Reflections on the Land of Sunshine and JoyMay 29th, 2009
by Kip Tobin
In the several week run up to my exit here from your beautiful country, many people, including yourself, have asked me what I will miss about Spain. The main reaction of those who find out I’m leaving resembles this: “You been here how long - six years? Shit man. That’s a long time. Damn.” Most follow with “Why are you leaving?”.
These reactions naturally force you to consider the reality of your exit. These final days have been flashing before me like a movie reel, unable to to see one frame and appreciate it. As I type these words, I can already feel the credits starting to roll.
Before I know it, I’ll be gone, and a huge chunk of this time I’m invested in this country will seem like a distant dream. I hope to never be one of those people that lived abroad for a time and then constantly boasts about it at any given unsolicited opportunity, as if it would make me seem more worldly or cultured than I am.
To help avoid this potential pitfall and to not repeat myself, I’ve comprised this rather long list of what I will and won’t miss from this country I called home for quite a while. It is not a complete list and in no order of importance, but a representation of a few of the frames I’ve been able to catch, grasp and remember as I’m mounting one of the sloppier international moves in recent history.
1. I will go through Jamón Ibérico withdrawl within days of leaving. I will hunger for the general high quality food and the societal attitude towards eating it. They honor the privilege of eating. In contrast, back in the US where meat is usually formed into cute geometric shapes that resemble juicy brown play doe, here it is in its raw, naturally cured form. I am not ashamed to admit that I will direly miss seeing walls lined with cured legs. Other favorite foods: Tortilla, Pulpo a la Gallega, Gazpacho, Albondigas, Cocido, Chorizo/Salchichón, Pan tomáca, Calzots.
Oh yeah, I will miss all the inexpensive and excellent wines.
2. I will yearn dearly for the relentless dose of culture that seeps from pretty much every corner of this capital city. Sculptures on the street, book fairs, art weeks, film festivals, theater and dance month, architecture week, parties on the streets until the A.M., etc. Every month in Madrid is simply too much to choose from, and while I regret not taking full advantage of even 20% of what it has offered, I’m better off for knowing it exists and having lived surrounded by it.
3. I will miss the national pastime of dando un paseo, or taking the leisurely stroll that Spaniards take at any hour of the day, inching their way to their destinations or simply having no destination at all, completely oblivious to any one around them. It is a testament to their natural ability to appreciate the moments as they pass.
4. I will not miss the way Spaniards are completely oblivious to any one around them when they take their leisurely strolls, mostly because I’ve been trying to walk around them and they’ve been blocking or hindering my own North American beeline for the past six years.
He now lives on a farm in Avila and from reported accounts is contentísimo. Letting him go was one of the harder decisions I’ve had to make in a long time, but I think it was probably the best for him. (I hate Sting.)
6. At some point, after I will have lived for some time back in a land where apathy is (or at least was) contentment, I will damn-near ache to see a protest. Spaniards will get off their asses to raise a sign and yell in unison for just about anything. The March 11th attacks brought about 10 million people to the streets country wide, 1/4 of the population. Gay marriage brought the right out en masse (which was either 2 million according to their protest organizers or 200,000 according to the police). The perpetual Israel-Palestine conflict brings about one protest every two months. When gas hit 4$/gallon last summer, the truckers blocked highway lanes; the lack of affordable housing brought about 500 out to protest against it; anti-capitalism protests…nude protesters for animals rights…nude bike riders in Madrid balking against Madrid’s lack of bicycle lanes…anti-fascists protests…anti-ETI protests…anti-bullfighting protests…dogs and their owners group together decrying the unfair fines of 300€ they get when they let their dogs go free in parts of Retiro’s park where signs specifically state they should always be on a leash…angry Spanish youth protesting against the restrictive laws not permitting them to drink (illegally) on the streets that provoked a riot two years ago here in Madrid. I once saw a group of 10 people condemning the newly installed car meters in their neighborhood, signs and all.
The list abounds, and I hope they never stop fighting, even if it’s by a small group of mothers who think they should be allowed to breastfeed in the Prado. They protested by bringing their hungry babies to the Prado and letting them feed for all to see.
