My trip to Spain: June and July, 2012.
Sent to Barcelona on leave after months on the Aragon front in 1936, Orwell found a city abruptly changed: “When I first reached Barcelona I thought it a town where class distinctions and great difference of wealth hardly existed. Certainly that was what it looked like. ‘Smart’ clothes were an abnormality, nobody cringed or took tips, waiters and flower-men and bootblacks looked you in the eye and called you ‘comrade’.”
A few months later, Orwell writes, “Now things were returning to normal. The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals, while for the working-class population food-prices had jumped enormously without any corresponding rise in wages. Apart from the expensiveness of everything, there were recurrent shortages of this and that, which, of course, always hit the poor rather than the rich…Previously in Barcelona I had been struck by the absence of beggars; now there were quantities of them. Outside the delicatessen shops at the top of the Ramblas gangs of barefooted children were always waiting to swarm around anyone who came out and clamor for scraps of food….”
There are no beggars and no barefooted children today in this purified waterfront neighborhood, built for the 1992 Olympic games, which have spurred huge arenas and sky scrapers in other Spanish towns hoping to be so honored; in fact the Olympic dream seems to be the machine that alters everything particular to a country into something that resembles the American nightmare—perpetual traffic, huge buildings sealed and air-conditioned (and this in Spain where, centuries ago, interior courtyards, marble floors, and high open windows insured cool currents of air), and, of course, my countrymen, especially the large, loud middle-aged men who seem almost to caricature themselves with their brand-name sunglasses and dim, despairing wives.
Orwell knew, as we all know now, that there can be no revolution in a capitalist society, and certainly Spain is an example of the time-worn theory that keeps us all in our places.
But there is one difference, here as in all the parts of Spain I’ve visited: the unquestioned confidence of older people, men and women alike, who address strangers with conviction when they see them transgressing.
In Cordoba, our guide roundly upbraided a man towing a handcart backwards down a crowded sidewalk, then reminded a waiter at a restaurant where service was unacceptable slow that this is bad for tourism—Spain’s only flourishing industry. In the Gaudi park here in Barcelona, an older woman went around warning tourists off the edges of the balustrades, where they were posing for photos, in contrast to the elderly park attendant who smilingly repeated the same warnings from the comfort of his folding chair. He was ignored; the woman, whose tone was that of a mother to misbehaving toddlers, was reluctantly obeyed.
Which seems to prove that the only possible revolution is internal, the bloodless one that leads us to take responsibility for the civic failures that surround us.