Letters from Spain #6: Spanish Time and Spanish Space

Letters from Spain #6: Spanish Time and Spanish Space

Here is the sixth episode of my podcast about life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-6-spanish-time-and-spanish-space/id1469809686?i=1000457406871

For the transcript, see below:


Well, this past week has been fairly unremarkable. Really, the only podcast-worthy thing that happened was yet another bad experience with Spanish banks. Basically, I went to a bank during my lunch break to try to pay some government fees for my visa. But I was turned away by no fewer than three banks. You see, it is common, not only for banks to be open during quite restricted hours (which is why I had to go during my lunch break), but also to have even more ludicrously restricted hours when they allow you to actually do things, like pay a government fee. It all reminds me of a book I am reading about useless employment.

But I cannot let myself get sucked into another rant about Spanish banks, as gratifying as it would be. Today, I want to talk about something different: the Spanish sense of time and space.

The phrase “Spanish time” is familiar to every American who lives in Spain. The idea is basically that everything is always late: people arrive late, nothing starts on time, and so on. Now, I actually think that this is an unfair stereotype. The vast majority of the people I’ve worked with have been very punctual. In fact, I catch myself being late more often than my Spanish coworkers. Obviously these things vary a lot from person to person. But I’d be willing to bet that, if some kind of study were performed, it would be found that Spaniards are, on the whole, just as likely to show up on time for an engagement as an American.

But I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as “Spanish time.” Punctuality is only a tiny aspect of a culture’s sense of time. In some ways Spain is indeed extremely anomalous. This is most notable when it comes to meal times. Spaniards eat lunch and dinner quite late, even compared to their Mediterranean counterparts. Lunch at three is not unusual, and neither is dinner at ten. In fact, many tourists are annoyed to find that they cannot even keep to their American schedules, since it is common for the kitchens in Spanish restaurants not to open until around 1:00, and to close between, say, 4:30 and 8:00. So no lunches at noon or six-o’-clock dinners in Spain.

Spanish time is strange in another respect. Though Spain occupies around the same latitude as England, it is one hour later in Spain than in England. This means that the sun rises and sets quite late in Spain. Right now, for example, the sun rises at about 8 and sets at about six. (In the west of Spain it’s obviously a bit later.) Meanwhile, the sun rises at around 6:45 in New York, and sets at around 4:30. Now, the reason for this difference dates back to the Franco era, when he apparently switched his time zone to coincide with Germany’s, apparently in a gesture of goodwill towards Hitler. England, apparently, switched its timezone to central European time, too, right before the Second World War. But after the war, England switched back, but Spain stayed.

Maybe it’s partly as a consequence of this off-kilter time zone that things tend to happen a bit later in Spain. For example, even though Spaniards have a reputation for laziness, it is common for Spanish people to work until eight o’clock at night! Even workaholic Americans would not accept such hours as normal. Granted, Spaniards do often have a significant break in the middle of the day for lunch, at least an hour. This, of course, is the famous Spanish “siesta.” Now, there’s a lot to say about the siesta. For one, sleeping in the middle of the day makes a lot of sense if you live in the south of the country, where afternoon temperatures can make any activity impossible.

But the more important point is that, for the vast majority of Spaniards, the siesta does not exist. Honestly I wish it did. If I was given time to go home and nap for a bit every day, I am sure I would feel a lot better in general. But the midday break is simply not long enough for most Spanish people to leave the office, go home, eat lunch, sleep, and then make it back to the office. I salute the lucky few who can, since I think it is a healthier and saner way to live. But the siesta is an important cultural institution nonetheless, even if it doesn’t usually involve sleeping. This is because lots of things in Spain—shops, offices, and even churches—close around lunch time. It takes a lot of getting used to, really, since this is normally the perfect time to do things.

On the subject of Spanish time, we also must mention the schedule of Spanish partying. Just as Spaniards eat lunch and dinner late, they go out late. Just the other day, I happened to be chatting with a bunch of Spaniards are they prepared to hit the town for Halloween. The clock had struck midnight before they left the apartment. As you can imagine, if they only start at midnight, they don’t stop until the wee hours of the morning. Partying all night in Spain is not only common, but the norm. I really have no idea how they do it, or why they want to. But if you want to have a good time with a group of Spanish people, make sure you don’t have anything important to do the next morning.

As you can see, Spanish time is in some ways quite different from American time. But I think that the Spanish version of space is, if anything, even more different than how we Americans think of space.

