Content warning: brief mentions of colonialism, religious persecution, Francisco Franco, war, and transphobia.
Last Tuesday, September 28, I flew from New York City to Madrid with two of my friends. I’ve been looking forward to this trip for so long, and it’s been super fun!
Some things I like about Spain
There are so many reasons to like Spain: the low cost of living, laid-back culture, LGBTQ+ friendliness, food, and so on. But I don’t have enough time or space to write about all of them in depth, so in this section, I’ll go over a few:
Spain has many layers of history and culture. In ancient times, the Iberian Peninsula was occupied by Phoenicians, Greeks, Celts, Basques, and other ethnic groups. It eventually became part of the Roman Empire as the province of Hispania. During the Middle Ages, Iberia was incorporated into the Visigothic Kingdom, and then most of it became part of the Muslim region of al-Andalus. The Christian kingdoms in the north eventually retook the region and became the modern countries of Spain and Portugal.
All of these influences can be seen in Spain’s architecture and cities, many of which date back to antiquity. For example, Seville was originally founded as the Roman city of Hispalis, which derives from the Phoenician name Hisbaal. During medieval Islamic rule, it was called Ishbiliyah in Arabic, and after that, its name became Sevilla in Spanish.
You can also hear Spain’s diverse cultural influences in its language. Spanish is a Romance language, derived from Latin, but it has many words that come from Arabic, Celtic, Basque, and other influences. For example, the Spanish word cerveza (“beer”) comes from Celtic, and the word izquierdo (“left”) comes from Basque. And a plethora of Spanish words come from Arabic, like alfombra, almohada, alcázar, aceite, alcohol, and tarifa. More recently, as Spain grew its empire in the Americas, Spanish incorporated vocabulary from Indigenous American languages, such as chocolate, tomate, coyote, cóndor, huracán, and capibara.
Spain is very progressive nowadays. It’s kinda hard to believe that the country that infamously expelled, tortured, and killed Jews and Muslims starting in the late 15th century 😬 is now a bulwark of cultural liberalism, but it’s true! After Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, there was a strong backlash to the Catholic hegemony and social conservatism that had been entrenched under the Francoist regime. Enacted in 1978, the current Spanish constitution guarantees religious freedom, and more generally, it enshrines democracy and human rights. To give you an idea of how based the Spanish constitution is, here’s an excerpt from the Preliminary Title:
Spain is hereby established as a social and democratic State, subject to the rule of law, which advocates freedom, justice, equality and political pluralism as highest values of its legal system. National sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people, from whom all state powers emanate.
Also, Spain has been ahead of the curve on LGBTQ+ rights. It became the third country worldwide to legalize same-sex marriage in 2005, and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation has been banned since 1995. Additionally, twelve autonomous communities (Spain’s highest subnational divisions) ban employment discrimination against transgender people, and ten have bans on discrimination against intersex people. Per a 2016 survey by BuzzFeed, 87% of Spaniards believed that transgender people should be protected from discrimination, and 77% believed that they should be allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. This is a far cry from Britain, Hungary, and the United States, where trans rights have been under attack. I’m transgender myself, so for this reason I’m more comfortable here.
Infrastructure! Like many European cities, Madrid is a lot denser, more transit-oriented, and more walkable than many American cities and suburbs, which were (re)built around car infrastructure in the 20th century. This makes it really easy to get around, although I’ve gotten lost on the Metro more than once. Also, Spain builds infrastructure much more cheaply than many American cities. While Phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway cost New Yorkers 2.14 billion US dollars per kilometer, transit costs in Spain have been as low as $35 million per kilometer.1 Spain also has an excellent and affordable high-speed rail service, the Alta Velocidad Española (AVE), which can hit a top speed of 310 km/h (193 mph). The French high-speed rail service Ouigo also operates in Spain. By contrast, America’s Acela only goes up to 240 km/h (150 mph), and only on a 34-mile segment of its route.
Privacy: One thing that pleasantly surprised me was how GDPR is implemented in the EU. As soon as I landed in Madrid, I logged into the airport Wi-Fi, and on the sign-in page was a disclaimer describing what they do with users’ personal data and users’ rights under GDPR. Also, almost every website I’d been using already while in the States showed me a cookie consent banner again, and this time, they offered greater flexibility to manage my data use preferences. Unfortunately, many public Wi-Fi hotspots in Spain ask you to provide personal contact information such as your email address when signing in, so I’m not as comfortable using public Wi-Fi here.2 Fortunately, I have a SIM card with 35 GB of mobile data that cost me 20 euros, so I don’t rely on hotspots here as much as I do back home!
Some things I’m planning to do
Visit Madrid’s art museums! I visited the Museo Reina Sofía, Spain’s national museum of 20th-century art. Reina Sofía houses Guernica, one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous paintings, which brought international attention to the Spanish Civil War. I saw a special exhibition of work by German photographer Michael Schmidt. Much of Schmidt’s work during the Cold War dealt with Berlin as a divided city and the effect of the Berlin Wall on its psyche. Schmidt took many photographs of natural, industrial, and urban landscapes. Since I’m fascinated with the relationship between humans, nature, and technology, these are some of my favorite subjects to photograph. So this exhibit inspired me to take more pictures as a hobby and art form.
Tour Spain! I’m planning to visit Valencia, Barcelona, and Zaragoza over the next week. After that, I’m hoping to visit Seville or Córdoba. I also want to visit some places outside Spain, such as Brussels and Italy.
Follow me on Instagram
And finally, some Sunyshore administrivia. I’ve been using my Instagram account, @evelynciara345, to share content—mostly stories—about effective altruism, public policy, ATLA, and other things I’m interested in. I’ve also been sharing photos and videos from my trip. I post more often on Instagram than on here (although I’m trying to post more frequently here as well), so I recommend following me on Instagram if you’re interested in more content from me. I also recommend these accounts:
Until next time!