Saturday, June 13, 2009

Muniellos and Mari's Part 1

Over the last year I've spent a lot of time in Spain. More than I ever would have thought 2 or 3 or 4 years ago, and I'm happy and I'm grateful for the chance, for the experience. My Spanish is getting better and I've had the opportunity to see a lot of this great country. Spain isn't a very big country, maybe the size of Texas, probably a little bit bigger, but it's surprisingly diverse. One of the reasons Californian's love California so much is because there's so much to see and do, literally all different types of climate; beaches, forests, desert, mountains, lakes, farms, national parks, major cities. California has it all. But the thing about California, and the United States in general, is that from coast to coast, top to bottom, San Diego to Sacramento, San Francisco to L.A., most of California feels the same. Homogenous. Starbucks, In and Out, the ever present Wal-Mart and McDonalds. Driving five hours in California guarantees visual changes, changes of landscape and scenery, topography and vegetation. Anytime you cross the state, say from San Francisco to Reno, you're in for a lot of changes, some good, some not so good. But you're not in for an uprooting. You're not going to feel lost or confused. You might get lost, but you aren't, really. Drive far enough in the direction your car is pointing and you'll find something to spark your memory, to help you find your way.
The point I'm trying to make about Spain is the lack of homogeny. Drive five hours and a lot of things change. The scenery to start. There are mountains everywhere in Spain. There are also farms and lakes, dry brown areas covered in dead grass and there are green areas, trees that grow year round, flowers that bloom all day. There are sunflowers and solar panels. And the animals: when was the last time you saw a goat on the side of the road? Or a pack of sheep or a thousand pound bull pulling at grass, wagging his tail in the sun? When was the last time your car was blocked by cows in the road? (If your from Kansas or Nebraska the answer might be yesterday.) But it's not just the scenery that changes. The food changes, the language changes, and sometimes it feels like the century changes. Take southern Spain. It's hot, 100 degrees in the summer, easy, with a heavy sun that shines until ten o'clock at night. The landscape is brown, almost everything dies in the perpetual heat and sunshine. When you talk to someone, the accent changes. Letters start to disappear. Consonants especially. My Spanish isn't great, but for the most part I can understand what people say, but listening to the southern accent here is like listening to the thick southern accent in the states. Somewhere inside of your head you understand that the words are mostly the same, the structure of the sentence resembles the structure you would have given it, but for some reason it takes an extra second, two, three, four to understand what this person is saying. You end up saying "Yes" to a lot of things without really knowing why. What you eat is also different. If you're in southern Spain you can't pass up the seafood. It's just too good. You can taste the freshness, taste the fact that it came out of the sea that day or the day before, that it was never frozen, that it didn't sit on a truck for eighteen hours riding from the Gulf Coast to Manhattan, KS. But you can't get seafood like this in Madrid, which is only five hours north. You can get good seafood, but you can't get the truly great seafood of southern Spain. It's weird. That's really the strangest part about Spain. Each region has its specialties. In food, in wine, in liquor, and rarely do these specialties make it out of the region. In the U.S. you can get BBQ, or pizza, or hamburgers, or steaks in any part of the country. If a drink is popular in New York, you can almost assuredly get it in Kansas. People will argue that their part of the country has the best steak or the best seafood or the best pizza, but it's mostly the same. Also, it's never impossible to get another regions specialty in the U.S., even if it is a second rate version. In Spain it can be impossible.
Which brings me to our latest trip, to Asturias, to Casa Aguadin. Casa Aguadin is a bed and breakfast owned by a woman I'd guess is in her 60's. The house sits in the mountains of Asturias, the deck looks out at 19th century Spain. That is to say, the deck overlooks a couple of small villages, fields with sheep and cows, roosters and chickens. When the sun goes down little street lights pop on in the neighboring communities. These street lights look completely out of place. They look new. Like someone finally got around to lighting these towns five or six months ago and the towns haven't really decided how they feel about it. When I say towns, what I really mean is a small collection of houses, four, five, six, surrounded by fields, cut through by one lane roads that wind through the mountains. Each town has a name, but they remind me of those towns in central Nebraska or Kansas - something like Steven and there's one house and a bunch of rusty cars in a field, and a sign, Population 8. Except in Spain they're bunched close together, about as close as some of the nicer neighborhoods in the states, neighborhood's with lawns that just go on forever. It's weird.
I'm out of steam... Part 2 later.

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