Spains balm to the soul


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Category: International 20 Nov 11


Journalist Ira Mathur stands outside The Museo del Prado, located in central Madrid, which features some of the finest collections of European art from the 12th century to the early 19th century, based on the former Spanish Royal Collection.

Journalist Ira Mathur stands outside The Museo del Prado, located in central Madrid, which features some of the finest collections of European art from the 12th century to the early 19th century, based on the former Spanish Royal Collection.

I have always said about my country of birth, India, that people either detest it for its assault to your senses, its unbearable pockets of poverty; adore it with blind zealot’s passion for its ancient and varied civilisation; or want to invest in a contemporary economic giant. My adopted country, T&T, gets under your skin (especially this past week in Spain as I gave out miniature steel pans as gifts, explaining its origins proudly to puzzled recipients who wanted to know what the “drum” was, and on occasion pointing out our dot on the map of the world). It is only when you go away to a country a hundred times bigger than Trinidad, like Spain, with a single city that is three times the population of your entire nation that you discover that Trinidad steals hearts by stealth, like a thief in the night or perhaps you ate Cascadura fish, which brings you home.

You don’t realise your own love of the warmth, hope, rhythm, raw talent and humour of our people, who despite being burdened by low literacy, fragmented families, lack of sustainable and institutional development of art, culture, architecture, language or music and yes...the ubiquitous rage because you are so thoroughly engaged. Away from it you see the jarring aggression of our people for what it is: a wound that is never allowed to heal, a disappointment that repeatedly rapes hope. The absence of Trinidad, and the constant chattering of people pulling in different directions feels like a quiet morgue, so you remain or re-enter again and again back to the horror that is also shredded sunlight. Trinidad is home after all.

I came here on a Spanish Government programme, The Fundación Carolina, a statutory body that is part of Spain’s extensive developmental work in education, science, technology and culture in Latin America and the Caribbean. I expected a thoroughly European country which—because I don’t speak Spanish—would feel even more foreign—a country on the cusp of rage as ours is. With the death of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, its restoration to democracy (Spain became a constitutional monarchy under Juan Carlos, King of Spain) the country shot up as the “miracle country.” Joining the EU in 1986, it became the fifth largest economy in Europe by 2008, creating more than half the new jobs in the EU. Now its fortunes, like many in Europe, are ebbing with up to 21 per cent, or five million of its 46 million strong population unemployed. Two million of these are young people.

For one full week, I had a telescope to the heart of Spain with back-to-back interviews with journalists, government and opposition officials, organised by the Fundación mostly in Madrid, some in Barcelona. There is no such thing as “manana” here, and everything is timed to the second. Everyone was surprised when I asked during official interviews and to taxi drivers and guides: “Why are the two million unemployed young people not killing for money?” “Why do you ask?” they replied as if it hadn’t occurred to them to kill for a pair of shoes yet. They looked shocked at my response: “It’s normal for us. We don’t have jobs, the drug thing doesn’t work out, and we kill.”

I didn’t feel like a good ambassador for Trinidad but it was the truth. Their response was different and that should be a lesson to us. The Spanish unemployed won’t kill for a pair of sneakers because they are qualified enough to go to EU countries for work, to switch professions and have a very strong emotionally, physically and financially supportive family structure, and centuries old cultural and religious values to fall back on. Many adults are living at home with elderly parents. Yes, Spain has its Basque terrorist group “Eta” which has killed 800 people since its inception in the 60s, the unemployed young are frustrated and will protest, and there are incidents of petty and violent crime, and its far from rosy.

All through my visit I saw young, even loitering people helping the elderly cross the street, giving up their seats on the subway for the ill, disabled, or old. The display of ordinary kindness by “rough” young people was a balm to the soul. The Spanish go to the polls today and I was there for the run-up of the elections. My first interview with three of the prime minister’s advisers (there are either 60 or 600 depending on whether you want to believe the officials or the media) was disastrous from my point of view because my laptop had a panic attack and died.

Still in the first 30 seconds of the first of eight interviews on my first day in Madrid, it became clear that the Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party is on his way out for not stemming a very Manning-like construction bubble which also brought an influx of a huge number of immigrants who are now a burden on a State which has a very expensive social support programme in health, housing and education. His failure to acknowledge that Spain was undergoing an economic crisis proved fatal. The conservative Popular Party, led by 56-year-old Mariano Rajoy is set for a record parliamentary majority today.

The advisers—brilliant, ivy league educated men—in perfect English, spoke predictably of Spain’s sources of economic strength, its high literacy (30 per cent tertiary educated), infrastructure and powerful social support programme. One hour later, journalists gave me a different story. Spain has been the recipient of an enormous injection of infrastructure funds from the EU which, while pandering to the many autonomous regions, led to the construction of a whopping 52 airports in Spain and an expensive high speed train network that is second only to China in length. The advisers believed, as they do everywhere, that the Prime Minister is being made into a scapegoat and time would show his wisdom.

The journalists, believed as journos everywhere, that a change in government while giving people new hope would not change anything: “Politicians only care about taking care of themselves, their friends, and their families.” In the 16th century, Spain was created out of many small kingdoms. People here have long memories and even now are proud to identify with their local history’s culture, and languages. Instead of spending a lot of time arguing as we do in T&T they have devised an ingenious, albeit expensive and unwieldy way of dealing with differences.

Firstly, I understood immediately that it would take me a year to even begin to unravel the complexity of Spain’s multi layered Government “federal but not federal” system, with central Government on the top layer (accounting for a mere 18 per cent of spending), 17 regional autonomous Governments (each with its own Parliament, supreme courts and its civil service) further diced into 50 regions and then quartered into thousands of municipios (municipalities). That was just at the governmental level. In Spain I quickly learned to live on two, three or even four levels all at once. In taxis and running on the street to get to interviews, I had flashes and blurs of cities, of Madrid, of Barcelona.

On one level I was the journalist doing interviews, on another, I was feeling I was breathing in centuries old architecture that would be here long after we are all gone. The images came hard and fast and blurred into an overwhelming beauty as the centuries of the Moorish Muslim Umayyad Dynasty, the Renaissance, the Hapsburgs, the Castilian baroque, the ornate Bourbon dynasty with French and Italian, Romanesques and Gothic meshed together. Spain’s beauty and permanent witness to its peoples imagination, quest and workmanship for an immortal loveliness that transcends our fragile, short human lives has hit me on a visceral level, like an intake of breath, like a knot in the stomach, like warmth on marble, like an impossibility that is possible.

I found Trinidad in Spain, learning that Aranguez (Aranjuez) is a town 48 km south of Madrid, that Cadiz, a popular surname in Trinidad, is a city and port in south-western Spain, that the beat of songs on the radio in taxis and restaurants is similar to parang, that the Alcázar of Seville (“Reales Alcázares de Sevilla”) is a royal palace in Seville, Spain, originally a Moorish fort. The delight with which people roll Puerto de España around their mouths like chocolate, gave me an instant affinity with the Spaniards, as did their eager reminder that Trinidad means “Trinity” in Spanish, as Columbus named us “La Isla de la Trinidad” (The Island of the Trinity), fulfilling a vow he had made before setting out on his third voyage of exploration in 1498 made me hope that we too, would one day fulfil our promise of a great country, not for the sake of Cristóbal Colón but for ourselves.



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