situation.

Anyways, I don’t want to set myself up as some expert on healthcare, which I’m clearly not. What I can say is that I’ve never heard a Spanish person worry about whether they’ll be able to afford going to a doctor, while in America the financial costs of getting sick are at times even scarier than the actual sickness. On the other hand, I have had a bad experience with a Spanish dentist here. They often try to rip you off. (Though admittedly most dentists are private in Spain.)

Speaking of health, another big difference between America and Europe is our eating habits. We eat a lot in America—a lot of food, and a lot of junk food—and as a consequence obesity rates in America are over twice as high as they are in Europe. This tends to make us sick, which only exacerbates our healthcare problem. One thing that we Americans do have over Spain, at least, is that fewer people smoke in the United States (15%) than in Spain (about 22%). But America definitely loses when it comes to physical activity. Since so much of our country is designed for driving, the average American walks less than 5,000 steps a day, as compared to more than 9,000 for Spain. This, combined with other factors like Spain’s diet, led Bloomberg to proclaim Spain the healthiest country in the world. (The United States ranked 35. In fact, the average life expectancy in America has been falling for the last three years.)

So much for health. But there are still more striking contrast between Spain and the United States. One big one is maternity leave. Every European Union country guarantees at least 14 weeks of maternity leave, and several also give paternity leave. This means that a new mother can take over three months with her new baby, while receiving full pay, and guaranteeing a job when she returns to work. I have no idea why this isn’t a more outrageous issue in the United States, where the government guarantees no days of paid maternity leave—everybody likes mothers, after all. By the way, America is also unique for offering no minimum paid vacation days, and no guaranteed paid holidays. Spain, by contrast, offers a minimum of 22 working days off, plus a mandated 12 paid holidays, and an optional 2 more holidays that local governments can choose.

The last major contrast I’ll mention is university. The cost of going to college in America is incomparably higher than it is in Europe. Even a public university can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year. Student debt has become a way of life in the US, and virtually everyone graduates with at least a few thousand dollars of loans they need to pay off. This has a huge effect, not only on our economy, but in our educational decisions and philosophy. It influences everything from what we study, to grade inflation, to job choices after college. Meanwhile, in Europe, getting a degree is cheap and in some places even free. With a stipend, you may even be paid to attend a university. As you can imagine, this makes a big difference.

There are many other differences, too—the strength of workers’ unions in Europe is a big one—which combine to make Europe substantially more egalitarian than the United States. Here are some figures. From 1970 to the present, the share of total income going to the top 1% in America rose from 8% to 20%. In Europe, it also rose, but from 7.5% to 10%. That is, in America it increased by 150%, while in Europe by about 33%. That’s a big difference. In this same time period, the share of income going to the bottom 50% of the population fell by 7% in America (to 13%), and by only 2% in Europe (to 18%). To sum up, in America the gap between the rich and the poor has grown far wider than in Europe. 

And this brings me to a central contrast. In America we talk about the American “dream.” That is, our model is based on the idea of people “making it”—pulling themselves up by their bootstraps into another economic echelon. And of course there are success stories. But this narrative hides the fact that, if you don’t “make it,” then life in America can be rather harsh. Even more importantly, getting to the top is extremely rare. Besides the fact that having a highly unequal society means that there is less room at the top and more room at the bottom, America does not score particularly well on social mobility. According to the World Economic Forum, the United States ranked 27th globally. The top 13 countries, by the way, were all European. And the top five are the Nordic countries, famed for their socialist policies: Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland (in that order). 

Admittedly, Spain ranked just below America, at the 28th spot. But the important thing to note is that, in Spain, social mobility is not vitally important to well-being, since a robust social security program guarantees a high minimum standard of life. This is why I refer to the “European Way of Life” rather than the “European Dream.” Because the idea in Europe is that the good life should not be a longshot, rags-to-riches, one-in-a-million dream, but something taken for granted.

My point has not been to convince you with statistics. These issues are extremely complicated, and of course Europe has its own problems. My point is this. When Americans, especially younger Americans, look across the Atlantic and see all of these differences—healthcare, education, maternity leave, vacation—many of them naturally wonder why we cannot do the same thing in our wealthy country. Why is America so exceptional in these rather unfortunate ways? I can’t say I know the answer to this question. But I know that awareness of this discrepancy is growing, and has already had a major effect on our own politics as more and more voters react with outrage. Americans put up with many things that, in Europe, would cause mass protests. But will Americans continue to do so?

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #10: A Very Spanish Christmas

Letters from Spain #10: A Very Spanish Christmas

Here is the next installment of my podcast about life in Spain. This one, about Christmas, is the final one for 2019. I hope you enjoy it!

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-10-a-very-spanish-christmas/id1469809686?i=1000460225839

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

It’s the most wonderful time of year here in Spain: Christmas. And the Spanish love Christmas, just as much as we Americans do. In fact, as I mentioned in another podcast, since there aren’t any major holidays in November, the Christmas season in Spain starts very early. Now we are in full Christmas swing, as can be seen by taking a short walk through any Spanish city. On the first of December the lights, decorations, and trees go up.

Now, Spain does not have such a strong tradition of festive house decoration as we have in the United States. This is largely because, as I’ve said before, the private houses in Spain are not open to the street, but instead normally have tall walls wrapping around the property (so there’s not much to decorate). But the Spanish do love their Christmas lights. People, old and young, flock to the center of Madrid to enjoy the street decorations. It gets so crowded in the city center that you can hardly walk. This year there is a new star attraction: a massive illuminated globe that stands at the end of Gran Vía. Once in a while the ball plays Christmas songs on big speakers, and all the Spaniards within eyesight pull out their phones to record the bright singing ball. Yeah, it’s charming.

