Letters

Letters


Fall 2010, Vol. 19, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Marking Time: The Spanish Connection

Edward H. Friedman

Forty years ago—how ancient that sounds—I had the opportunity to spend an academic year in Spain, as part of my program as a romance languages major at the University of Virginia. I took a train to New York City and a flight, with other students from the Institute of European Studies, to Paris. This was my first time on a plane. (How ancient that sounds.) I knew no one in Spain or in the IES group, and, although I had taken a substantial number of courses in Spanish language and literature, my oral skills were shaky, at best. If not exactly a babe in the woods, I was unquestionably an innocent abroad. My goals were to improve, radically, my spoken Spanish, to immerse myself in Spanish culture, to find a place for myself in the new world (or Old World) into which I had thrust myself, and to survive with the fewest traumas possible. I lived in a somewhat ritzy neighborhood of Madrid with a wonderful family, which consisted of a grandmother, her daughter (separated from her Belgian husband), and the daughter’s four children (boys aged 17 and 18 and girls aged 13 and 14). They all treated me very well, but I became closest with the grandmother (who asked me to call her “Abuelita,” equivalent to “Grandma”) and the granddaughters, who were the most attentive, the most patient, and the most regularly at home. During the year, I took classes in literature, history, and sociology in the IES program and in the University (Universidad Complutense) of Madrid, and I made friends, traveled, and tried to take advantage of all opportunities to learn. My mission, as it were, was to feel comfortable enough with my background in Spanish to continue my studies at the graduate level. After graduation I entered the doctoral program in romance languages at Johns Hopkins University, and I had the chance to return to Spain for a semester the following year. Those two stays in Spain were unforgettable for me, and they were crucial components of my education, in more ways than one. I have been back to Spain on many occasions, but not until the spring semester of 2010 did I again spend more than a month. There was a symbolic or “full-circle” feel to this most recent visit, which was, like the others, highly educational and extremely gratifying. My particular assignment was “American literature and cultural studies,” and I taught two small graduate seminars, one on contemporary theater in the United States and the other on narrative theory, in the Department of English Philology at the Complutense. I found my students and faculty colleagues to be most impressive, and I loved placing myself in an unfamiliar (and, fortunately, friendly) pedagogical environment and facing the challenge of creating new course designs and sets of objectives.

Toward the end of the semester, the director of the Madrid program of IES (now called International Education of Students, since its programs extend beyond Europe) invited me to speak to the summer students and faculty. I was grateful to be able to meet the participants and the staff of IES. Not only the name, but the location and the personnel are, not surprisingly, different. People were, in general, familiar with the reputation of the professors with whom I had studied and with their service to the program, but I suspect that the director herself had not been born when I was first in Madrid. I began my talk, which I titled “Estudiando (en) España” [Studying (in) Spain], by commenting on my student days and emphasizing my personal trajectory, specifically the process by which I struggled to absorb the Spanish language and culture. I attempted to underscore that one needs time and effort to learn and that the hard work could, in fact, be quite enjoyable. After all, every conversation and every event, no matter how trivial, could transform itself into a learning experience. Seeking an interactive component to the talk, I asked each student to make a list of three early impressions of Spain and the Spaniards. Their responses reflected the transitional stage of their adaptation. That is, there was a bit of a negative slant to their reactions. They were stared at on the street. It was difficult to get used to eating lunch and dinner much later than in the U.S. It was hard to follow directions and easy to get lost. Waiters and store employees were not always patient. There was not as much respect for personal space, especially on a crowded metro (subway) or bus. And so forth. I could see developing in them the love/hate relationship that most American students have with Spain, and I felt assured that love would be the prevailing force within that dichotomy before their return flights.

The central theme of my presentation was a consideration of the changes for the U.S. student in Spain over the last forty years. First on my list was technology. Students are accustomed to desktops, laptops, notebooks, netbooks, Kindle, etc., and to communicating frequently with their families and friends through multiple outlets. I noted that when I spent an academic year in Spain, I spoke by phone with my parents three times and with my friends zero times. I sent letters and postcards, which took as long as two weeks to reach their destination. I used the example of the aerogram, a stamped sheet of paper—which cost only a bit more than the stamp itself—on which one could write a fairly lengthy letter and fold before mailing. Next on the list was politics. From 1939 to 1975, Spain was a dictatorship under Francisco Franco, who never forgave those who opposed him during the civil war of 1936 to 1939. As a student, I was in Spain twice during the Franco period, and thus I have been able to observe the move toward democracy and the enormous political and social developments over the thirty-five years since Franco’s death. Selections in bookstores during the dictatorship were conservative and nationally oriented. Now they are conspicuously international in scope, reflecting paradigm shifts in all spheres of life. Spanish history is fascinating, as are current issues relating to autonomies and languages within Spain, among numerous other topics. Related to the system of changes is, of course, the role of women in Spanish society. The options and opportunities, professional and personal, for women have grown dramatically in democratic Spain. While the country characteristically has had independent-minded and free-spirited women, there were barriers to certain career paths and a tendency to shelter women. My first Spanish female friend, whom I met through a woman in my program, was exactly my age—twenty at the time—and mentioned one day that she had been out after dinner (which means after about 11 p.m.) only twice. Women now hold high positions in government, business, and virtually all professions, and significantly more women are living on their own than in earlier years, when
moving away from home pretty much meant getting married.

Economics naturally comes into the comparative picture. Needless to say, prices are appreciably higher than they were forty years ago. The peseta has been replaced by the euro, and Spain is not the bargain that it used to be. During much of the Franco regime, Spain was seen as isolated from the European mainstream. Now it is integrated into the European Union, and this membership, along with its status as a democracy, has given Spain a different identity in world politics. The alliance also has affected intersections between Spain and the United States, placing us, as it does, on the non-member side as Europe seeks, as the name suggests, unity among its nations. As a result, U.S. citizens can find themselves, in part, in the outsider position. Finally, one cannot help but notice that Spain, which forty years ago placed relatively little emphasis on the teaching of English, now has embraced the language, which is required in schools and has become a staple of social and professional interaction. In advertising campaigns, for example, English words and expressions, from fast food to clothing to cell phones and beyond, are not translated, but rather the consumer is expected to know or to learn them. And yet, notwithstanding the inevitable changes wrought by time, there is much that remains the same for the student in Spain.

I ended my remarks with a list of six points that encapsulate my vision of a country that has captured my interest and my attention from my teenage years to the present:

1. Madrid is a great city, with much to see and to do, in cultural, social, and academic terms. The possibilities of entertaining oneself and of learning are limitless: museums, theater, film, lectures, music, stores, clubs, and on and on.

2. Spain is a remarkable country, with a rich, exciting, and conflictive history. Each region is beautiful and distinct, and full of amazing surprises.

3. Spaniards, with a few exceptions, are kind, gracious, and generous to foreigners.

4. The food is magnificent, and it is rewarding to try dishes that initially do not sound or look appealing.

5. Public transportation in Madrid and other large cities is excellent. Riding on the fast train, or AVE, is a special treat.

6. The day in Spain seems to have more hours than those in the U.S., and students (and former students) should take advantage of each and every one of them.

Accentuating globalization, many colleges and universities in the U.S. encourage all students, and not just language majors, to contemplate studying abroad. More students go abroad than ever before, and the clientele and range of motives for foreign travel have increased proportionally. The bottom line, however, has not changed. Exposure to new cultures, and thus to cultural diversity, can only be a good thing. I appreciate my various “studies abroad” more than I can say, and I am glad that Vanderbilt students and their counterparts at other institutions can find places in the world, and ultimately in the heart, of their own.

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