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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Euro Life Changes

Some New Concept of Home
Megan Welch

We 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.

We 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.

In 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 all tomorrow.

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 city’s 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 gay bar.

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 absolute pleasures.

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 didn’t take long for the newness to become routine, for me to quickly seek familiarity. Though my apartment was just steps from Ventas, the city’s 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 Franco’s regime the nation’s 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 tourism.

This show of unity would cement excellent relations between the United States and Spain even after the demise of Franco’s 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 Obama’s hope-filled face was splashed across the cover of Spanish Esquire.

Even 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 didn’t know American football, didn’t 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 o’clock, 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.

We 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 Madrileños.

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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