“…the place that may seem like the end may be the beginning.”
-Ivy Baker Priest
We are headed back home. Last year we agreed that we would split our time between Málaga and Saint Louis. For several reasons. The original motivator was weather: both of us hate the cold, and we despise snowfalls. Málaga has mild winters. The coldest it gets at night is in the lower 40’s, and from October through March it is almost always sunny and in the mid-60’s. We have rented an apartment that faces the beach. We wake up to the sound of waves. Since the sun rises at 8AM or thereabouts, we get to witness beautiful dawns if we get up early.
Last year we hired a young woman to drive us to a local hiking trail. She spoke good English (was also fluent in Italian; this is what you must do if you want to make a living in the tourism industry). She was trying her best to teach us what to see and where to eat. Once you come here you realize that a four-hour hike is not enough time to learn about everything there is to see and do, but she barreled on.
“Have you had any mollete?”
We had not. We had no idea of what mollete was. It did not sound appetizing.
“You must try it. The Catalán is my favorite. Perfect for breakfast.”
She told us that Antequera, her hometown, is renowned the world over for making the best mollete. We promised that we would try it. We had no intention of doing so, but we were afraid that she was not about to get off the subject had we expressed any doubts.
As so often happens, life intervened. Two days later we were walking close to the Cathedral. It was unseasonably warm. We decided to stop for a glass of water and a bite. There is no need to consult Trip Advisor for suggestions because it is almost impossible to find a bad restaurant in Málaga. We stopped at a small restaurant that, like almost all the local restaurants, had outdoor seating.
We sat down, asked for water, and perused the menu. In big bold letters they advertised that they served the best mollete in town. They made several varieties. It was impossible for us to ignore what destiny had obviously held in store for us. I ordered the Catalán: Phyllis went with the tomatoes and olive oil.
Much to our relief, mollete was not a piece of fish that still had its eyes on, or a stew made from pig testicles (you can get both in Málaga, if you look hard enough). Mollete is a type of bread: ours was oval, a bit bigger than a large hamburger bun. It is lightly toasted; you can add anything in the middle and make a sandwich out of it. If I remember correctly, the Catalán recipe calls for Serrano ham and olive oil.
We loved it. We went back for more whenever we were in the neighborhood. You can buy mollete at any store, although you must go to certain places if you only intend to consume the one made in Antequera. It has become a staple.
Our problem is that too many things have become staples. Foremost: you can leave your home any time day or night, walk anywhere, and be 99.9% sure that you are safe. There is nothing “special” about Spanish people: there was enough violence during the Civil War (1936-1939) to satisfy the worst sadists among us. There just is extraordinarily little violent crime; almost all of it due to internecine warfare among rival smuggling gangs. People think that the Spanish Penal System deserves the credit. Petty thieves are treated leniently; most of the time they are out of “jail” within hours. Violent thieves, or people who carry weapons when they rob someone, are dealt with harshly. Thieves have learned that it does not pay to be violent. Spanish jails also take the rehabilitation of their inmates seriously. Living conditions in jail are good. A lot of effort goes into training prisoners for jobs, treating their addictions, and providing them with psychiatric care and counseling. Recidivism is astonishingly low.
Women are respected and listened to. 47% of the national legislature is female. Political parties are just as likely to have a woman leader as a man. It is an extremely bad idea for a boss to sexually harass or intimidate a female employee. There will be hell to pay. Husbands who mistreat their wives make the front page of the papers (there are many newspapers, and people read them) and their lives are made miserable.
In 2020 less than 900 people died because of traffic accidents. The US had more than 16,000 in 2019, and population difference does not account for the excess. We have been in Spain a total of seven months the past three years. We have yet to see one traffic accident. Not one.
Health care is free for all citizens. We paid for private health insurance, which cost $400 a month for both. The premium policy with no deductible. We have been to two internists, three ER’s, and two specialists. They know what they are doing. Spanish insurance does not cover drugs, so prices are kept low. My medicine, which costs me $200 a month AFTER Medicare Part D pays (to say nothing of the premium that we pay), costs me less than $50. One of Phyllis’s meds was $500 in the US; $30 here.
The food is inexpensive. It tastes better. It is fresher. A friend of ours who came to visit told us that she was sensitive to gluten. We had her try a piece of bread: she had no symptoms. It is not gluten that bothers her, it is the crap that they put in bread in the US, to make it last. The bread is delicious; there are a dozen varieties in every bakery, and there are artisanal bakeries that make their own things. A caveat: if you buy bread in the morning, eat it soon, because by evening it will be rock hard. No preservatives.
Restaurants are plentiful and inexpensive. So reasonable, in fact, that it is tempting to eat out every day, which you should avoid, because you will gain weight. Pork and seafood are king in Spain, but beef, rabbit, goat, chicken, partridge, and who knows what else are available. Waiters, as cab drivers, do not expect a tip: they are salaried.
Lodging is much cheaper than in the US, but living spaces are small. A 2,000 square foot apartment is a luxury. People do not acquire many things, because there is nowhere to put them.
Schools could use more funding. The national priorities are pensions and health care, so schools come in third. Even so, the worst Spanish schools are far better than the worst schools in the US. But more could be done.
Which gets me to the most infuriating, and lovable, part of Spain and its citizens. They are not terribly motivated about money. Once a cab driver has made enough to cover expenses for the day, he/she will head home to be with family. Banks close in the afternoon. If the store is supposed to close at ten, do not show up at 9:45. They will turn you away even if you promise to spend large amounts. They want to make enough. They have a pension system; they have health care; there are many ways to have fun that cost nothing. They see no point on being the wealthiest person in the cemetery.
Sundays I see thousands of people walking along the beach with their kids. They have playgrounds every few blocks. There are biking trails everywhere. Fathers share chores and childcare 50-50 with their partners. Kids actually have conversations with their parents, and they are treated with respect and kindness.
Back to life without mollete. We have the wealthiest country in the world. We are home to people of dozens of different ethnicities. We have the best hospitals, and our private universities are a magnet for smart young people from all over the world.
But… We make a race of everything. We rush on the highway; we fume when it takes the waitress ten minutes to bring our menus over. Many of us live under the impression that anyone who does not speak English is inferior. Far too often we do not treat women, or the LGBTQ community, or non-whites, with respect. We think that it is OK to let someone die, or be in pain, if they do not have health insurance.
We do these things so that we can accumulate wealth. The more the better, because we live in constant fear of not having enough to cover health catastrophes or retirement. We have large homes that consume huge amounts of heating and cooling materials, which makes our air dirty, which gives us asthma, cancer, and lung disease, and we are OK with this. Our cities are battered with murders and violent robberies: we do not care if we can afford to live in the gated communities.
It does not have to be this way. There are alternatives.
You should try to have a mollete breakfast some day.