I have spent the last four weeks of my life in the splendid country of Spain, and as I reflect on this time I ponder the similarities and differences of where I come from and more importantly how much I've assimilated to the Spanish culture, customs and language. Certainly, when you go abroad, you are faced with several different decisions about how you are going to adapt to your new world. One response is to reject the new world completely, consequently creating a fervent desire for your homeland's customs and culture. Initially, this is the feeling caused by culture shock when first arriving in this new world and culture. However, some individuals can never get beyond this initial feeling either because they aren't abroad long enough or they are afraid to try to assimilate to the new world because the customs are too different. Other individuals experience the initial culture shock and in time adopt certain aspects from the new culture but always remain detached in some way from assimilating completely into the new culture. Next, other individuals overcome the initial culture shock and assimilate quickly into the culture but at the end of the day still need a small connection with their homeland. Lastly, fully assimilated individuals waste no time in their new world and assimilate completely. Most importantly, however, these individuals completely discard the customs and culture from their homeland and solely participate in the new culture's ways.
For me, I fall somewhere in the middle of these approaching more of the latter two categories. At the end of the day, I tend to resort back to different customs from where I come from. Linguistically, I usually return to my native English when I am alone in order to read the news or think. Complete assimilation would require me to discard English completely and without being fluent this becomes unattainable at this moment. Furthermore, what I cook at my apartment tends to be concoctions from my homeland solely for the reason that I don't know enough about Spanish cooking yet. However, I have assimilated to the hours in which food is eaten in Spain (2 or 2:30 for lunch, 9:30 or 10 for dinner). When I first arrived in Spain, I experienced the initial culture shock and felt overwhelmed with the situation I put myself in; however, after a week or two I had adjusted. And now after a month, I feel I am moving more and more towards the direction of complete assimilation and immersion. To accentuate this point, I've compiled a brief list of what I like and don't like after spending a month in Spain. Enjoy:
Que Me Gusta (What I Like)
Europe is the cradle of history and Spain is certainly no exception. As someone who comes from a country whose history doesn't span more than 300 years, trying to fathom 2000+ years of history in Europe seems so daunting. Of course, one of the most influential forces in European history was Christianity, a force that has dotted the European map with thousands upon thousands of churches and cathedrals. And Spain is home to some of the most jaw-dropping cathedrals, each complete with its own unique and aesthetic features. Without a doubt, Spain is extremely Catholic and has been throughout history, but once you get beyond all the Catholic symbolism associated with the cathedrals and ignore that many of these immense cathedrals reek of money and slave labor, the architectural prowess really comes to light when you stand like an ant staring up at one. I've been outside of my city to a couple other smaller towns and the cathedrals still always dominate the cityscape. For me, one of the most pleasing sights is still to look up at Leon Cathedral, especially at night as the lights illuminates its grand presence and beautiful facade.
Leon Cathedral at night
The beautiful architecture doesn't end here; however, Leon holds several other pleasing sights including the Casa de Botines, a masterful creation by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, San Isidoro Cathedral and Plaza San Marcos. In addition, Leon as well as other towns have that old time facade to their buildings and streets, a product of Spain's interest in preserving its history. And of course, Spain wouldn't be complete without its many castles and fortresses that are products of the wars that abound Spanish history.
Casa de Botines
Plaza de San Marcos
Castillo de Montealegre
This pre-meal socializing activity has become a favorite of mine. Instead of just eating an appetizer before your dinner, tapear (yes, it's a verb) involves drinking small amounts of alcohol alongside tapas (the actual appetizer). For me, it's such a great way to arrive at dinner. True tapear involves visiting several different bars who each have their own special tapas. Many times, tapas can just be meat and bread, but more palatable tapas consist of potato bits drenched in special garlic or cheese sauce, potato chips with ham and eggs, olives and peppers with seafood or chicken wings and small hamburgers. A good tapear session lasts close to two hours and gets you sufficiently primed for dinner.
It's safe to say that the U.S. doesn't have a culture well-versed in fine dining, especially given the utilitarian design of its society. Spain, on the other hand, along with Italy understands the art of fine dining and I can't get enough. Here, lunch is the most important meal of the day and all restaurants go all out to make it feel that way. Typically, you pay a flat rate of 12 or 13 euros (no more than 20 euro) and receive your choice of two filling plates and a desert. In addition, you can order a full bottle of wine or a beer for the meal and if the conversation goes beyond that last drop of wine, don't hesitate to order another bottle for no extra charge. It's a process so enjoyable because the meal is an event to be enjoyed through and through not just to satiate your hunger. The second plate awaits your completion of the first whether it takes you 5 minutes or 25 minutes. It's a process of eating that is meant to be thoroughly enjoyed each step of the way. After my first dining experience in Spain after a week or so that I had been here, I concluded that this was my first meal in Spain, all ones before that moment didn't count.
