I do not mean to be unkind when I compare the Spanish community to a hive of buzzing activity. In fact, the relative social isolation of the U.S. represents a major reverse cultural shock for me. As one of my students put it upon her return to California, “Where are all the people?” Stuck in suburbia, outside her house the sidewalks were empty.
Spaniards gather together in almost every social context. During the evening stroll they leave their homes to socialize in the street, young and old. They live in high density, compact neighborhoods with shops, pedestrians, and traffic located below their spacious apartments. Most buildings have an inner atrium and through the windows arrive all conceivable human noises and smells. But it feels safe and cozy.
My only complaint is the noise level outside the apartment: radio, motorcycles, telephones, children’s shouts, trash collectors, other trucks, demonstrations, and loud arguments all compete for my attention.
For a long time I have thought about the comparison of the hive to Spanish society in two postwar films, “The Hive,” based on the novel by Cela, and “Spirit of the Beehive,” a cult classic made by Erice. In both the implication is obedience and order under dictatorship, the postwar experience for Spaniards who survived the conflict and the repression afterwards. It bothers me that the idea of the Spanish community that I relate to the hive is depicted as a society of drones in these films. Or that when the social order is upset chaos rules.
I asked my students to write a short essay on this topic: I would (not) like to live in Spain. I gave the example that I would not like to live in Spain because of the noise. I did not say that sometimes the constant buzz exhausts me. In my homestay we call my bedroom, “el convento.” Tucked away at the end of a long hallway, far from the TV and kitchen, it is private and peaceful. There is one exception. To gain this level of quiet, I chose a room with a window to the inner atrium instead of the street. I hear telephone conversations, home repairs, meal preparations, and toilets flushing. I pretend it is white noise and go to sleep.