"A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it" - George Moore
To this day I clearly remember landing into Madrid Barajas from LAX on a hazy August morning; the terminal smelled of cafés con leche and cleaning products. That said, it's difficult to sum up my last four years within this country. It's uniquely diverse, and of the four different autonomous communities that I've lived in, I've managed to learn new languages, meet benevolent people and never once step foot inside a bullring. This period has no doubt helped formed me, unveil my true self and my desires, and introduced me to my media naranja (soulmate). But, it's time we said goodbye. Spain I love you, but I beg for you to take onus of your mistakes.
Expats in Spain and Spanish residents are faced with some of the most trying times of the country's history; a deeply scarred and fragmented economy and political system that seems destined for eventual combustion. And while tourism continues to stream in, higher than other years in fact, the blunt reality is a depressive, bleak conundrum that many refuse to admit - "Es lo que hay," "It is what it is," they say.
My first year in Valencia (on the eastern seaboard) I admit to being rather selfishly consumed in my own situation, progress and happiness. At the end of the school year, I opened my journal and begged for a way to stay on through my part-time working/student visa, to allow me the opportunity to create a chance at making Spain my home. That June, my peers were facing a five-15 percent salary deduction - to take effect immediately - however, I chalked it up as bad luck, and since none of them seemed to protest, continuing to dine out, drink beers with friends at lunch and take their month-long August vacations, things continued as normal.
The following year I moved to Barcelona. As my Spanish progressed, and my Catalan vocabulary grew, I became more aware of the dangerous situation we were all facing. Public transportation prices soared, unemployment affected four million registered citizens and more turmoil ensued as communities within Spain began to resent one another. Finding work as an English teacher proved to be enough to live comfortably; and even though it was considered poverty level in the States, it permitted me to travel with low-cost airlines and afford small luxuries like a "mornings-only" gym membership. In 2011, my colleagues working for the state received their second consecutive yearly pay cut. Again, while grumbles were heard, life went on.
When I moved to Madrid to be with my now fiancé, I decided to pursue my passion of gastronomy. I knew this would be easier said than done given the fact that native English speakers in Spain are deemed as one-trick ponies, and because your university degree pretty much locks you into a profession. However, I also thought that since Spain had Ferran Adrià and the world's highest production of olive oil, the industry would certainly lead to something. My early attempts proved unsuccessful, but due to my desire to mold myself as a participating citizen and feel valued within my environment, I started applying for sales and marketing positions; after all, I had a few years experience working for household names and a prestigious university on my résumé. I did get call backs, I did have interviews, and was constantly praised by potential employers that "We'd love to have an American with your innovative and unique thinking approach on our team" or "You have quite an impressive background." These comments certainly spiked my ego, but then the salary offers were made. For the kicker, a multinational WPP advertising firm looked me square in the eye and put forward a whopping three euros an hour package for their bilingual media planner role. That was the lowest of my lows.
Around us the desperation of many families continued; people sent their recently graduated children off to find work in Germany, Norway or even back to Argentina. Others moved in with their parents, took on multiple jobs, or sustained themselves on the government's aid. Those that did find work, took drastic pay cuts (while Spain remains on the euro, inflation has risen prices up, but salaries have remained stagnant or even fallen), were denied benefits and given no incentives. Overall, Spain's population was left with little desire to push on through the corruption around them. Exploitation became the name of the game, and price ruled all bids regardless of quality or qualifications. Thankfully due to our one-income no-child household, we rolled on, albeit with the lingering idea that we wouldn't be able to make Spain home; that we'd need to begin planning our exodus, that we'd again have to become emigrants.
To fill my calendar, I began volunteering at an immigration center teaching English to adults en paro (unemployed). The first day, two students were in attendance. One of them, Antonio from Peru, spoke Quechua as his native language and had learned Spanish living the past four years in Madrid. We started with the very basics: introductions, the verb "to be" and interrogative words. One afternoon he took me out for coffee and spoke of his family back home; every month he sent them the little money he made from painting ceramic tourism plates. He also said that he never quite felt at home in Spain, that he knew they wouldn't permanently accept him. The last day of class I had prepared a certificate of accomplishment for all of my students, but Antonio didn't show. I imagine that he was one of the 200,000 immigrants within Spain who were faced with the dilemma to return to their country of origin, and did so in 2012.
So Spain, if you really want to get out of this crisis, this 27 percent unemployment figure, if you really want to care for your citizens and guests, there are a few things that need changing. I leave you with some impetuses for a future that is hopefully brighter, more prosperous and able to create and sustain a living, breathing, working entity.
Invest in your citizens, enrich them with their language but also it behooves them to learn others - there may come a day when they'll need to go outside of Spain and they'll thank you. Become more flexible in accepting their career choices and let them make that choice at an older age; humanities majors might prove to be strong engineers and journalists agile brand communication leaders. That stay-at-home mom has more ideas than you'll likely believe. Stop dubbing everything. Your "free" healthcare and education methods won't be sustainable if you suck the living passion out of all of your workforce by reducing their pay, increasing their shifts and asking more of them without recognition. Your country and culture will still be beautiful regardless if waves of foreigners enter your borders - look at New York, London, Berlin, Melbourne - you may even be surprised to learn that those people want to become Spanish, just like you. Innovation will not emerge from the Congress hearings of your political parties, or the 5-star beach resorts of your coastline. Exalt in your differences: Basque, Andalusian, or Catalan; "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Pay football players much less, and stop distracting the population with championships and merchandise when they've just lost their home and/or job. The world's future is at the mercy of us, its inhabitants; we can't live by a motto of "It is what it is" but one that celebrates "It is what we make of it."
As for me, I've realized that nothing is perfect, that finding one's place can be a challenging task, but I have much to be thankful for, and come this July, I can't wait to lay my passport down at US Customs and hear those sacred words "Welcome home."
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