Not Hemingway's Spain: The value of study abroad
Zach Frohlich reads "Leaving the Atocha Station" and offers some helpful advice for year abroad students - and anyone else facing a new culture in a new place.
It's summertime. Deep summer. For many of us it's family vacation time or sol y playa time. ("Agosto" for Spaniards seems to mean vacating cities for beach towns in mass, an exodus which each year on August 1st gets dubbed "Operación Salida.") For students and teachers, it's a pause in the academic calendar, a passing point between one grade and the next. And for thousands of foreign exchange students and TEFL/ESL teachers, summer marks the ramping up or winding down of their "Great Adventure," their year of study abroad ("intercambio"). They are either reading up on Destination: SPAIN, or else already reflecting on their once-in-a-lifetime experiences, swapping Facebook comments with new friends on those still-fresh photo posts of yester-year.
|Fish lens view of the Atocha Station, Madrid's main train terminal,
important entry point and transit spot for many Spain study abroad adventures,
and namesake for Ben Lerner's novel, Leaving the Atocha Station.
|Very cool New Yorker profile of Ben Lerner, posted with a short interview he gave there.|
I first learned about the book from an NPR "On Point" (radio) show about "Literary Americans Abroad," which discussed Americans' obsession fascination with literary figures of the likes of Hemingway who've lived abroad and wrote about it. The show made interesting comparisons between Adam Gordon in Leaving the Atocha Station and Jake Barnes, the protagonist of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, using both as representatives of the continuities and discontinuities between Americans abroad in the 1920s versus the 2000s. (The show didn't really go into American writers' particular penchant for Spain as a subject, but that could be its own show... as Artichoke Adventures has blogged, What is it about Spain and foreign writers?) Still, one of the issues raised in the show was the recurrent motif of the "authentic," the protagonists' search for an authenticity in other cultures that has somehow, so they believe, vanished from their own. Lerner, a guest on the show, talked about how, for Hemingway's characters, Spain's traditional and "macho" bullfighting culture became the vanishing authentic, threatened by an encroaching effete and urban modernity; in turn, Lerner's protagonist is himself hopelessly urban and effete, but also imagines sees a sincerity in the politics and poetry of the Spaniards around him that eludes him.
Both then and now one can see Americans' perennial awkwardness about their home nation's global power and reputation, and by extension a discomfort with their fellow Americans abroad, as personified in those fictional American-characters-to-be-avoided, the so-called "Ugly American". (Though, by the way, in the namesake book, The Ugly American, the 1958 political novel by Berdick and Lederer, irony of ironies, the actual ugly American character was quite culturally integrated. It was the other Americans who, as one Burmese character in the book laments, seem to experience "A mysterious change [...] when they go to a foreign land," "isolate themselves socially [and] live pretentiously," and are, worst of all, "loud and ostentatious.") Oh how true it is. As it is true that there are many American exchange students (I myself was once one of them) who arrive to Europe with this chip on their shoulders, who are at pains to distinguish themselves from that lesser category of American tourist.
In Leaving the Atocha Station, for example, the protagonist eschews the company of other Americans for how they disrupt his "authentic" Spanish experience. Lerner tackles this with an irony that is delicious. For example, when Gordon begins to realize that despite his best efforts, he is not alone...:
- "rather, I reserved my most intense antipathy for those Americans who attempted to blend in, who made Spanish friends and eschewed the company of their countrymen, who refused to speak English and who, when they spoke Spanish exaggerated the peninsular lisp. At first I was unaware of the presence in Madrid of these subtler, quieter Americans, but as I became one, I began to perceive their numbers; I would be congratulating myself on lunching with Isabel at a tourist-free restaurant, congratulating myself on making contact with authentic Spain, which I only defined negatively as an American-free space, when I would catch the eyes of a man or woman at another table, early twenties to early thirties, surrounded by Spaniards, reticent compared to the rest of the company, smoking a little sullenly, and I knew, we would both know immediately, that we were of a piece. I came to understand that if you looked around carefully as you walked through the supposedly least touristy barrios, you could identify young Americans whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise […] Each member of this shadowy network resented the others, who were irritating reminders that nothing was more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is, and that their soft version of self-imposed exile was just another of late empire's packaged tours."
All of this is great food for thought for you folks out there about to embark on your year of study abroad...
