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July 10, 2011

The changing nature of Spanish markets and cuisine

I am strongly pro-market. Not in the political sense, of course: I mean food street markets. I grew up above the largest (bi-weekly) market in Milan, Viale Papiniano, at the shouting soundtrack of ‘belle le pere mille lire, signora, le pere!’. Despite the obvious downsides in terms of noise, traffic and occasionally smell (the fish stalls were at the other end of the street, fortunately), the market institution became something very familiar to me. I also learnt from my father’s advice, although it wasn't always logics-proof: ‘before buying from a vendor, you must become familiar with him’ – but how on earth can I socialise with a vendor without buying from him... Later on, Milanese street markets became for me the ‘battlefield’ of political campaigning. Their replacement through private shopping malls and supermarkets, where campaigning as well as begging are forbidden, is not just a defeat for good food: it is a defeat for democracy and the social texture of urban places.

My interest in markets, however, increases proportionally to the distance from Milan. Far away, it is, unlike supermarkets, a way to practice language (I learnt to count in Mandarin in Xi’an and Beijing night markets), learn about new food and its preparation (the fish market in Sandakan, Borneo, beats any maritime life museum), and experience local customs, such as bartering in Morocco. Generally the quality, choice, price and freshness (especially for fish) are better than in supermarkets – even in a rather ugly and impoverished Coventry, the retail market is excellent.

San MiguelSpanish markets are particularly interesting, but also undergoing deep changes that are at least ambiguous. In Madrid, the historical central San Miguel market, round the corner from the flat were I was staying, has been elegantly restructured and turned into a ‘market + tapas bar + gastronomic fancy boutiques’. The opening time (10am-2am) reveal that the ‘market’ component is just ornamental and reduced basically to one fruits and veggies stall. The gastronomic stalls are very touristy, and the variegated tapas bars a place for tourists during the day and a ‘place to be seen in’ for Madrid’s middle-class youth at night. All pretty and enjoyable, but not what a market is supposed to be.

San AntonThe same fate has been followed by the San Anton market in Chueca, the gay village. This is not a heritage building and it has just been reopened in a stylish setting, with excellent, if pricy, food stalls on the ground floor, a supermarket in the basement, tapas bars on the first floor, and a restaurant/bar with terrasse, open all night, at the top. In the restaurant you can ask them to cook what you bought in the market, for just a 4 Euros extra per person – an excellent custom I had first enjoyed in Morocco. It may be because of the novelty, but the place is packed with people at all hours. It might be an effective recipe for ‘reborn’ markets.

The same cannot be said for markets turned into posh shopping malls. This has happened to the Puerta de Toledo market, now a cold and deserted agglomerate of soulless posh shops. The same is going to happen to the Barceló market, subject to a current expensive rebuilding project.

La CebadaFortunately, there are ‘real markets’ that survive as such. In the posh Salamanca district, there is the excellent Mercado de la Paz, the only XIX Century surviving one, apart from the San Miguel. But I prefer the more popular ones, of which in the centre survive Anton Martin and especially the largest, La Cebada. The great thing of Spanish markets, compared to the rest of western Europe, is the amount of spectacular ‘real’ food you can see on display. Not for the fainthearted: entire tunas and swordfish being chopped, live shellfish and crabs, whole suckling pigs and quarters of muttons and beefs. And a special place is reserved to offal: brains, livers, hearts, oxtail, bull’s testicles, tripe... Rabo de toro, criadillas and callos a la madrileña have all important roles on Madrid’s tables. Offal is the most socialist food I can think of: cheap, nutritious, good, and achieves great value through labour. In some western countries it is strangely despised, although it is routinely eaten, unawarely, in the shape of hamburgers and sausages. The fish stalls are also great. Unfortunately, in the huge Cebada restaurant half of the stalls are shut: crisis is looming and I dread it might be turned into a shopping mall too (too big for a tapa bar). In Spain, as already in the UK, popular markets are largely kept alive by immigrants. For a broader appeal, I can only think of two developments: a major increase in fuel prices that might discourage trips to retail parks and hypermarkets, or proper culinary education – not through TV chefs, but through visits to the market.

Last mention in Madrid, even though it is not technically a market but one large, 100-year old pavilion, is the Pescaderias Coruñesas, the best, if pricy, place to buy fish in a city that despite its distance from the sea is considered as ‘the best port of Spain’. Their website includes interesting information on any sort of seafood, and an exceptional variety of cooking suggestions: a few ways of cooking octopus that I did not know of, for instance.