4. Wine and Bread
Both elements of dining, the wine and bread here in Spain is phenomenal. First, wine is a huge industry in Spain and a big export product. The northwest of Spain, itself, is known for its production of wine which in turn makes wine cheaper than milk here. Obviously, some wines are better than others but most of the Spanish wine I've had goes perfectly with the right meal. In addition, there is the bread. Shops called panaderias that specialize in making bread ("pan" is Spanish for bread) can be found on nearly every corner. There are several different varieties and shapes of the bread but its taste compliments nearly every meal. It's the perfect instrument to scoop up that last bit of food and the best partner to all the fine wine.
5. Zumo de Naranja (Orange Juice)
Last but certainly not least, there is the orange juice. My palate was in heaven when I first tasted the orange juice here. Perhaps, it's a smaller amount of sugar that is used or its the quality of oranges themselves, but every taste seems like it was just squeezed. Fresh. Tasty. But only sold in 1 liter cartons. It's the best way to start the morning or just to quench your thirst. I just can't get enough of it.
Que No Me Gusta (What I Don't Like)
If the internet is something you have to fish out of the air, then you need a special net to catch anything in Spain. The wifi here is unbelievably patchy and unreliable. It's as bad as dial-up or 90s internet. At this point I haven't found a great way to alleviate this problem but I'm looking into finding something "high-speed," an adjective solely used to describe the Spanish language and absolutely nothing else in this culture. I suppose, part of the problem is that I live in a small city but some days I feel like I'm living a decade behind with the internet capability here.
2. The Size of Things
Certainly, I had anticipated the size of things being drastically different from the grand American way but the size of things here sometimes just doesn't make sense. Cups are smaller as well as refrigerators, freezers and trash cans. The trash cans, for example, aren't taller than a two liter bottle so every three days it seems like you have to run to the dumpster and put a new garbage bag in; therefore, I don't think having a smaller trash can can really makes one less wasteful. In addition, smaller cups make dinner sometimes problematic because you have to keep getting up to get a refill. I'm the first to admit that I love to drink a lot of water during a meal, but in restaurants now I've trained myself to not drink as much. Right now, the cup size seems inconvenient but I will adjust.
3. No Dryer
Yes, in true antiquated fashion, Spain doesn't use dryers. After washing my clothes, I have to hang my clothes on a clothesline or lay them out in my room. This custom, along with the size of the washer, has certainly made me reevaluate how much laundry is truly necessary. Honestly, I have only done two loads of laundry here, which might sound disgusting but evaluating what is "truly dirty" is a good lesson to learn. In the U.S., it's common to do some sort of laundry every three days or so. Forget that idea in Spain, given the space factor and the lack of a dryer, convenience is thrown out the door as learning how to re-wear clothes and reinvent outfits becomes essential. It seems dirty as first but at the end of the day two questions should be asked in terms of laundry: Are your clothes actually dirty? Why waste time doing laundry all day, every day?
Yes, the washer is in the kitchen
My all-natural dryer
As someone previously accustomed to just swiping a card to pay, the emergence of euro-change in my pockets has been met with my resistance. I hate change in America, but here they have even more with .01, .05, .10, .20, .50, 1 dollar and 2 dollar coins. When I pay with a euro bill and get a bunch of change back I feel like I've lost something. On the plus side; however, I do appreciate coins more now, and actually like the one and two dollar coins. Carrying all these coins around, though, still becomes a hassle.
Milk will taste different anywhere you go in the world but unfortunately Spain's isn't a good taste. I enjoy a bowl of cereal every morning (along with that orange juice) but when I first tasted the milk here I thought I might have to reconsider this daily routine. However, once the flavor of the cereal mixes into the milk I can handle it, so I still partake in my daily cereal bowl. However, I might demand payment if I am asked to drink the milk here on its own.
The Iron Curtain
Fascist and communist puns aside, this gem came in at a close sixth in the "likes" column. My nickname for this retractable window shutter, it works wonders when trying to sleep during the daytime or when a streetlight blazes into your room at night (my apartment is right at streetlight level). My first experience with using the iron curtain resulted in me sleeping until 1 in the afternoon because daylight didn't exist. I woke up thinking it was like 9 a.m. and then was blinded by daylight when I opened the iron curtain. Nowadays, I always put it down right after I lay in bed making the room so dark you can't see your hand in front of your face. This gem works wonders.
Hasta la proxima.