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Friday, December 28, 2012

1992-2012: My 20-year Affair with Spain

From the blogger's collection, a painting of the
Alhambra's Courtyard of the Lions in Granada.
When Boabdil, the last Arab ruler in Spain, was
expelled from Granada he cast a last glance at
his palace and shed a tear.  To which
his mother said, "Weep like a woman  over
what you couldn't defend like a man."
Twenty Christmases ago, almost to the day, I bade farewell to four years in the United States, boarded a Spain-bound flight which delivered me to a new life in this town. I had never been to Spain, did not speak Spanish, had no home, no friends or family there and was starting a new job with a company I knew little about, except that it was the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO.) *

I was to spend the next three years calling Madrid home before moving to the country I was born in and where I still have my main residence (for how much longer is a legitimate question, though.) For the ensuing 17 years I have been visiting Spain, and especially Madrid,  for either business or pleasure, at such frequency that it still feels as if I have not left the place.**

And yet so much has changed, and so much remains the same, and so much have I learned about it, that this anniversary is a good opportunity to share my views of Spain then and now.

The country I had landed in had just been celebrating the double-whammy 500th anniversary of the Reconquista paving the way to unification and the discovery of the Americas, as well as the twin events of the Universal Exposition  in Seville and the Olympic Games in Barcelona. After the nation's long decline culminating with the loss of most of its colonial possessions in the 19th century, and the long night of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) there was clearly a feeling that the country was finally on the right track. Just 10 years ago Spain had joined the European Union, money galore was flowing into the country which was setting about developing large-scale infrastructure projects and there was a clearly perceptible sense of optimism.

In one respect, things don't seem to have changed much. When I arrived in Spain the unemployment rate was around 23%, going up to 40% for under-30-year-olds. Most of the friends of my age that I was to make were still living with Mom and Dad, making me an oddity with my own apartment (something which of course was completely normal in the United States I had just left.) Fast-forward 20 years and things seem not to have changed at all. The sad reality of Spain is that unfortunately things had changed: the jobless rate steadily declined to an unprecedented single digit before, thanks to the financial meltdown first and then the debt crisis, moving back to those horrible  levels that we all thought belonged to the past.

Town hall meeting Spanish-style. Protests on the
Puerta del Sol in the summer of  2011.
Occupy Puerta del Sol, if you will.
The true measure of the Spanish tragedy is that human nature is such that we can live without something for a long time (back then rarely did people demonstrate against high unemployment) but take away from us something we had gotten used to and we feel particularly bad about it, which explains the constant protests these days.

As a reaction to the current crisis, Spanish labor laws have been overhauled so radically that trade unions are still too dizzy to react. Much of the employee protection (especially in the firing department) that had been in place from time immemorial is gone and with salary levels frozen, the workforce is about to become competitive. Whether this will be sufficient to put a dent in the unemployment rate remains to be seen since some inherent Spanish workforce problems are still present, in particular low productivity levels. Spanish companies (or the various government training schemes) will have to invest massively in  bringing their employees' skills up to speed to what is necessary to turn the economy around. One area where Spaniards tend to be particularly bad are in sciences and languages. Unlike their fellow Iberians in neighboring Portugal, most Spaniards are only fluent in their own language. Many, especially young graduates, are  looking at job opportunities abroad, especially in Germany or the UK, but are hampered by poor linguistic skills. And Spain's political leadership is not leading by example: the four Prime Ministers the country has had in the past 20 years have had one thing in common - bad to no command of the English language, or any other for that matter.

The blogger with friends celebrating  Bastille Day 1995 at
a garden party held at the French Ambassador's residence
The latter point comes a bit as a surprise since in the 20 years I have know Spain it has become markedly less parochial. The first years after I arrived in Madrid I still felt I was a guiri since foreigners were very rare and everywhere you went you only heard Spanish or saw Spaniards (how unlike the city I had just left.) You rarely saw blacks or Arabs and as for Latin Americans they were not any more visible. A decade later  and foreign-born residents had risen to 10% of the country's population. Walk down any street in Madrid and you are bound to see people who manifestly hail from Spain's former American colonies something unheard of when I lived there. Some Spanish companies have become true global giants such as Telefónica, whose foreign revenues exceed what it makes at home home or Spain's wunderkind Armancio Ortega's Inditex whose Zara brand of clothing is ubiquitous all over the world and is consistently profitable, even in recession time. Santander, who was my first Global Payroll customer when I was at PeopleSoft, is Europe's largest bank and well-established in Latin America, especially in Brazil where it is one of the two foreign banks of consequence.