In Barcelona, the market story is similar. The Boquería market off the Rambla is a major tourist attraction, the food is still great (Ferran Adriá declares that he shops there, which is quite a strong endorsement), and in some bars you can eat fish straight from the counter. Also in the old town, the Santa Caterina has been completely restructured with the addition of a futuristic roof, but it is still ‘a market’. In the stylish Exaimple, the Mercat de la Concepció is quieter and excellent quality, while the huge, historical Mercat del Ninot is undergoing complete restructuring – the fact that the stalls have been moved to a temporary market make me hope that it will reopen as market. In the outskirts, the picture is more mixed and supermarkets are more aggressive. The Sant Cugat’s market is a little gem with fantastic fish, but the Vallvidrera one is shut and its future is still unknown.

Once you have bought Spanish ingredients, there is the issue of what to do with them. And here I have a theory on the evolution of Spanish gastronomy.

Spain has exceptionally good produce. It shares with only France and Morocco the privilege of access to both Atlantic and Mediterranean, with the result of a double variety of fish and seafood – for instance, percebes are one of the great discoveries of my Spanish stay. The land extension means that most agriculture, at least before the greenhouses of Almería, has been much less intensive then elsewhere, resulting in greater variety, more taste, and more care. From tomatoes to ham, from eggs to fruits, the quality is generally outstanding – they do not have anything to envy the more famous French and Italian produce.

However, such great produce combined, until recently, with delayed social progress, and notably an obscurantist aristocracy, relative isolation and extreme land poverty. Central Spain is also far from any port and from any other countries, and therefore, from the XVIII Century to Franco, less open to circulation of ideas and gastronomic fashions than most of Europe. Neither aristocracy nor bourgeoisie nor merchants engaged in status-symbol cuisine as they did in France, but to some extent also in Portugal and Italy; while the poor peasantry and emerging proletariat, given the quality of row materials, did not need to elaborate sophisticated techniques to make up for shortages in the way, for instance, the Moroccan or Chinese did.

Therefore, the traditional Spanish cuisine is, if varied in terms of ingredients, extremely basic if compared to the rest of the region, not just to France and Italy, but also Portugal and Morocco. I have learnt to cook a few Spanish dishes, and they are stonishingly simple. Nothing requires the same skills as a French sauce or Italian handmade pasta. Paella can be spectacular, but extremely straightforward to prepare in comparison to risotto, which involves more careful cooking and the tricky step of mantecatura. The cocido madrileño and the potaje de garbanzos y bacalao are tasty and nutritious, but the only skill they require is the capacity of reading a watch and check the cooking times of the various ingredients. No Spanish soup, and even less pudding, can compete with the Portuguese or French ones in terms of elaboration. The only gastronomic field on which I admit the Spanish have traditional talent is eggs, from tortillas to revueltos. For the rest, the theory goes, excellent produce combined with remoteness, oscurantism and poverty do not provide incentives for great cuisine. Pan

To test my research hypothesis, I have also tried a number of traditional Madrid and Castillan restaurants. The ones with the best reputation are the related Casa Lucio and El Landó, in the old town. And they both confirmed mSant Cugaty theory exactly. The service and the atmosphere are very old-fashion, and so is the food. Outstanding ingredients and produce, from the bread with tomato, to the cured anchovies, to the tartar steak, but the dishes are extremely simple: the roasted lamb shoulder was the best I have ever eaten, but thanks more to the animal than to the chef, who, actually, had massively overindulged with olive oil (and I love olive oil). All this for substantial bills of 70+ Euros, so that at the end I only wanted to plead the chefs to just tell me where they bought those tomatoes and that lamb – so to never need to come again.

There are of course many cheaper places to eat good Castillan food, for instance Casa Perico in c/Ballesta, or a couple of places around and within the above-mentioned Mercado de La Paz. The lunch menus tend to be excellent value, but again, good real food but little sophistication.

There is an important corollary to my theory. More recently, as in general with Spanish society (e.g. gender), as a reaction to such traditionalism, a boom of revolutionary innovation has exploded. While Italian food remains identical to itself, Spain has become the forefront of innovation, with strong spill-overs from pioneers of new techniques. Of course, normal eateries do not engage in molecular food nor cook everything sous-vide, but a lot of new trendy restaurants and tapas bars in Madrid present innovative, sophisticated dishes. For instance, the recently opened Treze in c/San Bernardino.

And as another major recent development in Spain is immigration, ethnic food is great. In the Spanish case, this means essentially Latin American food, which in turn means largely Peruvian or Mexican, the two great cuisines of the New World. Apart from a number of honest cheap Latinos places (for instance the historic Cuban Zara in Chueca), the Entre Suspiro y Suspiro is a nice arty Mexican off Plaza Isabel II, and with regard to Peru, Madrid has the only European restaurant by Astrid and Gastón. Gastón’s story has been told by none the less than Nobel prize Vargas Llosa: a Peruvian law student at Complutense who got into food at the time of the transition, learnt the newest French techniques and now recreates the most authentic Peruvian tastes (the first spoonful of cebiche sent my mind straight to Lima) with the smartest, neatest texture and presentation.