The most obvious example of this is in the realm of personal space. Americans typically want a lot more of it than Spaniards do. It is a common experience for Americans to find themselves backing away while speaking to Spaniards, since for us Americans it can feel like Spanish people get way too close. I still have trouble with it, sometimes. I just can’t get used to talking with someone when their face is only a few centimeters from mine. But, you do slowly adapt. I remember one time, when I went back to America for the summer, I was told by the person in the post office than I should back away. When you’re talking to someone behind a desk in Spain, you typically lean in.

Related to personal space is the issue of touching. In Spain it is far more acceptable to casually touch somebody. This can take a thousand forms, but it can really make Americans uncomfortable. In America, if a stranger is touching you, you are either very happy or in immediate danger. In other words, touching between strangers in America is rarely casual. For whatever reason, people in Spain have much less fear of sexual harassment—either being the victim of it, or being accused of it—which is such a huge cloud hanging over American interpersonal relations. When I first came to Spain, I thought that every man was dating every woman, since they all touched each other in ways that struck me as extremely flirtatious. But I was wrong. To pick another example, primary school teachers in Spain have no issues hugging, kissing, or pinching the cheeks of their students, while in America this is a fearful taboo. 

So personal space can be very different in Spain. But there is another difference, which I think is quite a bit more interesting. This has to do with the difference between public and private space. In Spain, I think this contrast is far more sharp than in America, and I say this for a few reasons. For one, it is very common—even the norm—in the United States to invite friends over or to be invited over. In my case, I spend the vast majority of my time with American friends in someone’s house. We go to a bar or a restaurant maybe a few times a month.

But in Spain this is a totally different story. Most friends, even good friends, meet outside the home, in a neutral space. Whenever I ask my high school kids what they did over the weekend, they always say they “went to the street,” meaning they walked around or hung out in a park, doing God knows what. Likewise, adult friends are more likely to meet in a bar or a restaurant than in someone’s living room.

Part of this is a simple preference. Compared to Americans—who are lovers of their own property—Spanish people love to be in public, surrounded by people. Again, while an American might feel overwhelmed by an intensely crowded bar, many Spaniards seem to think this is a good thing. The street, the bar, the café, the square—this is where life happens in Spain. And for this reason Spain can be such a vibrant, energetic place to be. The people aren’t in their homes, but outside, socializing in large numbers. You can even see this preference reflected if you see portions of the Spanish countryside from the air. Rather than a bunch of isolated farms scattered about, the people live all bunched together, with miles and miles of uninhabited land all around them. 

I also think, as I said, that Spanish people also have a stronger sense of the divide between public and private than Americans do. For Spanish people, the home is just not a place to have a party. That’s for a public space. To illustrate this point, I think it is enlightening to think about Spanish and American homes. My home back in NY, for example, has a front lawn entirely open to the street. Most of the front windows can be easily seen from the outside. By contrast, most of the houses I see in Spain have a wall entirely encircling the property, making it difficult to see anything going on within. To me, this has much more to do with the Spanish idea of a home as an isolated space, than any functional purpose associated with the wall. 

To sum up, for a European country, Spain presents some striking contrasts to the United States. Why these differences arose is an interesting question, but one which would take serious historical research to answer. For now, I am content with just pointing out the differences.

Thank you.

Letters from Spain #5: Elections and Opera

Letters from Spain #5: Elections and Opera

Here is episode five of my podcast about life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-5-elections-and-opera/id1469809686?i=1000456741892

For the full transcript, see below:


Winter is in the air here in Madrid. It’s not just the cold that lets you know, but the smell. The churro trucks have now taken their positions in the city, selling that most wonderful of Spanish junk foods. I was surprised, when I first came to Spain, to learn that churros, by themselves, are not particularly sweet. In fact, if anything they’re a little salty. The secret is chocolate. Spaniards dip their churros in a thick liquid chocolate. And when they’re done with the churro, they drink the chocolate. At first I could not understand how old women managed to chug down such a viscous, heavy drink. The first time I tried it, I thought I would choke—the chocolate is nothing like our American hot chocolate, which is so milky. But, now I can happily have two or three of those chocolates.

The other staple of Spanish streets in wintertime are the chestnuts. Vendors roast chestnuts on charcoal grills, creating a wonderful aroma that spreads everywhere. It’s fantastic.

