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Tradition: Holding Spain Back or Holding it Together?

Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has warned that the country is in “extreme difficulty”.  The statistics for Spain are shocking, even in a world becoming used to terrible economic data.  According to Eurostat, 5 million of the 17 million unemployed across the euro zone, are in Spain.  The unemployment rate here, at 24.3% is the highest in Europe (yes, higher even than Greece).  But even more socially devastating is the 50.5% unemployment among the under 25s.

Some argue that Spain’s enduring traditions, many of which I’ve written about in this blog, are contributing to their economic woes by taking too many working days out of the year.  During Semana Santa, for example, cities and towns stop functioning as normal and the streets are gridlocked for a week with parades and celebrations.  If it was only Holy Week, perhaps it wouldn’t have a significant effect on the economy, but in Spain, and particularly Andalucia in the south, one lengthy fiesta follows another.  Just two weeks after Holy Week in Seville, there is another full week of festivities for the annual Feria, when the whole city decamps to a fairground south of the river to party night and day.  Seville, as ever, does it bigger and better than anyone else, but every town and city has its own festival.  In May comes the annual pilgrimage of El Rocio; half party, half religious festival, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over Spain spend up to 4 days travelling to a small town in Huelva Province to pay homage to a statue of the Virgin Mary. 

On the positive side, all of this local colour draws much-needed tourist visitors to the country.  Andalucia, the most populous and impoverished region of Spain, which includes the Costa del Sol as well as being the home of flamenco, bullfights and the biggest and best festivals, has seen an increase of 10.4% in foreign visitors in the last year (and 8.1% nationwide).  Tourism is the only growth industry in Spain.  By contrast, the number of people unemployed nationally in the devastated construction sector is now higher than the number employed in it.  The various festivals also create employment directly, not just in the seasonal service industries, but for craftsmen whose products make an essential contribution to the festivities: from silversmiths and embroiderers to candle makers and florists, as well as the tailors who make the penitents’ robes and the party flamenco dresses.

On the downside, productivity is lower in Spain than anywhere in the EU, with the exception of Greece and Portugal, and it’s not only due to the frequent festivals.  As the European Working Conditions Observatory (EWCO) tactfully puts it “In Spain, official working hours differ from actual working hours. This imbalance is probably due to cultural patterns that are different to those of other countries.”   The long and late lunch break (usually 3pm to 5pm) doesn’t coincide with timings in the rest of Europe, making it difficult for businesses to communicate with other European countries.  Because of the heat (especially in the south), workers start the day early, but often don’t return to work after leaving for lunch at 3pm, especially during the summer.  The heat is punishing and it is understandable for manual workers, but less so for office employees, who have air conditioning.

Expats – here for the quality of life

The traditional lifestyle is bad for productivity, but great for morale.  Spain comes second out of 10 European countries in the uSwitch Quality of Life Index, while the UK is bottom.  Spain has the most holidays, the most sunshine and highest life expectancy – no wonder it’s also by far the top choice for Brits considering emigration within the EU.  While record numbers of young Spaniards are flocking to the UK looking for jobs, the number of Brits moving to Spain is still increasing year on year.

It is evident that morale is also sustained by the strength of tradition here.  In April, for example, after a week which included a general strike opposing labour reforms and an austerity budget, people put their worries aside to immerse themselves enthusiastically in Semana Santa.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s hard to imagine the atmosphere, with every street filled with tens of thousands of good natured people, united in their passion for this custom – the closest British equivalent I can think of is the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations at the Mall.  It’s impressive that such ceremonies have survived little changed in Spain over centuries, and are still embraced wholeheartedly by people of all ages.  The lack of cynicism is striking.  And it’s not only the rituals and fiestas which unite communities in the face of hardship, but the maintenance of traditional extended families and networks of friends who support each other in real practical ways, as well as providing emotional sustenance.

Dancing in the streets – even protests turn into family fun days out in Seville

It may appear old-fashioned while much of the western world is moving towards modern uniformity – but the solid structures of tradition seem to be holding together a society that, in the current harsh economic circumstances, you might expect to see collapsing.  Tradition in all its guises is both Spain’s strength and its weakness. Reform is inevitable and necessary in the face of the catastrophic economic situation, but it will be a struggle for the government to change a culture written into the country’s DNA – and I will join the Spanish in mourning its passing if they succeed.