Final acknowledgment: my comments on cuisine refer to Madrid and Castilla: of course, Galicia, the Basque country and Catalunya are different stories and will deserve more research.

July 05, 2011

Museums and exhibitions, Madrid and Barcelona

As already in Berlin, an extended stay in Madrid and Barcelona allowed me the time for visiting the local museums at human pace. It matters little that I had already seen them most, and not just because fantastic works like Guernica or Bosch´s Jardín de las Delicias never tire. Museums grow, expand and change.

Some have new architectonically interesting extensions: it's the case of the Reina Sofía and the Prado in Madrid , but even more of the Museo Picasso in Barcelona. When opened in 1962 it was hidden in the narrow medieval Montcada street, as it was more than inconvenient for the regime. It kept enlarging and the last expansion has just been presented. Its crystal walls contrast well with the medieval buildings as a good example of 'old meets new', and, when inaugurated, will provide a new main entrance from Jaume Sabartés Square and possibly reduce the overcrowding. Although, as far as Picasso Museums go, I will probably keep preferring the more orderly and thorough Parisian one.Picasso Museum

Santa Maria del Taull, XIIaCThen there are the new or re-opened collections. In particular, after a long closure, the Romanesque collection of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya has just reopened. Its collections of frescoes from the Romanesque churches scattered around the mountains, from a time when Catalonia was a ‘world’ power, has been carefully readjusted, with more realistic lighting and a more respectful background paint. The videos on the ‘ripping’ technique used in 1919-1923 to remove the paintings from the Churches, to save them from traffickers and – unknowingly – from the anarchist devastation that would have exploded few years later, are also gripping. Overall, as the Museum director says, Maite Ocaña says, the collections has recovered its ‘mysticism and spirituality’ – which is the essence of Romanesque art after all.

In Madrid, instead, since the last time I was there the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum has added the international part of the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, which the former-Miss Spain baroness collected over the 1990s: it could go under the title ‘how many masterpieces you can collect in a decade if money is not an issue’.

Then there are also the temporary exhibitions, many of direct appeal to me. The ‘Polonia’ one in Madrid’s Royal Palace (until the 4th of September) presents Leonardo’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’. But that is a painting I know well from its home in the Kraków’s Czartoryskich museum, where it can be admired closely in total quiet and with the intimacy it deserves (after all the Lady, Cecilia Gallerani, was a fellow Milanese). Moreover, while exhibitions do have a point, I am not sure about ‘celebrity tours’ of first class paintings: as Botticelli’s Primavera or Leonardo’s Gioconda do not trot the globe, the Lady shouldn’t either. So I refused to queue for her in Madrid. By the way, after Madrid she will come to London, but I repeat: don’t queue in London – wait and go to Kraków.

A more intriguing exhibition was ‘Heroínas’ in the Thyssen-Burnemisza (already over, sorry). It aimed at presenting women as ‘subjects’ rather than ‘objects’ throughout art history: that is not as doing-nothing beauties and saints, but as 'empowered' heroines, athletes, readers, mystics etc, and of course as painters too, especially if self-portraying (Sofonisba Anguissola’s is particularly good). If the idea may sound soppy, just go to the Prado immediately after: and among all Goya’s Mayas and Raphael’s Madonnas, you will really struggle to find works portraying women as subjects. All the Heroínas paintings do it, and very well.

Still in Madrid, and even more of professional interest for me, was the ‘Worker Photography Movement’ at the Reina Sofía (until 22nd August). The movement started in post-revolutionary Russia, equipping workers with one more revolutionary weapon, cameras. It then spread to other countries with strong communist movements, especially Germany, Austria, Belgium and Czech Republic, to the USA and to a much lesser extent Britain and Mexico. Many photographs are exceptional in both exalting the dignity of the worker while documenting the abjection of the surrounding conditions – although those from the Soviet Union, except the very first ones, obviously do only the first of these jobs. The works are presented with lots of contextual materials and one can spend hours reading pages of worker-photography magazines from different countries. The only bewildering part is the Spanish one, which is not about workers but about the Civil War: who thought that they were the same thing? Or is the Civil War the only thing about the XX Century they can sell to tourists in Madrid?

