At my final department lunch (a three-course, five hour affair), I met a teacher who had worked at the school the previous year. Her English was perfect and she confessed that she had worked as a Spanish teacher in the UK for seven years. An hour or two (and a drink or two) later, she began to open up about her current situation. Although she is a fully qualified teacher, has jumped through every bureaucratic hoop, has almost native fluency in English and is very popular with her students, the government are refusing to give her a full-time job. Instead, she is forced to make do with sub-work, occasionally covering for teachers on sick leave. Next academic year, she will be forced to survive on the dole. All this, because according to a technicality in the state education system and a discrepancy between the English and Spanish education systems, she has ‘no experience’ as a teacher, despite her years of experience teaching abroad. This is just one of the many visible examples of Spain creating its own problems. This is a woman who is undoubtedly capable and perfectly willing to make a career out of educating the next generation of Spaniards. Instead, her mental talents are directed towards the odd job here and there and in order to survive she takes governmental money for doing nothing at all, instead of for providing the service that for many years has not only been her livelihood but her passion. In short, the whole situation is highly illogical – distressing for the woman in question and damaging in the long term.
This encounter got me thinking about la Crisis (as it is known here) and the effect that it has had, and is still having, on the lives of ordinary Spanish people. Every time you step out of your front door in Madrid, there is evidence of economic disaster. Everywhere, from cheap shop fronts to elegant buildings, is covered in graffiti that the council has no money to remove. The city centre is swarming with beggars. You can’t walk down Gran Vía or around Puerta del Sol without being repeatedly accosted by person after person requesting una ayuda (monetary help). Some are severely disabled and use their missing limbs to gain the attention of passers by. Others hold up signs with scribbled pleas for help to save their family from starvation. A journey on the metro is often interrupted by one or more buskers playing a song between stations and walking up and down the carriage collecting money for their efforts. Sometimes, a man will attempt to sell tissues, lighters or biros to commuters. Less inventive but more depressing are the people who declare their life story, hoping to inspire sympathy. They hold out a paper cup as they move along the aisle, before performing the very same speech to the neighbouring carriage.
What slightly disturbs me about living in Madrid is how quickly you become accustomed to these sights of extreme poverty. Whenever a loved one visited me and noted the profusion of people sleeping on the streets, it would jerk me out of automatic pilot and remind me not to take my own lovely flat for granted. I once heard someone say that we are all 6 steps away from homelessness. In Madrid, it feels more like 1.
As of April of this year, the unemployment rate in Spain is 26.8%. I have met many recent graduates who not only don’t have a job, but seem to have little motivation for getting one. There is an attitude of resignation that puts across the idea that, as there are very few jobs available, there is no point in chasing the dream. It is the custom here for children to live at home throughout their university life and study at a local institution. With no job and no prospect of an income, many young people are staying with their parents well passed that. Of course, this is not true of everyone, especially not of those who have been fortunate enough to have a decent education. But in conversations with students of mine, I have frequently found their ambitions for the future to be to get out of Spain, and very little else. In my first few weeks, I did a presentation introducing myself, and the students asked questions afterwards. Almost without fail, at least one student would ask me why I would come to Spain when I am from the UK (which to them is haven of privilege). They seemed to be unable to comprehend that there might be positives to living in their country. Instead, they chase the American dream. When asked where they would live if money were no object, at least half of the class would say the USA. Even more sadly, almost all of them would answer ‘Anywhere but here’.
Having English as my mother tongue gives me an enormous advantage. There are hundreds of young Brits and Americans living in Madrid and there is more than enough work available for each and every one of them. Around three quarters of the students at my schools have private English tuition and many parents hire English-speaking au pairs so that their kids are immersed in the language from their primary years. What with the trend for tutoring and the long-term government scheme to turn every state school into a bilingual institution, Spain is not just encouraging its young people to work internationally, it’s practically booting them out of the door.
Another advantage I have over my local counterpoints is the inevitable capital city price comparison. London is extortionate compared to Spain; for example, my monthly rent for a flat in the city centre would be my weekly rent for a flat in the equivalent location in London. I can’t get over the fact that beer (and sometimes even wine!) is cheaper than water, that you can get a decent coffee for €1 (86p) and that my monthly travel card is €50. And that allows me to travel an hour out of the city for work. To a Spaniard, however, the Madrid prices are scarily high compared to what they were. Restaurants and shops use the phrase ‘anticrisis’ to advertise their low prices and locals talk lovingly of the good old days of the peseta.