One of the most impressive companies to have come out of Spain and gone global was an improbable software company, Meta4. Spain is well-known for many things but the Silicon Valley it sure ain't. And yet in the 1990s, literally out of nowhere, came this HR software company with modern object-oriented technology, great user interface and a very seductive knowledge-management product. It was soon to become the leader in its home market before expanding to other European countries (mainly France) and Latin America (in particular Mexico, Argentina and Colombia where large government organizations and private businesses run their HR processes on Meta4.)

Madrid as the nation's capital and foremost business center reflects that global outlook. Starbucks is everywhere; Broadway musicals,  something unheard of when I lived there, are popular with currently The Lion King and The Sound of Music on offer at some of the several theatres on the Gran Via, Madrid's main thoroughfare. Foreign cuisine has also made its entrance. Last time I was in Madrid I walked down Calle Lavapiés to go the square of the same name. I was stunned to see both sides of the street lined with Indian and Pakistan restaurants. Hangers-on also offered me another, illicit type of nourishment.

Although IT budgets are tight and the decision-making process longer than usual, Spanish companies could benefit from renewed investment in technology, in particular more modern HR systems. Here are some of the Spain-specific drivers and issues:

     § The new labor law and regulations (Estatuto de los trabajadores) put in place by the current (center-right) administration mean that HR admin and payroll systems are in for a big overhaul. Updating the various systems is a project in and of itself and could be the opportunity to launch into other higher-value projects.

     § Of these, a comprehensive competency-based model and learning system would go a long way to solve some of the productivity and low-skill issues of the Spanish workforce. Spanish companies have always had a vested interested in training if only to solve some of their endemic health and safety issues. To improve their H&S record what better way than invest in training, with online training becoming the default choice.

     § Spanish payroll, although a  bit simplified by the new laws, still remains, like most payrolls, complex to implement, although I would not rate it as complex as in Italy or California. It is also the cornerstone of most HR systems. This explains why local vendors such as Meta4 or Grupo Castilla still lead the pack of HR vendors (Meta4 dominates in the Ibex35 roster of large Spanish companies), followed by global vendors such as SAP and PeopleSoft who took a long time to understand and adapt their products to Spanish requirements (Oracle never managed to have a localized offering for Spain.) Here are some quirks of Spanish payroll:  parallel payroll process, peculiar retro calculations, the multiplicity of labor agreements which cover every aspect of a worker's with their employer.

     § Spanish companies have yet to fully leverage the functional value and financial advantages of SaaS- based HR systems, especially in the talent-management space. As for moving their entire HR system to a cloud-based model that will take a bit longer, when the economy stabilizes and true SaaS vendors like Workday decide to enter the Spanish market. If I have one recommendation to make to Workday and similar vendors it is not to waste any more time to establish a local presence. The best moment to start planting the seeds of  future growth is when things are rough.

     § Not only is the SaaS model slow to take off in Spain, but another key ingredient of a modern corporate IT system is going to be a drag on its modernization: the corporate mobile revolution is not going to take place soon. Blame the deep recession for this backward trend. In 2011 Spain was the country with the highest cell phone penetration rate in the world, with 96% of Spaniards owning a mobile device. This year a whopping 2 million mobile phones went off the air as both consumers and companies reduce their costs and cancel their mobile contracts. That is 5% of the country's population deciding to forgo going mobile. Meaning that BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)  is one trend that Spanish companies will not have to deal with soon.

     § Hard times may be pushing Spaniards away from cell phones, but the internet is as popular as ever and unleashing their creativity in unexpected ways. Some of them are using the Web to express their frustration at the recession and the results can be hilarious and insightful like Españistán, a brilliant graphic novel published last year by a Barcelona cartoonist. The popular web series Malviviendo (Living Badly) is quite revealing of a down-and out youth which tries to find comic relief on the internet. Its dark humor is shared by other Web comedies like Las asqueadas (The Disgusted Ones) and the self-explanatory Parados (The Jobless) and are much more revealing about Spain's economic distress than any lengthy report by the IMF or the European Commission. This also shows that this lost generation is quite talented, come to think of it.

     § Recruiting (which in Spain usually goes by Selección de personal) should be a hot area for both suppliers and user organizations. If you think this statement is counterintuitive considering the recession in Spain, think about the following: a high unemployment rate means that a higher number of candidates are sending in their applications. Without a modern talent-acquisition tool, of which many Spanish companies are in sore need, it will be challenging to deal with the increase in workload. So, even if you are going to turn them down, at least you owe it to them to do it speedily  and correctly, something which antiquated systems do not allow.

     § The larger number of foreign-born workers I mentioned earlier, means that for the first time Spanish employers are dealing with a new HR reality: diversity in the workplace. Tools, processes, corporate culture will have to change to reflect this new dimension.