Over here, in Barcelona, the Picasso Museum presents ‘Feasting on Paris. Picasso 1900-1907’ (until the 16th October). Originally at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Van Gogh is particularly well presented among the sources of inspirations that Picasso found during his first visit to Paris. By directly confronting Picasso’s works to his predecessors, the aim of the exhibition is defending Pablo from the (rather idiotic, in my view) charges of having done nothing new. In this, the exhibition is successful, although the impression is that Picasso was lucky that in 1900-1907 they had not yet invented plagiarism-detecting software.

And a final personal impression. One of the very first works in the exhibition is Picasso’s amusing little drawing of himself arriving to Paris. It’s one of my favourite pieces from the Berggruen museum in Berlin, which I had re-seen last Autumn. Is Picasso going around Europe with me?

July 03, 2011

AVE, high speed trains?

AVE 'flying' through AragonOver the last month I took the new AVE train between Madrid and Barcelona, or vice versa, five times. 2h38’ for 621km, and never one minute delay – very much unlike my recent flights. It’s the same distance as between London and Edinburgh, which requires 4h22’, delays not included, making it impossible as a day return trip and forcing people on the plane.

Spanish high-speed railways are the best in Europe in all regards: faster, longer, more comfortable, more punctual. Until May they were also cheaper, but crisis is striking hard and the many generous advance economic fares have been tacitly removed – a cheeky way to increase prices without saying it. The AVE has more legroom than in the countries of supposedly taller races, headphones and on-carriage movie, quick unobstructive security checks (the Atocha station bombs are not easily forgotten), and a display tells you all information you need (next station, outside temperature 42C, speed 305km/h...), while the arid Castellan and Aragonese landscapes gives quickly way to the green Catalan one.

2,655kms of high speed rail (only China has more) have not come cheap or without controversies. The first lines, in the early 1990s, to Andalusia were criticised as clientelism by the Andaluz Felipe González. The total bill for the infrastructure so far is 100,000m Euros, i.e. some 2,200€ per head, if the EU hadn't taken up a part of the bill. It is legitimate to ask if the money couldn’t have been spent better differently. The Toledo-Albacete high-speed service connecting all Castilla-La Mancha capitals, has just been closed, after only six months in operation, after realising only 18 passengers used it on average...

Yet in such a large country with such strong centrifugal forces, the under-three hours connections between most main cities do have sense and provide excellent alternatives to internal flights. The Spanish mistake, rather, is to have simultaneously invested similar amounts on motorways and airports – as if any provincial city had the right to be connected to Madrid by all options: plane, high-speed train and motorway. Spain has now 48 airports, of which only 11 are profitable, according to a reportage by El País (Aeropuertos para todos). The main ones, Madrid’s and Barcelona’s, have seen pharaonic new terminals built - indeed, Barcelona’s is the only European one to compete with the big Asian ones in terms of comfort and posh (it even has, quite uniquely, a large courtyard), but it is not particularly crowded. Worse with the small airports built over the last ten years in a ‘Ryanair rush’: every town believed that it only needed an airport to attract crowds of heavy-spending tourists. Take Burgos: it had five airports within 125 km, but it still needed its own. Or Castellón, inaugurated with great pump, but with no plane yet. Or Huesca, with more flights than passengers in 2009. The crisis has hit, and Ryanair is engaging in threats to local authorities: in Catalunya, after withdrawing from Reus airport, it is threatening to leave Girona too if the local council does not contribute with 5 Euros per passengers. Apart that Catalunya is the most indebted region of Spain, and that state aids are banned by the EU, if Girona really wanted to promote tourism it could spend the money much more cleverly than sponsoring one, controversial company. In fact, the fascination with cheap airlines has made no favours to Spain, contributing to the construction bubble and to a cheap-tourism industry that damages the environment and creates no good jobs – in fact, most jobs it creates are so bad that only impoverished immigrants take them up.

So, compared to airports and motorways, high-speed trains look like the least evil in Spain – but they still have a hard time around Europe. The new Portuguese government, given the notorious financial situation, has just suddenly withdrawn from the planned Lisbon-Madrid line – for the anger of the Spaniards who had already started work on their side. In the UK, the plan for a high-speed line from London to Birmingham and Manchester has so far survived the public spending cuts, but reactionary planning laws make the project extremely arduous. But the biggest disruptions are in Italy, where already the Milan-Roma (2h59’ for 517km, but the Apennines in between) was controversial, and now the planned Turin-Lyon line through the Alps is causing civic resistance and violent protests – also today.

Even if enjoying the Madrid-Barcelona train, and dreaming of a fast connection between England and Scotland, I’d say that the Alps are an exception. Such a delicate and unique environment requires slowness and respect, rather than being violated by long tunnels, mountains of excavated soil and noise. Indeed, in the Alps even more than elsewhere trains are better than planes and cars (motorway valleys have record incidences of cancers, as the exhaust pipes stick there). But the existing lines have enough capacity, and they only require an hour or so of calm – rewarded by the views.

