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Sunday, January 17, 2010

First Days in Spain/Mealtimes/Multiple Electrocutions in the City of Oranges

A few people have been bugging me to write an update about my time so far in Spain and since I created two blogs and never wrote a word in either I thought now would be a good time to kill two birds with one stone and write a blog entry about my first few days abroad.

I’ll start by saying that Spain is a lot more “foreign” than I had expected it to be, or rather it’s a lot more different than the US than I thought it would be. I lived/studied for a month in Lithuania and rarely felt that the culture was particularly different than the US, despite the language barrier. In fact, thinking of it I think that it’s the lack of a language barrier that allows me to see how different the culture here really is. In Lithuania I couldn’t get basic messages across without someone to translate so I really had no way to notice small cultural differences. And if I was doing something different, stupid or wrong from the locales’ perspective few could tell me and those who could didn’t seem to want to. Not so in Spain, where “we don’t do ____ this way” or “you’re doing it wrong” are common unsolicited responses to random mundane things like forming a line, eating outside of a designated area or time-slot (a big no-no in Spain) or reading something over someone’s shoulder. Where an American would walk away and whisper to their friends that the foreigner is doing something “weird,” the Spaniard takes it upon his or herself to tell you that you’re doing something wrong and acts like they’re doing you a favor. Which, as you soon discover, they are. This becomes clear when two Spaniards sit down and eat with you the next day in the cafeteria and tell you how they weren’t able to tell that you’re an American until you opened your mouth. And then compliment you for it along with your good Spanish.

The culture is different because the society is different and the society is different because the people are saner than Americans in ways that are both endearing at the same time that they are frustrating and difficult to adapt to. These differences begin with food/mealtimes and the scheduling of daily routines and extend to all aspects of daily life. As with most such cases, these differences are a reflection of the different values that Spanish society holds when compared with American society.

La rutina diaria: Daily Life in Spain/Mealtimes

While daily American life is centered around work and school, Spanish life revolves around meals and family. School and work are secondary and nobody pretends otherwise. Meals are the defining characteristic of the Spanish day and everything is scheduled around them. Everything shuts down during mealtimes, the schools, the stores, and even the TV which (except for during lunch) switches to recorded programming. You stop what you’re doing, sit down with a group of people for an hour or two and talk over a meal without thinking about what you did earlier or what you are going to do during the rest of the day.

Spaniards get up early in the morning and have a small breakfast that lasts around 40 minutes. The typical Spanish breakfast includes cereal (with hot or cold milk), bread with sausage, croissants, churros (fried dough) and coffee/hot chocolate. Although the variety of food is greater, portions are much smaller so the Spanish breakfast is considerably less filing than the typical American.

The second meal is the main meal of the day and by far the largest. At the dorm where I live the second meal begins around 2:30 and ends in about an hour. During this time almost all of the stores close around two and remain shuttered until five. People return to their homes or pack into restaurants which serve a three course meal that lasts at least an hour and a half. Walking down a major street of a city the size of Philadelphia and seeing nearly every store shuttered at two in the afternoon on a Tuesday is strangely disconcerting. And it becomes downright maddening considering that my only free-time to do essential shopping is during siesta. I’ve run out right after class twice now trying to buy a hamper just to have the store’s shutter lowered in my face. The second time the employee, it was the same man both times, asked me “why aren’t you with family for siesta; are you anti-social?” I assume this was meant to be polite teasing (which is a Spanish pastime) but I got really upset and responded “listen, maybe unemployment wouldn’t be 28% in this country if everything didn’t shut down for three hours and stores weren’t only open for ten hours a day!” By his face I thought he was going to beat me senseless but he just muttered “fascista” under his breath and walked back into his store. My suggestion may have touched a nerve because it’s exactly what some right-wing Spanish politicians are suggesting to lower unemployment; i.e. have businesses hire unemployed young people to man stores during siesta and at night to lower the unemployment rate. The fact that Spaniards feel that this could endanger family life and public health shows that they have their priorities a lot more straight than Americans who value productivity and thriftiness over mental health or general wellbeing. But when you grew up in American society and value being able to walk into a store at two in the afternoon this quality can drive you nuts.

The naps that most Americans associate with siesta are still an integral aspect of Spanish life. In the dorm students tend to sleep during the second half of siesta (3:30-5:00) for no longer than an hour. Many forgo sleeping to catch up on studying.

The third meal begins at my dorm at 8:30 and is no heavier than the light breakfast. Traditionally this meal is started considerably later, anywhere from 9:30-11 PM depending on the region of the country and the day of the week but it’s done earlier in the dorm in deference to the cafeteria staff. Dinner here usually includes bread, sausage, a plain yogurt, biscuits, and sometimes a light salad. Coffee, like at breakfast, is the drink of choice at dinner.
As my rude comment to the storekeeper implied, most stores (including major chains like McDonalds and Dominos) are only open for 10-12 hours a day. Stores open at eight or nine in the morning, close for siesta at 2 pm on the dot and open again around 5 only to close again at 8 (9 at the latest). Hours are significantly more limited on Saturday and many (if not most) stores don’t open at all on Sunday. Spaniards are well aware that if the average store were to have similar hours in the USA or even Britain it would go out of business within a week. And they’re quite proud of it. It’s not surprising then, that the only businesses that are open during siesta are run by immigrants or by international corporations. I was told that a recent protest of a British corporation whose offices didn’t close for siesta involved protestors pelting the office’s windows with pillows.

One result of a midday nap is that Spaniards typically go to sleep considerably later than Americans. Going to sleep at one or two in the morning and waking up at seven AM is not unusual, even for a child or a middle aged person who has a day job.