     § As for which global HR technology vendors are best equipped to handle Spanish companies' requirements, here is my league table. It is based on functional depth, localization quality, number of references, resource availability, quality of support and strategy.

The avid reader I am means that in these two decades that I have practised Spain I have read dozens of works by Spanish writers or foreigners writing about Spain. Here is a list of the ones I have enjoyed and strongly recommend:

     § As soon as I became fluent in Spanish one of my colleagues at WTO lent me Antonio Larreta's Volavérunt. A historical novel set at the early 19th century court in Madrid, it won the Premio Planeta, one of Spain's major literary prizes, in 1980.  I was lucky that for my foray into Spanish literature I was regaled with a great novel on two quintessential Spanish historical characters, painter Goya and the 13th Duchess of Alba (see more of her namesake and distant heiress below under Art.)

     § Anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes is a delightful picaresque novel from the mid-16th century, before Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. I only read the latter in its full edition last year and was captivated by it. I now understand why the opening line, "Somewhere in La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to recall...", have become immortal words. Grahame Greene's latter-day take on the story of the Knight of the Sad Countenance, Monsignor Quixote, is a brilliant tale of 1980s Spain.

     § La regenta, by Leopoldo Alas aka Clarín, is another classic Spanish novel, from the century of great novels, and is Spain's answer to France's Madame Bovary or Russia's Anna Karenina. While reading it I found myself several times checking its publication date: I could hardly believe it came out in the late 19th century so modern is the treatment of the story and characters.

     § Reporter-turned-writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte has been Spain's best-selling sensation for as far as I can remember, writing thrillers and historical adventures. My favorite is The Flanders Panel (La tabla de Flandes in its original title) of which a movie was made under the title Uncovered. I do not recommend to see the movie before reading the novel since I found the movie a big spoiler, even if well made. The Club Dumas, similarly set in the world of antique booksellers, is also pretty good.

     § Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind is a page-turner set in post-war Barcelona, and became  the best-selling Spanish novel of all times (and the second one in the Spanish-language.)

     § If you ever wondered what would happen if writers decided to stop writing, then read Enrique Vila-Mata's Bartleby & Co, a brainy and erudite disquisition on the power, or mania, of saying "no."

     § For lighter fare, especially of the crime variety, Barcelona-based Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's novels featuring Pepe Carvalho are great, authentic reads.

     § Finally, Cuban-born but Madrid resident José Carlos Somoza wrote a unique book, The Athenian Murders (La caverna de las ideas in Spanish.) It is actually two parallel stories, one being the echo of the other in the form of footnotes which grow into a full-fledged plot until the story's dénouement when the two storylines merge. Imaginative and creative, it is truly astounding. A virtuoso achievement.

     § Although not Spanish, Washington Irving has probably done more than anybody else to publicize the country's number one tourist attraction: the Alhambra (see the above painting.) With his romantic Tales of the Alhambra, the  American writer contributed to rescue from neglect and decay the splendor of Arab Spain in the city of Granada. When I visited the palace in the early 1990s it was still a mundane affair. Now, you need to book your ticket weeks in advance. Question: which royal dynasty has reigned the longest in (and not over) Spain? Answer: the Ummayads in Cordoba for 300 years, whereas the current Bourbons have barely reached 250 years.

     § French writer George Sand wrote a travelogue covering part of Spain and mainly the island of Majorca. At times condescending, her book is a great read to get an idea of what tourism was like 200 years ago. Traveling from France to Spain, now a simple hour-and-a-half flight, then felt like visiting another planet. A Winter in Majorca (Un hiver à Majorque in the original French) actually says more about her (yes, George Sand was a female writer) than about  Spain or Majorca.
From the blogger's library some great books by Spanish
writers (and a couple of foreigners writing about Spain)

Spain has been blessed with some distinguished filmmakers.

     § Luis Buñuel's Viridiana  (1961) with the great actor Fernando Rey is loosely based on a novel by Pérez Galdós, a great 19th century Spanish writer. Banned by the Catholic Church and Franco's regime (yes, in those days there was a list of films and books which Catholics were forbidden from watching or reading under threat of roasting in Hell's eternal flames), it went on to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film festival. And deservedly so as this subversive tale of old Spain is a true masterpiece. The dinner party with the beggars taking over  the masters' home is a piece of cinema anthology.

     § Made in the early 1970s but set in 1940s rural Spain, The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) is a spellbinding movie about the mysteries, anxieties and fears of childhood.

