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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Los Inmigrantes

Spain is a lot more diverse than it was a generation ago. Or even half a generation ago. Some four million immigrants have made Spain their home in the past ten years. And those are just the ones who are here legally and therefore accounted for. There are as many as another two million people who live in Spain “off the books.” In a country with only some 35 million people, this is a genuine sea change. Especially when you consider that throughout history far more people have left Spain than have come here. Both medieval Spain and large eras of modern Spain (most prominently under Franco) were obsessed with the “purity” of Spanish blood and the purity of Catholicism. With millions of immigrants arriving from all over the world for the first time, the Spanish conception of diversity is changing; albeit slowly. While twenty years ago the occasional black person would have received stares from everyone walking down the street, now you’ll find classrooms in some neighborhoods of Madrid, Barcelona or Valencia where half the students are from immigrant households.

Spanish immigration law favors people from former colonies or descendents of people expelled from Spain. These groups can obtain citizenship in only two years, instead of the usual ten. Among the more interesting of the groups included in this provision are Sephardic Jews, the descendents of political exiles (mostly from the Franco era), Filipinos and people from Western Sahara. As you’d expect many people from the poorer Latin American countries take advantage of Spain’s liberal immigration policy. Listening to the Spanish spoken on the street in Madrid; Bolivians, Mexicans and Colombians seem to be particularly prominent. Many restaurants and bars cater to these communities and feature the sporting events and music popular in the “home” countries. Churches have received a huge boost from the immigration of Latin Americans, who are generally much more religious than their Spanish counterparts. Church pews are full every Sunday for the first time in two generations and there are more children attending church in Spain than in at least three. Spain which has been “catholic in name and irreligious in practice” since the death of Franco now has a strong catholic church again, thanks almost entirely to Latin American immigration and the immigration of thousands of Latin American priests who preach a much more energetic mass. It’s also worth noting that most priests under the age of fifty in Spain are immigrants.

Among other immigrant groups, Turks seem to be particularly prominent. There are Turkish restaurants everywhere (both take-out and sit-down, cheap and expensive). Turkish newspapers are sold in many small Turkish stores which carry Halal food as well as Turkish sodas (strange stuff I must say), telephone cards, and Turkish TV shows on DVD. I’ve been told that many stores in immigrant neighborhoods have signage in Turkish with little or no Spanish. The Turkish stores I visited were all in wealthy neighborhoods where Turks often work in restaurants or as maids. Interestingly enough many of these stores are frequented by people who are clearly not Turkish. Baklava and kebabs (spelled kebap in Spain) in particular are becoming popular among the Spanish public.

In addition to Turks, there are many Arabs in Spain. They are often mistaken for Turks by the locals, especially women who wear Islamic head covering. In the same vein, basically all Asians are referred to as “Chinos.” From what I’ve heard spoken on the street so far there seem to be a lot more Koreans here than Chinese. I even saw a restaurant in Madrid which advertised itself as being “Chinese” but actually sold only Korean food. When I asked a waiter why they said they sold Chinese food he said “well, most Spaniards don’t know where Korea is and they certainly don’t realize that they like Korean food.”

Africans are also a small but integral part of the fabric of modern Spain. I’ve talked to several Kenyans and one man from Somalia. Also prominent are “economic immigrants”, i.e. wealthy expatriates from the United States and Britain. The stereotypical English speaking expatriate lives along the Costa Del Sur in an area with a high concentration of fellow expatriates in small resort towns where English is the main language. This immigrant is stereotypically either a Yuppie who works in IT or a retiree. Several weekly newspapers in English cater to this community; some actually feature articles that explain how to take advantage of local tax laws and how to avoid paying British taxes. These immigrants often can’t speak any Spanish even though they’ve lived here for decades and only associate with their own kind. There are, however, tens of thousands of British and American immigrants who live throughout the country, speak Spanish and are generally well assimilated into Spanish society. Many of these Americans and British expatriates moved to Spain to marry and are basically indistinguishable from the rest of Spanish society. Many British immigrants who don’t live in the Costa Del Sol are academics, especially English teachers. With the strong British presence it’s no surprise that British pronunciation and spelling are taught in most Spanish schools and most Spaniards who speak English well have a British accent.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

American optimism vs. Spanish pessimism or why the smiling American makes life more difficult for me here.

