Duke University Alumni Magazine


Photo: Robert J. Bliwise, A.M. ' 88

he setting: Madrid, Spain's Parque Retiro, on a warm, early June weekend. Indeed, a setting typical of what many Americans expect in a European city --a majestic, lush landscape cast against the backdrop of urban sprawl. These festive summer days feature the opening weekend of the fifty-eighth annual book fair. Fifty-eight years of literary tradition, in the form of millions of books, magazines, and pamphlets in numerous languages, battle for prominence against the capitalist ventures of vendors, corporate sponsors, and concessioniers.

Yet this modest milieu comfortably frames modern Spain--its struggles to maintain its rich, relaxed "older" culture and traditions against the rapidity imposed by the arrival of information technology and the global market. Indeed, poet Antonio Machado's eighty-two-year-old assessment of his country's struggles on the path to modernity--his assertion that one of "Two Spains" will blight the heart of young Spaniards--still rings true. Only this time, the opposing sides in this conflict between the "Two Spains" have changed characters and characteristics.

Now the conflict between old and new no longer hinges simply on antiquated political and religious distinctions, but rather on how Spain adapts to a "New World Order," in the guise of the European Union, whose 1993 Maastricht Treaty formally introduced Spain as a full-fledged member. As a student this past spring in Duke's Madrid-based program, I studied these concepts inside the comfortable shelter of the college classroom. It was when I stepped outside these familiar surroundings, however, that I finally observed something of modern Spain--and of myself.

I found myself staring both "Spains" right in the face, as part of an international invasion that has helped propel Spain--economically and politically--yet has also threatened the very traditions that make Spain, well, Spain. At that very moment, however, my impressions of Spain hinged greatly on my very personal reasons for being there. My desire to learn and understand other cultures was, maybe subconsciously, secondary to my almost internal necessity to shed a bit of the materialism I had grown accustomed to at Duke and at home. In a way, I myself was a dichotomy parallel to that of the "Two Spains": a person thoroughly American, yet with an increasing urge to find a reason to leave all of those beliefs behind. I was sick of talking about what graduate schools I was applying to, what my grade point average was, and if I was going to take a year off after graduation. Madrid placed before me an unparalleled cultural panorama, in addition to a place where I was free from having to drive, make important phone calls, and answer questions about anything beyond the end of the summer.

I was suddenly confronting a set of issues--personal, academic, and global--that forced me to reconsider what had made me the person I had been, and forced me to determine whether I could ever return to being that person, given all I was seeing on a daily basis. For me, self-reliance was a lovely ideal I had learned from reading Emerson's essays in high school, but never something I was fully able to apply to my own existence. In Madrid, self-reliance was no longer an option. If I could not fend for myself, if I could not survive without the fast-paced conveniences of my American background, the closest I could come to crying to my mother would be via a rather expensive telephone call. Sifting through the best of what I knew and the best of what I was experiencing, I seemed to be aiming at some sort of alchemical process in which I could concoct something golden from two imperfect cultural landscapes.

An important feature of this "landscape" was, of course, my home life in this foreign country. I lived with a family whose relatives earned their livelihood as part of the Franco military establishment. They live well, follow closely their Catholic faith (some tenets more than others), and therefore have no complaints about the well-documented repression of that era. Yet they fear the increasing foreign presence in the country. Racially critical comments were not necessarily commonplace, but after a time, I am almost ashamed to admit, my former shock did start to fade whenever I heard one uttered in conversation.

One day, I walked in reading the newspaper. Newspapers tend to take on a very political nature, especially interesting to those around you who eagerly try to stamp you with certain political leanings simply by viewing your choice of morning news. I was reading El Pa’s, known as quite sympathetic to the Socialist Democracy party (PSOE). The disapproving nods said it all: I had chosen the wrong paper to read, and especially the wrong paper to bring into that house.

At first, with little knowledge of Spanish politics and Spanish political history, I found myself an outsider in this world of easily identifiable political ties. But as the semester wore on, I marked my own political boundaries, first by deciding which Spanish politicians did not bore me completely, and later by actually identifying their arguments. I was almost forced into political thought, because conversation inevitably turned, especially in my household, toward the American politicians captured in rare form during the Clinton impeachment debacle. What started out as a blind defense of American politics evolved into my own acknowledgment--tacit or explicit--of those imperfections pointed out to me by those whose perspectives differed substantially from my own. I began to incorporate into my own political vocabulary some key terms that on American shores had seemed to me dirty words. Socialism, for example, became an actual concept, not just some stereotype that evokes the specter of Communism. Since my return, my newly incorporated political background has manifested itself throughout my daily life: When someone mentions health-care reform, for instance, I can look back to first-hand experiences in a country where a government that does not guarantee health care for everyone is unimaginable.