     § Bigas Luna's comedy  Jamón, Jamón was the first Spanish movie I saw after arriving in Spain where it had just been released. It served to introduce two young actors, Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, years before they were catapulted to Oscar-winning  super-stardom status and became husband and wife. 1992 also saw another good Spanish movie with Ms. Cruz, Belle Epoque. When its director, Fernando Trueba went to pick up his Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, he stated: "If I believed in God, I'd thank him for this. But since I don't believe in God, then I'll thank Billy Wilder." By then there was no Caudillo Franco or Catholic Church Index to cast aspersion on him and his movie about the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. (Belle Epoque was the movie that earned the national treasure that Almodóvar girl Chus Lampreave is her only Goya award)

     § A terrific talent since his film debut, Thesis, (1996) is Alejandro Amenábar. His third (English-language) film with none other than la Kidman, Gothic thriller The Others, (2001) established his global filmmaking credentials (the ending will leave you speechless) which were further enhanced by the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for his next project, Out to Sea (2004) with an astonishing performance by Javier Bardem. I met Alejandro in Madrid a couple of years ago and he struck me as a most relaxed and normal person which, for somebody who works in the film industry, is quite a feat.

     § None, of course, approaches even remotely the astonishing international success of Pedro Almodóvar. When I arrived in Spain, the movida madrileña was in full swing. The term refers to the explosion of freedom  in the arts (see below), nightlife, music and movies  following the 40 years of repressed life the country had endured under Franco's dictatorship. No one epitomized the movida more than the irrepressible Almodóvar who has dominated Spanish cinema for the past 30 years becoming one of the best Spanish global brands abroad (I should have added him to the list above next to Zara et al.) With a unique style mixing kitsch, melodrama, screwball comedy (especially in the early movies), irreverent humor and unconventional, graphic sex, Almodóvar has managed one feat that few have in contemporary cinema: remaining true to his national roots. *** All his movies are grounded in Spain, with Spanish themes such as the downtrodden housewife and the return to one's pueblo (or rural origins). My favorites are:

          ¤ Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1989) is a hilarious film that ranks among  the best comedies ever shown on the big screen. It is up there with the works of Lubitsch and Cukor.

¤ High Heels (1991) with a terrific rendition of the song Piensa en Mi by Luz Casal      which sets every string of my soul aquiver with emotion, the way Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez does. (Spanish popular songs are a hallmark of Almodóvar's films.)

          ¤ The Flower of My Secret came out as I bade farewell to Madrid. Maybe that is why I am so fond of it, but there is no denying that Almodóvar matured with this movie.

          ¤ With All About My Mother (1999) Almodóvar reached even higher critical heights. The movie, a paean to past actresses such as Bette Davis (the title is inspired by one of her most famous movies, All About Eve) received Oscars, Cannes prizes, Golden Globes and other awards galore.

          ¤ Bad Education (2004) about child abuse, drugs, sexual transgression is particularly well-written with plots and subplots that seem at first confusing until you realize the point the writer-director is trying to make.
Penélope Cruz, one of Almodóvar's muses,
 is Spain's answer to Italy's Sophia Loren.
Volver was another great success by the Spanish
director and won a Best Actress award for the
entire female cast at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival 

      § Although made by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro and a Mexican studio, Pan's Labyrinth (2006) is set in 1940s Spain and includes a largely Spanish cast (Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ariadna Gil). It is a stunning dark fantasy tale which won a host of awards (including several Academy Awards) as well as enthusiastic critical reviews.

Finally, the film buff that I am can only be saddened by the relentless pace at which movie theatres are closing in Spain, especially in Madrid, where the main drag, the Gran Via, is seeing almost all of its cinemas closing one after the other. The Palacio de la Música, one of the grandest of the film palaces, will now be turned into a store. I have counted them and since my days in Madrid and now, 10 movie theatres on Madrid's answer to Broadway have closed: Along with the aforementioned Palacio de la Música, the Azul is going to be made into a restaurant, the Luna has been closed for a while and makes a sad sight, the Avenida is also closed and it is unclear what it will become etc. Sic transit gloria cinemae...

MUSIC-wise, 1992 was the year that Manolo Tena's Sangre española came out. This song, along with the ones by Luz Casal (mentioned earlier), Alaska, Azucar Moreno, the soundtrack of Las cosas del querer, among so many others, would delight me during my Madrid years. Special mention have to go to Joaquin Rodrigo and his out-of-this-world Concierto de Aranjuez which still gets my heart aflutter when I listen to it.

The year of my arrival in Madrid was also a vintage year for the arts. Until then if you were into arts you headed for the Prado Museum where you could admire some of Spain's greatest works of art by the likes of Goya, Velázquez, Zurbarán housed in a lovely 18th-century building. One of my favorite painters is Hieronymous Bosch whose Garden of Earthly Delights still amazes me. Whenever I visit the Prado I always make sure I go check it out. Great as the Prado is it was basically the only truly great museum in Madrid until 1992 when two terrific museums opened: the Reina Sofía galleries, dedicated to more modern fare, and the Thyssen Museum which houses the private collection of Baron Thyssen who, to Spain's luck, married a Spanishwoman. The Baroness made sure that their awe-inspiring collection remain in her native land**** and the result was that Madrid over the years has developed what is now known as The Art Triangle.

