Interview: John Schellhase of Venture Spain

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john-schellhase-author-photoTravel blogs about Spain abound the blogosphere. But John Schellhase of Venture Spain takes a different approach, digging a bit deeper than just tapas and flamenco. While Venture Spain highlights different Spanish cities, he also provides a lens into Spain’s economic situation, providing balanced insight into the country’s unemployment as well as its wealth.

John is from Arkansas, United States, and moved to Spain, from Washington, DC, where he had been working at a policy think tank. Between Arkansas and DC, he lived in the Philippines for two years as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and then went to graduate school at New York University.

That’s where he met Teresa, who’s from Spain, and they fell in love in New York. They’re getting married next summer in a 900-year-old church in Segovia! He’s spending these months learning Spanish and getting to know the country that shaped her. And he also wants to be able to talk with all of the aunts and uncles on the wedding day!

A few things he talks about in the interview below:

  • Why he started the Venture Spain blog
  • The cultural differences in Spain and the US — the good and the bad (I learned about the word sobremesa!)
  • One worrying concern of Spain’s economy
  • What makes Spain different despite the economic situation (You can also see why in his December 2014 post on the wealth of Spain)

Tell me about your blog, and why you started it.

Venture Spain explores a couple of themes.

Like other blogs, it takes readers to some of this country’s remarkable travel destinations. Spain is rich in things to see and do, and I’ve written about the night tour of the cathedrals in Salamanca, the street art in Zaragoza, and things to see on a walk through Logroño. I’ve also written a few long-form travel essays about my personal discovery of this country, including how I came to know Salamanca during trips to visit my fiancée’s grandmother and about watching my first running of the bulls in Segovia.

Unlike most other expat blogs about Spain, I also write about the Spanish economic crisis. I’ve done posts about the boom and bust in the construction sector, unemployment data, political corruption, and emigration. One of my main motivations for starting Venture Spain was to explore the crisis in detail. While there is some good work done on this subject in English, most of it is very poor, and I thought I could fill that gap, at least a little.

Finally, Venture Spain has a soft-spot for books. I read a lot – and always wish I was able to read even more. Every month I feature a book that illuminates one of the site’s core themes of travel and the economy. Again, the motivation is to share the best ideas about la crisis and the best writing from Spain with the readers who visit my site.

Zaragoza street art - Venture Spain

Street art in Zaragoza.

Since you’ve been living here, what are the most striking cultural differences between Spain and the United States?

Let me start with a couple of things that I love and then maybe I’ll mention a couple that are harder for me to get used to.

First, what I love. The lifestyle here is much, much healthier than in the United States. People eat better. They walk more. They drive less. Life is taken as something to enjoy, not to rush through. I’ve gone on several long, slow walks with my future father-in-law to pick wild mushrooms or blackberries, and there is nothing forced about this. In general, life happens at a more sane pace than the United States.

I also see less social stratification in everyday life. Ages and classes seem to mix more easily in Spain than in the U.S. (This is all anecdotal, by the way, and isn’t based on any data that I’ve seen.) When I go to a festival, I see all ages in the same place, from babies in strollers to teenagers to young parents to their middle-aged parents and on to people in their 80s. Everyone lives physically closer together, and I like the atmosphere this creates.

Okay, here’s what I find hard. I feel like when Spanish people talk they over-react to small things – as my fiancée reminds me, they aren’t over-reacting, they’re just being normal, and I’m misinterpreting it. But still, to my ears, conversations sound much more intense than they apparently do to Spaniards themselves. To me, everything sounds like an argument, even though rationally I know it’s not. Also, people just talk a lot more than I’m used to. The tradition of sobremesa – the long, meandering conversations after a meal – is a bit hard for me to get used to. I’m always ready to jump up and move on to the next thing. I guess this is the flip-side of what I just said I loved about Spain: life at a saner pace.

What are the most worrying concerns about Spain’s present economy?

