One year ago, I found out I’d be moving to a 5,000 person village in Spain. Then I found out I’d be the only foreigner.
I remember like it was yesterday. I remember refreshing my e-mail every 10 minutes for two months straight, impatiently awaiting my city assignment. The next year of my life was completely in the hands of the Spanish government, and I was OK with it. In fact, more than OK. But where would they put me?
And then I got the e-mail.
Panic. Google results: “5,000 person farming village in the province of Extremadura, Spain.”
I cried a little. Second-guessed my life decisions. What in the world was I getting myself into? Here I was, a girl from the New York metro area. A girl who has interned at New York City’s biggest media company (shout out to Clear Channel!), worked backstage concerts at Madison Square Garden, attended P. Diddy’s son’s sweet 16 (If you want to laugh, check out 4:14 of this episode of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16), and now I was being shipped off to Sheepville.
Eight months later, and I am fighting tears as I pack up my personalized gazpacho bowl, wrapping newspaper around the crafts my students have made me, and stuffing packages of jamón in the side pockets of my suitcase, praying that customs won’t get hungry and decide to keep it for themselves. (A good Spaniard will never miss an opportunity to snack on free jamón.)
I’ve not only learned about life in a completely different culture, I’ve learned about myself, the things that really matter in life, and the things in this world I can do without. I remember justifying to myself one year ago: “Everything happens for a reason! The big guy up there must have a reason.” Well, if I wasn’t a believer in “the Big Man’s grand plan” before, I am now. I feel so blessed to have had this life-changing experience, completely immersed in a world so opposite from my own. I could ramble on and on about how incredible my experience has been, but nobody has time for that. So, I’ve (tried) to condense my experience into a nice, pretty, city-paced list on the nine ways my village experience has changed my perspective on life.
In the city world, we have this really bad habit of avoiding eye contact with passersby—at all costs. When walking down the sidewalk, we have tunnel vision. All that exists is you, whatever is directly in front of you, and your shoe laces. We may even go as far as to check our phone for a non-existent text message, or search our bag for something we don’t need, all to avoid a potential second or two of eye contact. Well, want to know what happens in a world where people people try to make eye contact? You say hello.
Crazy, I know. When I first arrived in Fregenal, I was confused as to why everyone was saying “hola,” “adios,” or “buenos” as I passed. Did they all know me? Did I meet them without realizing? Eight months later, I say “hola” to every living thing that crosses my path. Whether it’s a grandpa with a missing tooth and a cane (there are a lot of those here), or two teenage girls gossiping in Spanish at the speed of light, a big hola will be delivered. Maybe even a smile! Because it really does make your day that much happier.
Fast-paced New York City life conditions many of us to think that whatever we want now, we get. And if we don’t, well, stay out of our path. That was my very impatient mentality a mere eight months ago—and it was one of the hardest things about me to change. Whether it was the fact that clothes take approximately two days to dry after washing, or the cashier who decided to have a life catch-up session with the girl in front of me, or the waiter who forgot I existed, I had to be patient. Because sooner or later, I realized I would get it. Patience truly is a virtue, and nothing is worth raising your cortisol levels, especially not getting to your destination five minutes sooner.
And here, it’s pretty much the only schedule that people stick to. One month after I arrived, I wrote an article about eating schedules and siestas. At that point, I hated the whole system. No, despised it. I remember like it was yesterday: It was 7:30 pm, and I wanted a sandwich. So, like any logical hungry person, I went to a restaurant and ordered a sandwich. You know what they told me? No. I couldn’t have my sandwich. Because 7:30 is “coffee” hour, and with coffee there are no sandwiches. Just cookies. Wait until 9:30, dinner time, he told me. OK sure, I thought, if you want a girl to faint.
It took me seven of my eight months here to figure this one out. But I’ve lately grown to appreciate it, and even love it. The eating hour is so strict, because eating is an activity people do together. It’s a time to sit with the people who you love in the world, to share food, conversation, and to do so in a leisurely manner. And the schedule leaves you no choice but to do so. Which leads me to…
As a product of the Western world, I have always been very territorial over my food. I was like an animal in the jungle; you touch what’s on my plate, I bite your hand off. And if it’s the best piece, there goes your head. Well, if I wanted to make friends, I realized I would have to change this mentality. And quickly. The Spanish “tapas” culture is all about sharing. As a result, there are absolutely no boundaries when it comes to touching someone else’s plate. Once, a waiter even ate a fish off my plate. I was in complete shock. But in reality, it wasn’t that out of line for the culture. Sharing is caring, and food is enjoyment; thus, sharing your food is enjoyment. The amazing thing is I’ve actually grown to believe this. My stress levels no longer skyrocket when I see a hand closing in on my plate. So, American friends, good news: When I return home, you can eat the food off my plate, even the best piece. As long as I can have yours.
