A First Hand Look at Economies in Crisis – part 1

I live in Australia. Specifically, I live in Melbourne. With a few exceptions, it’s a long way away from anywhere else in the world. You realise this if you travel internationally not only from the hours you put in on a plane to reach Europe, say, or the Americas, but also from people’s reactions when you tell them where you’re from. “You came here from Australia?” they ask, “Oooh that’s such a long way away!”

Despite the immediacy of the media that we use every day, despite the fact that we can read about on Twitter or watch on the news events from the other side of the world as they are happening, these events still have a ‘far away over there’ quality when you’re observing them from Australia.

I obviously knew about the European economic crisis before heading over to Europe last month; I’d seen many reports on the news and read many, many newspaper articles over the last three years.

I was in Spain for a week before heading to Greece and while I was mostly sheltered from the effects of the crisis in Spain by the nature of my trip (I was staying in a resort and going on organised tours), there were still signs of the economic downturn.

Annabel, one of our tour guides, was talking about the traditional means of employment in Andalusia and added as a postscript that, of course, due to the crisis, current rates of unemployment were very high. She casually mentioned that her husband had been out of work for a year and a half and they weren’t expecting he would find work for another two years or so, so they were surviving on her part-time guide wage.

We drove through Malaga several times and I saw a number of shops closed and holiday houses and apartments for sale, though I was unsure whether this was normal for the winter season or a result of the crisis.

When I was leaving Barcelona, I spent half an hour talking to Oscar, my cabbie, as we fought our way through peak hour traffic to the airport. He had finished law but, unable to get a job as a lawyer, drives a taxi during the day. His older brother drives the night shift, he told me, having lost his job two years ago as a senior industrial engineer and having failed to secure another job despite attending over 200 interviews. Oscar’s wife also drives a taxi.

I’d noticed the empty billboards along the highways, but Oscar also pointed out that there were far fewer trucks on the roads, and that the new cars were stacking up in yards, unable to be sold.

Oscar spoke of the “lost generation” of youth, those who make up the 55 per cent unemployment statistic for 18 to 25 year olds, who may not work until they are in their mid to late 30’s, given how long the crisis may go on for.

“No superannuation, no mortgage… no self-esteem, no purpose. We will feel the real pain of the crisis in the future,” he told me. He mentioned his one year old baby and said that hopefully, by the time his child is 16, Spain’s economy would be healthy again.

As we approached the airport, Oscar asked me which airline I was flying with so he could drop me off at the correct terminal. When I mentioned I was flying Aegean Air and going to Greece he turned to me and said, “Aah. It’s much worse there. Spain is bad, but Greece is very bad.”

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A Feast for All Senses

I think it’s pretty obvious from my last post that with its beautiful cities and magnificent sites, southern Spain has been one giant visual feast. But it hasn’t just been a treat for the eyes; all my senses have been stimulated on this trip.

Let’s start with taste. I love the gastronomic adventure of eating the local cuisine in a country for the first time. I’ve eaten such great food this last week that it’s impossible to pick just one highlight. Everywhere we went there was amazing food. I ate the most amazing paella at Las Lapas in Seville, followed up with a fresh pear for dessert which was quite simply the crispest, most delicious pear I’ve ever eaten. At Bandolero, a tapas bar/restaurant in Cordoba we tried the salmorejo, a traditional cold soup made of tomato, bread, garlic and olive oil and served garnished with small pieces of ham and boiled egg. Loved it. They also served us the most amazing oxtail in broth with roast potatoes; the meat falling off the bone, the potatoes cooked perfectly, the broth so addictive that I couldn’t stop mopping it up with my bread.

The other tapas we had was at Los Manueles in Granada. Their spicy beef strips and potatoes were melt in the mouth divine, while the thin slices of fried eggplant served with a sweet sauce that was halfway between honey and a thick maple syrup was a taste combination that sounded strange but worked perfectly.

Right to the end of my trip there were little surprises that made my tastebuds sing with joy. The buffet breakfast at the NH Porta Barcelona, the hotel at which I stayed on my last night in Spain, included pears poached in red wine and cinammon that had a subtle spicy sweetness; in short, to die for.

My ears were treated to a feast of sounds in Spain, from the flamenco guitar and accordion played by buskers on the streets to the loud roar of the Mediterranean at the beach in Marbella to the sounds of people speaking Spanish all around us. A treat for me was in the cab ride I took from the airport in Barcelona on my first day. The Girl from Ipanema was playing in the cab when I got in. This was followed by Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine, and that was followed by a traditional gypsy flamenco piece with a strong female voice plaintively singing the Spanish blues. It was such an eclectic mix that I knew even when I asked the driver if it was his iPod and not the radio that the answer would be yes. I told him it reminded me of my own wide and varied musical taste and it was a special little moment of connection.

For the sense of touch my highlights ranged from the simple pleasure of feeling the warm sun on our faces as we ate lunch outdoors in Seville and Marbella to the luxury of being treated to a pedicure and a massage at the resort spa before we left. I also managed to get a 45 minute swim in at the resort’s indoor pool and it felt fabulous to be in the water again. I used to swim every week once upon a time but realised as I did my laps in the small pool that I hadn’t swum like that for 15 years. There’s something about being in water that makes me feel very, very relaxed and happy. Maybe I was a fish in a previous life.

And lastly to the sense of smell. Everywhere we went there were orange trees full of fruit. In every town the main square was called Plaza des Naranjos and there’d be dozens of trees, but they also lined the main streets, and appeared in courtyards big and small. Not only were they extremely pretty to look at but the scent they gave out was just lovely. When we came out of La Mezquita Cathedral in Cordoba, there was a small team of people collecting the oranges in huge plastic bags. The scent in the air was so strong. We were told that the sour oranges are not edible fresh but were given the impression that they’re used to make marmalade for the English. I like to think that’s true.

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Mi voy a Marbella… y Granada, Sevilla y Cordoba

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I find myself in Spain so I hope you don’t mind too much if I temporarily morph my fledgling blog into a travel diary. I’m in Marbella, on the south coast of Spain (the famous Costa del Sol), at the … Continue reading