Spain, nostalgic over its bar culture

Culture. Bars are like an extension of our homes and part of everyday routine.
Culture. Bars are like an extension of our homes and part of everyday routine. / SUR
  • Coronavirus crisis. The pandemic removed the Spanish by force from one of their natural habitats; they’ll soon be back but will things be the same again?

The coronavirus has transformed our existence in ways that we could never have imagined, and a prime example of this is that nobody has been able to go to a bar for the last couple of months.

Most of us, if we had been asked to imagine such a dystopic situation, would have imagined that one or two bars would be open, because otherwise it would have seemed like the end of the world. Now, however, that is where we are.

The pandemic has kept us in our homes, hearts sinking as we heard the numbers of people who died or caught the illness every day. We are keeping safe but in a type of domestic pressure cooker which amplifies boredom and tensions. And of course, we can't escape by going to the bar, those extensions of our homes where we can shake unpleasant thoughts out of our heads and make our existence a little bit better.

As we take a closer look at our values, which is what this health crisis inevitably makes us do, we might have the idea that the bars will do even better when this is over. People say that we don't appreciate things until we no longer have them, and by now we are remembering our local bars with sorrowful yearning and fantasise about the first day of our new life when all this is over and we will be free to go where we like.

What is it about bars in Spain, that makes us miss them so much? "A lot of things revolve around bars: we see friends there, it's a place to meet up after work, we become fond of them, we like the bursts of good cheer, we form emotional ties, there are networks for the 'informal economy' there and the chance to take part, camaraderie, the flavours and aromas and bustle, which are all much more common here than in bars elsewhere in the world. It isn't so much the good life as the fact that life is good.

"Bars are a part of our life, we like having our favourites, where we can go every day, where our friends are; the pleasure of enjoying and sharing the experience. The bars are a world in themselves," says sociologist Luis Navarro Ardoy, a professor at the Pablo de Olavide university and promotor of the Soc&Beer project.

At the moment, in lockdown, we are feeling very nostalgic about the two types of establishment described by anthropologist Manuel Delgado: the bar we go to regularly, which is like an extension to our home and almost forms part of our domestic routine, and the bar that we might frequent on more special occasions.

The Plaza and the Avenida

There are nearly 100,000 bars in Spain, and practically as many restaurants. There are 2.8 bars per 1,000 inhabitants on average, but they are not distributed equally: in Benidorm, León and Ponferrada, which have the most, it is more like five bars per 1,000 people.

According to a report by Coca-Cola, the most common names for bars are Plaza, Avenida, Parada, Central, Parque, Estación, Arcos, Manolo, Oasis and Paraíso, and another study, in this case by AIMC, says we spend about 30 minutes a day in them, and 46 minutes at weekends.

Bars have always featured in our literature and been the subject of songs like 'El calor del amor en un bar', from Gabinete Caligari back in the 1980s. "When I wrote that song in 1985, I knew what I was talking about," says the leader of the trio from Madrid, Jaime Urrutia. "I had read that Spain was the country with more bars per inhabitant than anywhere else in the world and I used to spend a lot of time in bars with friends and girlfriends, and the waiters who could be nice or grumpy. The song is about bars I have known all my life, seedy and cheap, with prawn shells on the floor, not the posh ones."

"A bar is a symbol of the Spanish culture and has always been a place to meet up and socialise. They are also important for the economy. The unemployment figures demonstrate that, because 1.2 million people work in the bar and restaurant industry," says José Luis Yzuel, president of Hostelería de España, the business organisation of the sector. Nobody is missing the bars being open as much as they are, with the concern about their businesses being closed as well as the general worry about the pandemic.

About 95 per cent have fewer than ten workers and of those, 45 per cent do not actually have employees because they depend exclusively on the self-employed. "Even when the crisis is over, there will need to be a series of measures to ensure that these businesses can keep going," says Yzuel.

Comedians joke that the day everything returns to normal, we will be so thirsty and hungry that we will consume weeks' worth of food and drink all in one go. It will be an amplified equivalent of northern countries on the first day the sun comes out.

José Luis Yzuel also says we need to be responsible in our behaviour now, if we want things to return to normal.

"The more we follow the rules, the sooner this situation will be over. That will be the time to start enjoying our leisure time as before in bars and restaurants, which are such an important part of our culture and the way we socialise. Their owners can hardly wait for that time to come, either, when they can sell happiness again and everyone feels safe," he says.