If you are visiting Madrid over the Christmas/New Year's holidays through next spring, I cannot recommend enough checking out the marvelous expo "Legacy of the House of Alba" housed in the wedding cake building of what in my days used to be the main Post Office.

Apart from Britain, Spain is the only country in Europe where the aristocracy not only is recognized by the government but has also retained  much of its fortune in the form of large estates and grand palaces. Of these great Spanish aristocratic families the House of Alba is second to none. Headed by the 18th Duchess of Alba (unlike Britain, Spain's titles are passed to women), who is one of the most colorful (some would say eccentric)  people in Spain for as far back as one remembers, the House of Alba has been accumulating riches and patronizing the arts for over half a millennium: the third Duke, in the 16th century, was   viceroy of Naples (then a Spanish possession), brutally suppressed the Dutch (Dutch children are still being scared out of their naughty ways by being threatened with "Be good or I'll call the Duke of Alba") and conquered Portugal, among other minors feats. The 13th Duchess, in the 18th century, was the most famous woman in Spain and had her Madrid home (Buenavista Palace) right across from where the exhibit takes place (before she sold it to the Spanish government who turned it into the army HQ) and was the heroine of that first book I mentioned earlier.

A portrait by Goya of the 13th Duchess of Alba
adorns the cover of the exhibit catalog,
a copy of which is now part of
the blogger's library
The current Duchess, who as a child was a playmate of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in London where her father was ambassador, is a direct descendant of the Stuart kings who reigned over Scotland and England (the short version of her last name is Fitz-James Stuart y Silva) and her great-aunt was none other than the (Spanish-born) French Empress Eugénie (Napoleon III's consort) who went to live with the family after losing throne, husband and son (respectively.) She died, in 1920, at the family's Madrid home (Liria Palace) and bequeathed to them all her possessions. You don't get more blue-blooded than that - literally: according to  the Guinness Book of Records the Duchess of Alba holds more titles of nobility than anybody else and her wealth is estimated at around €4 billion. As the saying goes, "the Duchess of Alba is the only person who can travel from the north to the south of Spain without ever leaving her lands."  

With such a pedigree, history and cashflow you can expect amazing works of art to grace the family's multiple homes (the three best known ones are in Madrid, Seville and Salamanca.) Because they are part of a  private collection they are rarely seen in public so when an exhibit like the current one is put together  it is an opportunity not to be missed.  Since I was in Madrid during the 20th anniversary of my first arrival in Spain, what better way to celebrate it than visit an exhibit which celebrates an even great longevity? Here are amazing works by Titian, El Greco, Rubens, Fra Angelico, Goya, Chagall, medieval manuscripts, letters and maps made by Christopher Columbus himself (the Duchess counts the Great Discoverer of America as one of her ancestors and inherited many of his personal papers.)

Should you be visiting Madrid and looking for a great hotel experience, my favorite is the grand Palace Hotel  smack in the middle of the Art Triangle. It occupies the spot where used to be the home of another leading aristocratic family, the Dukes of Medinaceli, and is also celebrating an anniversary this year: its 100th. I recommend getting a room with a view on the leafy Paseo del Prado and the Neptune Fountain (right across is its competitor, the Ritz.) Having a drink or coffee under its dazzling stained-glass cupola is a religious experience. I used it as the setting of a scene in my book, High-Tech Planet. Among the rich and famous who have stayed there is Madrid lover Ava Gardner. The legendary screen goddess would come back in the wee hours of the morning after having danced the night away in a tablao flamenco often accompanied by a torero, as bullfighters are known. Not bad for the daughter of a South Carolina sharecropper. (In an interesting twist on how art imitates life, one of Ava Gardner's best-known roles, in Joseph L. Mankiewizc's The Barefoot Contessa, is that of a Madrid flamenco cabaret dancer who rises to Hollywood fame before her life ends in tragedy.) A word of caution: don't ask a Madrilian, not even a cabdriver, for the Westin Palace (as it is officially known now that it is part of the Starwood Hotels family.) You are likely to draw a blank before they reply, "Oh, you mean el Palace!." For us Madrilians, whether native or adopted, it will always remain the Palace.

Since I speak several languages fluently, I am often asked what my preferred one is. The Emperor Charles V  was in Renaissance times the most powerful man in Europe of which he owned large chunks, including Spain whose first king he was (and as such he rests for eternity in the magnificent royal necropolis at the Escorial, just outside Madrid.) To manage such diversity of people, he found it convenient to be a polyglot and used to say: "I speak Italian to ladies, French to men, Dutch to horses, German to soldiers and Spanish to God."