“Spaniards often think that Americans are ignorant fools because they are outgoing and smiling all the time.” That’s what I was told by an American who has lived in Spain for the last 20+ years. It may seem like a strange statement but it’s entirely true. It just needs to be explained to be understood. Americans smile all the time when approaching and talking to strangers or when being introduced to someone for the first time. Smiling and using body language that appears welcoming with strangers is the normal American default behavior. If you meet someone in America for the first time and don’t smile, at best they’ll think you were having a bad day that had nothing to do with them and at worst (more likely) they’ll think you didn’t like them and/or that you’re rude. In America a smile is a basic courtesy that is used to recognize another’s presence. You smile whether you’re having the best day of your life or whether you’re seriously considering throwing yourself off a bridge (metaphorically speaking). It’s as natural as putting one foot in front of the other.

In Spain people just don’t do this. People passing on the street don’t smile but rather half grunt half yell “hola” or “what’s up” without even waiting for a response. Smiling in response just brings out a confused nervous look in the other person. And if you say “thank you” to someone ringing you up or a bus driver they’ll look at you like you’re crazy and say “what for?” In America this would be considered very rude and the person would be considered “off” (“that guy’s trouble, I mean look, he never smiles”). In America such a person might well be “off” but in Spain they’d be totally normal and you’d be the one who’s “off”. And just as Americans would (and do) misread Spaniards who come to the United States, Spaniards make lots of false assumptions about Americans based on their body language and the fact that they seem overly friendly. In Spain smiling all the time, thanking people at every turn and seeming enthusiastic about things (like every tourist should) is interpreted as a sign that the person is overly confident, stuck up, and ignorant of other people’s troubles and feelings. Spaniards assume that if Americans seem happy than they must have something to be happy about. And while an American would feel it is their duty to spread joy, solve problems and cheer people up, Spaniards feel that they shouldn’t share their happiness with others in case the other person is unhappy. Americans think “I don’t know what this person’s day is like so I don’t want to treat them badly in case they’re already having a bad day.” Spaniards think “this person might be having a bad day so I’m not going to brag by showing my own happiness or being too positive.” So while Americans put on a mask of cheeriness, Spaniards put on a mask of constant sorrow and worry (to them it looks neutral). And since Spaniards think that Americans are always happy, enthusiastic and cheerful because that’s how we present ourselves, they assume that we’re ignorant of everything going on in the world. After all, how could we be smiling to a random store-clerk if we knew 100,000 plus people just died in an earthquake in Haiti or that people are dying every day all over the world from a lack of clean water? Or that Spain had a terrible civil war in the 1930s and the street we’re walking down right now was bombed 72 years ago today by Italian planes (as we were reminded several times throughout the day). Because we smile they assume we don’t know the reasons why (they feel) we shouldn’t be smiling. Or they think that we’re too selfish to care or both. Spain had a much rougher 20th century than the USA did. It began with a humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American War and the end of the Spanish empire (yes that was 1898) and included a brutal civil war and forty years of fascist dictatorship which the country is still coming to terms with. America on the other hand had arguably a better twentieth century than any other country, becoming the most prominent country on the planet, and enjoying (and abusing) a sphere of influence greater than anything the world’s ever seen. While there hasn’t been a ground war on US soil since 1865, everyone over 75 in Spain can remember the bombings of the Civil War years. These varied experiences have created a Spain which is openly cynical and reserved and an America which is outgoing, and privately cynical.

This one cultural misunderstanding has done a lot to make life difficult for Americans here than anything else. Tourists don’t particularly need to make a good impression because they’re here for just a short amount of time and they mostly interact with people in the tourist industry who are used to their “over-friendliness and enthusiasm.”
But for me living here for six months, the reputation that the tourists have left behind for me (albeit inadvertently) makes life notably difficult. Nobody wants to talk about politics here. Mentioning Franco is like running into Hogwarts and screaming “Voldemort.” Mentioning Iraq yields the statement “could any American other than your army even find it on a map?” They assume I know nothing because other Americans are friendly and therefore are ignorant. From my whole experience so far, I just get the impression that most of them are so apathetic to politics that they’re unaware of their own apathy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Random Observations about Spain

El Sal

Spanish food is wonderful but it’s extremely salty. I find myself drinking twice as much water as I would in the USA and I’m still thirsty at the end of the day. Everything has salt in it. Yesterday I got chunks of coconut in a salad that had been, you guessed it, sprinkled in salt.