June 13, 2011

After 'yes we camp'

Summer is arriving and the protest camp of the treeless Puerta del Sol, after 4 long weeks, is over. The indignados, in these four weeks, have made the world news but also very fast through all the dilemmas and difficulties of direct democracy. From technicalities –how to run assemblies under the rain – to stall – the near-impossibility to reach decisions by universal consent – to bureaucratisation – dozens ‘commissions and commissions’ commissions – to organisational boundaries – from the initial total openness they moved to the opposite of extreme distrust towards any newcomer, for fear of infiltration – to gradualism – once the original demand of a ‘real democracy now’ started to appear a bit too difficult to achieve within days. Worst of all, at a very fast speed, the sectarianism vicious cycle. When the protest is in a camp, the natural outflow of militancy occurs particularly fast, and the core that remains is particularly ‘tough’; this core, with its radicalism, puts even more people off, and so on. This explains why the camp went on for at least two weeks more than it was necessary.

Yet this is far from the end and far from a defeat. Uniquely for a radical, numerically rather small movement, the indignados are very popular: opinion polls show that a majority considers the protests justified. On Saturday, protesters have been again in the spotlight, contesting the investiture of the new mayors across the country. The protest is now starting to be more focussed, whether on local issues or against the labour market and collective bargaining reforms just passed by the government: a direct effect of the movement has been to add a bit of backbone to the Spanish unions, that have rejected the reform. Moreover, also thanks to an effective use of new technologies, the movement is spreading, also to new countries and especially Portugal. Stéphane Hessel's Indignez-vous! pamphlet that inspired the protests has spread like wildfire across continental Europe, although not the UK that is as usual quite insulated from outside world’s ideas (it is not even published in English, apart from a translation in the magazine Nation).

Indignados in Sant CugatIndignados in SitgesI have become aware of the widespread extension of the movement only now that I have left Madrid’s city centre for Barcelona. You find indignados everywhere, not just in the central Plaça de Catalunya, but in the central squares of all little towns across the region. Even in conservative Catalan Sant Cugat del Vallès. Even in tourist-packed Sitges. Thinking about it, if I were 20-year old and had to choose a place and time to start a revolution, I would choose Sitges beach in the late Spring over St Petersburg in November any time.

May 31, 2011

Veni Voti Vici – 24h of a Milanese

May the 30th 2011.

3:40am. Puerta del Sol, Madrid, Monday. The #spanishrevolution sleeps.

Sol, 3:40 am

I don’t. I am walking past fast, on the way to Plaza de Cibeles, to catch the airport bus and the 6:00 Ryanair flight to Milan. I don’t like Ryanair but, two weeks ago, it offered a day return for 39 Euros. Ooops, plus 12 Euros card fee (31%).

8:30am. I land in Bergamo and one hour bus later I am in Milan. A short bar stop for what an Italian needs first when repatriating: a proper coffee. Plus a very unmilanese cannolo siciliano(my other half) and a look at the morning papers, focussing on the reason of my very quick visit: the local elections.


10am. I am in my polling station (no picture, sorry – in Italian polling stations cameras are banned because, unlike in the UK where ballot papers are numbered, vote secrecy is a serious affair). Well ahead of the time limit of 3pm. Spare time for a few flying coffees and aperitivos with friends and for a family lunch.

Italians registered abroad keep the right to vote in the local elections of their place of origin. This time in Milan the stake is special and there has been an internet campaign to mobilise the thousands Milanese on exile like me (see the youtube video – jump the first 1'20" of speech if political Italian is not your thing).

Milan has always been the main Italian political laboratory, for good (Turati’s socialist reformism in the early XX Century, the 1968 movement, feminism, the New Left...) and for evil (fascism in 1919, integralist catholicism, Craxi’s corrupt socialism in the 1980s, the Northern League, Berlusconi). Back in my childhood it was a leftwing industrial city with a progressive cultural scene: Italy's main theatres, newspapers and publishers are all based here. Then the factories closed, replaced by such ‘bullshit economy’ to shame Dubai and London. The popular quarters were gentrified and the poor were forced into the suburbs. Milan became the fiefdom of Berlusconi: he built the new residential quarters, started the TVs, dominates the insurance and advertising industries and bought publishers, football clubs and theatres. Since the early 1990s the Right won all elections in Milan by very large margins.

Two weeks ago, in the first round, the surprise: the leftwing candidate Pisapia was ahead with 48%, the rightwing incumbent behind with 41%. Today, it’s the second round.