I don't necessarily agree with the great man (great because being master of the world, he abdicated of his own volition to finish his days in a remote Spanish monastery) but I find English a flexible language, French a precise one, Arabic very flowery, Portuguese (especially the Brazilian variety) colorful and Spanish friendly. By that I mean that I enjoy using the Spanish language (usually referred to in Spain as Castilian) in informal settings. I feel particularly relaxed using it.

Every language has its own quirks which reflect the national characters of its people. Some Spanish words have always held a particular spell on me.  Here are some of them:

     § Spanish is the only language that I know of which has a specific word for "fingertips" ("yema"). All other languages use compound words to refer to the tip of one's fingers so it has always captivated me that Spaniards would "bother" to create a specific word for it. It is noteworthy, though, that whereas French has orteils, English toes and German Zehe, Spanish uses the same word (dedo) to refer to the digits of both hand and foot.

     § "Asomarse" is used to refer to someone appearing at a window or balcony, but never at a door. Other languages don't make such a distinction: if you come out of your house, does it really matter whether you do it on the porch or a top floor? Obviously it does in Spain.

     § There are few rules you can make about languages, but one that in my opinion and experience holds true is that the most common words tend to be short ones, just one or two syllables. Thus the English hole is trou in French, qar in Mauritanian Arabic, buraco in Portuguese, an even shorter buco in Italian but a four-syllable word in Spanish: agujero. Same thing for acantilado (cliff) or ordeñar (to milk an animal) which tend to be just one or two syllables long in other languages but three or four long in Spanish. Why so long?

     § "Desasosiego" means "uneasiness, disquiet" and like its English equivalents it is also created by using a negative prefix. Except that the Spanish root word is sosiego so in desasosiego we have two negative prefixes as if to reinforce the condition being described. Are Spaniards particularly anxious people?

     § "Ensimismado" is another fascinating Spanish word. It means "deep in thought" or "pensive." Created from en si mismo it literally means "into-oneselved." 

I have witnessed so many changes over the years in Spain in general, and in Madrid in particular, that it would take a book to cover them all. In addition to some comments already made above, here are some, most on the plus side though.

My first reaction when I arrived in Madrid over Christmas 1992 was how loud, chaotic and smoke-filled a place it was. It is such a pleasure now to be able to go to bars, restaurants, clubs and not having to start coughing after a while before going back home with stinking clothes. I remember parking my car on the sidewalk between the Calle de Alcalá and the Gran Via before a night out: no qualms about it since everybody parked anywhere. That is now a thing of the past, thank God. And my favorite is the large pedestrian-only areas that grace the city center: Calle Fuencarral, Calle Arenal all the way to the Opera House and the Royal Palace. It allows you to sit outside and enjoy the lovely spring/summer weather and the great quality of light. (How retarded Paris is that we still have cars contending with passersby in those narrow streets of the Marais.)

The infrastructure program the government embarked on when I arrived in 1992 has delivered stunning results: the Madrid metro has become one of the best I know (unlike the dreadful one we have in Paris or the antiquated London Tube) allowing you to go from downtown to the airport in 20 minutes and at the cost of a few euros. Bullet trains now link the two major cities of Madrid and Barcelona (it used to take me half a day at least to drive between the two cities) thus obviating the need for the puente aéreo air shuttle (Brazilians would be well inspired to go ahead with their plans to do the same between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.)

Spain, whose kings carried the title of Most Catholic Monarchs,  has undergone one of the most amazing social changes in modern times. Divorce, abortion and gay marriage have come so fast you could barely utter "amen!" Already in the 1990s I was surprised to see that every small town in Spain had its gay bar, which was quite a big change coming from the conservative (some would say intolerant) United States.

Politically, the country has wisely alternated between left and right, having had until last year only three Prime Ministers in 20 years, ample proof of the strong social and political consensus which was so lacking in the 1930s. Hard to believe that just the previous decade before my arrival Spain suffered a coup attempt that threatened to send it back to military dictatorship. Hats off to King Juan Carlos who stood firm and managed to rally people, political parties and  most of the military command to his side to protect the democratic system (the King was luckier than his brother-in-law, King Constantine of Greece, who faced a similar crisis but was outmaneuvered by the Greek Colonels.) Few people realize that Don Juan Carlos is the world's only political leader who once held absolute power and willingly let go of it to allow democratic government. During all the time I lived in Spain, and for years afterwards, the King was highly respected and never criticized but recently, due to the economic crisis, people have become more critical of the royal institution as they have of all other institutions.

