Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Strange Fruit, 1

A barman at his station in Cadiz
After two and a half years living in a foreign country, the idea of what is "normal" has redefined itself many times over. The strange quirks that jumped out at me so dramatically when I first arrived now seem obvious. It's easy to forget that I ever didn't know that a long weekend is called a "puente"--or bridge-- because it often connects a legitimate holiday with the weekend, taking innocent days with it. And it comes as second nature that I have to think about what time I take out the trash because if a policeman saw me bring it out before 8 PM I could get fined. Although it takes some effort to return to that everything-is-new state of mind, I've been meaning to post some observations for awhile, so I'll do my best.

Thus, I present to you: 4 Strange Things Spaniards Do (That You Probably Didn't Know About.)  And if you enjoy these, I'll post four more next week, as well!

1) They say goodbye instead of hello
I've written about this before in a different form, so it makes a good place to start. One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Palencia two years ago was my neighbors' insistence on saying "Buenos dias (good morning)/"Buenas tardes (good afternoon)" and "hasta luego" (see you later) during our brief interactions in the elevator. It struck me as very odd, since American elevator etiquette relieves the rider from interacting with his/her riding companions at all. Why, I thought, waste the energy to greet someone, only to have to say goodbye to them 15 seconds later? (Plus, I found the Spanish way of saying "Hasta luego", which seems to elide multiple syllables into the linguistic ether, endlessly mysterious.) I was told, however, that not acknowledging one's companions in elevator travel would be a serious insult. Greetings are of tantamount importance here.
The strangeness only grew over the years: during walks in the evening paseo, I heard neighbors greeting each other, and once in awhile instead of hello's I heard instead "Hasta luego!" It seemed very strange that a person would start an interaction with someone by saying "See you later!", but after my previous assumptions I kept this thought to myself-- until I started to hear it more and more after I arrived in Talavera. Finally, I brought the topic up with my roommate. She looked at me like I was crazy. "Why would you open up a conversation with someone if you had neither the time nor intention of talking with them?" she asked me. "This way, we're saying 'Yes, I've seen you, but I don't have time to stop. We'll talk later, another time.'" I admit that this is a much more sensible explanation than I was expecting.

2) They tell strangers 'bon appetit'
Spaniards eager to improve their English often ask me what Americans say to each other before they eat. I am forced then to explain the awkward fact that we don't have any special phrase-- that, in fact, we stole the French phrase 'bon appetit' for the purpose (and that, actually, we stole a lot from the French... and the Germans and the Greeks and so on). 
 This is often confusing to them because the phrase "buen provecho" is an important part of Spanish etiquette, and it's hard for them to imagine a language that doesn't have its own version. Here, one says "buen provecho" before eating with friends or coworkers (usually in more formal settings), the same way one might use "bon appetit" in the US. But the big difference is that some people also say it to anyone they see eating, even strangers. They see it as a breach of etiquette not to do so. 
How seriously do they take this etiquette, you ask? Let's take Saturday a few weeks ago as an example. Hannah came to visit me from Jaen, and I took her to the monthly medieval-style market that takes place along the ancient walls here. (Did I mention that Talavera has 800-year-old Moorish walls? Cool, right?) We bought hunks of empanada, pastry stuffed with meat and veggies, and took them down to the river to eat by the Roman bridge (which is actually a Moorish copy of an earlier Roman bridge. Double cool!), while watching the water birds fly by. As we were tucking in, a bicycle came whizzing down the path in front of us. We barely had time to register his blur zooming past us before he was gone, with merely the call of "Buen provecho!" to let us know we hadn't imagined him.
So: really seriously.

The "Roman" bridge, Talavera

3) They continually use napkins that don't actually work
 Spanish bars are a nationwide gem: of this there is no doubt. On any corner in any Spanish city or town you can find one: a little counter, tucked in a corner, shabby but clean; a polished espresso machine, buzzing and whirring; a beer or cider tap flowing at all hours of the morning and evening; and a small TV playing a talk show, bullfight, or soccer game in the corner. There's always an old guy in a great hat having a beer (even at 11 AM); there's usually a leg of ham, half decimated, by the cold tapas display. Depending on the region, the walls are full of Basque slogans, hung with Real Madrid posters, or decorated with elaborately-painted tiles. And there are always, always napkins in polished chrome holders-- napkins which sully the good name of Spanish bars; napkins that defy logic and even, it seems occasionally, the laws of physics.
For the truth is that these napkins seem specially formulated not to actually do anything. Pulling one out of the dispenser, they always seem unobtrusive enough. They usually say something like "Thank you for your visit" on them; they're of normal size and close-to-normal texture. AND YET. Try to do something napkin-like with them, such as wipe off your hands after a gooey chicken wing or sop up a puddle of spilled beer... and you will somehow find yourself somehow messier than before, the napkin seemingly untouched. They are the scourge of the Spanish bar because of their low level of evil: they are just unobtrusive enough that after this particular instance you will forget all about your hatred of them... until, yet again, you find yourself helpless against an olive oil spot on your sleeve. They are everywhere, in literally every bar in this country, which means that people persist in buying and using them. I am baffled. BAFFLED, I tell you.

