A few months ago, I was interviewed by a short, roundish man, a Spanish TV host I had never seen but who every child in Spain knows: Jordi Évole. He used to be the sidekick of a late-night talk show host. We met on a cold, wet Saturday morning at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Évole asked me to talk about Germany -- as the son of Spanish immigrants, but mostly as a German. He wanted me to explain what we, the Germans, are doing right and they, the Spaniards, are doing wrong. Évole hosts one of the most successful programs on Spanish television. He is both an investigative journalist and a comedian.
What did he expect me to say? That you can't take an economy seriously when it's based on sun and oranges and the overdevelopment of the Mediterranean coast? That Spanish football clubs shouldn't owe 750 million ($915 million) in back taxes? That, according to the latest PISA study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development comparing international education systems, Spain's schoolchildren have not improved, despite record tax revenues before the crisis?
I've recently thought a lot about that conversation, about the Spanish economic crisis and about whether I really know what things look like in my native Spain.
My parents are former farmers from Andalusia who went to Germany in the 1970s and worked in a tire factory in Hanau near Frankfurt until their retirement. My father went to school for four years. There were no textbooks. The teacher used an old encyclopedia. My dad made it to volume D, or perhaps F. In any case, the education his country offered him was a disgrace. He emigrated when he was 17.
I was born in Spain, I have a Spanish name, I speak at a Spanish pace, I have a Spanish passport, and I'm happy that Spain won the European Championship. But I live in Germany, where I went to school and work today.
My most intense memories of Spain go back more than 25 years, even though I've visited since then. They are the glorified summer memories of childhood. My family was part of that caravan of guest workers (the wave of immigrants who came to Germany during the postwar years) who would load up the Opel and drive home to Spain every year, first through France, and then along the Mediterranean coast to my parents' village. We would spend 30 hours in the car, stopping only at gas stations, with a chain-smoking father at the wheel. The back seat was for me, my two brothers and one suitcase. I loved those trips.
After the conversation with Jordi Évole, I decided to make the trip again; driving along the coast as we had done before, but taking more time to talk to people. I wanted them to explain to me what had happened to Spain, a country that has been driving me to insanity for some time. I couldn't even say exactly why. Could it be the inability to produce something meaningful, the disgusting overdevelopment, the audacity with which Spaniards expect help from the bailout fund?
The first real Spanish big city I can remember is Barcelona. That's where my trip begins. Back then, it wasn't a city of boutique hotels and tapas in the Barri Gòtic Gothic Quarter or of Romance studies students learning Spanish and searching for meaning in Barcelona. In my childhood, it was a city without a beltway. It hadn't been built yet. My father hated the anarchy of traffic, SEAT cars, the Guardia Civil, which, in the early 1980s, had lost Franco's protection but not its disgusting arrogance. Despite the heat, my mother forced us to roll up the windows. Confidence tricksters were waiting for German cars at the traffic lights, she said. I hated Barcelona.
It's different in 2012. I arrive after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has prepared Europe for the possibility that rescuing Spanish banks could cost 100 billion ($123 billion). Previously, he had claimed that Spain would never need help.
I watch the news on television in my hotel room. As usual, it consists of two parts: the horror film and the fairy-tale hour. More and more depositors are emptying their accounts, the Spanish autonomous community of Castile-La Mancha is closing 70 schools, unemployment is almost 25 percent -- that's the horror film. In the fairy-tale hour, they talk about the Spanish national football team.
After watching the news in Spain for a while, you understand why half the airtime is devoted to sports. If it weren't, people would go mad. Everything revolves around the crisis. Really everything. A DIY superstore advertises 200 jobs and gets 12,000 applications. Academics conceal their degrees on job applications in order to compete with people with inferior qualifications. There are street battles in Asturias between striking miners and the police. Sales of safes are on the rise.
This isn't news. It's terror.
Finding the Crisis in Barcelona
Barcelona is full of tourists. The number of overnight stays increased last year. The cafés around Plaça Catalunya still serve overpriced coffee, while the police chase away beggars. To find the crisis, you have to walk a few blocks away.
At an intersection on Avinguda Diagonal, I encounter Pedro Panlador, a slight man who has positioned himself in front of a Bankia branch. He wants to storm the bank. A few like-minded people have joined him. They called the offices of newspapers so that they would report on their protest, but the papers declined. Banks are being stormed all over Spain at the moment.
Bankia, a bank from Madrid, evicted Panlador from his condominium because he could no longer make his loan payments. In the first three months of this year, the occupants of 200 apartments and houses were evicted every day throughout Spain.
Panlador, born in Colombia, has lived in Barcelona for 12 years. He currently has 242,000 in debt. He was a chauffeur before the crisis. Now he's been unemployed for over two years.
Pedestrians walk by, some encouraging him and some applauding. No one thinks it's wrong to be standing in front of a bank and calling the employees "criminals." Panlador says that he intends to remain "peaceful" and that he only wants to "speak with the director."
Bankia lost 3 billion in 2011, and now the bank needs more than 20 billion to avoid going into bankruptcy and bringing down the Spanish financial system with it. The last CEO was Rodrigo Rato, who served as finance minister under former Prime Minister José María Aznar. Rato was also managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) until 2007. It's possible that the IMF will soon have to rescue Spain. It sounds like a joke.
Panlador and his boys are ready to begin storming the bank. They're doing this for the first time. Panlador has already camped out in front of a Bankia branch before, but he feels that storming a bank makes a greater impression. He musters up courage and walks up to the entrance, where he sees that the branch has a security door and a doorbell.
He rings the doorbell.
Bankia doesn't open the door.
Panlador turns to the others. They look a little clueless. Finally, someone blows a whistle.
Panlador slaps a few stickers onto the glass. The banks should stop suing delinquent customers and evicting them from their apartments, the stickers read. Spain, it seems, has become a country of sad protests.
Panlador takes a few steps back. Personal bankruptcy doesn't exist in Spain. His debt of 242,000 will stay with him his whole life. "I'm tired," he says.
One would think that protests need the occasional minor success, something that offers hope that the struggle is worthwhile. One would also think that it's important to know who the enemy is.
But who is to blame? Bankia, because it gave a quarter-million-euro loan to a man who was making 940 a month after taxes? Or Panlador, because he took out the loan? No one forced him to do it. Perhaps both are to blame.
Or maybe it comes down to that sea of opportunities. There was construction underway and money being made everywhere. There was cheap money, and banks were practically giving it away, there was housing that seemed to finance itself, and there were jobs galore.
All of this transformed the Spaniards into gambling addicts and the country into a casino. People no longer had to suffer the indignity of a neighbor having a house in Conil on the Costa de la Luz while they had only a weekend cottage on the outskirts of the city. Who would have predicted that it would all end with people like Pedro Panlador standing in front of a bank and being denied entry because of a doorbell?
I shake his hand and wish him luck. Barcelona is a beautiful city, much more so than Berlin, Frankfurt or Munich, despite the "For Sale" signs hanging from balconies and the gold dealers opening up shop everywhere to sell the jewelry of desperate Spaniards.
To me, the city feels like the wife of a factory manager who refuses to believe that the company is bankrupt. She still has her fur coat, her diamond ring and her china -- but everyone knows it'll be over soon.
The unemployment rate in Barcelona rose from 7 to 17.7 percent last year. Barcelona is Spain's richest city, and yet 17.7 percent of its working population is unemployed.