Spain, jetlag, and culture shock (posted two weeks late, sorry)

My first memories of the United States were from the flight to Chicago. I was five then, I’m seventeen now. We flew Aeroflot (Russian-American airline) then, we fly Delta (American-everything-but-the-moon airline) now. We sat in the middle then, we’re sitting in the middle now. The chicken was amazing then, the chicken is awful now–or maybe it was awful then too, but I was too young and naive to notice. The sausage might be alright, but I wouldn’t know since I can’t actually chew it. And the omelets are crunchy– Maybe crunchy omelets are good, but I wouldn’t know since I come from a foreign planet where crunchiness is reserved for vegetables and crackers. But the pizza was good.

But anyway, you might have guessed that I’m currently on the flight home from Spain, home being the United States. I just rewatched The Day the Earth Stood Still on the airplane screen, and it was as awesome as it was the first time I saw it (because though I might be a nerd, I do occasionally see movies in the theatre). The latest James Bond flick is on now, but that wasn’t nearly awesome enough the first time around to warrant a rewatch. Except for that one bit where the English girl tripped the bad guy and said “Omigosh! I’m so sorry,” because that was awesome. I guess I’ll listen to it as I type. (Oh! Another one: “So you did send someone to kill me?” “Yes, and it made me very sad.”)

Last week’s flight to Spain was a lot more interesting than today’s flight back. I hadn’t been in a plane for almost a decade, and in that timeframe I’d managed to develop a completely irrational fear of heights and speed–two very unfortunate things to be scared of on a plane. Luckily the (somewhat) rational part of my being kicked in and decided that airplane crashes are fascinating ways to die, and that if I am going to die I might as well enjoy the view. So I did, and it was awesome. We were lucky enough to not only get window seats, but also lift off at sunset and land at night. (“Bond, if you could avoid killing every possible lead it would be very much appreciated.”) The landing had lights in otherwise total darkness and everything else you would expect from a bird’s-eye view of a city at night. The take-off was pretty but not too different from Earth-bound views except that everything looked like a cute little doll-world, complete with tiny fuzzy trees and tiny shiny cars and everything. The one part that really amazed me was the view shortly after take-off, once human civilization was out of sight. The world above the clouds is a completely separate one, with its own mountains and rivers and laws of physics (well, not quite, but the intuitive ones at least) where rivers flow through air. The sunset creates a distinct plane, like a sheet of plastic-wrap (love my similes?) made only of color. If you looked behind the airplane you could see rainbows coming out of the clouds. If I were a god I wouldn’t mind living there, except that I’d be lonely without humans. Maybe gods really do live up there, and when they get bored they play with their little people-dollhouses down below.

We got our first culture-shock when we arrived at the airport in Spain. The week before, I’d rented a car over the telephone (in Spanish!) and the company was supposed to pick us up at 7:15. After asking three people for directions in Spanish we finally got to the arranged meeting place, but our ride wasn’t there. Sunrise, and it wasn’t there. 7:40, and it wasn’t there. We called them, and they told us that we would be picked up at 7:45 and besides, they don’t start work until 8:00. Around 8:15 we got picked up and drove off to Barcelona in our “large” car (I rode in the trunk). Europe has a pretty massive tax on gas (but tax breaks for larger companies so prices don’t skyrocket), so most people drive motorcycles and mopeds, and the people who have cars have tiny ones. (“Do you know how angry I am at myself?” “You must be furious.”)

We arrived on Sunday, so the streets were pretty empty. Most shops were closed and hidden behind metal garage-door-type thingies. All of these doors, as well as lampposts, signs, and most other things attached to the ground, were covered in graffiti. But pretty graffiti–even prettier than that in New York, minus the how-the-heck-did-it-get-there aspect–and nothing like the penises and swear words we mostly get in the States. We arrived in our apartment, where we reunited with my mom’s parents. The worst thing about our being immigrants is the separation, but we try to meet up as much as possible. Though I haven’t seen the rest of my family in over a decade, I at least keep up with my grandparents and an uncle. But back to Spain. (Wasn’t that a graceful transition?)

For the rest of the day everyone but I wandered the streets of Barcelona. I passed out on a couch in our apartment. As much as I–I who sleep five hours a night, I who fall asleep at 16:00 one day and 5:00 the next– As much as I promised I wouldn’t get jetlag, I did. But that’s okay because we’re 10 km and decreasing over the Atlantic (in the sense that our plane is landing), and now I’ll be back to my normal schedule, maybe (but hopefully not) plus more jetlag.

But luckily I didn’t sleep all day (or all week). My parents love me, so they woke me up and we wandered around until nightfall/when we got hungry (essentially the same in my family). In Barcelona the women wear boots and miniskirts or jeans, and the men wear jackets and tight pants (and look good in them too). The teenagers we saw were dressed like US quasi-punks; boys and girls alike wore torn jeans, printed hoodies, and overall bright colors. A little less often we also saw women in large poof pants that were tight at the ankles.

