Marta and I long ago realized that there were key cultural differences between us. This started, way back when, with the very concept of dating. “We don’t date,'” Marta said of Spaniards. And yet, to humor me, after we had been “dating” for a month or so, she went on a traditional American “first date,” then a “second date,” and finally a “third date” with me.
We went out to dinner and then a movie or just out to dinner and then home. We held hands and I taught Marta how to make that very American sort of small talk expected on a traditional first, second or third dates. She struggled, but eventually got it–more or less. I had a lot of fun.
In turn, Marta has, slowly, over these four years taught me how to adjust to some of her cultural norms. A big one for me has been the “practice” of interrupting during a conversation. At first I just thought Marta was rude. Now I’ve come to see this as her way of conversing. She interrupts when she is actually interested in the conversation. So I have learned to interrupt a little more with her when we are talking and she, in exchange, has made the promise (not always kept) to try to interrupt a little less as well.
These differences in our cultural upbringings are always most apparent to me when we visit Spain. The first time we went together, three years ago, I remember being overwhelmed most by the schedule. We would eat dinner at 10 p.m. and stay up until 2 a.m. and then wake at 10 the next morning. It was glorious. But also very disorienting.
This time around, having a baby in tow, has made me aware of a lot of other, more subtle, differences between the States and Spain. For one, babies are much more welcome in bars than they are in the United States. Here we are in one of a number of taverns we visited with Nico:
And here she is, “drunk” at said bar:
In Spain people are very concerned about keeping their babies “wrapped up” and warm. Madrid was cold, but not that cold (maybe around 40 degrees as a low), and yet during our first few days in Spain, strangers would regularly walk up to us and say “you need to wrap that baby up!” (as an aside, strangers also randomly touch your baby a lot more in Spain than they do in the US). These strangers were truly concerned about Nico’s well-being and only seemed to give us a pass once we finally caved in and bought one of these huge sleeping-bag-like liners for Nico’s stroller, an accoutrement that nearly every “good” parent in Madrid seemed to also own.
Another difference I noticed last time, but that was more apparent to me this time because–with Nico now in tow–we went to a lot more big family gatherings, is how very long a single meal can last in Spain. In Spanish there is a word we don’t have in English: sobremesa. It literally means over-table, but actually refers to that time after the meal when people sit around and talk. That time, I can attest, can last three hours or more.
Our first big family gathering was with Marta’s father’s side of the family. We went to a nice restaurant near the city’s Parque del Oeste (West Park). There were three aunts and three cousins and one of the cousin’s two children. We sat in a big table and “lunch” began around 2:30 p.m. We ate, we ate more, we drank, we talked. I helped the cousin’s two children practice their English (“Strawberries! Strawberries!” the younger one said. “This salad has lettuce, tomatoes, asparagus and alcachofas” the older one told me). We passed Nico around like a basket of bread. The next thing I knew it was 7 p.m.
I called my sister on Skype when we got back and told her we’d just had a five-hour lunch. “How many dishes were there!?” she asked. But that’s the thing. There wasn’t any more food than we have in the States. There was just a different approach to the act of having lunch.
The interruption factor, of course, was also in full force during our visit. This reached its pitch during our second family gather–this time for Marta’s mom’s side of the family. We had stopped by her aunt’s house for “lunch” (at 3:30 p.m.) after a long hike. Another cousin stopped by with her two children. Someone whipped out a bottle champagne and someone else a basket of kids toys. I remember very clearly standing in the middle of the living room, watching Nico play with some sort of very loud beeping contraption while to one side of me the cousin was saying something to the group (or to no one in particular) and on another side of the room the aunt was also saying something else too all of us or no one in particular (most likely she was asking us if we wanted more food–I gained five pounds while in Spain) and Marta’s parents were also saying something, I believe, and everyone everywhere seemed to be in a state of constant, individualized motion, motion that made sense to just about everyone in the room, except me. The silent one.
I suddenly looked up and saw Blanca, Marta’s sister-in-law, was looking at me and laughing. “I can’t wait to read about this in the blog,” she said. I told her there would be no way, really, to encapsulate all of it.
Coming from a family where waiting your turn to speak is of the utmost importance, being in such seemingly conversational chaos feels a bit freeing. But it’s also tiring. In our drive back to Madrid that day, I fell very quick and very heavily asleep.
The Spaniards had exhausted me. But in the best of ways.