The Spanish Melting Pot

When living in a place, I think it’s important to know something about it. I’ve been to countless museums, historical sites, and prehistorical archaeological sites in Spain. And while it’s been interesting, weaving it all together hasn’t always been easy. I needed a coach.

We aren’t taught much European history when we go through school in the US. Other than the fact that while so many of us have ancestors that hailed from Europe; in America, we wanted to do it our way. But connecting with the history of Spain became even more important to me after having my DNA done last year. I found out I have Iberian, Moroccan and Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. Yep, this fair skinned, freckle faced, blue-eyed girl has all that. Plus some German, Scandinavian, Eastern European and, yes, Celtic – Scottish, Welsh, Irish DNA (which is what I had always been told I was, almost exclusively).

So, now that I have skin in the Spanish game, I needed to understand Spanish history. To get the ball moving forward, I took a 20 hour lecture series on Spanish history from a professor of anthropology who specializes in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. And in doing so, it’s changed my view of every thing I thought I knew about my own history.

I won’t bore you with all that I learned. I’m well aware that most people would find sitting through 20 hours of anthropological lectures a real snore fest. So I’m just that strange, getting super jazzed before another hour listening to all this rich history that came alive for me in the retelling. And it opened my eyes to not just myself, but how connected we all really are. Whether we want to admit it or not.

Spain has always been a cross-roads of cultures, religions and ideas. It’s position at the mouth of the Mediterranean pretty much ensured that. But it’s also a place with varied terrain and climates, perfect for raising livestock and prolific farming. It’s mineral deposits, and even snow melt from the glaciers in the Pyrenees were shipped all over the Mediterranean and prized by the wealthy in the Middle East more than a thousand years ago. Spain is a literal tapestry of all the cultures who have come and gone over the last 3000 years.

In the US, we think of the Spanish people as dark haired and mocha skinned. But when you walk the streets of any city in Spain you see that’s a stereo-type easily disproved. People here look like those in the US, France or Germany or even Ireland. And speaking of Ireland – when I was in Galicia, the most NW region in Spain – I saw signs of the Celts everywhere. I was told there was a strong connection between Gallegos and those of the Emerald Isles. I had just assumed that Irish mariners had landed on the Galecian shores and settled that area. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Celts came from central Europe in what is now Northern France, Belgium and Germany over the Pyrenees. Their settlements reached far to the south before being pushed back by the Romans and eventually the Visigoths. But it was after that period that they got in boats and ventured to Ireland and Great Britian. So it was the Celts going from Galicia not the other way around. And they brought the bagpipes with them. Yes, the bagpipes, that are the national instrument of Galicia, Scotland and Ireland, didn’t originate from any of those places. It came from Africa where the goat herders used flutes and bags of air made of goat skins to make music. So it’s no wonder I have North African, Iberian and German DNA, if I have Irish DNA. Because the Celts brought it with them when they went from Spain to Ireland.

During this lecture series, covering 10,000 years of history, it started to become clear that you couldn’t tell the history of Spain and not tell the history of the rest of Europe and North Africa and the Middle East. The story even reaches all the way to India and the Americas. And all along the way, there were wars. The conquerors and the conquered. New inventions and technology. New religions and old ones lost to the sands of time. Borders were ever changing and it became hard to keep up with who was in charge of one region or another. Especially in El Anduluz (Spain south of Galica, Asturias, and the Basque Country).

And it got me thinking. Today, we see the rise of Nationalism going on all over Europe and in the US. I hear people from Britian say ‘Britian should be for the British’ and I watch some of the violence against immigrants in Eastern Europe on tv. In the US, the jailing of those crossing the Mexican border trying to escape violence in their own countries leaves me heart broken, as they are treated as sub-human. But if any of those advocating for these ‘nationalist ideals’ took the course I took, they would understand that there is no such thing as pure national identity. If they knew history, they’d know there never really has been. It’s a modern marketing construct with ever moving historical borders. And our DNA is proof.

Riding through Strasbourg, France last year – sure, its France today. But it’s flip flopped so many times that the people there speak their own unique language, a blend of both French and German. This is much like Spain with its regional languages and traditions, whose differences are generally celebrated nowadays rather than viewed with suspicion.

They say America was the ‘Great Experiment’, and there is very real fear that with what’s going on today politically, it’s been irreparably damaged so as never to recover. But after completing this Spanish history course, I think the Greatest Experiment is the European Union (EU). Bringing together so many cultures and sub-cultures. People who had a long history of fighting each other, and a string of wars stretching back millennia. With differing languages and values. But then they figured out they were stronger together. That they had more in common than their differences of the past. And they’re actually DNA cousins, after all. Is it perfect? No, but I pray it survives the current climate.

