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 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.

A Political Time Out

With us being Americans, you may think this will be about the crazy political situation in the US. Yes, we watch it from afar and I only read bits of it because it’s too scary and depressing. I felt powerless to do anything about it when I lived there. Now? I can do even less. Yes, in the US we can still vote while we live overseas (unlike other countries) and we can contribute to campaigns. But we won’t be knocking on doors or participating in any caucuses or helping register voters to impact change.

We’ve watched Brexit with horror over the last year. Much like our own politics, Britian’s is broken – so broken. I was chatting with an Irish friend the other day. I told her ‘It’s like the UK fought a war with itself and it lost. And it’s losing the peace.’ She agreed. She has dual citizenship with the UK and can’t believe it’s gotten so bad.

And now, we get the Spanish elections. National elections in Spain are set for April 28th. I’ve taken to watching our local news stations to try to understand what’s at stake. As well as some of the coverage in other areas of the country, and what they care most about. While my language skills are not that great, I think it’s important to try engage in what is important to the people, and to me, it seems to be about a few key topics.

When we moved into our apartment, there was a Spanish flag on the rail of our balcony. It had been put there by the previous occupants and the owner had left it there. He said we could remove it if we wanted. I didn’t care either way until it blocked the sunlight from getting to my herbs. So we took it down over the winter. But that flag matters in Spain and it’s not the same as flying a flag in the US.

In 2017, Catalonya held a referendum to declare independence from Spain. I remember being in Tarragona after my Camino in Summer 2017 and seeing both Spanish and Cantalonian flags flying on nearly every balcony. I didn’t really understand the significance of this at the time. But then we saw it on the news in the US. It was a very big deal when the referendum passed and protests on both sides, and arrests of the separatists started. I don’t know enough to understand all the nuance on either side. But then when we moved to Valencia, we saw all the Spanish flags everywhere and I realized that it was a clear message for unity.

Spain has 17 autonomous regions. They each have their own legislatures, counties with additional layers of local governments, and then cities with their own councils. Each of these regions have their own priorities and very long histories. And the politics of the regions reflect that. Last year, there was a big change in the control of the national government. The Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) took over the government after the People’s Party (PP) lost a no confidence vote after 6 years in control of the government. They had overseen austerity following the financial crisis.

From where I sit, this change in government shifted the commitment of government spending back towards social programs and refocused the government priorities towards national health care, infrastructure and education. Of course, I don’t understand everything so I’m very sure I’m missing something.

Elections here aren’t every X years like they are in the US. We have elections and then must live with the results (good or bad) for 2/4/6 years, depending on what position is being voted for. But here, if confidence in the government is shaken, a new election will be called at any time. When PSOE took over last summer, it’s because they called a no-confidence vote and won. But this election has been forced because one region (Catalonya) blocked the passage of a national budget – some say in protest to the national government’s lack of support for their independence. Again, I don’t understand it all but it’s interesting to watch how it all works and plays out.

Unlike in the US, here there are more than 2 main political parties. What this means is that unless one party get’s a majority in the elections – not likely to ever happen – the one with the most votes must work with other parties to form a coalition to govern. Typically, under this parliamentary system, it means there are parties that are far right, some far left, and some in the center. By having to form coalitions, it keeps extremism from ruling the day. Of course, this isn’t guaranteed but compromise and coalition building means that even small parties can have a big influence. Their support matters.

The region of Andalucia – in the far south of the country – is where immigration and migration seems to be top of mind. It’s the point where many fleeing conflict in Africa try to enter the country. The ani-immigraton party, VOX, is gaining influence based on this platform and they’re expected to be a Major player in the election for the region. In general, Spain has been one of the countries willing to take some of the boats full of African migrants who have found themselves without an actual port in the storm. Valencia has willingly taken several of these ships. I’m a believer that instead of building walls and punishing migrants, we should look at why they want to flee and try to help the with root-cause problems that prompt them to risk so much and leave their homeland. Economics, war, violence, corruption. In the meantime, we owe our fellow humans our assistance and compassion.

One thing that has struck me watching the news here is that people are very engaged in their politics throughout the country. They don’t seem to sit on the sidelines, but are passionate about who is representing them and how. Throughout the year we have lived here we have seen MANY protests just walking through town on any given day. The Bomberos (Firefighters) were protesting one day in front of the regional congress. They were foaming all the streets and shouting about fair pay. Right next to them was a protest for the LGBTQ community – challenging our ears for equal attention on equal rights.

It will be interesting to watch what happens. Of course, like anyone, I have my preferences on outcomes based on my limited knowledge of the situation in Spain. Democracy takes many forms. When I was growing up, we were told we had the best system in the world. But I must admit, I kind of like this multi-party parliamentary system that forces compromise. I know it’s not full proof and can’t stop all ‘brinksmanship’ (look at Brexit). But I feel privileged to live here. And watching this process, I know I have a lot to learn. At the end of the day, healthy debate leads to the best outcomes and I wish that for Spain – and us all.

He’s Da Man

I’ll be heading on a train to Barcelona soon to hang out with my niece, Melody, for a few days. She’s on her first trip to Europe with her HS German language class, and for the last 10 days has been touring Austria, Switzerland, and Germany. She extending her stay here so she can pass through Barcelona and we can see each other. Melody is one of those people I love hanging out with. She’s smart and wise for her 18 years. And she’s paid for this trip herself, all by working at a pizza place in Oregon. So she’ll appreciate every moment of it.

