May Day

Today is Labor Day in Spain.  With over 5 million people unemployed and the economy in shambles, there isn’t much laboring to celebrate, I’m afraid to say, and not many celebrants laboring.  For those 5 million plus job-seekers, it’s frustratingly like any other day.

        International attention isn’t helping either.  Every time I see the word “Spain” in a headline, it’s usually followed by some doom and gloom message that spooks away half the world’s investors.  Standard and Poor downgraded the sovereign debt, the March unemployment rate rose to a record 24.4%, that’s up from 7.9% in April of 2007.  Needless to say, the country slipped back into a recession recently, if it really ever got out of it in the first place.

        So, a quarter of workforce is inactive?  Shouldn’t there be a revolution right around the corner?  Well, believe it or not, it’s not quite what you would expect it to be.  On Sunday, protests were held around the country, in some 80 cities in all (I didn’t know Spain had eighty cities) the apparent number of demonstrators totaled some 1 million.  At least that is what they say.  I ran into the one in Segovia which, from my eyewitness perspective, must have had about 2,000 peaceful but disgruntled participants.  This time they zeroed in on the administration’s vow to cut back on healthcare and education in what I figure to be an apparent attempt by the government to make future generations of Spaniards sicker and stupider.

        The group slowly proceeded up the Calle Real to the Plaza Mayor where it was absorbed by a group of Galician folklore dancers and musicians putting on a show.  It was all very surreal, I can assure you.

        The Spanish economy situation is one which baffles the resident here.  The permanent one and the newcomer alike.  People from abroad arrive expecting the nation to be brimming with social unrest.  Yet most stroll around the center, see all the shops open and the bars and restaurants filled and say, “Jeeze, who would have guessed this country was about to collapse?  I was expecting turmoil and hordes of barefoot Oliver Twists.”

        And this is the thing: is Spain really as bad off as everyone says?  The numbers say so, they certainly do.  And I know some people  who are feeling its pinch.  But something doesn’t quite add up.   I was Dublin in June of 2010, about six months before the bailout came, and the downtown of the capital was in a ruinous state.  There were “To Let” signs all over the place.  You could just tell things were looking bleak.  The Irish themselves were very proud of how they had progressed after their first big economic boom in their, let’s be honest here, entire history, and there was no doubt that they had come a long way.

      But I said, “Yeah, walk outside and take a look around.  Everything is closed down.”  They stared at me dumbfounded.  What was I talking about?

       They were all about to slam into a big wall and they didn’t see it coming, that was what I was talking about.  When I heard about the bailout a few months later, I wasn’t surprised at all.

            But what about the Spanish?  From the way things sound, the scenario should be the same, if not worse.  And yet, you walk around different neighborhoods and see that, while times could be better, the country seems far from an imminent cataclysm.  Have I become just as blind as the Irish I spoke to two years ago or are things truly different?  Is Spain truly different?

       Just where this crisis is and what it looks like, I wish I could tell you off the top of my head.  I wish I knew, but I am at a loss.

       By the way, on that trip to Segovia I took the pricier AVE bullet train and there wasn’t a free seat available.  The streets of th city were jammed with tourists and the restaurant we ate at (while not exorbitant, certainly a step above the average) was packed at three in the afternoon.  Something is up.

      I will have to investigate.

Spanish Holidays: May Day

Being a Sunday, there isn’t much feel to it, but it is actually May Day, May 1st, the European version of Labor Day, but with a twist.   It also happens to be Mother’s Day too, but that was just a coincidence.   Mother’s Day is on the first Sunday in May here, so this year it all came together in one big day.   That’s sad new for those waiters and chefs hoping to get a day off, because Mother’s Day could just be the singlemost important day for restaurants in the entire year.    

May 1st is really the old International Workers’ Day, an event that gets many elderly Americans uneasy and ruffled, as they associate it with Red placards, sickle and hammers, anti-American messages and huge military parades with missiles included.  Many even think it’s no longer around.   As my mom put it: “Oh, do they still do that?  It’s so passé to be left wing.  Why don’t they drop it already.”

          Well, she didn’t quite put it in those words but the sentiment was there.  Not a problem.  It’s like it’s a big deal in Spain anymore.  Nowadays, the demonstrations are a far cry from what they used to be, which is a shame because if there ever was a need in this country to stand up and shout, raise your fists, chant incessantly and overturn a car or two, it would be in the Spain of 2011, with a persistent 20%+ unemployment level.   Oh fine, we all know that you have to factor in the underground economy, but still, that’s a  lot of people out of work.

           Unions themselves are still present in most sectors and in some they are quite strong, like public transport, taxis, etc.   I don’t want to get into a big thing about unions but the little experience I’ve had with them was a little disappointing.  I was a representative and it turned out the government owed us money.  I was so excited I said we’d all be getting a little more cash.  That was when the union leader said to me that if I wanted my share would have to join up and become a full member.   I said thought it would be better if we split whatever we made evenly among all our colleagues, but she said that wouldn’t be a good idea.  So, I kind of was bummed out by that.  It seems the were just greedy a the rest.