Reflections on Spain
"I will say for the Spaniards, no people I know in the world will exhibit a more just feeling of what is due to the dignity of human nature." - George Borrow
These are the words of George Borrow, an Englishman wayfarer who traveled the byways of Spain in the 19th century, lingering in dozens of villages where he met all sorts of people. His book, "The Bible in Spain" makes fascinating reading. It is available for free on Kindle.
Just last week, I heard an account from one of our La Tienda community members that is a modern day affirmation of George Borrow’s appraisal of the Spanish people. A Welshman and his wife stopped by our store in Williamsburg and he told me of an amazing relationship he forged with a Spanish family.
It was many years ago, when he was a young man randomly exploring the countryside along the Spanish border, when a Spaniard came up to him and inquired whether he could be of help. The Welshman indicated where he was heading, and the man said, “Come along with me. That is exactly where I live.“
When the two of them arrived at his house in the neighboring village, his companion introduced the Welshman to his family, and then invited the young man to stay with them, “Why don't you stay with us for a couple of days, or longer if you would like.” It turned out that he stayed two years with the family and gained a deep love for them and an appreciation for the Spanish way of life. Although they only met by chance, the two men continue to keep close contact forty years later. He is a part of their family.
I find that hospitality is second nature for the Spanish people. I remember one day when I casually mentioned to my friend Carmen that Ruth and I were planning to fly from Virginia to the island of Mallorca, she replied “Tell me the flight number and I will meet you there.” Sure enough, she booked a flight from her home in Andalucía, met our plane and devoted two days to showing us the island where she grew up as a little girl. We even had a sumptuous dinner with her family, where Ruth and I met her uncles and aunts and most importantly, her revered father.
A couple of years later, on Good Friday in 2012, we dropped by to visit Carmen and her husband Juan Carlos at his family owned bodega in El Puerto de Santa María. Before we knew it, we were driving with the two of them to visit Juan Carlos’s stately 96-year-old mother. She received us in her drawing room, surrounded by three generations of family members. We even got to chat with the fiancé of her granddaughter. The boyfriend of the other granddaughter was a delightful young man from Scandinavia! They all greeted us warmly – with no thought that we were strangers. The mother apologized that she could not greet us as she normally would because Good Friday was a penitential time, but urged us to return to her home on Easter Sunday, where we would be received properly by her extended family.
It is this kind of spontaneous hospitality that seems ingrained in the Spanish culture. This sense of welcoming and, as George Barrow observed, this “honoring the dignity of human nature” begins at the cradle. The newborn baby is cherished, and showered with affection – not only from his immediate and extended family, but also by his neighborhood – his little universe.
Even when the baby is bundled up for a walk in his stroller, inevitably a kindly old lady will come up, pinch his cheeks, and exclaim adoringly, “¡Que guapo! – How handsome!” and slip him a caramelo.
Even more than that, the little one and her brothers and sisters will be included by the family in all of the events of the day and the evening. When we dine with friends at ten o'clock at night, invariably we will see little children playing together along the margins of the restaurant. They are not viewed as a distraction, but a source of joy. (I think I was in college before I ate out that late! When I was younger, I was popped in bed at an amazingly early hour).
Spanish children feel responsible for one another from an early age, and do not rely on parents to resolve any petty conflicts between them – there is no tearful retreat to mother’s “apron strings.” It is this quality of mutual caring which prepares them for the vicissitudes of life.
I am sure you are aware of the severe economic conditions in Spain. Yet you do not see many violent demonstrations, as dire as the situation may be. My personal theory is that they have grown up in an environment where the extended family can always be counted upon to be there - even the neighborhood.
The jobless youth are not alone; they are welcomed back into the family without question. When there is a misfortune, the family instinctively pulls together, and the neighborhood as well. Let me give you an example from real life in the town where our family lived for a while.
Pacha and her husband Antonio have a very nice life together. They are raising five attractive children – and, of course, grandmother is included in their household. For more than 20 years, Antonio had stable employment in an established business and their future looked secure - that is, until the economic crisis. With little warning, Antonio was laid off and the family of eight people had no income.
Bright and resourceful, Pacha had a close neighborhood friend named Maria facing a similar situation, so they put their heads together and decided to open a café, named Quilla, near the Fuetebravía gate - close to housing on the naval base at Rota. One of her neighbors lent a hand by making available to them a vacant shop he owned.
