June 27, 2006

Culture Maven: Llegando a comprender desde España

The Romanian was certainly a hail fellow well met. Especially when one considers his situation.

He was on vacation in Alicante, the centerpiece of the portion of Spain’s Mediterranean exposure known as Costa Blanca. Instead of sailing or lolling in the sand, he found himself at the police station, attempting to explain to the earnest Spanish-speaking clerk in a fractured tongue that his pocket had been picked while strolling the tile walk that defines the beach.

The hand gestures seemed to work. As the clerk shuffled off to copy some reports, he turned to the Americans who were also spending a Eurovacation day advising authorities of a transgression committed against their rental van.
Despite the circumstances of the chance meeting, the eastern European beamed as he attempted to communicate his admiration for what he obviously viewed as the land o’ plenty.

It was a short, engaging but not especially communicative conversation.
“Keyseen. Outwa,” he exhorted. Several times.
My pal Mark, more astute, was able to decipher.
“You have a cousin in Ottawa?”
“Si. Keyseen. Outwa,” he nodded with an infectious smile.
The exchange was limited. Nonetheless, his wonder at our luck at living in the U.S. of A. was obvious.

Repartee with a German in a Barcelona hotel lobby took on a different tone.
Some of our group were discussing global warming while waiting for the rest to come down for dinner.

“It’s all the Americans’ fault,” interrupted the fellow from Alemania. He was not smiling. His tone was brusque, leaving the clear impression that his opinion was absolute. That he believed our country to be the source of most all of the world’s ills. And that he really wasn’t interested in any discourse.

He couldn’t have been terser in his native tongue.
Fortunately, the experience of our group of six during a two-week holiday in Spain, anecdotal to be sure, indicates that the view of the Romanian is more prevalent.

One night in Granada, we attended a festival on a religious holiday honoring — or so one of us was told — the body of Christ. It was held at their fairgrounds at the edge of town. It was a combination of Six Flags Over Alhambra, A Taste of Tapas, Disco Espana, Flamenco World and Jamones ’R’ Us.
The next day at an Internet cafe/convenience store, the friendly clerk who spoke English very well asked what we’d been doing during our stay in Granada.

“The Alhambra, of course,” I replied.
“Yes,” he grinned.
“Last night we went to the festival. It’s like a state fair.”
“Yes,” his smile broadened. “I’ve been. New Jersey. Lots of cows.”
His affection for things American was obvious. When the electricity went out for a minute or so during our computer session, he refused to charge us for any of it. “You do the same,” he assured us.

I wanted to tell him about Insight. His English wasn’t that good.
Then there was the waiter who couldn’t have been more exuberant when he discovered we were Americans. It wasn’t difficult. Only two of us speak any Spanish at all. And we tended to wear shorts at night in the heat, something we learned strayed somewhat from local custom.

His English had more faults than my Spanish.
But he made it pretty clear that he wished to come to the United States more than about anything else. He kept repeating that he wanted to visit Iowa. Go figure.

We never could figure out why. Though one of us thought they deciphered the word “girlfriend” in his Spanglish.

I figured it was either an admiration for Steve Alford, or an affinity for corn on the cob.
“Iowa. Nice?”

Not wanting to burst his balloon, we nodded.

Reuben, the guide for our Segway tour through Sevilla’s old Jewish quarter and the Plaza de Espana, was too pleasant. His English was better than most high-schoolers over here. He offered to bring us some of his mother’s olives the next day. Until we told him we were leaving for the airport at 7 a.m.
The Spanish seem a genial people. It was ingratiating that so many treated us Americans with such admiration.

Which is odd. For when visiting a synagogue more than 1,500 years old, or a Moorish castle, or sitting in the room from which Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus on his way, one realizes theirs is a grand culture and history of significantly more breadth and depth than ours.

Contact the writer at cdk@culturemaven.com