7. I will not miss the way you guys smoke here. Around 40% of the adult population light up on a daily basis in any restaurant or bar. You tried outlawing it back in 2006 but the smoking lobby fought it hard enough (read: deeply fingered the government’s pockets) and now you have the equivalent of the US in the 50s. As much as I’ve smoked and tried to quit here, you make it nearly impossible for certain kinds of people to quit, as well as an intolerable hell for nonsmokers. One very good thing about the US is the fascism-level control over the public air secondhand smoke.
8. I will long for your benches. At any given point in the city of Madrid, you are no more than a few hundred feet away from a bench. Most other cities and pueblos in Spain seem to adhere to this bench culture. Due in equal parts to the brutal heat and effusive sociability of Spaniards, this ample placement of benches throughout Spain make it one of the best countries to sit down and do whatever you do when you do so (read, people watch, smoke, drink maté or beer, swap pleasantries, etc).
9. After all this time of hanging clothes out to dry and washing dishes by hand, I will miss the former and not the latter. Washing dishes by hand sucks. Hanging clothes out to dry is a rather peaceful process, especially when the professional violin player in building across the patio practices with his or her door open and fills the space with some calming classical solos. I will also miss hanging clothes out to dry in July or August and having them dry in less than 30 minutes.
10. I will miss Enrique, my doorman. His job is simple: come in the morning around 10 am, sweep all six floors, attend to any tenants’ needs, leave for lunch around 2 pm, come back at 5 with glassy eyes, an alcohol-laden grin and a suit. When he stands at the threshold of the building to the street and a pretty girl walks by, he whispers something that I’m pretty sure would be unadulterated harassment in the US. If I am near, he looks at me and raises his eyebrows. I raise mine back and nod my head at an angle. I don’t condone this behavior, but find it very macho doorman-ish of him, and he certainly wouldn’t be him if he didn’t do it.
11. While I certainly don’t think the US is without its both blatant and latent racial issues, I will not miss the viscous undercurrent of racism that flows deep through this country’s ethos. Whether it’s the Spanish basketball team posing for a picture in the Olympics in China with each player making “slit-eyed gestures”, or Spanish Formula 1 fans yelling out “puto negro” or “negro de mierda” at Lewis Hamilton in Barcelona last year, or the “monkey chants” during a British football match in 2006, or, especially, when I’ve pointed this out to some of my Spanish friends, they are unable to see what’s offensive about it. In this way, Spain has tendencies towards the US in the 50s.
12. I will miss the sex and violence that adorns the media in all its forms. The day after the March 11th train bombings in Madrid, El Mundo ran a picture on the front page of one of the wagon’s carnage with two body-less heads mangled in the aftermath; in Fallujah when those four American civilian contractors were killed and one was burnt alive in 2004, his charred body being dragged down the street as people cheered around him/it, that was the front page on El País. The news often shows car accidents with dead bodies covered in sheets and blood spilled everywhere. It is very common to open a newspaper, turn on the TV or see a billboard with a woman’s breast bared. It never seems like something we need to be protected from, nor something unnatural or impure. This month’s Vanity Fair boasted a rather controversial cover with two female models naked, buttocks and one nipple exposed. It was billboarded across Madrid like a movie poster.
I will miss these sometimes shocking, sometimes sexed-up images because they seem much realer the American depiction of reality as represented through the media. America’s supposed puritanical nature seems much more sheltered and ultimately damaging psychologically. If we are unable to even see the caskets of dead American soldiers coming back from a war we started, then what the hell does that say about us? It says we can’t stick our heads far enough into holes in the ground.
13. I will miss the concept of a Spanish house. Casa for most means the equivalent of condo in American or British. They live on top of, underneath and next to each other here, like ants. One positive effect of this is a very social society that isn’t afraid to touch you or stand clearly in violation of the standard American personal space of two feet. It can be welcoming once you’re used to it.
14. I will not miss being lived on top of, especially by the guy in the flat above who tends to urinate at 1 am and, just as I’m about doze off, get the aural sensation that someone is peeing all over me. And what follows is, expectantly, that I get flushed on.
