Inside Voice

Direct from my journal on April 23, 2006:

“So, here I am. I’ve moved all 2 suitcases to Diana and [the bright one]’s house! I’ve been in Madrid for almost 2 months now, but I feel as if I am just beginning my new life here! Excited and scared, but more excited than anything else!”

I really am a true wordsmith, heh?

My first few days with the new fam was great. Little by little we were getting to know each other and I was feeling like this was a great environment for me to be in. The apartment was pretty small and the three of us shared one bathroom, but closeness builds character, right?

My room was comfortable enough and – luckily for me – it was on the interior side of the building. This gave me the immense pleasure of waking up to some sort of daily frying competition that took place among the women of the building. For a country that proudly boasts a Mediterranean diet, these old ladies sure like to fry a lot.

(Yes, I know what you are thinking – they’re using olive oil, not lard fat, to fry. It’s healthier. Be that as it may, frying is frying. What they lack in animal fat, they more than make up for in quantity.)

After a week or so, I could tell you at 10:00 a.m what Paco and Miguel were going to be having for lunch. Maria was normally already elbow deep in fried sardines at 11:00 and Pablo y Monica loved some fried Bacalao (cod fish).

It’s this type of knowledge that separates American neighbors from Spanish neighbors. In the states, I knew my neighbors’ names and professions. I politely talked with them at the coffee house or at the supermarket. But, there was always an understood distance between us. I didn’t know the inner workings of their lives and they didnt know my inner demons workings, either.

But here, the inner workings of my neighbors lives waft up to my window on a daily basis. Not only do I know all about their eating habits through my skilled olfactory sense, but I hear daily updates about their work problems, their health, monetary issues, etc. I am, without a proper invite, an intimate observer of their daily lives.

So, it only stands to reason that I would have a somewhat personal relationship with these people, right? I mean, I don’t want to be bff’s or anything, but a civil, neighbourly relationship would be normal, right?

No. Unwritten etiquette in Spanish residential buildings dictates that more than a simple “hola” while passing one another would be prying into their lives. Silence is a virtue when face to face, no matter what you think you may know about their lives.

I think its just some sort of unspoken pact?

It’s not that I would dare say, “What’s up, Paco? How’s that good-for-nothing son doing these days?” or “Maria, hows that pesky menopause coming along? You know, 20 daily fried croquettes probably won’t help your delicate digestion. Just saying.”

Of course, I would never. But, it would just be nice to have that neighbourly feel once in a while, you know?

In fact, the only time I’ve come close to a “neighbourly” conversation was with one very suspicious, very old Spanish señora. She was coming down the stairs one of the first days I lived with Diana and she wanted to know if I lived in the building,

“Si, señora. Vivo aqui en la tercer planta.” – [Yes, I live on the third floor]

“¿Eres Romana?” – [Are you from Romania?] – >That’s what her words meant literally, but what she really wanted to know was, “Are you a Romanian gypsy sent to steal all my valuables and curse my olive oil with bitterness?”

“Um, no, soy Americana” – [No, I'm American]

“Hay demasiado extranjeros aqui” – [There are too many foreigners here.]


“Hasto luego, hija” [see you later, child]

“yeah, okay – Nice to meet you too?”

So, “neighbor” just means something different here. That’s just one difference I’ve noticed among many while living here. And as my Spanish professor used to say, “It’s not better or worse – its just different”. I certainly don’t want to be one of those ex-pats who are constantly comparing their two countries – that’s just obnoxious. But it’s these little nuances of different cultures that fascinate me.

As they say – it’s not enough to understand the grammar of the language, you have to live the culture, absorb the history, and smell the croquettes – or something like that…





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