A Christmas tradition that may be a bit surprising for Americans is the Christmas Lottery, called El Gordo (the fat one). Everyone buys a ticket, and you can buy them everywhere. In my case, I bought a ticket through the school where I work, and this is fairly common for employees. You can also buy tickets at cafés or restaurants or other types of shops, or at specific lottery stands. There is one particular shop near the Puerta de Sol, right in the center of Madrid, which has somehow become famous for being especially lucky. Thus, every year people line up for hours in order to buy a lottery ticket there (a ticket that is no different from a lottery ticket bought anyywhere else).

A big part of the lottery tradition are the commercials. They have quite a good marketing team, and every year there’s a new concept for the lottery commercial. Last year, for example, it was kind of a spoof on Groundhog Day, with a guy winning the lottery every day over and over until he got sick of it, and then somehow becoming a better person. This year, it’s a bit more sentimental, and it’s about how lottery tickets bring people together. Of course it is ridiculous to connect the idea of a lottery ticket with generosity and family, but the commercials somehow accomplish this paradox. In any case, if I win you can be sure the production values of this podcast will be going up.

Well, Spain has more wholesome Christmas traditions, too. A big part of the Christmas season is the food. There are many types of seasonal sweets. Most famous, perhaps, is turrón, which is like marzipan (which the Spanish also eat) but made with added honey. It comes in many different forms, from a barely solid paste to toothbreakingly hard bars, but in general it’s very very sweet. There are also polvorones, which are balls made with flour and sugar. They have very little water or fat in them, which makes them sort of dry and dusty to eat. (Polvo is Spanish for “powder.”)

My favorite is a type of sweet cake called Roscón de Reyes. This is a type of sweet bread that is delicious when you dip it in coffee. It reminds me a lot of something my dad makes around Christmas, which he calls Swedish Cardamom Coffee Braid. Traditionally, a small toy is baked into the cake, and if you get this piece it’s considered good luck.

Possibly the biggest difference between Spanish and American Christmas is the celebration of the Three Wise Men. In Spanish, they are called the tres reyes magos, which translated to something like the three magic kings, or perhaps the three magi kings. In Spain the day of the magic kings (January 6, which we call Epiphany in English) is almost as important as Christmas itself. And the magic kings also deliver presents! So Christmas season in Spain is long indeed, since the holidays extends from before Christmas all the way to the sixth of January, and the children get presents twice. I should also mention the Cabalgata de los Reyes, a massive parade held on January 5th, with giant floats and people dressed up as the wise kings themselves. Unfortunately for me, I’ve never seen it. Normally I’m home for Christmas break. 

Connected with the importance of the Three Wise Men is the popularity of Nativity Scenes. In Spanish these are called belén, which is the translation of Bethlehem. Nativity figurines are sold everywhere, and it’s very common for Spaniards to have little nativity scenes in their houses. In Spain there is a special twist to their nativity scenes, which comes from Catalonia. This is to include a little person defecating in the corner of the scene, called the Caganer (which is Catalan for “the pooper”). The tradition of nativity scenes is just another example of how Spain can be intensely Catholic in its culture, while at the same time divorcing Catholicism from actual religiosity. There are many people who would call themselves atheists who still have nativity scenes in their houses.

The Spanish also like to perform nativity plays, or Christmas pageants. And this brings me to something that is a source of controversy every Christmas season. As you may know, one of the three wise men, Balthasar, is traditionally portrayed as being black. As a result, every year, all around Spain, a white Spanish person—sometimes a celebritiy—will dress up in blackface to play the role of Balthasar (noy only in schools, but also during the big parade). This inevitably makes any visiting Americans extremely uncomfortable, since blackface is a deeply racist symbol in the United States. Spaniards typically react with puzzlement when told by Americans that the practice is racist, and that is normally where the matter ends.

I have never personally seen a nativity play, nor have I seen any Spanish person wearing blackface. I’m sure I would find it upsetting. But, to be honest, this is an area where I hesitate to venture an opinion. Blackface is undeniably racist in an American context, since it is connected with the tradition of minstrel shows, which were based on explicit mockery of black people and black culture. All the same, Spain does not have this history, with all its baggage, and so applying our American sensibilities to a Spanish context is probably not valid. A symbol has no inherent meaning, after all, but is given a meaning by its culture. As a comparison, consider the costumes that Spanish people wear during their Easter processions, which look to Americans like the Klu Klux Klan outfits, but which of course are completely different. 

Of course, you could make a strong argument that dressing up as someone from a different race is inherently racist. But considering the different cultural contexts, my inclination is to think that this is just something Spanish people need to work out among themselves, without Americans telling them what is right or wrong. Judging from the petitions on change.org to have a Balthasar played by a black person, the country is slowly moving in the right direction. 

Well, let’s leave these troubled waters and move on to New Year’s Eve. For the most part this is celebrated just like it is everywhere: with parties, champaign, and fireworks. But in Spain they have a special tradition. As they count down from 12 to 0, they try to eat one grape every second. That’s twelve grapes total. It’s not easy—I’ve tried. The idea is that it’s supposed to bring you good luck. (My girlfriend doesn’t like grapes, so she eats little pieces of chocolate.)

There are just a couple more differences I shall mention between the Christmas season in Spain and in the United States. I forgot to mention that, since most Spanish homes don’t have fireplaces, they hang their stockings somewhere else. Another is that, since Spain does not have big forests, virtually everyone in the country uses plastic trees. Probably this is a lot better for the environment, since they don’t need to cut down millions of trees every year, like we do in the United States. But I have to admit a real Christmas tree has a lot more romance (besides having a better smell). You are also pretty unlikely to get a beautiful snowy Christmas anywhere in Spain, unless you live up on the mountains.