3:30pm. Piazza del Duomo. The first projections arrive. Pisapia is well ahead. Within an hour, the margin is clear: 55%-45%. Not only: the Left gains large majorities across the country: Naples (65%-35%!), Cagliari (never ruled by the Left before!), Trieste, even small northern towns usually dominated by the Northern League.

6:15pm. Pisapia arrives to the crowded central square for his first speech as mayor.

6:15: Pisapia appears as new Milanese Mayor

I had written Milan off: the dominant social bloc seemed only interested in paying as little tax as possible, being free to drive their cars around, and blaming immigrants. Due to extreme privatisation, they seemed not to care about the quality of the city or any public service. Milan at week-ends is telling: while all other Italian cities are crowded with passeggiata rituals, the Milanese escape to nearby lakes, mountains and sea. Only poor and immigrants stay behind.

However, deep inside, some traditional Milanese decency has survived and finally there is a reaction. This has little to do with the main opposition Democratic Party: Pisapia is an independent, leftist candidate that defeated the PD one in the primaries (a bit like Ken Livingstone in London's 2000 elections). The same happened in Cagliari, and in Naples the PD candidate was defeated in the first round by anti-corruption judge De Magistris. Like elsewhere in Europe, progressive developments happen outside the traditional parties and in new forms, with new languages. After 20 years of pointless chasing an imaginary 'centre' with moderate, ever blander candidates, the Italian Left has found new radical voices able to inspire and mobilise - and proving that you can proclaim solidarity with Gypsies and Muslims AND still win the elections. Pisapia won with an unprecedented mix of values, irony, calm, against a horrible Milanese Right spending ten times more money and using racism, fear, threat and calumny. The peak was reached in the last televised debate, when the rightwing incumbent at the last minute, knowing that Pisapia had no time for reply left, accused the opponent of being a car thief and a terrorist. It spectacularly backfired: Milanese culture and intellect, even if asleep for 20 years, had not died completely.

The result is not important just for Milan. Milan was the symbol of Berlusconism: the dream he sold to Italians was making all of Italy as rich and flashy as Milan. In reality, Berlusconi was, like a monstrous parasite, asphyxiating Milan by using up all its resources: culture, work, nature. Now that, in a last survival instinct, the Milanese spectacularly rejected him, the dream evaporates. The bluff has been read.

6:25pm. As soon as Pisapia finishes his speech I run back to Central Station (that fascist monument so incongruent with the city today) to catch the bus back to the airport: I will miss the huge evening fest.

9pm. The Ryanair flight to Madrid is due to take off. But it is delayed by 2 hours. One more glass of celebratory prosecco to kill the wait. The waitress asks: 'Why is everybody drinking prosecco today?'

2:15am. I cross Puerta del Sol again. The #spanishrevolution is awake.


May 21, 2011

We're all illegal now

Follow-up to Puerta del Sol is not Tahrir Square – yet from Around Europe 2010-12

The Supreme Court has confirmed the decision of the junctaSol: Midnight electoral (election authority): from midnight on Friday, the demonstrations are illegal, because of the obligation of political silence (day of reflection) on the vote’s eve. Were it because of some Franquist legacy or just because the law profession is still dominated by conservative upper classes, legal authorities in Spain have a strong inclination for provocative intransigence: whether by banning Basque parties on mere suspicion of links to ETA, by rejecting the Catalan Statute approved by 90% in a referendum, or by banning demonstrations on technicalities, their effect is always radicalising the mobilisation. In a way we have to thank them.

So on Friday evening the crowd is bigger than ever. At least 40,000 people jammed in the square, and more in the adjacent streets – the transition between demonstration and Madrid’s movida nightlife is far from clear cut. At Midnight, when the big watch of the Town hall marks Midnight (something Madrid people celebrate on the 31 December, usually) a minute of silence, with a tape on the mouth, waving hands. And then a huge cheers: somos todos ilegales, ‘we are all illegal’. Which is an appropriate inclusive motto, as one of the emerging demands of this movement is rights for undocumented immigrants. Their vulnerability has been highlighted by the earthquake in Lorca last week: 80% of those left without home are immigrants, mostly undocumented.

The police is so aware of the impossibility of clearing Puerta del Sol, and the other 50 occupied squares across Spain, that it has virtually disappeared, after having kept a visible presence until yesterday. And there’s no point waiting for late night: on week-ends Puerta del Sol does not go to sleep anyway, even without demonstrations. The disappearance of the state is so striking that it even raises the question of whether they hope in some trouble: the overcrowding of a square with just few narrow streets as way outs is a safety hazard.

