One year ago, I found out I’d be moving to a 5,000 person village in Spain. I then found out I’d be the only foreigner.
I remember like it was yesterday. I remember refreshing my e-mail every 10 minutes for two months straight, impatiently awaiting my city assignment. The next year of my life was completely in the hands of the Spanish government, and I was OK with it. In fact, more than OK…where would they put me?
And then I got the e-mail…
Fregenal de la WHAT?!
PANIC. Google results: “5,000 person farming village in the province of Extremadura, Spain. Known for”…ham?
I cried a little. Second guessed my life decisions. What in the world was I getting myself into?! Here I was, this girl from the New York metro area. A girl who has interned at NYC’s biggest media company (shout out to Clear Channel!), worked backstage concerts at Madison Square Garden, attended P. Diddy’s sons Sweet 16 (If you wanna laugh, check out 4:14 of this episode of Super Sweet 16…) and I was being shipped off to SHEEPVILLE.
Eight months later, and I am fighting tears as I’m packing up my personalized Gazpacho bowl, wrapping newspaper around the crafts my students have made me, and stuffing packages of jamón in the side pockets of my suitcase, praying that customs won’t get hungry and decide to keep it for themselves (and I wouldn’t be surprise if they do. A good Spanish person will NEVER miss an opportunity to snack on free jamón…)
I’ve not only learned about life in a completely different culture. I’ve learned about myself, the things that really matter in life, and the things in this world I can do without. I remember justifying to myself one year ago, “everything happens for a reason! The big guy up there must have a reason…” Well, if I wasn’t a believer in “the Big Man’s grand plan” before, I am now. I feel so beyond blessed to have had this life changing experience, completely immersed in a world so completely opposite from my own. I could ramble on and on about how incredible my time here has been, but ain’t nobody got time for that. So, I’ve (tried) to condense my experience into a nice, pretty, city-paced list.
9 Ways My Village has Changed My Perspective on Life, Foreva’.
1) Saying HI to strangers in the streets isn’t scary.
In the city world, we have this really bad habit of avoiding eye contact with passer-byers at all costs. When walking down the sidewalk, we have tunnel vision. All that exists is you, whatever is directly in front of you, and your shoe laces (for those of you who stare at your feet to avoid tripping… guilty). We will even go as far as to check our phone for a non-existent text message, or search our bag for something we don’t need. All to avoid a potential second or two of eye contact. Well, want to know what happens in a world where people people try to make eye contact? You say….HI. Crazy, I know. When I first arrived in Fregenal, I was confused as to why everyone was saying “hola,” “adios” or “buenos” as I passed. Did they all know me? Did I meet them without realizing? I was thoroughly confused, and maybe even a little weirded out. Eight months later, I say “hola” to every living thing that crosses my path. Whether it’s a grandpa with a missing tooth and a cane (as there are a lot of those here), or two teenager girls gossiping Spanish at the speed of light…a big HOLA will go down. And even a smile! Because you know what? It really makes your day that much happier.
Being from the high paced NY, whatever we want NOW, we get. And if we don’t… Well, stay out of our path. That was my very impatient mentality just a mere 8 months ago. And it was one of the hardest things to change. Whether it was my clothes that take approx. 2 days to dry from wash-date, the cashier who decided to have a life-catch up with the girl in front of me, or the waiter who forgot I existed… whatever it is, I’ll get it. Eventually. Patience truly is a virtue, and nothing is worth raising my cortisone levels to get 5 minutes sooner.
And here, the only schedule that ever happens. I’m tellin’ ya, peoples priorities are in the right place! But seriously. Remember one month in, when I wrote that article about eating schedules and siestas? At that point, I hated it. No, despised it. I remember like it was yesterday- It was 7 :30 pm, and I wanted a sandwich. So, like every logical hungry person does, I went to a restaurant and ordered a sandwich. You know what they told me? NO. I couldn’t have my damn sandwich. UM EXCUSE ME LAST TIME I CHECKED SPAIN WAS A FREE COUNTRY. Well, it is, unless you tryna’ mess with their eating times. Because 7:30 is “coffee” hour, and with coffee there are no sandwiches. Just cookies. Wait till 9:30, dinner time, he told me. Ok sure, if you wanna girl to faint…
It took me about seven of my eight months here to figure this one out. But I’ve grown to appreciate it, and even love it. The eating hour is so strict, because eating is an activity people do together. It’s a time to sit with the people who you love in the world, share food, conversation, and do so in a leisurely manner. And the schedule leaves you no choice but to do so. Which leads me to…
As a product of the Western world, I was very territorial over my food. I was like an animal in the jungle; you touch what’s on my plate, I bite your hand off. And if it’s the best piece, there goes your head. Well, if I wanted to make friends, I realized I had to change this mentality. And quick… The Spanish “tapas” culture is all about sharing. Thus, there are absolutely no boundaries when it comes to touching someone elses plate. Remember when the waiter ate a fish off my plate? I was in complete shock. But in reality, it’s not that out of line in the Spanish world. Sharing is caring, and food is enjoyment; thus, sharing your food is enjoyment. And the amazing thing? I’ve actually grown to believe this. My stress level no longer sky rockets when I see your hand closing in on my plate. So, USA friends, good news…when I return home, you can eat the food of my plate. And even the best piece. As long as I can have yours 😉
Last summer, I worked for a U.S. marketing campaign whose slogan was “sleep when your 30.” It was a liquor brand that promoted the idea that your 20’s is for fun, and your 30’s is when fun dies. This is very much so our mentality in the states. After college graduation, I remember sitting on the couch of my apartment with my 4 best friends. We were balling our eyes out, crying that our fun was forever over…LOL. We were 22 years old!!! In the states, we fear getting old because with age comes more responsibility, more “social rules,” and less fun. But why does one need to influence the other? In my village it’s quote the opposite. In fact, the wildest people I know here are above the age of 40. And the king of the fiestas? He’s 50 with three kids. Judgements aside. Life is for fun. And my life is just beginning!
