Wednesday, 8 May 2013


Some things about Madrid never change. 

In April, madrilenos still wrap up in winter overcoats and scarves against the 17 degree temperatures, while tourists pace around in flip flops and shorts.  Tapas always end up costing more than you meant to spend.  Tiny cups of café solo never fail to please, and just as you think a customer and waiter are about to knock the crap out of each other, they see the funny side and laugh and clap each other warmly on the shoulder.

Those eternal madrileno truths remain unchanged.

But the mood is definitely different to any of my previous visits to the Spanish capital.

Bars are emptier, restaurants less packed - and less festive.  In the streets, ordinary-looking people in their 20s stop by litter bins and root for something edible.  White, culturally middle-class people announce in the metro that their home has been repossessed and they've become homeless, and implore passengers to 'collaborate' by buying a packet of tissues.

When I was last in Spain, two years ago, the Occupy movement was angry and vociferous, and ever-present in the media and on the plazas.  On this trip, over four days, I saw one small, half-hearted protest by the Communist Party lasting 15 minutes.

It feels like people have lost their fight and accepted their new lot.

One definition of depression is the inability to imagine a future for oneself.  I wonder, can a whole nation be collectively depressed?

I spoke to a Spanish friend who's a lecturer in economics, and is getting offers from universities in Latin America.  Countries, he says, that are future-oriented, and who see education as a tool to build something.  Who aren't making big cuts to universities, but investing in them and in the quality of teaching.  His students are looking to Germany, the UK, the US, hoping they'll find better prospects there.  He thinks it will take another 3-4 years for the financial crisis to ease.

He introduced me to his colleague.  Yes, she conceded with notable reluctance, Spain at the moment has a few 'problemillas' (little problems).  But she sounded confident when she said that the current government is finding solutions.  A year, she estimates, and things will be right again.  ('Right' being an apt word here!)

For now, the construction work in Spain has halted.  And it seems many people can't imagine a future, either for their country or for themselves.

We are living in strange times.  In the West, we thought we could commodify numbers and data and live off a clean, white-collar knowledge economy, a strange place where the number of houses built has more to do with clever people managing hedge funds and clicking the mouse at the right time, than it had to do with the population and basic human needs.

Spain and Ireland both need to learn again how to build a future.  Like someone suffering depression, I think our countries need to learn again to envisage better times and find our locus of control within rather than in external circumstances beyond our control.  It's easy to blame others (bankers, the unemployed, foreigners ...) - it'll be much harder to move ahead.

It's a different Madrid to before.  There's melancholy in the air.  But the April sun still shone, the coffee was still as punchy as ever, and I still love rambling those streets in my flip flops.

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