August in Europe is the month of rest. In Spain, while the big-box stores remain open, mom and pop businesses everywhere are closed as families take off for a few weeks of relaxation. Even here in a big city like Barcelona, owners scrawl a note on the window, draw the shutters, lock the door and let the letters pile up in their mailbox.
The message to the tourist is clear: Although more tourists come here in August than any other month, I’m taking this time not to make money, but to be with my family and give myself a much-needed break. Sorry for the inconvenience, but family is more important.
Long vacation time, restricted work hours, and small family-owned businesses are the hallmarks of the welfare state of Western Europe, a system that is under threat as Spain sinks deeper into debt. But in a land where the word “crisis” hangs like a black cloud over the peoples’ sunny disposition, it seemed a bit odd that people are electing not to work when 25% of the population is unemployed. As I walked the deserted streets of L’Eixample during the lunch hour, I though that perhaps this is the time to break with tradition and perhaps give some work to young Spaniards, about half of whom are unable to find jobs.
Times of crisis are hard on everyone, and yet the bars and restaurants of Barcelona seemed rather packed to my eyes. Spaniards are renowned for living life publicly, preferring to share wine and tapas in a bar with friends rather than getting takeout and watching TV at home. But eating a leisurely lunch at home with their family remains a most cherished institution, with many shops closing between 2-5PM for the famous siesta.
But this is changing. Spaniards are making small economic choices that will have impact on their society for years to come. I notice locals skipping over mom-and-pop stores for the cheaper chinos shops, mini-markets of low-price bric-a-brac run by Chinese immigrants. They make big purchases at the malls on the outside of town, they’re starting to skip the local fruit shop, baker and butcher for a single stop at an American-style supermarket. And as the Spanish schedule becomes increasingly tied to the rest of the world, Spaniards are watching their precious siesta evaporate before their eyes.
I’m here in Barcelona on a rather tight budget, so I was scouring the town in search of a filling meal for a decent price. After a few days of living off pasta, sandwiches and tortilla de patata, I found a local restaurant chain called FresCo that had an all-you-can eat buffet for 7.45€. It looked like the Spanish equivalent of SoupPlantation, but I figured one big meal here could hold me over for the whole day, so I went inside.
There was a line of white-collar Spaniards shuffling through the line along the salad buffet. First we loaded a chunky, partially-frozen gazpacho soup into our bowls, then piled plates high of the first vegetables I’d had in a week. Classic Spanish dishes were served en mass, big bowls of which rested on ice cubes as we made our way, single file towards the cash register.
I paid, ate my salad and watched the spectacle of so many Spanish workers eating alone, unceremoniously scarfing down classic Spanish dishes in silence, hurrying to fill their stomachs before returning to the office. The slow traditional lunch of the Spanish village was gone, the family absent, the post-meal siesta impossible.
The Spanish family meal, broken by austerity and the pressing demands of the international community. The three o’clock rush passed and people started filing back to the office. Inboxes were filling up with messages from customers across Europe expecting answers within the hour.
Some say this processes is inevitable and irreversible. Others say it is time to stand up to the rest of the world and preserve the old way before it is too late. Sitting in Fresco, I wasn’t sure which side was right. I just knew that I as I had stood on the empty streets of Barcelona with 20€ in my pocket, I’d made the economic decision to eat at FresCo, but I yearned for something with more soul.
I sat alone with my decision, poking at the rubbery shellfish in my pale paella, wondering if the European life I so loved was headed towards a FresCo fate. As we ate in silence under a Top 40 soundtrack, I sensed that others were thinking the same.
As I got up to leave, my eyes caught the gaze of a Spanish yuppie about my age who had been scarfing down the last of his dessert. For a moment he seemed to come out of a deep trance. No words were exchanged, just a common sense of hunger, loss, and gui