A few weeks back, Europe was greeted by a visitor from Texas who was shocked to find his arrival met with a less than favorable welcome. No, I’m not talking about President Bush’s recent trip to England, but rather my lesser media-covered vacation to Spain. (At least, there weren’t countless protestors, though I suspected a tabloid spy had been carefully placed inside the Hotel Europa in Madrid to report on my every move.) I had not ventured to Europe since my trip to Bergamo, Italy in February 2000 (see Issue 34) when I embarrassed myself, my friends who were living there, and my country by my inability to adapt to this strange culture. I primarily planned this trip to visit my niece who was studying abroad in the Spanish town of Salamanca. Since college, I have always regretted not participating in a similar program, but I was far too busy spending my days at Barton Springs and my evenings on 6th Street (when I wasn’t at the library). In fact, I remember thinking that my one friend who did study abroad was crazy to be giving up so many of his “quality” college days in Austin. Living vicariously through my 20 year old niece, I used her experience as a good excuse to explore a country that I had never visited.
A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
Having taken two years of high school Spanish just a few short years ago (actually, about 25), I assumed I would find no language barrier during this trip. Apparently, I must have learned Mexico Spanish instead of Spain Spanish because I had trouble communicating from day one. At times I managed to ask the proper questions about food, directions, and sites, but never understood the answers. Fortunately, my games of charades, pointing to items on menus and maps, and loud talking in a Spanish accent really helped. Frankly (arrogantly), I was a little surprised that more people in a large city like Madrid did not speak English. Since I was traveling alone for a few days before connecting with my niece, I would dart after anyone who spoke English to engage in some conversation. One such dialogue occurred on a bus trip to Toledo (not Ohio) where I sat next to two American girls (in their 30s) and hoped to wander the city with them upon our arrival. Suspecting (or fearing) I was stalking them, they quickly disappeared in the bus station. (Interestingly, I have that same effect on 30 year old girls in the United States as well.)
For seven days, I did my best “local” imitation and do not think I stood out despite constantly balancing my city map, guidebook, backpack, and heavy jacket. (At least, I did not carry a camera.) My guidebook was excellent and could very well have been titled “Spain for Dummies (and those who are not the least bit interested in adapting to Spanish Culture).” It sent me to all the top museums and other sites and explained what I absolutely needed to see (and what I could skip); it recommended restaurants and bars and even told me what and how to order. My trip became a country-wide scavenger hunt as I followed the author’s advice to a tee.
I visited the Prado Museum, but opted against going through the Manet exhibit. (Its line seemed longer than the time I wanted to spend at the entire museum.) I checked out the famous Picasso’s at the Reina Sofia Museum (and liked them almost as much as my all time favorite work of art “Dogs Playing Poker.”) I strolled around Retiro Park which reminded me so much of New York’s Central Park, complete with joggers, bikers, row boats, and even guys selling drugs at the entrance. I sat on the 50 yard line for a soccer (or rather Futbol) match between Rayo Vallencano and Sporting de Gijon, but left at halftime because I was not sure who I was supposed to root for. (Also, I was not in the right seat as I couldn’t read my ticket nor could I understand the screaming fans who attempted to point me in the right direction.) Sadly, bullfighting season ended in October, though I did see several rather graphic photos at the bars I frequented. I toured the Royal Palace and the nearby Opera House which has featured performances for over 300 years (or maybe it was 1,300 years; I wasn’t really paying attention.) I marveled at the architecture of several Cathedrals and re-lived my old school days as I wandered the impressive University of Salamanca (and the nearby college nighttime hangouts where I blended in quite nicely). I even attended a Flamenco show, though I enjoyed the sangria far more than the dancing. Mainly, I strolled around the Plaza Mayors, the mercados, and the various squares in the main cities and enjoyed the street entertainers and people watching. I also relished the afternoon siestas that are common throughout Spain.
A FEW BUMPS ALONG THE ROAD
Always the picky eater, my greatest difficulties revolved around food. While I felt at home every time I walked past a McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, and planet Hollywood, I vowed not to step foot inside and order a cuarto libra con queso (quarter pounder with cheese). Instead, I followed my book’s suggestions for tapas (small portions) and racions (main meals) and dined on gamba al ajillo (shrimp in olive oil), champinones (mushrooms), patata bravas (potatoes with tomato sauce), paella (the popular rice dish with gross stuff in it), and pizza (pizza). Once I met up with my niece, she introduced me to tortilla espanolas (this kind of egg/potato “knish” that can be served on a sandwich or as a racion). After learning about these tortillas, I ate them four meals in a row. I started my days with the strongest café con leche (espresso with milk) imaginable and churros con chocolate (these bland doughnuts that are dipped in chocolate sauce). In the afternoons, I snacked on olives and cervaza (beer), mainly because I did not know what else to order and would just point to whatever was on someone else’s table. I had to be careful to inquire about “jamon” as most every dish in Spain contains some form of ham in it. I avoided the roasted suckling pig (though it was recommended repeatedly) because I do not like eating anything that is staring back at me.
Money also presented a small problem for me. Spain has adopted the euro which now stands at an all-time high against the dollar (not good timing). Many euro coins actually have some value, much more so than our pennies, nickels, and dimes. One time, this vago (bum) pointed out an interesting landmark on the wall of the Cathedral in Salamanca. My typical game of charades ensued and, despite playing dumb, I realized he was asking me for money in return for his tourist tip. I reached into my pocket attempting to grab the equivalent of a quarter and handed my new friend a couple of 2 euro pieces. His helpful pointer cost me about $5 (but was well worth it, as was the entire trip to Spain.) I enjoyed learning about a new culture, experiencing the sites and sounds of Spain, eating something besides American fast food, napping virtually everyday (well, that’s not much different than here), and hanging out with my niece while she enjoys her semester abroad. Is it to late for me to apply to a graduate program in Salamanca?