Monday, April 25, 2011

On Coffee

If you want to understand the difference between Spaniards and Americans, all you need to know is how we take our coffee. When I'm at home, coffee isn't really something I think about a lot beyond "I need it" and "please give it to me" and "now." I'm only a fledgling journo but I've been drinking newsroom tar long enough to singe my palate pretty completely. I drink whatever's around--a medium black from Dunkin Donuts if I ran out of time in the morning, the coffee my dad made at 6 a.m. when I finally roll out of bed at 11 on a Sunday, and in a pinch even the coffee somebody at the office made last night, warmed up and accompanied by a piece of cold pizza from production night. (Breakfast of broke college journalists everywhere) When I have to get Starbucks--only when nothing else is around, I'm a Dunkin girl always and forever--I say I want a "medium" because I'm just a dick like that.

But the Spaniards. Oh, the Spaniards. Coffee here is an
event. The tiniest hole in the wall coffee shop has beautiful, elaborate espresso machines. You might see espresso machines like that in New York City, but I'm willing to bet you could count on one hand the number of beautiful brassy steampunk confections we have like that in New Hampshire. You can only get espresso--straight up, cut with a little milk (cortado) or with a lot of milk (cafe con leche). There are cups, saucers and tiny spoons, not styrofoam with a plastic lid. But that's just details.

The more philosophical side--coffee as a metaphor for life, if you will--is that to-go coffee is an oddity here. (Actually, eating and drinking anything on the go is pretty uncommon.) While Americans are bombing around with our venti lattes with a shot of Adderall and screaming into our Blackberrys, Spaniards actually
sit down in the cafe, read the paper, talk to their friends, have a little cafe con leche and maybe a croissant, and--when they're good and ready--eventually head to work. And this is pretty much how everything in Spain works. The waiter will bring you your food when he's good and ready. My history professor will roll into class whenever he feels like it. Those old ladies have a gossip fest in the middle of a busy sidewalk will get out of the flow of traffic when they're damn well done talking.

It sounds romantic, I know. Everyone taking their time, connecting,
enjoying. I don't have any data on this, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's a part of why Spain has the second highest life expectancy in the world, despite the fact that they all smoke and live on cured pork products. (I'm generalizing, but not a lot) People are less stressed, less wound up. They know how to chill, not just when they're on vacation but any old time of day. Which is lovely, if that's what you want to do too. If you have to actually get stuff done, the cafe con leche lifestyle can get frustrating fast--especially to black coffee Americans like me. I walk literally twice as fast as most people here. I don't really have a lot of patience for people who don't understand how a sidewalk or a line in a grocery store is supposed to function. I would, on occasion, like to eat a meal in under two hours.

But although my frustration with all of this gets amplified on days like today when I have a considerable amount of actual shit to get done, I remind myself that pretty soon I'll be back in the land of road rage and people murdering each other over children's hockey. And then, I remember to have--and really enjoy-- a cup of coffee. Nice and slow, the way the Spaniards intended.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Here's something. I live in a country where topless sunbathing is totally chill but walking down the street in anything other than an actual potato sack is license to be catcalled and whistled at and just generally creepily harassed. I mean, I'm used to working in Manchester, where the most hitting-on I ever had to deal with was an occasional, appreciative two-syllable "da-yum" from a guy in a doo-rag, or a barista shyly telling me that he likes my Wilco shirt. I am so not equipped for this.

And really Spain, what the fuck? I guess I think I'm decently cute, but I normally dress in a way that Barbara Bush the elder would find appropriate. My style is probably best described as "cool librarian" or on a more casual day, maybe "artsy camp counselor." But apparently it doesn't matter that I'm walking down the street dressed like Peggy Olson (but cool Manhattan Peggy with the lesbian friend and the new haircut, not sad Brooklyn Peggy). I'm an American girl, and that's all the go-ahead these assholes need. Part of the problem is that literally everyone can tell that I'm not Spanish. I have a big round Irish pancake face and practically albino skin--and American girls definitely get the brunt of the creeptastic shit that goes down on the sidewalks of Spain. (Spanish men think we're all MTV girls). And no matter how Continental I try to dress, I still end up looking about as un-Spanish as speedy service in a restaurant.