As for me, I’ll be heading home. Christmas is a time to spend with family and old friends. It is also not a time for making podcasts, so this will be my last episode of 2019. It has been a good run. In a week I will be sitting in my house, wrapped in a blanket, and eating some of my mom’s delicious cooking. But I’ll be sure to bring some Spanish turrón home, too. 

Happy holidays!

Letters from Spain #9: The Spanish Landscape

Letters from Spain #9: The Spanish Landscape

Here is the next episode of my podcast about life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-9-the-spanish-landscape/id1469809686?i=1000459409868

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

We have had another long weekend here in Spain, and this one was for the Day of the Constitution. It commemorates the day in 1978 when the constitution was passed into law via a referendum. We also had Monday, December 9th, off. And this was basically just because the government guarantees a certain number of holidays per year, and organizes them to make as many long weekends as possible. I quite like this aspect of Spain.

Like so many people (judging from the traffic), I took the opportunity to leave Madrid and to go visit another part of Spain. And while I travelled, I was reminded, once again, of how amazingly diverse the Spanish landscape can be. So I thought I would take this opportunity to give you a kind of quick overview of Spain’s geography.

We can begin with Madrid and its surroundings. Now, I am sorry to say that I think this is one of the ugliest parts of Spain. Madrid is a kind of bureaucratic capital. The site of the city was chosen because it is in the middle of the country. There really isn’t any geographical reason a city should be here. The soil is dry and sandy and isn’t good for farming. There is no coast and no navigable river. (Madrid’s river, the Manzanares, is a kind of pathetic trickle most of the year.) Basically, if the city were to disappear completely, the thought of founding a city here would probably never even occur to anyone (well, unless you were a bureaucrat). 

I mostly like Madrid’s climate, if only because it rarely rains. The air is so dry that it hardly holds any heat. This is weird for a New Yorker, used to humidity. The temperature can vary quite a lot from morning to evening, and can even change drastically between sun and shade. All this is because Madrid is at a relatively high altitude—in fact, it is the highest altitude capital in Europe—and the air is sort of thin. Besides that, a whole mountain chain to the north shields the city from any weather making its way from the coast. As a result, it’s dry and pretty barren.

Here is what Ernest Hemingway had to say about Madrid:

“Madrid is a mountain city with a mountain climate. It has the high cloudless Spanish sky that makes the Italian sky seem sentimental and it has air that is actively pleasurable to breathe. The heat and the cold come and go quickly there.”

I can attest to the air being pleasurable to breathe. At the very least, I feel invigorated when I go running here.

If Madrid itself has an unremarkable landscape, it is fortunately close to some beautiful areas. Most notably there are the Guadarrama mountains to the north. For a New Yorker like me, seeing any mountains is an exciting experience. The highest point in all of New York state is Mount Marcy, which is 1,600 meters tall. And this is in the Adirondacks, pretty far from where I live. The tallest peak fairly close to my house is Mount Beacon, which is 491 meters tall. The whole city of Madrid is higher than that!

The highest peak in Madrid’s mountain range is called Peñalara, and it is about 2,400 meters above sea level. That’s just high enough so that you might experience altitude sickness, though the risk is very small. I’ve climbed to the top many times. It’s fantastic both in winter, when it’s covered in snow and skiers, and in summer, when the view is magnificent. This, by the way, is one of Spain’s 15 national parks. So far, I’ve only visited six of them.

Now that I am on the subject, though, let me tell you about two more national parks that I’ve visited recently. One is in the province of Extremadura. This province is now known as the poorest area of Spain. Ironically, however, it was one of the richest parts of the peninsula when the Romans were here, as we can see from the many Roman ruins. Nowadays, much of Extremadura is given over to raising the Iberian pigs which produce some of the country’s finest hams. The pigs are fed a diet of acorns from a little shrubby tree called the holm oak, which grows in abundance in Extremadura. 

Anyways, the national park is called Monfragüe. It occupies part of the Tagus river valley, where a huge rock formation called the Salto del Gitano created a strong updraft that birds really like. As a result, on any given day you can see dozens and dozens of the indigenous vultures hovering overhead. I highly recommend it.

Just this last weekend I saw another national park, the Picos de Europa (or the “peaks of Europe”). This is a mountain range in the north of Spain (it occupies the borders of three provinces), which gets its name for being the first bits of land that sailors from the New World could see on their return to Europe. Personally, I doubt this story is true, since the Picos de Europa aren’t especially close to the Atlantic, and they aren’t the tallest mountains on the peninsula. Regardless, they are absolutely gorgeous. You could easily imagine yourself in the Swiss alps.

I like these national parks partly because they are not the sorts of things people normally associate with Spain. The popular image of the country is of the beach, the hot sun, orange trees, palm trees, and olive trees. And of course you can find all that in Spain, too. Spain has great beaches, and great palm trees. But arguably Spain’s most important geographic characteristic is that it is so mountainous. In fact, Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe, after Switzerland, with an average elevation of about 600 meters (or 2,000 feet). Mountain chains crisscross the country. Besides the two mountain chains I already mentioned, there are the Pyrenees on the border with France, and the Sierra Nevada in Andalucia, which is the tallest range in the peninsula (there are many mountains well over 3,000 meters, or 10,000 feet tall!).

These mountains have played an extremely important role in Spain’s history, both for their effect on transport and the climate. To state the obvious, mountains can get in the way of travel, and this has contributed to the political and cultural disunity of Spain. Historically, it wasn’t so easy to get around. Even more important, the many changes in elevation—mountains, plateaus, and river valleys—can create lots of little micro-climates, and this has an important effect on the culture. I’ll illustrate this with a comparison.

