Spain invites endless historical considerations, but on this trip I was struck by something more immediate and prosaic. We were on the road from Granada, near the coast, to Madrid, the capital in the center of the country. It was a four-lane highway, what Americans would call an interstate. The road was clean, well maintained and, as we moved north, nearly empty. Every few kilometers a car would pass in the opposite direction, or we would run alongside another car heading north.
It was not the paucity of cars that struck me; it was the almost complete absence of trucks. This was, after all, the road from the coast to the capital, not the only road but still a significant one. It was early afternoon on a weekday. The oddest moment came when we reached a tollbooth not too far from Madrid. There was only one booth open and when we pulled up there was no one in it and no coin or credit card slot. We waited, then we left. Perhaps the attendant was in the bathroom. Perhaps the revenue didn't justify paying a toll taker. Perhaps this was one of the austerity measures they had taken.
I will never know. What I do know is that the drive had a sort of post-apocalyptic feel, except that it was very clean. We marveled at it and then realized that there was nothing that ought to have surprised us about it. The unemployment rate in Spain is more than 27 percent. Gasoline costs 1.4 euros a liter (more than $6.50 a gallon). At that price, a drive is no longer a casual undertaking; it has to justify itself. As for trucks, when that many people are out of work -- and have been for many months -- the demand for goods declines to the point that trucks will be rare on the road.
I should have been prepared for this. We stayed in a very nice hotel in Granada. In the morning when we left the hotel, there was a beggar sitting on the sidewalk, his back to the wall, to our right. We paid little attention. Beggars are not uncommon in Europe or the United States. But there is an aesthetic to beggars. They look a certain way, owing to alcohol, madness or a very long time in trouble. When we returned in the late afternoon, he was still there. He was in his mid-to-late 20s, wearing glasses and reading a book. He was dressed in khakis and a decent shirt. He wasn't mad, he wasn't drunk and he wasn't like the hippies of my youth. He wasn't playing an instrument. He was sitting, absorbed in a book and begging. There were other beggars in Granada of the more conventional sort but also several more who looked like this one.