The endless English winter has made me flee to the southern breeze of Spain for a bit of holiday time. The gentle and warm sun of Barcelona enabled my Easter “rebirth” as I gorged myself with vitamin D.
Having never been to the party city before, I had very little expectations of what to find there – apart from the sunshine. I was blown away by the beauty of the narrow streets and high buildings brought to life by the crowd of balconies from which were hanging green leaves, T-shirts, trousers and pants in a splash of warm colours.
At the ground level, a series of quirky shops and cheap boutiques displayed handmade crafts and souvenirs between which stalls of piled up fresh fruit –so many red and juicy strawberries!– and groceries selling wine for a pound: a little paradise on earth I would say.
Yet, while my stomach gurgled, I couldn’t get my eyes off the numbers of metallic curtains pulled down to the pavement and coloured in tags and graffiti. Here in Barcelona, in between the flocks of tourists and Erasmus students the economic crisis had struck harshly.
Strolling in the maze of tiny streets, sitting in the sun outside a cafe or sleeping on metro benches, the homeless were everywhere. Used to the Parisian “clochard,” whose presence usually shocks the wealthy tourists walking the old Montmartre district, I was always astonished by the few homeless one can see in English cities – surely a weakness that societies too often try to hide away. But my experience was clearly challenged by what I saw in the Spanish streets.
When meeting some young people living in Barcelona, most often they would mention the Crisis:
“It’s okay as long as you study but as soon as you are looking for employment it all goes downhill”
A Belgian student there stressed how in her first year she couldn’t get a job, not even as a cleaner. “Belgium is a developed country because when you’re looking for a job you generally find something.”
In Spain, youth unemployment has reached over 55% making it the second highest after Greece’s 59%. People struggle – so many live off very little food and are only strengthened by friend and family solidarity. However, if times are tough in Barcelona, very few are ready to leave the city. Hector, a Colombian in is late twenties, has lived in Barcelona for twelve years where he has set up a visual FX company. Unfortunately, business is no longer as good as it used to be and it’s with huge reluctance that he is now considering moving out of Spain:
“My heart will stay in Barcelona”
In the same way as Hector, so many young people continue to arrive in Barcelona with the hope of setting up their own business and start afresh. In a hostel, two Irish girls tell me how they left their country two weeks earlier; with no jobs and nothing much else to say goodbye to; they are both currently looking for new opportunities in the sunny city. Everywhere I have been in Barcelona, I encountered members of this courageous youth, with ideas of start-ups, dreams of self-employment and an incredible will to make things happen.
In “the studio,” located at the corner of two confining streets, in the heart of the old town, a group of dedicated people are sharing a space: some are practising Kung-Fu, some are working on visual effects and 3D graphics, one develops his photos, another has launched her own jewellery brand and the newcomer wants to create an ethical fashion magazine. They are all young and they have found the remedy for money scarcity: creativity.
On the other side of the metallic curtains, there is the buzz of genius and innovation ready to be released into the city. Creativity has been forced upon those who still have enormous dreams and little means for their realisation. Barcelona concentrates on these small scale innovation projects and attracts talents like bees to honey: it’s an instinct for survival.
On my last evening, I met Robert and Thomas, originally from London, one had left the large metropolis two years ago to start an internet business; the other had just quit his well paid job in the City to learn Spanish and live the Barcelona life.
Economic instability enables people to be bold. We are bound to outlive our current economic system and this is the time to experiment with new ways of life. Conversely to what is cried out in the media, Europe is not dying out, but remains a vibrant place which could potentially give credence to a new cultural boom.
With few job prospects ahead of us, this might be time to allow ourselves to think the unthinkable and have the guts to take forward all the projects that animate our dreams: let’s be bold and be alive.Published on The Yorker April 5, 2013