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LIFE IN SPAIN

OPINION: How my fiesta-loving neighbours became my world in Spain’s coronavirus lockdown

Deirdre Carney describes how she has come to treasure the solidarity of strangers - and their love of a good party - during quarantine in Madrid.

OPINION: How my fiesta-loving neighbours became my world in Spain's coronavirus lockdown
The Malasaña street staged an impromptu party. All photos: Deirdre Carney

The state of alarm began all over Spain, and like everyone else, I went from a fairly normal life – perhaps with a bit less touching and a bit more hand washing – to locked down in the center of Madrid.  And, also like many, I was completely alone. 

The first couple of days were a whirlwind – coming to terms with the new circumstances, figuring out what my days would be like, if I could keep my teaching job (no, apparently), how much wine and toilet paper did I actually need to stock up on? (Unlike back in my own country, the United States, everyone was very civilized about panic buying toilet paper here, I found.)

By the time the first night of clapping happened, the emotions of the past few days overwhelmed me as Madrid roared beyond my small street with thunderous applause. Thinking about what was coming for the people of this adopted city I love so much, for the hospital workers and first responders and everyone who would be affected, I clapped my hands with my neighbours and like many I’m sure, I cried.

The nightly ritual of going to my window and applauding the doctors and nurses and everyone else who were doing their greatest work of stocking the shelves, cleaning the streets, making food deliveries, became a tonic for me as well.

I did not know my neighbours before this, and though I do know a few of the ex-pats living around here, more than likely, we would not see each other. At the end of the applause, someone on the street around the corner always yells HASTA LA VICTORIA! And everyone else all up and down the street yells back, SIEMPRE!

Slowly, we all got to know each other. The nice lady right across from me was the first to smile at me and say goodnight when she went back in. I always waved at her small white dog as well. His name is Coco. She made me a hand sewn mask last week.


Coco the neighbour's dog looks over beneath bunting made from paper cups. Photo: Deirdre Carney

Then, the neighbour up a bit higher, also on his own, included me in his greetings as well. His name is Javi. Then  I met Leti, above me, another younger woman on her own, and she has a pretty cat named Maui who she holds up and out just enough for me to wave at too.

Day by day I grew more comfortable smiling and saying hello to everyone. As the weeks started to plod by, we began sincerely asking each other how we are doing – it is not the casual “how are you?” of normal life, of neighbours passing in the street – it is a serious and meaningful “how are you?”  We actually want to know if the person is alright.

The circle expanded. There are two guys down the road, who I knew from seeing them walk their three dogs. They also have two cats, Baloo and Dalí.


Dali the cat joins the balcony party. Photo: Deirdre Carney

A couple at the end of the road who have a small baby come out every night too, rocking their baby to the music. There is a very old lady who I can tell makes a special effort to make eye contact and greet us each individually and say a few words.

An American opera singer I met once or twice, started walking his white poodle, Tootsie, up the street every evening as the clapping died down, like clockwork. I wait at my window for them to come by so I can have a chat with him in English.

Lastly, an Irish guy I had known just in passing before, will stop at the window and have a quick word on his way to the store or back. These are the only humans I have face to face contact and conversation with now.

On Easter Sunday it was a beautiful sunny day. I decided to take out the recycling, stretch my legs a bit and go buy something interesting and unvirtuous to make for dinner.

I realized my neighbours all up and down our street were busy stringing balloons and bunting from their balconies and windows. They were throwing strings weighted with household objects at each other from across the street, and then would pull up the decorations that way.

The whole street was quite lively in fact, and several homeless people even milled around drinking their beers in the sunshine. This must be a Spanish Easter tradition I don’t know about, I thought to myself.

When I got back, even more people were finding objects to sling across the narrow street on strings. Someone strung up brightly colored plastic cups, another had some paper lanterns, and others just a ridiculous amount of balloons.

I wondered how they had all been so prepared for this. Was it a tradition, and so they had all that stuff ready? As I smiled up at them from below, Javi yelled down to see if I had anything to add, perhaps some balloons as well? Unfortunately, I did not. But I went up to my window anyway and had a cocktail and watched the action. It got very silly.