This was quite a commitment. Normally cafés are open up to 16 hours a day - from around nine in the morning until two or three the next morning, depending upon when the patrons go home from the bar. Prior to opening, Pacha had to go to the municipal market to pick up fresh produce, provisions and bread for the shop. In the meantime, another member of the family had to make sure the children got to school on time.
These long hours were covered by older children in the family as well as friends and neighbors who helped Maria with no thought of compensation. Some of the neighbors donated home cooked dishes to enhance the menu. At various times, others volunteered to cook. To my surprise and delight, I saw my former secretary, Blanca, from the chaplain's office serving desserts that she had made at home. She had no immediate connection with Pacha’s family, and her family owned a small bodega. However, in times of crisis, social position was not given a second thought. All have a common mission.
Last April, Ruth and I returned to the café and found Pacha and her family had established a thriving business. People in the neighborhood recommended the place to their friends, and brought their own families to dine. Of course, this is not a fairytale story. Pacha, Antonio and the children are committed to working long hours. With a little help from their friends they are flourishing as a family and surviving economically. The response to a crisis of these Andalusian families is typical. By helping one another, they preserve their dignity. After all, are we not all part of one family?
"Just last year, my brother, his wife, my husband and I went to Spain to meet relatives I had never met before. My father came to the US from Spain in 1924. We were met at the airport by a friend of the family, who took two days out of her time to escort us from Madrid to Galicia, showing us the countryside and giving us a history of the area. We spent the night in her family's home along the way. During our stay in Galicia, along with meeting and visiting with relatives, we were invited to see how bread was made in a wood fired oven. We were welcomed into a 300 year old kitchen, shown how the bread was baked and after it came out of the oven, we were invited to partake of their evening meal - there was no evidence of having to have everything 'just so' because company was there...we became part of the meal as though we were family. Such generous and unassuming people throughout the regions we visited. One lady walking along the road in front of the house stopped to talk and remembered my father's request for her to make a tablecloth to take back to the US. This tablecloth was made in 1950 and she remembered him. We were so impressed with the affection within the family members and also the fact that the children were indeed included in every avenue of life - staying up until the wee hours of the morning if need be to partake of the celebrations, visiting family, etc., not shuttled off to a babysitter. Walking the streets of Pontevedra and seeing boys and girls playing soccer in the streets together. Such a refreshing view of how life is there without the emphasis on cell phones, texting, video games. Our lives are so distracted with technology, news, etc., we have lost sight of what really matters in our daily living. It was good to know and experience such a warm and friendly culture."
Rita Nicklas (Souto), Afton, VA
"It seems as if you experienced that which attracted me to the Spanish way of lie. Affection between family members is so life affirming; including and embracing the value of children is so obvious and nourishing to all -- kids and older family alike. And as I mentioned before, I like the way the little boys and girls naturally take care of one another without running to adults. Such a wonderfully healing atmosphere. And what a great trip you had." - Don Harris
"I've experienced that wonderful hospitality on the many occasions of my travels in Spain. Once, not finding a place to stay while attending a festival in Jerez de la Frontera, my husband and I decided to sleep in the car in order to visit the fairground. We were invited into one of the "casetas" as we stopped to admire a tiny girl in full Flamenco costume, fast asleep in her stroller. We enjoyed the group's hospitality and were later urged to spend the night at the young parents' home. In that small and humble dwelling, we were given their own bed and they slept with the children. I have studied in Spain for several summers, and have visited friends there for short periods over the years, and I have always observed their cherishing of one another in their families. Thank you for your allowing us, your La Tienda clients, to feel some of this warmth through your website and your store.
A faithful client"
Elin Fowler, Marietta, GA, USA
The Feria de Caballos in Jerez de la Frontera is one of my very favorite events in Spain -- and your story about being taken into the home of a humble ceseta family is so wonderful and typical. All afternoon and evening long you experience families cherishing one another. I am sure to the outside reader this sounds like a lot of sentimentality -- but you and I know it is true. I just hope more people will take the plunge and have their lives enriched as has happened to you and me." - Don Harris
"I am half Spanish and I was adopted, but I never fit in with my adopted family, they are cold and distant. I now can make sense of the way I felt and feel about how your family and friends deal with a difficult situation, rather than everyone banding together to work out a solution, they would say things like its your problem, not ours, work it out on your own! I now believe that this is a trait I have inherited!! Thank you for giving me hope!!!"
