Monday, July 7, 2014

What I Learned in Spain

The most important thing I learned from my recent trip to Spain is that I am probably too old for short trips to Europe. I left my home in Vermont in the late afternoon on a Friday for a 10:30pm flight in Montreal. I flew overnight to Paris. With a two hour layover we were in Malaga, Spain by 3pm on Saturday. Most of that part of our trip went smoothly. Landing in a foreign country, tired as hell, doesn't make for a good start of a vacation. Our car rental agreement charged us way too much money and we didn't notice it. Our luggage was put on the wrong belt so we thought it was lost. Then our 20 minute drive to our condo rental took 2.5 hours to find thanks to some very bad directions and negligent street signage. Driving in a foreign country is difficult enough but try it on no sleep. By the time I recovered from the jet lag and caught up on my sleep, I had two days left to my vacation. I need more than a week for this kind of trip. A younger man would have bounced back a lot easier. It is that quandary of not affording the trip when I was young; now that I can afford it, I don't have the energy.

To make things worse, Spain is in the wrong time zone. While I was there I was wondering why the sun was setting so late. We were in southern Spain, close to the equator, the days should be shorter. But they were shorter, they just didn't seem like it. The sun just rises later as well. If you look at the map, Spain is aligned geographically with England, Portugal and Morocco, but its time zone is the same as Germany. During World War II, Hitler visited Spain attempting to woo Franco into joining the Axis. Because they were still recovering from the Spanish Civil War, they didn't have much to offer and stayed neutral, but they turned their clocks ahead an hour to be aligned with Nazi Germany. They never changed back. So if you drive to Portugal or take a ferry to Morocco, you have to change your clock. Blaming Hitler is a good standby for any problem in Europe.

The Spanish get up later than most of us. If you want to buy a coffee early in the morning, you will have to wait until 9am or so for a coffee shop to open. Due to the mid-day siesta, you may have to wait for a supermarket to open in the late-afternoon. This is a tradition that dates back to before air conditioning. So that workers didn't have to work during the peak heat of the day, they could nap in the shade. Now it makes for a long workday. Modern professionals complain that they get home too late. This makes for a later rush hour and less time at home. For me, the late coffee was fine because I was sleeping late most of the days (it was  vacation).  The coffee is great in Spain, made stronger than ours in the US so the portions are much smaller.  The weather was so hot, I wasn't always into a hot coffee. Iced coffee doesn't seem to be a thing. I was grateful to find a Dunkin' Donuts (aka Dunkin' Coffee) in Malaga for an American iced coffee.

With all its quirks, Spain is a fantastic place for a vacation. The Spanish tiled barrios polka dotting the mountain desert fauna on the Mediterranean, you can't beat it. The food alone is worth the trip. We spent two days on the beach drinking sangria, reading and taking dips. The temperature hovered around 85F with some wind and no mosquitoes. When we took day trips inland to Seville and Granada, it was about 10 degrees warmer with little wind or humidity. The language barrier wasn't too bad. Spanish/English translation is fairly close and almost everyone we talked to had at least a little English and my wife knows some conversational Spanish. We got by fine. Everyone was very friendly. One guy offered me his dessert when I asked him what it was. Eating fresh fish from the Mediterranean is my kind of vacation. Grills with fresh sardines were setup right on the beach. Not sure if restaurants could get away with this in the US.

Often when I travel I ponder, "hmm, I could live here."  I had that feeling about Ireland and Prague. That feeling overwhelmed me in Hawaii. This did not occur in Spain. I liked it and I would visit again (if I were independently wealthy) but no, I couldn't see myself living there.  I had two problems with the place that would make living there unbearable. It is a feeling that when you ask yourself, "Why is this okay?" that makes me think that I'd find a lot other problems with the place if I lived there.

The first thing was the driving. I have driven in Europe before, it was culture shock, but I acclimated. My only time driving in Europe was Ireland. Some don't even consider Ireland to be European. I remember telling an Irish lady, "we didn't even come close to the speed limit," and her reply was classic, "oh gee, I hope not." Like their speed limit is actually a limit, not like here in the States where it is the speed at which we start and only slow down below the limit after we see a cop. They just drive slowly in Ireland because the roads are tiny, winding and surrounded by walls. Spain was the opposite problem. Unlike Ireland, they drive on the same side of the road as the US, yet I felt less comfortable driving in Spain. Not only are Spanish drivers speeders but they are incredibly impatient. If you are backing out of a parking space, cars on the road will not stop and wait for you. They driving around you. The only time anyone will wait for you to pull out is if someone wanted your space. If you accidentally drive down a dead end (which aren't labeled) and have to back out, which I did in Granada, if there is another car that wants to get around you, they will not wait for you back out. They will drive around you regardless of how little room there is. I don't think this is something that I could get used to. I had heard that Spanish drivers are the worst in Europe. I have seen nothing to disprove this. Motorcycles were everywhere and seem to do what they want. I saw a lot of cops when I was there, but no one was being pulled over. I am not sure what they are doing but they are not monitoring traffic.

The other thing that I didn't like was being bothered by street vendors. If you are laying on a towel on the beach, they will come over and try to sell you sunglasses. If you are eating outside in a restaurant, they will approach you to sell you a pocket book. If you are enjoying the World Cup along the boardwalk in Marbella, they will approach you trying to sell you a Spanish flag. They don't let up. I can't tell you how annoying this is. Most of the vendors seem be from Africa. They probably come over on the Ferries from Morocco. Here in the US, we are all about business, but I don't think this is something that we would tolerate. You have to wonder why any business would tolerate vendors coming up to their customers at restaurants. I don't know if this is something that happens further inland. I don't remember seeing them in Granada or Seville so perhaps, this is just a coastal issue.

As an American, whose definition of old are the sites I see in Boston which aren't even three centuries old, I am overwhelmed when I visit Europe. Some of the sites we visited in Spain were held by the Romans and then the Moors and then then Spanish spanning a couple of millennium. I felt quite small.  That is a good thing. We should always be humbled by our travel destinations. Dare I quote Twain (from Innocents Abroad) without seeming too pretentious:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
One cannot enter the halls of Alhambra without marveling at the wonders of humanity ... regardless of how badly you had to risk your life in traffic to find the place.


Olga Hebert said...

It sunds like a good trip on the whole. If you want to feel old try traveling with grand children. Seriously, I'll loan you mine next time!

Olga Hebert said...

See, I can't even spell after a week with grandkids. It is sometimes hard to find hot coffee in FL. And I don't care if it is hot outside, I want my hot coffee in the morning.

Mike said...

I am SO glad you had a wonderful trip! I think it sounds like it was perfect! I liked Spanish food and culture so much!
spain on a budget