Saturday, October 1, 2011

Settling in, taking it in

This story begins with Switzerland. For it is in Switzerland that my family, as well as family friends, welcomed me and eased me back into the feel of this side of the ocean. As always when I come to Europe, I was struck by how old everything is, and I tried to open my eyes and ears as wide as possible to take it all in, knowing full well that inevitably I would miss more than I could catch.

Perhaps this story really begins in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where my father’s brother met Europeans and Mexicans who had been to Europe and back, and decided to go there and make a living playing his guitar. He settled in Switzerland and started a family, and he has been living there ever since. For me this means that I can go to a place where people speak a language I don’t understand at all, and feel both displaced and at home, speaking in Spanish and English with my family. When I am with my family I largely approach Switzerland through the lens of a Mexican consciousness, which makes for a surprising cultural experience. The last two nights I spent in Zurich with family friends who have strong American ties, and so during my stay with them I saw Switzerland more through the lens of the United States.

This blog is supposed to be “Palabras desde Granada,” so how can I sum up Switzerland before moving on to Spain? I could tell you the relief I felt at leaving my things in a room I recognized in the little Swiss German town of Brügg, a familiar oasis in a strange faraway land. I could tell of the crisp, lilting English that Swiss Germans speak and that I began to vaguely imitate by the end of the stay. Or I could record stark memories—the chill of the river in Bern on my bare feet before I let them dry in the late summer sun, the damp coolness inside a stone castle in the countryside, the sharp taste of Gruyère in the morning that wakes me up as much as coffee, the sun warming me and my cousins by the lake as I ogled at Zurich to the right and blue-green mountains to the left.

I happened to arrive in Switzerland during election season. The country has seven major parties and many smaller ones. Switzerland prides itself in being a real democracy, and it is true that every person has a say, technically speaking. Any citizen can organize a petition for a law, for example, and if several thousand people sign the petition, the parliament must review it. And because the party system offers more choices, voters need not align themselves with the left or the right and vote for one single liberal or conservative platform. Rather, citizens can choose who they vote for based on the issues that matter most to them—religion, environmentalism, immigration, etc.

The richest and most supported party in Switzerland is the SVP, the conservative anti-immigrant party. All over the country I saw tons of advertisements for SVP candidates—in train stations, on the streets, in a movie theater. Switzerland has strong isolationist qualities: the nation refused to join the European Union, it has kept itself out of war, and it prides itself in running smoothly, like a precise clock. So the recent influx of immigrants, with their new cultures, languages, and customs, has shaken the country’s pride. The Swiss people seem to fear that their centuries-old political, economic, and cultural insulation is wearing thin, and the evenly heated house that is their country is now letting in a chilling winter draft.

Which brings me to Spain. All over Europe, and indeed the world, immigration is becoming a contentious issue. Here in the south of Spain, where we are so close to Morocco, immigration is also a heated topic. This is only my third day in Granada, so later I will better be able to expound upon this subject. It is one that I will be following closely, since I chose to study in this city largely because of my interest in the Arabic and Islamic influences in Spain. I am lucky to be living in a Spanish home with a housemate from the program who is writing her thesis on the early years of the Reconquista, the time in which Spain was fighting the Moors, so our interests intersect.

Ever since I watched the cathedral of Salamanca disappear behind a hillside as I rode a bus to Madrid and the airport that would take me back to the United States, I have been longing to go back to Spain. I was eight years old when I took that bus ride, and I had not set foot out of Europe for six months. And now I am finally back. Back to the land where people speak with lisping “zetas,” back to the place where dinner is at ten at night, back to the old, crowded streets lined with ornate lamp-posts. Coming to Granada has been a discovery and a re-discovery. On the one hand the environment is familiar, because I remember my time in Spain long ago, and I remember how prepaid phone cards work from my time in Italy last summer. On the other hand, I still have to make calculations in my head when I pay in euros, I get lost in the narrow streets and have a hard time finding the same shop twice, and I forget the name of the pastry I’m supposed to try in La Casa Ysla. (It’s called pionono, by the way, and it is a bit too sweet for me. I should know better and just always go for chocolate.)

Granada is the city of tapas. These small dishes are so called because long ago, to keep people from getting too drunk, they were placed on top of a drink to cover it. That way you had to eat what was on the plate before removing it and enjoying your drink. Tapar means “to cover,” hence the word “tapa.” In Granada when you order a drink you get a free tapa along with it. So on my second night here, I went out to Calle Navas to try sangria with tapas and enjoyed a selection of fresh, fried seafood as well. The food was wonderful, the street was lively, and a clarinetist serenaded us. I look forward to returning to Calle Navas, finding more streets in which to enjoy tapas, and not joining three tables outside to fit the ten of us from the program, who all spoke to each other in English.

I am inclined to introduce myself to Spaniards as Mexican when they ask, as this avoids confusion and circuitous explanation. Yes, I’m from the United States, but I am bilingual and I say “ahorita” like a Mexican. Don’t worry, I will be saying “vale” soon enough. But as for the zeta… I don’t think I can give up saying “gracias” and making the “c” and the “s” sound the same. Once again, I am viewing this culture through the only lens I have—my own experience as a Mexican and as an American. But I try not to filter everything and rather to just take it in as is. In the restaurant on Calle Navas I squeezed lemon over all my food because the fat lemon wedge was sitting there waiting for me on the edge of the plate, saying “Try me. This is the way it’s done here.” And I liked it, even though in the States I hate lemon juice on principle. Being in a foreign environment challenges me to identify just exactly what my principles are. For example, on principle I believe it is wrong to treat immigrants poorly, no matter where I am. My hatred of lemon, however, is not a principle but simply a blockage of the mind that I have overcome.

In the Albaicín today, which is a historically Moorish part of town up in the mountains, I felt the need for quiet. The fine architecture and the view of the Alhambra require complete openness of me. Openness of the mind, openness of the heart, openness of the soul. It is all so new and grand for me now, that I must receive, receive, receive. It would be pretentious of me to write much more, because to do so would imply that I have some way to encapsulate what it is to gaze out at the beautiful stone fortress on the mountainside with the Iglesia de Sán Nicolás at my back and a couple kissing scandalously off to one side of the Mirador. After we walked back from the Albaicín and I bought a purple skirt from a street vendor that I plan to wear tomorrow at the beach, my housemate Cassie (Sandra in Spanish) and I sat in the Plaza de la Trinidad and quietly ate our bocadillos that Mama Che had prepared for us. We didn’t talk much, we just sat there digesting what we had seen and taking in the people around us, families and couples and lone souls enjoying the Saturday sun.

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