Andalusia, which is in the south of the country, is fairly flat and low-lying, with lots of sun and good soil. As a consequence, farmers can gather lots of land together under one owner, and then farm it with a team of professional planters and pickers for added efficiency. Historically, this led to a great deal of inequality, since the wealthy would buy up the land, and the poor would be forced to work as itinerant laborers. By contrast, consider Galicia. This is the area on the northwestern tip of Spain, right above Portugal. Much like New York, Galicia is hilly rather than mountainous, and it receives quite a lot of rain from the Atlantic, so it’s very green. The soil is workable but not very high quality, and in any case the dense forest and the many hills make it difficult to unite lots of land under one owner. So the Galicians became subsistence farmers, with each family owning their own little plot of land. As you can imagine, these differences in farming strategies have shaped the cultures of these two regions.

I am going on and on, and yet I am afraid I am not doing justice to the Spanish landscape. So here is the historian, J.H. Elliott, on the country’s geography:

“A dry, barren, impoverished land: 10 percent of its soil bare rock; 35 percent poor and unproductive; 45 percent moderately fertile; 10 percent rich. A peninsula separated from the continent of Europe by the mountain barrier of the Pyrenees—isolated and remote. A country divided within itself, broken by a high central tableland that stretches from the Pyrenees to the southern coast. No natural centre, no easy routes. Fragmented, disparate, a complex of different races, languages, and civilizations—this was, and is, Spain.”

Well, for style I doubt I’m going to beat that. I do think that Elliott exaggerates the harshness of the Spanish climate and the isolation of the country’s geography. But he does capture the strangely disunited quality of the landscape. Whenever I drive through the country I am surprised at the sharp contrasts from one region to another. Just yesterday I drove from the snowy, green mountains of Asturias into the incredibly flat and empty plains of León. I am sure that the United States, being so much bigger, contains more variety. But I doubt that any part of America can present such stark contrasts in such a small span of space. In a single day, driving from one end of the peninsula to the other, you can see sandy desserts, arid plains, ice-tipped mountains, verdant river valleys, and lush forests. 

When speaking of beautiful Spanish landscapes, we also cannot forget the country’s islands. There are the Baleares in the Mediteranean, which are lovely. But even more interesting are the Canary Islands. This is an archipelago located in the Atlantic, somewhere off the coast of Morocco. The islands are volcanic, which makes them especially fascinating to visit. The tallest mountain in Spain, el Teide, is located on the largest island of the archipelago: Tenerife. I’m sure I’ve never seen anything taller than Teide. The mountain (which is really the volcano that formed the island) stretched up to 3,700 meters. That’s 12,000 feet! And of course the whole height of the volcano is very apparent, since it’s right next to the ocean. I remember being on the plane as we took off from the island, passing through the clouds on the way up, and then seeing Teide above me.

Naturally, Teide is a national park. The island of Lanzarote, which is the third-largest in the archipelago, also has a national park, called Timanfaya. This is the part of Lanzarote that was most recently formed by a volcanic eruption. As a result, there’s basically no vegetation at all. And the rocks are twisted into all sorts of nightmarish shapes. It’s both beautiful and hellish.

Well, I can’t hope to do justice to every one of Spain’s beautiful landscapes in the podcast. But if you take away one thing, I hope it is that Spain has more than just beaches and sun. The geography is fascinatingly diverse, and you can’t hope to understand the variety of Spain’s many regions without knowing something about its many different climates. The national parks are especially wonderful and are just as worth visiting as Spain’s many cultural treasures. Spain is a fortunate country.

Thank you

Letters from Spain #8: Climate Change and Immigration

Letters from Spain #8: Climate Change and Immigration

Here is the eighth episode of my podcast about life in Spain. In this one, I talk about the UN Climate Conference that’s being held here in Madrid, as well as the process of working legally in Spain as an American.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-8-climate-change-and-immigration/id1469809686?i=1000458741282

For the transcript, see below.


Hello.

Today I want to talk about two things that cause a lot of anxiety, climate change and immigration. (Though, they tend to cause different sorts of people anxiety.)

Well, we have a short week here in Madrid—thanks to the Day of the Constitution, on December 6th—but still quite an eventful one. As far as the news is concerned, the biggest event is the COP25: the 25th United Nations Climate Conference. It is being held in Madrid, in a place called IFEMA, which consists of a bunch of big empty glass buildings for holding big events. For example, this is where I had to go to register for the Madrid half marathon. They also have a special travelling exhibition about the tomb of Tutankhamun there now.

Brazil was originally supposed to host the event, but the election of Jair Bolsonaro—a version of Donald Trump—mooted that plan. Chile then offered to host the event; but political unrest in that country forced them to pass the torch to Spain. The highest profile guest at this climate talk will, no doubt, be Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist from Sweden. She hasn’t quite arrived in Madrid yet, since she had to come all the way from New York, and she chose to cross the Atlantic in a boat rather than a plane in order to reduce her carbon footprint. It took her 21 days to make the crossing (she was slowed down by adverse weather), and has just arrived hours ago in Lisbon. (I wrote this yesterday on December 3rd.) She was in New York to participate in the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, which was in September. So it seems like she’s following me around.

The main goal of this Madrid conference is to hammer out Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Basically, this is an attempt to create a kind of global emissions market, wherein low-emissions countries will be able to sell their excess allowable emissions to other countries. I think it is a good idea. But I have to admit that, as the years go by, I get more and more depressed when it comes to climate change. Yesterday at the conference, Spain’s president, Pedro Sánchez, said: “Today, fortunately, only a handful of fanatics deny the evidence.” Unfortunately, one of those fanatics is in the White House, which has caused the United States—the second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases—to pull out of the agreement entirely. Meanwhile, most other countries have not been able to reduce their emissions sufficiently to stay within the goal (which is a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures). China, for example, which is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas contributor, is still increasing rather than decreasing its emissions.

