A few months ago, I was interviewed by a short, roundish man, a Spanish TV host I had never seen but who every child in Spain knows: Jordi Évole. He used to be the sidekick of a late-night talk show host. We met on a cold, wet Saturday morning at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Évole asked me to talk about Germany – as the son of Spanish immigrants, but mostly as a German. He wanted me to explain what we, the Germans, are doing right and they, the Spaniards, are doing wrong. Évole hosts one of the most successful programs on Spanish television. He is both an investigative journalist and a comedian.
What did he expect me to say? That you can’t take an economy seriously when it’s based on sun and oranges and the overdevelopment of the Mediterranean coast? That Spanish football clubs shouldn’t owe €50 million ($915 million) in back taxes? That, according to the latest PISA study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development comparing international education systems, Spain’s schoolchildren have not improved, despite record tax revenues before the crisis?
I’ve recently thought a lot about that conversation, about the Spanish economic crisis and about whether I really know what things look like in my native Spain.
My parents are former farmers from Andalusia who went to Germany in the 1970s and worked in a tyre factory in Hanau near Frankfurt until their retirement. My father went to school for four years. There were no textbooks. The teacher used an old encyclopedia. My dad made it to volume D, or perhaps F. In any case, the education his country offered him was a disgrace. He emigrated when he was 17.
I was born in Spain, I have a Spanish name, I speak at a Spanish pace, I have a Spanish passport, and I’m happy that Spain won the European Championship. But I live in Germany, where I went to school and work today.
My most intense memories of Spain go back more than 25 years, even though I’ve visited since then. They are the glorified summer memories of childhood. My family was part of that caravan of guest workers (the wave of immigrants who came to Germany during the postwar years) who would load up the Opel and drive home to Spain every year, first through France, and then along the Mediterranean coast to my parents’ village. We would spend 30 hours in the car, stopping only at petrol stations, with a chain-smoking father at the wheel. The back seat was for me, my two brothers and one suitcase. I loved those trips.
After the conversation with Jordi Évole, I decided to make the trip again; driving along the coast as we had done before, but taking more time to talk to people. I wanted them to explain to me what had happened to Spain, a country that has been driving me to insanity for some time. I couldn’t even say exactly why. Could it be the inability to produce something meaningful, the disgusting overdevelopment, the audacity with which Spaniards expect help from the bailout fund?