Madrid Impressions: Round Four

… or ‘Spain Impressions’ this time around, and you just might see a “Round Twenty-Five” post in the years to come.

So much here is new to me. I grew up and grew gray in California, feel entitled to judge U.S. life from the inside out. In Spain, I grasp at threads of a plot that mostly unfolded before I reached the theatre.


()  Publicity for the yearly San Fermín festival suggests a single-minded national love for tauromaquia. Not so. Most Spaniards oppose it. The young, especially. I stumbled into a large anti-bullfighting protest in Puerta del Sol last year, have read of others. Catalonia tried to ban bullfighting.

()  Opinions vary. Expect one POV in Barcelona, another in Andalucia.

Bullfight in a Divided Ring, attributed to Goya, 1746-1828
Bullfight in a Divided Ring, attributed to Goya (1746-1828)

()  Spain has an investment in bullfighting. Specialty breeders supply brawny, aggressive fighting bulls to over 1,700 bullrings nationwide. The Visigoths fought bulls here; so did the Moors. San Fermín and some other events are world famous. Idealists can’t easily wish away entrenched big industries with a wave of the wand. Look at the U.S. tobacco industry.

()  I can’t prove it, but see bullfighting as a rusty boat anchor around the shins of the national rep. The world ain’t going that way. Rotten PR. Well-behaved, animal-loving tourists need only see a few pix of bleeding bulls to steer their TripAdvisor searches to other countries. (Although bullfight-loving tourists may be prized by booze and cigar sellers.)

()  No one asked me, but I wonder why Spain doesn’t encourage a transition to bloodless recortador. The rings and breeders stay in business, the bulls endure only a dull bovine frustration while chasing silly humans, and the hulkiest, most homicidal animal stars live to build fan bases and attract future spectators. (“Come see the great Toro, the biggest, meanest bull in Andalucia! Toro hates everybody!”)

()  Bullfighting beats Collateral Murder and bombing a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz by a wide, wide, wide margin. An American who tries to pull ethical rank on Spain has not been paying attention.


Catalonia is a Maryland-sized region in Spain’s northeast corner; its capital, Barcelona, is Spain’s second biggest city. Catalans have their own language, flags, traditions, history; many think they ought to have their own country, too. “Think of Texas or California secession movements,” I might tell a Yankee observer, “but much, much further along.”

I feel unready to offer an opinion on Catalan independence, although a retired expat like me is unquestionably better off in a united, stable, Spain-as-it-is. Please revisit the ‘grasping plot threads’ metaphor offered earlier. I ask questions here, listen.

Catalan flag at Montjuïc Castle in Barcelona
Catalan flag at Montjuïc Castle in Barcelona

()  Separation movement roots run deep. Catalans conduct commerce and teach their kids in the Catalan tongue. One daughter of a Spanish dad and Catalan mom told me that she felt ostracized during her girlhood in the region, thanks to her mixed family lineage.

Consider the crowd size in this 2016 march. Could secessionists round up anything similar in Oakland or Houston? Even remotely similar?

()  In decades past, Spain-as-it-is survived a bloody separatist movement of the now-dormant ETA in the Basque country. Political leaders may hope that the riding out of one secessionist movement may augur well for the riding out of a second.

()  In four separate conversations, Madrileños have used nearly identical phrases to sum up their take on the Catalan independence movement: “It’s a matter of money.” Many bucks-up Catalans believe that Spain picks their pockets to subsidize bucks-down Andalucia. The Basques are bucks-up, too, but get to keep most of their tax receipts. Catalans don’t, or think that they don’t.

()  Two Madrileños opined that independence won’t happen, that opposition would mushroom as independence prospects grew more serious. Think borders, laws, share of national debt, status in the European Union, Brexit as negative example.

()  “You should talk to Jordi, he’s from Barcelona,” says an Andalucian to me in an intercambio, in response to my Catalan independence questions.

I turn to the affable Catalan Jordi, smiling in anticipation nearby.

So goes the agreeable give-and-take between Catalans and other Spaniards in day-to-day interactions here, at least as observed by yours truly. Government leaders may battle. A Madrileño may grumble that some bilingual Catalan signage is in English and Catalá, but not Spanish. Friction doesn’t seem to crimp social interactions, doesn’t reach to cafés and street corners.

(I may observe inadequately, and should note that nearly all Catalans met by me have hailed from global-as-all-get-out Barcelona, and not the Catalan hinterlands.)


In a year in Madrid, I have heard a single native stump for the integrity of a single Spanish politician: Manuela Carmena, city mayor. Locals seem to write off all others as hopelessly compromised. The press brims with updates of corruption-related accusations, trials, sentences: Ignacio González, Inaki Urdangarin, Rodrigo Rato. The in-power PP seems to get the most negative attention, but the folk I’ve met show little faith in alternatives, appear to believe that an entrenched political order ultimately devours the integrity of all.

“Ah HA!” many Madrileños seemed to sneer — with a wise nod, cynically curled lip — at the news that deputy Ramón Espinar of left-wing Podemos had pocketed €20,000 on the sale of a subsidized house. “See? See? That’s a Spanish progressive for you!”

In contrast, many venerate democracies farther north. I had seen Scandinavian countries’ top-of-the-charts scores for government integrity before going expat, but had expected that Spaniards would pooh-pooh such generalizations. They haven’t; if anything, some seem to put Europe’s north on a pedestal. “There you will find real civismo,” says one, and scoffs at the potential for reform. The Spanish system is too entrenched, says she, and suggests I research ex-banker Mario Conde as a negative national example.

Electorate cynicism notwithstanding, Spain’s democratic give-and-take still strikes me as far healthier and more open than what I left in the States.


With a question mark, because I’m not sure.

More than a billion of your fellow earthlings grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese. That nabs planetary first place among mother tongues. English takes third, with 370+ million native speakers.

In between: Spanish. 437 million native L1 speakers worldwide. Hundreds of millions in Central and South America, 120+ million in Mexico alone.

Spanish arrived in the New World with the conquistadors. The New World may resent that heritage, but many regard Spain as the madre patria still. Major Spanish banking, telecommunication and energy companies operate in Latin America. Spain is only twenty percent larger than California, but the country’s foreign direct investment in the Latin American world is second only to the United States.

Label this influence as colonialism, if so inclined, but acknowledge it as important. I sat up straight and paid attention when a South American entrepreneur told me that he moved to Madrid only and specifically to start a business. He sees Spain as the trend-setter in the Spanish-speaking world, thought a Spain zip code worthy of a move across the Atlantic.

“So could Spain become an economic powerhouse? Why isn’t it an economic powerhouse now?”

That’s what I wonder.


()  Spain offers beaches, islands, heat and sun, and thus attracts many Spring Break-types eager to carouse away an intoxicated holiday. Magaluf. Platja d’en Bossa. Part of Spain’s national identity abroad is as a hedonist’s European playground, whether Spaniards wish it to be or not. “Fight drunk Brit Spain” or “drunk UK Spain” in a search engine pulls up far too many results.

()  Tourists know Barcelona too well and like it too much. Spain may regard this client base with two minds; Barcelona rubbernecker armies are griped about in the press, even as national flag carrier Iberia launches bargain-basement nonstops from L.A. and S.F. to the Barcelona airport. Go figure.

Until my next installment …

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