I remember when global warming was considered to be something we had to solve for our grandchildren’s sake. But as the years have gone by, and governments have continued to sit on their hands, the problem has become increasingly acute—not a problem for future generations, but for us. Unfortunately, by their very nature, these huge international agreements take a lot of time. And even if the U.N. does pass sweeping resolutions, these laws must still be hammered out and enacted in all of these different member states. Democracy is an awfully slow form of government, while climate change keeps accelerating.

As far as Spain is concerned, I think the country is doing decently well. There is a robust public transport system. If you go up north, especially to Galicia, you can see dozens upon dozens of wind turbines, which supply a sizable proportion of the country’s power. And if you go south, it is not hard to find solar panels baking in the Meditteranean sun. Near Seville, from the highway, you can see the PS10 solar power plant—which uses hundreds of mirrors to focus light onto a central point elevated on a tower. It looks quite cool, and somehow reminds me of Sauron’s tower from Lord of the Rings. Last year, in 2018, renewable energy accounted for 40% of the energy produced in Spain. The comparable figure for the United States is 17%. To pick a more humble example, I was happy to find that the little vegetable bags in my supermarket are biodegradable.

In any case, while climate change is threatening and occupying the world, my little world has been occupied by issues of immigration—namely, my own immigration. For the fifth time, I had to go and renew my visa in order to stay in Spain. So I thought that I’d take a little opportunity to walk you through the process of legally working as a language assistant in Spain as an American.

You start off in America, obviously. Now first you need to secure a job as a language assistant. The most popular way to do that is through the Ministry of Education program, but there are several others in Spain. You apply online and, assuming that you’re accepted into the program, you will be emailed an official letter stating the details of your job. This letter can sometimes take a distressingly long time to arrive, and some years it takes longer than others; but once you have that letter you are ready to apply for your visa. To do this, you need to locate your nearest consulate. I am lucky to live near New York City, where there is one, but for many people the nearest Spanish consulate is hours away.

To apply for the visa, you need to gather several things. There are easy things like writing a check for the fee and filling out a form. And then you have the official letter with your job details. But then there are more difficult things. You need a doctor’s note saying that you’re in good health, and this means a visit to your doctor. You need proof of financial means, which you can do either with a bank statement or with a notarized statement from a parent. The most difficult thing is the background check. You need to get this from the FBI. And since the FBI itself takes a long time in doing background checks, probably you’re going to have to use a ‘channeler,’ which is a third-party company that speeds it up. To do this you’ll need to go get your fingerprints taken. Now, once you get your background check back (and let’s assume you have a clean record) you’re still not done. Now you need to get what’s called an apostille, which is a document certifying the background check for international use. To get this in a reasonable amount of time, you need to pay another channeling service.

Ok, so we gather all of these documents together. When I got my visa, all I had to do was to mail my documents in with my passport, and they would send my passport back with the relevant stamp in a few weeks. But that system worked a little too well for the Spanish government, so they decided to change it. Now you need to book an appointment and physically bring all your documents into the consulate office. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if there were appointments, but when my brother had to do it, all of the appointments were booked solid for months. (Lucky for him, they gave him an “emergency” slot.)

Well let’s say you go through all of these hoops and they give you back your visa in your passport. Hurray! But wait, you’re not done. This visa only lasts about three months. It’s really just to get you into the country and settled. Once you get in, you have to apply for your real identity card. And this, of course, is another long process. You need to make an appointment at a special police station (in Madrid it is in a place called Aluche) and then get a bunch of documents in order: the form, photocopies of your passport, new passport photos, your official job letter, and proof that you paid the fee. (Paying the fee is usually the most annoying part, since you need to do it in a bank, and the banks are not cooperative.) You show up on the appointed day at the appointed hour, wait a long time in a line, and then give your bundle of papers to a person behind a desk, who then scans the fingerprints of your two index fingers.

Oh, I also need to mention a document called an empadronamiento (a little hard to say). This is basically a registry of where you live. To get this, you need to make an appointment, fill out a form, and then go to the office on the appointed day with your rental contract and a recently paid bill (and copies, of course). You need to do this before the fingerprint appointment, so be careful!

If this goes well, you still have a little task to do, since it takes them about a month to print your identity card. So you need to take a little receipt and come back in 40 days to pick up the card. Now, something interesting happens if you, say, want to go back to America for Christmas break, but you don’t have your identity card yet (and this is fairly common). In that case you need another special piece of paper called the Autorización de Regreso. This allows you to exit and enter Spain without needing a visa for a period of ninety days. To get this, you need to get a whole bunch of other papers together, etc., etc., etc.

What I just described to you is what may be called an ideal process. It can, of course, go wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I already mentioned that the appointments at the Spanish consulate in New York City fill up so fast that it can be impossible to get anything within three months. My brother would have been in a bad situation if they had not made a so-called “emergency” appointment for him, and they only did this because he has a government job. A slight error can also totally upset the process. When you pay the fee, for example, the person at the bank gives you back two receipts of payment: one for the government, and one for you to keep. They look absolutely the same except for some fine print on the bottom. Once, without either of us noticing, the man at the bank only gave me one of these back. So when I went to my appointment, the bureaucrat wouldn’t accept my application because I only had the receipt for me and not for the government. Nevermind that either receipt equally proves that I paid the fee, the fine print on the bottom is different. So I had to make a new appointment, go back a month later, and do it all again.

My worst experience was with the regreso document. In the past, the regreso was given out to anyone who showed up with the proper forms. All you really needed to say is that you had a flight soon, and it wouldn’t matter if you had an appointment. I thought this was very nice, since there are many situations when you might need to leave the country on short notice. But this system was too convenient for the Spanish government, so they changed it last year, requiring that everyone have an appointment. Nevermind that the appointments are not available within a short timeframe and are sometimes not available at all.

