Learning the Rhythms in a Land of Contrasts

<i> Lewis, a recent graduate of USC, is a writer living in Los Angeles. </i>

Every land has its own special rhythm, and unless the traveler takes the time to learn the rhythm, he or she will remain an outsider there always.

--Juliette de Bairacli-Levy, English writer

It was a cold February evening in Madrid when I learned the rhythm of Spain. We met in Cafe Commercial, shared hot chocolate and pastry and spoke “Spanglish.”

Her name was Pilar and, along with the other Spanish friends I made, she showed me a country and a culture that most tourists will never see.


During the spring of 1987, I took part in the University of Southern California’s “Semester in Madrid” program. A year later I am still as intrigued with Spain as I was on the day I arrived at Barajas Airport.

Madrid was the first foreign destination where I had ever spent more than a summer, and it opened a new world to me.

I decided before I left the United States that my time in Spain should be what education is really all about. Not only would I read about famous landmarks, but I’d be able to see them, touch them, walk through them. Living in Spain would give me the chance to do what I had only read about in history books.

Told to ‘Go Native’


I also resolved to immerse myself in the Spanish way of life, to experience the real Espana. “Go native,” the program director told our group. I didn’t come all the way to Europe to eat at McDonald’s and talk to Americans. I could do that at home.

With these thoughts in mind, I chose to live with a senora and her family, take all my classes in Spanish and put up a notice at the English bookstore for intercambio-- offering to practice my Spanish with Madrid students while they learned English from me.

And so I met Pilar. We became the best of friends and together we explored her city while she tried to imagine what mine was like.

I taught her American slang and she introduced me to the art of bargaining at El Rastro, Madrid’s flea market. She took me to outdoor cafes on the main Paseo de la Castellana and explained that in Spain the waiters never bring the check until it is requested. I told her that in the United States we normally pay for our drinks after each round.

We laughed about the differences in eating times and table manners. In Spain, the big meal, of course, is lunch, which is served about 2:30 p.m. She advised me that stores were closed from 2 to 5 p.m. for a siesta; I described our 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday.

People Stared

Gradually I was learning the rhythm. Of course, I would never fit in completely. I’ll always remember how the people stared curiously at me every morning on the bus and called me rubia (blonde). Even when I dressed more the way Spaniards did and less like a Californian, and carried my school papers in the same folders they used, I was still undeniably an Americana.

From the lush green of the Basque country to the distinct accent of Castile, from the orange blossoms and flamenco music of Andalucia, Spain is a land of rich contrasts.


We left the center of the bustling modern city of Madrid and an hour later came upon the quiet village of Chincon, set against sun-drenched plains and olive trees, where old men gather on doorsteps to talk.

We browsed in the most elegant shops on Madrid’s Calle de Serrano and then, within minutes, saw Gypsies begging in the Plaza Mayor.

Times are by no means easy in Spain. During my stay, university students were protesting, and at the entrance to every Metro station we passed beggars with hands outstretched.

But there is an attitude about living life to the fullest, whether you can afford to or not, that pervades every aspect of Spanish culture. It is part of the rhythm, an attitude I wish more Americans had.

Incredible Energy

Spain’s nightclubs and discotecas open when ours close, and at 6 a.m. the music is still blaring and the people are still dancing. There is an incredible energia among the Spanish people.

My senora encouraged me to stay out all night on the weekends because, she said: “Eres joven” (you are young). How the working class can get up the next morning, though, I still haven’t figured out.

Pilar showed me so very much. She took me home to her barrio and introduced me to the shopkeepers who called her by name as we passed, and to a little pub where young people were dancing sevillanas (native dances of Seville). And she proudly took me to lunch at Hollywood’s, Madrid’s most American restaurant and the “in” place for hamburgers and French fries.


In that true sense of Spanish hospitality, she rarely let me pay. “No,” she would say, “you are a guest in my country. I invite you.” The same was true of my other Spanish friends, who gave all of what little they had.

Feast Was Served

One of my fondest memories is a Sunday afternoon I spent in the country at my friend Javier’s house. He had three brothers and a small home, and I know his parents didn’t have much money. But that day they brought out their best plates and served a feast.

We ate elaborate dishes, drank homemade red wine, snacked on olives from the tree in their back yard and listened to traditional music. This, I thought, was the real Spain.

There were things I missed about the United States--24-hour grocery stores, salads and Diet Coke, clothes dryers and soft toilet paper, but I’d give them all up again for another opportunity to see the world. It is often those times spent away from your country when you learn the most about it.

Although Pilar and I shared many adventures, some of the most memorable discoveries were those I made for myself. Slowly I learned to think in pesetas, greet people with a kiss on both cheeks, give cars the right of way and cook with olive oil.

And most importantly, I adopted a little of that Spanish attitude about taking one day at a time and enjoying life to the fullest. Of course I am not as carefree at home as I was in Madrid. And when the work piles up, I do try to remember to keep everything in perspective as my senora and Pilar would tell me to do.

For most tourists, Spain means matadors and bullfights, the Prado museum, midday siestas and flamenco dancers. But there is another side of this country, and I was lucky enough to have known it.

On the day I boarded the plane for home I left a part of me behind in Madrid. I didn’t really say goodby, though. Rather I said hasta luego (see you later), as the Spanish do. Adios seemed much too final for friends.