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On Madrid, but Mostly Spain

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I had the misfortune of travelling from Barcelona to Madrid. I say misfortune because, like many who make that journey, I found Madrid utterly uninspired compared to Barcelona. Whereas Barcelona has a lyrical, turbulent quality, Madrid feels like straight lines and regular workdays. Barcelona feels like a small city that grew large through the attractiveness of its character. Madrid feels like it designed itself to be large. It does not benefit from the comparison.

There’s nothing wrong with big cities, of course. If I was a Spaniard, I’d probably want to live in Madrid. It has all the great big city trappings: great food, great art, great sports. But I didn’t visit Spain to experience a typical big city – I came to experience Spain (and watch sports – hence the stop in Madrid).

So I find myself uninterested in capturing the spirit of Madrid in the way I try to in other cities. Instead, I want to use this stop to collect some of my assorted observations about Spain writ large:

Warmth & Dogs

In my experience, Spanish people are unusually warm to non-English speakers, even in the big city. When they switch to English for me (which is often), they do so without any hint of eye roll or frustration. When they don’t speak English, they are similarly patient in enunciating their Spanish to me. This courtesy extended beyond service workers, too. Whenever I found myself bumbling through my broken Spanish with a non-English speaker, a passerby would notice, step in and act as the friendly translator. 

Spanish people also seem to love dogs. They are ubiquitous on the streets and in their art.

In Madrid’s Prado, portraits with dogs as companions abound.

I can’t help but see a correlation – of course a culture that’s naturally inclined to warmth will also be inclined towards dogs. Both things have made my trip much more pleasant.

The Revolution of the Sueca

In the Madrid section of Michener’s Iberia (1968), I read one of my favourite passages of non-fiction in a long time. A Madrid businessman described 1960’s Spain’s “the revolution of the Sueca”. A Sueca is a young, blonde woman from northern Europe (typically Sweden), and at that time they began vacationing in Spain in droves. This changed everything for Spain’s highly Catholic culture:

“We had been taught for centuries that any woman who allowed a man to touch her before marriage, and I mean literally touch and not as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, was damned. Life was hard and anyone who transgressed was doomed. It was what you call in the United States puritanism, except much stronger because our whole society supported it.

Then came the Swedish girls, Suecas as we call them, young, blonde, laughing, the most beautiful girls in motion anywhere.

Their first impact was on the beaches, and once they stripped down to their bikinis and we saw what the human body could be, the old laws simply could not be enforced. You couldn’t tell a Spanish man he had a wear a top with his trunks when those damned Suecas were on the beach. He wanted them to see his pectorals.

[…] It’s been rather hard on the traditional Spanish gallant to whom courtship is a series of set positions, as it were. In church he stares at the girl. At the grille he sighs deeply. In the cinema he is allowed to hold her hand for three minutes… each show. He has his set speeches, arranged in order of passion, and these he delivers on schedule over a six month period. It’s all been set out for or him by custom and if he omits even one step the girl feels he isn’t properly ardent.

Imagine what happens when such a system runs up against a Sueca who has paid a lot of money to get to Torremolinos, has a limited vacation and doesn’t have much time to waste. When our Spanish gallant starts to go into his set act she’s liable to say, ‘Sure, where?’. I’ve seen a lot of Spanish men completely thrown over by such a response. They don’t know what to do. They’re unnerved and run away.

I cannot tell you how profound this revolution has become. Its effects will be greater, in the long run, than those of the labor unions.” 

Hilarious. And paints a great starting picture for understanding Spanish romance today.

It also parallels my first trip to Spain with my family and my personal revolution of the Sueca as a 12-year-old. I’ll never forget visiting the topless beaches of Mallorca. I went from never having seen a boob to nearly literally tripping over them every 10 feet. Although I don’t share the Spanish excitement for blondes, I definitely shared in their spellbound sexual acceleration. Puberty hit hard that summer.

The fateful Mallorca beaches


One of the other threads that ran through Iberia was that of Spain’s triad ruling classes hanging onto power: the Church, nobility, and landowners. “The landed families own Andalucia and swear it will never change.”

I had never read about landowners as a ruling class in a non-feudal context. It struck me as a reminder of the age of European society, and the centuries they’ve had for organized families to accumulate wealth and land.

It also struck me in a local context. In Vancouver, we are much too young a society to have landed families, but we certainly have land as an indicator of class. You can’t have a typical Vancouver conversation without turning to real estate, and I know many people my age who are obsessed with owning a home. Since home ownership has become so inaccessible, it no longer it exists as a life milestone but as a class symbol. Spain reminded me that that’s not new.

Onto Seville next, which promises a typical Spanish experience (whether or not that actually exists).

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