One of the most striking aspects of the "older" Spain, the one to which my host family likened itself, would seem to be its relatively lackadaisical pace. Just walk into any restaurant and you will discover this. Waiters there do not usually have "stations," where they share responsibilities with an array of food runners or busboys. Many bars and cafes tend to be family-run, meaning maybe one waiter or bartender for the whole crowd. Dining out is an event that, dominated by conversation, can occupy an entire evening, and people usually do not expect to be pampered with extremely attentive service. Still, Spaniards work extremely hard and get, on average, an hour less of sleep than other Europeans. Even the infamous afternoon siesta has fallen victim, especially in the larger cities, to time constraints imposed by modern society. Most people have only enough time to return home--where a vast number dine for a late lunch--and return quickly to work, leaving them, obviously, without the precious time for a nap.

Despite an apparent lack of what we would call "downtime," this lifestyle does not at all resemble the fast-paced, swallow-food-on-the-run pace of many workers, and, as I know first-hand, Duke students. The extra importance of the meals, especially the midday lunch, captured my taste almost immediately. Whether between classes or having finished a full day already, I found in the relaxation of a familial, cozy setting a chance to unwind, relax, and, more importantly, to refocus. It is also a great way to avoid heartburn, maybe even helping to account for the lack of one American product I did not frequently see on Spanish store shelves: Tums.

On the other side of the spectrum, Madrid is overrun with McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Pizza Hut, and their Spanish counterparts, like Pans & Company and Telepizza. The lines at these institutions equal if not surpass those in the U.S., but with a marked difference: The service, or lack thereof, often seems to carry over from its relaxed status at many neighborhood bars and restaurants. On one memorable occasion, I was trying to take advantage of what I labeled as Madrid's best eating value--the fifty-peseta (30 cents) McDonald's ice cream cone. What should have been at most a five-minute procedure was strangely transformed into a twenty-minute-plus odyssey, with the people around me comporting themselves as calmly as ever, by now used to these service-sector nuances. Madrid and Barcelona also have their very own Hard Rock Cafes, and Madrid's new Planet Hollywood opened this spring, complete with a Bruce Willis guest appearance.

The proliferation of this consumerist culture was at first somewhat comforting, probably because it did not seem at all abnormal. Only later in the semester, when I began to get a feel for what life without mass culture can be, did these obvious foreign penetrations seem out of place, almost intrusive. Such an aversion toward American mass marketing was not necessarily a sentiment shared by natives whose lives may have been enhanced by cosmopolitan convenience. But I found myself more critical of a culture based purely on convenience, and I was more willing to center a social outing on a leisurely meal.

The perceived need for speed and efficiency is manifesting itself in the rapidly developing technology sector. The Internet-access competitors are finally catching up to more successful standard bearers outside the country, but Internet cafes seem to be just as popular. As part of the Duke program, I had access to one of these Internet locations, where I was often met with a lengthy line. And although many of those waiting were also foreign students, as they started to vacate the universities, the number of Spaniards logging on increased. Workcenter, an equivalent of Kinko's, offered twenty-four-hour service in a convenient location--something that saved me on a couple of occasions when, in my typical procrastinating style, I left projects until the last possible moment. If there was any social sphere in which I adapted reluctantly, the realm of technology would certainly be it: I waited upwards of an hour to send an electronic message that would ostensibly be transmitted thousands of miles in mere seconds. But I could not force myself to shake the technology bug that has infected me ever since the lure of Ethernet connection speeds grabbed me upon my arrival at Duke. I adapted when I had to--writing papers before lining up to type at the machines, checking e-mail only a few times weekly--but I never even came close to surrendering my firm grip on the mouse.

Typically, basic cable television packages offer four or five channels; satellite connections aren't surging in popularity. People seem content with those channel constraints, even those who watch a substantial amount of television. Some of the programming is quite enjoyable, even to the point of being engrossing or--in the case of televised bullfights--just plain gross. The obvious question is why television does not dominate like it often does on this side of the Atlantic. My answer may be a little too straightforward: There are just better ways to spend free time. The cafes and bars, and the plethora of parks, plazas, and other open-air spaces, make recreation an all-weather activity. I took advantage of these plazas, the likes of which I had never experienced in my suburban American setting. I killed hours reading under the late-evening sun or chatting with friends over an afternoon merienda (snack), and saved money by taking in a discounted matinee movie. This fervent literary habit has remained with me, and, following the stint in Spain, I spent a summer dedicated to voracious reading.

