On being extranjera (foreign)

“I don’t drink coffee I take tea, my dear
I like my toast done on one side
And you can hear it in my accent when I talk
I’m an Englishman in New York…

If, ‘Manners maketh man’ as someone said
Then he’s the hero of the day
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile
Be yourself no matter what they say.”
–Sting, “Englishman in New York”

For some time now, I have been thinking about how to describe what it’s like to be extranjera (foreign) here in Córdoba, or in most places in Spain. No matter how gramatically perfect my Spanish may become (Ojalá…God willing), I will always have a foreign accent. No matter how much I embrace the trends and get serious about fashion, matching head to toe, and start wearing sky-high heels for casual walks (ok, so that might take a while), I will never look Spanish. I have one redheaded student, and one could say she doesn’t look very Spanish…that is, until she talks and you see the ridiculous attitude just oozing out of this nine year old. Then you think, Yep, Spanish for sure. It’s funny, because speaking in Spanish actually brings out a certain attitude in me, kind of a mixture of “oh no you didn’t!” (with snaps) and just general flailing of the hands. But it’s not quite the same.

Despite the fact that Córdoba receives a healthy load of tourists (it’s currently in the running for European Capital of Culture 2016…a source of huge pride around here), they are mostly refined to the old part of the city– within a mile of the Mezquita you see people with big cameras and fanny packs and guidebooks, but then it all stops, somewhat abruptly, and the city starts again. And most of the people who live in Córdoba spend very little time in this tourist-filled maze of little charming streets. Other than the few people living near the University, who get their fair share of foreign exchange students, the only other common foreigner groups people are aware of are Eastern Europeans (almost all Romanian and Bulgarian), and they mostly seem to stick together. Well, Eastern Europan immigration is complicated on too many fronts for this little post.

Often when I start talking, people look at me with some sense of wonder and ask, “But, you’re not from here, are you?” (k’duh) When I said I am from the U.S. (Well, I say “América,” since few people actually say Estados Unidos and no one knows what U.S. means…), the most common response is “What are you doing here?” or “But it’s so far away!” Many of the people I’ve met have not only never traveled outside of Spain, they have never left Córdoba province. Maybe they took the 7€ train once or twice to Sevilla, but that’s about it. And many of these same people are in their twenties or thirties, still living at home with their parents. So you can imagine their dismay, I suppose–I moved thousands of miles from my family and friends and live outside of my mother’s gaze and her ironing skills, currently with three guys (Madre Mía!) But I get tired of telling people that, no, all Americans aren’t packing pistols when walking down the streets. No, we don’t just eat hot dogs and hamburgers. No, my high school didn’t even remotely resemble Harbor High of “The O.C.” fame. When I reply that the media gives the sense that Spain is nothing more than bullfights and flamenco, Spaniards laugh and say, “But everybody knows that’s not true.” Followed shortly thereafter with, “Wait, Americans also eat bread?!” (this was a real question…I am not making this up)

Of course, I have also met some incredibly well traveled and knowledgeable people, not that the two need to be inclusive. I’ve been lucky to be on the receiving end of incredible hospitality and generosity on the part of my friends and many colleagues here. Once I get to know people here, I am always humbled by their concern for me.

But this is another instance where the calle (street)/casa (house) split comes into play. The way one treats strangers, and especially weird looking foreign strangers like me, and the way one treats family, friends, acquaintances–they have nothing in common. Maybe it has to do with the high rates of pickpocketing? That’s a random thought. Who really knows. The streets are really dirty, gross, while people mop their houses like its their job, use bleach like the funny dad with the Windex spray bottle in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” People wear embarrasingly childish and ugly pajamas around the house, but would never step out to put out the trash without running a brush through their hair (and maybe putting on a little lipstick). Heels maybe not required, but highly encouraged. The line has been drawn, casa and calle, and I’ve just got to go with it.

I was amazed by how at home I felt in Germany in December, despite not understanding what people were saying for the most part. I tried to figure it out–part of it had to do with the fact that we Americans celebrate so many Christmas traditions with German origins, part of it had to do with our common heritage in general. People consistently took me for German, asking me all sorts of things in German, including whether or not I had customer cards, coupons and other things only locals have. (of course, I understood these things only when the people translated them into English for me….damn) When I would painfully attempt to use one of my 40 German words, people wouldn’t reply in English. They would reply in German and we’d continue until I told them I didn’t understand. And not understanding was no big deal–no strange looks of confusion, no deep sighs, no treating me like a huge idiot. No one looked at me twice in the street, no one asked me accusingly, “But aren’t you COLD?” It was a relief, if only for a weekend.

Germans and Americans share our interest in efficiency, something I both miss here and have learned to recognize as perhaps a bit life-sucking. We are in such a hurry all the time, our life scheduled away in one-hour increments. Here, people take time to meet friends for coffee, to chat and eat and go out. They also have really busy afternoons, taking classes, going to the gym, learning languages, but with everything closed on Sunday, you have at least one day where you CAN’T run errands, as much as you might want to. The same can basically be said for siesta time everyday–good luck getting anything done, so you might as well take a little nap or at least relax at home. So few Americans seem to have three hours a day where they don’t need to be anywhere, or be doing anything. It’s a shame, really.

Most of the time being foreign here is an interesting challenge to me, a long standing and ever-evolving joke among other foreign friends and a few wise Spaniards. Most days I let the looks I get from cranky old women on the bus roll off my shoulders and I go back to reading my book–I am always the only person on the bus reading. You learn a lot about yourself when you are aware of how you are defined by others. But every once in a while, I would like to call a taxi and, when it arrives, not have the caller on his little machine be listed as chica extranjera. Foreign girl.

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No responses to “On being extranjera (foreign)”

  1. Becky

    OK Emily. I have a new plan for you…. start writing your movie script!! You have a fun story to tell. I’m not sure what your character will morph into, but I see lots of cool ideas flowing from your writing that call for something! You can do this in your spare time…..

  2. steph

    it`s funny how this applies in spain as well. i remember having a simular discussion on the phone with you. (when will our skype wires corss again??) i always thought that being foreign was only a big deal in japan. i stick out in a bad way and life in rural nowhere. i constantly get stares, silly questions, and the `gaijin` (foreigner) treatment. i assume the spanish word for foreigner means something `extraneous.` in japanese it means `outside person.`
    why are these words so harsh? why is everyone so obsessed with it? it was bad in china — same curiosity, less tact.

    BUT, i too am amazed (i like that you said humbled) at the hosptitality here. people are wonderful, caring and fun. but i can`t help but get the feeling that i am constantly being patronized.

    meh. maybe i should go to germany.
    in any event, i am enjoying reading through your blog a lot. interesting insightful stuffs. you sound happy.