Lesson 1 for Americans in Spain: Stop feeling embarrassed about where you come from. You are not a national stereotype no matter how hard you try to be. Please remind yourself and your hosts that people are more than their country-of-origin, that nationalism itself is just a cultural-historical fiction, and that when it comes down to it, the U.S. is a big country and, like Spain, has a lot of cultural and political diversity. Foreigners may or may not realize it, but there is nothing more typically American than to bash America, so why be that stereotype? ... Oh, and also, don't fool yourself. We all know you're American, so why try to hide?
|I encourage everyone out there who's interested to apply to Spain's Fulbright Program . It is an incredible
experience. Don't let your insecurities and modesty prevent them from bringing the best and brightest over here!
Lesson 2 for Americans in Spain: The answer is that you both do and don't deserve this. I always tell visiting scholars and exchange students that they need to be humble about their time over here. As the opening epigraph of this entry so nicely puts it, in many ways you are only passing through the country and this is just an extended vacation experience for you. (Which is why there is nothing more alienating to your local hosts than for you to start discussing your recent trip to Paris or Morocco, like it's the norm, or to talk like this or that "incredible" art exhibit or museum is everyday conversation the way that politics, soccer, or the weather is.) At the end of the day, you are experiencing a luxury that most cannot. No need to feel guilty about it. Enjoy it! Learn from it! Share it! (After all, Spaniards love it when foreigners love their country.) But keep in mind that your jet-setting or train-hopping is a privilege and try not to rub it too much in other people's noses.
There are numerous, rich elements to this book that I don't have time to go into. Numerous insights Lerner offers the reader into the psychology of study abroad, such as the libidinal theory of human nature, where at one point Gordon thinks, of Madrid's vibrant night life:
- "While I thought of myself as superior to all the carousal I was in fact desperate for some form of participation both because I was terribly bored at night and because I was undeniably attracted to the air's vulgar libidinal charge."
(I'd place libido alongside the boogieman ("el hombre de saco") as two of the great causative engines of human history.) Or the wonderful way in which Lerner (through Gordon) plays with the misunderstanding and miscomprehension common among exchange students whose Spanish is limited. Romance blooms from Gordon's inarticulate silent and strong act. He imagines a local girl and romantic intrigue "imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which my Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force." But as his proficiency improves the mystique erodes:
- "This was in part because my Spanish was getting better, despite myself, and I experienced, with the force of revelation, an obvious realization: our relationship largely depended upon my never becoming fluent."
How many of you —come on, be honest— have built entire relationships, or at least some hot dates, out of mutual incomprehension?
Lesson 3 for Americans in Spain: You are probably going to do some stupid things that are "not really like you" or "who you are." You are going to sound stupid at times because you don't speak the language well. You are going to look desperate because you are lonely. You will probably also drink more than you do back home, a form of conscious or unconscious self-medication for the stress you are experiencing from cultural displacement. But, hey, run with it! You are acting differently, and that's an opportunity not a liability. As one of my colleagues would put it, the Spain you is not the U.S. you, and you are free to try on multiple yous to decide which one you like best. (Eventually, of course, you will hopefully figure out which of these "Second Selves" best suits you, and try to bring some of that back with you on your return to the States.)
How does Lerner's 2011 book compare with Hemingway's 1926 novel?
Without giving too much of the plot away here, one of the interesting turning points in the novel is the intersection of Gordon's fictional study abroad routine with the historically real Madrid "11-M" train terrorist attacks on March 11, 2004. Here we see an immediate divergence between the 21st century Gordon and Hemingway's protagonists. Initially Gordon considers "being there" to experience the turmoil of the train bombings directly, much as Hemingway exploited the modern penchant for realism and "being there" in his writings on the Spanish Civil War. However, very quickly Gordon opts to simply follow the less confusing and more comprehensive news coverage on his laptop, experiencing the Atocha station bombing virtually. This is the irony of life in the age of digital reproduction. Gordon experiences the attack emotionally online no differently than he might from any other networked spot on Earth, even though it occurs only blocks away from him physically. (Lerner, don't think I didn't catch that brief reference to Walter Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," where you muse on people's _need_ to see Guernica directly: "I observed on her face as this phrase spread out into a meditation on art in the age of technological reproducibility.") The bomb attacks and Gordon's reaction to them become almost a metaphor for how cross-cultural exchange students experience _the abroad_ differently in the digital age.
|Where were you when it happened?
