Madrid Impressions: Round Six

Two years in Spain! I roam Madrid in my geezerly way, drift obliviously into the photo frames of selfie-snapping newlyweds, scour farmacia shelves for good ol’ American Geritol. Locals chat with me, especially when I suffer senior moments in big metro stations. I notice stuff, despite dotage, post these occasional comminiqués.


¡Muy bien aquí! The World Health Organization ranks Spain seventh on the planet for overall efficiency. Red Staters who see me as desperately in need of a brain transplant may hope that surgeons bolt in my shiny new cerebrum here: for organ transplants, Spain ranks number one on terra firma.

Carlos III statue at Puerta del Sol
Carlos III statue at Puerta del Sol

Health care is universal, free, valid EU-wide. Spaniards who complain lustily of governmental failings have only spoken well — or, at worst, indifferently — of their nation’s health care. A patient may wait to see a doc for inessential service, but can expect prompt attention for anything critical. Those who don’t want to wait at all can pony up for private health plans, available for far fewer Benjamins than equivalent plans in the U.S.

Not a EU citizen? Hot for a visa? You’ll need a no-deductible health plan, as explained in my ‘going expat’ post.

On to a weakness:


I grew accustomed in San Francisco to hearing lusty complaints about the Bay Area tech industry. The monied wunderkind coders drove up rents, outbid poets and musicians for Hashbury flats, sent artists packing. Protesters have blocked the private shuttle buses that ferry tech employees from the city to corporate HQ on the peninsula. “A bunch of spoiled brats,” huffed one long-timer.

With that said:

The companies employing these “spoiled brats” are free market world leaders. Eyeball the online directory, count the household names. Who strong-arms international consumers to compute, network, bank, search, stream, shop or ride share with these outfits? Why aren’t these consumers flipping doubloons to competitors on their own side of the planet? The unregulated excesses of some American companies may menace civilization, but give credit where credit is due: Americans know how to do free enterprise. I took this environment for granted in the U.S., now see problems in a society that doesn’t so successfully breed entrepreneurs.

A local AI engineer hopes to stay in Spain, but laments that gigs in Stockholm and Berlin are more plentiful and pay far more. He might have to move to work, like the continent-wanderers described in my Round Three post. Spain’s biggest employing sector is now tourism, but tourism jobs often don’t pay. The local media groan about tourist-swamped streets in Barcelona, but offer no economic alternative.

In Retiro Park
In Retiro Park

I see too much of Spain in the trials of one local job seeker. She is bright, responsible, amiable, boasts native-level English fluency, and has sights trained on employment with only one prospective employer: the government. No matter that the sometimes brutal oposiciones exams may be offered only once a year, or even every two years. No matter that higher-ups are suspected of flunking test takers for nitpicky reasons if swamped with applicants. A government job is a career. Tia Hispania won’t pink slip funcionarios with the next stock market plunge, won’t arm-twist workers into speed-up or unpaid overtime. One may plan, and plan safely: for family, home, retirement.


The OECD Better Life Index ranks the U.S. first for income, and Spain twentieth. Sample comparisons at payscale and salaryexpert suggest a larger gap than the slight difference my eyeballs report in walks around different Madrid neighborhoods. Potential long-haul U.S.A.-to-Spain expats should stare hard at money matters before signing papers at the consulate.


The lower-is-better GINI index for income inequality is 34 for Spain, 47 for the U.S. “Two class society” was one Spaniard’s take on eight months in New York. If an Antebellum plantation owner lit stogies with C-bills while his ninety-slave slaves slept in hovels, how much would you really learn about plantation wealth by averaging income? Beverly Hills felt richer to me than Madrid’s Salamanca district, but parts of L.A.’s South Central felt a lot poorer than Madrid’s Vallecas, and far more dangerous.

OECD Better Life also says that Americans spend 19% of their gross adjusted disposable income on housing, vs. 22% in Spain. Nationwide, I wouldn’t be surprised. (The thirty-six country strong OECD employs 2,500 and issues 250 new titles yearly. A writes-in-his-underwear blogger isn’t in much of a position to argue.) But in Manhattan? In L.A.?

