Adventures in Madrid : Culture shock

With a bit of tapa and iberian ham in my belly and typing in a romanian  cyber cafe in getafe I reflect again on my experiences here.

As I have mentioned before, I arrived here with an expectation, or perhaps an arrogance, that I knew everything there was to know about Spain. After all, I had visited it before and how different could things be?

I very rarely experience culture shock.  I usually weave in and out of different countries without feeling it, but this time it really came as a shock to me.  This is probably because as human beings we think that our shared experiences mean that we experience things exactly the same and nothing can be further from the truth.

I firmly believe that there is only one race, and that´s the human race. But we are unfortunatly still defined by our set experiences. We make the mistake of thinking that everyone thinks the way we do , and that can only lead to a whole series of misunderstandings.

It is not in the large things that cause our greatest misunderstanding but in the small ones. Take , for example, the concept of things being ” organized”.

Sure, we all think that something as organized, we know the definition, but it became clear to me that what I saw as clean was totally different from what people whom I lived with considered clean.

On the first week I came to Getafe, my roomates pointed out that I was being messy. I was stumped. But I had washed the dishes, I had put things away… what did they mean?

Well, in Spain , at least with those I lived with there is a motto ” Everything has it´s place”. If you go into a typical house, you will see that the counters and surfaces are completely devoid of  papers, boxes, cereal boxes, or anything else that would give any indication that thigns are ” lived in”.  The floors are spotless. The bathrooms are always wiped clean. In fact, I would have a tough time seeing a difference between a hotel room and a house.

The bars however are a completely different story. There are no trash bins and people throw papers on the floor. There is dog poop wherever you walk as dogs are completely free to go wherever they want and usually do not have leashes.  Parks are rarely super organized either.

It is completely distinct from British society , where the parks and restaurants are immaculate and the houses are well ” lived in”.

Needless to say, I learnt all this the hard way by going through a series of misunderstandings but one thing I noticed is that if both parties are willing to talk it out, you can understand the othe´’s perspective.

Granted I am certainly not the poster child for organization. As a woman, I am expected to know how to be orderly for some reason, but it´s a trait I have yet to master. I secretly envy women who with a great ease are able to have a smooth sofa and wrinkle free closet.  I can barely fold a t shirt.

I grew up with a housekeeper who was clearly more adept at doing those things than I was, and whenever I intervened she would just shake her head and say ” Please, don´t even try “.  I am sure I have a complex on it somewhere, but the point being is that despite my best intentions I won´t be named the next Martha Stewart anytime soon. ( I am a really good cook though)

All of  us are marked by our own unique experiences and we shouldn´t assume that how we do things are the same for others. 

Other things were interestingly different in small ways. For the first month I couldn´t figure out how to close the windows and they had these weird metal shutters that had a string to it.   The plumbing was different so you had to take out t he gunk from the shower and the sink manually instead of letting it fall into the drain.

All these mundane small things, which apparently would be the same, aren´t . It´s like living in a slightly different parallel universe : You expect it to be the same, but it isn´t.

Madrid is remarkably a self contained place. Although people might travel a bit, things are mostly very Madrileno. Perhaps it dates back to teh time of Franco and the isolation, but it is a society which sometimes is very hard to pierce through if you are a foreigner.
In these tough economic times it is even harder as more than once I experimented  some hostility the moment I opened my mouth and spoke in a latin american accent.

But there are some very lovely things as well.  How can i describe sipping tea in a morroccan household or watching my gypsy junior youth sing flamenco?  To roam about in the parks and large towering buildings, to hear the old men marriage proposals, or to eat tapas at the bar. Yes, all of it held interesting possibilities.

It is a place where I found great hardship and great joy. Where somehow I found myself looking into the mirror and knowing how to change, but also to be comfortable in my own skin.  Because when we see things that are so different from us, we encounter how we need to change and become better.  Difference is beautiful that way.


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