Madrid and Midwest America: A Comparison and Contrast

Life in Madrid is in certain ways the same as life in Kansas City or Tulsa. People like to go out to eat and socialize. The bar or cervecería (from cerveza which means beer) functions as an important gathering point for adults of all ages. We rally around our favorite soccer team, Real Madrid, although it has a cross-town rival to contend with named Atlético Madrid. You will see people in the Metro who dress up nice and carry Bibles going to church on Sunday mornings.

Madrileños (people from Madrid) also worry about the economy and get upset and blame the president for their problems. Many people are upset with the government. They are concerned about Gadafi and Libya to the point of sending fighter jets across the Mediterranean to support the rebel cause. They honk in traffic and can drive agressively. They love the outdoors and enjoy hiking, even skiing in the mountains surrounding the region. Speaking of skiing, they have malls as well, one of which has an indoor ski park. Certainly, our Midwest equivalent would be the Rockies.

Spaniards enjoy music of most kinds from jazz to classical to techno to contemporary. Just about all of the fine art institutions and music groups are supported by the government, no Sam Brownback free enterprise music foundations here. Most Spanish musicians I talk to say the greater public could care less about classical music and jazz. I had a conversation with a music critic who told me until very recently you could get a Spanish doctorate in history without ever studying music or knowing who Monteverdi was with the first great opera, Orfeo. That said, I see a greater esteem for the arts than I do in my own home. Maybe it is symptom of ¨the grass is greener on the other side¨ syndrome. Techno music is hugely popular, and is the music of choice in discotecas. Justin Bieber is imported with gusto, but I can´t say the same for Jay-Z and rap. He is replaced by a strong Arab sub-culture here with hookah bars (not to be confused with hooker) and Ragheb Alama.

That said, the contrasts are much clearer to point out. Spanish politicians do not debate. They insult. Here´s how a chamber discussion will show up on TV: The news anchor on the government station will quickly mention the given issue at hand before the scene scrolls to the chamber, kind of like previewing a scene before a movie. The speaker of the PP, which is the Spanish version of the Republicans, will say something blatantly derisive about the way President Zapatero is leading the country down the drain, to which his associates may or may not cheer and applaud. Then Zapatero will get up and speak into his own microphone (all the figureheads have their own microphone) and point to a statistic talking about how bad things were before his party took control. The izquierdistas will smile and nod and cheer even more loudly while Zapatero wags his finger in the air. The President always has the last word.

Madrileños also love to go on walks. There is a huge abundance of parks in the surrounding area. Since summer temperatures can top 40 degrees celsius now is the perfect time of year to take advantage of the cooler spring season. Being one of the largest cities in Western Europe makes Madrid a de facto tourist destination and you will often hear people speaking English on the streets. It is a melting pot city full of people from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Morocco, Yemen, and America.

My particular neighborhood is quite odd. Definitely outside of the main tourist center of the city, it has the ambiance of a 1979 urban metro area. Admittedly, I have no idea what that would feel like being in my mid-20s. But I find it odd and slightly alarming the way people dress. Teenagers love to wear Converse with suspenders. The pony tail is still cool for guys. And the mullet, oh my goodness, the mullet. That has got to be the single worst hair style known to mankind. There is one particular professor that dresses in a green jacket with gray pants and cat-eye glasses, something I swear he got the idea for wearing out of my mother´s high school yearbook. If it wasn´t for the locutorio (internet café), things truly would feel like a time machine in this neighborhood. Mind you, the center of Madrid is quite modern with all the trappings of a cosmopolitan city. But I´m willing to venture that there are many more districts like mine where all the neighbors go and buy from the butcher and the baker for their food, the locally owned hardware store for odds and ends, and the jewelry store for their new watch battery. Walmart does not exist here. That took me a while to get used to.

Spain simply has not developed as much or in the same ways as the United States. People still operate with an authoritarian attitude in the workplace. There is little concept of a teamwork atmosphere. Some people I know would lay that at the feet of Franco and the dictatorship he wielded over Spain for a large part of the 20th century. Spain simply was not open to change and outside influence in the sense of competitive innovation and creative designs. Maybe that is just a Silicon ValleyWall Street concept. Now Spaniards live in a world where 1 of 4 people are drawing a welfare check and 20% of the population is effectively unemployed in a largely socialist system.

Spain is also unique in the way it operates in regards to matters of faith. It is officially a Catholic state, but one has to look deeper than the name. Coming from the Bible belt of the Midwest, I see very little spiritual or faith based influence here in the city. As I said before, it´s not to say I don´t see people who may go to church or read a Bible on the Metro. What I see is that the vast majority of society operates in a paradigm in which God does not exist and Catholicism exists on a similar plane as Greek mythology is understood for Americans. Ralph Waldo Emerson said the religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next, and that is what I see happening here. People here are more interested in Dan Brown and the DaVinci code than going to mass on Sunday. We still have the Holy Week and Easter. We have school holidays in honor of a patron saint. That is where it ends and the rest of life begins.

The differences between life in the Midwest US and Madrid are not clearly understood at first. You are in a new city and trying to soak everything in, make sure you don´t get ripped off, working to learn the bus lines, streets, and Metro system that connects your part of the city to the rest. You speak the language badly and making it from point A to point B is a minor success. It is only after you spend the time to listen to the people and their concerns, understand the news broadcasts and relax in building friendships alongside a group of people with whom you have little more in common than being at the same place at the same time that you begin to understand life in all its intricate details. And in doing so, you begin to understand your own self a little bit more.

One thought on “Madrid and Midwest America: A Comparison and Contrast”

  1. How interesting, Jacob! Thank you for your insight. What you describe is similar to much of Europe. While each country, those on the continent and the those not, are different, there are still many similarities. Europe is post Christian and so while they know that there are churches and there is Jesus, it has no relevance in their lives.

    Our 3 exchange students from Europe reflect what you describe. It has been educating. I’m so thankful that you are getting to experience this. Thank you for your wonderful descriptions and insights.

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