How does a glib kid from Michigan become a card-carrying Spaniard? By Mike Booth
It was a few decades ago, though it seems like an eternity, when I unslung my knapsack and rolled out my sleeping bag on Spanish soil for the first time. It was in an orange grove somewhere in Valencia. When I awoke the next morning I ate the firm, tree-fresh oranges till the flesh underneath my thumbnails burned from peeling them.
Id arrived in Spain from Detroit via New York, Reykavik, Brussels and Frankfurt. In all those places it was gray and rainy, yet there in my orange grove the early morning sun bounced gaily off the waves and embroidered the leaves of the trees with sunlight.
Id arrived, armed with a well-worn Nikon kit, to pursue a romantic existence as a travel writer. My output was prodigious, my insights fast and loose. Spain was wonderfully uncomplicated, populated by Rosseau-ian style noble rustics. Everything was "Mediterranean beaches, picturesque fishing villages, white sand, bronze beauties", etc. That marvelous Spanish sunshine was at the heart of all my best reportage. And wasnt everything cheap! For the price of a pack of Winstons you could stay drunk for nine days... in a 12-star hotel. In short, it didnt take me long, with journalistic resourcefulness, to put my finger on the pulse of Spain, the "real Spain", the "inside Spain".
Meanwhile, through all this feverish reporting on Spain I didnt speak seven words of Spanish, nor did most of my sources.
Yet, twelve years later, I awoke to find myself Spanish. That is, I went in to pick up my national identity card, proof of my citizenship of Spain. How does such a change come about? One moment youre a glib American kid on an extended holiday and the next youre a card-carrying Spaniard. How is it possible?
Let me start from the beginning.
A little after a year on the Mediterranean coast I made my way inland to Granada and enrolled at the university there in an effort to come to grips with the language and the people who spoke it. I went through five lectures before deciding that I wasnt going to find what I was looking for in the classroom, and besides my wife and I were trying to fix up a village house at the time. So instead of learning academic Spanish I learned it from the builders and villagers. My Spanish friends still accuse me of speaking bricklayer Spanish.
Once you begin to understand and make yourself understood the most obvious of Spains mysteries begin to fall away like the layers of an onion. I soon ascertained that I was living among open, generous, hospitable folks. A refreshing change for me. They would invite me to their homes and we would eat homemade sausage and share rudimentary observations in pidgin Spanish. I thought they were pretty simple minded. They certainly must have though I was.
For the next few years we didnt go too far outside the circle of friends wed made in the village. It never occurred to me that there was yet another Spain close at hand. As well as her rural folk, Spain had other kinds of people who neither rode burros nor made homemade sausage: school teachers, newspaper reporters, doctors, lawyers, poets, painters, geologists, engineers, law professors... This, funny as it may seem, was a revelation to me.
These people were literate, articulate, amusing and concerned. In the days when I was making these discoveries (1973-4) they had something to be concerned about. They were beginning to see a gleam of light at the end of long, arduous tunnel of rule under Franco, and all of Spains best spirits were doing their best to hasten the process of change.
I began to feel involved, to read the newspapers assiduously, to share my new friends hopes, outrages and aspirations, to identify with their struggle. My lifetime interest in politics became overwhelmingly an interest in Spanish politics. Kennedy, Nixon, Carter merged into an amorphous blur - good God, I almost forgot my countryman Gerald Ford, hes so blurred! - while Felipe Gonzalez, Santiago Carrillo, Fraga, Suarez and the other players in the Spanish transition became clear and distinct images.
Little by little my tastes changed. When I first arrived in here and saw the Spanish delicately breaking the heads off grilled shrimp and lustily sucking out the brains I used to think "Disgusting!" Nowadays when I see a tourist break the head off a grilled shrimp and discard it thoughtlessly I think "Disgusting!"
I declare myself an enthusiastic adept of all those Spanish practices: "dar una vuelta", "un paseo", "echar un rato", "tomar el fresco"... all variations on doing nothing, or almost nothing.
The siesta. Chamber music to the spirit.
Una copa. Ay!
Otra. Better yet.
Tapas. How did we live without them?
Garlic with everything. Here in Granada they put it in your hot chocolate.
In the final analysis one asks oneself: "What if I dont do it? I could just go on renewing my residence permit indefinitely..." Thats when the decision makes itself. For me not to have become Spanish would have been hypocritical, immoral. The Spanish were gracious enough to have me as their guest for years - the richest and most interesting years of my life. My house is here, my work, my friends. I feel the special warmth reserved for an adopted child. One of my kids was born here, all three were raised here. Why not just sign on then and accept the rights and responsibilities of a fellow citizen?
Was it really such a giant step, after all? Spain is being Americanized at an ever increasing rate. The inroads are all around, in advertising, consumerism, television, fads and fashions, linguistic borrowings... all made in the USA. Will Spain be the 51st State? Is she already?
A nice irony that would be, to have opted out only to be co-opted back in! Still, someone has to be on hand to defend the richly human essence of Spanishness in face of the onslaught. At the rate were going, in a few years there may very well be only one "authentic" Spaniard left to undertake that defense.
Mike Booth combines freelance journalism and photography with a number of other activities. Lately he is devoting his time to the developing thematic websites with a Spanish content.
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