It may have been a family trip that took me to Europe, but the lessons of entrepreneurship kept peeking through. Since my last trip to the Mediterranean took me to Israel, it was hard not to compare the endless “For Sale” and “To Rent” signs in Spain and France – not to mention the abandoned construction sites vs the booming Israeli economy where tech giants like Microsoft & Intel plaster their names everywhere as a way to hire engineers.
As a tourist, Spain was a delight. People were friendly, helpful, beautifully mannered and the cities clean and moderately priced (cheap Spain is long gone – thanks to the Euro but a bargain compared to France and Switzerland). But as an entrepreneur who wonders how countries reinvent themselves in the new economy, peering into the culture is endlessly fascinating and there are surprising lessons to be learned.
In France, the talk was about taxing millionaires and the scandal over former President Sarkozy’s apparent money-grubbing from the L’Oreal heiress (see 10 richest list below). In Southern Spain, it was about finding new tourists and the spectacle of Semana Santa – Easter Week. In Israel, it was Obama’s visit and the backlash over the quantity of multinational jobs that actually forced a newspaper to calm down the kvetchers. Southern Europe should have this problem.
Is it possible that what binds Spain culturally may also be what holds it back? What has long conflicted Spaniards may also be what holds the most promise, economically. I am saying this after spending days viewing the Easter parades, which are a mass wonder. Here people vie to join brotherhoods and dress like grand wizards of the KKK, endlessly hauling around massive tronos, precious metal-encrusted altars with Jesus or Mary, in a swaying lockstep with well-rehearsed processional music to follow. You get to notice that people in these groups seem to stand several inches taller than the spectators, suggesting an elite group of some kind. I’m guessing taller is better if you want to go far in Spain. In any case, these multiple processions hold the nation in a thrall as it attracts visitors from all over Spain and fills TVs with wraparound coverage. As for the dining that followed – it is a bit of challenge to have anything other than tapas, ham or chorizo.
[Note - only Americans get the chill when they see the conical capirote and masks which are a pre-medieval tradition allowing the penitents to hide their identities. Leave it to the USA to take the penitence right of that ceremony!]
Spain is a very convivial country and once the solemnity of the marches had passed, the fascinating old streets with tiny bars and restaurants lining them erupted in conversation. When we spent time chatting with people both in Paris and the South of Spain, everyone we met had a company job and more often than not, with some branch of the government. With as many as 50% of the youth unemployed in Spain, and France suffering a similar, though less extreme recession, we were obviously hanging with the winners.
Part two of this series will be posted next week on Friday, June 7th.