Scenes from Spain’s Great Recession (2008 – 2014)
It’s been a rough couple of weeks around here.
Spain is still on lockdown, and the end is nowhere in sight.
I guess it’s a long story, but luckily, I can summarize it in a few words: this shit blows.
On the other hand, this isn’t the first big crisis I’ve been through in Spain. 2008, 2009, 2010… Those years sucked too.
And don’t even get me started on 2011 – 2014.
So, in the interest of a bit of historical perspective, let’s talk about that.
Without further ado, here are some scenes from Spain’s Great Financial Crisis of the early 21st Century.
Ready? Let’s go…
¡Compro oro! and low-cost everything
In most people’s minds, I guess, the Great Recession started in ’08 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
But for several months, I only heard about it on the news. I was in Madrid, working as a teacher, and business was good.
There might have been a crisis out there somewhere, but it didn’t seem to be happening here.
The first thing I remember actually happening, on the street, was that a lot of small businesses suddenly closed.
And seemingly, within days, they were replaced by pawn shops.
Since then, the long lines outside Cash Converters have become something of a Madrid institution. But at the time, it seemed new and exotic: who were these people, and what was their situation?
I can’t even imagine what it’s like standing around for half the morning, only to be offered 10 bucks to pawn your hairdryer or your kid’s bike. But apparently that’s what people were doing.
And then there were the Compro Oro places.
These dedicate themselves to buying, pawning and reselling gold jewellery, and seemed to be doing a brisk business – with more of them opening up every day.
I asked around, and apparently, a lot of old-school Spanish people had spent several decades buying gold, just in case. Now, they were selling it.
Outside the language school where I worked, right in Puerta del Sol, there were usually half a dozen guys wearing Compro Oro sandwich boards. Wandering around the plaza, handing out fliers, trying to drum up business.
Another surprise was the sudden plague of 100 Montaditos restaurants. Before there had been one or two, and I’d hated them. Suddenly, there were dozens, with more opening up every day.
That was followed by a proliferation of other low-cost restaurant chains. Old-man bars would close, only to be replaced with discount paella joints.
I’m not joking about discount paella. There was a buffet right around the corner from the language school, in fact. A big Dominican guy would stand outside, wearing a sandwich board that said All You Care To Eat. Every few minutes, he’d shout HAY PAELLA at the top of his lungs.
It was the soundtrack to many an English lesson.
But it’s hard to go wrong selling cheap beer and empty carbs to the young and broke.
Let that be a reminder that every crisis brings with it an opportunity, for someone.
Soon after the expansion of 100 Montaditos, low cost bars were everywhere. Everything was now “low cost”, because it had to be.
Shockingly high rates of unemployment
If the lockdown goes on much longer, this will soon seem quaint.
But at the time, watching the unemployment rate go from 8% to 27% was pretty shocking.
At the beginning of each new month, the papers printed photos of the long lines outside unemployment offices, along with the previous month’s horrible jobs data.
Tens (or hundreds) of thousands of new unemployed, month after month.
It got to the point where I talked with my friends about it: Why hadn’t society just collapsed?
We all had our theories, and I guess “real economists” share some of them.
But basically, it boils down to a few factors…
1. Spanish families tend to take care of each other.
People in their 40s or 50s have no problem moving back in with Mom and Dad if it’ll save them a mortgage payment.
My best Spanish friend described the network of cousins bailing out cousins within her family: this month Maria needs 400 bucks to pay rent.
Next month, Sonia’s kid needs a laptop so he can start university. The cousins stepped up. They didn’t like it, but they helped out, and things kept moving forward.
2. The underground economy is huge.
People work off-contract all the time, and I’m sure there was even more of it during the crisis.
The people in the government can try to stop this, to some extent, but they’ve all got housekeepers who are paid in cash too.
Shit, some of them probably own construction companies with hundreds of illegal laborers.