I have lived long-term in Los Angeles, San Francisco and now Madrid, trust seat-of-the-pants comparisons I can make while comparing rentals on Idealista in Spain to Craigslist in the U.S. To me, L.A. and Bay Area rentals look at least fifty percent pricier.

Others’ mileage may vary. A real estate broker once told me that newcomers’ opinion of a locale often depends on what neighborhood they land in. San Pedro, South Park, Van Nuys and Los Feliz all belong to “Greater Los Angeles,” but could be hundreds of miles apart, for all that their look-and-feel have in common.

I lived on the residential blocks near McLaren Park in San Francisco, but thought of the mile of Mission Street between Geneva and Silver as my city-centric nabe. I shopped here, sipped lattes at the late, great Mama’s Art Cafe, sorted through junk mail at the post office, renewed my transit pass at Walgreen’s … and, especially, waited on these blocks for plodding buses that seem Stone Age primitive beside what I ride daily in Madrid.

Edificio España and Gran Vía
Edificio España and Gran Vía

My equivalent nabe in Madrid includes five metro stations serving six subway lines between the Gran Vía station on Gran Vía and the Argüelles station on Calle Princesa. (Gran Vía morphs into Princesa at Plaza España). Fire up Street View, compare my corners of San Francisco and Madrid. My day-to-day Spain experiences are on much plusher turf than that left behind. I might see Madrid differently if I’d moved from, say, S.F.’s Marina district to a bad block in Usera.


Much cheaper in Europe. Some Americans come to the Old World for college, decide not to go back. (But: fifteen of THE’s top twenty world universities are in the U.S.).


An Argentine attorney told me how porteños can grease bureaucratic skids in Buenos Aires. To pull quotes from my 2015 post:

“Let’s say I need a permit from a government agency to do something,” she said. “I visit the agency. ‘Oh, you need to fill out this form, and that form, and this other form, and this stack of forms, too, and wait a year. Then you might get your permit, if you’ve done everything right. Or you might not.’

“Well, maybe I don’t want to fill out all those forms and wait a year. So I find someone else who knows a faster way. He’ll charge me. It’ll cost more money, but at least I get the permit, and can get on with my work. That’s how things are done here.”

The good news: two years in country have offered no personal encounters with such shenanigans. The bad: several locals assure me that this is only because clueless extranjero Tim doesn’t know where to look. Spain offers similar under the table shortcuts, say they, although no one defended them. One drew an analogy to extra cost priority boarding at the airport.


Burger flippers and gas station jockeys do not expect paid vacation in the U.S. They would if they flipped and jockeyed here. Check out online comparisons, here and here.

Security guards and baristas join big-buck execs in hieing off to coastal cool in August, a big month for vacations here.

“Which means I have to budget for paid vacation when contemplating new hires,” a U.S. entrepreneur might tell me, and direct me back to ‘Private Sector Issues,’ above.


I know an expat who lost a sitting-on-the-table smartphone to a crook in a Madrid eatery, and another convinced that a pickpocket nipped a móvil out of a front pants pocket in the metro. Locals also have warned me of a few dodgy areas in distant city outskirts.

That said: by my Yank standards for a major metropolis, Madrid feels remarkably safe. The sense of safety likely encourages the young to party and club hop into the wee hours, which may explain a blogger’s ‘city that never sleeps’ award to Madrid. The meetup schedule here routinely lists weekend event start times after 10:00 p.m. I marvel at the size of late night sidewalk crowds.

The OECD Better Life index puts much stock in homicide stats, as even citizens disillusioned with their local gendarmes will call in bleeding corpses. Eurostat pegs Madrid’s homicide rate at .6 per 100K, roughly 6.5 and 12 times lower, respectively, than the figures I calc for New York City and Los Angeles.