A makeshift candle homage to the victims of the 11-M attacks,
which formed in the Atocha Station in the weeks following.
My revelation when reading this book… a thought that has been slowly creeping into my head ever since I watched the horrible movie Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012). Spain and the U.S. today really just aren't that different, culturally. Especially when you look at certain sub-demographics, like the urban, college-educated, under-fifty-something middle-class. They grew up on many of the same television shows and movies that we did. We all grew up in a globalized, corporate world, whose commercial products are increasingly populating and homogenizing our store-shelves.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that those apparent gulfs in culture that Americans and Spaniards continue to love to comment upon can often be chalked up to simply not sharing a language, a fact which encourages a kind of othering of the other culture. Indeed, even with that most famous of historical "first contacts," the "Columbian Exchange" between the Old and New Worlds in 1492, scholars (here I'm thinking of Stephen Greenblat's Marvelous Possessions) have argued that the apparent cultural differences were overstated, that both sides were able to grasp shrewd and strategically important details about the other even as they projected all kinds of imagined differences into the gap of understanding left by an unshared language and history. I sometimes feel like expats and exchange students in Spain likewise "marvel at" all sorts of small differences, to which they impute overstated, even ludicrous significances, simply because the Spanish language sounds so alien to them and everything on the surface looks so different.
Consider this thought experiment: Take a Chicagoan and place them in New York City. But wait! Now everyone in New York City happens to speak Samoan instead of English. (Yes, the street signs are also in Samoan.) How do you think the Chicagoan is going to feel? Will they think New Yorkers are alien, and do odd and strange things? Will they think New York is a "totally different" culture? Now let's up the ante. Instead of a Chicagoan, let's take someone from Boise, Idaho. Imagine what this small-town person is going to think of the gritty, urban strange-speaking New Yorker. Imagine what absurd, first-impression statements they will make.
|One good example of how exchange students and ESL teachers commonly misjudge based on first impressions arises from the fact that their "first contact" with Spain is often with bureaucracies: getting their visas or "empadronamiento". I have heard fantastic claims and the flimsiest of cross-cultural conclusions drawn from very limited experience with it. Few Americans have had to deal with getting a visa or green card back home, where it can be an equally or even more draconian and capricious process.|
The truth is —and I'm sorry if I burst your bubble future study abroaders— that we (Spain and the US) are more alike than unalike. Today maybe you would need to go to Asia or Africa to experience the dramatic social differences that Hemingway had in 1930s, war-torn Spain. This is the cheap thrill of Study Abroad that you must be vigilant against. Things look different because you haven't lived with them all your life. And things sound really foreign because they're in a foreign language. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they are that different. In the novel, Gordon begins to suspect this as time goes on and Spain becomes familiar to him:
- "this is experience, not because things in Iberia were inherently more immediate, but because the landscape and my relationship to it had not been entirely standardized. There would of course come a point when I would be familiar enough with the language and terrain that it would lose its unfamiliar aspect, a point at which I would no longer see a stone in Spain and think of it as, in some essential sense, stonier than the sedimentary rocks of Kansas, and what applied to stones applied to bodies, light, weather, whatever. But that moment of familiarization had not yet arrived; why not stay until it was imminent?"
It is easy to find the unfamiliar wondrous. The real art and joy of life is learning to re-see the edges of mystery in the mundane and the everyday.
Lesson 4 for Americans in Spain: Enjoy your time abroad. Not because it is fleeting and precious, but because (hopefully) it will help to enrich your appreciation of life back home. You are fortunate to have a study abroad experience not for the fantastic sights you will see (checklists anyone?), but because seeing new sights will (hopefully) teach you to question your notions about the everyday and commonsensical, to question your assumptions about what is or is not unique about you or your hometown. And you will (hopefully) come to marvel at the less grandiose differences, because more than the Eiffel Tower or La Alhambra, they're the differences that matter, and they have plenty of beauty and splendor to them, too.
Reprinted with permission of Not Hemingway's Spain.
Originally from Austin, Texas, Zach Frohlich has been traveling between Spain and the U.S. for over a decade, and has been living in Valencia for the last few years. He is a historian by training and is married to a Spaniard. He shares cultural insights on Spain at Not Hemingway's Spain.
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