International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Euro Life Changes
New Concept of Home
ended up together in Madrid from different schools, for different
reasons. Some of us to escape our university campuses, some to seek
adventure, others to find a place away from America, away from the
familiar and banal. Regardless, somehow or another, we found ourselves
on January 9th like cattle, herded into the generic, mirrored and
false-flowered lobby of Hotel Regina a tourist staple approximately
a minute walk from the famed Puerta del Sol.
were overtired and antsy, badly in need of a guide; Americans lost in
the folds of another nation. But we would learn soon enough. We would
learn the ways of the city, how to navigate Europe cheaply, how to get
around with public transportation as our guide. More importantly, through
our adventures we would redefine our conceptions of home and discover
that America was never as far away as we thought.
"You look like Hillary Clinton," Evan said as he slid into
the seat beside Michelle. It was early in 2008, an election year, with
American party rivalries vying for their chance at candidacy. Hillary
Clinton had just shown up in some photograph with purpled circles swallowing
her under-eyes, looking wrinkled, tired, and old.
"Thanks," was all Michelle could muster, for indeed, her under-eyes
were remarkably racooned, souvenirs from 20 hours of traveling and too
little sleep. I looked no better. Perched in front of my laptop coaxing
spotty wireless out of my Dell at some café called Vitamina,
my first afternoon in Spain was hardly as romantic as one would hope.
The free wi-fi (pronounced wee-fee to the Spanish) was available only
with purchase, and I, in my language-barriered haste, could muster up
little more than a single word café. So there it was,
some black, tar-like liquid perched in front of me and a crumpled receipt
with the coveted internet code. At that moment, I would have given anything
for the bright pink and orange logo of Dunkin Donuts.
my half-awake glaze life in Madrid seemed so new and so difficult.
Even the money was larger and colored, the euro coins a novel currency
that reminded me too much of monopoly dollars, as if I were the
banker and the supply was unlimited. The coffee was strong, the
hotel rooms confusing to turn on lights one had to insert
their room key and leave it there, a rather alarming concept for
a first timer it was all much too difficult to manage.
"Tomorrow," I thought as my head hit the pillow, my body
still fully clothed with contacts in eyes. I would deal with it
Tomorrow came and
went in another jet-lagged blur, but by the following night we tumbled
out into the streets, somewhat rested and ready to tackle the citys
endless supply of nightlife. Foregoing a guidebook, we decided on one
key aspect: we were in need of Sangria. In our greed for adventure,
we headed the opposite direction from Puerta del Sol and quickly found
ourselves in some darkened seedy neighborhood. Peligroso. Three blocks
later we finally found a bar strangely named Cock. "Tiene
Sangria?" we all echoed like parrots to the amused waiter. "Nada,"
he informed us, then smiled and mumbled something about free liquor
for the males. The name on the door suddenly became clear. We had inadvertently
ventured into Chueca, the gay neighborhood, and made our way into a
Three more (heterosexual) rejections later, we were finally informed
that Sangria was a summer drink. Only mildly dejected, we eventually
trudged back in the way of Puerta del Sol. Avoiding the row of Irish
bars, doggedly determined to somehow act as Spaniards, we found ourselves
in a dingy, smoke-filled place, hidden further back along the ally.
On its walls languished painted naked ladies, but behind its bar we
found our prized sangria. Sangria, an experience within itself, turned
out to be an acquired taste. A mixture of red wine, brandy, sugar, and
floating bits of citrus fruit, its consistency heavy like syrup and
slightly metallic on the tongue. The first sips were painful, the last
Tripping merrily home, heads spinning, we laughed and delighted in our
first success. We felt as though the lights, the smells, the rush of
traffic was all new, that nothing would ever repeat or make stale our
exciting four month excursion. We planned trips we would never take,
talked of experiences we would never have, of bars and neighborhoods
we would never find the opportunity to make it to. We were filled with
the giddy rush of new hope, high on the belief that we could live in
this dream state for four months.
It didnt take long for the newness to become routine, for me to
quickly seek familiarity. Though my apartment was just steps from Ventas,
the citys bullfighting ring, it was equally as close to El Corte
Ingles, the Spanish version of an upscale department store, and a Burger
King, albeit with a euro menu, instead of a dollar one. The cheap taste
of an American hamburger quickly became comfort food.