I think of it in these terms. Its like a person who has been ill. They’ve taken medicine for their illness for a long time and they feel better. So much so that they fool themselves into believing they’re not ill anymore and can stop taking their medication. So they do stop, and they fall ill again, much to their surprise.

This is how we are with history. We know terrible things happened. Wars, genocide, oppression and famine. But it’s been a couple of generations since so many of those things happened in Europe. And in the US, we haven’t fought a war on our own soil since the Civil War more than 150 years ago. It easy to believe things have always been how they are today – filled with relative prosperity and peace. But those things were hard won by people who are no longer here to tell us just how hard it really was. And our collective memory, and our attention span, is short. Like the patient, there is a cure for what ails us, and it’s peace and cooperation. Pretending the solution is the isolationism of the past will only bring disaster.

I was sad when the series of lectures was over. I’m a history geek to my very core. But listening to all that came before, it gave me hope for the future. Sometimes we have to take one step back before we can take a giant leap forward. You see it countless times throughout history. But I truly believe that in the end, we’ll realize that our futures, and those of our children, depend upon our ability to cooperate and to see each other as vital to that future and not an impediment to it. And I hope we do that before it’s too late.

The Power of Disconnection

When we moved to Valencia, everything was different. I felt so bombarded by the differences that any subtlety or shades of grey were completely missed. The things we were dealing with were all primary colors and right in our faces.

Now that we’ve lived in Spain for 16 months, I notice other things. Jeff talked about some of them in his one year recap. Things like not being blasted with advertising. We really do find we don’t seem to want as much stuff, because we don’t know about it. But it goes even deeper than that. I still read news from the US, but I also watch the local news on TV in Spanish. And something struck me & it all comes down to ‘Fear’.

When I watch the Valencian news on TV, the stories can be about social injustice – there is plenty of protesting and there should be. And sure, there are the crime stories, and stories about the politics and government. Sport, human interest and fiestas loom large. Boilerplate stuff. But there are a lot less stories about the number of things that will send you running for the hills, or to your doctor or therapist.

When I read CNN or BBC or Reddit on my phone, the number of stories that ask ‘Could this be the next thing that…a) destroys your career, or b) kills or maims your children or yourself, or c) causes you untold financial ruin?’ is jarring. And those that just generally create a low level anxiety boggles the mind. And they do it sometimes by asking questions that you know you don’t have the answer for, so you read it. And then, often it turns out, they don’t actually have the answers either. Just more speculation. And even if you don’t read the click-bait, you’re still left wondering what you don’t know. My favorite story recently was ‘Is your Anxiety life-threatening?’ That question alone would ratchet it up a couple of notches. I don’t hear things like this except on English speaking media.

Living in the US, I had never really noticed this before. While living in Valencia, I never see that stuff because generally it doesn’t appear to me that the social fabric of Spanish life is based on fear, like it is in America or the UK. Anglo cultures seem to bucket everything in terms of ‘Winners or Losers’, but you can’t be both. Growing up, we had ‘The War on Drugs’, ‘Zero Tolerance in Schools’ and ‘Three Strikes You’re Out’ policies for criminal justice. None of that has worked and some of it has done immeasurable harm to real people, and secondary harm to our culture. It’s scary.

Fast forward, this summer, we’re about to go through the the process of college/scholarship applications for Emilie. But even in that there are ‘Winners and Losers’. The incredible stress every American and British parent/child feels in getting them into a top school, while competing against millions of other kids and their parents, doesn’t seem to be a thing in Spain. And I know a fair few parents with kids the same age in Valencia.

The recent highly publicized college admission cheating scandal involving rich and famous American parents hasn’t helped. Privileged people who were so stressed out and afraid for their children’s futures they would commit felonies on their behalf, would make any regular parent think ‘If they’re afraid for their kids future, I should be too.’ So many parents or their kids will go practically bankrupt – taking on unimaginable debt for fear of falling behind in the race. Higher education in Spain is first rate and won’t break the bank.