Well, suffice to say that I wasn’t aware of this rule change. So one summer I went to get my regreso before going back to America, and found to my horror that they wouldn’t give me it. This, despite being there, sitting in the desk with all of the requisite papers. The woman refused to accept them and I was sent packing. I ended up buying an entirely new flight. And the irony was that I wasn’t even asked for my regreso document upon getting back to Spain—something that very often happens. Indeed, I have found that it’s much easier for me to get into Spain than into my own country, since the Spanish are in general a lot less paranoid when it comes to foreigners.

So that’s my immigration story. After all this, I get a little green card that is valid for about six months. As a language assistant, you get a student visa for some reason, which is why you need to renew it every year. I am sure it could be much worse. I bet it is worse in my own country. But I do wonder what, if anything, all of this bureaucracy is really accomplishing. For example, with every application I need to include scans of my passport, which has all of my basic information. Then I need to put my basic information on a form. And all my basic information on the bank fee. And my information is also in my job letter. So, considering all the applications for various things, the Spanish government has dozens and dozens of documents with my basic information, all stored away in God knows where.

To me, it seems that this huge process only guarantees that people fill out the right forms and pay the right fees. I have a very hard time believing it keeps anybody safe. Think about it. If I was really up to no good, I would just enter Spain on a tourist visa, overstay it (which a lot of people do), and live off the grid. And think about how much all of this unnecessary bureaucracy is contributing to global warming? So here’s my proposal: open the borders, eliminate all of these petty and useless processes, and then put everyone to work building solar panels or something. I am sure the world would be a better place.

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #7: A Walk Through Spanish History

Letters from Spain #7: A Walk Through Spanish History

Here is the seventh episode of my podcast about life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-7-a-walk-through-spanish-history/id1469809686?i=1000458091403

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

I have to begin this letter on a somber note. This Monday, November 25, was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This issue is a big concern in Spain. It seems like there is always a story on the news about a woman who was murdered by a partner, or about men who have sexually abused women without facing consequences. So far this year, 52 women have been killed by their partners, and only 11 of them had filed any kind of police report beforehand. I am sometimes asked by Spaniards if we in America have such a big violence against women problem. Though I am inclined to say yes, it strikes me that in America we do not discuss domestic violence nearly as often as they do here in Spain.

So I decided to see if I could find some figures that I could compare between the two countries. In the United States, in 2005, 1,181 women were killed by an intimate partner. For that same year in Spain, 63 women were killed by partners or ex-partners. Keeping in mind that the population of Spain is about one-seventh the population of the United States, the American figure is still much bigger. So it seems that we in America have a much worse domestic violence problem than they have here in Spain. Though it is sad news, to me it is not very surprising. The easy access to guns in America makes all forms of violence more common, or at least more deadly. The reason we don’t talk about domestic violence as much in America as in Spain, I think, is that in America all of our conversations about violence end up being arguments about guns. In Spain, the issue is normally framed more as a cultural problem—the culture of machismo

As tempting as it would be now to launch into a rant about American gun violence or machista culture, this episode is focused on a slightly more peaceful topic (well, maybe not): the history of Spain. This past weekend, I finally took the time to revisit one of the great museums in Madrid: the Museo de Arqueología Nacional (the National Archaeology Museum). It is a bit out of the way for most tourists, though not much. The museum is housed in the same enormous building as the National Library, which is also worth a visit, if only to see the ornate façade complete with sculptures of iconic Spanish writers (like Lope de Vega or Cervantes). The Archaeology Museum is huge, and fascinating, and very cheap: only three euros, and free on Saturday afternoons.

The museum goes through the prehistory and history of Spain from the earliest times to the early modern period (about the 1700s). Human ancestors have been in the Iberian peninsula for at least one million years. Quite a long time. One of the most famous early-hominid sites in Spain is Atapuerca, near the city of Burgos. (Researchers are still debating what species to assign to the fossils found there.) Around 200,000 years ago, the Neanderthals set up shop in Iberia, and began making all sorts of little sharp stone tools. There were probably homo sapiens, too, and it is possible the two species interbred. They at least influenced one another’s technology. By far the most famous artifact left by the prehistoric humans of Iberia are the cave paintings in Altamira, which were made around 36,000 years ago. The archaeology museum has a beautiful replica of these caves near the entrance, made using traditional methods. If we can judge by these cave paintings, two things have occupied the Spanish for a very, very long time: painting and bulls.

Soon enough in the museum’s collection we get to the development of agriculture, permanent settlements, pottery, metallurgy, and all of the other dubious developments of sedentary life. Sometime around 500 BCE, the Celts came into Spain. (And I bet a lot of people didn’t know that the Celts were in Spain.) You can still see traces of their culture in the northwest corner of the country, Galicia. Meanwhile, the Phonecians (from northern Africa) began to colonize the south of the peninsula. The city of Cádiz has been inhabited since around 1,000 BCE, making it the oldest city in Spain. A bit later, the Greeks started landing on the East coast, establishing the city of Empúries, which is in modern-day Catalonia. They did this around 600 BCE.

Under the influence of the Greeks and the Phoenecians, a new indigenous culture eventually emerged in the East Peninsula, which is now called simply the Iberian culture. The museum has quite a few beautiful examples of Iberian sculpture, such as the so-called Lady of Elche—an imposing woman with Princess Leia hair. In general, Iberian sculpture is distinguished from the typical Greek style by its abstract stylization. Its rediscovery in the early 20th century influenced Picasso. But the culture was not to last, since the Iberian Peninsula eventually was the site of the Punic wars—the clash between Ancient Rome and Hannibal’s Carthage. Rome won, of course, and then incorporated Iberia into the ever-growing Roman Empire. Iberia then became Hispania, and its culture became roman. 