As far up the street as you could see, and partially up the next, everyone was on their balconies or leaning out windows watching and participating. It reminded me a bit of the beginning of the Muppet Show, with each individual Muppet in their own arch. There was music, but the most fun was stringing up as much as possible.

Each time someone wound up to throw something across, everyone was watching, making the uhhhhhhhh kind of sound of anticipation and if the person missed, awwwwwwww, and laughter. Try again. Sometimes this took quite a few goes which made everyone laugh all the more. When success was upon them, the whole street erupted into applause – one man took several very formal sweeping bows for his efforts. Even Dalí the orange cat, and Coco the little dog watched the action with intense interest from their respective balconies.

I finally had the chance to ask if all this was indeed an Easter tradition in Spain. Well, that made them all die laughing. No, they yelled gleefully, we just did this for no reason!

Leti explained it to me.  Someone earlier in the day had put a string of balloons up, way up the street, and that inspired someone else, and it just caught on. It was totally random and spontaneous. This of course made it all the more wonderful.


A father cradles in his child as the party gets started. Photo: Deirdre Carney

What I want to know, Javi wondered out loud to everyone, is why on earth so many people had this many balloons in their house. Just in case! The Madrileños are always ready for a party. 

We had an especially festive applause at 8 pm, with some singing and someone I couldn’t see playing the guitar. As the light faded, people decided to whip out any fairy lights they had on hand. One by one the balconies started to light up with colors and twinkles. I had Christmas lights!

My flatmate, who is back in the UK with her parents, had a huge pile of them packed away in storage in a box marked “Christmas”. I went to get them, and we strung them across the street, and from balcony to balcony.

People walking their dogs or delivering food would come around the corner and look up in surprise and yells of “que bonito!” echoed around. A few of the homeless guys hung out, enjoying how pretty the street was.

Someone finally asked me my name. I have an exceedingly difficult name to pronounce in Spanish, Deirdre. I can usually get a serviceable “Dee-dra”. But Spanish people often enjoy trying to say it, and so when I told my neighbours that night, they all gave it a shot. A dozen or so people were practicing saying it, yelling it back to me, and wanting to know if they were getting close. Another fun game!

People stayed in their windows until around 10pm. It had been quite a long party, considering. I am still so amazed at the Spanish spirit, and their ability to find a way to have fun, laugh, decorate something, and socialize.

I will refrain from over-explaining the obvious about how these difficult and even dangerous times can bring out and emphasize the small, wonderful moments of life. Study after study show that for humans to feel complete, to be mentally healthy, they need to have a strong community. Starting from strong bonds to partners, family and friends, to the wider world, we know that fulfillment comes from other people, not just from achievements and certainly not from buying more and more things.

The Spanish life expectancy is one of the highest in the world, and I really think a big part of it is this warmth, the ability to have fun doing silly things, the ease with which they break into singing together. We know their fiestas and their festivals are among the most amazing in the world, and that their social lives are very full and important to them. Community is a way of life. It’s one of the biggest reasons I moved here.


As the sun goes down the fairy lights came out. Photo: Deirdre Carney.

The knowledge that so many people are suffering right now across the planet, each in their own ways, each at different levels, but no less important than any other, adds to the daily struggle. I have a lovely flat, plenty of food, lots of socializing online, and so far, my nearest and dearest are fine.

I know I am one of the lucky ones. But when my world has shrunk down to so many hours by myself, when the longing for a human hug or a snuggle with a purry cat has become physical, almost tangible, this Spanish spirit of community is a balm on that ache.

And these neighbours, these people I have never touched, never kissed hello, never had a real conversation with, suddenly mean all the world to me.

Deirdre Carney is an American writer, photographer and English teacher living in Madrid. For more, follow her on Instagram and visit her website. 

UPDATE: One of the neighbours made a video about the experience. To watch click on arrow below: 

 

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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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