I get 10-20 emails a day from universities all around the US who are trying to get Emilie to apply there. And some of them are frighteningly alarmist in their digital messaging. Almost threatening me to prove I care about her by sending her to them, Top Notch University X, for four years. And if I don’t? Well, then what does that say about me as her parent? Now, don’t get me wrong – she’s an excellent student with the perfect set of extra-curriculars (Yes, I just used that horrible phrase); but if she said she was going to a Community College for the first two years I wouldn’t bat an eye. Although, the message seems to be I should be very stressed out about it. But me being me, I’m naive enough to believe her success or failure in life will not be decided between the ages of 18-22.

This type of social brinksmanship seems to permeate our lives in the US from preschool to the workplace, thru retirement, where the specter of running out of money in old age is waved in your face weekly on every news site. ‘How much is too much to save for Retirement?’ ‘Will you have enough?’. If I had to sum up the general mood of so many I know in the US it would be perpetually worried. Because if you’re not, you might miss something.

The US is the largest single consumer economy in the world. If we get a Wall Street sniffle, the rest of the world gets a cold. But it’s not just about selling us products to make us more attractive or a luxury car to make us feel more powerful. Its the whole package. If we’re always on edge, afraid all the time, we’re continually trying to look for a solution to alleviate that anxiety. A shopping trip, a pill, a bigger house, a new boat, a self-help guru, a vacation. ‘Select sports’ this, and an ‘Ivy League college’ that. It’s got to be exclusive or we won’t feel special. And if we’re occupied with those things then we’re distracted, and, Whew! – we’re spending money. And the economic engine churns. Believe me, I’ve been there. I’ve made a career out of it. I struggled to get off that hamster wheel.

Then I walked the Camino two years ago, and when I entered Santiago, 36 days after leaving St. Jean in France, in my back pack I had:

  • 2 sets of well worn clothes
  • flip flops
  • a sleeping bag
  • a rain poncho
  • sweatshirt
  • my trusty Swiss Army knife (my most cherished possession now)
  • and some personal products

I needed nothing else in the world. I’ll admit, initially I had brought a lot more because of the advice I had gotten on social media and most of it was ‘What if this happens?’. Fear again. But I left most of that stuff at the monastery in Roncesvalles after the first 2 days. I couldn’t carry anything more than I absolutely needed for another 780km.

Day One. Camino Fances – St. Jean Pied-de-Port to Orisson (French Pyrenees)

The entire time, except for the occasional text interruption, I stayed off my phone, news apps and social media. I didn’t read a news report or of any new studies definitively confirming that dark haired women who walk the Camino at aged 50, are 1500% more likely to be hit by a meteor than those who just stayed home and shopped at the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale. In other words, I didn’t know to be afraid – so remarkably, I wasn’t. It was the best gift I ever gave myself. They say ‘knowledge is power’, but too much information can be crippling.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t things to be concerned about in the world. Climate Change is top of mind for me. This should, very seriously, concern us all. But now that I look back, one of the biggest things I took away from my Camino was the sense of peace. And I think a big part of that was being disconnected. Not disconnected from those around me. I’ve never felt more present or the deep sense of connection than I did with those I met. But a large part of moving to Spain, I see now, was about continuing that feeling.

I’ve spent this last weekend (other than sleeping) polishing and finishing the final edits on my book. I had to cut out more than 25k words so it’s been quite the exercise over many months, but its nearly across the finish line. It’s a story set on the Camino Francés (I was in Burgos exactly 2 years ago today). And editing requires you read and re-read the MS so many times you could recite it from memory in your sleep. But another thing its done for me is that its helped me get back in touch with those feelings, and one of my most important lessons from 5 weeks walking in the hot Spanish sun. The awesome power of disconnection.

The Voices in your Head

Thinking back, I realized I started learning Spanish from a young age. Sesame Street on PBS in the US taught me my numbers. Old Spaghetti Westerns from the 50’s and 60’s, while horribly racist depictions of people from Mexico, taught me some Spanish phrases that are ingrained in me. So much so, they’re interchangeable with their English counterparts. So I don’t even need to think about it.

Then there were all the shows I watched with my kids. Especially Dora the Explorer. I spent countless hours listening to her teaching Spanish to 3 and 4 year olds. Funny, she was able to teach it to me too.

But as I have pursued my Spanish language education – both formal and informal – I realized there were even more instances where, through osmosis, the Spanish had seeped in without me really knowing it.