I also was from a family which was not at all nurturing, and I have a lot of painful memories. But rather than dwelling on them I decided my life would be different, and with the help of loving people -- and especially my wife Ruth, we have a supportive and caring family. So, although I never intended this when I wrote the Reflection, I am glad to have brought you some hope. Draw on the strength you have within you, which you seem to draw from your roots in Spain and try to live a caring friendly life. My best wishes to you and those you love." - Don Harris
"I have been a Spanish teacher for 39 years. During those years I have taken 20+ groups of students to Spain during Easter vacation. On one trip, my students met five teenaged Spanish boys who helped us navigate the metro in Madrid. When we got home, I wrote them thank you notes. I heard back from one and we have been close friends for 36 years. I always stay with them when I go to Spain and I am considered one of the family. My friend, his wife and children have stayed with me in the USA. When I am there, my friends take me places I have never had the chance to visit on student trips. They are truly wonderful people and I treasure their friendship."
Sue Wilson, Wilmington, DE USA
How nice you have been able to build such a solid relationship with your Spanish friends and their country. That is a priceless gift.
Best wishes for you and your family which extends across the ocean." - Don Harris
"It is a beautiful story and by experience I know it is true, we Spaniards are like that and still we have time to enjoy life and praise GOD for what we have."
Martha Rodriguez, Roswell, GA
You hit the nail on the head! Rather than being consumed with worries about things you cannot change, appreciate the gifts you do have and live a loving, caring life." - Don Harris
"We are pleased that their cafe is doing well and hope to visit next time we go over to visit my wife's family in rota. Probably next spring or summer. Hasta La Vista."
Daniel Bernt, Mt. Angel, Oregon
Guess what: Pacha and her family have done so well, I just heard from Carmen that they are planning to open another one! Do let me know when you are returning to Rota and I will give you their address.
I have great respect for their "can do" spirit, and a little help from their friends." - Don Harris
"I am Spanish and your story made me all teary and homesick because I do identify my life in Spain with what you are describing. Thank you for sharing this I feel touched. Thank you."
Silvia, Boston, USA
Just be thankful that you grew up in such a strong, healthy environment. Although you moved away I am sure you took with you your values of hospitality and caring, and have made both your family and America a better place for it.
My best to your family.
" - Don Harris
"I had the pleasure of living in Rota in the early 90's, thanks to my Naval service. Reading this article affirms my memories of an incredible place, that I've always said I would retire to. I found your site looking for chorizo so that I could make paella for my family. I'm from the Friendship state, and we could learn a whole bunch from that wonderful place."
Dawn Marie Sharit, Austin, TX, USA
"Yes, all of us who had the privilege of living in Rota and its environs are the richer for the experience, and I am sure you take some it with you even 20 years later. Why not go back and enjoy the Spanish people once more? The dollar is strong and after mid-September the fares will be reasonable. We always find our trips there to be rewarding.
" - Don Harris
"I agree, I wandered the outskirts of Madrid as a college freshman and was befriended by a young man, after I asked for directions to the best place from which to hitchhike...he took me to his house and he introduced me to his wife, his collection of Spanish civil war books...so welcoming, warm and friendly...unforgettable. "
Felice, Washington, DC
Isn't it reassuring to have such memories. With so much cynicism in the air it is easy to overlook the kindness and generosity of others. I do think that the young man was raised in this caring culture prepared him to be of a generous spirit. Did you keep track of him over the years?" - Don Harris
"Lovely story. It reminds me of the warmth and hospitality I received over a couple Christmases that I lived in Spain. I could not get back to the U.S. during the holidays, so I was alone for those two holidays. The first year I lived there, my landlady would not allow me to be alone that day, she insisted I come to their house, even though her tiny apartment was already very full of family members. I was welcomed by all as if I was a long lost family member. The next year my young (24 years old) roommate didn't want me to be alone, so she invited me to her family's chalet, again, a small and already family-filled building. They all also made me feel like family, they had a bed made for me to stay in, and even bought me a few Christmas gifts! Those are two of my most memorable Christmases. "
Thanks for you note. I think that maybe the reason we feel so much like family is that in Spanish eyes we all are essentially one family -- all neighbors with common needs and desires. Privacy is not a premium, belonging -- truly valuing one another is a greater virtue." - Don Harris
"I found myself nodding with recognition at the type of hospitality one finds with the Spanish people. My father was from Galicia, and when I went to visit Spain with him for the first time, my family over there treated me as if they had known me all all of their lives. They are the most generous of people and as I've told many people I know in this country when they mention the very high unemployment rate in Spain, "Don't worry: in Spain, family takes care of its members, as well as neighbors' needs. I wish we had more of that here.
