Tuesday, May 29, 2012


I've been travelling in Europe since May 1, visiting some old favorites (Paris, Lisbon, Barcelona) and some new discoveries (Krakow, Budapest, Pamplona). I'm currently in Madrid, a city I once dreamed about calling home. I've visited almost annually for the past 15 years and once lived here for 3 months. The ornate and elegant architecture, lively night life, great food, and the presence of one of my favorite paintings in the world (Rogier Van der Weyden's 'Deposition') in the Prado all seduced me. It always struck me as a place where grace and gusto went hand in hand, where respect for culture and tradition was a given.

But something has changed here.

Since it was too late for the metro, we decided to walk home from a midnight flamenco performance on Saturday. The route back to our rented apartment took us through the center of Madrid--Plaza Santa Ana, the Puerta del Sol, the Gran Via. I felt as though I had stumbled into a vast fraternity party, spring break of the apocolypse. A young man lay passed out in a doorway, drooling yellow bile. A couple stood next to a vast garbage container, bent over, vomiting in tandem. Young Filipino men carrying plastic bags full of warm beer hawked their wares to underaged clients. The grafitti-lined streets reeked of urine.

The availability of cheap flights in Europe (we spent all of 30 euros to get from Budapest to Barcelona) means weekend visitors flock from other countries to join in the all night party, the famed 'Movida MadrileƱa'.  But we heard mostly Spanish among the mix of other languages. Reading that the unemployment rate for people under 30 here is around 50%, we wondered where the money for beer is coming from. Are they fiddling as Rome burns and just throwing caution to the wind?

The next day we had lunch with our old friends Luis and Elena. We'd met them more than a dozen years ago when Luis' business was thriving and their son was just a toddler. Now his company is down from 40 to 7 employees. They're feeling crushed by mortgage payments on thier large suburban home, an apartment in Ibiza, and a boat moored in Murcia--all bought during brighter days. Their son is planning to move to Berlin upon graduation from film school next year. Luis and Elena have a back-up plan, of sorts, to move to Chile if the roof caves in. Both of them are taking anti-depressants and sleeping pills.

A walk down the tree-lined Castellano this morning restored my spirits, but the sense of what, up until now, had only been newspaper stories about the economic crisis in Europe, stays with me.

I think Mexico will look different to me when I get back next week.