Auf Wiedersehen, Spain Learning German to Escape the Crisis

Amid record unemployment, young people in Spain are desperately looking for a way out. One village believes it has found the answer: German courses for residents, to prepare them for a life in Europe's largest economy. But their teacher is trying to warn them that not everything is perfect in the land of beer and sausages.

The same word has been on the whiteboard for a couple of minutes now, as if taunting them that they'll never master this language. Antonio, Manuel, Francisco, Ana Belén, Mari Carmen, the other Francisco and shy Alicia, all of them stare at the front of the classroom, at that word. Their lips move silently.

It has something to do with clothing, the teacher hints.

At the beginning of the lesson, she proposed a game. No grammar today, she said. Instead, they'd do something fun to celebrate the last day of class -- a game of hangman, guessing German words they'd learned in the last three months.

The word on the board, printed in capital letters, reads "L E _ E R J A C K E." Just one letter is missing to make it "Lederjacke," leather jacket.

The teacher calls on a man in a green T-shirt. "Antonio?"

Antonio, a man with tired-looking eyes, sits all the way to the left side of the classroom. He thinks for a moment then suggests: "Leierjacke?"

"Leierjacke?" the teacher asks, rather aghast. It's a nonsense word, but taken literally, it would mean "lyre jacket."

That sounds German, the rest of the class agrees.

"No, no, no, not 'Leierjacke,'" the teacher declares. "The missing letter is 'D,' for 'Lederjacke.'" She draws one last line on the board, the hangman's right arm. The hangman is dead, the game is over and the class falls silent.

Not an Easy Language

German isn't an easy language, with its long strings of consonants and hardly a vowel to break them up. It isn't a logical language, either. Earlier in the class, there was a question of how to say "tio," or uncle, in German. That was an easy one. They all knew the word was "Onkel."

The next question was about the feminine form: "How do you say 'tia'?"

"Onkelin," one of the students, suggested, automatically adding a common German feminine ending to the word for uncle. The actual word for aunt, though, is completely different -- "Tante."

The students sit in a cool, tiled hall on the edge of Espera in the province of Cádiz in southern Spain. Espera is a picturesque, tidy mountain village about an hour from Seville, with 4,000 residents and a view of the Sierra de Cádiz mountains. There are whitewashed houses and a couple of bars where the TV is always on. The classroom is further down in the village, on the grounds of a recently opened sports complex with two basketball courts, several tennis courts and a new soccer stadium. The complex was completed before the crisis hit.

Espera made the evening news in Spain a few months ago when it became the first village to offer free German lessons to its unemployed. The idea was that people could learn German and then leave, go to Germany. The lessons were a way to help them escape.

The Profession of the Future

More than 200 people came to the first session. The communal hall, near the town hall, was overflowing. Fully half of Espera's residents are out of work, with the unemployment rate among young people at 80 percent. Before the crisis, not five years ago, more than 30 companies operated here, most of them producing concrete for the construction industry. A few of those businesses remain, but with hardly any permanent employees.

The village's name, "Espera," means "wait." But waiting is something few people in Espera, or in Spain, are willing to do anymore.

Seventy-three percent of Spanish architects say they would go abroad, to Germany if possible. Seventy percent of students at Madrid's Complutense University say the same, also preferring Germany. For lawyers, the figure is over 90 percent. CESM, the Spanish doctors' association, reported that 200 doctors from the province of Valencia had left for Germany. Language schools in Madrid and Barcelona have been reporting record enrollment in their German courses for months.

It seems teaching German may be the profession of the future in Spain.

'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."

The End of Sexy New Spain?

The beginning Antonio is talking about lies a good 40 years back in history. That's when many people from Spain left, many from Espera too, going to Madrid, Barcelona, France, Belgium and Germany. But while they were away working, the country changed. Franco died and democracy arrived, then EU membership, the Olympic Games in Barcelona, the construction boom. The unemployment rate dropped to German levels. Recently Spain's national teams even started winning sporting championships, such as the 2010 Football World Cup.

