Wednesday, December 14, 2011
The Chronicles of Salamanca: Walking Away Part Two, "Social Nuances; I don't want to be your friend."
I'm going to do my best to explain this. Though, the idea isn't perfectly formulated in my own mind, so it might be more difficult of a thing to do than I'm capable of. I'd like to try to describe the norms of social interaction among Spaniards. While everything I say is more or less a generalization and therefore inherently inaccurate, there are certain manners and expectations that are more or less standard among most relationships. I've had several conversations with other foreigners about this topic. Most I've spoken with have said the same sorts of things. There's an overall sense that I get that Spaniards find it difficult to be alone. Cafe culture is so prevalent, meaning that the locals spend a large amount of their free time in cafes, almost always interacting with someone else. I think back to the days at Dr. Bombay's Underwater Teaparty (my favorite coffee shop in ATL.) It was much more common for the people there to have been sitting alone, drinking coffee, reading, studying, using the internet, etc. But, it seems a consistent theme here that Spaniards don't spend time alone. It's a far more societal society. That is to say that they are far less individualized here. And, it's noticeable walking through the streets. Everyone walks with someone else. Everyone is always engaged in conversation. I admire this about Spanish culture, initially. And, this is where it gets difficult to explain. I feel as though the idea of happiness in the States is something that we're sold pretty relentlessly; it's a formula that we're sold from the time that we are children. It goes as such; work hard in school, get into a good University and get a degree in something that pays well, get a good-paying job, buy things, be attractive enough to attract a spouse, get married and be satisfied by love, buy more things, have kids, buy more things, work everyday diligently whether you like what you do or not, buy more things, and then when you're 65, you can retire and spend all your money on medicine and beach vacations. It's a very forward-moving American dream, in that the means by which we achieve "happiness" is by working to earn it. But, the reason that that's called the "American" dream is, I'm learning, that is more or less a uniquely American formula. It doesn't really exist here. Now, the people are no less materialistic nor consumer-minded. But the goal of happiness isn't a long term goal. Happiness is in the moment, in the given day in which one finds oneself. Marriage here is a villain, and no young person wants to be married until late into their 30's. It's a restriction and constraint that keeps you from participating in your social experience of going out every night. Work is a necessary evil, and the store hours are proof of that. There doesn't seem to be a lot of urgency in sticking to business hours or customer service or diligent production of goods and services, except for when it comes to "saving face" (for lack of a better term) or not straining a relationship between customer and provider. Things move slowly here. And, I can't help but notice the correlation between a non-individualized culture and a rejection of a "work hard to earn happiness" set of principles. Happiness is in family and friends and partying and sitting for hours on end eating cheap food. I admire that to some degree. But, it's indicative of their non-redemptive story arc that I'm still trying to piece together and am not yet prepared to explain. The future is not the goal here, the present is.
But, as I read this back to myself, I think that I have not communicated what I have set out to communicate. But, I like it. I would like to mention, along those lines, that Spain has a very image driven culture. Something that is hard to miss as an American upon arrival, is that everyone looks as though they spend several hours every morning getting themselves presentable in front of mirrors. It's an intimidating thing, almost. I wrote when I first arrived how beautiful the Spanish people are. I've come to realize over the last three months that they are so beautiful because they put that much effort into their appearance. Also, societally speaking, Spaniards are very closed. For us foreigners (and I've had this conversation with a lot of foreigners,) Spaniards put little effort into initiating new relationships. They have their bubble, their comfort zone, and they are hesitant to step outside of it. En Vivo is full every Tuesday with students. But, the number of Spanish students in attendance is far less than that of the students of a dozen other nationalities. It's a struggle to get Spaniards to open up their lives, unless there's some profitable function of the chance they have to take. But, in a nutshell, that's society here. It has been a very distinct experience, and I am not sure what I will ultimately take back with me and what I will leave here. It's still a beautiful place, and its cultural nuances make it all the more beautiful, I think. So, I now must run to class and take a test and continue to count down the hours until I must take my leave. Until next time.