Estanque Grande, Retiro Park
Estanque Grande, Retiro Park

One local who matured in the worst years of Madrid’s opiate epidemic told me that he was bullied as a teenager for refusing heroin. That is the only story I have heard here that compares to the often horrifying crime and violence that surrounded the young I once worked with in Central Los Angeles. A couple of volunteer stints here suggest that Madrid’s coming-of-age for its unwealthy young is much gentler.


How I would love to write that an unbeholden mainstream Spanish press ponders America’s lack of responsibility-taking for the Iraq war, or the surreal size and cost of the U.S. military! Alas, no can do. With one significant exception, I expect mainstream reporting of U.S.-related affairs in Spain to track similar reporting in the other-than-Fox-News U.S. media.

The exception: Israel. I didn’t keep a log and am too lazy to attempt one now, but noticed more coverage here of the Trump embassy move to Jerusalem, and of the 2018 Gaza protests.

(Less consequentially, I also noted more coverage of The Shove. Spaniards think of Montenegro as a neighbor, not a head scratcher on a geography quiz.)

As for Spain’s news about itself: I don’t know Spain or Spanish well enough to confidently ID subterfuges I would spot in the U.S. Reporters without Borders pegs Spain at the thirty-first spot for press freedom worldwide, fourteen places ahead of the U.S.

(I presume that many American readers are surprised to learn that Spain offers universal health care, guaranteed vacations and cheap tuition.)


A mostly-bad-news Pew report on current global views of the U.S. includes an interesting tidbit: a full sixty-three percent of those surveyed worldwide said they’d rather see the globe led by the U.S. than by China.

Said tidbit reminded me of a chat here with a left-leaning Spaniard. He has never visited the U.S., knows it only for its reputation, but can appraise that reputation with a detachment that a born-and-raised like me can’t manage. He didn’t feel personally disgraced by the Iraq war or news of CIA secret prisons, anymore than he would feel disgraced by China’s treatment of the Uighurs or Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Bad behavior by a superpower; what else is new?


“If I have to choose between Russia, China and the United States,” said he, “I choose the United States.”

My two years in Europe suggest that resigned alignments of this type may be commonplace. Three-fourths of the world’s humans are not citizens of China, the U.S. or Russia. Their countries may be better or worse places to live, but are relatively powerless. Realpolitik requires unpleasant choices. The U.S. invaded Iraq, but hasn’t been accused of systematically censoring the internet, appointing a president for life, permitting murder of its own journalists, poisoning renegades abroad. If you have to line up with someone, whom do you choose?


That interested me, and that I hadn’t known about while living in the U.S.:

() “La Movida Madrileña” refers to a libertine punk-flavored counterculture that flourished in 80s Madrid after dictator Franco’s death. Spiked hair, studded leather jackets, leotard tights, drugs, sex. Madrid’s mayor appears to wink at drug use in a famous rock concert salutation, although a few locals have told me that the idiomatic language in this ‘¡Rockeros!’ address can be interpreted in different ways.

Pessimists may not expect such unrestrained hedonism to turn out well. I gather that it didn’t: a heroin epidemic descended on Madrid. Wide-eyed little ones watched addicts spike needles into veins in grimy alleys, on metro seats; they retained the dark memories, have shared them with me as adults at intercambios. Today’s touristy, colorful Malasaña was once a hellhole of junkies and prostitutes. Enrique Urquijo of the movida’s iconic Los Secretos was found dead of a heroin overdose on a Malasaña doorstep.

()  The Basque Separatist group ETA killed hundreds in terror attacks after the dictatorship. Several natives have named fear of ETA terrorism as the worst aspect of childhoods in Madrid.

In 1997, ETA went too far: it kidnapped junior Spain politician Miguel Ángel Blanco and threatened to assassinate him unless Spain transferred ETA prisoners to Basque Country. Protests spread; ETA killed him anyway.

A shocked, indignant Spain lost its fear of ETA, and thronged the streets in nationwide manos blancas demonstrations that sounded ETA’s death knell. ETA supporters realized that they couldn’t win with violence. A Madrid native told me that she sees the ETA era in “before” and “after” manos blancas terms.

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