The old Spain that took siestas and talked too loudly and built Seats that didn't really count as actual cars, the Spain of short, unshaven waiters who cheated on the bill -- that Spain went the way of history. "Spain Rocks!" declared the European edition of Time magazine on its cover seven years ago. Gay people could marry, illegal immigrants were given work permits and Spanish politicians wondered aloud why lazy Italy got to be in the G8, but not modern Spain. Spain's most famous exports were no longer called Sancho Panza and Julio Iglesias. Now they were the actor Antonio Banderas, the architect Santiago Calatrava and the chef Ferran Adrià. Even the singer Enrique Iglesias wasn't quite the embarrassment his father had been.

Perhaps that's the difference between the desperate Spaniards who left back then and the ones who are thinking of going now. Back then, they lived in a dictatorship, where power was in the hands of the Church, the Guardia Civil and horrible, reactionary men in Madrid.

Today's migrant workers know that Spain only from their parents' stories. Up until three years ago, they were living the European dream, with prosperity and jobs, and Spain was part of modern Europe. In Barcelona and Madrid, they started laying out bike lanes and even separating recyclables from trash. Spaniards began to travel like the Germans, buy up property like the British and appreciate their food like the French. They owned Audis, had vacation homes in Conil and flew to London with EasyJet.

Now all that is gone. Do they now have to go back to square one? And is Germany, of all places, supposed to be the answer?

'You Can't Do Anything If You Don't Know the Language'

Mónica Lozano Valverde sits in her narrow kitchen on the Plaza Muñoz and does what she's been doing for three months now -- trying to lower expectations of Germany. Mónica, 25, is Espera's German teacher. Born in the western German city of Wuppertal, she has a degree in German studies and is probably the only person in the area to hold two regular jobs. In the mornings, she runs the German course, and in the afternoon, she's a receptionist at a hotel in Chiclana, on the coast.

"People think it's easier than it is," Mónica says. "Some of them think they'll just do the course and then off they go -- just like in the movie 'Vente a Alemania, Pepe.'"

"Vente a Alemania, Pepe" ("Come to Germany, Pepe") is a Spanish movie from 1971. Alfredo Landa plays a lovable village idiot who heads to Munich, drawn by the money and the leggy German blondes. Once there, he finds out that the Germans are always working, they eat strange foods and their blondes are boring, only letting loose on vacation, if then.

"Nowadays, you can't do anything if you don't know the language," Mónica says, her German tinged with a pleasant Spanish accent. She lived in Germany until seventh grade, long enough to bring some typically German concerns back with her.

Mónica pushed her students to take an officially recognized test and, in September, several of them will register for an A1 level test at the Goethe Institute in Seville. The test will cover simple sentences, numbers, telling time, a few verbs, articles and prepositions -- not nearly enough for finding work in Germany, Mónica says. For that, "they need at least B1." The B1 level means they're more or less able to converse.

In the first weeks, the course had over 120 participants, but the more Mónica told her class about the German language, the smaller the numbers became. By the end, there were only about 30 students. Today, for the last session, only seven came, the ones planning to take the Goethe Institute test. The others want to go to Germany too, but they're not going to bother with the official test. They're just going to jump into the pool.

Making Money in Munich

"That worked in the past," Mónica says. Her father, Antonio Lozano, couldn't read or write when he left for Germany in 1971, but he found work with the Diehl company in Remscheid, and later in a post office storage facility. That was a different era, when Germany needed its guest workers' hands, not their brains. An illiterate Andalusian could go to Germany for a few years, save some money, then come home and build a house or open a bar. Nearly every village in Spain has a bar called "Frankfurt" or "Munich." Germany was the place to make a quick buck.

Mónica tries to make it clear to her students that a couple of years of hard work on construction sites won't even yield enough money for a garage in Espera. It's not only Spain that has changed. In a certain way, Germany has become more Spanish as well.