Early on, we were in a restaurant on Playa de la Malvarrosa looking at a menu that was all in Spanish. I don’t like to ask for the menu in English because I need to learn. I was reading the seafood options and suddenly Ricardo Montalban’s voice – of the 1970’s American TV show ‘Fantasy Island ‘- broke into my head. He had done a restaurant commercial back then for ‘Steak and Langostino’. Which sounded exotic when I was 10, but it’s just small lobster or big shrimp. When I saw the word on the menu in Valencia I knew exactly what it was. He also did a famous commercial for the ‘Chrysler Cordoba’ so I can say that city perfectly. Although his famous phrase describing ‘rich Corinthian leather’ does me no good here.

But it was also at that moment in the restaurant, it occurred to me that when I’ve been learning Spanish, its Ricardo Montalban’s voice through which I mill the entire language. Sure, he was born in Mexico, and Mexican Spanish and the Spanish spoken in Spain isn’t exactly the same. But it seems to work for my purpose. Seriously, when I learn a new word or phrase, I hear Mr. Montalban’s voice saying back to me. Is that weird? OK – yeah, its weird.

And now that I know this, I intentionally tried it with voice of Sofia Vergara, the Colombian born actress on ‘Modern Family‘. But while she’s a native speaker it doesn’t work for me. Sometimes I can make actor Javier Bardem’s voice work, but I have to really try. Nope, I think for me its Ricardo Montalban. I have no idea why.

But I suppose I should be grateful to him. I have been told by more than one person here – including Mis Amigos – that my accent is ‘muy bien’. Although I will never reveal my secret weapon, now when I’m chewing on a new phrase, I just think of stately Ricardo Montalban in his white suit and black tie and smile. Muchas Gracias, Senor Montalban. This little Langostino thanks you.

Taking a Break

We’ve had a lot of family stuff going on lately and it’s consumed most of my energy. I’ll be heading back to the US soon to be in the mix. But before that, we headed out to take a little break. It may seem strange since we live on the Med, but stepping back is important during times of stress, and since life varies at different points on the Mediterranean (even in Spain) – thinking north and east – we decided some time away was in order.

Luckily, we didn’t need to go far, since everything in Europe is so close. Mostly, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. But this trip included some of my favorite things.

  • A Place I LOVE!
  • Ancient history
  • Lots of ruins
  • A favorite beach
  • Introducing Jeff to a place he’s never been

Tarragona is just south of Barcelona, right on the Med. It’s easily accessible by train so no stressful flight delays. This time, catching the train, we did the very Spanish thing and arrived right as boarding began. This means 20 minutes before it leaves (that’s when they assign the track). Highly unusual for us, since we’re always early to everything. (As though a train or plane will come sooner than expected). I was in a ‘I just don’t care, even if we miss the train we’ll catch the next one’ mode.

The other wonderful part of it is that where we stayed had ZERO wifi and the city has terrible cell service. I’m not sure why getting a signal was so touch and go, but it meant we were out of communication for days.

If you’re thinking of visiting – I would recommend visiting the Amphitheater first. There you can purchase an all-inclusive ticket for the main sites in the city. These include the Amphitheater, Forum, Murallas, Circus, Tower (Necropolis) and the Archaeological museum (although it’s under renovation and closed now – luckily I have been before). There are palaces within the walled city and other sites not requiring a ticket. I would highly suggest walking the entire perimeter of the walls around the old city.

The history of ‘Tarroco’ goes back thousands of years. It was a key city in the Roman Empire. Rich, well positioned, easily defensible. The city was a classic Roman city, and since then changed hands many times. Visigoths, Moors, French – it was so important it became a military target where empires invested in expensive sieges, and the very costly occupation of unwilling populations. As we know today in most of our current military conflicts around the world – it will not end well. Winning a war is one thing. Winning the peace is quite another.

No matter how many times I visit a place I always learn something new. Perhaps we filter information differently at different times. Changing our focus. But as an enthusiastic student of history, I’m always looking for new insights. This time when visiting the remains of the Roman circus, there were new plaques. They explained how the chariot races were were staged. How rich Romans paid for the races – gave away tickets for free – and their social standing was based on how many of the poor peasants showed up. Basically, just like today with social media and harvesting ‘Likes’. We are all still the same people we were more than 2,000 years ago. Our reptilian brains haven’t evolved that much. The Kardashians immediately came to mind. No matter how rich, they still need to be loved by the masses.

Another thing we learned about is that the social system in The Roman Empire was all about continually leveling the playing field. Rise too high – become too rich, too influential – and eventually, the state would seize all your possessions. They feared any consolidation of power through money and influence. But social breakdowns started keeping this from happening and the fall of Rome was inevitable as the peasantry rose up.