Last summer, I worked for a US marketing campaign whose slogan was “Sleep when you’re 30.” It was a liquor brand that promoted the idea that your 20s are for fun, and your 30s are when the fun dies. This is very much part of the overall mentality in the US. After college graduation, I remember sitting on the couch of my apartment with my four best friends. We were bawling our eyes out, crying that our fun was forever over. In the US, we fear getting old because with age comes more responsibility, more “social rules,” and less fun. But why does one generation need to influence the other? In my village, it’s quite the opposite. In fact, the wildest people I know here are above the age of 40. The king of the fiestas? He’s 50, with three kids. Judgements aside, life is for fun. And my life is just beginning!
Maybe this is why Spanish people can have fun their entire lives. I graduated from one of the biggest party schools in the US. The general rule there was that if you couldn’t drink alcohol, you wouldn’t go out. An average night out in college for me looked a lot like this:
Pre-game with shots of alcohol. When sufficiently drunk, go to a bar. Drink more. Then, go to a club. Drink more shots. On the verge of passing out? Success. Go home.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Whatever happened to enjoying each other’s company? People in my village drink, but not to get drunk. They drink too socialize. And if getting drunk happens, it happens, but at a natural, human pace. This explains why people in the US can only last until 2am, where in my village people stay out until the sun rises. And the best part? You can watch the sun rise with the people you like the most.
Yes, I’ve learned how to speak fluent Spanish. But what’s more, is I’ve learned how speak honestly. There is no way to beat around the bush in Spanish. A fat boy is a chico gordo. He’s not pleasantly plump, he’s just plain old fat. He knows it, his parents know it, and it’s all good. One of my students actually responded to “How are you today?” with “I am fat.” But he knows it! People are honest with who they are here, presumably thanks to the honesty of the language. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to stop walking on cultural egg shells, and just say what you mean.
There are nine restaurants, two “cool” bars, and two clothing stores in my pueblo. There are no movie theaters, no malls, and no clubs. My apartment has no dryer, heating, air conditioning, or even an oven. And I am having had one of the most incredible years of my life.
One afternoon in February, I lost my wallet. Within five minutes of my discovery, the entire pueblo went on lockdown. Moms of my students left work early to search their streets, the principal of my school stopped classes to perform a search and rescue, and the police came to me. Three months later, people I’ve never met before still stop me in the streets, and ask “Casie, hola! Has encontrado tu cartera?” No, Maria, I haven’t found my wallet. But thanks for asking.
These people are truly incredible. I’m used to people who live for themselves, and for themselves only. If I lost my wallet in the Big Apple, I’d get a whole bunch of, “Oh, well that sucks for you!” My biggest culture shock in Fregenal was the incredible sense of community. People actually care about each other.
I have never met people more warm, happy, and genuinely caring in my life. I have known the people of this community for eight months, during half of which, I could barely communicate with them. And yet, I feel like I have of 5,000 new Spanish speaking family members (The corniest of corny, I know. But it’s true!)
I have formed these friendships, with both the young and the old, that I feel sure will stay with me forever. This includes an incredible group of 20 best friends, including one married couple who owns a Spanish fish factory, and one best friend who has been my angel for the past eight months. His name just so happens to be Angel. Ironic? Oh, and the wildest part of it all is that I formed all these bonds while speaking in Spanish.
As I’ve said, I could go on and on, but I’m going to end with this final (sappy) thought:
The biggest lesson I learned is that happiness in this life is not about the money. It’s not about the latest posh bar or the trendiest restaurant. It’s about the people you share those experiences with. It’s about the people who are sitting at the same table as you. Ultimately, where those experiences happen just isn’t as important.
Thank you Fregenal. You’ve showed me what this life is really about, and for that, te quiero mucho.
As for NYC? Comin’ atcha! Ladies and gents, you probably can expect a post on “reverse culture shock” any day now.