People talk about the French malaise
. But in Spain, there's a full-on crisis. My family and I spent three weeks there in June, traveling from Madrid to Granada, then driving up the coast to Tarragona and Barcelona. It's a beautiful country — very different from France
, where we are now: dry and earth-colored, not humid and green; mountainous, not rolling; spotted with castles, not chateaus; strongly connected to Mediterranean and Arabic cultures. It reminded us of California rather than Wisconsin. In LA, we're used to people speaking Spanish.
In the medieval streets of Tarragona, with Roman ruins for a backdrop and a full moon overhead, we celebrated the festival of Saint John. Folks dressed like fish carried giant tridents loaded with firecrackers down the narrow streets, dancing wildly as sparks flew and drums pounded. The party continued all night at the beach, with more fireworks and bacchanal. In Granada the intricate, geometric decorations of the Alhambra palace offered opulent respite from cathedrals and museums full of bloody pictures of martyrs. In Barcelona's brilliant Sagrada Familía, the multihued stone columns rose like trees in a forest, demonstrating that churches can inspire, not oppress. Tapas were tasty and bite-sized, not overpriced and oversauced.
And everywhere we went, there were signs of deep distress. On a regular street on the way back from Gaudi's Park Güell, the shattered windows of a bank were covered in tape, like a duct-tape spiderweb. In the central square of Barcelona, protesters with Occupy-style signage picketed another bank. A restaurant sign advertised its "Anti-Crisis Menu" in Toledo: more beef for your buck. Everywhere, flyers denounced the government and the financial institutions, and called for uprising, or for a return to regional Catalan values, or for socialism.
There's a rot in Spain. The corruption between the government and the banks becomes more evident with each news story, and the people, being asked to weather austerity cutbacks while the fat cats purr, are pushing back. There's a feeling the country could be the next Greece, or Turkey. Sadly, the stench can be literal. The smell of sewage in every city we went was a pungent reminder of the failure of public works to keep up with modern conditions.
The French are feeling the economic pinch too. But it's more a worry of things to come than a crisis set in. The restauranteur downstairs wants to open a second dinery, but the bank won't give out loans anymore. Instead, for the first time in 18 years, they're charging him a membership fee.
As I mentioned during my first guest blog, the French still shop in small, artisanal stores and markets, rather than big-block groceries. There's an emphasis on local goods, on paying for quality, not getting off cheap. But that's changing. The Monoprix, the French Target, is omnipresent. Outside of the center of Paris, people lug their goods made in China in plastic bags, because that's what they can afford.
It's a vicious circle: if you only pay people Walmart wages, then they can only afford to shop at Walmart. People who don't have jobs, because companies do all their manufacturing overseas, can only afford to buy goods made overseas.
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