International Writers Magazine Archives : Studies in Spain
to the Frying Pan
An American Venture into a Spanish Life
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.
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 doesnt 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
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 didnt 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. Shouldnt 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. Wasnt sliced bread a basic staple of civilized
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
couldnt 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?"
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 dont 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 Carmens 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
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 groups 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 didnt
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 mothers 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 Alzheimers 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
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 didnt
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 others 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; wed 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 didnt 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
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 didnt say she had taught me how, but Ill bet she knew.
Hunter November 2007
Simmons College Graduate
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