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Old 2nd October 2007, 09:25 PM   #22
Super Forero
Join Date: Jul 2007
Posts: 163

I suppose the answer to this question for me, in part, is simply that
Spain is the Spanish-speaking part of Europe. You see, in the United
States, Spanish is pretty much the default second language these days,
for obvious reasons. Something like half of all academic
second-language instruction in this country is Spanish. You don't
really need a reason to study it. It's the easy choice. Not that many
of us anglos can really speak it, mind. The American attraction to
Europe, be it the UK, France, Italy, Spain, etc., is about seeing a
bunch of amazingly old stuff, and seeing places that are more rooted
and civilized-seeming than our country is. Put these two together,
and you have a reason to be interested in Spain. A place is always a
lot more interesting if you can speak to the natives in their own
language. That's why I have, in recent years, visited Spain, but not
Italy, France, or the Czech republic.

On the subject of Americans learning Spanish, it's almost certainly
true that for most of us our first experience of a Spanish-speaking
country is of Mexico or Central America. Those countries are, how
shall I say it, interesting, different, charming, beautiful, but also
offputting, unsettling, and ugly. Take Mexico, for example. I have
frequently been met with great courtesy, kindness and fair-mindedness
down there (even by marijuana growers). But I have also been cheated
and preyed upon. And government, in all its manifestations, doesn't
work very well. The universal advice, from Mexicans and foreigners
alike, is to avoid having anything to do with the police. It's odd,
when everyone knows that the two gas stations in town are crooked, but
nothing is done about it, because they are owned by someone with drug
money connections. Instead, everybody knowledgeable just drives eight
miles north on the highway to fill up at a gas station known to be
honest. People cope, but it could not be said to be socially optimal.
And trash disposal? I have heard it said that the ruin of the Mexican
countryside is the disposable plastic bag. Governmental corruption,
the use of public office for self-dealing, the total impunity of the
rich. One feels that the real social rules that govern life and
society down there are quite different, and decidedly obscure to an
outsider. The published laws and regulations are not, in fact, the
operative rules. In some respects it's really a hierarchical tribal
system, with caciques, vassals and patrones, and favor-trading. This
makes it interesting, of course, but also a hard place to navigate, to
really feel comfortable. Mexico city, Guadalajara, Tijuana, they are
certainly energetic places, but no one could call them charming, and
they do not generally arouse any fantasies about moving
there. Crowded, noisy, chaotic, terrible traffic, bad air.

So why go on about this? Well, because it explains what a shock, and
revelation it was, to arrive in Spain for the first time. The place
was clean, the cities apparently charming and livable. It was
European, so first world. And the people, well, they were different
too. Less courteous, perhaps, but more forthright, more direct, easier
to read. More sure of themselves as citizens, more knowledgeable, more
instinctively democratic. I was struck by the amount of tutear-ing.
Being an American, who likes informality and directness, I appreciated this.

Maybe it's the goldilocks phenomenon. Spain is "just right".
Different enough to be interesting, to give one a sense of alternate
possibilities, but not so different as to be really unsettling, and
not so different that you can't relate to the people as peers rather
than "natives" to be observed or placated.

One other little point, I am into what one might call "nature
tourism", and, within western Europe, Spain has perhaps the most to
offer. the wildest and most varied landscapes and biomes. It's not
like the "new world", of course. There are no really pristine or
unaltered places. The human mark is everywhere. But the settled human
imprint is so old--thousands of years--that it all just seems to
fit. Humans and nature had somehow coadapted. Or at least, in some
places they have. I'm not talking about the runaway "urbanizaciones"
on the coast, obviously. More like the peasant landscapes, the dehesa
of the south, or the Asturian countryside. This human/nature
coadaptation, I find it very interesting. The human imprint in
North America is mostly very new, and it mostly jars with its natural
surroundings. Our agriculture, our forestry, is mostly industrial in
spirit. We have nothing like the spanish countryside.
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