One afternoon, on a search for iced coffee, I stumbled into the neighborhood
Starbucks. The signage, furniture, and even musical selections were
distinctly American, as if I had just stumbled into the chain two miles
from campus. I half envisioned myself exiting to the clanging chorus
of traffic on Lancaster Ave, rather than the shrill whistles of Spanish
policia directing afternoon congestion on the Gran Vía.
Thanks to the effects of globalization, remnants of America are difficult
to avoid in Spain. Under Francos regime the nations isolationist
economic policy wreaked havoc on family incomes and the quality of living.
Citizens were forced to make do with the little they could buy, or what
they could grow on their land. By 1951, the situation was so dire, that
the isolationist policy was dropped and a full diplomatic relationship
with the United States established. Through the controversial move,
the US provided Franco his much needed aid, both in loans and through
This show of unity would cement excellent relations between the United
States and Spain even after the demise of Francos regime. It would
also introduce Spaniards to a novel way of life: the American way.
How quickly we found that the American influence on the Spanish citizens
and government was prevalent and complete. Their elections came and
went in March without much over-exaggeration of fanfare in the media.
In fact, that month, despite it being election month, Barack Obamas
hope-filled face was splashed across the cover of Spanish Esquire.
the corniest of American movies found their way to Spanish theaters
just weeks after their openings in Los Angeles and New York, and
clubs, like the seven-story Kapital, played not Spanish music,
but American rap remixed and resurfaced into techno hits. American-style
restaurants popped up all over town, more affordable than most,
as they were training venues for aspiring chefs. Their menus featured
not "baby squid in its own ink" or the usual assortment
of jamón, but familiar dishes: steak, beef carpaccio, and
salads with goat cheese and craisins.
I carried a cell
phone, I had internet service in my apartment, I watched American television
shows like "One Tree Hill" (in Spanish, but still
The vast array of similarities made for an often surreal experience.
If I closed my eyes long enough I could still imagine I was in America.
But when I opened them again I knew: these were not my people, this
was not my currency, or my government. They didnt know American
football, didnt care for NCAA basketball March Madness. I was
not at home.
So, we tried our best to revel in the differences. We drank Don Simon
sangria, purchased for a euro at the Alimentación shops, nicknamed
Chinos for the nationality of their owners. We ate dinner at 11 oclock,
stayed until the bars closed at three, and moved onto the clubs until
six in the morning when the metro started up again for the day. We shopped
at Zara and Mango, and on Sunday mornings, at the hundred year old flea
market El Rostro, clutching our purses to our chests like the suspicious
American females we were. We wholeheartedly participated in the tradition
of the afternoon siesta when the shopkeepers close their doors for leisurely
lunches, while we all curled up for a good read or a snooze in the afternoon
sunshine streaming through our bedroom windows.
even attended a Real Madrid game, screaming and berating the opponent,
Sevilla, with the other fans until our voices were hoarse and our
home team victorious. We spent whole days lying on the grass in
Retiro park eating picnic lunches polished off with orange Fanta
as we pretended to study in the sunshine. We tried our best to become
We ended up together
in Madrid from different schools, for different reasons. Connected as
we were by the thread of our Boston University program, we soon learned
that cultural connections run even deeper than friendships and some
shared sense of patriotism. If globalization has any advantage, it exists
in its ability to allow foreigners to relate to the natives, to uncover
surprising universalities. Spanish children still exasperate their mothers
on the metro; working adults still hurry down the streets toward their
place of business; teenagers still stick Ipod buds in their ears, tapping
their feet to the beat of their favorite tunes. The barriers of language
and culture are neither insurmountable.
One afternoon wandering alone on an unfamiliar street in one of my favorite
neighborhoods, Alonso Martínez, I discovered a shop called Cacao
Sempraka. "Chocolate," beckoned its sign. Ah, a word I could
surely recognize. Within its mahogany-wooded walls, I found the best
fruit-infused chocolate helado and copies of the newest New Yorker,
in English. Curled up on a bench reading David Sedaris humorous
travel essay about some cultural mix-up in France, I laughed out loud.
I knew what it was to survive cultural mix-ups too. Because despite
the comfort one finds in similarities, the concept of globalization
should never mean replication of all the small familiarities of home.
The beauty is in the mix-ups, the differences, the well meaning, but
failed attempts at finding home. The beauty is in creating a new home
in a new place with a new culture, and then recognizing that it is not
at all the same as your old home. And never should it be.
© Megan Welch - May 4th 2009
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