And if they don’t, then their uncle Pepe certainly does.
Nobody’s too motivated to get rid of the underground.
3. Government statistics are largely bullshit anyway.
It was pretty common, in those days at least, to have a work contract for 10 hours a week… While in reality you were working 25.
Officially, you were employed. But two thirds of your “paycheck” was given to you as an envelope full of 20s and 50s on the first of the month.
Multiply that by a few million, and you’ll see why a lot of people didn’t believe the official stats.
And I guess I should mention: that envelope of 20s and 50s is if you were lucky.
Because there was also the widespread phenomenon of…
Bosses who suddenly weren’t paying anyone
One day a guy named Paco came to class.
He was an architect, and the construction boom was long gone. Like many others, he was thinking about leaving the country.
“How’s it going, Paco?” I asked.
“Bad! My boss hasn’t paid me in 3 months. He says he doesn’t have any money, but then he goes and buys himself a giant new iMac for 3000€.”
Apparently, the boss hadn’t paid anyone. It was a small architectural studio, not a lot of work was coming in, and suddenly everyone was supposed to come in and work for free.
And Paco was hardly the only one. My flatmate, who had recently graduated from dental school, was working at three different clinics – and wasn’t being paid by any of them.
A friend who worked in a gym was waiting on 6 months of salary.
In my mind, it would have made more sense to quit. But nobody seemed to be quitting. The boss was always saying, “Yeah, it’s no problem. In a few days we’ll be able to pay everyone.”
And “a few days” was pushed back for months or years, until the companies just folded.
In the meantime, people tapped their parents for money, or just moved back home. People who’d complained about their salaries before were suddenly saying “Well, at least I’m lucky to have a job.”
And then going to work for free, month after month…
When my flatmate’s dental clinic went tits up, the employees raided the break room to get even. My flatmate brought home a used microwave in lieu of 12,000€ back pay.
It was a pretty good microwave. Served us for years afterwards.
15-M protests in Puerta del Sol (and everywhere else)
One day, they were everywhere: the Indignados.
Camped out in plazas all over Spain. Sitting around with signs about how they were getting screwed by their employers, or the government, or the bank that owned their mortgage.
And they were probably right. But then, as now, I didn’t see how sitting around was going to solve their problems.
(Convince me otherwise. I’ll wait.)
In any case, the “movement” had started on May 15, 2011, with a few people camping in Puerta del Sol after confrontations with police had broken up the day’s scheduled protests.
Thousands more joined them over the next few days. And soon, the normally-chaotic area in Madrid’s center soon became a whole different kind of chaotic.
The plaza was filled with campers in tents from Decathlon. People sitting crosslegged in circles read manifestos and debated the issues of the day.
¡No hay pan para tanto chorizo!
I didn’t pay much attention. The expat community seemed to be (mostly) detached from Spanish politics, anyway.
We can’t vote – at least people from the US can’t – and for the most part, the government just ignores us.
No political party is speaking to expat English teachers.
Some of the Spanish teachers at the language school, on the other hand, had moved into tents out on the square to be part of the protest. It can’t have been comfortable, sleeping on granite for weeks, but at least their daily commute was reduced to a one-minute walk.
(Presumably, they went home to shower, from time to time. I don’t think I ever asked.)
Protest tourism became more popular. You’d be walking down La Castellana and you’d suddenly find a few thousand coal miners from Asturias who’d come to shout outside some ministry. Or fruit growers handing out free oranges to protest low prices.
The labor unions even organized a few general strikes around this time. But these were all pretty quiet affairs. I always went to work. Most of my students usually stayed home.
The tent city in Sol lasted about a month. And eventually, the whole thing transformed into our current Unidas Podemos party.
But that’s a story for someone who cares much more.
Out of all that time, what I most remember is a coworker of mine, who’d go down to the plaza twice a day.
Some leftist group was giving out free food down there.
“I’m gonna go get a sammich”, he’d say. “Want anything?”
