If you had to pick one adjective that begins with the first letter of your name to describe yourself as a newly-arrived BCA student, what would it be? That’s an easy one for me: Naïve Naomi. I have many cringe-worthy memories, moments I would rather revise than re-live. But some of the best times of my younger days were spent in Spain.
My first weeks in Spain were dreamy! I tried new foods and learned new songs and made new friends. We BCA’ers visited an ancient village with stone homes and walls rising organically from the hillside. In the ruins of a Roman building, the mosaic stones revealed a battered beauty in the open air. Where were the guards to keep ignorant tourists from carrying off this national treasure tile by tile? This was truly a different world!
Peggy Mow and I were assigned a room in a pension owned by an older woman, on the 5th floor of the building across the street from the university. I don’t remember how long it took before we realized that the all-night diner and bar on the corner – so handy for a late dinner – was a popular place for men to meet their ladies of the night!
I knew little about Spain, and my Spanish conversation skills were nearly nonexistent. But Mr. Adams and Paco and MariAngeles were patient and kind. I managed to build knowledge and skills. I remember Paco’s silly sense of humor and MariAngeles’ astounding ability to combine history, politics, art, architecture, culture, and language into a spell-binding course.
Who can forget the glorious food? I discovered spinach empanadas, and a splendid array of paellas and pizzas. Gambas and squid and heavenly seafood tasted nothing like the fish sticks my dear mother made back home! I learned to choose my coffee wisely, though. My favorite was the café con leche. One morning, suffering from a lack of sleep and worried about staying awake during class, I stopped by the university coffee bar. The barrista recommended a macho cup of espresso. I had never heard of it (no Starbucks in 1975!), but I was there to discover new things, so I downed the tiny, thick sweetened brew and took my seat in the middle of the front row of the class. It wasn’t long before I began to sweat and swoon. A sudden urge to find a toilet forced me to jump up and make an embarassing scene, since everyone between me and the aisle had to get up so I could leave class and run to the Damas. I stuck with the sissy leche manchado after that!
Ah, sunny Spain! On weekends we would take the train to one of the beaches, slather on some olive oil, and work on our tans. But as winter came on, we learned that central heat had not yet made its way into much of Spain. I struggled to take notes in the icy classrooms, holding my pen precariously in my gloved hands. Peggy and I bought a tank of propane from our landlady, and sat around the space heater in the evenings. I was astounded when our landlady came one frosty Saturday morning to do her weekly mopping of our tile floors, and, as if it were still a sunny seventy out, threw open the French doors to the balcony and aired out our room. In came the fresh arctic air! Out went our expensive, beloved warm air! I thought she was mean and cruel, until I noticed other open balcony doors. I learned the value of fresh air.
Over Christmas break, I traveled south, seeking a warmer climate. Since all the other Americanas were going north, I traveled to Granada alone. The people in my train compartment were shocked that my parents allowed me to travel without a chaperone! Perhaps they thought I was loose, but I just felt sorry for the poor confined senoritas, and lucky to be young and free. I also felt cold. Granada was south, but it was also high in the mountains, and frosty! But there were no tourists at the Alhambra the day I went. A hunched, toothless old man followed me around the deserted palace, telling tales of gypsies and princesses. Back in 1975, it was in disrepair, and very much like Washington Irving described it, though the gypsies had been evicted. In 1998 I took my husband and two children to visit the Alhambra. What a contrast! We had to wait hours in line and follow hordes of tourists through the palace and gardens. But the splendor of the Arab plasterwork had been restored, and the water was still coursing down the handrails of the stairway and through the gardens with the aid of pumps designed in ancient times.
Over Easter break, I went back south with Frances Townsend. This time there were crowds out marching through the streets of Andalusian cities and villages, and the tourist office laughed when we called in desperation, looking for a room in Sevilla. We asked the man who made us sandwiches about the rooms advertised by the tiny sign out front of his bar. He gave us a grim stare, then went to get his boss, who went to get his wife. She looked at us sternly and motioned for us to follow her. The rooms were at the end of a Dickensian maze of stairs and narrow halls, and I thought we might never see our friends again. The next morning we took the train to Valencia, only to discover that everything closes on Easter Sunday!
Peggy and I moved in with the other Americanas in Mama Valero’s house 13 blocks from the university. My mouth still waters just thinking about Mama’s paella and yellow chicken. She cooked for 15 people every night and charged us a duro when we spoke English! After Franco’s death, we watched from our balcony as the police shot rubber bullets at the rioters on the street below. And who can forget the rum cake Mama and her older daughter made for dear Sandra Mason, a devout teetotaler!
Sundays we would wander down to the cathedral and dance the Sardanas with the old folks and tourists. I marveled every day at the fanciful architecture on my way to school. One day I took the bus to Parque Guell, and was surprised to see that it was overgrown and neglected. How long had it been since the civil war? Was this another casualty? No one spoke of the war, and I was naïve and afraid to ask.
Mama once told me, “I would love to travel, but I can’t. So I bring the world to my home!” Twenty years later, when I was unable to travel, I hosted an exchange student from Spain, and then others from Brazil and India and Senegal and Tanzania. I brought the world to my children! I have taught some casual classes in Spanish, and earned a Master’s in Education with a concentration in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I teach English online and at a local university. I always remember what it is like to be in a new country, with no familiar handholds, struggling to understand what is going on.
If I had to do it all again, I would! I would like to be less concerned with good grammar and more interested in what others had to say. I would like to be more helpful and less self-conscious, so I could learn more and be a better friend. I will always remember the good will and generous hospitality that I received as a naïve visitor in a nation emerging from a difficult era.
I will be ever grateful to Allen Deeter, who called me into his office to invite me to participate in BCA, and to Mr. Adams, Paco and MariAngeles, who showed us the joy of learning and a love of art, architecture, history and culture.
I sincerely wish I could silla all in E’town for BCA’s 50th anniversary celebration, but it is the day before my daughter’s wedding! So I send muchos abrazos to my fellow BCA’ers, and hope to read more memories from others.