Thursday, August 7, 2014

Breaking up with Madrid

Monday Aug 4

Dear Madrid,
We've been together for 2 ½ months now, and I've fallen in love with you. I love the quiet corners of your Parque del Retiro, the majesty of your architecture, the reverence I've felt while immersed in the art of your Prado. I mostly love your people. I love their sense of humor, their deep voices, rising intonation, and the friction in their pronunciation. I love their kindness to strangers and their willingness to love and accept foreigners. Yet, it's time we go our separate ways.

You are the heart of Spain, and your heart is what you've given me. Through you I trekked the Camino de Santiago, I fell in love with the genius and inspiration of Gaudi. I met Velazquez, Goya, Zurzurban and Rubens in person. I observed el Greco in his natural habitat. I walked the “path” of Don Quijote. I toured your castles, and swam in your beaches. I ate your food and learned your language. We progressed from strangers to lovers on our journey together, and I will never forget you.

You even introduced me to your neighbor where I gawked in awe at the majesty of her Pyrenees and I loved her cheeses and chocolates. I became reacquainted with her language and built new and strengthened old relationships.

I've learned so much from you, and I hope that in some small way, you're different because of me. I hope this will not be goodbye forever, but that we can remain friends. I hope to return to you again someday. So, as your people say, not adiĆ³s, but hasta luego. Or shall I say “ahta luogo.” ;)

Different Lives

One of the interesting things about living in a foreign country is that you can, in a sense, become part of a different world. It's fun to be something different for a time.

Most of the countries I'd lived in previous to Spain, were third world. It's definitely different going into a living situation like the ones I've had there knowing that you're American and that you're going back home to carpet and running water and flushing toilets. But it still gave me the opportunity to have a taste of what it feels like to live in 3rd world conditions. Granted, I never felt the despair that comes from not knowing if your family would have enough to eat, but I do know what it's like to live without a lot of the “necessities” of an American life.

In Spain I rented my apartment from a family that has quite a bit of money. But other than them, most of my friends here I met at church. My church friends were mostly South American immigrants who come here to work. And then a few Americans who have lives similar to mine, and were just in Spain for a time to work or study.

Having friends from different social classes gave me the chance to experience little tastes of what life is like in various classes, just in my one stay in Spain.

Class 1: Upper class, Spanish
Susana, the woman I rented from owns an apartment in Madrid that was orignally 3 separate apartments. She's had them remodeled so that it feels like a fairly roomy house. Which feels especially large in a European. She has two large bedrooms, 3 big bathrooms, two living areas, an entry way, and a kitchen and dining area. It's quite comfortable. Her family also owns two apartments they rent out (my little studio, and a two-bedroom flat that goes for 3 times what I paid), her mom has an apartment, and they own a house outside of the city (their summer home, because it's much cooler there than downtown Madrid. The house is probably at least 2200 sq ft. It has 4 bedrooms, a kitchen, a laundry room, a dining room, three sitting rooms (the turned the garage into another room), and 3 bathrooms. The master suite is really nice, completely as luxurious as a nice American home. The decour is very contemporary and European. They also have a pool and a big yard. And they have a car. It's usually parked when they're in the city, but they use it to go to their summer home and to go on trips.

Anyway, since I've become good friends with Susana and her twin daughters since I've been here, I've been able to live in their class. Susana took me to a party with her a few weeks ago. It felt like I'd stepped back in time. It was what I imagine it would have been like for my grandparents' generation to go to a nice gathering with friends. The occasion was someone's birthday. The guests mostly knew each other from going to school together in the city, and some of them had known each other almost their whole lives. From what I gathered they'd gone to private schools.

When Susana invited me, she was sure to mention that it was a backyard BBQ so I shouldn't worry about dressing up. Luckily I've spent enough time outside the US to know that doesn't mean you should wear jeans or shorts and a t-shirt. I wore a sundress and was glad I did. I'd say the attire was the American version of business casual: the men wore slacks and collared shirts, and the women wore dresses, nice pants and blouses or skirts and blouses. They all wore jewelry, most of it matchy-matchy too (I failed in that category).

