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.

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.

Quieting the Mind

The last two years have meant constant change for me. It’s been two years since I quit my job in the US. Nearly two years ago I walked my Camino. Fourteen months since we moved to Valencia. But while those are big things, I’ve always believed its the smallest things that make the biggest difference. A click in a new direction can be a watershed moment that changes everything that comes next.

After I quit my job two years ago – sure, that’s kind of a big thing – I took a Meditation, Mindfulness and Essential Oils class at the local community college in Arizona. When people think of Arizona they think of either red-necks with truck nuts, old people, or mysticism seekers. So a MM&A class is right in the sweet spot on the mysticism side of that equation. I hadn’t been sleeping well after all the drama of quitting my job and I needed to try to remedy it.

WOW! Life changing. Meditation is all that and more. I had tried it years before but never really got the benefit from it. Quieting the mind seemed too hard with so much to do. This time was different. We practiced mindful eating and using essential oils to quiet the mind and to relax the body. It was just what I needed. I was so relaxed that driving home on those evenings was sometimes a challenge, and I would sleep like the dead.

Fast forward to Valencia in 2019. We’ve lived here over a year and I hadn’t really been keeping up my practice. Rather hit and miss. So much to do and see. But with the Creative Space – as we’ve taken to calling it – I’ve been inspired on many fronts. My writing is benefiting from my painting. And Jeff bought me a hammock so I’ve spent time lolling about – contemplating things. It’s then I realized I needed to get back to my Meditation and Mindfulness practice.

So on Friday I signed up for another class to kick start myself. It’s in both Spanish and English, and they also do Mindful Movement. Not exactly yoga but there are similarities. It was wonderful hanging out with mostly chilled out people. And then Friday night, I again slept like the dead. So there really is something to this.

As luck would have it, I had signed up for a new yoga class on Sundays held in the sun on a rooftop near the Mestalla – Valencia FC’s futbol stadium. Although there was a match on Sunday during the class, there were times I felt like they were cheering me on in Chair pose. Sun salutations are better in the, well, sun. And the class includes some meditation, too. Last night? Slept like the dead. If I doubted the prescription for a restful nights sleep and a peaceful mind I can’t do that anymore. So me and meditation/mindfulness/yoga are back on and stronger than ever.

I was having a conversation with someone in the mindfulness class before it started. She’s English from London and has been having a really hard time coping with the culture of Spain. She’s working here and having 2 hours for lunch is throwing her off.

‘I don’t know what to do with myself? I mean, I’m used to eating lunch in a conference room. I can’t get a coffee to-go anywhere here. And everything they do at work is so inefficient.’

I laughed. ‘I know what you mean. I lived that life. But maybe this is better. No rushing about. Actually digesting your food. Sitting down and eating when it’s time to eat, instead of trying to do more than one thing at a time. So much so that we don’t do anything really well, with our full attention. In the US, we favor efficiency over peace of mind.’

It made me wonder where all this ‘efficiency’ was trying to take us and I flashed back to the Frenchman in St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France at the beginning of the Camino. He pointed at Emilie and told her ‘This is not a race. Just like life, you can not ‘win’ the Camino.’ Although there were days, I swear she tried. But he’s right.

The woman in the Mindfulness course snarled a little. But there was a reason she was in the class. She’s looking for something she knows is missing. The same as me. I couldn’t judge her. I’ve been where she is. And not long ago. And I’ve even done that in Valencia thinking that multi-tasking is the path to happiness. ‘Getting things done’ instead of enjoying the doing of them. We’re all mirrors for each other.

After the class, we were leaving more slowly than when we entered. Kind of like church. Enjoying the feeling of slowing down and connecting to ourselves. And I looked over and the woman from London was smiling.

‘Maybe you’re right. Maybe there is something to all this.’ she admitted.

‘Maybe. You’ll figure it out.’ I told her. She nodded.

So today, I sit here ready to to pursue some of my passions and I need to take a moment and acknowledge how grateful I am that I have this space and this time to pursue them. That finally, I live in a place with people in a culture who appreciate the value to doing one thing at a time. Wait – I think I just heard the click. And suddenly everything is changed. Smiling. Namaste

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.

Contrato Firmado

Yes – we have a signed contract. Because El Jefe is here it’s now a done deal. I clutched the pen with my tiny female claws. Barely able to put pen to paper. But Jeff’s large paws made up for my short fall. Eye roll.

We met at the imobilaria to meet our new landlords, to sign and get the keys. They are lovely people – a father and daughter. They speak zero Ingles, and our Spanish is pitiful but we muddled through. You can always tell about people through their eyes. The father clearly laughed a lot – lots of lines and he was very animated. And his daughter was a very nice person. After we signed multiple copies of the document and the imobilaria explained all the terms to the landlords (and nothing to us), we made our way to the space.

They seemed excited to show it to us. I performed much miming antics and broken Spanish. Finally the father looked at Jeff and proclaimed him ‘Santo’. It means ‘Saint’. I think he was referring to Jeff’s obvious patience being married to me. I laughed and told him my Mother says the same thing. I have referred to him as Santo for the last 24 hours. He seems to like it.

They seemed skeptical at first, us being American and all, but quickly warmed to us when Jeff changed some light bulbs in the high ceiling without using a ladder. He is ‘gigante’ and it does come in handy. I thanked them profusely for letting the space to us and the daughter told me ‘we are in this together’ so I take that as a sign of a good landlord/tenant relationship.

Since we moved here were have heard disparaging comments about Spaniards. People have said they’re lazy and they lack ambitions. I’m sure they don’t understand the culture. And I’m always offended by this and I’m not even Spanish. But let me tell you, since we moved here if we need anything delivered like an appliance or something from IKEA or a service performed, the Spanish outshine anyone in the US and it’s not even a close contest.

Now that I have the new space, I headed down to the local internet/mobile provider to arrange to set up our service. I also decide to switch who we’re using at home and change the house and our cell svs over too. That was at 10;30 this morning. At 2pm the installer called me and they were standing outside the space to install it. Yup! Same Day. Not 3 1/2 hours later. On a cold day in HELL would that ever happen in the US. There, you’d wait for the installer to call. He’d tell you a week from Tuesday between 8-5. You’d take a day off work, or work from home, and he would show up at 4:45 on said day and tell you he didn’t have everything he needed and would have to come back another day. Like installing internet was a mystery to him and he invented it afresh each day. Seriously.

Today these two guys had ladders and put it in the back of the space where I wanted it, after drilling holes in the outside of the building and then running a 100 feet of wire. And they did it all in a hour. Like clockwork.

Tomorrow they’re coming to the house to install it here, and on Monday our mobile phones are switching over. Just that quick. So anyone who wants to tell me the Spanish don’t understand process and technical service delivery is an idiot and has never really lived here. I will defend them vigorously, to any foreigner from now on!

OK – I’m not including Correos or Amazon.es delivery in that, though while quick, they’re wildly unpredictable.

Just now, I lined up a moving service to get all our relevant stuff moved over by the 16th and then I’ll be up and running in 120 sq meters -Painting,writing, and doing yoga in my own studio. It doesn’t get better than that!