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Fabulous Feria

It’s like a week-long wedding celebration, only better, because you can swap venues at will – as soon as you tire of one crowd, you can move on to another.  And everyone gets to wear the beautiful dress, not just the bride!

It’s extraordinary how Seville society throws itself into this annual event – the Feria de Abril – with unrestrained excitement and glee.  The venues are hundreds of individual stripy tents called casetas, laid out in streets which are each named after a Sevillian bullfighter.  The casetas, owned by families or groups of friends, are decorated as a home from home; with net curtains, paintings and mirrors on the walls and traditional wooden furniture painted with flowers and wildlife.  At the back, through a doorway, you find a less adorned space with a full-length bar serving drinks and tapas – here the men tend to hang out, away from all the frills.

Inside a caseta

During the day, horses and carriages share the streets with promenaders on foot.  Feria originated as a gypsy horse and cattle fair in the 19th century and although it’s morphed into a week-long party, with the only trade in food and drink, people still come on horseback in traditional costume.  The horses ‘park’ in rows facing the casetas, while their riders receive drinks from friends and relatives.  The dress of the horsemen and women is a sober grey with black or grey hats, a stark contrast with the flamenco dresses in every colour imaginable, which surround them in the streets – copied from the original gypsy women who came to the fair

Everyone is dressed up, from the tiniest tots, and the little girls look wonderful in their miniature flamenco dresses – but I wasn’t sure about it for myself.  I thought I’d feel a bit foolish and out of place in the Spanish costume: as a pale-faced blonde I’m an obvious ‘guiri’ – a foreigner who stands out like a sore thumb.  I spent one day in normal clothes and the second day dared to wear a beautiful red flamenco dress.  It felt fabulous!  And the Sevillians were very kind and pleased I was joining in, rather than scornful as I’d feared.

We were very lucky to have been invited to a friend’s caseta and that was our passport to several others.  The very generous, warm Sevillian people we met there insisted we accompany them to their own casetas and we ended up doing the caseta equivalent of a pub crawl around the Feria.  We were plied with drink – mainly rebujitos, a mix of Manzanilla sherry and lemonade, but also beer, mojitos or wine – and food in the form of a wide variety of delicious tapas.  Embarrassingly, no one would let us pay.

Dancing Sevillanas - the little girls were far better than me!

Feeling the part in my dress, I was persuaded to try the Sevillana traditional dance – a kind of flamenco with very complicated arm and foot movements, at which I was laughably hopeless, but we had great fun attempting it.  While a live band plays the sevillanas and women and girls take turns to dance in the small crowded space of the caseta (very few men attempt it), the older people sit around the edges watching and judging.  As a guiri I was excused, but they are unforgiving of natives who don’t get it right, and muttered criticisms could be heard during a lull in the music, much to my amusement and my friends’ ire.  Sevillian women seem to have the dance in their blood though, and even the smallest children move instinctively to the beat – while I couldn’t even understand the complicated clapping at the beginning…

Leave it to the experts...

People complain that Feria isn’t a place for outsiders and it’s true that the main action takes place in the hundreds of little private parties where locals meet their friends and families and exchange hospitality.  Although the fronts of the casetas are open, so you can get a tantalising glimpse of what’s going on inside (heaven for nosey parkers), there’s usually a security guard standing at the entrance so you need to be able to mention the name of someone who invited you.  I have been known to blag my way in, but you do need quite a bit of chutzpah to run the gauntlet.  There are large public casetas run by the municipality and political parties, which are open to everyone, but to be honest they are pretty soulless, huge tents with catering tables and plastic chairs and not a very attractive place to hang out. 

Even as a tourist though, it’s well worth going to see, especially during the day with all of the horses and carriages and beautiful dresses in the streets.  The horses have to leave the Feria grounds by 8pm and then a clean-up operation takes place, with giant hose-pipes, so that the streets are waterlogged with liquidised horse manure!  You have to tiptoe around for a while, lifting the heavy skirts of your flamenco dress above the ordure, reminding us of the roots of this extraordinary event.

After the clean-up - tiptoeing through the liquid manure...

I’ve written about night time Feria for The Guardian newspaper: you can read my article here if interested – http://bit.ly/GuardianFeria]

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