How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways
I first fell in love with Spain in the summer of ’85 during my study abroad in Madrid. The program that Bowling Green University ran at that time (I attended Ohio Northern, but we didn’t have a study abroad option then) included intensive classes at the University of Madrid in culture, history, geography, and language, as well as fantastic field trips to nearly every corner of Spain on the weekends. My love affair continued in my life as a Spanish teacher, as I led student trips all over Spain. When my son (also a Northern grad) student-taught at the American School of Valencia in his final semester of under-grad, we took a family trip to see him and loved every minute.
It was THIS trip to Spain, however, to walk El Camino de Santiago from León to Santiago, that crystallized for me what it is about Spain that makes me love it so much. My admiration is not only for the physical aspects of Spain, but also for the ways that Spaniards do things, how they live, and the sense of community that is imbued in all aspects of Spanish life. Some of my observations are rather superficial, while others delve deeper into the Spanish weltanschaung—their world view. Read on for all the ways that Spain hasn’t changed since I first saw her and loved her, and for the ways she speaks to me.
Sometimes, those who haven’t been somewhere, imagine it to be all kinds of things it isn’t. The geography of Spain is one of those things. Spain is about the size of the state of
Texas and within its boundaries you will find nearly every kind of topography possible–mountains, coast, desert, fertile valleys, plains, broad rivers, forests. What is most surprising, perhaps, is that Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe–second only to Austria. After walking the Camino, I can attest to this firsthand!
Arte Público e Historia
Spain is chockfull of public art, monuments to history, and beautiful architecture. Because of its Catholic roots, every town is clustered around the local cathedral or church with a central plaza somewhere nearby. It seems that every locality has a legend attached to it that is not only available to read about on a placard, but also to hear about from one of the locals. Past and present are blended together in a tapestry of culture. The history of each place, rather than being forgotten or pushed to the periphery, is celebrated with both education (signage, monuments, etc) and the town festival.
Upon closer examination
So many small things make up the larger picture of the way Spaniards do things. Their eating habits—both what and how haven’t changed. The way they greet each other, the centuries-old door knockers in the shapes of ladies’ hands, the abundance of flowers around their homes, the pride in regional customs,
and how in a country that is the size of Texas, one can sense a different culture every hundred miles or so. All these things remain static in daily life in Spain; she hasn’t changed in the time I’ve known her.
Spain first introduced me to tapas (or pinxtos–pronounced “peenchos”–in the Northeast) all those years ago. Not only is it delicious to try a small portion of something, but it is beautiful as well. The Spanish custom of including a small bite of food with an aperitif is wonderful and smart at the same time. In the foodie capital of Madrid, grazing tapas at the Mercado San Miguel is an experience for all the senses.
In 3 weeks, we never once used plasticware of any sort. Every single restaurant, pub, or glorified concession stand on The Way used glasses. Silverware. Real plates. Cups and Saucers. Not only did this reduce waste, but it also is just more civilized. Café con leche most definitely tastes better in a real cup.
The silverware they use is also different from that found in the US. They have “normal” knives, forks, and spoons, of course, but they also have smaller spoons for coffee, smaller forks for dessert, and larger spoons for soup or other items like cereal. The smaller spoons and forks have the psychological effect on me of making me feel like I am in a more elegant era or place—and indeed, I think I was. The smaller fork surely indicated fewer calories, but also seemed to say—slow down. Savor every bite. Eat in smaller bites and enjoy it. Eating my caldo gallego with a large spoon was satisfying; this soup is hearty, nourishing, and deserves to be eaten with gusto.
The food is, generally speaking, a Mediterranean diet which I think we’re all familiar with, so I won’t go into detail on that, here. What remains the same in Spain from ’85 that is so wonderful is the lack of convenience foods. I think they exist, I just don’t think they’ve caught on. A primary example of “real” goodness is the orange juice. Every bar (and I’m using the word in the Spanish sense here—please don’t picture a place where people are getting drunk) had an orange juice machine—for squeezing FRESH orange juice. So delicious!
Café con Leche. I don’t even drink coffee in the States unless it is labelled as “mocha” and has whipped cream on top. In Spain, though, I drink it every morning and sometimes at midday. They make it strong, only fill a cup halfway, and then fill the cup with heated milk. Artificial sweeteners haven’t found their way into the Spanish diet either, so sugar is an option that I, and everyone else always take advantage of. Delicious. Starbucks has no idea.
Another item from a more elegant era is the way that they wrap purchases individually. This isn’t at the grocery or pharmacy, but rather at shops selling any sort of specialty gift item—jewelry, glassware, trinkets, etc. They generally have wrapping paper and tape handy to wrap up every.single.item for you. It makes one feel pampered and like each parcel is a precious gift. The time taken to do this says something else about Spain—slow down. Little gestures matter. There is no one huffing and puffing behind you in line because the clerk is spending a few minutes taking care of your purchases in such an intimate way. Enjoy the ride.
