“What is it with all the fancy gates?” I ask from the back seat of the moving Ford.
It’s the summer of 2006, and Sue and I are visiting Extremadura for just the second time. On this occasion we’re using the services of a property agent, perhaps promoting the status of our moving to Spain from crazy dream to just crazy.
“Gates?” He looks questioningly at me via the rear view mirror.
I point out that nearly every rural property we pass has an impressive entrance – stone or stucco pillars, intricate wrought iron gates and so on – but the buildings inside are usually modest, often unfinished or even non-existent.
“Your place has to look good from the road. Appearances are everything to a Spaniard”, he offers.
Can it be true that Spain is so image-conscious? Is this not the land of simple pleasures, of olive oil, sunshine, country wine and afternoon naps? Since much of what this guy has told us about the country has already turned out to be apocryphal, I decide to let it go.
Well, some years have passed since we graduated from wide-eyed house hunters to residents of rural Extremadura, and while that estate agent may have been wrong on any number of issues, he seems to have been right on the mark with this one. Even the ambitious Spaniard without land on which to build an ostentatious entrance won’t want to be seen without some other badge of status – designer shirt, expensive sunglasses, or the biggest wristwatch his arm can lift. Even in the street markets, the demand is for sweatshop knock-offs of only the very top designer brands…
The thoroughly modern Spaniard seems to stand out in stark relief against his equivalent from recent generations; the latter seems content with the familiar traditions and modest comforts of a country largely stalled during Franco’s regime. In the centre of town each morning, I watch as he and his friends gaze, a little befuddled, from their regular places on the benches around the plaza mayor. Perhaps they’re wondering what the hell just happened.
It’s easy to see when the change came. Since the return of democracy in the late seventies, Spain has been desperate to be seen as a thoroughly modern European nation. Regrettably, being seen as has turned out to be not quite the same as being. Eliza turns out to be just Eliza, no matter where the rain stays.
Now, as Europe staggers from one long-foreseen-but-not-my-fault crisis to the next, those appearances of grandeza are becoming a little harder to maintain here – not just for the optimistic citizen (it’s not easy being a tycoon when you’re back living with your Mum), but for the country itself. The public outrage over corruption, from the black economy of cash-in-hand labour right up to shenanigans in the highest levels of government and aristocracy, illuminates a murky underworld that would make many a third-world dictator blush. Some in high office move ill-gotten gains to secret offshore accounts, while many families are being fed by charity food banks. A brand new airport stands empty and unused, one more status symbol that generations to come will somehow have to fund. The much-vaunted high-speed train network, showpiece for a twenty-first-century Spain, may now never be completed. All along the costas the beachfront property boom of the last twenty years has proven to be (figuratively, sometimes literally) built on sand.
Thankfully, through all the hand-wringing and what-went-wronging it’s possible to hear a few songs of hope. The singers care little for manufactured lifestyles and marketing-invented values. They are quietly building their businesses from the best Spain really has to offer; championing Iberian hams, history, olive oil, tourism, wine, medical research, music, cheese, sport, language, culture and more to those who are hungry for something other than an iProduct or a McExperience. Hopefully the Spain that emerges from this euro-mire will be based on those values. Those old boys in the plaza mayor have been through a lot; maybe this will be a Spain that they can be proud of?
Leaving the pueblo, mail collected and daily paper bought, I find myself by chance on the same country road that we drove along that day in 2006. The ornate entrances are still there, though in most cases the weeds are a little higher, and the ironwork could use some paint. Many have se vende signs that have been hanging in place so long that the telephone numbers, presumably along with the vendors’ hopes of a sale, have faded to nothing.
How many of those gateways will ever lead to the elegant properties of which their owners once dreamed? Those same owners now struggle for survival under a Spanish economy that has been shown to contain as little real substance as do their own impressively-gated fincas.
It looked great from the road, though.