A Visit To Absurdistan What Happened to the Spain Where I Was Born?

SPIEGEL reporter Juan Moreno grew up in Germany as the son of Spanish immigrants. He cherished summers spent as a child in his parents' former village. He recently traveled back to his country of birth to trace the causes of the crisis and to meet those whose lives it has changed in heartbreaking ways.

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.

Revisiting Spain

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.

Occupying Apartments

I get into the car and leave Barcelona. I have an appointment in Sabadell, a former textile-manufacturing town. I'm going to meet Antonio, a family man, who has also lost his home. But he doesn't want to storm a bank. Instead, he is truly defending himself. He has occupied an apartment.

It's early afternoon, and Antonio is standing in the door to the apartment. He knows what I'm thinking. Antonio looks like George Clooney.

"I know," he says, "everyone says that."

Antonio steps into the narrow hallway and shows me the tiny bathroom, an eat-in kitchen with a large refrigerator, and a bedroom in which there are two beds, each with a stuffed animal on it.

"That's it," says Antonio. Two rooms on the ground floor, his new home. There are several boxes stacked in the bathroom.

"How long have you been here?"

"Two days."

"How did you get in?"

"I can't say, but I used to be a welder. My girls will be sleeping here for the first time tomorrow."

Antonio has two daughters, 14- and 17-years-old. The younger one goes to school, and the older one is in a training program to become a hairdresser. But because of the crisis, she isn't being paid, and she's also the only one from her former class who has found a position at all. Antonio pushes aside a stuffed-animal duck and sits down on the bed.

Antonio Zamora Hidalgo, 47, a quiet type, began his fight against the system two days ago. He worked in a metal factory for more than 20 years and, for 12 years, he paid the mortgage payments for his apartment to BBVA, a major Spanish bank. When he stopped making the payments, he lost everything.

There is no equivalent of Germany's Hartz IV welfare payments for the long-term unemployed in Spain. There is, however, a rule stating that the borrower cannot simply return a property to the lender to settle his debt. In the worse case, he stands to lose the property and still owe the bank the full purchase price.

Hidalgo had run out of options. He didn't know what to do with the children. His wife left him because she couldn't cope with what happened to the family. Antonio turned to PAH, a local initiative in Barcelona, where he was told that 20 percent of apartments in Spain are empty. One of them was the apartment in Sabadell, which hadn't been occupied in five years.

The small apartment is on a quiet side street in the Can n'Oriac neighborhood. It belongs to Caixa Catalunya, one of those megalomaniacal Spanish provincial savings banks that had issued mortgage loans indiscriminately in recent years and had to be bailed out with taxpayer money.

"Is this what you imagined it would be like?" Antonio asks.

I look around the tiny room. The two beds take up almost all the space.

"If you're going to occupy an apartment illegally, why not a bigger one?" I ask.

Antonio laughs. He wasn't referring to the apartment, he says, but to the situation in Spain.

"I can tell you what the situation is like," says Antonio. "The situation is that guys like me are occupying apartments."

Who's at fault now, I wonder as I'm driving on the highway. The man has never been in trouble with the police. He doesn't drink, isn't an anarchist or a leftist, and he doesn't even watch the news. Now he's a squatter. Maybe he was simply unlucky and was dragged down when the snowballing system of cheap loans and rising real estate prices they called the Spanish economic miracle collapsed, a period described in a Time cover story titled "Spain Rocks."

A €150 Million Airport That's Never Been Used

I reach Castellón, a somewhat sleepy coastal city on the Mediterranean, with a nice park and a phenomenally ugly department store.

As a child, I liked Castellón, the last place where we stopped to get gas before reaching our village. I'm here because I want to know why Castellón built an airport from which no aircraft has ever taken off, an airport that cost €150 million in a city that's only 65 kilometers from Valencia, which already has an airport that's much too big for the region.

I leave the Autopista del Mediterráneo and drive along the CV-10 toward the Castellón airport. The CV-10 is the best highway I've ever driven on. The asphalt is perfect, the signs are new, and there is grass in the median. After about half an hour, I'm standing in front of a fence arguing with a security guard. The man reaches for his radio and says: "Serra 1 to Serra 2, we have a code 3!"

You can trigger a code 3 by asking a guard at the fence whether you can take a look at the airport from up close, an airport that was built with taxpayer money and was officially opened on March 25, 2011.

I get out of the car. Behind me is a large sculpture standing at the access road to the airport. A good friend of a local politician is still working on the piece, which is unbelievably ugly and reportedly cost €300,000. The guard talks into his radio. From where I'm standing, I can see the tower, some of the 3,000 parking spaces and a portion of the 2,700-meter (8,856-foot) runway.

