Having recently been in Spain for a little more than a week, it seems strange to title my blog post with the name of a city there I did not visit this time around. Jaén is a very special, unusual place however, and so it merits the privilege. I saw Jaén for the first time almost 30 years ago now, I was 19 and I didn’t really understand its place in Spain or in Andalucía. I saw it for what it was, an amazingly cosmopolitan city blessed with architectural beauty, an historic legacy, mesmerizing mountainous views, a moderate climate, and an incredibly compact design.
The people of Jaén generally do not appreciate any of it. Almost all of what you hear from the people of Jaén is how desperate they are to leave it. I visited again in 2001 and it was still very much the same place. I visited the museum there and started up a conversation with the employees, there were no other visitors. I had read in the newspaper that morning that the average income in Jaén hovered somewhere below €10,000 per year, one of the lowest in Spain (It was the lowest of any provincial capital i believe).I wasn’t preparing to write a blog piece at the time so I do not recall whether it was per family or per worker, but either way it was low, and given that a € cost $.80 at the time, it seemed extremely low. I told them what I earned as a teacher and that I was touring Europe with my family having finished my Master’s degree in Madrid that summer and then i told them what my yearly salary was. They were flabbergasted.
Despite all of this, the city was alive with energy and purpose. Perhaps the people I saw were mostly from the half which earned more than €10,000 per year, but the streets were filled with shoppers, café goers, and other well dressed pedestrians. It became clear, as it always does when I return to Spain, that cultural inertia is the single most valuable asset in making a place and, as luck would have it, it is what we most lack here in this part of the United States.
On my journey from the Barajas airport into my hotel at the Puerta del Sol I noticed some absolutely horrid bike/ped bridges over the highway. They were only marginally better than their American counterparts in design (no switchbacks) and were covered completely by graffiti in a way that in the US would only exist in the most ghetto of ghetto neighborhoods. And yet there were people using them. In every city I visited where there were these awful bridges they were constantly in use, no exceptions. They seemed just as ill-placed and just as dehumanizing as they often do in the US, but the tradition of walking was so strong, that even these cold, stark, dirty, isolating bridges couldn’t dissuade walkers.
The instinct in Spain is to walk. So much so that you walk distances 10 or even 20 times that you would consider reasonable in the United States without even batting an eye. It pains me to admit that I fall not just so easily into this habit in Spain, but so easily out of it when I return to my home in Massachusetts. One of my primary complaints, one of the few glaring weaknesses in my neighborhood is the lack of quality food purveyors. There are at least 4 Italian specialty shops where some foodstuffs are sold, and there are some small, unfortunately poorly run, poorly maintained, grocery stores all with the same assortment of low quality overpriced prepared foods, but nothing even in the same universe as a Trader Joe’s or even a mini Big Y or Stop and Shop. There is a place called AC Produce at the extreme south end of Main Street. It’s perfect. A genuinely cool atmosphere, high quality produce, some specialty items, and a nice deli. I just looked it up on google maps: 13 minutes. It takes 13 minutes to walk there from my house.
I’ve done it once. Granted, I bought two watermelons and didn’t bring a cart. The experience gave me a new found respect for buxom women. The walk back home was very tiring. AC Produce is exactly what I want, and while the stretch on Main Street between us and the store is….sketchy, the main impediment to my family shopping there is undoubtedly cultural inertia.
I’m going to try shopping there again today.