The City of Oranges

Although Valencia is not well known to Americans like Madrid or Barcelona, it is a major city by any measure, roughly the size of Philadelphia in both area and population. The city has over a million residents and the metro-area three times that many (depending, of course, on who is doing the counting). Historically, Valencia was the most important city in Spain for 150 years (from the mid 14th to late 15th centuries) and arguably the most important European city after Paris for much of this period (Valencia had 70,000 residents before Madrid was even built). Locals, and the local government are well aware of this history and many local governmental and cultural institutions have a regal air to them. Like the USA, local governments wield a considerable amount of power here and Spain’s 17 autonomous communities are roughly equivalent in function to American states. Spanish autonomous communities are, however, considerably more autonomous than US states and when you consider that many states have their own local languages and customs, different autonomous regions can feel like different countries. Catalonia is the most extreme, being technically defined as a separate “nation” under the Spanish crown (although there’s much disagreement over what this means exactly), and Valencia, although not as politically controversial as Catalonia or the Basque region, is one of the more “autonomous” of the autonomous communities. Valencia (the city and region have the same name, Valencia being the regional capital) has its own parliament, television stations, school systems, local laws and police forces. Valencia also has its own local standard of the Catalan language, called Valencianu, which is the dominant language of official signage, government functions, education, and radio. Valencian is predominant in the suburbs and towns outside of the city while Spanish is dominant within the city itself, due to generations of immigration from other regions of Spain.

Valencia is more than 2,000 years old and still has a well defined old quarter. The old quarter is a labyrinth of alley-sized streets framed by medieval buildings that circle one another in expanding squished rings that when walked make you feel like a dog chasing its tale. The quarter is maze-like in that if you enter the middle and take a random street you’re likely to end up coming out of the quarter at a place you never expected. This is because the quarter was constructed over hundreds of years in expanding circles. As the city expanded the city’s wall was torn down and reconstructed wherever the urban sprawl stopped. As each street is circular, the streets towards the center are considerably shorter than the streets at the end of the quarter. To confuse matters even more there are streets that cut through the circular streets to reach the center square at odd angles. The further in you go the closer the cross-streets are to each other.

The main square and historical center of Valencia features an enormous cathedral which was constructed over several centuries. Among the cathedral’s striking features is a giant Jewish star built into a glass window that’s probably 30 feet tall and about five stories off the ground. The cathedral features dozens of famous paintings by artists such as Goya, the tomb of the important Catalan writer Austurius March and a holy grail which the Pope recently certified as the real Holy Grail which Jesus used during the last supper. (Some 50 odd other churches claim to have the real Holy Grail.) The cathedral is also well known for being the home church of two Popes, one of whom oversaw the treaty in which the Catholic Church split the world evenly between Spain and Portugal.


When I told friends I would be going to Valencia, a couple people said “oh, like the oranges?” Yes, Valencia oranges come from Valencia and they’re kind of the standard orange of Western Europe just like Florida oranges are the standard American orange. Also like Florida oranges in Florida, Valencia oranges taste considerably better when they are eaten fresh in Valencia. Needless to say, the homemade orange juice that the cafeteria serves is fantastic.
Partially as a city beautification project and partially as a practical measure to increase the orange crop, the city has planted thousands of orange trees all over town. It’s quite common to see a line of a dozen orange trees in the middle of a sidewalk. People actually eat the oranges straight out of the trees, although several people warned me not to do so because city municipal workers spray the trees with pesticides to keep out insects. A beggar asked me for change saying “give me money so I don’t have to eat just oranges for lunch today.” When I asked him where he would get oranges if I didn’t give him money he pointed to a tree across the street.

Jordan gets electrocuted…Twice!

Europe and the United States have different electrical currents. Most household items, such as my shaver and laptop can accommodate both American and European currents when plugged into a proper adapter. A few things, however, don’t work with just an adapter but require a converter (i.e. the actual current needs to be converted before it enters the machine).
I managed to electrocute myself slightly and knock out the power to my suite for a half hour when I accidently used a three pronged adapter to plug in something that should have used a two pronged adapter. My fingers tingled for a few hours and my hair stood straight up end on end but I was otherwise unscathed.

To avoid similar incidents and having to plug and unplug items constantly I decided to use a power source which is a device that has a half dozen outlets attached to it. This way my one power source brought from America would be properly “adapted” to fit into the outlet and would convert the power to the American voltage, allowing me to plug all of my electronics into one outlet without having to plug and unplug each item with my adapter every time it needed to be used. That was the theory at least. Unfortunately, my power source has no converter built in. So when I plugged the machine in and turned it on there was a bright flash which I realized I was looking at from high above because I had been thrown straight into the air. I landed on my bed with my legs totally off the ground (I had been kneeling on the floor and shot at least two feet up, meaning I probably jumped involuntarily) and found myself and my roommate in total darkness. Unlike the first electrocution two nights earlier, my hair didn’t stand up but I had an extraordinary pain that traveled through my flailing right arm, down my hip and out my toes. My right hand, especially the knuckles, my elbow and the big toe on my right foot hurt for a day and my entire right forearm tingled for a few hours like it was asleep. Equally disturbing was that I had knocked out power to my whole suite right as my three Spanish suitemates were studying for exams. Because the power had returned a half hour after the first outage, I expected the power to come back at any moment. But it didn’t return for some twelve hours, which resulted in my having to take a shower wearing a miner’s flashlight just like at Boy Scout Camp (yes I still take my miner’s flashlight everywhere just in case). Needless to say, I’m not going to try plugging in that power source again.

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