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The International Writers Magazine Archives : Studies in Spain

Planner to the Frying Pan
An American Venture into a Spanish Life
Caroline Hunter

It was my first week studying in Granada, Spain, and I was standing in a bar with three middle-aged women. I looked at my watch and realized that it was half past one in the morning; my homework for class at nine a.m. sat untouched.

Carmen had given me the former room of her eldest son, who had studied psychology and was now at graduate school. However, a poster of Sigmund Freud remained above my bed. I imagined the black and white image scowling silently at my empty room, grumbling at the irresponsibility of his most recent tenant. Carmen and her two friends did not note my distraction; they were taking turns mocking her admirer. He was an "old friend".

She told me during my first night at her house that she doesn’t drink because she has no self-control, and I now believed her. If she could express this much disdain under the influence of a glass of milk, alcohol was irrelevant. I ordered a ginger ale and took a glance back at the old man. He maintained a sulking stare while another man arrived, greeted Carmen and her friends, and started telling me about his trouble earning a license to be an international boat captain.

Freud cocked an eyebrow at me. I had to act fast.

I put on a face which I hoped would translate into Spanish as feeling nauseous and told Carmen that I felt sick. I didn’t tell her or her friends that doing my homework would be the remedy.
"Estas seguro?," "Are you sure?" she asked. "Si," I frowned. She and the would-be boat captain walked me back to the apartment a few blocks down, then leaving to go back to the bar.

When I had finished my homework, I checked it off in my planner book and looked at the clock. It was three a.m. on a Tuesday night, and Carmen was still at the bar. Was I a complete loser, or just a disoriented American?

By the end of the week, I would have my answer. As Carmen, my roommate, and I walked past a grocery store corner adorned with dried animal carcasses a few days later, my hand reached down to my planner. Shouldn’t I be doing work instead of shopping for food? Especially food that had so recently gone from the land of the living to the purchase line? Shrimp was sold, I discovered, complete with black eyes and whiskers. Bread loaves were also sold whole. The phrase, "the best thing since sliced bread" popped into my head. Wasn’t sliced bread a basic staple of civilized life?

I sometimes watched Carmen as she used these basic ingredients to cook in the small kitchen down the hall from my room. Seeing her dash from pan to pan throwing in olive oil, garlic, and brazen piles of meat and vegetables was a show in itself. Several times, I tried to start a conversation while she cooked, but received a minimal response.

Part of me wanted to dance in appreciation of the rich smells and the excitement of a new culture that they spoke of. Another wanted to shed a tear for the little shrimp faces gazing at me from the counter.

I was as confused about life in Spain as those shrimp probably were about how they had arrived in a kitchen filled with sizzling sounds. When Carmen spontaneously sang Spanish opera as she cooked one day and then asked me how my classes were going, all I could say was: "Mucho tarea," "a lot of homework."

I started disappearing from the apartment on outings to museums, churches, and cultural events with tours given only in Spanish. If my host mother couldn’t orient me to this new culture, I would orient myself.

Meeting my Flamenco instructor for the month, Ana, cleared up my confusion nicely. She had taught several short-term Flamenco classes in America, had a keen eye for fashion, and called all of her students "guapa," meaning "beauty" in Spanish. I listened eagerly one day as she discussed her impressions of Americans to the class: "The American girls in my classes - they always come in so shy, no?" she said.
Me? Shy? The bartender had said something to Carmen about my being reserved.
"They only nod yes and shake their heads no," she expanded, as I tried to follow in English. "I don’t know what to think. I just want my guapas to feel at home, comprende?"

Ana then started to bemoan the purposelessness of the American agenda book, and I had a brilliant realization: I was living by a schedule, while the Spanish lived by rhythm. That was Carmen’s secret. If I traded my planner and homework for strange bars and unprocessed food, I would be able to dance the first movement of the Sevillana to the right beat. Or at least feel less awkward around my new dance teacher.

Freud nodded sagely from my imagination as my perception of Spain took new form.

I used my second week to embark upon a regimen of cultural immersion. I learned how to pop the head off of a shrimp. I ate ice cream, a local staple, for lunch.

I participated enthusiastically in my travel group’s weekly sports activities, even when one week our program coordinator prohibited us from drinking water or taking a break until we had played a full hour in the hot-enough-to-fry-an-egg afternoon sun. I didn’t need water anymore; I was living the rhythm. If it sometimes forgot about my biological needs, I wrote it off as part of the romantically rugged Spanish culture.

