Lessons from Spain: A Reflection

A wise professor once said to me, “Listen, kid. The world is both very big and very small. There is so much to see and explore, but you need to find the courage to go and do.” As a senior in college with many options, but no real direction, I took these words and ran with them. All the way to Spain.

I’ve lived in Spain for almost two years now, teaching English in a small town by the sea. As with many European experiences, mine has been both beautiful and mind numbingly confusing. Let me clarify: when you take a vacation to Europe you experience only the outer crust of the entire cultural apple pie, which is light and flaky. When you actually move your life to a foreign land you’ve basically taken a machete knife and hacked into the middle, spewing the filling everywhere. Once you delve into the center things get weird, but that’s partly what attracted me to moving to Europe.

In college I studied Latin American culture and Spanish linguistics, and spent a significant amount of time traveling in South America, where Spanish influence dominates. I loved how intimately I was able to get to know and understand several South American cultures, and I was curious about how Spanish culture made such an impact on history, (plus, I wanted to better my spoken Spanish,) so senior year of college I decided to look for a program to get me to Spain.

The thought of leaving everything familiar for an extremely lengthy amount of time was terrifying, but I think I wanted to go to Spain and see it for myself more than I was afraid of the unknown. Courage is a key element to a life filled with adventure, no matter what that word means to you. Delving into a new business is adventure, or becoming a nurse, or a computer programmer. Anything that makes you stretch your comfort zone is adventure, which is ultimately powered by a thick slathering of courage.

A few weeks into “Operation Go Spain” I found a program and was packing my bags a few months later. Then it was time to get on the plane and say goodbye to things like Target, driving my beloved Volvo, and spending time with my loco family. But, I knew on the other side of the ocean was a life of perpetual learning ahead of me, and that’s why I went. To learn more about humans, and life, and how this planet contains so many different ideas and people and places.

That being said, I didn’t know the extent of what I’d learn, or how I would learn it — it was oftentimes sticky and a little uncomfortable, but at the end of the day was sweet and fulfilling, (which is why the apple pie analogy.) Spain and all it encompasses is wonderful. They have a mind-boggling history, a glorious fusion of cultures, a passion for living and dressing well, and a maddening obsession with gastronomy. They’re all also a little crazy. I’m hoping these stories about my experience in my adopted country will help you find the courage to go and do in your own adventure.

Reflections from Spain

If I was telling you these in person I’d insist you turn off your phone, get a cup of tea, and sit down with me so I could talk with my hands and perhaps act out certain scenes, but since you’ve got me through print let me just say: hold onto your hats.

When I first arrived in Spain, like a plucky dairymaid, fresh off the boat from America, I didn’t understand but maybe 40% of the words said during conversations. The accents were different, the pace a little faster, but the real reason I was struggling to understand took me a while to fully realize. The Spanish, as classy and as well dressed as they are, have mouths that would shock even the most hardened of sailors. Small children say things that you didn’t know could be said, let alone accomplished without an anti-gravity machine. There is no censorship on television, dinner time is one’s stage to replay scenes from the day, lovingly embellished with a generous helping of “palabrotas;” and, teachers in schools have no issue when a child says the equivalent of the f-bomb in class. It’s these kinds of cultural nuances that make up the filling of the apple pie.

It turns out that Spaniards have used their bad words to such a great extent that these words have lost their power to shock. They’re softer sounding to them, whereas to my ears they sound very, very strong because I compare them to how strong their English equivalents are. So, picture this, first day of school, I walk into my classroom looking like Anne of Green Gables. Within the first ten minutes a bucketful of terrible words have been said by my students, and I am so shocked that I make the three most vocal students stay after class. I take them to the head teacher’s office where I relay the story. The head teacher looks at me, takes off his glasses, and says, “you know these words are common here, no?” To save face I say, “Oh, of course, I’m just upset about their behavior in class.” The students are dealt with, and I do a face palm in the hallway.

Another significant cultural difference is how they treat food. When they aren’t planning their next meal, or remembering a previous one, they are eating. They technically have five or six meals, and treat each as though it was their last. They expect everyone to eat when it’s time. No exceptions.

I found this difficult because I prefer not to eat foods with gluten, and everything in Spain has gluten. Plus, twice a week at school someone brings in an enormous amount of food to the teacher’s lounge where they feast. The first week of school last year was my first experience with Spanish food mentality. It was a beautiful Friday, the birds were chirping, someone out in the hall was saying a loud expletive, all was tranquil and calm in the teacher’s lounge. Until a group of teachers wheels a wagon into the room loaded with food. I don’t really look up from my book as I’m used to not eating in large groups. Another teacher comes up to me and asks if I’m excited about the party, and naturally I say I am. People start pouring into the lounge and grabbing plates, and I walk over and take an orange and sit back down to finish the last pages of Jane Eyre. Several teachers come over and ask me if I want anything else to eat, and I say no thank you I really can’t eat things with gluten in them, but thank you. I get a few strange looks, but they leave me alone.

From my wholly American perspective if someone, from anywhere, approached me while at one of my parties and said, “Excuse me, darling, I simply cannot eat gluten. It makes me ill.” then I would say, “there, there” and hand them a bowl of plain white rice. No questions would be asked. However, here in Spain, you may get one of two possible responses to a statement such as “I cannot eat gluten. It makes me ill. Sorry, I cannot eat anything at your party.” 1. You would have the sympathy of all and would receive pitiful glances while being handed a mound of oranges or mandarins. 2. You would be blamed for being that awkward foreign person just standing around eating nothing and ruining every one’s time. You would be cast aside as an unnatural, and even be made to sit at the children’s table, where they would poke at you with their forks. But this is really a worst-case scenario.

I decide to not be that awkward kid and find something to eat. There’s ham left, which surprises me because the Spanish are absolutely ape over ham. It’s fantastic. Truly fantastic. I’m surprised there’s any left at all. So I eat my ham, smile, and everything is all right again. I collapse into my sunny seat. The Spanish love to see people eat, and they love to see people enjoying their country, which I love. But sometimes they see food as a media of communication. “I can’t eat this food because it makes me sick” can be translated as “I reject you and your food and your family and your culture and your country.” It’s a slippery slope.

As a whole, living in Spain is wonderful. They’re friendly, and love to enjoy life with food, wine, and spending time with family. Plus, their country is one of immense natural beauty. I think when you move abroad you sign up for a life of constant challenges, but also a life of supremely awesome fun.

If I can leave you with one sentence to take away from my experiences in Spain it’d be this: Listen, kid. The world is both very big, and very small. There is so much to see and explore, but you need to find the courage to go and do. Take these words and run with them towards whatever adventure is staring you in the face, and good luck!

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