Beneath the surface
How Spaniards live is vastly different from life here in the States. The most striking is the incredible sense of community that is part and parcel of Spanish life. As we walked for 200 miles across North-Central Spain, we noticed that nearly all homes are in a village or town—VERY rarely is there a home standing by itself in the countryside as it would be in the United States. I couldn’t help but wonder what this said about the core values of each country. A core American value is independence, even solitude or isolation—indicating strength and ability to us; a core Spanish value is conviviality—indicating community, togetherness, enjoyment. Therefore, Spaniards live in towns or cities almost exclusively and to this day gather on the plaza in the center of town in the late afternoon (or any of several plazas in larger cities) to stroll, have an aperitif, meet up with friends, hear the news of the day, let the children run and play. They do this all year long and at all ages—which brings me to another observation.
The Spanish have mastered the art of multi-generational living. Because they are living in population centers, their older folks are still a part of everything. Nothing stops an older Spaniard from taking his or her evening stroll. There are canes and arms to lean on, but they keep at it. BECAUSE they keep at it, there are able to keep at it. Obesity (not someone being a little plump, but true obesity) appears to be non-existent in Spain, I can only surmise from this active life-style and the diet. Octogenarians are often seen with a younger person for support to get out and do their stroll, their shopping, their visiting with the neighbors.
The abuelas(grandmothers) also haven’t changed in 34 years. I don’t know what age is the cut off for turning into an abuela, but the “look” remains the same: short hair, blouse, skirt, sweater, hose, pumps, pocketbook, necklace and earrings. I saw a very, very few who were wearing pants and being sassy, but by and large—abuelas haven’t changed! Please enjoy my album of abuelas:
The people—and this includes hundreds of interactions over 34 years—are simply kind. They are always willing to help, to chat, to interact, to engage, to debate, to joke, to guide. They are a social society. They even have a word for sitting around the dinner table chatting after eating—la sobremesa. Wonderful.
In my previous piece, “Angels on the Camino”, I talked at length about Mercedes and José, two wonderful Spaniards with whom we enjoyed a few sobremesas. There were other, shorter, interactions that I would like to describe to give a sense of the Spanish psyche.
A philosophical taxi ride
The day before we were to begin our Camino, we had to transfer by taxi from Madrid to León. The driver, Estéban, came from a long line of taxistas and was proud to be part of his family’s company. The drive from Madrid was roughly 3.5 hours; Dan speaks no Spanish. Well, Dan can order a beer, a gin and tonic, and say that he likes “fútbol”, but that’s about it. So Estéban and I set the world to rights. Around 30 years of age, Estéban and I covered soooo many topics—including Dan as we could. The one that sticks in my mind, however, was our discussion of immigration and bigotry. Although the area of Spain we visited primarily on this trip does not have many immigrants, the coastal cities (and Madrid, of course) have changed drastically since ’85, what with Spain’s proximity to Africa. Spain, once an insular country, is dealing with what we in the States have long had to wrestle. To welcome immigrants and refugees while keeping control of the floodgates is a delicate balance that needs attention, certainly. Further, as we delved into the racist aspects of this discussion, this young man said, very resolutely, “Para combatir la intolerancia, hay que viajar.” Yes! To combat bigotry, one MUST travel! When we SEE the plight of others, when we EXPERIENCE some of their story, when we KNOW the truth of a situation, THEN we can understand. THEN we cease to fear “the other” and realize that humanity, in all its messy glory, can work things out. If only we could work together and make the effort to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Eavesdropping can get you everywhere
On the day we arrived in Santiago, we obtained our number to get our compostela—the diploma that certified that we had completed the Camino. The pilgrim’s office serves around 1500 people a day—our numbers were 1013 and 1014. We had a bit of a wait. Luckily we could monitor the progress of the line via an app, so we did some shopping, did some eating, and eventually settled at a café along the street to the pilgrim’s office to pass the time.
At the table next to us were three friends in their 30’s, two women and a man. As I gradually tuned in to their discussion and began to shamelessly eavesdrop, I learned that they were discussing the particular usage of a phrase in English. Antonio, the chief complainant, was describing a telephone interaction he had had in English (which he speaks fluently) in which the person helping him said, “I appreciate your frustration.” This infuriated Antonio who had apparently never been on the phone with Time Warner, and wasn’t aware of this usage of the verb “to appreciate”. His learning had taught him only the cognate to “apreciar”—to enjoy. I let this go on for a bit, and then finally turned to them to interrupt and educate.
As is often the case in Spain and at outdoor cafés, they welcomed my intrusion into their conversation; what ensued was a spirited discussion of linguistics, “false friends”—those seeming cognates which have different meanings in different languages (*embarazada” does NOT mean embarrassed, for example, but rather “pregnant”), and how the guy on the phone with Antonio really wasn’t an asshole. My only regret from the whole trip was that I didn’t give Antonio my email address so that he could ask me further English questions (and I, Spanish questions to him) should the need arise. Our connection was brief but intense. I wish that I had had the foresight to extend it.
One thought on “A Love Letter to Spain”
Thank you for your article, I really enjoyed it. My husband and I spent a month in Cordoba a few years ago and we loved every minute of our time there. We did not realize that English would rarely be spoken since we have been to other parts of Europe and never had a problem so we were at a disadvantage but everyone was so kind and helpful to us and we actually learned some Spanish, The food was amazing especially the tapas and the general relaxed attitude of everyone made our trip so special. I am planning to walk the Camino in 2021, so I can’t wait to walk The Way as well as learning and enjoying more of Spain.