Even if the movement may decide to stop after having reached the goal of lasting until Sunday, the indignation of a large part of Spanish population is now a fact. For over two years, here and elsewhere, governments have thought that they could smoothly manage the crisis in a socially regressive way: it looked just too technical for people to understand and protest, except the ‘usual suspect’ Portuguese and Greek leftist groups. It is no longer true. Trichet, Bernanke, Cameron, Merkel: take note.

May 18, 2011

Puerta del Sol is not Tahrir Square – yet

Follow-up to On Tahrir Square from Around Europe 2010-12

M-15Since Sunday the 15th of May, Puerta del Sol, and other central squares in Spain, are taken over by demonstrators – mostly, if not exclusively, young.

There had been a timid attempt on the 7th of April. Since then, no talk about it in the open – all happened on the social networks. The Sunday demonstrations, for ‘Real Democracy Now’, were called by a loose network of hundreds of micro-associations. Participation (nearly 20,000 in Madrid, and thousands more across the country) was not huge but it was still surprising: it is impossible not to notice that attendance was larger than at the political parties’ rallies in the run-up to next Sunday local elections.

In Madrid demonstrators decided to stay on the Puerta del Sol central square, a bit like in Tahir Square. They erected tents, as demonstrators started to do in the Ukranian Organge Revolution of 2004, and an Egyptian flag turned up. The camp was declared illegal and the next morning dispersed by the police, with 24 arrests. In other words, what is tolerated in Kiev, Beirut, Cairo, London (Democracy Camp on Parliament Square, May-July 2010) – is not in Madrid. The effect was that since then, demonstration take place every day. Today, the demonstration was forbidden overall: it was not “serious” (?!) and it perturbed the election campaign. So, today even more people were in the Square and the police could only look at it – and eventually withdraw among the cheers. If demonstrators originally did not have a clear objective, the ban has given it to them: defend the right to demonstrate, at least until next Sunday (the forecasted rain is the bigger fear now).

What has changed? Spain has 40% youth unemployment and is going through some of the toughest public expenditure cuts in Europe, but until now there had been no protests like those of Greece and Portugal, nor even Ireland and UK.

Let’s admit that up to half of the young unemployed are actually in some sort of education or informal activity: that leaves still a big chunk of people out. Spain is also a country where it is particularly difficult to get housing – rents are twice as high as in Germany, while wages are a half, and with the majority of the employed youth in temporary contracts, mortgages are out of the question. Until recently, tellingly, the only large youth demonstration in Spain were not against lack of jobs and housing: they were against the Ley antibotellón, the regional laws banning parties with alcoholic drinks in public spaces – things that youth without their own place and with little money, but with a friendly climate, liked to indulge in. In other words, youth did not protest against the roots of their condition – lack of housing and of jobs – but just in favour of a little escape – having where to go to drink affordably.

The movement is growing and if not huge it is politically very sensitive. Unlike the Arab revolutions, in this case the role of the social networks is really evident. The majority looks like being already politically aware, but no organised group is visible. The movement is antisystem, with a strong anarchist tone (Spain has the strongest anarchist traditions in Europe). For an anarchist movement, it is quite organised: the occupied square is clean; no violence nor vandalism; no alcohol, to avoid the Ley antibotellón; assemblies and working groups take place in a relaxed athmosphere. Apart from opposition to nearly everything (privatisation; banks; politicians; the Church; employers; trade unions), among the few concrete proposals that I could hear is electoral reform – the current PR system with very small constituencies is actually very damaging to small parties, perpetuating a quasi-duopoly of socialists and conservatives.

Such anti-system, anti-Parliament protest scares the Left most. These are people who would never vote for the Right, which actually can benefit from popular fears of extremism. Today I had lunch in a popular-class bar: the TV was on giving the news of the demonstration, and people were watching with a puzzled look, asking each other what this strange demonstration was about. Nobody knew. Eventually one customer (the one who knows all: he exists in all pubs) explained: ‘they are protesting against bullfighting’. All was suddenly clear, people shrugged their shoulders and went back to their cervezas and football banter.

By contrast, in their rejection of parliament as a political caste, the protests are likely to increase abstention and reduce the electorate of the socialist PSOE, but also of the leftwing, postcommunist United Left (Izquierda Unida), which is particularly alarmed by the anti-union tones.

This is something which happens in other countries too. In Italy, a network of local movements has found a hero in a comedian, Beppe Grillo, whose anti-system party has reached nearly 10% in Bologna and 4-5% in other big cities – mostly votes taken away from the Left and in this sense, a net help for the Right. The traditional Left is increasingly struggling to connect with new, young movements. Only the Greens, where they are strong, have some success.