“They’re pretty bad. But free is free.”
Is it, though? Because I disagree. Everything has a price, for someone.
Brain drain, depression, prostitution… oh my!
Many of my students, during those times, were serious 50-somethings in the serious corporate world. They’d wear serious suits, and we’d meet in serious boardrooms.
Thing was: every week there were fewer of them.
“Happy Monday! Where’s Maria?”, I’d say, innocently, rolling into the week’s first class.
Serious expressions. “María was fired last Friday.”
Next week: “Where’s Tomás?”
Serious, somber faces. “Tomás was fired last Friday.”
After a few weeks, I just stopped asking. And as soon as my writing business took off, I quit that job.
Too much seriousness.
In the meantime, though, the serious corporate types had told me about all their kids, who were moving to Chile, to Dubai, to Beijing.
Qualified young people who couldn’t get an unpaid internship anywhere in Spain, and had decided to leave.
At the language school the same thing happened. As the crisis dragged on, the classes started filling up with people whose plan was to get the fuck outta Dodge.
Some of them ended up working in a Zara in London, or an Amazon logistics center in Berlin. But at least they were working.
The biggest irony: they couldn’t get a job at Zara in Madrid without speaking English, French, German and Mandarin. But applying to Zara in London, they found that even English was optional.
I wrote a few articles about the brain drain back in those days. It all culminated with a piece called Flight of the Party Girls, a response to a journalist who had just declared, loudly, that she was leaving for the greener pastures of Brazil.
Because Madrid just wasn’t fun anymore.
She was right, in a way. It certainly wasn’t as fun as it used to be.
Then again, life isn’t only about “fun”.
Anyway, the brain drain in Spain wasn’t the worst of it.
Around the same time, I also saw ads for Spanish housewives prostituting themselves due to “financial distress”.
Here’s a pic I took in the barrio, way back in the day…
An article in El País confirmed it: after several years of a booming economy had them mostly out of the game, Spanish women were getting back into prostitution.
(I don’t know how seriously to take that flyer, though. I’m pretty sure nobody has a chest measurement of 140cm.)
And the Wheel of Karma rolls on…
It’s all sort of blurred together in my mind these days.
Now it seems like the Great Spanish Recession was a period of months. But in reality, all this took years to unfold.
From peak employment in 2007 to the worst moment in 2013 it was, after all, six years of catching the metro in the mornings. Six years of renting a room in a shared flat. Six years of cheap wine and cheaper cuts of meat.
Six years of my youth, in which everything – apparently – went to hell.
And then things got better. And then they got worse.
(The Spanish stock market hit bottom around the same time as the Dow Jones, picked up a little bit, and then went on to even further lows in 2012, as the never-ending Greek debt crisis threatened to tear apart the European Union. In hindsight, we got out of it, but it wasn’t at all clear at the time that there was going to be way forward.)
Oh well. That’s the great Wheel of Karma. Sometimes you’re on top, then you’re on the bottom.
Shit happens. And all you can do is choose how you react to it.
Looking back, a lot of it wasn’t that bad: I had my (badly-paid) job through the whole thing. Nobody in my family was doing any worse than before.
My mom wasn’t doing the nasty with strangers for a few 20s and 50s – although yours probably was.
I guess I have nothing to complain about.
Even now, in this new crisis (or whatever is happening) I’m one of the lucky ones. My job was online before, and I’m moving forward.
But whatever your situation in these times, we all have a choice: we can sit around and lament our shitty situations, or we can do something to help out.
I think it’s clear which is the better option.
You probably can’t change the world, but you can certainly help someone in your city, or town, or barrio.
Time to step up, dogg.
Stay strong, y’all.
Mr Chorizo (AKA Mr Daniel).
P.S. If you have a small business in Madrid or Barcelona that could benefit from some free publicity these days, drop me a line. I’ll see if I can help out, somehow.