Strangers on a train

Strangers on a train

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Each train ride reminds blogger Sal DeTraglia how much Spain's face - and faces - have changed since he moved here six years ago.


As I type these words, my laptop and I are sitting on the strikingly uncomfortable seat of a Cercanias train en route from Guadalajara to Madrid. This is the standard mode of transport for those of us who are too far from the city to walk, yet too smart to drive.


But liberation from the tyranny of traffic and parking isn’t the only reason that I like taking this train. There’s another. Each train ride reminds me of how much Spain’s face — and faces — have changed since I moved here six years ago. Let me explain.

One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Spain in 1999 was the homogeneity of its people. Street after street, block after block, bar after bar...everybody looked the same. Short, thin people with dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin. In other words, everybody looked like ME — but with much nicer shoes.

Perhaps I would’ve taken such homogeneity in stride if I were an expat from — say — Japan or Iceland. But I moved here from the US—a country that prides itself on being a melting pot (or perhaps more accurately...a mosaic) of cultures. Worse still, I came from Chicago — a city that is diverse even by the US’s lofty standards. In Chicago, it’s rare to walk past three consecutive people that have the same color of skin, hair or eyes.

This was, in fact, one of the things that I liked best about Chicago. I could throw a dart at a world map and whichever country it hit, I could find that type of restaurant, store or neighbourhood somewhere in the city. In a single day, I could eat kielbasa sausage at a Polish buffet...then drink ouzo at a Greektown bar...then fill my shopping cart with kimchee, dried cuttlefish and barley tea at a Korean strip mall...and then watch belly-dancers until 3am at a Lebanese cabaret while smoking a hookah pipe stuffed with apple-flavored tobacco. A night on the town in Chicago was like a vacation with Michael Palin.

Which brings me back to the train. The homogeneity in Spain that so shocked me in 1999 seems to have long-since evaporated — and I’m reminded of it every time that I ride this commuter train. During the one hour journey, my ears are bombarded with Slavic languages and Spanish spoken with South American accents. I see Africans and Asians and Hispanics. Lamentably, I’ve yet to find myself seated next to a belly-dancer...but I remain hopeful.


These observations are not, of course, limited to the train. I’ve noticed plenty of evidence of the demographic shift elsewhere. I was shopping recently at the Alcampo hypermarket in Alcala de Henares — a distant suburb of my standards, at least. The store had a huge “Welcome” sign over its entrance. The sign was written in three languages. One of them was Polish.


One of the Guadalajara-area newspapers includes a regular supplement written in...Romanian!

And I was a resident of Barcelona during some of the heaviest waves of immigration from sub-Saharan Africa—including the period when the mass-squatting of black Africans in Plaza Catalunya was making national headlines.  Rarely has a walk across a Spanish square seemed so exotic.

From my perspective, this is a good development. I say that not just because I’m an expat here myself. Rather, I truly believe that Spain’s expanding cultural mosaic makes it a much more interesting country.

Many — if not most—of these new immigrants are working low-skill, menial jobs like construction, agriculture or house cleaning. But I’m REALLY looking forward to the day when these Poles and Russians and Nigerians lay down their hammers and feather-dusters, and start opening...restaurants!

And then — for the first time since Chicago — my days will be filled with kielbasa and kimchee and hookah pipes stuffed with apple-flavored tobacco.

But until that day arrives, I guess I’ll have to be content with fantasizing about belly-dancers on the train.

Sal DeTraglia / Expatica 

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