Bad weather in Spain

Will Hodges sends a postcard from Madrid, a city in the midst of an economic crisis

As the saying goes, the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. Except when I'm visiting, when it falls mainly on Madrid. I'm here in Spain's capital city for five days visiting friends, and it's lashing it down.

The weather, I'm told, is particularly spiteful for April, a time when Madrileños, as the city's residents refer to themselves, would normally be enjoying a coffee or glass of beer in the sunshine. Instead, the cafés and bars around La Plaza Major - Madrid's central square - are largely empty, despite this being a key holiday period. And it's not just the weather keeping customers away. Spain is in the grip of a major economic funk - "la crisis", as it's known to locals - with unemployment having risen to almost 23 per cent in recent weeks.

The effect of the country's stuttering job market has brought Madrid, usually the most vibrant of cities, to its knees. Indeed, the word on the lips of everyone I meet during my time here is "el paro" - the colloquial term for unemployment which comes from the verb "parar" - meaning to stop.

My friend Barbara, an interpreter with two degrees and several years of experience, has been out of work since January. The social programme with which she had been working - assisting immigrants in the city's hospitals - was shelved in the latest round of government spending cuts. As is the case for an increasing number of Spain's young people, Barbara is weighing up her options abroad, with London, the US and Brazil among her potential destinations. "I love Madrid", she tells me, "but things are getting worse and I can't afford to live here without the prospect of a job. The rent on my apartment is €500 a month."

While a heartbreaking decision, at least she'll be in good company wherever she goes, with almost three times as many of her compatriots emigrating in the first three months of 2012 (27,000) as in the same period of 2010 (10,800). Perhaps surprisingly for those of us accustomed to the current level of doom-mongering in our own country, the UK is currently the preferred destination for Spanish migrants seeking work, followed by France and the United States.

With further economic malaise on the horizon, most are unlikely to be returning home any time soon. Spain's economy is forecast to shrink by around 1.5 per cent this year, as the government accelerates its debt reduction programme, with further contraction expected in 2013. Few sectors are likely to escape the axe. Hanging from a balcony near to where I'm staying is a banner which reads "A country without free education is a country without hope", referring to the recent changes to the laws governing teaching conditions. The new measures will force teachers to work longer hours and for the numbers of students per class to rise from 30 to 36; a move expected to result in up to 80,000 teachers losing their jobs across the country.

One industry bucking the trend, however, is that of the city's pawnbrokers. Greeting me as I step out of the metro into Puerta del Sol, one of Madrid's main shopping districts, are cries of "compramos oro" ("we buy gold"), emanating from bands of hawkers sporting neon yellow tunics. Deprived of an income, some residents are resorting to selling their most precious possessions in desperation.

Despite the gloom, Madrid has not yet lost its ability to have a good time. While, by daytime the cafés and restaurants appear to be suffering, Madrid's much-celebrated nightlife still manages to pack a punch. It's gone midnight and the bars and clubs are starting to fill up, despite it only being a Thursday night. I get chatting to some locals, who give me their take on how Madrileños are tightening their belts in these austere times. "Before, people would go our to a bar during the week and have five or six drinks," Jorge explains. "Now, they'll still go out but they'll only have one, maybe two, drinks all night."

Come the morning of my departure, I hail a taxi to take me to the bus stop where I plan to catch the shuttle bus to the airport. However, the taxi driver, evidently fed up with the night's slim pickings, has other ideas and offers me a sizeable discount to take me directly to my terminal. The 25 minute journey allows me to gain one last insight into the Spanish crisis. "Things are very different to a few years ago" he says. "Madrid used to be the city that never sleeps - now my nights are much quieter". I offer him a sympathetic ear as I look out of the window at the early morning glow on the glistening streets. At least it's stopped raining.

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