Photo by Allan Baxter
Artillery Row

Don’t mock the Med mindset

What the Spanish have lost in international relevance, they make up in appreciating life

A common complaint and joke about the Spanish approach to life takes umbrage at the “mañana, mañana” mindset of supposedly putting off everything until tomorrow. Not to mention the solacious afternoon siesta at the expense of using your time more productively.

Increasingly, though, the joke seems to be on us in richer countries such as the UK, across northern Europe and in the US. While we call the shots on the international stage and have far higher levels of income, we’re increasingly miserable, neurotic, lonely and fed up with rocketing prices and constraints on our way of life. The Spanish, in contrast, while their country is arguably an international irrelevance since losing its empire centuries ago, at least seem to be enjoying and appreciating life and each other. 

Across from me in a bar in Seville recently, I watched a tableful of people with Down Syndrome joking among themselves as they knocked back cañas of beer. Other locals came up to their table to chat with them. Another time in Seville, an elegantly dressed lady passed the outdoor table at which I was sitting pushing a pram from which a very young girl with Down Syndrome gave me a beaming smile and energetic wave. 

Old people are not shunted off to care homes

Striking images. Where else have you seen those sorts of sights? The chances of seeing a very young child with Down Syndrome in the UK are slim given current abortion rates and legislation passed by the government under the cover of the pandemic facilitating mail order abortion pills

Then there’s the Spanish approach to older generations, which is much more inclusive and compassionate. Old people are not shunted off to care homes — or they are at least kept in the community for as long as possible. You constantly see old people tottering down the street supported on the arm of an adult child. 

In one bar I saw an old man exit the toilet holding his colostomy bag to re-join his middle-aged daughter at an outside table to finish their drinks. When they left and bid their farewells, one lady behind the bar blew the man a kiss. A few minutes later a particularly frail-looking old gentleman manoeuvred himself and his walking frame very slowly through the front door before the bar man helped him — basically lifted him — onto a bar stool where he sipped his caña contentedly.

When the Spanish gather outside at tables full of tapas and drinks, all generations are included. There’s a vivid sense of community and interaction that you just don’t see on a similar scale nowadays in the sophisticated metropolises of the UK and most other developed countries. In Spain you also see pre-teen girls and boys watching over prams containing baby siblings, assisting their mothers. Young boys and girls walk down the street holding each other’s hands. Spanish children act and play around like children should, innocent and carefree. 

In a small Spanish village, I asked a group of young teenagers gathered in a small park where there was a bar or café. Immediately — without any surliness or posturing — two boys hopped on their bicycles and beckoned me to follow them. As I followed, they peddled in a high gear to stay abreast of me. At the bar they waved goodbye and shifted into a more appropriate gear and peddled off. I am not suggesting no teens in the UK would react similarly. But it’s hard not to shake the impression that children in the UK — and especially young teenagers — are having to grow up too quickly and develop tough cynical edges that their Spanish peers are more shielded from. 

There is a clear abundance of style and beauty

As with the blowing of kisses at the bar, for the visitor to Spain such sights and experiences all conjure a strange sense of the familiar and yet also of the entirely distant and forgotten — the rest of us seemed to stop living in such a way at some point. Our societies shifted to a harsher model. 

It’s also in the physical realm of infrastructure that the Spanish seem to be getting things right. From village to city centre, there is such a clear abundance and application of style and beauty. You come across potted plants and hanging floral baskets on balconies and outside front doors. The streets are well maintained and clean, admittedly only until the next fiesta, but they are quickly tidied up. In city centres almost every Spanish bar or café offers a successful example of blending contemporary design with tradition and authenticity. 

Obviously, the Spanish have an advantage with their climate and endless sunshine. Everything tends to look better in the sun. But you notice the elegant, whimsical touch applied to just about anything. Even the signs outside homes warning of dogs are attractively done. A glazed-tile rendering showing the face of the guarding Rottweiler amid the blooming flowers around the driveway entrance remains a particularly striking example. 

The Spanish offer an example of a people still attuned to those essential life lessons about which Roger Scruton wrote in his book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction:

Kant also believed that natural beauty is a “symbol” of morality, and suggested that people who take a real interest in natural beauty thereby show that they possess the germ of a morally good disposition — of a ‘good will’.

Unfortunately, as Scruton notes, “Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as though it did not matter.”

In a similar vein, it was the eighteenth century Anglo-Irish statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke who noted in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” 

Having returned to the US since the Covid-19 travel ban was lifted, I can confirm that to a large degree — especially in its neglected cities — the country has never seemed less lovely. The UK is not in as bad a state, but as we import and get tangled up in ideologies coming out of the US, we risk following a similarly unlovely path.

The Spanish propensity for loveliness clearly doesn’t mean they have it all licked. As the writer Jan Morris noted in her seminal book Spain, the Spanish are particularly susceptible to patriotism and nationalistic tendencies and the darker elements that go with that. The Spanish are a people of absolutes, of blacks and whites. It is Spain that gave us the Inquisition, whose remorseless mindset can still be felt today in the form of cancel culture and corrosions of freedom of speech and thought. 

It is only since the death of Franco in 1975 that Spain has been a democracy. Noting that Spain has long been “obsessed with the unity of authority”, Morris was not entirely sure its democratic experiment was assured. During the pandemic, the Spanish population fell in lockstep with particularly draconian restrictions implemented by their government and barely uttered a word in protest. Mask wearing was ubiquitous. I am more confident that the British people would be less susceptible than the Spanish to the spell of an authoritarian figure who might emerge during the next “crisis” sold to us (though a genuine economic crisis that would test the democratic resolve of Spanish and British alike seems more possible these days). 

For now, though, while we savour the restored freedoms post-pandemic, the Spanish offer ample good examples to consider. And given the hot summer the UK is experiencing, as the BBC keeps reminding us with its continuous “heat crisis” coverage, we have an opportunity to tap into the Med mindset to alleviate the burn. So get the main tasks of the day done during the cooler morning, take it easier in the afternoon — perhaps even curl up for that afternoon nap — and then emerge revitalised into a balmy evening for what matters: mingling with people, offering an arm to an old person, watching children play and appreciating this beautiful life. 

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