Madrid is no Athens.
Athens wears its economic crisis on its sleeves, on its walls, its shuttered shop fronts. Madrid’s is not so readily apparent: it is there, but you have to go looking for it, taking notice of the details.
Like the girl with an inch-thick pile of resumes, doing the rounds around Puerta del Sol, or the bartender who glanced at the resume a moment, waited until the applicant had left, and told me: “She’s overqualified. They’re all overqualified.”
“You get a lot of them, then?”
“Oh, yes. But there are no jobs, you know.” Indeed, at the end of April, Spanish unemployment hit a record high of 5.64 million, or 24.4 per cent. (The number dropped slightly in May and June, due to seasonal tourism sector jobs.) Youth unemployment remains the highest in Europe at over 50 per cent.
Of course, some signs are not so subtle. Political rallies and protesters are not so subtle. Streets full of riot police are not subtle at all. The weekend before I arrived in town, street-fighting broke out between the two groups. Two weeks ago, following Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s announcement of a new €65 billion raft of public sector wage cuts and tax hikes, they broke out again. I was in the middle of them.
I had ducked into La Venencia, a sherry bar favoured by Republican soldiers and foreign correspondents during the Spanish Civil War, which stills has its “No Spitting” signs on the walls, refuses to serve anything but the time-tested products of Jerez, and that remains one of the most convivial places in town to ride out a political crisis.
“Hay muchas policías en la plaza,” I said as way of kick-starting the evening’s conservation. The police had begun coming out of the woodwork at about noon, on Puerta del Sol and further down Calle de Cedaceros in front of the Congreso de los Diputados, and now numbered in the hundreds.
“Yes,” Gabriel, the 22-year-old bartender said ominously, “because of the decision.”
Gabriel knows how lucky he is. Before he started working at La Venencia six months ago, he had somehow found work for himself at a travel agency. When that job looked like it was going to fall through, one of the women there was kind enough to tell him that another might be going at the bar.
“Most people my age have nothing,” he told me. “No work and no study. Why study when it’s not going to help you get a job?”
José, who operates the bar, was livid, not only with Rajoy’s announcement, but with the police presence on the streets. “This is the new normal,” he said. “People want to have a say? Send in the shock troops.”
He was talking to a group of ageing regulars, all of whom nodded their agreement knowingly. Indeed, everyone in the bar seemed to be talking about the economy, and how much worse the austerity measures were going to make things.
I rode out the rally with a Londoner named Robbie, who has had a wonderful economic crisis, having put all his money into gold.
We emerged as the rally was becoming a riot, into streets quite unlike those we had left. Rubbish bins had been set alight at either end of the street. Bottles were flying through the air and smashing into the cobblestones. Robbie had come with me because he was interested, but soon regretted his decision. Indeed, I regretted mine, too. I have been up close and personal with riot police a few times this year, most notably following Vladimir Putin’s election in Moscow in March. But nothing prepared me for Madrid’s lot. They were cracking down on anti-austerity protesters, but there was nothing at all austere about their methods. Here was a violence that was decadent in its lack of discrimination.
Robbie and I were swept up in a wave of fleeing protesters as the riot police gave chase through the narrow streets. One week earlier, I had run with the bulls in the famous encierro of Pamplona, and I wasn’t half as concerned for my safety then as I was when I saw the men in black helmets unholstering their riot guns. “¡Periodistas! ¡Periodistas!” I yelled as they approached us on Plaza de Santa Ana. But they weren’t going to stop, so we turned and ran, which is when one of them came up behind me and kicked me in the back of the leg, somewhere near the pit of my knee. I went down, but oloroso sherry is as fortifying as it is fortified, and as Robbie ran up to help me I pulled myself up off the ground and stuttered: “Did you see that? I was yelling out that we were journalists.”
“They’re shooting rubber bullets now, too,” he said.
Another bottle smashed nearby and we decided that we’d had rather enough of all this for one evening. We went and got very drunk to celebrate gold prices.
That most famous of curses, “May you live in interesting times”, has always struck me as a pointless one. We already do, the lot of us, regardless of the times in question. Nevertheless, these are indeed more interesting times than usual. Democratic governments crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of law, on civilian populations who wish only to express, as is their right, their opposition to policies that have been proved not to work, and that have been imposed from without by an unelected, unaccountable bureaucracy. British gold speculators running about on the streets of European capitals, dodging rubber bullets and bottles and saying things like: “None of this would have happened if everyone had invested in gold!” Well, I don’t know, Robbie. If everyone had?
Two Sundays ago, after seeing the novilleros fight at Las Ventas, I found myself with a group of urban aficionados who were interested to hear what I thought of Spain compared to Greece.
“Well, Madrid is no Athens,” I began, rather in the same way I began this article.
“Well,” one of the aficionados corrected me, “not yet.”
It turns out he was right. One only has to wait. Madrid doesn’t feel like Athens until it does and then it feels very much like Athens indeed. The morning after my encounter with the Spanish riot police, the burnt-out rubbish bins were gone, but there were Anarchist A’s, spray-painted in black, where there hadn’t been Anarchist A’s twenty-four hours before.
And so this is Europe in 2012 and what the hell sort of decade are we getting ourselves into?