A dearth of television programming options may be one of the underpinnings of the predominant literacy of the population. Every day as I rode the Metro and the buses, as I crossed a plaza or a park, as I stepped into a local cafe for the customary afternoon snack, I saw people reading. Sure, Americans read too, as do people of every other nationality, but the comprehensive nature of this custom, if it can be called that, certainly caught me off guard.

The amazing part is that there is no Borders, no Barnes & Noble, and Internet access is still somewhat scarce for those who would like to shop at Amazon.com. But everywhere I looked, I saw people reading, and they were reading all types of books, American authors included. I've never seen so many Ken Follett and Stephen King books outside a bookstore as I saw almost every day on my commute to and from the university. The sheer numbers of people reading attest to something more than a simple desire to consume the popular standard. Indeed, Spaniards gobble up our cultural exports, like McDonald's hamburgers and Hollywood movies. Somehow, though, consuming a book requires an additional effort, an intellectual undertaking. Beyond certifiably popular authors, it delighted my English-major heart to see people reading Spanish translations of Waiting for Godot and A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Retiro book fair may be the perfect example of Spain's precarious social, economic, and cultural position. Its continuing popularity reflects in part the dedicated literary and conversational aspects that Spanish society has fomented. There is, however, an extremely capitalist side to this venture, with sponsors clamoring for exposure and booths set up by radio stations, newspapers, and concessions companies competing for consumers' attention. On just the first weekend of this year's fair, an estimated 600,000 people attended. Over the course of the two-week long event, vendors will take in what amounts to millions of dollars. In this obvious bit of mass-consumption fever, the objects consumed are books--symbols of the public's appetite for literary goods.

In my own book-fair experience, I arrived too soon after the lunch closings, having assumed that enterprising merchants would shun the typical afternoon respite. I was obliged to indulge in the park's majestic setting while awaiting the fair's reopening. It was yet another forceful reminder that, in this society of so many contrasts, one can never get too accustomed to one way of life or another.

Spanish contrasts: The new Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, above, and the fin-de-siecle-period glass palace in Madrid's Parque Retiro
Photo: Robert J. Bliwise, A.M. ' 88

Outside the larger cities, daily life has not quite quickened its pace. I, along with close to forty Duke alumni and friends, saw this as we traveled across regions of Spain's southern Andalucia region in early June. The afternoon break for lunch is longer, most stores close earlier, and the amenities of larger mass-consumption experiences are generally few and far between. In the smaller towns, some of what I had seen in Madrid became even more evident. The evening paseo, or stroll before dinner, was on display in its full splendor in our base town of ňbeda, where families join together, and often join hands, as they pass along the streets. Indeed, in this agricultural region that depends on the olive trees of the Guadilquivir River valley, older Spanish ways seem to be the norm, even though they are compromised more and more by the onset of new economic and social ties. Like the midday family meals, these paseos speak strongly to a sociability that still remains an integral, if not inherent part of the Spanish culture, both old and new.

It may in fact be this sociability that leads to the overwhelming perception that many foreigners still retain--that of Spain as a land of summer sun, beaches, and infinite options for fun and games, both during the day and throughout the famously long nights. For other travelers, especially those who had seen Spain before the arrival of democracy in 1978, the experience outside Madrid may even have been more impressive: Along with the requisite cultural sights in mainstays such as Curdoba and Granada, we faced smaller-town life and saw the progress made in what is truly another region caught between the old and the new.

Spain seems to be on the verge of capitulating to market forces, yet remains too entrenched in its culture and tradition to surrender completely. But there is constantly a threat that modernization will dissolve some of those very idiosyncrasies that have helped make my first experience abroad, and those of so many others, a plunge into a setting that is at once unfamiliar and comforting. I went to Spain to escape one culture. I ended up discovering an entirely new one--a vital, modern one that retains enough of its traditional flavor to have charmed me for good.

Moreover, I have discovered an enormous amount about myself, about obstacles I am capable of overcoming and sacrifices I am willing to make. Readjusting to the dazzling speed and complexity of campus life will be a daunting task. Paradoxical as it may be, the very experience that has heightened the challenge of my return will also propel me forward with a new sense of self-reliance and self-confidence that is firmly rooted in old-world tradition.

Meisler '00, an intern with the magazine from Boca Raton, Florida, studied in a Madrid-based Duke program this past spring.

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