4) They throw napkins on the floor of perfectly respectable bars and restaurants
Oh, and another thing about napkins. A traveler walking into a Spanish bar (as described above) might be confused and disgusted to find the floor littered with crumpled paper. Fear not, however: actually, this is a good sign. Traditionally, throwing one's napkin on the floor of a bar has been a compliment, a way to show one's approval of the food. In fact, when I went to a famous Madrid tapas bar last year to write a story for GoMadrid (which you can find here), the owner told me that during the restaurant's golden age they used to employ people whose sole job was to sweep crumpled napkins and shrimp tails off the floor every 20 minutes. That means that, at least in theory, the more napkins on the floor of a bar, the better you can expect the food to be. Or, you know... maybe it's just a really dirty bar.
 (If I'm honest, the feeling of finishing up a tapa-- a nice piece of cheese and bread or some grilled pork in rich, savory sauce-- and throwing my napkin on the ground is thrilling in some small way. Plus, it's a chance to put those damned napkins in their place.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

On Horcruxes and Homes

What a view. Cape Elizabeth, Maine

It’s twilight, and I’m at my parent’s beach house outside of Portland, Maine. I am out at “the Point,” which I regularly describe to people as my favorite place in the world. It is a rocky promontory jutting out a few hundred feet into Casco Bay, surrounded on three sides by sighing waves; wheeling seagulls; and idyllic views of other cottages, seaweed-covered rocks, and lobster buoys. Across the cove, the world-famous Portland Headlight twinkles once every few seconds; on foggy days you can hear its low moan, as well. This place, in its tranquil perfection, is a three-minute walk from my parents’ house, and I go there every chance I get. However, living the expat life I do, those chances don’t come very often these days.

This particular evening, I’ve come out to the point with a friend and a glass of wine. We’re having one of those deliciously meandering evening discussions about life, but as the sunset deepens, we can’t help but grow silent. The heavy clouds of earlier in the day are giving way to a radiantly-setting sun whose rays are somehow intensified by the low angle, seeming to set alight the thicket of weeds and wildflowers that grows down the spine of the cliff. Openmouthed, we watch the conflagration grow, staining the water pink. When the show is over, we pick up our empty wine glasses and walk back to the house. But as we start down the path, I feel a deep ache at the idea that in a few weeks I am going to have to leave this place again. I take a breath, straighten my shoulders, and put it out of my mind. This is the life I’ve chosen.

So, what I’m saying is: I was going to write about this anyway, but Pico Iyer got there first.  A few days ago, a friend sent me a link to Mr. Iyer's recent TEDtalk-- he has long been one of my favorite travel writers-- and I was excited to see the topic: "Where is home?"

Mr. Iyer's family is from India; he was born in the UK and has lived in Rio, Japan, and the US. He spent much of his TEDtalk discussing just what that means. When people say, "Where do you come from?" does that signify, "Where were you born?", "Where do you see your doctor and your dentist?", or "Which places goes deepest inside you?" When I got to this point in the lecture I actually had to pause it so I could bang on the table and grin and send it on to other traveler friends.

I remember the first time in college that I referred to going back to Wesleyan as "going home," and how strange that felt; how quickly going back to my host family's house for lunch in Kunming became "going home;" how I struggled to figure out if my apartment in Allston was 'home' in Boston or if going to eat dinner at my parent's house was "home." In Spanish the word casa translates as both 'house' and 'home,' which is confusing but poignant. Although I'm glad English separates those concepts, the word is still equally slippery. 

The ruins of a Visigoth temple in the basement of the Palencia cathedral, one of my favorite Palentino secrets

Going back to Boston (so easy to type the word "home" there, but that’s the point) this summer, everything was comfortable, familiar, full of love and history. But in the TEDtalk, Mr. Iyer talks about how the "beauty of being somewhere foreign is that it slaps you awake," which is a perfect way to explain a feeling I never had a name for.  So I wonder: is home friends and shared jokes and comfort? Or is it where one feels challenged and excited, always facing newness, that special kind of ‘awake’? Is it where one learns, where one works, where one loves? What if home could be all those things, could be multifaceted instead of one address and one family? My favorite line of Mr. Iyer’s entire talk was about the community of travelers and expats he’s built around himself. They, too, hold this idea of a multifaceted home. “Their whole life,” he says, “will be spent taking pieces of different places and putting them together into a stained glass whole.  It’s less to do with a piece of soil than a piece of soul.