What worries me most is a deficit in human capital. Human capital is basically all of the talent, plus the level of education or training, plus the creativity of all of the individuals in a society added together. Countries with high human capital create valuable products and also find innovative solutions to big problems.

Spain has suffered three major blows to its human capital in the last decade. The first was the construction boom, which convinced hundreds of thousands of young people to drop out of high school and college and go to work on construction sites. When the bubble burst around 2007/2008, all of these young people lost their jobs and were left without a useful degrees or, in many cases, without a degree at all.

The second blow has been the long unemployment crisis itself. By January 2009, one-third of people under 25 were jobless. That number climbed every month until it peaked in July 2013… at 56 percent. The youth unemployment figures are still over 50 percent today. These are insane numbers. And this prolonged youth unemployment crisis means that a generation of young people are not getting the training and on-the-job experience required to build strong, productive careers. More than half of them are starting in the hole, and they will have to dig themselves out later in life.

The final blow to the country’s human capital has been a growing emigration trend. Spain’s population is shrinking. The immigrants who came during the boom years in the 2000s have gone home. About 80,000 Spaniards moved abroad in 2013 – more than double the normal rate a few years before. About half of the people who leave are in their 20s and 30s, and they are, naturally, often highly educated professionals with advanced language skills. In other words, they are kind of people who are attractive to companies abroad, but also these the kind of people Spain would definitely prefer to keep at home.

Segovia plaza mayor

The Plaza Mayor. John’s new adopted home, Segovia.

It seems that in Spain, a lot of the blame of the current situation is placed on politicians and the banks. To what extent, do you think this is or isn’t true?

It’s clear that the banks in Spain, like their counterparts in the United States and elsewhere, acted recklessly in the run-up to the crisis. They were over-leveraged. And they were particularly over-leveraged in an over-heated construction sector. When the construction sector collapsed, the banks reckless debts turned toxic. The banks deserve a great deal of blame for negligent, irresponsible financial management. They’re meant to know better, and they failed.

Public officials also failed in their oversight role. They’re supposed to make sure the financial sector doesn’t run rampant and take down the whole economy. It’s obvious they failed. In many cases, Spanish politicians fed the construction bubble in corrupt schemes to win bribes for municipal construction contracts. The level of corruption in the years since the crisis began has also been a national shame. Whether the recent bank-card scandal, the theft of EU funds for job training in Andalusia, or the exploits of the Pujol family, politicians across Spain have repeatedly misused the people’s money. The loss of money is bad enough, but the loss public confidence is perhaps worse. The country needs strong political leadership right now, and the constant news stream of corruption stories is steadily eroding the government’s ability to govern. The rise of the alternative Podemos party, whose economic proposals, sadly, are laughable, is a symptom of this larger problem.

There’s a lot more, of course, that could be said on all of these topics, but I would just add one more thing. Even though Spain is in a mess, it remains, in the big picture, one of the world’s most advanced, progressive countries where people lead long, healthy, meaningful lives. In the wake of the crisis, it is easy to forget that, which I think makes it all the more worth repeating.

I agree with John — all in all, Spain offers an incomparable quality of life. It was a pleasure having him on Latitude 41. Check out his blog, Venture Spain for more! 

About the Author Justine

California native, churro aficionado, and mom of 3, Justine Ancheta writes fervently about Barcelona and Spain. Since 2008, she's been eating burnt onions (calçots) and tripping on cobblestones in the Gothic Quarter. She shares tips on popular attractions, exposes offbeat non-touristy spots, and gives insight on exploring Barcelona with kids. Her next Catalan culture challenge: top level of a human castle (castellers).

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2 comments
Suzy says January 14, 2015

I found this interesting. I tend to read about Spain in foreign news rather than seeing it through the eyes of someone who lives here.

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Kate - Oh hello, Spain says February 6, 2015

A really refreshing read! Venture Spain is definitely different to all the other Spain blogs out there – it’s good to read an intelligent take on the crisis.

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