"I gave your license plate number to the police," says the guard. I nod and think to myself that the Castellón airport isn't even the most pointless -- and certainly not the most costly -- airport in Spain. An airport was built in Ciudad Real, 160 kilometers from Madrid, at a cost of €1 billion. It now serves small private aircraft.

For years, Castellón suffered from the fact that it wasn't as important, rich or well-known as Valencia and Alicante, the other two major cities in the region. Someone hit upon the idea of changing that by building 17 golf courses. Seventeen 18-hole golf courses translate into a lot of golfers, hence the airport. The golf courses never materialized.

The city behaved like a microcosm of Spain as a whole. Spain didn't want to be Europe's little brother. It wanted real airports and real highways. The days were gone when people like my father would arrive at a German train station in jackets too thin for the climate. The new Spain could play football, and it had companies like global telecommunications giant Telefónica and world-famous chefs like Ferran Adrià.

I leave the guard standing where he is and return to the highway. I'll be in my parents' village in three hours. A small detour takes me past a large construction site on which the Spanish railroad system is building another high-speed line. The country has more high-speed rail lines than Germany or France.

I ask myself what it must have been like to be a politician in the boom years, a period of senseless intoxication and time without measure. To be re-elected, many politicians had to have something to show for themselves, a project, and preferably one built of stone and concrete. Playing fields, theaters, swimming pools and streetcars were popping up everywhere. The economy had gone mad, and so had politicians. But the democracy was fully functional. Spaniards could have asked where all the money was coming from, and why roads were improving and trains were getting faster, while their children were doing worse in school. They could have elected different politicians, more level-headed ones. I firmly believe that every village, every town and every province got exactly the politician it deserved.

The Journey's End

I reach my parents' village, Huércal-Overa, now a city of 18,000 people in a province called Almería. The area is known as the desert of Europe, dry and unbearably hot in the summer. The German director Bully Herbig filmed "Der Schuh des Manitu," or the "Manitou's Shoe," a comedy remake of Germany's Manitou series of Wild West films in Almería. This is where my journey ends.

We used to stay at my grandparents' house a little outside of town. There was no toilet or electricity. That was in the 1980s. Today the city has a public theater, a new Plaza Mayor, an indoor public pool, a new outdoor pool, a zoo, a park, a newly designed downtown and rows of half-finished houses.

My parents' house is at the northern end of the city, a plain and somewhat ugly home. They put all of their savings into this 130-square-meter (1,400-square-foot) house. The only luxurious feature is an absurdly oversized air-conditioning unit on the roof, which can easily transform our living room into a polar landscape.

I've asked my parents to call a few of my family members, so that they can tell me about their lives in Spain.

My Uncle Juan has been working on a farm for 20 years. He plants tomatoes, walks through the greenhouses with fertilizer and works during the harvest. It's a brutal job, but he's never complained about it in my presence. Before the boom, he was making about €3 an hour, and now, about 10 years later, he still earns less than €4 an hour. He drove a small car before the crisis, and he still drives one today. Juan says that he didn't need the crisis to know that he isn't part of wealthy Europe. He just happens to be poor, he says, because he's from the south.

My cousin Pepe was a different story. As a teenager, he sold shoes at local weekly markets, and later French fries and peanuts. He eventually got a truck-driver's license and tried his hand as an independent trucker. He would have become a gold prospector 150 years ago.

Then came the boom years, the perfect time for people like Pepe, people who didn't want to remain poor. At first he drove his own truck, and then he expanded to two, three and eventually eight or nine trucks. There was plenty of work, and he was constantly attracting new customers: a brewery, a auto-parts supplier, a wholesaler's temporary warehouse. His wife gave him a black Audi A6 for his 40th birthday. I was invited to the party. They had made it. The house was paid off, they were driving a German car and their daughter had just started medical school.

Pepe was one of the funniest people I know. No one could tell more dirty jokes. That Pepe no longer exists.

My cousin is a sick man today. My father paid for his last treatment with a psychiatrist. Pepe doesn't tell anyone in the family how much debt he has, but it must be millions, and we've all come to terms with the fact that he'll never be debt-free again. His daughter, the medical student, works as a supermarket cashier. When I see him on the day after my arrival, he, my father and I have a coffee together. Pepe says only two words, "hola" and, at the end, "adios."

The crisis has changed him, and it's changing Spain. Perhaps the country is recognizing that there are no shortcuts to Europe, and no clever tricks. Simply introducing a hard currency, building dozens of airports, rail lines and golf courses, and putting an A6 in every garage -- that doesn't work.

Instead, the road is tedious and well-known. It starts with education, research and the fostering of entrepreneurs. The Spaniards can do all of this. They are a great people, my people, but the crisis has shown them where they stand: at the edge of Europe, not at its center. The real estate boom, cheap money and euphoria have seduced them -- not because they are bad or lazy, but because they're people.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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