Monday, March 6, 2017

Eviva España!

A visit to a foreign country leaves different impressions on different people. Some visitors to Spain will best remember its architecture, whether it is Barcelona's Gaudi or Andalusia's Arabic heritage. Others will enthuse about the tapas or the weather. And many will fondly remember a flamenco show or a bull fight. I enjoyed most of the above, but the one thing that truly awed me and stood above all the others was a sign on an otherwise unimpressive building across the road from the famous Prado Museum - El Ministerio de Sanidad, Politica Social e Igualdad.  

When I noticed it, I quickly pulled out my iPhone to check if "igualdad" really means "equality." Over the course of my life I have come across all kinds of ministries and departments, but I do not recall any that has the word "equality" in its name. Ministry of Equality.  Wow! I take that to mean that the government actually pays attention and works on helping all citizens enjoy the same quality of life.  Sure, we have the Equal Employment Opportunity law here and the U.S. Department of Labor has two agencies which deal with EEO monitoring and enforcement, but that's not quite the same. At least not in my eyes. The U.S. government works to prevent discrimination in hiring and promotion at work. It supports equal pay for equal work. It's about money. But Spain's ministry, according to Wikipedia, also is tasked with making suggestions and carrying out "the government policy in social inclusion and cohesion."

On this trip, a friend and I visited four very different Spanish cities: Madrid, Toledo, Granada and Seville. It would be difficult to make an accurate assessment of the Spanish quality of life after a two-week visit. But first impressions are not to be completely dismissed. For example, I did not see any beggars in the streets or any signs of homelessness. Instead, we were approached by an occasional flower-seller or an African immigrant hawking cheap goods while we sat in open-air cafés. In Granada, there were also women offering "free" rosemary sprigs and, we were told, insisting to tell your fortune for an exorbitant fee if you accept a sprig.

I compare this to Washington, where I have never entered or exited the Eastern Market metro station, a few blocks east of the Capitol, without being asked to "spare" a dollar or a few coins to help some poor wretch "buy a ticket to get home," "get some food" or just "help."  I have never yet lit a cigarette in the street without being approached by at least one person asking for a cigarette. 

In Spain, we ate and had coffee at a variety of places along the way and noted little or no difference in prices between modest neighborhood cafés and fancy tourist venues.  On a Sunday in Granada, I learned that it is impossible to exchange or use a 500-euro banknote. The money exchange kiosk will only exchange one currency for another, but not a big bill for smaller denominations, and shops do not accept large bills either.  I was told that not even a bank would give you change for 500 euros unless you have an account in it. Desperate to get some money to buy coffee and food, I told my friend, "the only thing to do is to find the most expensive hotel in town and have a lavish meal there."  

The dinner including a glass of champagne, cherry, top quality ibérico ham, gourmet tuna and a steak was only $68 euros and so the waiter balked at the 500-euro bill, but after consulting with two managers he was able to accept it and give us the change.  I am glad of the experience because it was an opportunity to see a place where some ordinary Spaniards come to enjoy their Sunday lunch. I cannot see ordinary Americans lunching at the Willard hotel where I was once invited to a brunch that cost more than $100 per person.

Tapas of octopus and cod in Seville

But mostly we enjoyed tapas, comparable to small dishes or starters in the US. They ranged from 2 euros to 4 euros and were most often the size of a main course. The two dishes shown above with two drinks came to no more than $12 altogether, including tax and tips. In my estimate the equivalent meal would amount to more than $40 in D.C. because the dishes would fall under the category of main course. Despite huge tips in Washington, many area waiters complain of not making enough money to live on.

Another thing that makes Spain (and other European countries) attractive is public transportation.  You absolutely never - ever - have to wait for a subway train longer than 3 minutes.  The Madrid Metro is clean, reliable and efficient.  It gets you everywhere - even to the airport.  

Museums set aside hours when everyone can get in for free. Seniors get huge discounts in theaters, cultural institutions and all other public venues that charge an entrance fee. 

It would take a serious analysis to figure out why a poor southern European country can offer all these benefits to its citizens. We know that Spain is almost bankrupt. But wherever we went in the country - whether it was Teatro Real in Madrid, a classy bar or a simple local restaurant in any city - we saw middle class people, no one standing out as looking either particularly rich or particularly poor. Bernie's campaign cry kept coming to mind: "we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, and millions of families are struggling day by day just to keep their heads above water."  The income gap in the United States is insurmountable.  "Unbelievably, and grotesquely, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent," Sanders wrote in an essay titled American Poverty.  

Surely there are wealthy people in Spain - those who own a flat in central Madrid and a beach house somewhere on the Mediterranean coast, and perhaps a bank account in Switzerland. But the Royal Palace in Madrid clearly needs renovation. The white paint is peeling off from the shutters and the gray facade could use a fresh coat of paint. Maybe the king wants to identify with his people, or is lacking funds himself.  It's hard to tell.

All I know for sure is that we desperately need a Department for Equality here in the United States.

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