graf in grenada
Spain is Spain
We spent the first couple days with stars in our eyes, and not only from jet lag intoxication. We’d see something, or eat some food, and then start to say You know back home this would never…But after a couple days, these layers and differences kept peeling back, re-complicating the thing. It’s not so much that some things are different in Spain from the U.S. as much as some things are the same. The balance leans heavily towards the alien and the strange, and the longer you stay there, the more you realize it. It’s not “just like us” with a few different foods and words, it’s “totally different than us” with a few similarities. We heard similar refrains all over, Spain is different, Spain is Spain.
It is different, and the differences are an infrastructure which underpins the society, one that does not look like the one under our own society. It is tempting to simply note the surface, to see the “Oh, more ham!” differences, and not the deeper things, because we seldom look at our own infrastructure, the cultural concrete that makes everything American the way it is, but the underlying differences are where the real action is.
- IT’S A MODERN, LIBERAL NATION BUILT NOT ON THE RUINS, BUT THE BEACHES OF A FASCIST DICTATORSHIP: It’s strange to think that Spain was a Fascist dictatorship until the mid 70s, because the unfair, disingenuous pact to forget (if not forgive) as a nation seems to have worked, to a large degree. Whereas other nations have required truth and reconciliation commissions, trials, and agonizing accountings of the atrocities, Spain has gotten (and arguably, wanted for) none of these things. We visted Valle de los Caidos which is essentially a big piece of Fascist triumphalist conflation of victory and Catholicism, and part of me wanted to shout at the Spaniards for not continually hauling sledgehammers into the place to knock the heads off of futurist Madonnas. But in the end, it was like so many other public spaces in Spain, available for almost whatever ends the public wanted to use it for, within reason. We saw an elderly woman in the pews, weeping near Primo de Rivera’s grave in a way that was much more wistful than oh the poor mothers of the disappeared. But just around the big center altar, on the other side, we saw a pair of gay Madrilenos taking a moment to gaze upon Franco’s grave, and then walk sassily right over the marker, which is embedded flush in the floor. There were flowers on both the graves, but also, I suspect, a fair amount of discretely and expertly expelled saliva. The Spanish have elevated many base acts into graceful expositions of The Right Way To Do Things; I can only imagine that their disrespectful expectorations are handled with as much aplomb as they do eating sunflower seeds (which they must be the world champions at) and pissing in the street after dark.
- IT’S PRETTY CROWDED, YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO LEARN TO GET ALONG: Spain planted a theory in my head: Americans are all up in each other’s business constantly because it’s an option to go home and be by yourself at the end of the day. We’re assholes because we can escape into the diabetes-ridden solitude of our cloistered lives. For most Spaniards (at least those in the cities; and the countryside is going ghost so, so fast) this is just not an option. You’re going to be living cheek-by-jowl-by-jamon with people who still have portraits of Hitler up on the bedroom wall, young professionals, tons of folks who are unemployed, artists, and lots and lots of the elderly. Not to mention the staggering numbers of young Spaniards who live with their parents well into their 30s, and you’ve got a recipe for a culture of no pase nada, because living any other way would be a constant stream of insane demands put upon strangers. Plus, it probably helps that everyone smokes from about age 14, so there’s a strong sociological tendency towards just dropping it, going and having a cigarette together, and moving on with your lives.
- TENDING BAR, BEING A WAITER, OR A STREET CLEANER AS RESPECTABLE, SERIOUS OCCUPATIONS: Your bartender has cradle-to-grave health insurance and mandatory vacation time. The younger woman street-cleaner who was hucking cardboard alongside an older, whiskered fellow has her platform wedges and a serious weekend agenda lined up. Spaniards are all seemingly professionals at whatever their day jobs are. In America, there’s a certain amount of slack that we give to low-paid professions because they’re low-paid professions. One of the benefits of being a scrub working in food service is that almost no form of bad or unprofessional behavior short of the felonious will get you a second glance from co-worker or customer, as long as you use a little bit of discretion. We’re an entire nation of people who are by and large unsurprised to get service equivalent to what we’re paying for. Yes, sometimes we act a little entitled about it, but there’s a reason there’s a whole internet subgenre of Making Fun of Entitled Whiney White People, usually when they complain about a lackadaisical barista. This does not exist in Spain. This is not to say that bad service doesn’t exactly exist in Spain, but more that it’s never coupled with dignity-related job complaints. Many things in Spain were much more labor-intensive than they are in the states. A Spanish bartender would gaze with horror at his or her American counterpart scooping crushed ice into glasses for mixed drinks. You use tongs for that, and one cube at a time, please. So it might take a little longer to get your mixed drink, but it will consistently be mixed properly. On the other hand, tapas come out to your table PDQ every time, except in Granada, where they cook them up for each table individually, by and large, and those take “typical American” amounts of time waiting for them. Spain is about their business, in a Spanish way, and no matter what that business is, there is at least a minimum level of dignity in it.
Oh hell. Wanted to avoid too much food talk, and ended up with tapa talk. It’s unavoidable, as future posts will make very clear.