Atencíon al Cliente

Spanish customer service is an oxymoron. Here customers don’t get served. At least not in the American sense. In America the persons performing “customer service” take it upon themselves to serve the customer, usually without prompting. In Spain the customer asks for service and then the usual response is “there’s nothing to be done.” Department stores are probably the strangest. A classmate of mine spent the better part of an evening looking for clothes and was waiting in line to go to the register when all the lights went off and the employees left their stations. Most foreign to us Americans, all of the customers also left their lines and simply dropped their planned purchases. In the US you’d get a countdown of sorts followed by a last call. And if by chance you somehow miss your chance to purchase items, most stores will gladly reopen the register and let you complete your transaction. And then apologize to you for the inconvenience (real or imagined). In America “the customer is always right.” In Spain the customer is still always right but both the customer and employee are indifferent and ignorant of the others’ expectations. And the Spanish customer has much lower expectations than his American counterpart.

The only exception are Mom and Pop stores where the owners put a lot of effort into helping you locate what you’re looking for and convincing you to buy it along with something more expensive.

Distancia Personal

While the distance used when speaking with an interlocutor in America is between two and three feet, in Spain it’s often about six inches. This is just as true with strangers as it is with lifelong acquaintances. And it seems to be especially true when you ask someone for directions. When talking to a stranger or making a point to an acquaintance, it’s quite common for a Spaniard to grab the arm of the person he’s talking to and look him or her right in the eye. The arm is grabbed above the elbow of a man and below the elbow of a woman. This is done even if it’s tucked against the person’s body. This can be quite intimidating for an American, especially when a Spanish man does it to an American girl. It is entirely normal and should be taken as a sign that you’re being listened to, rather than an occasion to grab for the mace.

A Voz Alta Por Favor

Not all Spaniards speak loudly. But those who do put more force behind their words than any Americans. This is especially true of rural people, who in many regions of Spain have the habit of having a perfectly pleasant conversation while screaming at each other with their faces only six inches apart (see above). I’ve been told that this is particularly true in Catalonia and Valencia. I’ve heard loud animated conversations in Valencia while rounding a corner and waited for the people to pass just to find out that they were some twenty yards ahead of me.

While Americans (and Latin Americans) alter their speech-volume to match their interlocutors, it’s quite common to walk by a conversation where one Spaniard is screaming and the other is whispering. You assume that the man and woman are fighting until they kiss before parting.

Dos Besos Por Favor

Spaniards traditionally say goodbye with a hug and two kisses, one on each cheek. Women kiss women, men kiss women but two men just hug unless they’re family members.

Vale Vale Vale!

Spaniards say vale (read: vah-lay) all the time. Vale can alternatively mean “ok”, “I agree”, “do you agree?”, “whatever”, “like so”, “yes”, or sometimes even “why?” Vale is said initially once, the interlocutor usually follows with three vales if he agrees and “no” if he doesn’t. Three or four vales are said if there is later agreement. Only one vale is used for a yes/no question.

How often do Spaniards say Vale? Well, take a typical Californian surfer dude or a valley girl and add up every time he/she says “ok”, “whatever”, “like” and “cool” and combine the totals and you’ll get the idea. I’ve heard two minute long conversations where every other word is Vale.

La Cola

Spaniards don’t form lines. They just don’t. When you walk into a store to be served or go to the register, you ask whose “last”, wait in a huddled mass and keep track of the order of your non-existent line. They call this “making a line” (hacienda una cola) but there’s usually no line to be found. Certainly not in the sense that Americans or the even more line obsessed British (“cueing is holy”) would consider a line. People don’t ever lie about their place in order and if they do people may talk about it for years. One girl told me that her sister’s husband tried once at a copy store when he was in a hurry and the copy store won’t let him in any more, having effectively banned him. Needless to say he’s an American.

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.