You can't stop change, it comes one way or another. Last week saw the demise of Banesto, one of Spain's oldest banks. Wonder what will happen to its grand head office on Calle Alcalá. Another Madrid institution, the Preciados department store, was also gone by the end of my stint there. Only a street remembers its name. The Prado has built an ugly annex next to the medieval Jeronimos church. Somebody ought to be shot for having defiled that gorgeous church. Four giant towers have sprung up north of the city. They are now largely empty, a testament to real-estate speculation gone completely berserk and responsible for the crisis the country finds itself in. (Boom is a great tell-all novel by insider Laura Anguera who reveals in it all the mechanics and shenanigans of the real-estate boom-and-bust cycle in Spain.) And yet nobody has been prosecuted for the mess. Total impunity seems to be the rule in Spain and most of the Western world as far as the culprits are concerned.

Spaniards may have accepted to put an end to their public smoking addiction, but there is one tradition they are clinging to ferociously: keeping late hours. There seems to be no way they will adapt the "decent" lunch and dinner times that most of the rest of the world keeps. I still find it hard, and even more so as middle age has relentlessly crept up, to get used to having lunch at 3 pm and dinner at 10/11 pm. Going out for post-prandial drinks or some partying means coming back home at a "normal" 4 or 5 am time, especially on weekends.

Since New Year's Eve is upon us, another reflection of how things have changed. In 1992 young people still dressed up for the Nochevieja partying: tuxedos and bow ties were ubiquitous in clubs, something you are hardly likely to see now. Also, pop music ruled the waves in those discos but, suddenly, the DJ would play something completely different: sevillanas (a type of flamenco dance) and everybody, young and less young, would start making the elaborate moves on the dance floor. Intoxicating. Nowadays, unless you go to a specialized flamenco joint, you are as likely to see people dancing sevillanas in Madrid clubs as you are to see Mayoress Ana Botella selling her body on the street.

Speaking of which, one street in Madrid has barely changed in 20 years. Calle Montera has become a pedestrian-only area, but is still home to streetwalkers who tout their wares and ply their trade in full view of everybody. Whereas in other world cities it would be considered shocking to see prostitutes in the city center, in Madrid locals and tourists walk by with utter indifference. One evolution, though, reflects the extent to which Madrid's ethnic make up has also changed between 1992 and 2012: back then the ladies of the night on Calle Montera used to be old and ugly and mainly Spanish, before their ranks swelled with Africans and Latin American immigrants. Now, they are mainly young, pretty and from Eastern Europe. The national origin may change, but the business remains the same.

Pelasperras chicas and sábanas are also gone as Spaniards
enthusiastically  adopted the euro a few years
after I left. They are now wondering
whether they did the right thing.
As for Spain's ethnic makeup, I am still impressed that the country has gone quickly to absorb large populations of foreign-born residents (Arabs, Latinos, black Africans, Eastern European) and yet you never see riots and tensions between native and immigrant groups the way you have them in Paris, London and other large European cities. Xenophobic, far-right political groups are unheard of in Spain, another proof of how tolerant and open modern Spanish society is. Even now, with the country in deep crisis, native Spaniards have yet to show any hostility to foreigners or to blame them for their economic travails. Quite impressive.   

Another major Spanish tradition, bullfighting, which was huge in 1992 is losing in popular appeal and coming under attack. Just as I could never make sense of American football, in spite of four years in the States, I could never understand the love that Spaniards have for corridas. I love many Spanish traditions but find goring bulls quite resistible.***** This being said, banning it altogether as they have done in secession-prone Catalonia smacks more of political score-settling than any true consideration for animal rights. In other less controversial sports, Spaniards keep on excelling, especially at tennis and soccer where they have become the undisputed masters. That is a legacy of all the preparation and investment that went into the 1992 Olympic Games.

Finally, on the foreign-policy front, one issue remains as strong now as it was then: the dispute with Britain over Gibraltar. Here I disagree with my Spanish friends since (a) a democratic country cannot seriously countenance forcing a territory which has been ruled separately for three centuries to join you if the overwhelming majority of residents are against it, and (b) why do you insist on granting yourselves this "unification" right which you refuse to Morocco with which you have an identical dispute?

I expect the country will go through many more changes this decade, none probably so wrenching as the ones triggered by the current economic tragedy. But one thing is unlikely to change: my bond with the country.  Of all my love stories none has been deeper, more intense and more enduring than the one with Spain, its people, its land, its culture and its language.

*Back then this UN agency was simply known as WTO until, a couple of years later,  a rival, Geneva-based organization (World Trade Organization), decided to have the same English-language initials, thus obliging the older, Madrid-based organization  to change its acronym by adding UN to the initials.  