We saw much of this clothing on buildings as well as on people. In Barcelona and surrounding towns, people hang laundry off the balconies projecting from almost every window. (We did this in Russia too.) Except in more trafficked areas, the streets are very narrow and the houses very close together. As a result it is difficult to avoid walking under laundry, and it is even more difficult to avoid falling underwear. By the end of the day you will inevitably wear large, pink, frilly underwear on your head, as my grandfather did for about two seconds that Sunday evening. In Tarragona many buildings have entrances to the roof, and most of these roofs have laundry hanging from them as well as the balconies. Most Tarragona tourist attractions involve a view from the roof. As a result, every bird’s-eye view photo I have of Tarragona has underwear in it. (Not that it’s bad, it’s just not something you’d find in the US.)

Even more than falling underwear, our greatest culture shock was the pace of life. In New York, in Chicago, and even in the rural town I live in now, people walk with a destination and an eye on the clock; every day is filled with stress and pressure. Our culture emphasizes purpose, productivity, and efficiency. The Spanish lifestyle, on the other hand, seems much more relaxed. Even on weekdays people walk slowly, people sit and talk, and people walk through the city just to walk. When speaking with locals the word I heard most often was traquillarse–calm yourself. Things are chill here. When there were no parking spaces the police officer told me to chill, and yes of course we could stay in a tow zone if we weren’t bothering anyone. Unfortunately the downside to chilling is that you don’t get much done. Nothing’s too punctual, as we learned from our car rental. If you need something you might get it today, you might get it mañana, or you might not get it at all. I love Spain, but I don’t think I could live or work there. I have a type A personality, even for an American–I’m ambitious, competitive, and feel pressured by time (and am at a higher risk of heart disease than the general population). I couldn’t thrive where things may or may not get done and where I’d have to wait indefinitely. But it works for the Spanish–they slow down, they enjoy life, and they probably sleep better at night. While science isn’t their primary export, they have amazing culture, art, and architecture. It’s a wonderful lifestyle, though it might not be the one I choose.

Back to the awesomeness of Spain, grocery shopping was the one activity that made me most grateful for having studied Spanish in school, because almost every aspect of grocery shopping in a foreign country is an adventure. Our car rental service kindly gave us a very helpful GPS, but not one that recognized most one-way streets or grocery shops. (On the plus side, it had an English accent and got us out of toll-roads.) So I did plenty of scampering out of the trunk of our car to the nearest local and going through my “excuse me–can you help me–where’s the supermarket/where can we park/I know we’re in the supermarket, but where’s the actual supermarket” routine. Not that I minded the adventure at all. I love adventures that aren’t particularly life-threatening.

Once we actually got to the supermarket, we got to buy food. I’m pretty good at translating food labels or asking where the skim milk is, so we didn’t have much trouble when I was there. But on my birthday my parents went shopping without me before I woke up. Where they aimed for cookies they got crackers; where they aimed for raw fish they got dried, salted, and frozen fish (which emitted smoke when we tried to cook it); and where they aimed for jam-filled pastries they got some sort of pork-fish mixture. But the cake was good.

(I just added rewatched, thingies, and omigosh to my computer’s dictionary. I’m so excited.)

I had my own little grocery adventure. I was looking for a large bottle of drinking water to last us the week. I found an eight-liter bottle that looked just like US spring water, only it said “agua mineral natural.” Did mineral mean good, tasty drinking water, or did mineral mean large tank of mineral water that is not too good for pasta-making? I wasn’t sure how to ask if it was mineral water, since agua mineral may or may not have meant mineral water in Spanish. So after the usual hello-can-you-help-me introductions, I went through the following conversation with a somewhat weirded-out saleslady after we paid, roughly translated:

“This is water, yes?”

“Yes, it is water.”

A pause as I conferenced with my grandfather in Russian.

“Can one drink this water?”

“Yes, this is drinking water.”

Another similar pause. “Is this water good for tea?”


Russian whisperings. “Is this water good for pasta?”

Another weird pause, this time from the saleslady. “Yes.”

We got a really weird look for that. Almost as weird as the evening my dad and I bought their entire supply of whole and skim milk.


~ by science cow on March 29, 2009.

5 Responses to “Spain, jetlag, and culture shock (posted two weeks late, sorry)”

  1. OH WOW! SPAAAAINNN!! That’s where you were! I had been worried that your disappearance was due to an awful sickness or something. WHOOOOOO!!! That must be so cool, traveling around in a country where you can proudly exhibit your third language!! Yeehaaa! I wanna go shopping in Spain! And get all the jetlag!! Eee! Well, glad you’re back, anyhow! 😀

    And haha, the dialog at the end was hilarious! 😀

    • Oh no, Spain was over spring break. I’m just really bad at posting on time. :p

      Last week I was at home with an earache, Science Olympiad, and sleep deprivation (in that order). If there was a terrible sickness involved it was all mental, I assure you. =)

      But yeah, Spain was AWESOME. I’ll be blogging more about it once I get the chance to write about something other than capacitors and Gatsby’s love life (or next time I’m struck by extreme spring break nostalgia, which will probably be very soon given my current workload).

  2. You are a bit slow 😛

  3. Jealousy. I haz it.

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