One of the hardest parts of “learning” from travel (and of learning generally) is distinguishing what is true from what is simply in front of your face. The traditional way of making this distinction is to rely on the armchair works of scholars and writers who, at least in theory, opt for the quantitative and historically verifiable rather than the merely anecdotal. A more modern alternative to this, from a research perspective, is the case study – the in-depth qualitative analysis – from which valuable insight into a particular subject can be gleaned. The problem is, articles littered with statistics and disclaimers about limitations in sample size seldom make for exhilarating reads. This is travel writing, after all, and so I can offer you neither of the above in any pure form. I only bring up the distinction because I know how easy it is to generalize from particularly memorable experiences (good or bad) and how often these generalizations become misconstrued as matter of fact.
This piece consists of my own observations of one Spanish family, living life during one of the worst economic periods in recent history. I have no way of knowing how typical their experience is and so will try not to extrapolate in that direction. I only hope that in some small way, I can get you to see the world through their eyes. What you take from it is up to you.
Relatively speaking, Kat and I are Couchsurfing amateurs, but I think it’s safe to say that “family” hosts represent a minority (if not a rarity). Our first Couchsurfing experience on this trip was in Segovia, Spain, a beautiful medieval town (with a famous Roman aqueduct) an hour or so outside Madrid. We knew that we were staying with a family, that they had two small children (they twice checked that we understood that), and that the mother, Beatriz, spoke good English but, being the lazy Couchsurfers that we are, knew little else. After we met them at the bus station however, we realized that we were alone in our ignorance. Bea, our outgoing and ever-smiling Couchsurfer contact, had effectively memorized our profile (some of it was written so long ago that I had to take her word for things about myself). We crammed into the family van with Javier, the father and Bea’s long-time partner (not husband, which for me is an immediate good sign), their son Nico (5) and little daughter, Nora (2). We were told right away that Nico had “volunteered” to give up his room for us to sleep, the first of many acts of generosity.
In planning our leg in Spain, we had been disappointed to discover that we would miss the famous running of the bulls, or encierro, in Pamplona, by mere days. Not to worry, Bea informed us, Segovia (apparently home to the oldest bull running event in Spain) was having their biggest summer party that very night, with thirty seconds or so set aside for terrified teenagers to run for their lives from a small but (so it seemed) angry group of charging beef vehicles.
Segovia has a population of about 60,000 but, given the sense of community at the festival, you would think it was more like 6,000. That night we were treated to food, music, and an introduction to Bea’s parents and brother-in-law. Again, it is hard to generalize, but coming from Canada, where older men and women (sorry mom and dad) tend to wind down quickly and predictably after a certain age, it was amazing to see Nico dancing with his grandma in the street well after midnight while grandpa inhaled pork sausage sandwiches and cheap beer (it is also kind of inspiring to see children out so late – part of the party rather than an impediment to it). It was all pretty surreal, and it was only once we got more comfortable with each other and started to discuss the regular stuff – life, education, work, kids, gas prices – that I realized that all of this happiness was going on amid quite a lot of frustration and uncertainty.
Spain is a member of the European Union and of NATO and has a history rich in treasure and conquest (it is interesting to note that members of former Spanish colonies get discounted admission to many museums and cultural attractions) but has struggled to gain its economic footing since the death of Franco and the fall of Fascism. As part of the EU, it has been given the less-than-respectable designation as a member of the PIGS (referring to the general insolvency of Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). In essence, these are the EU states that Germany has to worry about and those systems (via corruption or overspending or both) most affected by the 2008 economic crisis. In an attempt to save these economies, and indeed the euro itself, all of them were eventually offered bailout packages tied to (unwelcome) austerity measures.
“On the ground” the crisis has meant that an already abysmal Spanish unemployment rate now approaches twenty-five percent, gas prices are astronomical, and inflation continues to make basic goods more and more expensive. As often happens in tough times, many young professionals, feeling hopeless in their search for work, have left for other more prosperous parts of Europe (most notably Germany) or even further abroad.
Bea and Javier are both well-educated (she a teacher, he a physiotherapist) and both work for the state (which in Spain means you will almost never be fired). But their relative security is contrasted by extreme worry over future opportunities for their children. Even more proximal, Bea’s father, a taxi driver for thirty-five years in Madrid, has had to face the reality that no one takes taxis anymore and, with fuel prices as they are, his daily drive from Segovia has become less economically sensible than simply staying home.
Additionally, and I think most saddening, was the story of Bea’s aunt’s housekeeper, Rocia, who worked for Bea and Javier one day per week to satisfy the family that free-spirited Bea’s house was in proper order. Rocia is a lovely woman from Ecuador who, like many immigrants to Spain, was inspired by the “Spanish dream” and the prospect of a better life for herself and her children. Able to buy a house with pre-crisis sub-prime mortgage rates, her home was soon too expensive to retain and was taken by the bank. The kicker is that the bank routinely decides that taking the house is not enough (because they are now worth so little) and requires former home owners to continue paying even once they have nothing left. Ultimately Bea’s family was able to convince the bank to leave well enough alone, the only reason Rocia still resides in Spain.
On the last night of our stay, Javier picked us up from the city centre after a day of castle-gazing and aqueduct photography. We were going for dinner at Bea’s family’s country home a few kilometers away. On the way we stopped for gas and, as the dollar amount quickly climbed, Javier turned and smiled wryly: “The crisis of fuck.” I smiled and replied back with the correct grammar, adding that I liked his version better.
The dinner that followed was something I will not soon forget. It had come out that Kat and I had never eaten paella (a Spanish speciality consisting of rice, peppers, saffron, and shellfish or chicken) and predictably, given the hospitality we had be shown, dinner was paella – for thirty. Aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and friends came together to eat, not because of any special occasion (and not because of their Canadian visitors), but because this is what the family does, nearly every day of the week, for much of the summer. In this setting, it seemed as though “the crisis” were quite far away. And though the word still came up frequently (sometimes hanging in the air like a bad smell) it was largely referred to in the abstract. From where I stood, it appeared that the attitude approximated something like a resilient resignation – they knew they were in the shit, but life, as they say, does not permit timeouts.
On the way home I sat in the passenger seat next to Javier. I told him that such family-oriented experiences (especially outside of holidays) are rare where I come from and that I was thankful to have been part of the party. As if sensing that I was about to mentally generalize the experience to all Spanish families he replied simply: “Bea’s family is special.”