You don’t need to go to the archaeology museum to see evidence of Rome’s influence. There are Roman ruins in Segovia, Mérida, and Tarragona, to pick just three examples. But you don’t even need to look that far: the whole Spanish language evolved from Latin. The museum has some wonderful examples of metal sheets on which Roman laws were published. I like to imagine a Roman lawyer doing his research on a rainy day, standing in his toga outside in the plaza, bent over, reading these laws. In any case, the Romans really Romanized Spain: they built aqueducts, temples, fortresses, bath houses, dams, lighthouses, roads, theaters, amphitheaters—tons of stuff. Talk about a colonial mindset. But at least they had a sense of style. The archaeology museum in Madrid has some beautiful samples of Roman floor and wall mosaics, which in my opinion are in better taste than any of our interior decoration.

Rome lasted a long, long time. Spain was controlled by the Romans for about 700 years, which left an indelible mark on the country. But eventually Rome declined and fell. This left a huge power vacuum, which allowed the Visigoths to move in from the north of Europe. The museum has a few interesting artifacts from this period, but really it was not a time that left a huge archaeological footprint. After all, these were the Dark Ages. The Visigoths only enjoyed their time on top for about 200 years, until they were crushed by the invading Muslims, who came in from across the Strait of Gibraltar.

This was the beginning of Al-Andalus, or Moorish Spain. (The word moro in Spanish is considered slightly offensive, but in English “Moorish” is standard.) This was actually another cultural high point in the history of the peninsula. While most of Europe was still slowly crawling its way back from the Dark Ages, Moorish Spain was an advanced place. New crops and agricultural techniques were introduced, major philosophers like Averroes and Moses Maimonides lived and wrote, and beautiful buildings were constructed, like the Great Mosque of Cordoba or the Alhambra in Granada. The Archaeology Museum has some amazing examples of Moorish art and architecture, as well as some works made by Christians in a Moorish style (which is called mudéjar). The Moors left a sizable linguistic heritage, too, as thousands of Spanish words come from Arabic.

Eventually the power of the Moors fractured, and the power of the Christians in the north grew and consolidated. After many centuries of battles, shifting alliances, and gradual conquest, the Christians pushed south until the last Moorish kingdom—Granada—fell in 1492, and modern Spain was born. Soon the country entered its Golden Age as the pre-eminent global superpower, with colonies all around the world (thanks partly to Columbus), and most of Europe under its thumb. But this was not to last. By the 1700s, Spain was a decidedly second-rate power in Europe, even if it still managed to hang on to its colonies. The museum has some lovely objects from the Enlightenment in Spain, but it must be said that the Age of Reason was a tame affair here compared with, say, France or England. 

This is when the museum’s collection ends. You must go elsewhere if you want to trace Spain’s history to the present day. Even so, I think this brief story gives a taste of why travelling in Spain is so fascinating. So many different cultures shared this relatively small bit of land, and they are all piled up on top of each other. In a single day, you can go from a gothic cathedral, to a Roman bridge, to a Moorish mosque. The cave paintings of Altamira, for example, are situated right next to a beautiful medieval village. This is something that we just don’t have in America, mostly because European colonization so completely wiped out the indigenous cultures. 

Speaking of European colonization, I should also mention Thanksgiving before I end this podcast. Of course, Thanksgiving in Spain means precisely: nothing. Thursday is a work day just like any other. Well, my brother got the day off somehow, but in my case I’ll spend Thanksgiving giving presentations about Thanksgiving to Spanish children who must go through this every year. But I do think that Thanksgiving encapsulates America like no other holiday can. What do we do? We eat until we’re sick, we watch men tackling each other on television, or we watch giant floating cartoons, or we argue about politics, and then the next day we all go shopping for things we don’t need. It is America in a nutshell. My own Thanksgiving celebrations will have to wait until Friday. There is no way a whole turkey is going to fit inside my little tabletop oven. Well, I’ll figure it out.

For now, I’m thankful to be here.

Letters from Spain #6: Spanish Time and Spanish Space

Letters from Spain #6: Spanish Time and Spanish Space

Here is the sixth episode of my podcast about life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-6-spanish-time-and-spanish-space/id1469809686?i=1000457406871

For the transcript, see below:


Well, this past week has been fairly unremarkable. Really, the only podcast-worthy thing that happened was yet another bad experience with Spanish banks. Basically, I went to a bank during my lunch break to try to pay some government fees for my visa. But I was turned away by no fewer than three banks. You see, it is common, not only for banks to be open during quite restricted hours (which is why I had to go during my lunch break), but also to have even more ludicrously restricted hours when they allow you to actually do things, like pay a government fee. It all reminds me of a book I am reading about useless employment.

But I cannot let myself get sucked into another rant about Spanish banks, as gratifying as it would be. Today, I want to talk about something different: the Spanish sense of time and space.

The phrase “Spanish time” is familiar to every American who lives in Spain. The idea is basically that everything is always late: people arrive late, nothing starts on time, and so on. Now, I actually think that this is an unfair stereotype. The vast majority of the people I’ve worked with have been very punctual. In fact, I catch myself being late more often than my Spanish coworkers. Obviously these things vary a lot from person to person. But I’d be willing to bet that, if some kind of study were performed, it would be found that Spaniards are, on the whole, just as likely to show up on time for an engagement as an American.

But I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as “Spanish time.” Punctuality is only a tiny aspect of a culture’s sense of time. In some ways Spain is indeed extremely anomalous. This is most notable when it comes to meal times. Spaniards eat lunch and dinner quite late, even compared to their Mediterranean counterparts. Lunch at three is not unusual, and neither is dinner at ten. In fact, many tourists are annoyed to find that they cannot even keep to their American schedules, since it is common for the kitchens in Spanish restaurants not to open until around 1:00, and to close between, say, 4:30 and 8:00. So no lunches at noon or six-o’-clock dinners in Spain.

