Sunday, November 13, 2011

¿No estás aburrida? (part 1)

This question, which translates to "Aren't you bored?", has been sort of the bane of my existence the past six weeks. Or really, longer than that. Ever since I received the news that I would be teaching in Palencia, I've had people (mostly Spaniards) putting on their pitying faces and consoling hats and going to town.

"Oh, it's very pretty," they almost invariably say. "I've never been there. But it's really small. There's not much to see." They don't always say the "A" (or in English "B") word, but they don't have to. It's implied. Here, "small" means "unimportant" and "unimportant" means "empty of interest."
... Okay, to be fair perhaps it's not quite so stark and extreme as all that. But for a lot of Spaniards it seems there's two types of places: big cities, and everything else. And I think you can guess which type is worth your attention.

As I've struggled to make a new life here, I've been dogged by an anxiety that is difficult to place. Even once I found an apartment, moved in, and started work, I felt niggled by something I couldn't name-- until, after a few weeks, I started to discover the city and realized it was boredom I feared. All I saw in terms of socializing and food were a scattering of typical Spanish bars throughout the city. They were atmospheric bars, yes, that showed bullfights, served tapas and local wine, were full of old men playing dominoes. But as someone who possesses a more-than-generous helping of the so-called novelty-seeking gene, that didn't seem like enough to keep me engaged for a year. Yes, enjoying those bars for the first few months would be lovely. But what about after that? What if everyone was right? What if I was going to miserable here, and this was the proof?

I started an almost desperate search to prove them wrong. I examined every passing poster and flyer for events happening in Palencia. Surprisingly, I found a fair amount--plays and concerts at the city's two theaters, a festival of local gastronomy, a nature walk led by the Spanish equivalent of the Parks department. I went to some of those events, with mixed results. A concert by a touring Cuban group, decked out in three-piece suits and bowler hats, was fantastic; a benefit for the local food pantry featuring what can only be described as two land-locked cruiseship singers, not so much. But I was heartened even by the presence of cultural events, of possibilities, of choice. I started to realize that for me, choice on how to spend my time is really important. I didn't like the idea of being boxed into one particular activity for all of my Spanish weekends.

The next weekend, I found out that a small bar by the manicured park that cuts the city in half hosts live rock music every weekend. After that came an "alternative" pub with salsa and rap acts; a karaoke/bowling joint with comedy acts on Tuesdays; and a restaurant famous for its filthy floors and tasty, cheap food. And I felt something change--my search for interesting Palencia adventures was no less thorough, but its mood had altered. I found that as long as I knew that there were fun things out there for me to discover, I enjoyed the act of discovering them. Prior to moving to Spain, I had written to a friend that I was looking forward to "getting under the skin" of a city--that had been a big part of whatt I've referred to here as my "stale" expat dream. Well, this was what "getting under the skin" felt like... and I was enjoying it.

I paced myself, trying out a new bar or exploring at a new street, signing up for a dance class, or going to a new concert, once or twice every week. I was (and am) aware that Palencia, while rich with interesting options, is not by any means an infinite city, but I liked mixing newness with the start to a routine, a list of fun places I could frequent if I liked. Sometimes I traveled around the province, or even farther afield (posts about my trips to Madrid and to Galicia, a province in the northwest, are coming). And I didn't feel bored. At least not yet.

Honestly, that's been the worst part of it. The initial fear has mostly been dispelled, but the endless discussion of the "b" word with Spaniards (most often Palentinos themselves!) has not ceased. I'm sure this city is not a cornucopia of fascination for people who've lived here their entire lives, but I haven't--so for me it's an honor and a pleasure to learn about everyday Spanish life and make one of my own here.

My big realization has been that I fear the conversation more than the reality-- so I admit that "Aren't you bored?" and its other question compatriots still niggle. We start down that road, and I feel myself beginning to wonder and to worry. I wring my hands, imagining myself here in the gray doldrums of February, feeling trapped and miserable. Honestly, these days, I find myself thinking that if people would stop asking me if I'm bored, or if the city is too small, or if I have things to do; if they would just stop talking about how [fill in other city, Barcelona/Burgos/Madrid/Valladolid/Salamanca] would make a much better and more pleasant place to live... I could probably live here more or less happily.

Of course, the question after that is: if the conversations and commentary won't stop, how can I fight them? Steady, persistent rhetoric can be as potent a weapon as water torture. Are my weapons of choice-- determination, curiosity, humor, a sense of adventure--powerful enough to hold back the advancing tides of discontent?

(Next in this series: Some thoughts on the relationship between boredom, travel, and expathood.)

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