That piece of phrasing is particularly perfect for the idea I wanted to write about even before I saw Mr. Iyer’s talk. Walking back that night from the point, full of an exquisite mix of sadness and joy, I was reminded of nothing so much as a Horcrux. Fans of the "Harry Potter" series will be familiar with the idea of a villain who made himself immortal by cutting his soul in parts and hiding them throughout the world (does that still merit a spoiler alert if the last book came out seven years ago?). I don't seek immortality, exactly, and I'd like to think I'm something less than a megavillain. But it still seems that the life I've chosen requires this process of dividing my soul and leaving it in places that are beautiful, meaningful, or otherwise part of my stained-glass ‘home.’ I feel that same sweet pain when I see the moon reflecting on the Charles River or walk through the colorful chaos of Haymarket in downtown Boston. I feel that loss, small but sharp, when I remember voices raised in harmony with a jangling guitar in a stone basement in Linares, the bustle of Calle Mayor in Palencia at 7 o'clock paseo, Bai farmers scooting their way across the wire bridges in the lush greenery of Nujiang valley, or rainy mornings listening to the foghorn across the water from the warmth of my bed in Portland. I’m coming to terms with the cost of exploring, adventuring, and setting down roots. Letting in beauty and kindness, continually constructing my stained-glass home, means making horcruxes-- leaving tiny pieces of my soul around the world.

And in a way this realization goes a long way toward explaining my feelings in the last weeks. As I’ve settled into Talavera, I’ve found myself thinking longingly of Sunday mornings in my favorite Watertown diner, Friday nights eating tapas and listening to Linarense flamenco, rock concerts at Lemon Society bar in Palencia, or the brilliance of fall colors on my family’s customary apple-picking trip in inland Maine. And I’ve been confused, almost resentful, at the realization that it's possible to be homesick in such a mixed-up confused way, for multiple places and times. I thought I could only miss Boston this way, but that was, in retrospect, a silly assumption. Boston has never been my only home, and when I really think about it I know I would never want it to be. Deep down, this is how I am made: to leave horcruxes like breadcrumbs in my path through the world and always be looking back to find them again.
My blended Pumi-American family in Nujiang, Yunnan, China

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Please excuse our appearances while we rebuild!

We are redesigning for your comfort. Please standby.

(Have a look at the new Instagram while you're waiting! @wideeyeswideworld)

(Expect a new post and new, polished look early in the week.)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Flamenco Lessons

The magic of flamenco. I have to say: I'm pretty proud of this photo

On a cold, grey day last March, I arrived early to the nondescript door, and it was still locked. That meant I had the time to sit on the stoop and look around. The neighborhood was modern, bordering on industrial, marked by a vivid mural of a lighthouse. Finally, about fifteen minutes later, I was greeted by a grizzled man in a button down shirt with the top three buttons open, slicked back hair, and wrap-around sun glasses: my teacher. I had signed up to learn to sing flamenco, that intense Spanish musical tradition whose intricate rhythms and sinuous melodies are a world apart. Ever since my arrival in Spain, I'd sought out flamenco concerts any chance I could. Now, a flamenco school was opening in town, as the municipal government sought to keep alive a rich tradition fed by the terrible mining life many Linarenses led during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The man was Jose, or in public Joselete, a nationally renowned Gitano (gypsy) singer whose fame had earned him the right to one name. Over the next four months he would guide, coax, and laugh me through my love affair with flamenco. We'd spend many hours inside the Peña Plomo y Plata, a music-lovers' social club whose canary-colored walls were stenciled with green snaking vines and red guitars. But that was all in the future; for now, we were still strangers.

We sat, introduced ourselves -- I had one other classmate, and the school's director was also in attendance-- and began with a simple lesson. Jose sang the first line of a fandango, and I was expected to repeat it. As if in a nightmare, I opened my mouth but couldn't make a sound.The silence seemed to expand as they watched me and waited. The florescent lights flickered, almost in slow motion; the table was sticky with beer. After what seemed like hours, I managed a squeak, then a croak, then a rough melodic line; and finally something acceptably similar to the line Jose had sung.

My first fandango wasn't easy, of course, or particularly good. I didn't understand the lyrics until they were dictated to me, and not having grown up steeped in the culture and tradition put me at a distinct disadvantage in following the complex rhythms and unpredictable key changes. I spent that class, and the ones in the weeks that followed it, feeling overwhelmed and outmatched. I'd always loved flamenco, this I knew. But I worried perhaps I'd been overly ambitious in beginning my studies. Maybe this was a terrible mistake.

