I’ve been fortunate to have spent much of the winter of 2019-2020 living along the southern coast of Spain. Occupying a rented casa near the center of an old town for an extended time, which inevitably involved engaging with locals, including commercially with shop keepers and the like, gave me a great opportunity to observe how daily economic life is lived in a place far from my New Hampshire home.
To be clear, I really do have a life outside of economic monitoring, but for purposes of this piece I’ll focus on a small anecdotal contrast between how people conduct commercial exchange in a corner of Spain and in NH. To further set this up, note that I deliberately lived without a car and had no data plan for 3 months, relying instead on public transportation and WiFi (or wee-fee as they cutely say there).
These near-monastic practices aside, let me tell you a bit about my provisional Spanish hometown. Fuengirola, a small city of about 75K residents, lies along the Mediterranean coast about 25 miles west of Malaga, the big city in those parts. It is in the autonomous region of Andalusia (like a US state), which is the largest of these self-governing areas in Spain. Given that it was controlled by the Islamic Moors for about seven centuries the architecture and culture is a unique blend of Christian and Muslim influences not seen elsewhere in Europe. Andalusians have a reputation for being emotional and fun-loving. I concur.
What is most evident commercially is how old-fashioned things seem, at least to a guy in his late sixties. In NH of course we get in our cars and drive to large supermarkets and big box stores to purchase our stuff, or as is increasingly the case, we order things online and have them shipped to our homes. But here, the small “Mom & Pop” shops are alive and seemingly well. The sidewalks each day, except Sunday, are teeming with people doing their daily marketing of fruits, vegetables, medicines, clothing, breads/pastries, alcohol, and lottery tickets (really big here).
I have to admit that despite an apparent inefficiency with going to one shop for your bread, to another for your vegetables, and to another for meat I enjoyed the quaintness and personal touch of getting to know the people who worked these establishments. Levels of personal service always seemed high and I never felt rushed. Sure Amazon.es and big box stores like El Corte Ingles exist, but small brick & mortar retail is hanging on here quite well.
The cafe culture of Europe is legendary and it is in full swing in Fuengirola. People sit with family and friends for what seems like hours chatting over coffee and beer during workdays and weekends alike. Cafes and bars are everywhere spilling onto sidewalks. The jabber is lively and boisterous and leaves a Yank with the impression that life really should be fun and lived with gusto. I have to admit I’ve wondered more than once, “How does any work get done around here?” But it does. It’s a highly functioning, prosperous, and safe feeling community. Police presence is minimal.
The Euro is the currency. And right now its value is only about 10% higher than the US dollar. However, prices for most commodities seem lower here. I’m often struck by how much value I’m getting for so little money. Granted, gasoline is more than in NH and I don’t have a good sense of the costs of energy and big-ticket items, but overall costs seem cheaper in Spain. Also, this a more cash-based society. My pocket often is weighed down with these heavy coins (a First World problem, I know). Sure people use credit cards and phone pay apps, but cash is still quite prevalent.
I could go on, but I’ll leave by saying one expression of culture is how commerce is conducted. In Spain, it is refreshing traditional indeed.