Strange Economies

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I sit in Granada’s Plaza Nuevo, trying to outlast a bad breakfast decision, just watching. It’s probably one o’clock, and things haven’t quite gotten started yet. The cafe tables are set out, but only a few are filled. There’s a lot of foot traffic, but I mostly see tourists. Any locals passing through likely fade into the scenery.

I sit on a bench towards the edge of plaza, partially shaded by a tree, intentionally facing nothing and no one in particular. Looking unfriendly and disinterested is a defense mechanism. Near me but at the center of the square, some people drag a few cafe chairs into an open space and a set up a small square platform. There are four of them, one dressed in a ruffled shirt with a tight vest, black pants, and dance shoes. He begins stomping on the platform while the others clap and bang. Once they have the attention of tourists in passing, they begin their music and dancing show.

Next to me, a black man appears with a dirty sheet and a bag of goods. I say “black” because it seems relevant to the dynamics of the social order. He thoughtfully arranges his assortment of ugly scarves, cheap neon-colored flamenco-style fans, and packages of rubber bands. Once he’s content with his presentation, he leans on a nearby lamppost and waits for business. Another man carries boxes of cheap sunglasses, with various other merchandise hanging off the sides — string bracelets, key chains, and whatever else — waving them at tourists, but everyone shoos him away. He makes his way over to the scarf seller and they greet each other warmly. I guess they’re a tight circuit.

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A dancer from the flamenco bar across the way wanders the plaza, staring at the faces of the tourists to gauge approachability and language preference. She asks the guys next to me if they like flamenco. They say no, but she is not deterred. She stays for another three minutes introducing herself, giving them a discount card for her show tonight, and encouraging them to come and ask for her. They’re polite.

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The cafe manager demands the chairs be returned to the tables, so the performers are forced to relocate to a bench.

The flamenco dancer apparently speaks several languages, but waves off the African guys. They’re in competition for the same limited resources, and are clearly in different social strata. They are not friends.

I can’t imagine who would buy any of this stuff, yet the guys don’t strike me as malnourished or miserable in any way. And I wonder how much the performers can make once they split their earnings four ways. Do they even need the girl who bangs on a box? Maybe the singer could do that part too.

Another guy sets up his sheet with hand bags and fans.

A tour group enters the square and the sunglasses guy charges towards them. Unsuccessfully.

The seller nearest me seems friendly and we end up chatting. He speaks French to me and I reply in broken Spanish. He came from Senegal to France but left for Spain when his papers came into question. He likes Granada because it’s multicultural and will likely stay. Peddling junk no one wants in Granada is better than the alternative.

This is just one scene in one place, but Spain’s weird economies are visible everywhere. In Barcelona, you have to watch out for the guys pushing stolen shopping carts full of (likely stolen) various items: metal rods, sheet metal, car parts, old telephones, computer hardware. In Granada these guys somehow all have the same different vehicle, something between a rickshaw and a wheelbarrow. No idea where they could have come from.

My host in Xàtiva called herself an “architect in crisis.” What this meant for me is that she and her friends had ample time for showing me around and taking me on hikes during the day. What it meant for them is that they have to go back to school to train for new professions in hopes that that investment pans out. This scene wasn’t unfamiliar to me.

In Cordoba on an all but deserted alley along the Cathedral I was followed and threatened by a woman, toddler in tow.

Málaga was the worst. Every city has it’s poor. And I found people on the sidewalks in every city with handwritten signs describing their misfortunes. But only in Málaga did I see streets lined with well-dressed people who struck me as wildly out of place asking for money. Men in suits, women my age with written pleas for their children, maybe every twenty yards. To accentuate the absurdity of the scene, Málaga happened to be hosting a film festival while I was there, and the main pedestrian boulevards had been lined with red carpets for the occasion.

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Sevilla has, what I call, its Rosemary Women, women who with varying degrees of aggression offer you sprigs of rosemary and then request a “donation.” They kind of work in gangs, cornering distracted tourists.

While I charged my phone in a Starbucks a kid, roughly 15 I’d guess, wandered in and began asking people for money. His requests escalated in forcefulness until he was noticed by the manager. It seemed he’d been thrown out before. He refused to budge. She tried to corral him. He resisted, she pushed, he pushed back. A customer got involved. The police were called and he bolted. The police arrived and everyone was questioned nonetheless.

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I’d joked that it’s easy to starve to death in Spain if you don’t pay attention to siesta time. You must eat before some given time (which I still haven’t exactly nailed down) or you wait until evening. But even after I began paying attention, I was still dismayed by the number of shuttered storefronts at any given time, thinking this must be a seriously complex system of opening and closing times. It took me a while to consider the possibility that most stores don’t actually open, and it could just always look like the siesta break in some areas.>

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