Well, another week has rolled around. And it has been an eventful one. Most notably, this last Sunday, the tenth of November, Spain has had its elections. Now, there is nothing that makes me feel quite so much like a foreigner as when there are elections. Of course, not being a Spanish citizen, I cannot vote. And even though I live in Spain, I don’t have very much to gain or to lose by the results of the elections. So I feel very left out. Besides all that, like many Americans I have had trouble understanding how a foreign country’s government—Spain’s government—works.

I will try not to bore you with the details—which I don’t even know anyways—but here’s what I have learned so far. Spain’s democracy is quite young, since it only began in 1978 with the death of Franco. The country has had literally dozens of constitutions throughout its history, beginning with the Napoleonic invasions, but the current constitution is only the second fully democratic one. (The first one, of 1931, lasted only five years until the Spanish Civil War and ended when Franco took power.) Before his death, Franco groomed the prince of Spain, Juan Carlos, to be his dictatorial heir. But the young monarch surprised everyone after Franco died by moving resolutely in the direction of democracy. And so, to make a long story short, the current government was born.

Like many countries around the world, Spain has a parliamentary system. This is confusing for Americans. In America we vote separately for the legislature—our representatives and senators—and for the president. In Spain, on the other hand, the president is not directly chosen by the people (or even the electoral college), but instead by the legislature. So basically, if one party achieves a majority in the parliament, the leader of that party will become the president. This means that you can’t have the president be of one party and then the congress controlled by the opposing party, which so often happens in America. For this reason, parliamentary systems are often more decisive than the American model, since there aren’t so many checks and balances between the legislature and executive, and the two are much more closely involved.

Now, the situation is more complicated if no single party achieves a majority. This is what happened in the recent elections. Then, the government must be run by a coalition, which usually means that the party with the most votes needs to cut a deal with a smaller party (or two…) in order to achieve the necessary majority. To be specific, the country’s socialist party, PSOE, won the most votes this last election, but not enough to have an absolute majority. To achieve a majority, they teamed up with a party called Podemos, a left-wing populist party. Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the socialists, is therefore now the president, and the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesías, is the vice president. So Spain, unlike many European countries nowadays, has a leftist government. But to maintain power these two parties not only need to work with each other—which has been difficult for them recently—but to work with several smaller, regional parties, most notably those Catalonian parties that favor independence. We’ll see if they can work it out.

I should mention another curious aspect of parliamentary systems, at least from the perspective of an American. In Spain, there is no fixed timing for elections. The Spanish don’t, like us, automatically vote every four years, even though politicians do have term limits. Rather, elections happen when there are special circumstances. For example, a government may call a snap election in the hopes of bolstering its majority—this is what happened this past April, which was the last election. (So the last election was just a few months ago.) Or elections may be held if the current parliament fails to form a working majority or coalition, maybe because one party is holding out in the hopes of better election results. This is what recently happened. (It didn’t pan out for the socialists.)

Oh, and I should mention that Spain is still technically a monarchy, even though the king does not have any real power. King Felipe VI is the head of state in Spain. From what I can tell, though lots of Spaniards don’t like having a monarchy, and though some Spaniards are die-hard monarchists, most people don’t seem to pay the monarchy much mind. It’s not like England, where the royal family are tabloid celebrities.

Anyways, anyways, I don’t want to bore you with a treatise on Spanish government. Even Spanish people don’t talk that much about Spanish politics, at least compared to how much we Americans talk about American politics. Ironically, however, the voter turnout in Spain is higher than it is in America! This can be hard for us Americans to believe, since we like to think we invented democracy, and in any case we spend so much energy on politics. But most of Europe has us beat in that regard. Maybe it helps that elections in Spain are on Sundays, and not Tuesdays.

The funny thing about the recent elections is that, from what I can tell, most Spaniards aren’t talking about who won, but rather but who lost. During the rise of Trump and the whole Brexit fiasco—not to mention similar right-wing populist movements in Europe—many commentators noted Spain’s seeming immunity from this phenomenon. Commentators said, “Oh, they remember Franco.” But that is no longer the case. A new, far-right party, Vox, surprised everyone by winning more seats in congress than either Podemos or Ciudadanos (a centrist party that used to be a major player), making it the third-largest party in the country, after the socialists and the old conservative party. Vox conforms to many of the far-right stereotypes: anti-European Union, anti-Islam, anti-femminist, anti-LGBT, and so on. One would have hoped that this strain of Spanish politics had died with Franco. But history is never so tidy.

