Monday, May 28, 2012

Did you know? Spain tidbits, pt 1

It's hard to believe that I've now been living in Spain almost nine months. If we lived in a world where countries and people could create life, I would be giving birth any moment now. And every day has brought a surprise, a new vocabulary word, and interesting culture observation. While some of them have been (and will be) worth their own blog entries, others are worth a passing mention. I've compiled a few noteworthy tidbits here; you can expect more in other entries of this type in the future.

1) Punk rock grandmas
In the United States, dying one's hair is certainly not an uncommon practice, but most people limit their chosen hue to shades naturally found on heads around the world (if not their own particular strands.) Those individuals choosing more dramatic blues, greens, or pinks are generally understood to be making a Statement. Sure, those statements may vary, but the general message is the same: defiance and exclamation. Look at me-- see that I am different than you are.

It was thus with some confusion that I noticed women, mostly older women, walking around Palencia with magenta hair. Some of them had dyed their entire heads; others merely had a few vivid streaks--but it all seemed to be the same shade, almost as if they were sharing the bottle. This was something different than the "blue tint" effect occasionally seen in the US among senior citizens. It was clearly a purposeful, bold (in both senses of the word) choice.

Later on, I'd travel to northern Spain, to Basque country, and see many older women with similarly dyed hair, although this time with aqua/turquoise/blue hues. Nobody gives them a second look, neither in Palencia nor up north. Here it seems to be just another way to deal with graying hair and the aging process in general-- and I've decided I like it a lot.

2) Hellogoodbye
Like English (or, I imagine, most languages), Spanish has a cornucopia of various expressions for use in greetings. They differ based on the intimacy or mood of the speakers, the time of day, and the country (or in this case part of Spain) where they're greeting each other. This in itself is not remarkable.

However, after a month in Palencia, once I had moved into my own apartment, I started to notice something odd. Whenever my roommate came in to the apartment she said, "Hola." Without fail, when she left she called out, "Hasta luego!" even if we hadn't spoken in between. [A note on "Hasta luego" (which means "see you later) in Castilla y Leon: This phrase is constantly used, but the syllables rarely all appear together. The Palentino 'Hasta luego' is slurred together so quickly that you almost don't hear the first word at all. Try as I might, I haven't been able to successfully recreate it.]

But I digress. After I noticed my roommate's behavior, I started to see parallels in the behavior of others in my apartment building. Often when we crossed paths at the mailbox or in the doorway they would greet me with a friendly "Buenos dias" or "Muy buenas." They always followed this up with the famous Palentino "Ha-luego." Even in the elevator, I would be greeted, thirty seconds of elevator silence would ensue--and then, there it was again, the departing greeting. In the end, I remain puzzled but have concluded that greetings are a more important part of etiquette here than in the US, even among strangers.

3) Out for a walk
I've mentioned the "paseo" in this blog before, but it's worth revisiting. Palencia's Calle Mayor is a scenic pedestrianized mile lined with stores and 19th century buildings. In the winter the wind can be wicked, but the summer finds tin tables and umbrellas set out to enjoy the atmosphere. The street is a strange animal, a chameleon of sorts-- on Sunday afternoons and evenings after 11:30 pm it's virtually a movie set, complete empty and eerily clean (the sanitation department here is admirably diligent.) But there is a period of time every day before dinner (between the hours of 6 and 8, I would say) when Palentinos (and, I think, many northern Spaniards) like to go out for a stroll.

During that time Calle Mayor is teeming, sometimes even choked, with pedestrians. Some walk faster, some saunter. Many older couples hobble arm in arm, some adult children push their parents in wheelchairs, and there are always young kids weaving in and out of the chaos chasing a soccer ball. Everywhere there are clumps of people stopping to chat, young mothers showing off new babies, teenagers flirting and joking, people window shopping and chatting about the day's news. Sometimes there are balloon sellers; in the winter a series of wooden shacks appeared selling hot fresh mini-donuts and roasted chestnuts. It's Palentino life in a two-hour nutshell, and although I dread the thought of biking anywhere during that time (an experience like nothing more than a first-person video game), the feeling of walking the street during paseo--idly watching people, catching snatches of conversation, and feeling the energy of so many people ricocheting off the high pastel buildings--remains one of my favorites from my time here.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Habeis ganado? Que si, hombre

Almost nine months ago, we auxiliars-to-be sat in an airless, windowless room in Madrid talking to one of the American consuls. She was speaking about safety, urging us to be careful of muggings and pickpockets. "But," she added, almost as an afterthought, "there's something you have to understand about Spanish people. To them, the street is an extension of the living room, and they treat it as such. You need to be careful, of course, and sensible. But help is never far away on the Spanish streets."

When I first arrived here almost nine months ago, I think I was too busy in my head to really see the miracle that is Spanish summer. By the time I had adjusted and settled in, the days were ending earlier and the trees bending over the Rio Carrion were tinting yellow. Outdoor tables at cafes were stacked and put away; the fog of winter (both bone-chillingly literal and metaphorical) obscured what had come before.

And then, to be honest, the weather this spring hasn't been ideal, either. After the driest winter in 70 years, we had several weeks straight of cold, raw, rainy unpleasantness. We powered through a wet Semana Santa and still managed to enjoy it (posts forthcoming), but I admit it put a damper on this last month or so.

And then suddenly this week--summer, and I understood finally what she had meant.

The heat arrived a few days ago, without any real warning or transition, and it happened to coincide with a very important soccer game, the championship of the European League. I've never been much for soccer, but the electric atmosphere combined with the sudden warmth of the air to create something remarkable. Tin tables and chairs sprouted like mushrooms and the streets were choked with the chatting and strolling multitudes. At game time, children chased soccer balls of their own in the main square while muffled roars sounded from the surrounding bars. I sat with friends and savored the first outdoor beer of the season, then walked down the deserted main street listening to the game's aftermath. We passed a couple of celebrating fans in striped red-and-white jerseys. "Habeis ganado?" we asked them-- "Did you guys win?" "Que si, hombre," the taller one yelled over his shoulder. "Obviously!"

We turned the corner and passed a similarly exuberant bar, festooned with red and white cloth and team flags, spilling warm yellow light into the street. Through the window I could see a cluster of men packing food into plastic containers to bring home. Outside, by the window, three grandmother types played cards and sipped beer. I looked at my watch: 12:30 am. The week before, the streets had been empty, reflecting moonlight in freezing puddles. Now it was like these women had always been here; like they had never been cold in their lives.

The heat continues as I write this, and our sudden summer is calling for a shift in schedule. Already things feel lazier, more relaxed... and they are definitely pushed later. It's this change (along with the retaking of the streets) that's made me feel in the last few days that everything is falling into place. Chatting with my roommate over lunch, greeting acquaintances in the grocery store or at the park, enjoying the late night warmth--I feel like I've finally found my rhythm.  I'm a notorious night owl, and it's thrilling to sit in air as warm as bathwater with a group of friends drinking a beer, surrounded by a crowd so robust that the waiter has to tell us any food we order will take an hour to arrive. The night is dark, thick, hot, ringing with the clink of glasses and jostling cutlery. There are sleepy children eating ice cream and older couples walking arm-in-arm. In the United States any of these people would be snug, safe and sound in their beds. But here in Palencia, it's 1 AM and summer has arrived.