The schools are also haunted by la Crisis and the struggles that come hand in hand with poverty. The students I’ve taught this year are from a mixture of backgrounds, some wealthier than others. In one particular class there was a 12-year-old boy who was notoriously difficult. He had zero interest in learning anything at all. Instead, he would throw balls of paper at the backs of people’s heads, sit with his feet up on his desk and blatantly talk over everything that I or the teacher said whilst staring arrogantly at us, as if daring us to tell him off. Needless to say, he drove me absolutely crazy, especially as the teacher in question was not particular adept at discipline (her punishment of choice was a weak ‘shhhh’). One day, I lost my temper and slammed my books onto the desk, glaring violently in his direction. For the rest of the class he sat in sulky silence, doodling on a piece of paper. After the class, the teacher and I went for coffee and I ranted on about this annoying kid and his terrible behaviour. The teacher agreed with me, but then she told me a little of his history. He was born in the slums on the outskirts of Madrid and had a traumatic, severely neglected early childhood. He now lives with his grandmother who, although not cruel, pays very little attention to his schooling or personal interests. I, of course, felt terrible. I never looked at that kid the same way again. Yes, I still found him incredibly rude and irritating. But it dawned on me that those few hours at school were the only moments of discipline that this boy was getting. My role in his life suddenly seemed a lot more important.
This year has also been characterised by strikes. Harsh governmental cuts have led to the Spanish fighting back in the only way they know how. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to leave for work half an hour early because of a metro strike. Sol, the iconic central point of Madrid and the location of Spain’s ‘Kilometre 0’, has recently been auctioned up to the highest bidder, sponsored by Vodafone and renamed Vodafone Sol. This grating new name, blasted over metro speakers and plastered onto signposts, acts as a constant reminder of Spain’s lack of funds.
On a few occasions, I’ve not been able to go to work at all because of teacher or even student strikes (yes, they were just an excuse for kids to spend a day playing Xbox instead of studying). Anti-LOMCE posters (LOMCE is the law introducing major changes to the Spanish education system) are plastered all over the schools where I work, from the front gates to the desktop background of the staffroom computers. Many of my colleagues have taken part in the national strikes this year, missing work to participate in protests and marches in the city centre. For every day that they strike they lose €100, plus that day’s pay. For this reason, many of them literally cannot afford to miss a day off work, especially as they are not allowed a single day’s paid sick leave. Yet, the majority strike nonetheless. After a nationwide education strike on May 9th, the Head of English at my school in Madrid city came in looking grim, but satisfied. After two years of regular strikes and protests, the LOMCE bill had been pushed back. “It’s not much”, she admitted, “but we hope it’s the start of a bigger change.” Whether or not you agree with the proposed cuts, or believe that striking is an effective method of bringing about political reform, you can’t help but admire their persistence and passion.
This all sounds terribly depressing. Well, it is and it isn’t.
‘La Crisis’ is affecting everyone to some degree. Even the pijos (wealthier members of the community) suffer everyday from the troubled economy. And yet, I have repeatedly seen displays of generosity, courage and hope from the Spanish people. Time after time I am surprised by the amount of people who dig in their pockets to give change to a desperate man on the metro. Whenever I am tempted to stare at the floor and act oblivious, I am jolted out of my selfishness.
The thing is, it’s not about feeling guilty. If anything, it’s just the opposite. The Spanish attitude is that life is for living. Yes, the economy may be in dire straits, but what’s the point in moping around when you could be pooling your last 50 cents with your friends, buying the cheapest caña you can find and watching the sunset over the Templo de Debod? La Crisis is not a cause for curbing your social life and desperately saving your pennies. It’s the time to enjoy the sun in Plaza Dos de Mayo, spend three hours chatting with friends over the same tiny plate of tapas and dance until 6.30am at some tiny, grubby club that is the only place where you can afford the entrance fee.
In short, despite its political, financial and social issues, Spain is fundamentally an optimistic country and this makes it a wonderful place to live.