**I was in charge of the localization of the PeopleSoft HR product line for Spain for a couple of years in the early 2000s before I moved to Oracle where, as director of Business Development for the European region for 5 years, I regularly traveled to Spain to further develop the equivalent product line. Then between 2007 and 2009 as vice-president with Fidelity HR Access, I regularly worked out of the office in Madrid, city which I still visit several times a year. Annual vacations in Madrid, the Costa Brava or other places also contribute to tie me to the land, although since I went freelance in 2009 Spain has had to contend with Brazil for my time, both professional and personal. 

***Almodóvar also tends to be loyal to his cast, such as Carmen Maura, Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Rossy de Palmas. Look out for Chus Lampreave, a delightful (now elderly) actress who typically plays the role of  a "portera".

****Margaret Thatcher, whose government was trying to lure the Thyssen collection to Britain, is said to have asked her advisors, "Couldn't we find an English girl for the Baron?"

*****It is worth reading Vicente Blasco Ibánez's, Blood and Sand, the classic torero rags-to-riches tale set in early 20th-century Spain. Several movie versions were made, of which the best are the 1941 Hollywood film with Tyrone Power and the Spanish one in 1989 with Sharon Stone and strikingly handsome Christopher Rydell in the role of the bullfighter Juan Gallardo (Rydell looked so convincing - as was his dubbing in Spanish - that I initially thought he was a Spanish actor until I found out he hailed from the U.S. of A.)

NOTE ON PICTURES: All, except the "Volver" poster, were taken by the blogger


  1. An interesting word in the spanish language is Ojala which came directly from arabic meaning Godwilling. Interestinglym the french language has incorporated this informally from its north african community by saying Inshallah.

    Regarding the Spanish crisis, I think that the biggest contributor was la "triologia maldita": Bancos, Constructoras e Inmobiliarias, underwritten by a governement who just let the whole thing explode on everyone's faces. I found that real estate prices where already ridicoulously high in 2002, when I lived briefly in Madrid. Had the government done something then to put some controls on the banks (Limit on debt terms, debt revenue ratio limits, etc)the situation wouldnt have gotten so out of control.

    As a Latin American there are a few things I notice about spaniards: It is uncommon to be invited into a Spaniard's home. They prefer to see friends "afuera". Spaniards can seem rude to Latins because they do not dwell on polite niceties as Latins tend to do. And the average spaniard is quite ignorant regarding other spanish speaking people.

    Have a good one.

    Danielin in Saigon

  2. Basing from your blog, one can tell that your 20-year love affair in Spain is really something to be proud of. Your time in Madrid was the best. :)

  3. Here's another great humorous Spanish site:


  4. "Broadway musicals, something unheard of when I lived there."

    If you were living in Madrid from 1992 to 1995, your stay was at the same time of the very successful run of the Madrid production of Les Misérables (1992-1994, Teatro Nuevo Apolo, metro Tirso de Molina), which is a very West End/Broadway show, don't you think?

    Other musicals in Madrid between 1992 and 1995 were Historietas, Return to the Forbidden Planet, El Diluvio que Viene, La Belle Hélène, Te Odio Amor Mío, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Melodías de Broadway... and there are more.

    Other musicals produced in Madrid before 1992: South Pacific (1955), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1964), Man Of La Mancha (1966), Sweet Charity (1967), The Sound of Music (1968 and 1982), The Fantasticks (1969), Fiddler On The Roof (1970), Godspell (1974), El Diluvio Que Viene (1977), My Fair Lady (1982), Evita (1980), Jesus Christ Superstar (1975 and 1984), Barnum (1984), A Chorus Line (1985), They're Playing Our Song (1991), Annie (1981), Mar y Cielo (1989), The Mikado (1987), Antaviana (1979 and 1986), Carmen Carmen (1988), Snoopy (1985)...

  5. Well, Musicalio, I haven't checked your facts but I assume you are right. I must have been busy in those years getting drunk on sangria and dancing sevillanas until the wee hours of the morning to realize that SOME West End/Broadway musicals were actually being staged.

    One indisputable fact, though: you never (OK, almost never) saw them on the Gran Via or heard people talking about them, or saw them mentioned on the press, the way it is now. That is why, IN COMPARISON to what things used to be, musicals in Spain, as in other places (such as Brazil) have NOW become truly global commodities.

  6. Love this Christmas commercial by food company Campofrio and featuring Chus Lampreave. It draws attention to Spain's brain drain triggered by the unending economic crisis.


  7. Today is a sad day as both Chus Lampreave and Manolo Tena have "shuffled off their mortal coil" as Shakespeare said...Goodbye, you were great artists and made my Spanish years the unforgettable time it was

  8. What a great article. Its similar to the IT articles in that it is very straightforward and honest style. I think you could write on any subject Ahmed that you had exposure to.