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!