Now, I've been working on my bitch face. When I walk alone in the mornings I pop in my headphones (yes mom, volume low, not trying to get hit by a bus) and put on my sunglasses whether I need them or not. There's ways to avert some of it, but especially as the temperatures are starting to edge into the eighties and skirts and dresses are becoming more the norm, it pretty much is a cemented part of the daily routine. (The only surefire way to avoid it is to be walking with a guy, but we only have three on our program so they're in short supply as chaperones) There's no one type of guy who'll do it--some of them are fifteen and some of them are eighty-five. Typically it's a group--guys the world over are just more dickish when there's a bunch of them (not a stereotype if it's always true). Sometimes it's just a whistle, sometimes it's a full-blown speech about "beautiful American girls." Once or twice it's been bad or weird enough that I tossed off a "leave me alone" or a "fuck you" but usually the only sensible thing to do is ignore it and keep walking.

Unfortunately, the truth is it is part of the culture. One of our Spanish professors was shocked when we tried to explain to her that in the US only certifiable creeps yell things at random girls on the street. I won't say it's everyone, because I've met plenty of perfectly nice and polite Spaniards too, but it's a whole hell of a lot more than any city I've ever been in in the states--as in, it happens to us every day. And it's getting really, really old.

People (most of whom happen to have testicles) try to tell you that this is just a part of the culture, that's just how they are, try not to let it bother you, they're just "appreciative." Well, fuck that. For real, it blows. And saying that it's part of the "culture" is the most inane argument I've ever heard. I mean, for christssake slavery used to be part of our culture. And when two guys follow my roommate and me for four or five blocks making kissing noises and mumbling things about "guapas" and "bonitas" at 2 o'clock in the morning, that doesn't feel appreciative, that feels fucking scary. Flamenco guitar is part of the culture. Getting harassed on the street is getting harassed on the street. File this one under "things I will absolutely not miss about Spain."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Choose Your Own Adventure

So I've pretty much sucked at blogging this past month. I'd like to be better about at least jotting things down as they happen, because I know I'm going to forget things in a year, two years, ten years. But fact is when the coolest stuff is happening you're living it, not writing about it. And I refuse to be one of those douchebag writers with a fifteen dollar Moleskin notebook in my pocket all the time, I'm sorry.

There's just about two months left in my time abroad, and I'm constantly vacillating between wanting it to slow down and speed up. On the one hand, I'd happily live in Europe and see the world one 8 euro Ryanair flight at a time. (Although if and when I'm ever making real money I will never fly Ryanair again. That shitshow is basically the Fung Wah bus of the skies.) On the other, I miss home. I miss my boyfriend, and my family, and my friends from home and from school. I feel like the world's biggest whiner--partying until 5 a.m., swimming in the Mediterranean...and here I am talking about how homesick I am?

But this was what I wanted all along, I think. To feel homesick, and even at times a little lost. Because every time that I beat down a purse snatcher on a bike--yeah that happened, long story--or share a joke with somebody from Morocco, or Mali, or Cuba, or stand in front of Las Meninas or inside the Alhambra, I am constantly bowled over that this is actually my life. My life is drinking sangria with the Sierra Nevada on my right and the Mediterranean at my left. My life is having breakfast with my boyfriend on the terrace of our rental apartment and looking at the Alhambra. It's crazy, and it used to all be out of my comfort zone, and it's all pretty amazing.

Whenever we're traveling as a group, everyone is constantly taking pictures of groups of people, and the sights, obviously. But once in awhile, somebody hands their camera to a friend and, almost a little sheepishly, asks if the friend will take a picture of just him or her--standing in front of whatever important, beautiful or famous thing we happen to be visiting. Because even though we share so much of this trip, we're all writing our own version of the story. We all want a little piece that says "I was here."

The thing about going abroad as a student is that even though you're in a large group that gets close very quickly, you're also you. You're a college student who's choosing to ditch the library and the dining hall and the warm Keystone for something totally new and unknown. You've got the balls to do that--and while it might not feel like a lot sometimes, it sets you apart a little. I think it's something very personal, choosing to push yourself like this. Everybody is looking for something slightly different, but we all wanted this challenge. We're looking to learn, and make friends, and travel, but for me at least there's also something bigger, something more inward. I don't know what to call it, really, but I feel it sometimes when I fall into bed at the end of the day just totally exhausted from speaking, reading and writing Spanish all day, not to mention absorbing the culture shock (which gets better but it doesn't go away). It's like going to bed after a serious workout, with all your muscles aching. They hurt because you broke them down and now they're slowly rebuilding themselves into something stronger.