Spanish time is strange in another respect. Though Spain occupies around the same latitude as England, it is one hour later in Spain than in England. This means that the sun rises and sets quite late in Spain. Right now, for example, the sun rises at about 8 and sets at about six. (In the west of Spain it’s obviously a bit later.) Meanwhile, the sun rises at around 6:45 in New York, and sets at around 4:30. Now, the reason for this difference dates back to the Franco era, when he apparently switched his time zone to coincide with Germany’s, apparently in a gesture of goodwill towards Hitler. England, apparently, switched its timezone to central European time, too, right before the Second World War. But after the war, England switched back, but Spain stayed.

Maybe it’s partly as a consequence of this off-kilter time zone that things tend to happen a bit later in Spain. For example, even though Spaniards have a reputation for laziness, it is common for Spanish people to work until eight o’clock at night! Even workaholic Americans would not accept such hours as normal. Granted, Spaniards do often have a significant break in the middle of the day for lunch, at least an hour. This, of course, is the famous Spanish “siesta.” Now, there’s a lot to say about the siesta. For one, sleeping in the middle of the day makes a lot of sense if you live in the south of the country, where afternoon temperatures can make any activity impossible.

But the more important point is that, for the vast majority of Spaniards, the siesta does not exist. Honestly I wish it did. If I was given time to go home and nap for a bit every day, I am sure I would feel a lot better in general. But the midday break is simply not long enough for most Spanish people to leave the office, go home, eat lunch, sleep, and then make it back to the office. I salute the lucky few who can, since I think it is a healthier and saner way to live. But the siesta is an important cultural institution nonetheless, even if it doesn’t usually involve sleeping. This is because lots of things in Spain—shops, offices, and even churches—close around lunch time. It takes a lot of getting used to, really, since this is normally the perfect time to do things.

On the subject of Spanish time, we also must mention the schedule of Spanish partying. Just as Spaniards eat lunch and dinner late, they go out late. Just the other day, I happened to be chatting with a bunch of Spaniards are they prepared to hit the town for Halloween. The clock had struck midnight before they left the apartment. As you can imagine, if they only start at midnight, they don’t stop until the wee hours of the morning. Partying all night in Spain is not only common, but the norm. I really have no idea how they do it, or why they want to. But if you want to have a good time with a group of Spanish people, make sure you don’t have anything important to do the next morning.

As you can see, Spanish time is in some ways quite different from American time. But I think that the Spanish version of space is, if anything, even more different than how we Americans think of space.

The most obvious example of this is in the realm of personal space. Americans typically want a lot more of it than Spaniards do. It is a common experience for Americans to find themselves backing away while speaking to Spaniards, since for us Americans it can feel like Spanish people get way too close. I still have trouble with it, sometimes. I just can’t get used to talking with someone when their face is only a few centimeters from mine. But, you do slowly adapt. I remember one time, when I went back to America for the summer, I was told by the person in the post office than I should back away. When you’re talking to someone behind a desk in Spain, you typically lean in.

Related to personal space is the issue of touching. In Spain it is far more acceptable to casually touch somebody. This can take a thousand forms, but it can really make Americans uncomfortable. In America, if a stranger is touching you, you are either very happy or in immediate danger. In other words, touching between strangers in America is rarely casual. For whatever reason, people in Spain have much less fear of sexual harassment—either being the victim of it, or being accused of it—which is such a huge cloud hanging over American interpersonal relations. When I first came to Spain, I thought that every man was dating every woman, since they all touched each other in ways that struck me as extremely flirtatious. But I was wrong. To pick another example, primary school teachers in Spain have no issues hugging, kissing, or pinching the cheeks of their students, while in America this is a fearful taboo. 

So personal space can be very different in Spain. But there is another difference, which I think is quite a bit more interesting. This has to do with the difference between public and private space. In Spain, I think this contrast is far more sharp than in America, and I say this for a few reasons. For one, it is very common—even the norm—in the United States to invite friends over or to be invited over. In my case, I spend the vast majority of my time with American friends in someone’s house. We go to a bar or a restaurant maybe a few times a month.

But in Spain this is a totally different story. Most friends, even good friends, meet outside the home, in a neutral space. Whenever I ask my high school kids what they did over the weekend, they always say they “went to the street,” meaning they walked around or hung out in a park, doing God knows what. Likewise, adult friends are more likely to meet in a bar or a restaurant than in someone’s living room.

Part of this is a simple preference. Compared to Americans—who are lovers of their own property—Spanish people love to be in public, surrounded by people. Again, while an American might feel overwhelmed by an intensely crowded bar, many Spaniards seem to think this is a good thing. The street, the bar, the café, the square—this is where life happens in Spain. And for this reason Spain can be such a vibrant, energetic place to be. The people aren’t in their homes, but outside, socializing in large numbers. You can even see this preference reflected if you see portions of the Spanish countryside from the air. Rather than a bunch of isolated farms scattered about, the people live all bunched together, with miles and miles of uninhabited land all around them. 

I also think, as I said, that Spanish people also have a stronger sense of the divide between public and private than Americans do. For Spanish people, the home is just not a place to have a party. That’s for a public space. To illustrate this point, I think it is enlightening to think about Spanish and American homes. My home back in NY, for example, has a front lawn entirely open to the street. Most of the front windows can be easily seen from the outside. By contrast, most of the houses I see in Spain have a wall entirely encircling the property, making it difficult to see anything going on within. To me, this has much more to do with the Spanish idea of a home as an isolated space, than any functional purpose associated with the wall. 

To sum up, for a European country, Spain presents some striking contrasts to the United States. Why these differences arose is an interesting question, but one which would take serious historical research to answer. For now, I am content with just pointing out the differences.

Thank you.