Well, I’ve given you this whole spiel about the Spanish government, and yet this was not the most interesting part of my weekend. Not by a long-shot. I recently discovered that Madrid’s opera house, the royal theater—a massive building right next to the royal palace—offers discount tickets for people under thirty. This, for the moment, includes me! So this last Sunday I went to the box office two hours before the show, and got myself a good seat for only nineteen euros. Keep in mind that this could have cost me five times as much if I were older. The opera was L’elisir d’Amore, by Donizetti—a kind of farcical Romantic comedy. Let me tell you, I have seldom felt both so fancy and so shabby as when I went to see an opera in a red t-shirt.

Opera is only the tip of the performance iceberg in Madrid. Largely thanks to my girlfriend—who is a theater maniac—I have discovered that Madrid is extremely rich in theater of every kind. To name just a few of the city’s excellent theaters, there is the Teatro Lara, the Teatro del Canal, the Teatro de la Comedia, the Teatro Español, and so on. Dozens and dozens of theaters, some of them small holes in the wall, and some of them elaborately decorated spaces. I have seen Shakespeare’s Othello performed as a sado-masochistic dystopian work, and I have seen classic plays from the Spanish Golden Age performed with perfect correctness. Besides being simply fun, visiting the theater is a wonderful way to practice my Spanish and to immerse myself in Spanish culture.

Like the Opera, many theaters—particularly the fancier ones—offer generous discounts to young people. This is common all over Europe. If you are 26 or under (unfortunately not me, at the moment), you can visit many of Europe’s famous monuments for cheap or even for free. The Prado in Madrid, for example, is free if you are under 27. You can even get discounts on public transportation. Up until the age of 26, you can get a transit pass that includes all of the trains, metros, and buses in the entire Madrid metropolitan area—going all the way to Toledo—for only twenty euros a month. Although I am obviously biased, I think this is a wonderful idea. It certainly helps to encourage young people to take advantage of all of the available cultural experiences they can. My girlfriend, for example, could never have developed such a terrible addiction to the theater if it weren’t so cheap for her. 

The idea of a “youth discount” is one of the many small ways that life in Europe can seem so much more accessible and accommodating than life in the United States. It is certainly difficult to imagine the New York Subway letting you ride the entire network for only 20 bucks a month. And imagine if the Metropolitan Opera offered 19 dollar tickets to anyone under thirty! Now that I’ve discovered these youth tickets, maybe I’ll take the opportunity to become an opera addict. It’s certainly better than being addicted to politics.

Letters from Spain #4: Spanish Banks

Letters from Spain #4: Spanish Banks

Here is episode four of my podcast on life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-4-spanish-banks/id1469809686?i=1000456144590

For the transcript, see below:


This week I wanted to concentrate on what I have discovered to be one of the greatest differences between Spain and the United States: Banks. It is a telling contrast, as I hope to show. Most Americans, after opening bank accounts here, are astounded to learn how limited are the hours in which the banks remain open. My local bank back in NY, for example, is open until six o’clock Monday through Friday, and until two in the afternoon on Saturdays. A typical Spanish bank schedule is to be open until two in the afternoon Monday through Friday, and possibly later on Thursdays. Nothing on weekends.

You realize, of course, that this means there is no time that a person with a normal working schedule can visit the bank. Consequently, half the time I visit a bank, most of the clients inside are retired. This is certainly an odd situation. Normally, the limited hours of banks are not really a problem, I admit, since I just need an ATM. But there are times when it is desperately necessary. All government fees, for example, cannot be paid in the government office itself, but must be paid in a bank—don’t ask me why. So if, like me, you need to visit government offices to do the paperwork for your visa, or even if you want to sign up for language classes at the government schools, then you need to figure out when you can visit an open bank.

But the differences between Spanish and American banking cultures goes far deeper. To illustrate this difference, here are two anecdotes.

The first anecdote is about my brother. Upon arriving to Spain and opening a bank account—I won’t say the bank’s name—he transferred money from his American to his Spanish account, in order to withdraw it without fees. Something went wrong with this transfer, though, and he received three times the amount of money he had sent. You can imagine he was very happy. That is, until the bank automatically froze his account.

Now here’s another curious thing about the way banks are set up here. If you have any serious administrative issue to resolve, you can’t just go to any office of your bank. You need to go to the office where you opened your account. So my brother couldn’t go to the bank around the corner. He had to travel half an hour in the metro.

