Compare and Contrast


I’m getting worried.


I have been told that the culture shock upon returning to America is stronger than the shock upon coming to Europe.  And I understand why.

Tour Eiffel


Just this week I saw the Mona Lisa, ate lunch under the Eiffel Tower, studied Las Meninas in person at the Museo del Prado, and am soon heading to Barcelona to walk among the architectural masterpieces of Antoni Gaudí.  On my walk to school in Madrid I pass a palace and the former hunting grounds of the Hapsburg dynasty.  On my walk to school at Marquette I pass Real Chili.  How will anything at home compare?


Familiar territory is comforting.  I will be glad to be back among people that speak my language—that should prevent 30 euro miscommunications at the dry cleaners.  And of course I miss friends and family. 


But unfamiliar territory is thrilling.  Wandering around foreign cities not knowing what I will stumble upon next is my favorite way to pass the time.  The long, complicated history of Europe intrigues me, and the culture agrees with me (though I am still too Type-A to siesta for 2 hours every day.) 


It was in talking to some Spaniards one night that I discovered a solution. These students were surprised that I had never been to Seattle or San Francisco or Yellowstone National Park.  I haven’t skied in Aspen and I have never taken a Greyhound bus.  There is so much of America that I have yet to experience.  And in Milwaukee, when I’m missing the warm mediterranean climate, I can always walk to the lake to visit my Spanish friend Santiago Calatrava.



"rebajas" or rebates at El Corte Inglés

All over Spain I have noticed advertisements proclaiming “¡Vencemos a la crisis!” or  “A la crisis, buena cara.”  (Mono-linguals please reference The economic crisis has hit Spain just as hard, or maybe harder, than the United States– the rate of unemployment here is about twice as high.  In an attempt to keep the Spaniards spending, restaurants are promoting specially priced menus, annual sales have been extended long past the post-Christmas season, and banks are advertising their new low rates.    People here are cutting back, cutting back from a way of life that was simpler than the life of American abundance to begin with.  For example:

I am constantly driven crazy by the light switches in Europe.  In public bathrooms, in hallways, and in hotels, the lights are controlled by timers.  You push a doorbell-like button, and have 30 seconds or so of illumination.  I have to run down six flights of stairs in my building in this amount of time, or be forced to stumble around in the dark for the next step.  The showers at my gym provide 30 seconds of water.  No one can shower in 30 seconds (can they?)  Despite my frustration, Europe is an example of conservation.  Lights don’t need to be on in hallways and bathrooms while no one is around.  And I suppose I don’t need to take luxurious showers that last longer than my workout.   Think of the natural resources (and MONEY) that must be saved by these annoying timers! 

Example number 2.  Everything is smaller in Spain.  From cars to kitchens to the people themselves, “less” is more abundant.  The SUV that so epitomizes American life is a rare sight in this country. Mopeds, walking, and the Metro are the more preferred forms of transportation.

Most madrileños live in apartments, where space is valuable.  Kitchens and kitchen appliances seem miniscule by American standards.  And they also seem older.  Those 70s style avocado or mustard-colored appliances that are so passé back home still lurk around Europe.  Why?  Because they still work.  Refrigerators are smaller, and some of my classmates live in apartments without freezers.  It is more common to go to the local store daily for fresh food rather than to go to a supermarket and load two weeks of groceries into the back of that SUV.  And watch it spoil before it is used.

While I miss having a dryer as part of my laundry routine, the fresh air and clothesline method works perfectly fine.  Everyone has free access to fresh air.   Except maybe L.A. 

Spain is not immune to consumerist culture.  And I am not suggesting that everyone immediately dispose of their dishwashers.  But I do believe that the economic downturn has provided us with an opportunity, a chance to find a simpler way of life, both to “conquer the crisis” (that is the first ad’s translation, if you haven’t already checked) and to find that bigger isn’t always better, and newer isn’t always necessary.  

And now, if you’ll excuse me,
 I’m going to watch my 13 inch television that only gets five stations.

Obviously my vocabulary has increased, but I’m still trying to adapt to the culture. It’s very easy to forget you are in Madrid. It’s a beautiful city, like most I have seen, and it is very accomodating for English speaking visitors. I sometimes get lost in that aspect until I take a look around and realize it’s the little things that make it special. It wasn’t until I gave my dinner waiter a big smile and a waive that I realized I have a lot to learn. Apparently, Spanish culture tells us that smiling at strangers either means you are dumb or trying to hit on them…would have been good to know at the time. The spanish people in general seem to be very blunt and sarcasm, which is usually my language, is hard to pick up. Hoping to keep learning these helpful hints and more…

This snowman is quite patriotic.

This snowman is quite patriotic.

We woke our first morning in Madrid to a lovely coating of the very thing we all left Milwaukee to escape: snow.

As the white fluff filled in the cracks of the cobblestone streets, most Madrileños had no idea what was going on. They put chains on car tires and even stopped flights to and from Barajas International Airport. A whole 6 centimeters (about 2.5 inches) of snow was enough to shut down the entire city.

According to the International Herald Tribune, Madrid hadn’t seen that much snow since 2001. Some people I talked with said it had been 10, even 20, years.

Such a petty snowfall doesn’t break my Minnesota spirit. But when you’ve accidentally left your coat at the airport, the cold does.

I layered a sweater, sweatshirt and a North Face fleece (just so I could scream AMERICAN even louder) and went outside with the group to take the bus to la Universidad Complutense for orientation.

The Madrileños walked even faster than usual, but with scarves wrapped around their down-turned faces. Some walked arm-in-arm so as not to slip. Many carried umbrellas. Middle-aged and sophisticated-looking people threw snowballs at each other and laughed at such a novel idea of fun.

And then there were the snowmen — or should I say, “snow heaps”?

Brooke and me with a Spanish snow heap, but this one's actually pretty good!

Many Madrileños attempted to make snowmen, complete with carrot noses and pebble eyes. But few had mastered the technique of rolling the snow into evenly shaped balls. They mostly just packed it together into a giant mass that looked more like a pyramid than a body.

That’s when we Marquette students laughed and felt a bit more at home in such a foreign country.