Madrid Impressions: Round Three

Spain has worked out well for me. I might never make tenure track at Instituto Cervantes, but navigate chats in español far more adroitly than when I arrived last summer. I’ve made new friends, hope to stay put.

I stand by ‘impressions’ rounds one and two, but will humbly judge this latest contribution to be more valuable, if only because your aging author has now dwelt within the to-be-opined-about burg for nearly a year.


European Union citizens can live and work at will in any one of the EU’s twenty-eight member countries, which together command a bit less than half the land area of the United States.

This map shows EU unemployment rates:

Eurostat: Unemployment rate, 2016
Eurostat: Unemployment rate, 2016

Please note up-north-blue and down-south-orange.

If you were an out-of-work millenial in Sevilla or Córdoba, what wallet-fattening life change might you contemplate? One similar to that undertaken by the impecunious young in high unemployment Alabama and Louisiana: you pack up your skateboard and move where the jobs are.

The crucial difference: the ‘Bamer might move to Utah, North Dakota or another work-rich state within the U.S. The EUer moves to a whole ‘nother country.

A Madrileña told me that she fields calls on her móvil from childhood chums now scattered in jobs continent-wide. Spaniards routinely report long work stints on European foreign soils: as au pairs in the UK, customer support reps in France.

Negotiating meaning among the EU’s twenty-four official languages? One gets by. Language challenges come with the EU territory, literally.


Or the U.S. life depicted in mainstream movies, especially.

Angelenos rarely romanticize the SoCal movie biz. “Film crew at work” doesn’t suggest glamour, mystique, a chance to glimpse a favorite celeb at work. To me, it meant a phalanx of trucks at the curb, and picking my weary pedestrian’s way across a sidewalk cluttered with lighting gear, buffet tables and bored stand-arounds, all likely on hand to shoot a beer commercial.

That’s ’cause I lived there. I never paused to wonder how Hollywood everything might be regarded elsewhere in the world, among Europeans weaned on films, TV shows and music vids produced in distant Southern California.

Something clicked when a Madrileño told me that he knows California from his collection of Clint Eastwood movies. An Australian expat sagely suggested that the U.S. entertainment industry may wield more global clout than any weapons system.

Gran Via near Callao metro in Madrid
Gran Via at Callao metro in Madrid

Before last year’s Trump win, I felt amazed by how often I saw Spaniards adorned with American flags on t-shirts, back-packs, other garments. Fellow Intercept readers may grumble that these Spaniards drank P.R. Kool-Aid, regarded the Obama-led U.S. through unwarrantedly rosy lens. The point here is that they did drink it, despite the colossal decade-past protests against the Iraq war and former Prime Minister Zapatero’s (immensely admired by me) early withdrawal of Iraq troops.

The U.S. flags mostly disappeared from Madrid sidewalk fashion after November 8, 2016. Spaniards have sounded afraid and scandalized while posing Trump-related questions before and since, but a few still seem to view the U.S. as a baseball-crazed Cincinnati teen might have seen Pete Rose after the 1989 gambling scandal. The U.S. flag t-shirts may now sit at the bottom of the laundry hamper, but I sense a longing to rekindle sentimental old flames.

(Others seem to have simply lost interest, moved the U.S. down the list of visit-worthy foreign countries.)

Some Madrileños also compliment the U.S. justly, appropriately. Many Americans are egalitarian, friendly. Many American businesses are well-run. Many Americans do admirably take initiative.


The European comes of age:

()  amidst antiquity unheard-of in the states. Acropolis, Colosseum, Acueducto, London Tower, Versailles.

()  in close proximity with other countries and languages. Spain is only 20% larger than California. Travel 550+ miles southwest from S.F. and you’re in Vegas, yakking in English with a fellow American. Travel two-thirds that distance from Madrid and you’re in Toulouse, yakking in French with a Frenchman.

()  without an American’s illusion of potency in some international affairs. Barstool Joe in Sioux Falls may exert no influence on policy, but still holds citizenship in a sovereignty bankrolling a globe-dominating military empire. Joe can imagine he plays a part — e.g., “I’ve decided it’s time for us to take a stand in North Korea.” — as a sports fan may employ the pronoun “we” when describing a home team’s victory.

Courtyard of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid
Courtyard of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid

The European entertains no such delusions. Iraq War? Crimea Annexation? You wring hands, watch.

So far, I have shared my impressions of this different assumption set with several Europeans, and have drawn self-consciously quizzical expressions when asking for feedback. They have not been able to imagine coming of age with my assumption set, as I haven’t been able to imagine coming of age with theirs.


Spain is free to romanticize the U.S. I don’t. I feel at times that I have emerged from a propaganda haze, marvel at the bare-fannied nonsensicality of some claims routinely presented as fact to the American public. Drones and troops invading countries halfway around the globe are said to be — what? — “defending American values” or “protecting our freedoms.” (Why not say they’re “upholding constitutional principles,” if you’re going to be that silly?)

I knew this stuff was malarkey before I left, but the absurdity seems far more plain on this side of the Atlantic. I think of Soviet propaganda while watching a music video, of Solzhenitsyn’s “Don’t stop applauding” anecdote while watching the Ryan Owens speech. I feel sorry for former students. They are grown now; some must struggle to reconcile the torturously narrow scope of public debate with unasked questions begged by 2 + 2 = 4 common sense: Aren’t torture and secret prisons unconstitutional? Why does the U.S. keep getting in wars with countries thousands of miles away?

The stuff of another post, perhaps. I’ll stop here. I have not met other American expats expressing similar views.

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