say goodbye to the world you thought you lived in

My heart is sad today.

Sometimes it’s difficult to understand people here. I don’t mean language, and I don’t mean customs, like eating twelve grapes on New Year’s Eve. I mean the way people are here. I don’t mean to generalize or stereotype, and most anthropologists would guard strictly against making these kinds of statements, but after living here for two years and concurring with people who have lived here longer, I have to say that there are deep, deep distinctions between the way Galicians behave, and the way Americans do.

I mean, more than how we spend our money, how we spend our time, what our political views tend to be, how we view religion, how we celebrate holidays. I mean to say that there are differences in character, in what is right, in what is appropriate, and in what is proper, far beyond which hand we hold our forks with.

For as much as I try to see the subtleties and adjust to them (despite my opinion of them), I am sometimes caught off guard by something so out of the blue that I didn’t realize I had committed a serious cultural infraction.

One of my students had disappeared for a few weeks. He had said he was going to Lisboa, which I understood to be a trip of a few days, a week at most. That was a month ago. Yesterday I sent him a phone message saying that I hadn’t heard anything from him recently and was wondering if he could call me soon. This morning I was greeted by an email so extreme that I was forced to reread my message and wonder, fruitlessly, what I could have said to make him respond so angrily.

Despite the protests of friends who were sure the guy was a complete nut, it doesn’t stop me from feeling bad. With students, I am often more than a professor; I am a psychologist, an ally, the devil’s advocate, a comedian, a friend. Sometimes, when the professional student-teacher relationship goes bad, it is hard not to feel as if you’ve lost a friend as well.

This student’s response came so unexpectedly that it left me wondering how long he’d felt this way; consequently, I began to wonder whether my other students might feel the same way. They say of Galicians that they’re indicisive and vague: one saying jokes that if you meet a Galician on the stairs, you never know if he’s going up or down. Another jokes that Galicians always answer a question with another question. Of course, like any stereotype, it’s too broad a generalization, but is somewhere, deep down, based on a kernel of truth. As a result, I often feel as if I get vague answers to my questions, and when a student can’t make a class because of whatever reason, it’s hard to tell if they’re telling the (whole) truth. This leaves me with constant paranoia which, when occasionally confirmed, as on this occasion, only further deepens my doubt.

Of course, I realize that not all Galicians-Spaniards-Whatever are this way, and that there are people just as flaky and foreign in any country, but I can’t help feeling that, when I leave Galicia, I will be leaving some of this ambiguity behind, and I can’t help but be just a little bit relieved.

a little bit of childhood

Last week was Ascension. I believe that it is a Catholic holiday celebrating the ascension of the Virgin Mary to Heaven. A holy day, indeed. So naturally, we honor this age-old tradition by going out, getting drunk, throwing up on carnival rides, and participating in general heathen rowdiness.

I didn’t take part in the getting drunk or throwing up (or the heathen rowdiness, come to think of it), but I did have a good time. Wednesday night Carlos, Isaac, and I went out to see Macaco, who was playing a free concert in the park, where people of all ages were crushed together in a restless mass, and the smells of alcohol, smoke, sweat, and spring air mixed together in a nauseating combination…yet somehow I love the sticky sweet smell of carnivals and fairs, where dust and grass and popcorn and ketchup and cotton candy melt together into a fragrance that mimics the chaotic lights, flashing neon, beating music, bells and horns and drums and cymbals…pulpo and churros, screams of terror and delight, the cries of children mesmerized by hundreds of colorful prizes strung high across game stands, roller coasters, roasted nut stands, ticket booths, whizzing rides whirling nauseatingly around, high, low, up, down, in, out, around and about, enveloping everything in a too-bright, crazily-colored world where everything is sweet and the cars never go too fast.

I love carnivals.

I made Carlos take me on the Ferris wheel, apparently the tallest in Spain, and then to the bumper cars riding on shifty-looking electric nets, and then I bought a cotton candy and proceeded to muse upon how cotton candy could ever have been originally invented, and that, next to those candy dots on paper strips, cotton candy is the most amazing confection ever.

The weather, for the most part, was amazing, and people came out in droves to mull around the park, enjoy the sun, relax on a day off…and scream their heads off while being swung around in a giant machine at much too fast a pace, all while being tossed up and down with stomachs full of sugar. A wonderful day out indeed.

(Dang…I want to post some photos but I guess I’ll have to upgrade my account… 😦 We’ll see if I can get that worked out soon…)

time is on my side

If you ever come to Santiago, there’s one thing you won’t need: a watch.

Not that things don’t have schedules, or time limits, or…well, actually…

One thing I alternately love and hate about Santiago on a daily basis is the Galician (or at least Compostelan) sense of time. As in, there is none. I love this because, after two years here, I’ve really learned to just calm the heck down. I usually feel in a hurry to get places (I blame it on my urban Chicago upbringing), and since I’ve lived here, I’ve kind of let go of my hold on punctuality. Really, what does five minutes matter? At least here, there are few times when a few minutes makes the difference between life and death.

However, there is some part of me (the American part, I guess) that still instinctively needs to be everywhere at the stated time, follow the rules, and not keep others waiting. (That old adage “The early bird blah blah blah” never seems to go away.) In addition, I am naturally a fast walker. Americans in general I think are fast walkers, and I am fast even among them, so here in Santiago I must look like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, constantly scurrying from one place to another, gasping at my pocket watch and crying, “I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!”

So, when I am (naturally) walking quickly from one place to another, there are usually people in front of me who are not. They’re hardly walking at all. Maybe they’re looking in windows. Talking to friends. On the phone. Staring absentmindedly into the sky. Who knows. Either way, they’re in my way, and they’re going too slow. Usually they’re old women, and usually they’ve made sure to spread themselves three thick on the sidewalk, along with canes, walkers, grocery bags, shopping carts, umbrellas, grandchildren, or any number of superfluous items that make it absolutely impossible for me to pass them. This irritates me. It’s not that I’m in a hurry, but if I’m going to take my time, I want it to be on my terms, not because some old coot is too busy talking about her latest hip replacement to realize there’s a pedestrian traffic jam half a mile long behind her. It’s funny that these kinds of things bother me, because immediately after I think terrible thoughts about these poor old babushka-ed ladies, I think, “Hey, do you really need to be there thirty seconds faster?” The answer, recultantly, is almost always no.

So now I try to take my time. I don’t worry about being a few minutes late for class, I don’t walk so fast I give myself shin splints, I’m not concerned about arriving a minute late for a concert or movie (it’s Spain, so it’ll start 15 minutes late, anyway). I take time to eat (a big problem in the States), and I actually sit in a chair and use a ceramic mug to drink coffee at a cafe – no paper to-go cups here. When I have time to sleep in, I do. When I have time to take a nap, I do. When I go to the park, I am there for a long while. I spend quite a bit of time just spending time. And honestly, it’s much better that way.

Of course, I still think terrible thoughts about old ladies, but at least I can take my time to do it, since I’ve got three blocks left to go and from the looks of it, it’ll take me an hour to get there.

Photos!

When I started this journal, adding photos was difficult, and only my friends and family were going to see them anyway, so I didn’t mind adding a link to my personal Shutterfly collection. But people are pretty lazy, so I decided I should just add all the photos I’ve taken directly into the entries. This is rather an undertaking, as it involves editing many of the entries I’ve posted in the last two years, since I arrived here in Spain. So please bear with me. Meanwhile, please look at this entry and tell me if you see a photo. It’ll look much better when it’s all done!