The wind from the Sahara is at last reaching the North Mediterranean, starting from the nearest country. While Egyptians and Tunisians wanted free elections tout court, this movement wants somehow different elections. It is mostly expressive: when told that they are not concrete, protesters react angrily that the demonstration is concrete. Immediate objectives and revendications such as in Tunesia or Egypt do not exist here - the demonstration itself is the goal (it reminds of Arthur Scargill).

Youth is emerging as a political subject – in North Africa it is the largest, driving class. In demographically old Southern Europe, youth looks more like a minority fighting for existence in the public sphere.

May 15, 2011

Madrid celebrates San Isidro

Rio Manzanares

It's Madrid main fest today, San Isidro. The city celebrates for the fifth time in a month: after the Semana Santa, the Copa del Rey, Labor Day, the Dos de Mayo (uprising against the French, 1808), it's now the round of the patron saint. For the occasion, the river (euphemism for what is no more than a little stream - but at least it has been beautifully, if very expensively, landscaped in the last couple of years) is lit by the fires of the French Compagnie Carabosse. Next week, the local elections are held. If crisis-struck Madrid people have seen little panem recently, at least they are offered plenty of circenses.

San Isidro night

May 01, 2011

El Clásico and Spanish priorities

Follow-up to Marathon vs Palm Sunday procession in Madrid from Around Europe 2010-12

Bernabeu in the rain

The unfolding of el Clásico between Real Madrid and Barcelona provides more information of the state of Spanish society. It’s not extravagant to extrapolate from this football match: intellectuals and serious media are busy at it, with particularly animated debate on an article by José María Izquierdo in El País (a daily from Madrid, nota bene), drawing an original comparison between Real’s defender Arbeloa, Real’s manager Morinho, horror character Hannibal Lecter and the hawk of the conservative Partido Popular Mayor Oreja.

While the Semana Santa procession took priority over the Marathon on Palm Sunday, the following Wednesday the Semana Santa celebrations schedule had to be revised to make space to the Copa del Rey final and following celebrations. And a week later, the long planned Night of the Books – an evening of book markets and events in libraries and bookshops – was nearly silenced by the concomitant Champions League semifinal. If we add that today’s John Paul II’s beatification is heavily shadowed by a fresh academic book (La Confesión, by J. Rodriguez, 2011) on the Legion de Cristo scandals, we can draw a tentative table of Spanish priorities in 2011: (1) football, (2) books, (3) God, (4) other sports (than football, not God).

I had a direct look myself by going to the Santiago Bernabeu stadium yesterday. Still mainly in the shape of the 1982 World Cup, it would do with some modernisation, but it is uniquely spectacular for its near-vertical stalls. And, for me, it is forever associated to the memory of a Summer evening at the age of 12: the Italy-Germany 3-1 final of that World Cup, as well to a number of other good memories involving Milan winning or Inter losing. Shame that today this is the theatre of Mourinho’s speculative antifútbol – yesterday punished 3-2 by Zaragoza. Under a heavy storm - God's revenge?

April 18, 2011

Marathon vs Palm Sunday procession in Madrid

Procesion de la SoledadMadrid marathon

On the same day of the more famous London one, the Madrid marathon was run last Sunday. It’s a tough, slow one, due to the mix of elevation, up- and down-hills, and heat – even if this time the temperature was perfect, allowing a Madrid record of 2h10 under a beautiful sun (so different from Berlin). According to a friend who run it, Spanish disorganisation was also visible, for instance in the shortage of all kinds of facilities and information. Exactly this week there was much talk in the Spanish media about the latest OECD report on working time, suggesting that Spaniards work very long hours, but in a disorganised and unproductive way.

Yet the most amusing aspect of disorganisation was that only the day beforethe marathon organisers realised that the route was clashing, on its most spectacular point (the Napoleonic Plaza de Oriente beside the Royal Palace) with the procession of Palm Sunday. The clash was resolved to the advantage of the Church: the procession stayed and the runners had to bypass the square through a tunnel, which involved the need for a reclassification of the marathon due to an added 71cm. It would have been even more fun if organisers hadn’t realised it at all: the procession and the marathon would have physically clashed in a symbolic representation of the war between Church and laicism, that has characterised Spain more than maybe any other country in the last century. The big processions will be on Good Thursday and on Good Friday, and an “anti-procession” had been planned for Thursday by atheist organisations. But it has not been allowed: again a victory for the Church, but maybe a wise decision, not to create a precedent for potential anti-Muslim processions by xenophobes in the future.

However, the big clash everybody speaks about in Madrid is neither the Marathon nor religion, but the unprecedented 4-times Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona, in Liga (1-1 on Saturday), Copa del Rey final (Wednesday) and Champions League semi-finals (after Easter). If the unitary Spanish state survives this it will not collapse any time soon.

June 2023

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