Monday, February 16, 2009

Madrid Blog--Caprichos I, Taxi Driver and Philosopher

In 1799, Francisco Goya published a series of 80 prints titled “Caprichos.” Per the Diario de Madrid, the subject matter was chosen from

"... the multitude of follies and mistakes common in every civil society and from the vulgar prejudices and lies authorized by custom, ignorance or self-interest, those that he has thought most fit to furnish material for ridicule, and at the same time to exercise the artist’s imagination..."

The fact that I don’t drive in Madrid has altered my perceptions in daily life. Whereas, in Atlanta, the car provided a little climatized bubble transporting me, my music, my drive-through Starbucks decaf mocha and my progeny from one place to another; here I walk, take taxis, buses and the metro. This brings me into contact with all kinds of people, none of them from any exalted social, political or business plane. They do, however, have plenty to say.

Taxi Driver and Philosopher

Taxis in Madrid are plentiful, reasonably priced and most often driven by native Spaniards who know their way around. While few of them speak English, I will note that, I have never had a driver who didn’t speak Spanish. In the US, in contrast, English-speaking has been hit or miss the last few times I’ve taken a taxi there.

The Dueña claims that most taxi drivers she talks to belong to the Partido Popular (Spain’s conservative party). I am not sure I can generalize their political affiliations. What is true is that, in Spain, the taxi driver is an independent business owner, who most likely owns his own car and pays a large sum for his taxi license--around 100,000 euros, some part of which can be borrowed-- if I remember correctly.

Mostly, they listen to music or talk radio. This is not optional or tailored to the passenger’s preferences. The talk radio tends to fall into three categories, in descending order of popularity 1) “Futbol” (soccer) coverage, either live, if there’s a match, or, failing that, philosophical discussions of the goings on of various teams. In Madrid, that is almost always Real Madrid (pronounced “Ray-al” and meaning “royal”) 2) radio shows focusing on various depressing social themes such as a) our social values are falling apart—they young are no longer polite or b) unemployment—its devastating consequences or 3) “variety show” talk radio—jokes such as two Mexican prostitutes are talking. One of them asks the other what she asked Santa Claus for, for Christmas. The other one replies: “The usual--500 pesos plus the hotel room” or a whole episode devoted to the devastating consequences of cellulitis.

Occasionally I get one who’s in the mood to talk.

He notes that I am a foreigner and asks me what I do. I say that I am retired after selling my business two years earlier. I ask what the entrepreneurial climate is like in Spain.

“Entrepreneurial climate? Take fifty euros, bury them under a tree. Know what you get?”
“Señora, you need to understand that Spain is a Catholic country. It’s not like the protestant, Anglo-Saxon countries where work gives you some kind of value. You know what work is according to the Catholic interpretation of the Bible?”
“A punishment from God.”
I mention that I read an article in the Financial Times, that the British are complaining because a Spanish conglomerate bought up their airports and has drastically reduced the seating in order to make room for more shops.
“Well, that’s the first time I ever heard of us owning anything of significance abroad.”

He points out the French ambassador’s residence as we are driving through the city. I thank him, but tell him I have never met the French ambassador, couldn’t tell you what his name is and that my only dealing with the French government abroad involves low-level civil “servants.”
He continues. “They say that the French ambassador was the mistress of Queen Isabel II of Spain and that he fathered, Alfonso XII. Well somebody had to. Her husband (her double-first cousin, Francisco de Asís de Borbón) was a homosexual.”
“Well I guess you got your fill of French kings anyway with Pepe Botella (the brother of Napoleon I and ruler of Spain during the French Empire) and later the Borbónes.
He says something else about the monarchy that I can’t remember.
I ask: “Were there any good kings or queens?”
He responds: “No, in my mind, they were all bad. Do you know why we have a king now?”
“Because Franco gave us a king, that’s why. He didn’t have a son and was too machista to make his daughter his successor. He never asked the Spanish people whether this was what they wanted.”

We pass a Starbucks.
He tells me: “When Starbucks first came to Spain, I said to myself, there is no way these stores will be a success. Who ever heard of a store that only sells coffee, where you can’t smoke a cigarette or order an alcoholic drink? It doesn’t make sense to us, you know. Why would you want to drink your coffee out of a cardboard cup and take it away, in the street. When we drink coffee, this should come in real ceramic cup, something that has weight to it. Plus, isn’t the point of drinking coffee, to sit down, linger and take a break? Hand it to the Americans to turn the coffee break into one more part of the to-go lifestyle.”


fiona said...

I love the comment from the taxi driver about work being a punishment from God. It is true that people here work to live, as opposed to live to work.

I can't understand why Starbucks still has several shops open in Madrd. In London, in the financial district, the branch near my work churned out hundreds of cups an hour for bleary-eyed City workers. Here, I have never had more than one person in front of me, or behind me, in line for overpriced coffee. Rents are lower, true, and the tourist hot spots in spain guarantee some clientele for Starbucks from home-sick Americans. And it's nice to have the smoke-free environment. But I wouldn't be surprised if several branches shut in the next year. I hope it's not the one next to my office.

Nathalie said...

Hey Fiona, I don't really see what Starbucks has to offer in Spain, unless they successfully got people to like the very milky sugared drinks they whip up or the to-go-cup lifestyle.

I like my decaf cortados and chocolate and churros in the bars here just fine, although greater cleanliness and a smoke-free environment might improve matters...