The European Union may bind together people across the continent, from Portugal to Poland. However, differing culture, language, and attributes remain. From German efficiency, to the British lad culture, stereotypes exist for just about every European group. My time in Spain has reinforced this.
Ask any European about what characterizes the Spanish people and the answers that come to mind usually have to do with dancing, bullfights, and incredibly happy people. You can see the wondrous faces of German, British, and Polish tourists as they are mesmerized with all things Spanish. Spain is overtly proud of being European, but it stands as a distinct cultural entity. After all, the sounds, sights, and smells of a typical Spanish street differ widely in comparison to those of their northern, central, or eastern European counterparts. Every year, millions of EU members, particularly (as my time in Malaga and Mallorca demonstrated) the Germans and British, flock to the sun-filled, tapas-loaded, and flamenco-dancing streets of Spain. Conjuring up images of infinite paella, sangria, and bullfights, it just seems like los españoles son superfelicidades: the Spanish are really, really happy.
However, hiding under the smiles, laughs, and songs of the Spaniards is a deep system of problems. The unemployment rate remains stubbornly high: the southern region of Andalucia (where I am located) has a youth unemployment rate of higher than 50 percent. How has this played out? In Seville, it is completely normal to remain in your parents’ home well after entering adulthood. In fact, most people rarely move out until they are married or have a truly solid career, a rarity in a region that relies mainly on tourism as an economic driver. Homelessness is an issue similar in severity to any American downtown, where even in the wealthier areas of the city, many people sleep on the streets and beg for scraps outside of the majority of the markets. Such economic conditions are undoubtedly demoralizing.
In addition, Spain has a less than happy relationship with its government. Its democratic second republic fell into turmoil in the early twentieth century upon the arrival of a three-year civil war, which ultimately ended with fascism. Francisco Franco ruled Spain for over 30 years as an authoritarian leader, and his rule included repression, disappearing dissidents, and significant reprisal. Democracy officially returned to Spain with the 1978 Constitution. However, the democratic history of Spain has been neither long-lived, nor entirely successful. For example, Spaniards currently remain in crisis with leadership and continue to have sincere trouble reconciling what type of leadership they care for.
In such economic conditions and with such a tumultuous relationship with its own government, how does the populace remain so happy? It could be culture. It could be the food. It could be the warm weather and sunny beaches. No one answer is ascertainable. One thing is clear: the Spanish bravado maintains the warmth and spirit attributed to it by the novels of Hemingway nearly a hundred years before, sans the Civil War. Spain is a land of warmth and happiness.
Before arriving here, I was given many pieces of literature to read on Spain to introduce me to the culture. None stuck out to me quite like one specific piece. Its thesis can be summed up in a single sentence: Spain is much like an asymptomatic patient—a country that suffers a prolonged and horrendous economic crisis and a less-than-ideal government that still functions with little to no social reprieve and with a populace that seems entirely satisfied with their livelihood. It is truly astounding, but I have found this to be the most accurate and wonderful aspect of Spain. The people are undeniably happy.