Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Spain Journal, Part II

Written at 37,000 feet, en route from Madrid to Berlin.

Our two weeks in Spain are over; here are some random observations:

1. There are no black olives in Spain, only green olives. They are tasty.

2. Sevilla rhymes with sangria. Both put me in a good mood.

3. One of the great things about grocery stores in Spain is gazpacho in a box; we went through a lot of it. Another thing I like about Spanish grocery stores is sangria in a box.

4. The Madrid subway system is plagued by pickpockets. We rode the Metro on six separate occasions, and had pickpocket attempts on two of those occasions. My mom caught a would-be pickpocket with his hand in her purse on our first day in Spain, getting from the airport to our hotel. Another day there were two pickpockets – young women working together – one had her hand in my purse (after unzipping it!) and the other had her hand in my mom’s purse! Unbelievable. This was the second time my mom was targeted on the Metro. (All attempts were unsuccessful, by the way.)

One could argue that that’s just typical for big cities – that Madrid is subject to the problems that all big cities share. However, I lived in Chicago for two and a half years (plus three and a half years in Evanston), and was pickpocketed twice, though I rode public transportation every day. Compare that with nine days in Madrid. I have lived in Berlin for four months now, and have experienced NO pickpocket attempts. Based on my experiences, I would insist that Madrid has more of a problem than other cities its size.

5. The residents of Madrid – I believe they’re called Madrillenos – have a disturbing lack of concern for people around them, which seems to be rooted in fear. For one thing, when we had these pickpocket attempts, both times we shouted at the pickpockets as they quickly escaped our wrath by hopping off the train. No one around us batted an eyelash; noone said anything to the perpetrators. There was a distinct attitude of not wanting to get involved. I don’t know if it was based on apathy, fear, or disregard or disdain for tourists. My mom’s theory is that they think if the pickpockets target the tourists, they’ll leave the locals alone. I don’t mean to generalize – there was one occasion when I was standing on the Metro with my 4-year-old in my arms (and he’s getting pretty heavy!); noone offered me a seat, but a young woman who was also standing addressed the folks who were sitting to give a seat to “la señora.” Someone did; I was really touched by her efforts on my behalf.

Then there was our apartment building (we rented an apartment in Madrid for 8 days). The other residents of the building were very closed, and even if we said “Hola” to them, they would say nothing. They would quickly unlock their doors, looking over their shoulders, and getting behind the locked door as quickly as possible. (Our door, by the way, had quite a formidable lock.) I actually noticed this wherever we went in Spain – bars on ALL the windows and doors – though outside of Madrid people were a lot more relaxed and friendly.

6. For a country with lots and lots of tourists, the Spanish in general speak surprisingly little English. Now I’m not arguing that they should speak English – I do think it’s more incumbent on us as tourists to learn their language than vice versa – but it’s still quite noticeable compared with other European countries like Germany or Italy. My theory is this: since there are so many Spanish speakers worldwide, Spaniards feel less of a need to learn another language, sort of like Anglophones. (Americans especially are also pretty bad about learning foreign languages.) Spanish arrogance about their language is possibly as marked as English-speakers’ arrogance about their language. In Italy, on the other hand, there’s a recognition that since there are so few Italian speakers in the world (relatively speaking), they have to learn foreign languages or they won’t be able to communicate with people outside their own small country.

7. I enjoyed being in Spain less than most other countries I’ve travelled in: Italy, Mexico, Greece, Turkey, France, England, Germany, India. The Spanish really do not seem to like tourists. By the end of our trip we were pleasantly surprised whenever we would meet a Spanish person who was nice to us. After a rough encounter with a Spanish salesperson in Madrid, I was a helped by a very nice salesclerk at the Madrid train station, and when I told him he was nicer than most of the people I’d dealt with at the train station, he remarked rather dryly, “It’s because I’m not Spanish.” It turned out he was from Argentina; he did not have a high opinion of Spaniards either.

8. We went to Toledo on our last day in Spain, and had a very good experience there: nice shopkeeper, nice bus driver, nice waiter, nice policeman. We were very happy, plus Toledo is quite picturesque, so it left us with a good impression of Spain. Toledo is in the mountains, so the climate is nicer (like El Escorial); visually it reminded me of the Italian hill towns in Tuscany and Umbria much moreso than anywhere else in Spain. (Granada is also in the mountains, but more of a tourist trap than Toledo.)

9. I would definitely go back to Spain, but would avoid Madrid (though I’d like to see more of the Madrid museums). This basically gives support to the obvious principle that being a tourist in a smaller city or town is easier than in a large city.

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