I’ve been sorting through a lot of old things lately and came across a series of essays from 2003-2004. I thought they deserved to see the light.
Looking at the Atlantic Ocean for the first time from 30,000 feet reinforced the notion that I was truly breaking away from my childhood. I was a sophisticated adult on an airplane, bound for the other side of the ocean, without my parents. I was with my best friend, and a slew of rambunctious adolescents anxiously awaiting ten glorious days in exotic, beautiful Spain. It was my first time outside the country, excluding my seventh grade class trip to Toronto, and the butterfly in my stomach were matched only by the strain of my my cheek muscles from smiling so much. Landing at the Madrid airport, I had high expectations and shaky Spanish. By the end of the trip, I had perfected my Spanish accent and had had the time of my life.
Like most big cities, Madrid has a distinguishing personality. One-hundred-year-old cathedrals can be found next to space-aged metro stations. Culture is cherished and embraced in a way I’ve yet to encounter in the United States. On our first day in Spain, the elder and most experienced traveler of our bunch decided we should dive right into the heart of Spanish living and eat lunch at a traditional Spanish restaurant. He was a senior and had been to Spain before; I was barely a freshman. In my ignorant state of mind, I treated anything he said as absolute. truth. He suggested a topless bar. Our jaws dropped. We all accepted that Europe was much more liberal than we were in the states, but the suggestion just seemed out of the question. When our wise leader realized what we thought had been suggested, he grinned and explained that tapas are Spanish hors d’oeuvres and a tapas bar was a place to purchase such appetizers. Embarrassed by our lack of cultural savviness, we quietly allowed ourselves to be led into a tiny cafe where the focus was on two long glass counters. Behind the glass lay pounds of raw delicacies. Squid, shark, turtle, shellfish, snails, octopus, and every other sea creature short of the Lock Ness Monster was dead, cut up and ready to be cooked to order. I had my first taste of Spanish living and Spanish culture in that little restaurant and it was delicious.
The rich and extensive history of Spain is exhibited in countless breathtaking edifices. Churches and castles were plentiful on the touring agenda. The dark, quiet space inside a cathedral is inexplicable. I have no words for the awe I felt looking up at the mural-covered ceilings, high-vaulted arches, and football-filed sized sanctuaries. Here was this extremely holy place, where people come to pray and hear sermons, take communion, and praise God. I was merely a tourist. I came, not to repent some deep sin or pray, but to gawk. Among countless others, I was an ugly American with a camera and a tendency to talk to loudly and too often, who came on vacation to stare at the lavish decor and experience the culture. I felt sorry for God, who had to share his home dedicated to Him with people like me, who wrote it off as another stop on the tour de Spain.
Gypsy culture still flourishes in much of southern Spain. Gypsies have a bad reputation because they are known to be pickpockets and thieves. In big cities, women come up to tourist and with shawls, fans, postcards, and every other souvenir known to man. Two of the girls I was traveling with had their purses stolen, but not all Gypsies are bandits and peddlers. One night we went to the mountains where caves had been transformed into homes and the Gypsy culture flourished through dance. Two rows of chairs lined the sides of a long dance hall. At one end of the hall, a guitar filled the air with the distinctive classical sounds of flamenco. The girls wore long, flowing dresses that whirled as they careened down the floor. Their high heels made the most wonderful stomping noise as they connected with the wood floor in perfect rhythm. The men looked like conquistadores reincarnated. Billowing sleeves exaggerated their movements, and their long dark hair framed serious countenances as we watched in aw.
Seeing a foreign country as a tourist simply doesn’t compare to living the life of a countryman. As a part of our visit, my best friend and I spend four days on the top floor of a six-story apartment in Toledo. The three-bedroom apartment cozily housed Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez and their their three daughters, Lorena, Raquel and Laura. With seven people in the house, quarters were cramped. Our family was very hospitable. Once we carried our bags up the six flights of stairs and were settled in our new surroundings, they offered us cigarettes and sangria. That night we met the neighbors. Our host mom was celebrating her birthday with a big party in the street. Long tables of Spanish food and drink brought hordes of people to the celebration and no one was turned away. Barefoot kids ran around while the grownups chatted and laughed. Even though I could only understand a fourth of what they were saying, I knew this was a tight group of people. Everyone I met was interested in where I was from and meeting a true blue American. The partying went late into the night. Someone brought out a radio which brought out the dancer in us all. The Spanish aren’t ashamed of their bodies the way Americans are. I felt comfortable enough to fake my way through flamenco, which everyone but I seemed to know. A Spanish rendition of “Achey, Breakey Heart” belted through the small, black speakers and suddenly all eyes were on me to lead a line dance. I panicked; I wasn’t even sure I remembered the electric slide. Unbeknownst to my newfound friends, not all American are cowboys. Luckily, my host sister, Lorena, rescued me and led us all in a wonderful little line dance even I could follow. The minutes turned into hours and by three a.m. I was more than ready for bed. We were touring in the morning and had to meet in downtown Toledo by eight. My drooping eyelids couldn't’ take any more “fiesta-ing.” I fell fast asleep.
Spain isn’t only castles and cathedrals. Spaniards also know how to have fun. The last two days of the ten-day extravaganza were spent in sunny Costa el Sol. Miles of white sand, warm water, and not a care in the world ended the trip on a high note and gave us some time to let the entire trip sink in before we had to fly back home. Long hours were spent lounging on the beach. Spain is less than 100 miles from. Africa. On a very clear day, Morocco can be seen across the Strait of Gibraltar. Beautiful crystal-clear skies an the roar of salty waves breaking on the shore made a picturesque scene highlighted with a tiny strip of dark land on the horizon. The last night in Spain was definitely one of remember. Everyone feverishly readied themselves for a night on the town. We were going to a discotheque, the most popular activity for Spanish teens. Loud music filled the club. Sweaty bodies brushed against each other as the rhythm pumped through what felt like hundreds of people; it was an amazing night.
Traveling to Spain was a gateway to another world both physically and metaphorically. To be independent of parents and my normal life is an experience that I will never forget. The things I saw, the people I met and the places I visited will forever be a part of me. I grew up over the course of those ten days. I experience another culture. I struggled through broken Spanish and strange foods and make it out alive. I have developed a broader understanding of the world, a greater respect for other cultures, and a love of traveling. I attribute all this and more to ten short days in Spain.