Ironically, Jeff will be starting his journey home from the US while I’m stepping onto a train to leave Valencia. So he’ll be at home waiting while I’m seeing the sights in Barcelona. But I don’t care so much about that. I’m glad he’ll be there waiting, because we’ve hit critical mass on him being away and I’m sort of stuck without him.

First off, I rented an industrial space while he was gone. Well, it’s sort of a warehouse and office space. I need to spread out so I can paint bigger canvases. And I like higher ceilings and a big roll up door. (maybe I’ll paint the door) And an office of my own. So I called a bunch of imobilarias (real estate agents) and scheduled showings. I found the perfect one, and even a back up plan. Then the negotiations started.

I talked them down on the price a bit. But then I hit a snag. The ‘Ask your husband what he thinks’ snag. Huh? I have all the bank certificates, etc. showing we can pay for the warehouse without effort. But then it came time to determine how we wanted to tranch the contract. There were multiple options. I reviewed them and got back to the agent. I mean, I can’t count the number of contracts I’ve red-lined over the years. I could do it in my sleep.

‘I prefer #3.’ I told her and laid out my reasoning.

‘Well, we will let you review the options with your husband first and get back to us.’ she told me.

I laughed. ‘My husband is in the US. I can tell you now, if I asked him at all, he would tell me to do whatever I want.’ I should have said he would laugh, wonder out loud why I was consulting him, and inquire, with some genuine concern, if I’d been hit by a car sustaining a head injury?

‘Well, we would be more comfortable if you reviewed them with him before deciding.’

WHAT?!? I wanted to laugh, again, but then I realized she was serious. I could tell her how it was going to go:

  • He’ll come back from the US and go to her office with me, where she will ask him what he wants to do.
  • He will turn to me very earnestly ‘Let me ask my financial manager.’ Even he knows he has no clue if we have a penny or a pound.
  • Then he’ll ask me ‘Can we afford this?’.
  • I will tell him ‘Yes’.
  • Then he’ll ask me which option I want.
  • ‘Option #3’.
  • He’ll then turn to her and tell her ‘Option #3’.
  • She’ll smile and we’ll both sign and get the keys.
  • Then we’ll leave and he will again turn to me and say ‘What the hell was that? Why did you need me there?’
  • I’ll point to his crotch (he is THE MAN, after all), shrug and we’ll go have a coffee.

What is it with everyone assuming I have no money or financial savvy because I have a v-jay-jay and breasts? It’s like a bad joke. What if I was gay? Who would play my fake husband then? Hmm…I would hire Ryan Reynolds. He’s not super handsome but he’s hilarious and smart. I’d prefer those qualities in a fake husband. But I digress. So while I’ll drop off the financial documents to her office today, we won’t sign until ‘Daddy gets home’. Ick. Do I sound bitter? Cause I’m a little bitter.

Moving on – our apartment hasn’t been this clean since the day we moved in. In the last week I’ve bought organizers for all the cupboards and categorized and sorted every thing we own in the evenings. I re-potted all the plants and trees on the balcony – stuff grows fast here. After that, I ‘Marie Kondo’d’ all the drawers and shelves in the closets. It was then I knew I might be getting crazy. The neighbors would soon find me in their apartments sorting their Tupperware, so it’s at a tipping point, and Jeff knows he’s coming back just in time.

In the end, I was left with a large lawn bag full of clothes and shoes and other sundry items. Now I needed to find out what to do with them. Donating stuff in Valencia isn’t like in the US, where there are multiple donation bins in every parking lot in the country. Or even in Ireland where there were more charity shops than regular stores on every block in every town. Here? I’ve seen two in all of Valencia. And I don’t know how they source their stuff.

Jeff said he’d seen a red metal drop off bin in a Repsol gas station parking lot in Benimachlet, so I loaded up the multiple trolleys that I’ve acquired over the last year – to bursting. Yes, it’s a little strange that I have multiple trolleys and hand trucks, but I bought them each for a specific purpose. And I’ll admit I have a thing for various sizes of hand trucks – even in the US. Jeff just shakes his head when I buy another one. The right tool for the right job, and all that. So I strapped them together and made my way down to the Repsol. .

On the way, I’m not going to say that I didn’t look a little strange wrangling all my trolleys across 10 blocks, collecting strange looks and open mouthed staring. But I’m pretty sure my neighbors on the streets surrounding our apartment, if not exactly used to me by now, are just resigned to my strange presence and modus operandi. And sure enough, there was the bin. Ms. Kondo, of Netflix fame, you would have been proud. Yes, during the process I found out I have 5 versions of the same blue and white striped t-shirt, but I’m keeping them all, Marie. Sorry. On the way back I passed the Soul Coffee where the cafe oglers were. I gave them a thumbs up lumbering by with my montage of empty conveyances. Some actually shook their heads and laughed. I’m pretty sure I saw respect.

So I leave for Barcelona a little lighter. Knowing when I get home things will be back to normal. I’ll be able to sign contracts again and getting dressed in the mornings will be a snap! And in less than a week I’ll be moving into my new space. It’s all worth it.