What the Spanish Get Right
Spain’s beauty and communal culture contain lessons for the U.S.
In Pamplona men were falling like bowling pins amid the seething mass sprinting down the street as the pack of bulls charged after, through and over many of them.
At the bottom of the Spanish news channel providing the footage were emblazoned the words ¡Viva San Fermin!—Long live Saint Fermin!—in whose honor the crazy tradition of the Running of the Bulls occurs each July (this year’s event was particularly spirited after the Covid fun police cancelled the last two).
Everyone—the broadcasters, the running men, the bulls with their giant horns bobbing up and down as they cantered along—seemed to be having a whale of a time. I can’t remember seeing such a zany, absurd, and uplifting sight. It appeared the antithesis of the cult of safetyism and risk aversion stealing over the West and especially the U.S. these days, which leaves so many quivering in fear and pointless rage.
Since being driven by lockdowns into an 11-month Camino odyssey around the Iberian Peninsula, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to get to know the Spanish better. Bouncing back to the U.S. has inevitably stirred comparisons. Suffice to say, the Spanish seem to get many things right, with lessons for the U.S. and other rich countries like my native U.K.
It is most noticeable at two levels: the physical and the personal. Clearly the U.S. has abundant beauty to match and rival the majesty of Spain’s vast and varied landscape. But where the two differ most noticeably at the physical level is in the way the Spanish inhabit and administer their urban areas. There is such a clear abundance and application of style and beauty, even in the center of the busiest cities.
You come across potted plants and hanging floral baskets on balconies and outside front doors. Almost every bar catches your eye due to its elegant design, weaving tradition and fresh authenticity. Staff are polite and professional—even in places appealing to an edgier crowd; there is none of that weird emotional manipulation that seems so prominent in U.S. bars, whereby surly bartenders leave you feeling as if they have gone out of their way and done you a huge favor by serving you an overpriced bland beer.
Spanish streets are generally clean, without the smell of marijuana and urine increasingly noticeable in U.S. cities. Evocative statues stand boldly and untouched. And it’s not as if Spanish cities don’t have a rebellious element. There is a serious alternative scene and radical crowd, but their non-conformism seems enthused with genuine alternative style and thought-through principles, absent the “wanting to tear it all down” absolutes.
As Pat Buchanan noted in his recent column "Symptoms of a Disintegrating Nation," it was Edmund Burke who said that to love one’s country, one’s country ought to be lovely. Spain oozes loveliness, to the point that it is exceptionally hard for the non-Spaniard not to fall a little in love with the place. The U.S.—especially in cities like San Francisco and New York—does not feel lovely currently. Loveliness has been replaced by nihilism and narcissistic caterwauling.
Then you have the personal element. Across from me in a bar in Seville recently, I watched a tableful of people with Down syndrome joking among themselves as they knocked back cañas of beer. Other locals came up to the table to chat with them. On another trip to Seville, an elegantly dressed lady passed the outdoor table where I was sitting, pushing a pram from which a very young girl with Down syndrome gave me a beaming smile and energetic wave.
Arresting images. I don’t know about you, but I don’t often see a group of adults with Down syndrome mingling so naturally with everyone else in U.S. cities, or anywhere else for that matter, nor do I tend to see very young children with Down syndrome these days.
You also can’t help but be struck by how the Spanish include all generations in their outdoor gatherings. Old people are not shunted off to care homes, or they are at least kept in the community for as long as possible. You constantly see the elderly tottering down the street supported on the arm of an adult child. I am not suggesting that Americans don’t make similar efforts and sacrifices to care for their elders. But there is a visible disparity.
This disparity also includes seeing young boys and girls walking down the street holding each other’s hands—usually the boy is a bit older. (Shock horror, already getting conditioned by the patriarchy to protect his younger sibling.) Girls push prams with baby siblings in them, assisting their mothers. You just don’t see such scenes nowadays in the sophisticated metropolises of the U.S. and other countries in Northern Europe.
One reason such vibrancy abounds on the streets of Spanish cities—involving people across the socio-economic spectrum—is because eating and drinking out is affordable in Spain, even for those with much lower levels of income. It’s such a basic law of economics. Price it well, and they shall come and be merry—and there shall be a sense of community.
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In Spain, you walk away from paying your bill at the bar or restaurant thinking: What a fair price, I got my money’s worth there. It is that old-fashioned business model whereby both sides—proprietor and customer—exit the exchange content with what it has provided to each side. Five dollars for a couple of glasses of red wine and, in many Spanish cities, some tasty tapas snacks thrown into the bargain. It’s the opposite of the usual experience in a U.S. bar or restaurant, which increasingly leaves you feeling somewhat had, with the overpriced spend having to be set alongside other large bills and debts due. At this point, economics meets human psychology—cue the hardening of American hearts as economic woes take their toll.
“So long as your standard of living is rising, you can watch and listen to the world’s concerns with a degree of equanimity,” Douglas Murray notes in an article for the Spectator. “But the moment that the opposite happens and you feel yourself on the financial slide, then — as some of you will also know — gosh can we get nasty.”
Clearly Spain has some inherent advantages—its climate and longer history bequeathing its outdoor urban culture and magnificent architecture. But as the gap widens, and the U.S. increasingly offering such a bleak alternative to the sense of contentment, even joy, in Spain, the implications for America grow more harrowing.