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The Varsavsky Foundation
Avenida Bruselas 7, Planta 3
28100 Alcobendas
Madrid, Spain

The political blog of a social entrepreneur

If you don’t like being alone…move to Spain

In our society we are accustomed to grouping people by their age, their gender, their nationality, their profession and their work situation, but there are not many who classify people as being either solitary or gregarious (what’s more, I don’t believe that a word even exists to describe someone’s level on a solitary/gregarious continuum). But if we were to do so, meaning, if we were to create a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 is someone who doesn’t talk to anyone throughout the whole day and 10 is someone who lives surrounded by family, friends and coworkers, and is never alone, I would be close to a 10.

In general, I’m only alone when I ride my bike, and even this isn’t very often because mostly I go out with friends (la peña). In my life, there’s always someone at my side, either Nina, my significant other, with whom I also work; one or some of my four children; my friends; other family members; or my coworkers.

When I talk to my non-Spanish friends I discover that my gregarious lifestyle, while frequent here, is not so common outside of Spain. For example, it’s normal for my friends from other countries to eat alone in a restaurant, which is something that I don’t do, or for them to go to the movies by themselves, or in many cases, live alone. I even have a friend who loves being alone so much that he tends to celebrate his birthdays by going on adventure vacations by himself. During the last years he has rented a small plane in Namibia and flies solo, or a Ducati and travels all over Italy by himself. I am also a pilot and love adventures, but I do them with my buddies. To me, the idea of taking a vacation by myself is almost painful. As you can read in the autobiography I wrote about being 17 years old, even when I used to do it during my adolescence, I didn’t last very long by myself. This makes me wonder if it was perhaps my dislike of being alone that brought me from USA to Spain. Spain is the most gregarious country I’ve ever lived in with my native Argentina a close second.

In Spain, it seems like cities are designed to keep anybody from ever being alone. If you leave Madrid and go for a bike ride, as I do, it’s very clear, for example, where San Agustín de Guadalix ends and the countryside begins. There is an unmistakable difference: town, countryside, city, countryside. But in the States the city gradually morphs into the countryside. First the buildings, then the houses, later the country houses, the farmhouses, the little fields, the open fields, the ranches. Spaniards seem to be like magnets who are always attracted by other Spaniards and the urban planning of this country reflects this. Americans instead seem to be like reversed magnets and as soon as they can afford it they tend to move to bigger and bigger properties as away as possible from neighbors. The US real estate agent used to go like “you don´t even hear the neighbors” the Spanish real estate agent is more like “hay buen rollo en la urba” (in this neighborhood people really get along).

From what I’ve seen in the 15 years that I’ve lived in Spain, Spaniards seek comfort in each other. As they grow old you can see this in how hard it is for children to separate from their parents. If the Spanish were marsupials they would carry their baby kangaroos in their pouches for decades. Actually, three decades to be exact, because Spain is the country where children take the longest to leave their parents’ home. This happens on the average at 30! I believe this is because partly due to expensive housing prices but mostly because neither parents nor children like to be alone. As difficult as those relationship can be they prefer to put up with each other. People in Spain go from living with their parents to living with a loved one, not for religious reasons, but in order to avoid being by themselves.

From what I’ve seen, my Spanish friends have a lot of contact with their extended families as well, and although they have few children, they have many cousins, and other relatives whom they see often. And then there are friends. Spaniards cultivate friendship like the French seduction. Loyalty among friends is very strong, even among coworkers. The businesses that I founded in Spain, Jazztel, and now Fon, are like families. The Jazztel coworkers from 2000 still have parties together. The American alternative as I see it from start ups I built in the States is to accept a friendship…. in Facebook and occasionally to poke somebody. Friends in Spain mostly hang out. Friendships rarely have a theme. In NYC things were different, you tagged friends. Tags went something like “he´s my squash buddy”.

With this whole business of always being surrounded by people, sometimes my friends from other countries ask me about whether I would like to spend more time alone. But my answer is a resounding no. I’m happy when there’s some commotion in my house, when my children show up with their friends and we have big dinner parties. I have frequent visits from friends from the States and I greatly enjoy them. Generally they propose to meet at a restaurant but I manage to convince them to dine with my family at home. After wondering if it is not too much of an intrusion (yes, Americans have that concept which makes no sense in the land of permanent intrusion) they seem to like it. To me a night alone means a night in which just Nina and I are alone. I couldn´t imagine telling everyone that I just want to be alone, completely alone. And even when I write my blog or work I like to know that Nina or the kids are around.

My three oldest children were born in the United States, where I lived for 18 years, but when I started to see how relationships between people of different generations were over there, I decided to move to Spain. First for a year and now it´s been 15 and I have no intention of moving. My apartment in NYC and my farm in Sagaponack are still there. Two great places. But so far I stay on this side of the ocean. America is for me the most intellectually stimulating country in the world. The Mecca of entrepreneurship. The country that is willing to experiment all things new. But when it gets to friendships somehow old is better than new. My American friends are inspiring to say the least. But while America is about freedom, Spain is about ties. And I used to think I loved freedom. But now I realized that ties, especially close ties…feel great. And I stay on.

Posted on January 21, 2011