When he arrived, the interaction went something like this.

“There’s a problem with my account,” he said. “Let me see…, no, it’s fine,” the clerk said. “But it’s not working at all.” “There’s no problem with your account.” “My ATM card doesn’t work and there’s too much money in my account.” “Let me see…” At this point the bank clerk got up from his desk and accompanied my brother to the ATM outside, to see for himself that the card didn’t work. Then, after witnessing it, he went back to his chair. “Ah, I see now,” the clerk said. “Your account is frozen.” “Yes,” my brother said. “How do I fix it?” “We’ll take care of it,” the clerk said. “It will be fine in a couple of days.”

This sounds reassuring. But this exact conversation replayed itself four times before the problem could be properly addressed. My brother arrived for several weeks in a row, and each time the clerks would insist that nothing was wrong with his account. Then, they would insist that the problem would be taken care of. The solution, it turned out, was rather complicated. Somehow my brother ended up with money from a Lithuanian bank, and he had to send it back.

What was striking for us Americans was the behavior of the bank staff. How could it be that their computer system did not clearly indicate that there was a problem? Why was it so difficult to figure out how to fix it? And why were the clerks so keen on insisting that there was no problem, or that it would be taken care of very soon? 

As you contemplate these questions, let me tell you an anecdote of my own.

I know that I’ve been in Spain for quite a while, since my debit card, the one that I had gotten during my first weeks in the country, was about to expire. Foreseeing an issue, I went to my local bank a month before its expiration. Trying to avoid any delay, I requested that the card be sent to this office, which is around the corner from my house. That way it would be easy to pick up. The clerk assured me that he had put a notice into the system and it would be there before my old card stopped working. All well and good.

The month rolled around, and I got a text message saying that my new card had been sent. But there was a problem: it had been sent, not to the office near my apartment, but to the original bank where I opened my account. To add to the annoyance, the message sent to me told me the street where the bank was located (I hadn’t been there in years) but not the number. As I learned from Google, there are two of my banks on the same street.

I proceeded to call both banks. After I figured out which was the right one, I asked if they had my card. Two people looked, and told me no. So now I was lost. Was the card sent to my local office after all? The next chance I could, I went to my local office, and I asked the same man if they had my card. “No, it’ll be at the office where you opened your account,” he said. “I called,” I replied, “and it’s not there. Can they send it here?” “It’s better to just go there and get it,” he said. “Well, the problem is that I have a job,” I said, “and I don’t work anywhere near this bank.” “What do you want us to do?” the clerk said, adopting the typical Spanish strategy of throwing the guilt back on you. “You should’ve had the card sent to your apartment.” “Ok,” I said, becoming impatient. “But what should I do now?” “Find a way to go to that bank,” he said.

To emphasize, this bank office closes most days at 2 p.m., and I work until 4:30 p.m. over an horu away. The only chance I had was to go on a Thursday, when the bank closes at 6. If I went straight there from work, I could just barely make it in time. I should also mention that, despite my calling twice and having two separate people check for my card, the office really did have it. The problem was that they filed the card under A, for my middle name Andrew. In Spain people have two last names, you see (one from their father and one from their mother), and no middle names, so the bank staff confused my middle name for one of my last names.

Ok, so my card was going to expire soon. Thursday came around. I had to rush from my job to the office. I left work and walked to the train station. A train was waiting. Perfect. I got on board and began to read. But there was a problem: the train sat for a long time without moving. When it finally did begin to move, it went slowly, and spent a long time parked at each stop. What was going on? It took us fifteen minutes to go three stations, which normally takes less than five minutes. At the next stop the train stopped completely. It was packed with people desperate, like me, to get into Madrid. Nobody knew why the train was stopped, or when the next train would be. Even the security guards in the station had no idea.

Another train pulled up across from us, and then, obeying a herd mentality, everyone switched to the new train. Then the original train began to move. We switched back—hundreds of people rushing across the platform. By this point I gave up and sat down on a bench. The train was too packed to get on, anyway. As I contemplated my next move, the other train, the one without anyone on it, closed its doors and left the station. The crowd erupted in anger. A man began to shriek in a falsetto at the security guards, blaming them for telling everyone to switch trains.

Eventually the security guard began to shout back, and a hilarious screeching contest ensued. I was too amused to feel very worried. Then, without any warning, the doors of the original train—the one with people one it—closed, and the train left the station. Now, this has nothing to do with banks, but I was dumbstruck that the people driving the trains did not simply announce over their PA systems which train was going to leave. Such an absurd situation would never have occurred on the Metro North, where I live in New York. Then again, I later learned that the delay was caused by a strike, which is another thing that seldom happens in my country.