However, later that evening, at home reflecting on my first lesson, I realized something important: as adults, we rarely force ourselves out of our comfort zones. After the rigors of high school physics or geometry (well, in my case), we are no longer required to do things we aren't already good at. In fact, adult life encourages the creation of a niche; each individual doing what he or she does best, finding his or her 'calling'. That, as they say, is what makes the world go 'round-- and that is also what made singing in front of other people such a challenge for me. I'd always enjoyed singing in the shower, was in chorus for a year in middle school, and tried out for a handful of a capella groups in college. But this was entirely new territory: new language, new skill, new world. I had no training or applicable knowledge. I felt entirely out of my depth, and it made my vocal cords freeze.

A concert at the Peña Carmen Linares, fall 2012

When I managed to get over my fear and insecurity, however, the following months were rich, fascinating, and deeply fun. I have a good auditory memory, which helped me in developing my own learning system -- writing down lyrics overlaid with squiggles that attempted to approximate the loops and dips Jose's supple voice executed with such ease. Little by little, I stopped worrying about what would come out when I started singing, whether throaty, creaky, or off key. I barely even minded when Jose giggled at my accent, especially once I noticed that it usually happened because I had faltered, uncertain of the next run, giving him tacit permission with a nervous laugh of my own. Doing something I knew nothing about and wasn't yet good at was actually wonderful. It was freeing. And it was all the more rewarding when, little by little, I improved. I left my comfort zone and then reconstructed that comfort zone around me.

This blog was silent for some months over the summer, and here I'll explain why. For reasons that are boring and long, my application to renew for a third-year in the Spanish Ministry of Education Language Assistant program was denied on a technicality. With some scrambling, I was able to come up with a few stop-gap measures to keep myself in Spain the following --that is, this--year. One, in the north, would not provide me with health insurance. Another, in Linares, would require lengthy and complicated visa procedures and a pay cut. The last was in a completely different, unknown-to-me part of the country and in a much more serious program.

None of the options seemed ideal. At that point I had settled comfortably into Linares. The flamenco community had embraced me in a flurry of cramped, intimate concerts; sweaty, half-drunk dinners; and one 17-hour countryside music-and-food adventure that merits its own recounting. I was happily ensconced in my own apartment with a few good friends and a lot of favorite tapas bars. The idea of leaving was difficult, but the pay cut and visa complexities made it impossible to avoid. Finally, I made the more difficult, practical decision.

A flamenco concert in a cave in Almeria, southern Andalucia

... All of which is a complicated, long-winded way of saying that I find myself now in Talavera de la Reina, Castilla La Mancha, a Roman-founded city of 90,000 an hour and a half southwest of Madrid, in the same county as the more famous Toledo. I am in still a language assistant, but this year I am an employee of UCETAM, a group of American universities developing bilingual programs here in Spain. This means more hours and more money per month, but it also means being the only language assistant in the city: the Ministry's program was cut here two years ago due to continuing economic issues, and UCETAM is a Madrid-based program that is just beginning to expand outside the capital.  There is no established curriculum, dynamic, or social system, no pool of other foreigners for me to turn to for easy friendships. Luckily, I've stumbled upon a friendly, funny roommate to keep me company. Luckily, I've found a few couchsurfers with friendship potential. Luckily, my coworkers are by and large easygoing, helpful, and kind. Still, though, I know by now that the first months in a new city are not easy under any circumstances; and these in particular seem like breeding grounds for loneliness and discouragement.

This summer, I spent 10 weeks in Boston working at an English school and remembering everything I love about my city-- the diners, the live music, the intellectual atmosphere, the diners, the old friends and shared history, and the diners. I was fresh from my late-spring Linares tapas/flamenco adventure filled with warm nights and good people, and as I started packing and mentally readying myself, I couldn't quite believe I'd chosen the hard choice AGAIN... another new city AGAIN, another new school AGAIN, another new life AGAIN. I was mad at myself, freaked out, scared, but I took a deep breath and left anyway.

In these first few weeks, the beats, lyrics, and melodies of some bulerias and tangillos I learned from Jose have occasionally come to me unbidden, in my apartment or the hallway of my new school, and I think I know why. If being brave is feeling afraid or uncomfortable and doing something anyway, then singing taught me an important lesson in bravery. Learning flamenco meant learning to push through and continue to do things I'm not good at yet, instead building that confidence little by little where I am. At the beginning of my time in Talavera, it's important to remember that I already learned this skill. Flamenco taught me how to do this: to step out of my comfort zones-- in this case literally, physically--and build something new.

Joselete in concert at Los Patios in Cordoba