Recently, I read an article that reminded me of this phase of my trip. In it, a European author criticized the act of jogging as a "management" of the body. He asserted that Americans try to dominate their environment through self-regimentation. Around my third week abroad, I started to notice signs that while I had been alternatively using my planner and an abstract idea of how to be Spanish to manage myself, the American and Spanish people around me had been being themselves.

My host mother’s youngest son was studying for his final exams in his room. Carmen, whom I had labeled as ‘the warm-milk coquette’, worked assisting a man with Alzheimer’s Disease while my roommate and I were at class. One of my classmates woke up two hours early to get to class ahead of time – every day. She was probably too tired to even think about a museum by the time class got out. Adults walked down the sidewalk alongside their parents every afternoon after siesta, and the local adolescents followed fashion trends as loyally as any I had seen in America.

In Spain, I found, it was impossible to organize myself into being comfortable. As the article suggested, I had to establish a natural way to manage myself. Nobody around me was trying to be a part of a culture. They were living, and after three weeks of exhausting experimentation, I wanted to join them.

My surrender brought me back to Carmen. When I first arrived in her apartment at the heart of the city, jet-lagged yet eager to learn, it confused me that she left the window open to the street close to twenty-four hours per day. Shouts from drunk people and adolescents often crashed into the fourth floor apartment during dinner. Carmen responded with only a quick smile before taking her next bite of food. By my fourth week, I had given up on finding a reason for this habit of hers. One night during dinner, we watched on TV as the soccer team Real Madrid achieved a long-coming victory over one of its rivals.

A few car beeps hopped in through the window. Then a few more. A lone yell came from a down the street. The beeps started to collect into a stream, and the sports broadcasters on the television screen left off making serious commentary to share in the excitement. More voices joined the noise outside. They sang in Spanish, words of triumph that I didn’t understand. I enjoyed it all quite well with my fork in my hand and my ankles neatly crossed under the table. I imagined exuberant fans hugging each other, tripping over each other’s feet outside as they marched in lines of celebration.

I looked over to Carmen. Her seat was empty. I turned towards the window to see nothing but her bottom half and a curtain blowing in the wind. Her top half was outside, staring at the crowds below and trailing cigarette smoke into a sky full of jovial noise. My roommate was sick that night, resting in her room. Left alone with the television, I tried to discern the correct "Spanish" way to manage this situation.

My planner reminded me of my final exam the next day, and advised that I politely watch the news coverage of the victory until it seemed appropriate to go to my room and study.

Ana, my Flamenco teacher, popped up in my head and told me to go up to the window next to Carmen. I needed to embrace the noise, she asserted as I started to feel a headache growing from the base of my neck.
An uncooked shrimp popped up in front of them both and told me that it was all useless. His little whiskers quivered as he told me to call up one of my friends and run together around the block in an embrace of the mob mentality; we’d both be cooked eventually anyway.

My mind drifted back to the guided hiking trip I had gone on the past weekend. The sun poured like hot liquid from a clay jar into the ravine where our group was taking a lunch break. Four of the other hikers were chatting over by a small stream, and I was eating an orange on a rock with our guide. He had been quiet for much of the hike. Looking up at the white walls of rock on either side of us and the blue, empty sky above, I thought nothing.
"How do you like Spain?" our guide asked.
"I didn’t expect it to be so complicated," I answered. He smiled as I tried to contain the orange juice dripping through my fingers.

Then I was back at the table with drunken fans shouting in my ear. The sunshine and silence of the ravine traveled with me as I moved toward the window. I waited until Carmen had gone to the kitchen to wash the dishes, and then stuck my head outside.
Next, I went to my room and threw the door closed behind me.
After five minutes of studying, I slid my room window open and let the ongoing shouting back inside.
After finishing my work, I glanced over at my planner.

Freud had no idea what I was doing, and neither did I. I was in a new place, where the bread was not sliced, I ate oranges messily between mountains, and my window was open without my knowing why. I had entered my Spanish life.

As I kissed Carmen goodbye at the end of that week, I expressed my gratitude by giving her a bag of candy and saying in basic Spanish "I had a great time here."
I didn’t say she had taught me how, but I’ll bet she knew.

© Caroline Hunter November 2007
Simmons College Graduate

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