What do you know about Spain? Before I went there, I knew nothing. I never thought Spanish people ate a lot of burritos or other Mexican stereotypes that many people I knew as a teenager and young adult rigorously applied to Spain. Still, I wasn’t well informed. Where Spain is on the map was only a blank space waiting to be filled in my mind. The only European geography we learned in school was memorising the names of the countries in German class and I still think of Austria as Österreich. Otherwise the extent of our European history revolves around immigration to Canada and the World Wars. Which by the way fit very nicely into our narrative of Canada being a wonderful free cultural mosaic, a sort of patriotism that makes little sense when First Nations people face daily prejudice and inequality and, like in other countries, Canadians are becoming increasingly hostile towards immigrants. But I digress, as Canada never had a large wave of Spanish immigrants and they were not a major player in the World Wars we learned nothing about Spain. While I can fault the school system for a number of things, this isn’t one of them. It’s not feasible to learn extensively the history of every country in the world and it would be a bit European Centric to demand we learn about Spain in lieu of any other country.
So when I travelled to Spain the first time I found the blank space where “spanien” was filled with colour and life. With palm trees and that certain glow in the sky. With tiny bars with metal tables where you can eat the best toast with tomatoes, olive oil and salt. With arguing with waiters. With long beach days with the usual variety of people. A scholarly looking woman with just a towel and a book, fellow tourists liberated and sunbathing topless. Families that always come with nearly a houseful of stuff. People selling bottles of water and corn cobs cooked over coals. At sunset, older couples hauling out their card tables to sit on the promenade and us wondering how they got them there. Teenagers hanging out. One of the differences between European and Canadian life is the presence of children and teenagers in every day life. My husband pointed this out to me a while ago, saying when he went to Canada he wondered where all the teenagers were and it’s true. I was a teenager in Canada and even I can’t answer that, I don’t know where we went. But in all the European countries I’ve visited children and teenagers are a part of every day life, in the pub or hanging out in clusters doing, well, normal people things. In Spain, much to the befuddlement of myself and all my other foreign colleagues, teenagers are allowed to sleep over at their boyfriend or girlfriends house at young ages. For better or for worse they are treated as adults much younger than, say, we were in Canada. But what I love most is the rhythm of life. The sense that everyone is doing everything at the same time. That there is a correct time to eat and that any food not consumed at the ordained time will be rejected by the body. There is a time to go to the nightclub or bar and a time to shop in the sales and a time to go the beach and a time to eat rice (not in the evening). And that even with these rules life has a certain easy flow, that unless you have a set dinner at 10:00, the day or night could take you anywhere. Of course someone might say that that lifestyle is stifling and I wouldn’t disagree because it’s not my place , but for me, someone living there, who had friends but no family it was infinitely freeing.
But whatever my perception or non-perception of Spain was, here in Europe there is a very clear image of Spain as a place where people retire who never learn Spanish and even say “hola” in that strange stilted way of English speakers. Or where hoards of young English speaking men and women on stag and hen parties get obscenely drunk and then plunge headfirst from their balconies, occasionally killing themselves. So when my husband and I went to Malaga in January, that combination of images was mingling in my mind. But as we strolled the streets and walked along the blustery wintery beach, the massive waves crashing against each other, I remembered all the things about Spain that intrigued me and the affection I have for the country. We ate a paella on the beach in the afternoon, and sat outside chatting and drinking beer, husband becoming ever more worried about the quantity of tapas we were being brought and the financial situation of the establishment if it could afford such tapas for free. We got up early on Sunday to walk the streets and found them empty as ever you do in Spain, later watching them fill up with families and couples, wandering in and out of shops or sitting down for a snack. We wandered into a bar where a drunken Irish woman came over and asked if we were on a tinder date. When we said we were married she looked unnecessarily embarrassed and fell off her seat. That has nothing to do with Spain it was just a funny story. Or maybe it does have something to do with Spain, I have been asked a few strange things by English speakers in bars in Spain. Hmm.
When I was in high school I didn’t particularly enjoy poetry, Shakespeare or a lot of other works that we studied. However, when I went to University, I discovered something. The fact was that we weren’t given a particularly nuanced understanding of poetry movements or the history and context of a lot of works. Again this isn’t necessarily a fault of the school system, in general teachers have prescribed works that they have to get through in the year and so on. But when I took a Shakespeare class in University the first module discussed critiquing his works and that indeed some of them were imperfect and even sexist. I realised that understanding and being able to dislike or criticise something was critical to liking, even loving something. When I began to learn Spanish, I went all in. I spent hours a week listening to Spanish music, watching Spanish films and soap operas, and then I moved there. Through learning and experiencing I developed an affection for Spain. Of course, I don’t know all there is to know about Spain but I’m happy to keep learning.