On a warm autumn afternoon a few years ago, a catenary of events forever shaped my impression of the new Spain. I had just settled into a sunny little room in a pension only a stone’s throw from the Parliament in the heart of downtown Madrid, and without a moment to lose, I asked Miguel, a son of the couple who served as the pension’s live-in managers, for directions to the nearest laundromat. “Go to the intersection of Calle León and Calle de Cervantes,” he said. “There’s a place there that’s clean and quiet, and it’s just a few blocks south, a quick walk. You’ll like it.”
Following his advice, I strolled over with a dufflebag full of clothes, sorted everything into a row of washers, and then stepped out into the narrow cobblestone street to drink a soda and watch the motorbikers, fruit vendors, and women hanging laundry from their windows. I gazed at the wall of a tall building across the way and noticed an elegant bust in side profile trimmed with an ornate wreath, some weapons and armor, a few writing quills, and a text. Beneath all of this, a pronouncement read, “Here lived and died Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, whose genius is admired throughout the world. Died in 1616.”
Stunned, I read the words over and over again until the numbing surprise of coincidence gave way to the cool revelation of experience. I reanimated the life of probably the finest writer of the Shakespeare era other than Shakespeare himself, the father of the novel, the man born and raised in that very district, the historic Alcalá de Henares, the man who fled Spain due to an ill-fated duel, who was captured by Berber pirates and imprisoned for ten years, who escaped, made his way back to Spain, was imprisoned again in Sevilla for gambling debts, returned to Madrid, managed to write The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight Errant Don Quixote of the Mancha, and then died near the very spot where I now stood close to 400 years later.
I finished my clothes, took them back to the pension, and decided to visit a popular site that features two prominent bronzes of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on horseback with a stone sculpture of Cervantes sitting above and behind them and looking down on his creations. I chose a circuitous route, the Gran Vía, a Manhattanesque, fashionable thoroughfare also near the heart of Madrid, a stylish main drag supposedly in the new grand European tradition. I entered the Gran Vía through a side street. Once I gained the avenue, the first thing I saw looming above me was a gaudy seventy-foot billboard advertising The Hangover.
One has to wonder what Cervantes might have thought about this jarring anomaly. In a certain sense, The Hangover’s main characters are the Dulcineas of Western society, the hostile peasants taunting what’s left of convention and tradition. But they also symbolize a form of fecklessness that in short order disturbs as much as it amuses, and with their arrival on the Iberian Peninsula, they have become, like it or not, a few of many American ambassadors delivering a different ontology to the new Spain. Granted, cultural evolution is necessarily as organic as language and arguably more difficult to define. Who with certainty can define any nation’s manifestations of high culture, folk culture, mass culture, subcultures, or countercultures, much less attempt a more catholic sketch of all these elements forever working harmoniously together and discordantly against each other in equal measure? The task is daunting, if not impossible.
Of greater significance is the question of how Spaniards themselves view the explosive transformations taking place around them now that they, too, are children of the Information Age, governed by the dictates of a homogeneous global economy. What do they see when they look in their mirrors, at their children, and over the rows of Levi blue jeans lining the shelves of El Corte Inglés? Are they staring into the eyes of the American suburb? It’s never easy to live in another person’s skin. But it’s also true that Spanish culture is still, for the time being, disarmingly unique to the American sensibility and worth examining before it’s too late given that an ever-expanding global economy appears to be blurring the distinctions. Although wealth, comfort, and civil economic and cultural intercourse are all desirable 21st-century characteristics, for some, the old Spain—that bloody, hungry, graceful, charming, long-suffering, and proud isolato that many of us barely knew—will be missed.
Granted, conversations like this can’t even begin to approach the substance of the issue given that the next several generations will usher in new technologies and sociological developments that even our finest current thinkers might not be able to imagine. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if, over the next few decades, one or perhaps two profound historical events completely alter our vision of how we’ve always understood ourselves in relation to each other and the universe around us. Culture is a protean organism. It shape-shifts into both stunning and grotesque forms, and we’re left merely to study the mutations and do with them what we can, for better or worse.
I wish Spain the best. It’s a beautiful country full of remarkable people. They’ve fashioned a singularly humane constitution and worked sedulously to abide by it. I fully expect them to overcome the challenges they face in the European Union. And in terms of retaining culture, Europeans generally own a special advantage—much of the continent is like an imposing open-air museum, as well as a confederacy of actual museums that define for us the soul of mankind. Go anywhere in Spain and you’ll be offered reminders of what remarkable animals we can be, whether these reminders be the prehistoric cave paintings at Altamira, the Alhambra in Granada, the Sevilla Cathedral, the Mezquita in Córdoba, or those tortured phantoms, Goya’s final works that hang darkly and discreetly in a somber corner of the Prado.
But another phantom that returns me again to the Gran Vía paints a different picture of the future, one we all know but tend to ignore. Strolling through a preoccupied crowd of mostly businessmen and -women one day, I came upon a man curled up on the sidewalk. He was filthy, and his clothes were rotting off of his body. On his knee rested a soggy cardboard sign that read, “I am sick and I live in the street. Help.” He was emaciated and covered from head to toe with violent purple welts. I put five euros in a cup that sat a foot from his head and offered a quiet greeting. He couldn’t speak because of the pain and couldn’t open his eyes because every ounce of his energy was marshaled toward fighting the agony. Still, he refused to moan, refused to surrender, and with the release of each convulsion came a look of relieved accomplishment. I moved on down the sidewalk twenty feet or so, then turned and looked back. A parade of people steered clear of him for several minutes. Finally, a handsome woman in a bright green power dress halted in front of him, tossed a few coins into his cup, chirped “Hello” as if greeting a passing colleague during the morning office rounds, and walked on, along with everyone else.