Jeff has usually, very reluctantly, embraced my historical forays, but as we walked through this history, he was struck by the parallels to what’s going on in the US today. Much like the Romans, we seem to be imploding; hoisting ourselves on our own petard. And walking through Tarragona, you are literally walking ON history. You can’t miss the buildings built precariously on the past. I’m not sure what their building codes have historically been, but some of these more modern structures appear to be perched – ripe for an earthquake to take them out. But so far, so good.

Anyway, it was a relaxing time away. Much needed. Who knows what the future holds. But whenever things get too crazy today, a little visit to the past is what my heart needs.

Mis Amigos

I have 5 new Spanish boyfriends. Well, not exactly. Don’t get too excited. But the way Jeff is reacting to my new crew you’d think I did.

There’s a bar in Benimachlet that I go to in the mornings sometimes. I’ll bring my laptop and write at an outside table over a cafe con leche. They make a mean one. Here, everything is a bar – so no, I’m not drinking booze at 10am. I’m pretty sure the local children’s hospital probably has a bar in it too.

I was enjoying my morning coffee one sunny day, when a voice beside me seemed to be directed my way. I looked over and there was a table of 5 older gentlemen and they were pointing at my laptop and speaking to me in Valenciano. I understood, maybe, 3 words. But I answered in my pidgeon Spanish. Thus began a whole new relationship.

It’s well documented that I’ll use any means possible to improve my Spanish. This means I’ve joined groups way above my Spanish language pay grade. You gotta put yourself out there and be willing to make a fool of yourself and fall down – A LOT. I have an abundance of those things in spades. But one thing I hadn’t tried was the ‘Old Man Morning Coffee Klatch‘ down at a local bar

I’ll admit, I had observed these multiple groups from afar. They always seem to consist of 4-5 retired, well groomed older men who meet at the same bar, at the same time, almost daily. They’re usually smartly dressed and cologned. Would I have ever been so bold as to approach them in their natural habitat? Never.

But on that day, one group decided to approach me and now I’m In-like-Flynn – as my Dad used to say. Paco, Jose, Jose, Francisco, & Javi are my new crew in the 75+ crowd at our local bar near the space. At 10am every lunes, miercoles y viernes (that’s Monday, Wednesday & Friday to you and me) they meet up, as they’ve been doing for decades. And now they insist I come and speak with them each of those days.

One of the Jose’s explained ‘We need to improve our Ingles. And you, your Espanol.’ Yes, improving their Ingles at over 75 seems like a just-in-time for heaven kind of strategy. I mean, I’m pretty sure God speaks Spanish – but who am I to judge? Never stop learning, right?

The other Jose proposed marriage today. I told him I thought he had a Portuguese wife. He said ‘No. Today finish.’ And he gestured a karate chop.

‘Does she know yet?’ I asked him

‘If you say YES, I go home and tell her.’

We all just laughed. Silly man. His wife is fierce and he’s 5 ft 2  and maybe 120 lbs soaking wet. She’d run him over with her loaded grocery trolley and take him out. Or maybe pay me to take him off her hands.

Mostly they treat me like their daughter and explain Spanish customs and social conventions. The other day, Paco explained in Spanish that Valencian men are too macho and their wives suffer for this. I have no idea if this is a universal truth but it’s certainly a perspective. I do know learning Spanish through humor and laughter is so much more fun than worksheets and a whiteboard. I much prefer the classroom of life in Benimachlet.

Most of these guys have known each other since they started kindergarten. Here, when children start school they stay with the same classroom, and the same kids, all the way through until graduation. So they’re friends that long. Impressive. One of the Jose’s didn’t move to their class until second grade and they still call him ‘The new guy’ after all these years. But their wives do not like each other.

‘But you, Kelli. You are muey simpatico, I think. You join our group.’

At first I thought I might just be a guest star periodically, but am now appearing in the opening credits. Its a standing 10 am date 3 days per week to intercambio with ‘Mis Amigos‘. And one of them always buys my coffee – which makes me feel sort of strange. I think it’s the macho thing because they fight over who will do it that day. But since coffee is a whole uno euro setenta, I guess they won’t run through their pensions too quickly.

Jeff just shakes his head.

‘Heading out to meet your boyfriends?’ He asks as I grab my keys.

I give him a kiss on the cheek ‘ Not enough Viagra in an entire Costco pharmacy. So no worries there.’

Sometimes I stop and wonder ‘Am I the strangest American in Valencia?’ But then I remember I was strange for an American, IN America. So I probably am. I guess nothing has changed one bit. And you know what? I find I don’t really care.