Anyways, I wait for the next train, which slowly makes its way to Madrid. By the time it arrived in Atocha, I only had about twenty minutes. I ran into a cab and told the driver to take me to the bank on X street. In the few minutes of the ride, I asked the driver about her job. She works over twelve hours a day, with hardly a break for meals. And they say Spanish people are lazy! Undoubtedly this gruelling schedule is partly a result of the new competition from other services like Uber. But that’s another story.

The cab pulled up to the bank, I paid and got out. Here at last! I marched into the bank and asked for my card. The man searched for my name in the computer. “Hmmm,” he says. “Your card isn’t here. It’s at the other bank on X street, about eight minutes away.” Of course! I had forgotten that there are two of these banks on the same street! I rushed out of the office, running like mad to the other bank. I got there about seven minutes before they close.

The only clerk at the desk was occupied with somebody. It looked like a rather complicated issue they were resolving. I began to panic. All this for nothing! Yet just when I was on the point of giving in to self-pity, a woman came walking in, talking on her phone. “Ah, sorry,” she said, seeing me. “Ok dad, I’ll call you back.” This, by the way, was another perfect little moment of Spanish culture: a bank clerk happily strolling in after going outside to chat with her dad. To add to this absurd impression, the clerk actually took a call from a friend in the middle of giving me my card. They are a social people, the Spanish.

Well, after going on for such a long, long time about the inconvenience of Spanish banking, I ought to add that I managed to lose this debit card within two weeks of this ordeal. Thus the circle of incompetence is completed. This time, I asked for my replacement card to be sent to me in the mail. It arrived in three days. The banks, as usual, have the last laugh.

Letters from Spain #2: Autumn in Madrid

Letters from Spain #2: Autumn in Madrid

Here is episode two of my podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-2-autumn-in-madrid/id1469809686?i=1000454646534

For the transcript, see below:


October in Madrid has pretty well run its course, and by now I know what that means. The weather has turned on a dime from gorgeous sunny days to bitterly cold rain, and the trees look more decrepit by the hour. Nature is preparing to hibernate, and yet my year is just beginning.

For the fifth time, I made my way to the Mercado Cervantino in Alcalá de Henares. Alcalá de Henares, by the way, is a smallish historical city on the outskirts of Madrid. This was the very first trip I took inside Spain. I had just barely arrived to the country, and I was still in a constant state of mild panic. Not counting university, my move to Spain was my first move away from home. I was convinced that disaster loomed everywhere. Specifically, I had a paranoid fear that somebody was going to steal my wallet, and I would end up homeless on the Spanish streets.

Anyways, I passed the short train ride to Alcalá obsessively checking my pockets and scanning everyone around me, afraid of the strangers, afraid of missing my stop, afraid of everything. But when I got off the train, all the fear left me. Now, I need to preface this description by admitting that my first impressions of Madrid were slightly disappointing. Madrid is a modern city; and to a person trying to escape New York, this is not a mark in its favor. But Alcalá—now here was the true old Spain, the Europe I had been looking for.

The city is home to one of Spain’s most historically important universities, and so it is filled with beautiful old buildings. Soon I noticed the big bushy nests of storks atop these old buildings, which struck me as almost unbelievably quaint and attractive. I elbowed my way through the thick crowds, my hands stuck into my pockets, until I arrived at my goal: the childhood home of Miguel de Cervantes, which is now a museum right in the center of the city.

Standing there, in that admittedly unremarkable piece of architecture, I felt for the first time what I later came to call “European Travel syndrome.” This is the uncanny feeling that something absolutely remote and perhaps even mythical is actually as real as you and me. Cervantes, for example, has been just real in my mind as his creation, Don Quijote. But when you visit the house where he was raised, and imagine him in diapers, crying for milk, being rocked to sleep, the amazing author of the world’s first novel becomes quite a different sort of creature in your mind.

This is one of the great differences between Americans, even cultured Americans, and Europeans. On this side of the Atlantic, history is tangible, visible, and as omnipresent as air, while for Americans learning solely through books and pictures, history is inevitably something quite fantastic, impossibly distant, and irretrievably dead.

