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How Spain's bull came-a-crashing

Antonia Escámez looks like a white-haired version of the Spanish guy in "Mind Your Language", the 70s British TV comedy about foreign students learning English.

world Updated: Jun 11, 2012 02:03 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Antonia Escámez looks like a white-haired version of the Spanish guy in "Mind Your Language", the 70s British TV comedy about foreign students learning English. He even says 'Por favor' like Juan Cervantes, the Spanish student in the sitcom - which I quickly realise to be a phrase every Spaniard says when he or she wants to say 'Please'.

Escámez is also the non-executive director of Banco Santander, the largest bank in the Eurozone and one of the largest banks in the world in terms of market capitalisation.

Escámez is joined by Jose María Robles Fraga, the international corporate affairs director of Santander and the former ambassador to Pakistan ("I was there from 2005 to 2008. Interesting years, yes."), and Alejandra Kindelàn, the director of the research department and chief economist of Santander. Kindelàn doesn't smile. But then, I don't reckon any economists smile these days in Spain.

At a time when banks in Spain are at the brink of collapsing faster than the bulls at Madrid's main bull-fighting arena of the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas , Santander has stayed robust. But Kindelàn and her bosses are worried.

Through a presentation that looks more like Spanish Catalan artist Juan Miró's squiggly paintings than a standard PPT, she explains a key reason for her country's economic meltdown.

"For a decade, Spain went through a construction spree, building houses while banks just doled out loans. There are now some 1 million unsold homes in the country. The bubble's burst badly," she says as I make another pastry disappear from the table.

Job(less) description
Then there is 24% per cent unemployment - more than 5 million people - with very little new jobs in sight. A large proportion of Spain's till-now booming construction sector used 'underground labour', comprising overwhelmingly immigrants. When things look up, one hopes that local Spaniards will fill the now non-existent demand. Which is why Spain -- despite having the third largest tourism industry in the world after France and the United States -- is now desperately looking at new sectors and new markets, India included, to change into an export-driven economy.

As I leave the steel and glass building with quiet wooden floors of the Santander corporate headquarters in the Boadilla del Monte district near Madrid, apart from the red Ferrari Formula 1 car outside the main entrance (Santander is the corporate sponsor of the Ferrari F1 team), I notice a few red, giant snail-like machines humming and scurrying across the lobby floor like some extras in a Star Wars movie.

They are robotic contraptions that are supposed to guide visitors to their destinations within the building.

As I dodge them on my way out, I wonder whether a few jobs could be filled (at a lesser cost?) if humans took over the robot-snails' role.

Prince charming chap
Many of us have been recently told of how the British royal family is 'wonderful' because of the mystery that it wraps itself around with by staying aloof and all that.

When Prince Charles called her mother 'mummy' and when Queen Liz and her boyo shared a stage with pop stars last week at the lady's diamond jubilee celebrations in London, we were told to swoon and register how the Windsors have 'moved with the times'.

This is all very rip-roaringly funny, especially after I meet Prince Felipe, the crown prince of Spain, the only son of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia, at his nice home-palace a few miles outside Madrid.

Felipe is tall and, I'm told more than one time by my female hosts, handsome. He has a reputation of being interested and active in affairs pertaining to business, politics and culture in and outside his country. "So let me guess, you're the writer," he tells me after spotting the only jacketless chap at the Zarzuela Palace.

"So what has been your best moment in Spain till now?" he asks me at the audience with the Spain-India Council Foundation delegation.

"Looking at Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado, actually," I tell him.

The 44-year-old prince, who has visited India several times, seems to know exactly what I mean. He seems like a really nice guy. I don't know how many royal-types take part in public protests.

But Felipe, along with his sisters, did after the March 11, 2004 Madrid terrorist bombings. Pity he didn't give me his business card. Let's see if he responds to my Facebook friend request.