Shortly after 1 p.m., Mónica Lozano Valverde packs up her bag and gets ready for her job at the hotel. Every afternoon, she drives about 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the hotel, then drives the same distance back at midnight. She's been back in Spain since 2002 and plans to stay in Cádiz. She likes Germany, especially the language, and her favorite book is "Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann. But as long as she has a job, she'll stay in Spain.

It's a strange situation for her. She speaks German, which means she could go back to Germany, but she can also stay here in Spain, because she speaks German. She teaches her students German so they can go to Germany, but she has doubts about whether it's always the right thing to do. She says the only person who could explain properly what's happening here right now is Pedro Romero, the mayor.

Pedro Romero is her cousin and the one who started the German course. She says she'll talk to him that afternoon -- lately it's been difficult to get an appointment with him.

The Mayor Who Sends His People Away

Spain held local and regional elections on May 22, and Romero won in Espera. He's a jovial, broad-shouldered, strong-looking man and a member of Izquierda Unida (United Left), a socialist coalition that includes Communists, Trotskyists, anarchists and Greens.

"Don't worry, I'm a moderate leftist," Romero says by way of greeting. He's a funny man, who likes to laugh and does so often. He's a Communist who carries a hammer and sickle keychain but wears a Rolex -- a very Spanish Communist.

Romero is seated in his mayor's office on the second floor of the town hall. It's a large room with casement windows that reach the ceiling, shelves full of old books and a lovely view over the village. On Romero's desk is a list of people he needs to call, people who want to offer their congratulations after he won an absolute majority in Espera for the third time. Romero has succeeded where the government in Madrid has failed -- he's convinced his citizens that the crisis isn't his fault.

The idea for a German course came up in early February. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had announced German-Spanish consultations in Madrid. In the run-up to those events, newspapers ran a comment made by a German politician named Michael Fuchs, the deputy floor leader of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union in the German parliament. Addressing Germany's long-term need for skilled workers, Fuchs pointed out that "there are many unemployed young people in southern and eastern Europe who are looking desperately for work." Fuchs couldn't possibly have known what a reaction he would trigger in Espera.

The next day, residents of Espera were gathered in front of the town hall, demanding that Romero provide German lessons. "I found the idea strange at first," he says. A mayor sending his own voters away is certainly unusual. "But the course seemed like the only way out."

'The Divide Is Getting Bigger'

Romero sits down at his desk. The screensaver on his computer shows the emblem of the Cádiz C. F. soccer team and next to it, a picture of the mayor with friends, when they traveled to San Sebastián in northern Spain to watch their team play. All the way across the country for a soccer game -- Romero seems to find that not quite fitting at the moment, and turns the computer off.

"Hardly anyone can afford this kind of trip anymore," he says. "The divide is getting bigger. Out of 4,000 people here, nearly 1,200 don't have jobs. It can't go on like this." The people with jobs start asking themselves why the people without jobs are sitting around in the bar. The people in the bar start asking themselves why other people have jobs and they don't. "Something is shifting," Romero says. "Not just here, but all over the country."

Every day, more news reaches the mayor's beautiful office attesting to that shift. In many cities, the real estate agencies have closed and gold dealers have moved in to take their place, buying up old family jewelry, dealing in people's last reserves. Banks no longer advertise their mortgage rates, but now give away trips to customers who open accounts with them. Bookstores sell titles about weathering the crisis. One current bestseller is called "Overbooking en el nido," or "Overbooking in the Nest." It's a guide for parents about what to do when their grown children simply don't move out, because they can't afford an apartment of their own.

Mayor Romero closes the window and sets off for an appointment. Word has spread about his successes, and his party wants to offer him a seat in the provincial assembly. A man who wins reelection during a crisis could be put to use for bigger things. At least he's offering solutions.

Pedro Romero, the mayor who sends his people away, is thinking about applying Espera's model to the entire region. Recently, he relates, María, one of the village's first German students, arrived in Hanover and found a job at a language school there. She's teaching advanced Spanish.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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