Not that Spaniards are immune from the kind of historical romanticizing that we practice at home in Renaissance Fairs, as the Medieval Market of Alcalá proves. Here the vendors wear pseudo-medieval costumes and sell plastic swords and toy shields. Imaginary knights do battle while unlookers eat grilled meat. And so on. The main difference, in fact, is that here the festival takes place in a genuinely medieval city.

This celebration begins around October 9th, the day Cervantes was baptized in 1547. Three days later comes another October fixture, the Día de la Hispanidad, or the national day of Spain. This takes place on October 12, which you may recognize as the day Christopher Columbus landed in the New World. This historical event marked the beginning of the Spanish Golden Age, during which Spain became the most powerful country in the world, dominating half the globe. Interestingly, however, all reference to Columbus has been deliberately removed from the holiday’s official name; and, in my experience, hardly anyone talks about Columbus, positively or negatively, during this holiday. 

Rather, the focus is on a grand military parade through the center of Madrid. Military aircraft fly overhead, trailing colorful smoke, while columns of troops march past followed by rolling tanks. Presiding over this (largely empty) show of military might is the king, Felipe VI, attended by dozens of generals and politicians. The whole thing has a stuffy, conservative air, only lightened by the rather farcical nature of the military demonstration. This year, for example, the parachutist who was supposed to grandly descend from the sky, trailing an enormous Spanish flag, got caught on a streetlight and was knocked unconscious. Two years ago, a fighter pilot crashed and died in Albacete.

Like so many European countries—and, indeed, maybe every country—Spain is caught uncomfortably between is past and its future. It celebrates on Columbus Day, but does not mention Columbus. The country has not been a major military power since God knows when, but they must have a military parade. And though the king has very little real power in the government, he is the central focus of the event. In my experience, most Spaniards gladly accept the holiday and pay little attention to the history, the parade, or the king.

But Spaniards (and tourists) do care about the next event: Tapapiés. This is an annual food festival held every October in one of Madrid’s liveliest neighborhoods, Lavapiés. This year the event goes from the 17th to the 27th, and every year it is the same deal. A restaurant prepares a special tapa—a small plate of food, typically only a few bites—and sells it with a beer for two euros fifty. The streets and bars are usually packed, with a mostly young crowd, and musicians set up here and there to perform. As the night progresses, the results are predictable: you eat too little, drink too much, and spend more money than you ought But it is a good time.

This year, however, was slightly pathetic. For one, nobody could accompany me except my brother, and he’s my roommate. Then, when we arrived, it immediately began to rain—hard. As the weather got worse, we ducked for cover inside a mostly empty Turkish restaurant that was not participating in the event. Just then, we heard a kind of muffled bang, and a crowd of people began running away from the plaza. It didn’t sound anything like a gunshot to me, but several people mentioned a gun and a gunshot as they fled the scene. Meanwhile, I stood in the doorway of the restaurant, and watched.

After the street cleared out, a few men wearing hoods and bandannas around their faces ran up. I recognized them as being rioters. You see, some politicians in Catalonia had just been sentenced to prison for organizing an illegal referendum on the region’s independence, two years ago. Independence movements are one of Spain’s eternal problems, you see, flaring up repeatedly throughout its history, as I am sure I will discuss in another podcast. Here I only wish to say that these men were among the same demographic as the football hooligans who beat up fans of opposing teams, and with about as much brains.

The man in front of me overturned garbage cans into the road, trying vainly to slow down the police, and then ran off. A minute later, he was followed by a column of police in riot gear—with truncheons and clear plastic shields—who paved the way for an entire convoy of armored police vehicles. I assume they were making their way towards Callao, the plaza which was the epicenter of the rioting. I later learned that three officers were injured that night, one of them stabbed. Considering the rain and all this commotion, my brother and I decided to stay in the restaurant and eat a kebab.

The next morning I saw something I had never seen before: the Fiesta de la Transhumancia, or the Transhumance Festival. This is a yearly event. Shepherds take their flocks of sheep and goats down from Asturias on the historical paths set aside by King Alfonso the tenth (so-called “the wise”) in 1273 for their use. One of these paths (called cañadas reales) cuts right through Madrid, and so the shepherds enter in grand array, wearing their traditional garb, singing songs, dancing, playing bagpipes, and leading their sheep from Casa de Campo to the Plaza de Cibeles. The shepherds were charming, but their sheep were exhilerating—a swarming ocean of white fleece. The whole scene could not have looked more out of place in the normally busy intersection.