Maybe this is why Spanish people can have fun their entire lives.I graduated from one of the biggest party schools in the US. The mentality was that if you couldn’t drink, you wouldn’t go out. Shots, or water. An average night out in the states goes like this:
Pre-game with shots of alcohol. When sufficiently drunk, go to bar. Drink more. Then, go to club. More shots. On the verge of passing out. Success. Go home.
WRONG WRONG WRONG. PEOPLE. WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO ENJOYING EACH OTHERS COMPANY?! Seriously. People in my village drink. But not to get drunk. To socialize. And if getting drunk happens, it happens. But at a natural, humanly pace. That explains why people in the states last until 2 am, where here people stay out until the sun rises. And the best part? You can watch the sun rise with the people you like the most…
Yes, I’ve learned how to speak fluent Spanish. But what’s more, is I’ve learned how speak honest. There is no way to beat around the bush in Spanish. A fat boy is a chico gordo. He’s not pleasantly plump, he’s just plain old fat. He knows it, his parents know it, and it’s all good. One of my students actually responded to “How are you today?” with “I am fat.” LOLOL. But he knows it! The same thing goes for black people, called negros. There is no “politically correct” name, like the “African Spanish” people. People are honest with who they are here, in presumable thanks to the honesty of the language. Stop walking on cultural egg shells, and just say it.
9.) It’s the people that matter.
There are 9 restaurant, 2 “cool” bars, and 2 clothing stores in my pueblo. There are no movie theaters, no malls, nor clubs. My apartment has no clothes dryer, heating, air conditioning, nor oven. And I have had one of the most incredible years of my life.
One afternoon in February, I lost my wallet. Within 5 minutes of my discovery, the entire pueblo went on lock down. Moms of my students left work early to search their streets, the principal of my school stopped classes to perform a search and rescue, and the police came to ME. Three months later, people I’ve never met stop me in the streets, and ask “Casie, hola! Has encontrado tu cartera?” No, Maria, I haven’t found my wallet. But thanks for asking…
These people are truly incredible. Like, INCREDIBLE. Being from the NYC metro area, I’m used to people who live for themselves, and for themselves only. If I lost my wallet in the Big Apple, I’d get a whole bunch of “oh, well that sucks for you!” My biggest culture shock in Fregenal was the incredible sense of community. People actually care about each other.
I have never met people more warm, happy, and genuinely caring in my life. I have known the people of this community for 8 months; half of which, I could barely communicate. Yet, I feel like I have of 5,000 new Spanish speaking family members (the corniest of corny, I know. But it’s TRUE!)
I have formed these friendships, young and old, that I know will stay with me forever; an incredible group of 20 best friends, one married couple who owns a Spanish fish factory, and one best friend who has been my Angel for the past 8 months. And his name just so happens to be Angel…IRONIC? Oh, and the wildest part of it all? All of these bonds I’ve formed have been in Spanish.
I could ramble on and on. But I’m going to end with this final (sappy) thought:
The biggest lesson I learned is that happiness in this life is not about the money. It’s not about the posh bar or trendiest restaurant. But it’s the people you share it with. It’s the people who are sitting at the same table as you. The surroundings just aren’t important.
Thank you Fregenal. You’ve showed me what this life is really about, and for that, TE QUIERO MUCHO.
As for NYC? Comin’ atcha! Ladies and gents, you probably can expect a post on “reverse culture shock” anyyyyyyyday now…
Now it’s your turn to share! What do you think about the lessons I learned–agree or disagree? Would you want the opportunity to live in a Spanish village like Fregenal? Have you had a similar foreign experience?!
Wanna travel? Don’t let “life” stop you. Read the 8 Reasons that Stop Young People from Traveling, and Why You CAN