In the Realejo district of Granada, in the Plaza de Santo Domingo, there is a section of graffiti on a low wall that says “Spain is Not Spain.” Each day when I walk to class, I see the words and end up thinking about what they mean. I can never decide whether the phrase is a joke or something intentionally profound.
Maybe the graffiti ultimately means nothing, but after living here for three months, I think that the expression provides an honest way of describing how I’ve come to understand this country and my role in discovering it.
I think that in the US, we tend to idealize certain countries in Europe. It is no surprise, then, that in many of our movies, an American struggling with the feeling that there is something “missing” in her life (cue Julia Roberts) goes to Europe to “find herself” (cue images of cobblestone roads and handsome foreign lovers).
And surely, when we think of France, we think of fine wine and baguettes, the Eiffel Tower and soft lights on the river at night. When we think of Spain, we think of bulls and big plates of paella, golden beaches that stretch on for miles and wild street parties likes the ones Hemingway loved in 1920s San Fermín.
To travel for a bit in these countries is often to access these things— objects of palatable “cultural difference” that inevitably carry the tourist’s stamp of approval. To truly live in a country, though, is something entirely different. Once you decide to stop being a tourist and start being a traveler, you begin to immerse yourself in a community of human beings that demonstrates the same social complexity of the place that you come from. When you start seeing that, the country becomes a more rich and affecting place—and I would argue that so do you.
Here in Spain, for example, I see a country that is yes, admirably and unequivocally beautiful, teeming with stunning art, great music, and vital tradition. But now I also see a country in the middle of one of the worst recessions in its history, tainted by political corruption and an unpopular monarchy, and struggling to find some sort of compromise between the customs of old Spain and the new, globalized interests of a younger generation.
Furthermore, though the truth might be contrary to my experience, I see a country that is at times unaware of or closed off to all things “guiri” (a negative word used for anything considered “foreign”), especially in terms of other races. In my first week here, for example, I went to buy paper in the store below my apartment– one of what the Spanish call “chinos”, or shops owned by Chinese immigrants.
When I turned the corner toward the section with the register, I saw two Spanish men leaning over the counter, pointing aggressively at a trembling store owner:
“You don’t speak our language,” the first said in Spanish,” and you don’t belong here. Got that?”
The two then grabbed multiple handfuls of lighters from the display on the counter and stormed out. The storeowner had tears in his eyes. He did know Spanish, and I will never forget it.
This is not to say that all Spanish people are this way (they are most certainly not), or that there aren’t one million things about Spanish life that aren’t perfect and good: spending slow afternoons on sunlit terrazas eating tapas with friends, swimming in the warm Mediterranean, walking through crumbling Roman and Moorish ruins, dancing until morning in a discoteca, and of course visiting some of the most beautiful churches in the world. It is just to say that living in a different country is sometimes a more complicated experience than the traditional study abroad conclusion that “another culture allowed me to see things in a new way.” More so, the experience allows you to delve into the story of another place, perhaps the darker side of it, and see how human we all are, and how we express that humanity—for better or for worse—through the lenses of the places we grow up in.
So maybe it’s not so much that “Spain is not Spain,” but that Spain, like anything else, is more complex than meets the eye. In this way, I now see the graffiti in the Plaza de Santo Domingo less as a declaration and more as a challenge to get to know the country as deeply as possible.
After all this, I’ve come to understand that rather than “finding myself” here, a la Eat, Pray, Love, what I’ve found instead is a place that I developed a relationship with in the same way that I try to develop relationships with other people— with a sincere goal of getting to know them as profoundly as I can, and a recognition that both their imperfections and their attractions make them worthy of love.