Everyone brought gifts or wine. The spread of food included little crustless triangle sandwiches filled with cream cheeses and pates, little grilled veggie sandwiches on baguettes, a light potato salad (actually Russian), some little skewers of well-season chicken alternating with onions, and a bar of wines, juices and sodas. The plates were the small dessert-size, and most people just took one thing at a time, and only tried a couple things. Very unlike the American BBQ attitude of “fill that plate as much as you possible can with steak and chicken and burgers and chips and desserts...”

But, back to how I felt like I was in the 50's. Everyone dressed nice. The lighting was soft, we were in a lush well-groomed backyard outside of the city, with grass and flowers and a pool. Everyone looked sophisticated. They were engineers and business people. Susana used to be a reporter, and she speaks 5 languages. They all were very educated. And then one by one, they would all light up. I had to move a few times trying to escape the smoke. But, as much as the smoking bothered me, it just seemed to fit. There I was, in 1950. I felt like a young version of my grandpa would walk in at any minute with his cigarette. And my grandma might walk out with another tray of cute little crustless sandwiches.

I noticed the way I spoke that night was very careful. I learned Spanish in Latin America (mostly Mexico and Central America), and I also lived among the lower classes of people there, as I mentioned previously. Because of that my Spanish at times sounds like the equivalent of English learned in the Ozarks. I am very aware of it, and on top of that, I am very particular about trying to use Spanish vocabulary when I'm with Spaniards. And I notice that even my pronunciation changes. I've been speaking Spanish too long at this point to pick up the Spanish theta (the lisp they're so famous for), but that night I definitely caught myself pronouncing some very guttoral j's and palatalized s's. I got many complements on my Spanish, so that probably made me even more aware of it too!

Class 2: Immigrant working class, South American
Most of the friends I spent time with I met at church, and they were from Bolivia and Peru. They come here to earn more money than they can in South America, and some even come to get residency so they can travel to the US in the future. They work in restaurants or in cleaning houses (Susana in fact employs a girl from South America).

I didn't realize how upscale my apartment building was until I started visiting other apartments. I have a full-time doorman (I use the word full-time quite liberally, minus the breakfast breaks and siestas), a nice marble entry way, and an elevator. Their apartments aren't bad--Spain isn't 3rd world, but they're not near as nice as mine. There's no doorman and no elevator. And a lot of them share apartments. In Mallorca I stayed with a girl who lived with her mom and two other families. They all share the kitchen and then each have a bedroom/living area of their own.

Another family I stayed with in Mallorca was a couple with one teenage son. The mom (late 30's, from Bolivia) cleans houses and the dad (from Argentina, also late 30's) works in landscaping. But they actually live pretty well. The beach is TWO BLOCKS down the street. They have a little two-story house with a bedroom, living room, kitchen and bath downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs (no bath upstairs!). They have two small cars. But I can tell money is tight. One night I was there the girls all went out dancing. It was 5 euros (roughly $8) to go, and Lourdes (the mom) told the girls she didn't have the money to go. They had let us stay there that night, so I told her to take 5 euros from me and go. I obviously didn't go. They left after 1am (we never ate dinner there until midnight), and didn't get home until 6am! They may originally be South Americans, but they've sure adapted the Spanish schedule. I slept instead.

I actually felt really comfortable in this environment, even though I've never been to South American, and I noticed that when I'm at church I don't pay attention to my speech at all, and my Mexican/Central American self comes out loud and clear. I don't think I would have noticed, but one day one of the missionaries (a Bolivian) asked me if I was Mexican! I laughed and asked him why. I'd said something was “bien bonito.” Very Mexican. Very funny.

Class 3: Upper middle class, American
This is my English-speaking true self. I had a few friends from church in this category, and I had a few friends come visit me from the US. Most of my traveling took place here. It's comfortable. It was fun. But also a little too normal. Nothing much to write about here. Oh, except that this self went to France and got to speak French! I couldn't believe how much I understood. I had a year in high school and a semester in college, but that linguist inside me was just jumping for joy when I got to go to church and I could understand at least 75% of the lessons! That linguist side of me loved being in this area in general, and being around Galician, Catalan, Occidental, Portuguese, French and Spanish all in one small area! Basque was in there too, but mostly just in signs. I didn't really get to hear people speak it, and it's not a Romance language (it's origin is actually a mystery), so I wasn't as interested in trying to understand it as the others.

Anyway, I enjoyed leading so many lives in such a short amount of time. What an adventure!

