There's nothing but bad news coming out of Spain these days, except in football. The economy is a disaster, and it's only a matter of time before Spanish weakness pulls down the Euro, if the Greeks don't do it first.
The Catholic Church doesn't seem to be doing any better. Churches are closed everywhere you look. Marian and I were stymied in Ávila this morning because the cathedral didn't open for its regular 9:30 Sunday mass. The cathedral. Now in Madrid, we're trusting that the church that says it has a 7:30 tonight has a 7:30 tonight. My Santiago friend Angel said there are few young Spanish priests these days. What does the future hold for the the Church in the land that gave us Teresa de Jesús and Iganatius de Loyola?
It would be easy for an American, especially a Catholic, to feel complacent. Compared with Spain's, our Church is vibrant thanks to immigration. Economically? We're getting over a stumble while Spain may not have hit bottom.
So my question is, how do the Spanish get so much right? After six weeks in the country, I can't escape several impressions: Spanish families are more cohesive than American ones. Spanish culture is more civilized than ours. And the pace of Spanish life is much more human-friendly.
Let's start with the paseo. There's nothing like it in America. In every city in Spain, or town of any size, imagine that the whole community goes for a walk together, family by family. The paseo happens before the evening meal, and it takes place on the main street, which is closed to cars. America has no main streets, and cars own the land. (Which raises another question: Why does Europe so get public transportation and keep its trains running on time?)
Old couples who in the United States would be sitting down to bad meals in retirement homes are out walking together, hand in hand, during the paseo. Younger families walk together as one: mom, dad, and any number of children, with strollers and soccer balls bouncing errantly as the case may be. Last night I saw a family of four walking side by side by side by side. Teenage sister walked on the right beside her mother. Ten-year-old son sat on his skateboard and was pulled along by his father, who held him by the hand.
Where would you see this in America? At the mall? Sure, maybe, but only with very young children and only when Dad didn't have to rush off to Best Buy for a deal on a new widescreen TV, or Sis didn't have to meet her friends at the movies.
Let's talk about those old couples holding hands. The old people in Spain are awesome. Marian is in love with old Spanish people and talks about it constantly. In the villages, you see them working at their garden plots under a boiling sun, digging patiently at individual plants with crude tools they've used all their lives. Or you see them walking slowly on a cane but with amazing dignity to the panaderia (bakery) for their fresh daily loaf of bread.
Let's talk about why this is even possible. Did I mention Walmart? Barnes & Noble? Starbucks? Home Depot? No, I didn't. That's because you don't find them in Spanish towns, and only a select few of our "category killers," like Best Buy, have been allowed into Spain at all. OK, I admit that we did see a Burger King facing the statue of St. Teresa in the square named for her in Ávila. That was embarrassing. But it didn't stop the paseo.
This morning Marian and I walked into that square again, on our way to the mass that wasn't. With two exceptions, we were the only ones there. (See next paragraph.) A street cleaning machine was at work, as was a man with a broom and dustpan and garbage cart. On Sunday morning the city had its cleaing crew out in force so that any debris from last night's paseo would not affect tonight's paseo.
The reason we were the only ones there in the square at 8:45 this morning is that the Spanish have the most humane, civilized sense of time you can imagine. They don't seem to get out of bed before 8:00 a.m. Maybe later. Breakfast is a spartan repast of coffee and bread. Lunch happens after 2:00 p.m., and it's not big either. Supper is never served under any circumstances, at least not in restaurants, before 8:30 p.m. In other words, after everyone has had time for their paseo.
As I wrote previously, we had our supper last night in an open-air café, where the quarterfinal between Spain and France was on television. Children were eating with their parents and grandparents in a setting that, in the USA, would be considered a bar. (See next paragraph.) When the children had eaten enough, they ran off into the square, some of them as young as two or three, to kick a ball or can with their fellows. Mothers and fathers cast glances over their shoulders occasionally to make sure they were OK, but the presumption was that these kids were safe in a public place within their community. It was as if they were playing in their backyards.
About bars in Spain: every café is a bar. You go in for your morning café con leche with tostada and a whole bunch of top-shelf booze is staring you in the face from behind the counter. Imagine if every Dunkin' Donuts in the USA had a liquor license. Spain is like that, but the effect is probably not what it would be in the good old USA. You don't see a lot of public drunkenness in Spain. It probably exists, and I'm sure Spain has its dive bars just like ours. But the attitude toward alcohol and its visible effects seem so much healthier than ours.
OK, I've ranted enough. These are just a few reasons why the Spanish—though they may not have jobs, or go to Mass—seem happier than Americans. How do you explain it?