It must have been quite a sight to see a half-American, half-Spanish 19-year-old girl sitting at the head of a table with six other Spaniards over the age of sixty (my grandparents and their friends) at a quaint but fancy restaurant in Northern Spain. The funniest part was that you couldn't tell I was only half-Spanish until I opened my mouth. The poor waiter realized that my first language was English and started listing off desserts, which my grandparents insisted I pick from, in broken English. It was cute. Pero era tambien una pictura comica.
This experience, and many others I've had since arriving in Spain almost a week ago have had me thinking about the nature of travel, of culture. I've heard from various people that traveling is "the life," but I'm not convinced. There are many things that separate Americans from the Spanish, probably more than that which is similar...yet our similarities stand out, are much more powerful. I see Spaniards begging on the streets of Lugo, and I think I might as well be in downtown Chicago. I see people sharing angst towards the government, and I could be anywhere in the world...well maybe except the Middle East, but even now. Languages, although distinct, have words that we all share, we all understand. This is the danger in travel, that people begin to believe that because they are well-travelled they are in turn more cultured. No. You're not more cultured unless somewhere along your travels you change. You gain a respect, not just a note, that these people have their own customs, their own way of life, and you are only a visitor.
See, it's not enough to simply be in an unfamiliar place. Then how are you any different than someone who takes a wrong road or goes into an unusual store across town? I am convinced that one could travel his or her whole life and still be lacking as much "culture" as a child of ten who has never left his small town. The difference lies in your interactions with those of that culture, your willingness to see things from their point of view rather than instigating your own. Your new understanding of how things work there before telling them you disagree. It's enjoying their lifestyle.
I think we could learn a few things from the Spaniards. For example, if you order un cafe con leche, which is an equivalent to a Starbuck's latte, you have to sit down to drink it, and it's about half the size of a tall latte in Estados Unidos. The back windows of every car aren't tinted like in the U.S. on most cars. Interestingly, the Spanish seem to be more guarded within their homes which are usually enclosed by a thick iron gate, yet are more carefree in public. And la familia isn't just the people you live with...they're tu sangre, your blood, extending to all that in the U.S. we might classify as "distant" relatives. I think everyone, especially Americans, would benefit from slowing down a bit, finding step with the Europeans in their morning cafes or afternoon siestas, for life is more than what you can accomplish in a business suit.
So if you're ever a tourist in another country, don't walk around like you're better than those who stayed wisely at home. Because travel isn't just about the thrills, the change of pace, the extravagance of doing something else for a while. It's about what sets us apart from each other, yet more intricately what connects us despite everything else.
There is much more in the world to see, to experience, than yourself. And we are only blessed visitors.