Blessings and Burdens

At the end of Little Women, Jo’s crotchety, cranky old aunt dies and leaves her estate to Jo, who decides to turn it into a school. Jo makes a comment to her mom about how sad that the aunt died so lonely when she could have had so much to give, if she had only shared. That’s when wise Marmee makes the comment that yes, she could have lived a much happier life if she had shared, but her flaw was letting her blessings become her burdens. I think about that quote a lot. Probably because I’ve lived so many different lives, and at times I’ve had so much, and at other times I’ve lived with a dirt floor and no electricity or running water. I haven’t come close to anything like that in Spain (it has definitely been nice to come to country that’s not 3rd world), but again, I feel at home we often let our blessings become our burdens.

My post on food hinted at that—our country is about mass production of food, and because we have a lot, we eat a lot.

We also have a lot of space, and a lot of stuff. I have a 1500 sq foot house in Ca. Three bedrooms, 2.5 baths, a garage and a yard. All to myself. And all full of stuff. It was nice to live without stuff. I had one suitcase of clothes. One room. A tiny bath and an even tinier kitchen. Granted, I am very excited to get home to a shower that's large enough that I don't have to open the curtain to have enough room to soap up. And that has enough water pressure that I'll want to wash my hair more than once a week. And I really missed having a couch. And more than one burner in the kitchen... So a little more space would be good. But I really don't need so much stuff! I'll have to clean out my garage when I get home, while I'm still in this mindset.

On food again

Sun July 27, 2014

Be prepared for probably some gross generalizations—this is all completely based on my own observations.

In general, the US has a problem with obesity. I realize (from my own experience) that this isn't always directly proportional to how much you eat. But I've been pondering the topic a lot lately. Spaniards are not obese. I have met a few that are overweight, but it's not common. And being obese is even more rare. I always thought it was because they had a better diet than Americans, and that they probably exercised more. But, I don't think that's entirely true.

The Spanish diet does have a lot of good things about it. And to an extent it probably is better than the average American, in that they don't eat as much really terrible fast food as we do. But their food (in the city, at least) isn't as fresh as I expected. All they eat for breakfast is bread and sugar, usually coffee and toast or pastries. They drink a lot of sugary beverages, and consume a lot of alcohol with lunch, tapas and dinner. The food isn't as natural and fresh as I'd hoped. I was looking forward to tart European yogurt, and instead the yogurt aisle looks way too much like it does in the US—most of it containing added sugar. They even have Danone. :( Granted, I live in the biggest city in the country, so I'm hoping the smaller towns have less commercialized food. I did get some amazing cheese right from the farmer while I was on the Camino.

A side note: As for exercise, living in the city, a lot of people do walk quite a bit. And there's a park near my house that has a running track, which is usually packed with runners and walkers. But I also have friends who don't really exercise much at all. And I feel that there aren't near as many gyms here as in the US. I have only seen a few. Not that that's the only way to exercise, but it's a way to measure that people do it, right?

But, back to eating, a topic (obviously) often on my mind. The conclusion that I've come to is that there are two things that I have noticed where Spain is very different from the US, as far as meals: portion size and dedicated eating times.

Restaurants serve fairly small portion sizes. You're not going to to find any Claim Jumper's portions here. And since restaurants serve small portions as snacks, people will eat more often, and eat less. I like that. And if you do order something large, it's expected that you'll share it. I like that too. I went and got gelato with a friend (an american). She ordered the largest cone they offered, which came with 4 scoops of gelato. The girl serving us started to put two spoons in the cone. I told her I wasn't going to eat any, and as she put the second spoon back, her eyes got huge with incredulity. If only she could see Leatherby's and American gluttony at its finest!

What I mean by dedicated eating is that they only eat when they are sitting down, focused on eating. There's no eating while walking or while traveling. I ate an apple while walking once. And the entire time I was completely aware that I was breaking all norms. I was hungry though, so I did it anyway. Since then I've seen two other people eat something on the street. The only times Spaniards ever eat anything while walking is if they have an ice cream cone (which isn't even super common).

They also don't usually eat in the car. The cars here don't even have cup holders. I don't think I would have even noticed, except that Susana pointed it out to me. We were driving in her BMW, and she said that was something she'd noticed in the US, that every car has multiple cup holders, and they don't here. That's when I looked around and realized there wasn't a single cup holder in there!