Today is our last night in Spain. I neglected to write from San Sebastian, a beach town in which normally I´d feel quite comfortable, if it weren´t for the fact that it rained harder there than in Bilbao. So Miguel and I went to the movies instead. If you can, go see or rent “Bonbon (El Perro)”, a touching story about a man and his fighting dog. You will leave the theater with a tear in your eye. I know Miguel did. For me, this was my first Spanish film without subtitles, and I got a completely different meaning than did Miguel, but I enjoyed it all the same. It made for a colorful analytical discussion later that night.
I have received countless e-mails from readers with questions, and rather than respond to everyone individually, I have opted to put together a little FAQ.
Question: There are a lot of gaps in your documentation. Surely, more has happened?
Answer: This is true. So much more has happened, but if I spent every day in these Internet cafes, I´d miss my whole vacation. And I´d have nothing to write about. Fortunately, we have many photos, and I suppose I could tell you all more about it later.
Q: Was it hard for you to adapt to life without mochas?
A: In the beginning, yes, but I soon adjusted to life with cafe con leche, which is, for those monolingual types, coffee with steamed milk. Delicioso. Also, the hot chocolate here is like none other, perhaps in the world, though Miguel says in Italy it is done the same: imagine a huge vat filled with a thick, rich, creamy chocolate, as if someone melted dark chocolate bars. This is then poured directly from the tap into a cup for your enjoyment.
Q: Were these cafes all over Spain?
A: No. They were hard to find in the high north, especially in San Sebastian, which is yet another reason why we had to leave.
Q: Did you really speak nothing but Spanish day in and day out?
A: No. This lasted for maybe a week, but sometimes, communicating clearly made more sense.
Q: But do you think your Spanish has improved?
A: This is questionable, although I do think that I understand directions better than Miguel, but please do not tell him that I said that.
Q: I heard there is a great Aquarium in San Sebastian. Did you see it?
Q: What about the Basque separation movement. Was there anything that you saw that made you nervous? Protests, maybe?
A: As a matter of fact, we saw two protests, one in Bilbao, and one during dinner in San Sebastian. The former apparently was an organized protest of sanitation workers. Unfortunately, I know not a lick of Basque, so I don´t really know what it was about, but they filled the streets wearing blue uniforms, carrying banners, and chanting something. They were led by cars honking horns. The latter was a gentle protest, this one in Spanish, something about some member of the parliament being an assassin or something like that. We didn´t venture out of the restaurant to look.
Q: What was the scariest moment?
A: The scariest moment, for me, was in the Casco Viejo in Bilbao, where we were staying. The roads are narrow and windy, and voices tend to bounce off the walls. I heard a terrible comotion, a chanting, around the corner, and I hid behind Miguel, but it turned out to be a group of British tourists.
Q: Are Americans as obnoxious abroad as we´ve heard?
A: No. The most obnoxious are the British and the Canadians. But I figured this out ten years ago, when I was living in Prague. The Brits and Canadians can hide behind the Union Jack and that maple leaf, anything that shows they are not American. But they talk incredibly loud, make no attempt to learn the language, and scare people in narrow alleyways in the dead of night.
Q: But what about the Americans?
A: Americans aren´t that bad. Okay, well, first, they stand out, because they´re the only ones wearing white trainers and fanny packs. BUT in their defense, they talk a bit quieter. They´re harder to pick out, except for their funny outfits. But they seem more humble. Maybe it´s because they realize that most everyone can´t stand our president.
Q: You mean NO ONE likes Bush?
A: Two people in all of Spain like Bush. Miguel´s cousin Eugenio likes Bush, and the guy who was running the Nigerian Internet cafe. But remember, this is the establishment where down below, they were having an animated church service. This is just my opinion, but when anyone has to pound tables and yell to make a point, I do question that person´s credibility. If it were REALLY true, you wouldn´t have to be that loud about it. That´s just my opinion. But this guy, a very nice fellow I must say, says that in a short time, we will all be very grateful for Bush, especially for his work in Iraq. “They are bad people in Iraq,” he says. “I wish Bush would come to Africa.” Eugenio is a different story. I think he´s friends with Bush. I´m not sure. I can forgive him.
Q: Who is this Eugenio?
A: He´s Miguel´s first cousin from Nicaragua. Miguel and he grew up together in the same neighborhood, when Miguel was living there. Somehow, and I´m still baffled by this, Eugenio grew up to be a Republican, and yet, his heart is enormous. He has treated MIguel and me during our stay like royalty. Even though he chants “Four more years!” whenever the mood strikes, he does it in quite an endearing way, and I must say I am quite fond of him, despite his odd political leanings.
Q: What about Maria Jesus and Maria Asunsion?
Those are my dad´s second cousins. What happened was, after Miguel and I left Zaragoza to Barcelona, I got their phone numbers during some continued correspondence between my dad´s first cousins in the Bay Area, Joan and Raymond. Miguel called Maria Jesus and she said, “Good grief, why didn´t you call us sooner!” She was actually irritated that we didn´t call. This is so typical on my dad´s side of the family, but I´m not complaining. As soon as we got back to Zaragoza, we were treated like family. We went to dinner at Maria Asunsion´s house, with her husband Jose Luis and daughter Jelena. Then on Saturday we piled into the family car for the trip to Verdun. I will never forget it for as long as I live. The next time I see them, I will speak much better Spanish.
A: But what about the smoke? Are you sure you can handle it?
Q: There is some good news for non-smokers planning a trip to Spain. I just read this in the paper today. Starting in 2006, smoking will be banned in enclosed work areas, and partially in restaurants and bars, where it won´t be banned completely, but smokers will be confined to much smaller areas. They say that smoking claims 50,000 lives per year, more than traffic accidents and other calamities combined. In other words, Spain, or at least Madrid, will be a nicer place to live.
A: What about fashion? Anything to watch out for?
I am sad to say that the 70s will return in popularity. Think Charlie´s Angels. That´s not so bad. What frightens me is the return of the mullet. Oh yes. It barely left in the states and already it´s on the comeback trail. Women´s fashion is a little less bleak, except for high heeled boots. And it´s not like they even look comfortable. I´m convinced it´s why Spanish women look so serious. Why, they´re in pain.
Q: What did you do today?
A: Today, Miguel and I took a trip on the funicular, this overhead tram, kind of like what´s at Great America, but with MUCH BETTER views. We saw all of Madrid! Below us! It took us south of the great palaces, over a beautiful park, that once belonged to royalty. In fact, these beautiful lands were not open to the public until 1970. The only scar on this landscape was the handful of prostitutes lining the roadway, pedaling their wares, easily visible from the tram. That was just weird. In a park! With families! And children!
Q: What is the ONE thing you will take with you from Spain?
Okay, the ONE thing, since you´re being so picky about it, is the importance of family, of taking walks in parks, with your friends, your family, and your dog, spending time together, noticing the sunset. Not necessarily dwelling on the sunset, but appreciating that it´s there, that you have the time to do so. The calming effect of this practice is immense. It goes on until bedtime. You feel safe walking at night, because of all the people.
Q: What irritates you most about the Spanish, aside from the smoking?
A: That regardless of where you are, someone is going to walk into you, roughly, in any given moment. If you´re standing in a bookshop, forget trying to read, because you´re going to be pushed and shoved. But I´ve learned not to take it personally. In fact, you can shove back, and no one gets upset about it.
Well, it´s time for me to log off. This is my last missive from Spain. Our flight leaves at 1:00 tomorrow afternoon, and we´ll somehow make it back before 7 that evening. We must be on the express flight or something.
Well, so long Spain, for now…