Exactly a year ago, close to 30 area students and faculty members were boarding a plane for Miami, the first leg of a trip to Spain.
The eight-hour-plus flight to Madrid was by far the longest trip most of them had made, and for some it was their first flight of any kind.
Sadly, dreams of making the trip an annual affair have been interrupted. Last year’s tour was conducted by members of the business and education schools. It involved travel within Spain and considerable coursework. Participants still talk of it longingly, some wishing there’d been an opportunity to take the trip again, or to persuade others to attempt it. Whether for lack of enrollment, a budget shortfall, lack of planning, or any number of reasons, there will be no return trip this year.
My wife Bonnie and I were among those who went to Spain. Neither of us had been overseas before that. The experience was unlike anything we’d expected. Like many New Mexicans, our experience with immersion into a culture came from trips to Mexico. As long ago as our honeymoon in 1966, we discovered the widespread use of English. Every major hotel and restaurant in Mexico has someone on the staff to cater to the linguistically challenged. Some restaurants feature staffs of English speakers and cater mainly to the non-Hispanic tourist trade.
The clerk at our hotel in Mexico City was more eager for us to teach him English than for him to teach my wife Spanish. On occasion we needed to sneak out of the hotel, lest we be tied up for hours teaching English, when our interests lay in walking along La Reforma, or going to the Palace of Fine Arts.
Spain, 36 years later, represented a great number of contrasts. To begin with, everyone in Spain speaks Spanish. A less redundant way of putting that is to say that in our experience, nobody we encountered in Spain spoke English.
In the town of Trujillo, in Spain’s Extremadura region, or Wild West, we heard no English whatsoever from the natives. Shop keepers generally greet their customers with “digame.” So we tell them what we need. We needed some peaches (they’re called melecotones, not duraznos). The owner was polite but clear in explaining that any grocer will insist on selecting the fruit for the customer. There was no such thing as self-service in the mama-y-papa businesses.
What was striking about our visit to Trujillo, the ancient city and birthplace of the explorer Pizarro, was the size of the residents. Almost without exception, every participant on the tour was larger than his or her Spain counterpart. As an overweight 200-pounder, I needed to go to several stores to find a shirt large enough.
In Trujillo, people don’t gush; in fact, on occasion the Highlands crew wondered whether our presence had even been noticed. People you pass on the street usually greet you if you initiate the communication, but not otherwise.
The most ebullience I observed came from a banker who noticed my last name matched that of the town. He was curious as to whether I had relatives there. I went to Trujillo hoping to learn that fact myself, but had no success.
A possible reason for the small size of the Spaniards we observed was the correspondingly small size of meal portions. Food generally is served plain. It takes an act of congress to get condiments, and one needn’t ask a Spaniard twice for more than two ice cubes. It won’t happen. Confident that we had nomenclature down pat, we often encountered puzzled expressions from store owners and restaurateurs. A tortilla is not that flat flour concoction that we eat with beans and chile, but an expensive egg-and-potato omelet. One doesn’t order beer in a vaso but in a tubo. A coke comes in a bote, not a can. A hamburger, available at just a few places, is really ground pork, which is, after all, closer to ham than is beef.
Trujillo is the largest ham-producer in the country. Aged hams hang in virtually every store, even if the only other items they sell are soft drinks and pastries. A group of us gathered at a bar-gas station-restaurant for breakfast and ordered tortilla. While we were in the middle of our meal, the owner asked if we’d like some ham for garnish. We agreed, only to discover that the five or six slivers of ham doubled the price of the meal. The owner explained that we had consumed some of the finest ham in all of Spain, and that each bit costs about $3.
In this city of about 10,000, we observed welcomed courtesy. We believe it’s a place where anyone can walk freely, without fear of being attacked, hustled or perhaps even noticed. Because it’s in a northern clime, days stay light until 10 p.m. At that time, the hundreds of families who have gathered in the town square, or plaza mayor, quietly go home. We hear no boom boxes, no ear-splitting car stereos and no in-your-face motorcycle noise pollution. Folks come out in the evenings and quietly sip a beer and smoke a cigarette. Because there is no motorized traffic in the plaza, infants run around freely. And because everybody knows everybody else, people take care of one another.
The thing that requires getting used to is the number of people who smoke. As in the states, most theaters and large enclosed places forbid smoking, but people don’t hesitate to light up in restaurants, sidewalk cafes, parks and pools.
The tours of museums and cathedrals, as well as the interaction with the students’ host families have made a deep impression on the participants. Reinstating the vital link between Highlands and Spain would go far toward enriching the lives of its participants.
We urge that the program be revisited.