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My Spanish Story: ‘I arrived in Cadaqués by accident but my return was quite purposeful’

Writer Jennifer Lutz explains why the peaceful seaside town she has made her home is now under threat.

My Spanish Story: 'I arrived in Cadaqués by accident but my return was quite purposeful'
Jennifer Lutz in Cadaqués. Photo: J Lutz

There is a village.  The beaches are beautiful.  The sea is magical.  And most people come, see, swim and return home with summer tans and summer stories and strappy shoes made for the Cadaqués stones, they will likely never walk on again.  But some are fortunate.  They are the ones who know where the air smells most fresh and most like sweet rotting grapes and most like mint leaves caught in a humid sea wind.  They are the ones who the village keeps: the artists and the writers and the travelers- lost and wandering, who stumbled onto a place that gave them a home.

But now their home is an endangered place, its rarity threatened by bulldozers and dollar signs, wanting to stamp their mark on a story that never invited them in. You cannot assault a place with houses that will never be homes, killing trees that have lived there longer than the life you’ve known.  You cannot obliterate history to occupy beauty.  


The beautiful seaside town of Cadaqués on the Costa Brava. Photo: AFP

But, this is exactly what Barcelona-based fashion business, Custo wants to do with their grand hotel and swank houses. Despite the moratorium set by the Catalan Parliament on new building, developers have begun clearing trees to make roads at Sa Guarda, a Unesco world heritage site in the Catalan village. The Parliament says it is up to the regional government to defend their home.  While we wait, bulldozers do not.  

In Cadaqués, an artist sits, bouncing his flip flop at the edge of his toes, his shorts always torn in places, his shirt reads, “I am Catalan.”  He sits at Bar Boia, next to the wife he never married who left Prague for Sweden and Sweden for Barcelona where she met the artist who she built a home with in Cadaqués, years before there was a road that cut into the mountain’s curves.  With them, sits their daughter whose first language was Czech and is now teaching that to her new son, whose father is Moroccan and speaks to him in Arabic. The sun touches the sea before touching their faces, softening years of travel and years of living. Next to them, a French woman, always in yellow, always in love.  Next to them a Swedish couple, he a writer, she an actress.  In their country they are famous, in Cadaqués, it does not matter.

At the Casino, The man who owns the boat that gives tours to Dali’s house, and never wears shoes, is sitting outside, drinking a beer and watching the water with a calm most will never know. Next to him is Marc, born in Cadaqués, always somewhere in the village, dreads of hair covering the chest a shirt does not. And then there is the Swiss man, who worked with the UN doing something important. No one knows what, it does not matter here.  Marsha is sitting at her table inside, near the window that is always open so the breeze can blow curls of her brown hair around blue eyes that seem to change to match the color of the Cadaqués sea.  She is old-Cadaqués, the town still whispers stories of her meetings with Dali.

There is a showing at Patrick’s gallery in the evening.  They will all be there, drinking wine and eating the cheese that Patrick always serves, never asking for anything in return.  We will stand in the street and drink and speak until it is time to eat, in each other’s homes and in the restaurants that stay open during winter, when Tramuntana rules the village.  The sea is always there, the sea is everything; everyone who knows Cadaqués knows this.  

The first time I arrived in Cadaqués was an accident, but my return was quite purposeful; an intent to live my own life, beyond the restrictions and suggestions of the world I'd previously known.  And if my first meeting with the Catalan village was a flash of romance, the second was nothing less.  As much as I tried  to see the rocky beaches and white-washed homes with sobriety, I was too enamored with the flooding of the sensual.  I still am. I’m not wrong.  


Old narrow streets in Cadaqués on the Costa Brava. Photo: AFP

Cadaqués gave me a home when I had no other; I am an American from Pittsburgh who has no right to spend her nights watching stars fall over the sea with new friends all around me.  You can love Cadaqués for the beauty; it is impossible not to.  But for me, the beauty of Cadaqués is more than white houses built into the mountainside and pink petals that fall on the narrow streets. For me, the beauty of Cadaqués is watching Tito play with his cat, while I eat the lemon cake he made and write about a village in a world I never dreamed of knowing.

Fashion designers want to bring hotels and houses that are not homes, to a village built for bare feet and bare skin and people who can know nothing but understand everything.  They want to make room where room does not want to be made, so visitors can wobble through stone streets on heels made for cities far from there.  They want to own what they do not take the time to know.

Maybe, this is just another story of another town fighting the inevitable development of million dollar homes that will stay more months empty than full. 

Or maybe, this can be a different story.  Two groups are currently fighting to protect the Cadaqués, SOS Costa Brava and Salvem l’Empordà. They ask the Custo brothers to reinvest in the preservation of Cadaqués; rather than its destruction.

Perhaps these brothers don’t know Cadaqués like I do, and cannot love it the same.  But perhaps, they have known some other place that they call home.  Perhaps, they too have been invited by strangers to stay a day and then a week and then a life.  Perhaps this can be a different story, the story of a village saved.

Jennifer Lutz is a travel writer and essayist who covers politics, culture and health. She has written for New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, Thrive Global, and a variety of peer-reviewed medical journals.  Jennifer studied creative writing at Columbia University in New York.  

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MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

READ MORE:

Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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