This, in a nutshell, has been my October in Madrid. Certainly it lacks much of what makes Autumn in New York so charming. This time of year, I particularly miss the extraordinary fall foliage of my home state. But it must be admitted that Madrid has some compensating joys.

New Podcast: Letters from Spain #1

New Podcast: Letters from Spain #1

I recently started on a new podcast project, Letters from Spain, where I hope to document my life in Madrid, and to reflect on some of the differences between Spain and the United States.

To listen to the first episode, click here.

Below is the text of the podcast:


Letter #1: Beginning

I am here to talk about Spain.

But I should begin with some reservations. Talking about other cultures is a dangerous enterprise. A major risk is exoticizing the culture—making it seem altogether unusual and even nonsensical. From there, it is a short step to dismissing the culture completely, treating it as an illogical accident of humankind, a bizarro land where nothing is as it should be. On the other extreme we may normalize the culture by focusing exclusively on the ways in which it is not so very different. This way we treat the other culture as we treat ourselves, which is partly good; however, this way we may fail to recognize how a culture is genuinely special.

This is only the beginning of our troubles. To talk about something, we must ourselves have a point of view; and that is formed, of course, by our own culture. For me that culture is American, specifically from New York, specifically from Westchester County, specifically from the town of Sleepy Hollow. For me, that is ‘normal,’ and this sense of normality shapes my perspective. I cannot help but compare Spain to this culture, my culture, and to see everything Spanish as, in a sense, a deviation. Is it possible to talk about a culture in purely objective terms? I doubt it; and even if it were possible, I doubt that it would be worth listening to. Culture is, among other things, a system of values, and you cannot understand it without having values of your own.

I am going on, listing difficulties, and yet there are still more risks. An obvious one is the use of stereotypes. Now, what is a stereotype? It is not merely a generalization, but a widely known and popularly believed generalization, usually with positive or negative ramifications. Each country has its share of stereotypes—the Spanish dance flamenco, go to bullfights, and sleep siestas, while Americans eat hamburgers and live in big houses. And so on. Now, some people say that stereotypes are problematic because they are generalizations. I don’t think that’s true. All knowledge consists of generalizations. And some generalizations are perfectly true. It is true, for example, that Spanish people tend to eat dinner later than Americans.

The problem with stereotypes, then, is not that they are generalizations, but that they are misapplied or untrue generalizations. Most Spanish people don’t like flamenco, or go to bullfights, or have time in the middle of the day for a nap. And, besides, these stereotypes are troublesome because they project a kind of fantasy version of Spain, where the people are living passionate, dangerous lives under the scorching Mediterranean sun. Don’t get me wrong, these things do exist in Spain, and they are interesting facets of Spanish culture. But to characterize the whole country that way is highly inaccurate, to say the least.

Considering all of these risks, then, what am I here to do? In this podcast, I hope to use my own experience in Spain to consider some of the subtler differences between life here and life back in the United States. To tell you something about myself, my name is Roy. I am a 28-year-old English teacher, living in Madrid. I decided to move here over four years ago, when I was working in Manhattan in an office job that, shall we say, did not fulfill my dreams of post-college life. I wanted an escape, to see the wider world, to go on an adventure; and Europe seemed to be the answer. I had been reading about European history for years. In undergrad, I studied cultural anthropology, and my advisor did his research in the south of Spain. Dreams of castles and philosophers’ graves beguiled me, and soon I found myself on a plane to Madrid.

You may ask, why Spain? Well, the answer is not very inspiring. Simply, Spain is one of the easiest countries to legally work in for Americans. It was an entirely opportunistic move. But, it was a fortunate one, since I became enamored of the country within months. My backstory explains my own bias. Like many people, I suspect, I came to Spain seeking an escape from the dreary world of American adulthood, and I found one. Thus, for me, Spain is tinged with a kind of rosy hue, as a place of refuge and adventure. I have lived here long enough for some of this to have worn off, but still I am predisposed to see all things Spanish as good. Still, I do hope I will avoid idealizing this country, since such a romanticized image would have little value. 

So in this podcast I want to explain what I have come to learn and appreciate about this place, and why I have chosen to stay year after year. And I will do this from an inescapably American perspective. The differences between Spanish and American culture goes far beyond flamenco and siestas, and I think these subtler differences have much to teach us. I hope do to this without either collapsing the differences between these two cultures, and without making Spain seem impossibly exotic. Let us see if I can thread the needle.