15. I will probably cry around mid-March next year, wondering what happened to the excessive vacations that Spain experiences. Including weekends, the average Spaniard does not working 1/3 of the year. Most everyone is given three weeks of vacation up front, with about 15 days of national holidays throughout the year.
16. I will ache to see the two-toothed smiling 80-year-old lady in my neighborhood who sets her chair out on the sidewalk whenever the weather is warm and just watches the world approach and leave her.
She makes the sidewalk her porch and nobody protests about it. When I walk passed her, without fail she smiles at me and whistles a grumbled but well-intentioned “Buenas tardes”. Her smile is so wide, inviting and sincere that I feel like I should stop and talk to her, maybe give her a big Midwestern hug. But I don’t.
17. At some point — as soon as the US has another lunatic decides to take out his own family or coworkers before offing himself — I will pine for being back a society that does not have the general populace carrying guns. This is by far one of the most peaceful societies I have known. That being said, they kill each other here either the old fashioned way: stabbing — a much closer and therefore difficult way to end someone’s life. If you’re going to kill someone, sticking a sharp object in them repeatedly is much more difficult than pulling a trigger a couple of times. (At least I think that would be the case.) Guns are for pussies. Also, I will miss the smiling policemen who do carry guns but never seem threatening or filled with an arrogant sense of power. Here, whenever I see a cop, I never have the fleeting thought: “What am I doing that is illegal right now?”
18. I will miss the sheer devaluing of all vulgarity that the vast majority of Spaniards partake in on a daily basis without being aware of it. Joder, Mierda, Coño– “fuck”, “shit” and “cunt” respectively — are so pervasive that, to an outsider’s point of view, they seem more like “damn”, “shoot” and “hell”. Me cago en Dios (”I shit on God”) — probably equivalent in its essence to “Motherfucker” — is thankfully still reserved for special situations.
19. I will miss having no car. I haven’t driven regularly in almost six years and I feel better off for not having done so. As Robert Persig once said, driving a car is just more boring television, and I’m about to go back to a lot more television. I hope to relocate to a smaller town like Austin or Portland that has smaller Euro-style shops and walking neighborhoods.
20. I will miss the Sunday magazine El País Seminal (EPS) and the literary supplement Babelia on Saturday. One notable distinction from the states is that writers and novelists almost always double as columnists in newspapers, probably because it’s the only way to make a consistent living between books. As the newspaper dies its languid death, this too may change. But I’ve learned a lot of Spanish from following excellent writers like Javier Marías, Carlos Fuentes (Mexican but writes for El País), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peruvian but write for El País), Javier Cercas, Manuel Vincente, Manual Rivas, Rosa Montero, Ray Loriega, Antonio Moliz Molina and my favorite Spanish (er, Catalán) writer Quím Monzó. The absence of my easy access to them will be long and profound. I will also miss being able to walk down the block and buy a newspaper from a kiosk.
21. I will not miss the inverted Spanish standard of printing titles on book spines. It’s the opposite to the rest of the world, so…what gives?
Yes I, I will undoubtedly yearn for many aspects of this unique and fascinating country, its mad, deafening capital and, of course, you. I’m very lucky to have met you and many other sweet souls and peaceful pilgrims in my extended sojourn as an expat. You’ve been wonderful to me, and I will remember you with nothing but fondness, and sunshine, and joy. I may some day move back here, but for the foreseeable future, I am going back to watch the mighty superpower bumbling , see if I can’t help it in some way, see if I can’t help be a part of the change that it needs, see if it can’t help me be a part of a change that I need.
Spain– with all its flaws and setbacks, its feeble economy slipping into almost 5 million unemployed, its Mediterranean coast polluted beyond life-sustaining levels, it’s expanding desert and droughts, water distribution issues and rampant political corruption, among many other problems — is still one of the best countries on the planet.
When I look back at the blurry frames of my six years here and think about the multitude of reasons I came and the many for which I am going, I can only answer the question planted above of “Why are you going?” with this simple and succinct answer:
Con mucho amor,
Tags: dando un paseo, guns are for pussies, Inés, Jamón Iberico, Me cago en Dios, memoir, missing, movie reel metaphor, pros and cons, protests, racism, reflections, smoking, Spain, Spanish authors, the good and the bad, vulgarity