Auf Wiedersehen, Spain: Learning German to Escape the Crisis

By Juan Moreno in Espera, Spain

Part 2: 'There's No Work Here'

In Espera, the class has just ended and the students head to the door. Each of them receives a bottle of German beer as a parting gift, and they take pictures with their classmates.

Antonio Jesús Valle Rodríguez is still in the classroom, packing up his course notebooks. The "Leierjacke" was his idea. He was very serious during the class and finds German words intimidating. He just heard the word "Streichholzschachtel" ("matchbox") for the first time, and says German sounds like a disease of the throat.

Antonio is a reserved man who speaks with such a strong Andalusian accent that someone in Madrid would have trouble understanding him. He doesn't care about Germany, Antonio says, and he doesn't want to go there. But he'll probably have to.

"I've driven this whole coast," he says. "I've been to every hotel, every hospital, every school. I'd work as a janitor, a driver, a waiter -- it doesn't matter, anything. But those drives were just a waste of gas. There's no work here. Nowhere."

Jumping into the Pool

Antonio is 35, married and has a three-year-old daughter. His family lives on €426 ($608) a month. That money is for his daughter, something the government provides as a benefit for children. Spain doesn't provide welfare for the long-term unemployed, and the payments for the child run out in August. Antonio doesn't know what will happen then. He has a little bit of money saved, so maybe he'll use that to go to Germany.

"Sometimes, when I'm having a beer with my brother-in-law, we talk about Germany," Antonio says. They talk about German cars, German manufacturing and German soccer players. Antonio explains to his brother-in-law that the "V" in the name of the old Volkswagen Golf he drives is actually pronounced like an "F," not a "V." He learned that in his German course.

Then his brother-in-law says, "See, you do know German. Let's go."

Antonio lays both hands on the classroom desk. "It sounds so easy, €200 for a ticket and just go," he reflects. But how, he wonders, do Germans treat those who can't speak their language? "Probably like how we treat Moroccans here," he says.

His brother-in-law attended the course too, at the beginning, but gave up after a few weeks. It works just as well without a class, he decided. The fastest way to learn to swim is "to jump into the pool," he says.

A New Phenomenon

This is a strange time in Spain, and not just because of the economic crisis, the worst since Spain became a democracy. And not just because of the steadily rising unemployment rate, currently at 21.3 percent. What's happening right now is a phenomenon that was believed to be long since over. Half a million Spaniards came to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. They were well liked, they worked hard and -- unlike Germany's Turkish population -- many of them eventually went back to Spain.

"I don't know how long I would stay," Antonio says. This morning, he heard a new prediction from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on the radio. The international body had studied Spain's economy and determined that the unemployment rate wouldn't fall back to its pre-crisis level, just over 8 percent, until 2026. In 15 years. By then, Antonio's daughter will be an adult.

Antonio completed his training as an auto mechanic in 1997, but he's never worked repairing cars. Construction paid better. He worked in that industry for 12 years, experiencing Spain's building boom at first hand. He watched as the construction frenzy devoured the Mediterranean coast bit by bit, watched as Málaga, Almería, Alicante and Valencia were all swallowed up by endless rows of blocky two-story vacation homes, some of them sold before the foundation was laid. There are currently a million properties in Spain without a buyer. In more than 1.3 million households in the country, not a single member of the family was employed last year.

Antonio sometimes wondered if things could go on forever the way they were going, with more and more houses and higher and higher prices. He had his doubts, but when his boss paid €180, half of it under the table, for a 12-hour shift, it did a lot to assuage any misgivings. Antonio let himself be caught up in the frenzy too, buying a two-story house with a tiny garden in the western part of Espera, in a block of row houses that resemble chicken cages on an industrial egg farm. Antonio is still paying €200 a month for the loan he took out. He says he's thinking about starting a vegetable garden, to save some money.

"A vegetable garden," Antonio repeats. He can't believe he just said that. "A goddamn vegetable garden. It can't possibly be true, 13 years, never a day without work, and now back to zero, back to the beginning."

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1. Growing vegetables distasteful?
lakechamplainer 07/07/2011
What's wrong with growing a vegetable garden? I enjoy growing vegetables both for the food and the exercise.
2. veggi garden/Germany too idealistic
sabana 07/09/2011
Exactly, what's wrong with growing your own veggis? I'd be more than happy to have the possibility to grow my own food without pesticides and for very little money. That's a perfect solution for poor families who could otherwise never afford fresh fruits or veggetables and it makes you feel better about your health and what you do to get your food! Also people still shouldn't forget that not everything is as perfect and easy as media paints it for the moment in Germany. If you don't hold a university degree of some profession in demand and speak the language you'll have a very hard time finding a well paid job. That's what they don't tell the Spanish. Why is Germany not investing in its own people? There are plenty of Germans out of work or who can't afford/don't have the possibility to get a better education. To invite skilled foreigners to work is a quick fix but will bring other problems along. Germany has white washed its unemployment figures with great success and it's very far from reality to say that jobs are thrown at you for a starting salary of € 5000 a month. I am German, I know without a uni degree there's not much to do, competition in the professions is high and there are many people who trained for 3 years and now struggle on € 1000 a month without much perspective...
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