What we learnt about Spain from a taxi driver

You may know this feeling: that our deepest insights into the world come from talking to a taxi driver. A colleague uses this method to predict election results, and is not wrong more often than right. I use this method to find out a little about any new country I visit.

This is hard in Spain, because most Spaniards do not speak English. In Madrid we had the luck to get into a taxi driven by a Nigerian emigre. He said he loved Spain because of the weather and the attitude of people even though it was not a rich country. The Family raised a questioning eyebrow at me. I shrugged a silent "No idea" in reply.

Later I looked at the web. Spain, like most of the rest of the world has been in financial shock in the last few years. It is certainly not in the world’s top ten economies. But is it rich or poor? I guess one way to judge is by the purchasing power of people. The taxi driver we talked to visited Nigeria every year, and had taken a vacation in Japan and India. So he was better off than any taxi driver we had met in China or India.

I decided to look at another measure: the per capita gross domestic product. This is the average economic output of each person in the country. Of course this is a very indirect way to measure the wealth of people, but it is indicative in some ways. By this count the USA tops the world with about 55,120 USD per head in 2017. The triad of UK, Canada and Germany follow closely, with 43815, 41098 and 40133 USD per head. France, Japan and Italy are also rich by this measure with 35,566, 34,715 and 29,605 USD per head. Of the world’s top ten economies, Brazil and China are distinctly middle-income, with per capita GDP of 8,508 and 7,944 USD respectively. India, with 1,490 USD per head is the poorest of the top ten economies of the world.

I could not find this year’s data for Spain. I had to go back to data from two years ago. Then Spain had a per capita GDP of 25,752 USD. This could make it poor by European standards, but definitely one of the richest in the world. Score one more insight due to chatting with a taxi driver.

Siesta in Madrid

I am told that life is now too hectic in Spain for an old-fashioned siesta. Schools let youngsters have a nap after lunch, shops shut for a few hours in the afternoon, and, as likely as not, keep open till midnight. Still, a real siesta? Unlikely.

Not always, I found while walking around in Madrid.

A wonderfully weird railway station

About the strangest thing that we have come to expect from a railway station is that it has a hidden platform which is not a whole number. That could be weird, but a railway station can be even more strange. You might not expect this of Madrid’s Atocha station. From the outside it looks like a simple building, not even a gargoyle in sight.

A garden inside Madrid's Atocha station

We entered through a side door, and exclaimed in surprise. We had expected the usual bustle and crowd. But in front of us was greenery. There were people with baggage waiting on benches. There was some walking about, but overall, there was a sense of peaceful waiting. "Where are the ticket counters?" The Family asked. "Where are the trains?" I tried to question in reply.

Turtles inside Madrid's Atocha station

As we walked around to look for such essentials, we came across something even more wonderful: a pond full of turtles. Who cares for trains when a station has such lovely flora and fauna! This has to be the best railway station I have ever seen,

Between Continents

I spent the Saturday crossing from one continent to another, probably overflying a third. I cannot tell because the flight data display was disconnected. Seldom does the tedium of flying for a day in an aluminium cylinder get broken by something happening outside the window. Break in tedium on a long flight But this time one had good reason to sit up straight in the chair. Another jet went screaming past us. I had just enough time to register the fact that it was trailing black smoke. I have no idea what happened, Whatever it was, it didn’t happen again for the next four hours of my flight from Delhi to Madrid.

Eventually, after a very long time, we passed over a harbour.
Clearly our long journey over the Mediterranean sea was to come to an end. Due to ongoing wars in parts of west Asia, flights from India to Europe now go west for a long time before turning north. So I came to the conclusion that we had seen the other jet somewhere over north Africa. Where was it? Why was it trailing black smoke? Was it a civilian or military aircraft? I think the only answers are guesses based on the fact that no passenger liner was reported to be in trouble during this time.

Spain is a deserted country. There are only 50 million people living in the half a million square kilometers which lie in the country. As a result it is mostly deserted. I saw this as we descended from the coast to the airport in Madrid. The first thing we saw this was in the emptiness of the land over which we had just flown. The photo above shows part of a river valley. In the photo above, you can clearly see a fan of tributaries merging into a single stream. The strange banding of colours you can see in the bottom half of the photo is due to polarizing glasses mounted on each window in a Dreamliner.

After about half an hour of flying over this kind of country, we seemed to pass over a cliff. On the nearer side of this huge cliff were forests and fields, and also an occasional lake. This was in total contrast to the barren land between the coastline and the divide. Now we began to slow and descend, and suddenly we were over summer’s bare fields and landing in Madrid.

New adventures begin now.

A Summer of Tigers

Spain has lodged in my imagination since I read Pablo Neruda as a teenager, and was led through him to the Spanish poets Quevedo and Garcia Lorca. Before that was an exposure to the painters Goya and Velazquez, and then, inevitably, Picasso. So when I found I had to attend a meeting in Spain, I thought we could make a longer trip. The Family agreed.

En el fondo del pecho estamos juntos,
en el cañaveral del pecho recorremos
un verano de tigres,
al acecho de un metro de piel fría,
al acecho de un ramo de inaccesible cutis,
con la boca olfateando sudor y venas verdes
nos encontramos en la húmeda sombra que deja caer besos.

In the bottom of our hearts we are together,
In the cane field of the heart
A summer of tigers,
Lurking in a meter of cold skin,
Lurking in a bunch of untouchable skin,
With the mouth smelling of sweat and green veins
We are in the wet shadow that rains kisses.

Pablo Neruda
Furies and Sufferings

The easiest question to answer is "Will it rain in Spain?" In June it’s unlikely, unless you are in Bilbao. The temperature, on the other hand, is harder to discuss: between 26 and 18 Celcius in Barcelona, an average variation between 29 and 13 Celcius in Madrid and Granada. I was surprised that Seville could swing as high as 32 Celcius. It sounds much more comfortable than Delhi and Mumbai in the last couple of months.

The Family and I discussed what we associated most strongly with Spain. The one thing I definitely want to do is to visit the Prado in Madrid and see the painting called Las Meninas by Velazquez (picture below). The Family is looking forward to the Miro collection in Barcelona.

We ruled out bull fights; not our cup of blood. Football is definitely on the cards. We watch the football World Cups fairly regularly, but don’t watch club matches. Still, we will try to see a game.

Carlos Saura’s movies, Flamenco and Carmen are stuck in our memories. A little reading told us that Seville or Granada are likely to be best for Flamenco, although Madrid as the capital will also attract talent. We’ll try all of them. We have to start looking for tickets.

Madrid and not Barcelona? Not possible; it’s the city of Picasso, Miro and Dali, and also city of Gaudi, Cadafalch and Muntaner. We agreed that it would be a great place to spend a few days walking around and enjoying the Tapas and Vermouth. A cousin who used to go for meetings in Spain every few weeks told us that there are more pickpockets in Barcelona than in Madrid. This turns out to be widely reported. There is even a guide on how to report thefts to the police. There are warnings about taxis in Barcelona as well. This begins to sound like Delhi. We do enjoy Delhi in spite of many problems.