The New New Spain

The recession hits Barcelona, where Margaret Plana is just beginning her new job in a dress shop.


Until today I’ve been dealing just fine with the crisis. Well, perhaps not completely fine, but I’ve accepted the new circumstances. I’ll no longer make money translating web pages or designing postmodern postcards or editing text for rambling museum exhibitions. I’ll no longer eat almost every meal out or get a full pedicure for 35 euros every three weeks in the summer months.

Now I’ll work at a dress shop Monday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. I’ll eat my lunch from a Tupperware container, sitting on the curb next to Mercè whose lunch is always a cigarette and a ham sandwich. Now I’ll eat dinner standing up in my kitchen, staring at my husband hunched over the computer, figuring out our budget on an Excel spreadsheet.

On the bright side, I’ll be thinner than ever before. And working at the dress shop won’t really be that bad. The days will go by quickly and sometimes I’ll get the chance to study the pretty patterns on the fabric cover of the mannequins as I change their clothes.

Being fortunate in many ways myself, I won’t be jealous of the women who still have money to buy dresses. Some will be French or Argentine. Others will be Spanish, but still able to pay 200 euros for a nicely made dress, cut to make anyone’s waist look tiny.

I won’t be bothered by these women because even they are kind and careful now. Measured in their consumption. Saying, under their breath, or to their companion, that it really is a lot of money, but better to buy one nice item than five at Zara. Today, one woman, with a pinched nose and bright blue eyes, will turn to me and say, “It’s really buying all those cheap clothes from China that got us into this mess, isn’t it?”

I’ll nod in agreement because it is understood that this is a collective mess, that we all lived beyond our means.

I’ll smooth the pile of dresses the woman has discarded, and begin to count my blessings, such as the fact that I don’t work for Zara, or that I wasn’t held up at knifepoint last Wednesday, like Mercè was as she was closing the dress shop.

The man, who apparently was very tall but very thin, slipped the knife into Mercè’s mouth gently. There was just a little blood at the right corner of her plump lip when I walked into the emergency room. Mercè looked prettier than ever there, in the fluorescent light, a policeman’s jacket draped over her narrow shoulders. The policeman looked like holy hell.

Today, Tuesday, is Mercè’s first day back to work and she seems fine. We’re just lucky to have jobs, she says as she pulls some fat off her ham. I click my Tupperware shut and think, just for a second, of my husband at home, of his slumped shoulders, of him not getting paid month after month, and of his bosses in their white hardhats, year after year, shaking hands and stuffing crisp Euro bills in envelopes and how that woman had said it was really all of our fault for buying things from China.

Mercè stands up and asks if she looks alright, if there are any noticeable dark circles under her eyes. I smile and say you look divine.

I leave work at nine on the dot, and head home, walking through Plaça Reial, which is full of Chelsea soccer fans, drunk and red-faced and falling into me.

I was okay until today, until I saw Peter at the corner of Plaça Reial and Carrer Ferran, staring sadly at the British. Peter from Nigeria who is fifty-some-years old and moved to Spain in 1993, a year after the Barcelona Olympics. He owns the African grocery store in our neighborhood and two other stores in the suburbs. Or at least he used to. He speaks an excellent Catalan with certain English vowel sounds, just like me. What, I wonder, is he doing in a security guard uniform, patrolling an Irish bar on stinky Carrer Ferran? He always parks his navy blue Volvo sedan in front of our building, greets all the old ladies, checks in on his employees, and brags to anyone who will listen about his son who’s studying to be a doctor, a surgeon I think. I guess, in reality, I haven’t seen him or his car on our street for months.

I’ve been okay with the crisis until today when I did see Peter. Until I saw him and just kept walking, unable to say hello, pushing my way through the sea of soccer fans, unable to admit to myself, or to Peter, or to my husband, or to Mercè, or even to that tired boy-faced policeman, that absolutely everything has changed.

Photo courtesy of Adam Fowler

Margaret Plana has lived and worked in Barcelona, Spain since June of 2000. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, she is in the midst of trying to complete a novel and plans to stay in the Mediterranean despite its failings.