Nardo Poy, New York City
You understand the essence of this great culture -- the desire to help one another. Spaniards are not exceptionally saintly -- none of us are -- but because of the way they live their life as a whole they find it easier to live out the biblical injunction "love your neighbor as yourself". Competition is less celebrated than it is here." - Don Harris
"These stories make me so homesick for Spain. Thank you for the many stories you share and especially the ones about 'family' values. I hope to return to Spain for a visit one day and see Valencia and Sevilla, two places I've missed visiting. I loved Mallorca and will never forget the amazing kindnesses from everyone I met!
Ana Querida (That is what they called me.)"
Annie-Dear Chappell, McMinnville, OR
"Dear Ana "Querida",
Thank you for your note. I think it would be the right thing for you to do to fulfill your dream and return to Spain. There is never a convenient or affordable time, so just make the heartfelt journey. The dollar is very strong right now -- so why not treat yourself if you possibly can? Go after the middle of September and the fares will be good, and the tourists will be gone!" - Don Harris
"I am touched by your article and saw all that come into play as I was growing up in my family who before coming to America were from a small white village in the mountains of Malaga. Your heart and the love you share for the Spanish people is exposed in this article. Gracias, Vaya con Dios amigo"
Mercy Madigan, San Pablo, CA
I am touched by your note. I do have a great love for your country. What little village did you come from in Malaga -- maybe I have visited there - any maybe I met a member of your extended family. Wouldn't that be something!" - Don Harris
"What a wonderful story and how people can relate to one another. I will probably never get to Spain but to all of them God's blessings. Too bad you can't come over and teach America the basics for which we once stood for, I love my country but cry for what we are now.
Juanita A. Brooks"
Juanita A. Brooks, Oakfield, NY
I know many people in America who live loving lives with strong families and cherished children. It is just that our fragmented culture with its many distractions, make it harder.
You can't "go with the flow" -- sometimes you need to resist. Just one example -- the traditional Spanish family makes it a point to eat together. In contrast here in the USA you have to make eating with your family a conscious decision.
If you have active kids it is a constant struggle, unlike in traditional Spain. But it is worth it. Breaking bread together sets a loving pattern for the rest of your lives.
My best wishes to you sand your family." - Don Harris
"Since a young girl I have traveled to Spain to visit family. Palma de Mallorca is home to my father's family and Valencia home to my mother's family. I am always torn between the two cities but always united by the power of family unity. My husband and I have six children who as time as passed are also now caught in this glorious web of family. I have become a loyal supporter of La Tienda and truly enjoy the treats I purchase and the wonderful articles and recipes presented on your website.
Mary Reeves, USA
I have always thought six kids would be a lot of fun, although three boys kept us very busy -- especially when i was at sea with the USN. Isn't the "web" of family so satisfying? All of us just returned from a week along the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
What a choice you have each year! Mallorca or Valencia -- why not both? My best wishes to your whole family." - Don Harris
Reflexiones en Español
"A favor de los españoles diré que ningún pueblo del mundo muestra en el trato social un aprecio más justo de la consideración debida a la dignidad de la naturaleza humana." -George Borrow.
Estas son las palabras de George Borrow, un viajero inglés que recorrió los caminos de la España del siglo XIX. Este andariego pasó tiempo en docenas de pueblos donde conoció a toda clase de personas. Su libro La Biblia en España es una lectura fascinante y se puede conseguir gratis en Kindle.
Casualmente la semana pasada escuché una historia de boca de uno de los miembros de nuestra comunidad de la Tienda, que no era mas que una versión moderna de la valoración que Borrow hizo en su día de los españoles. Un galés junto a su esposa pasó por nuestra tienda de Williamsburg y me habló de una sorprendente relación que había forjado con una familia española.
Fue hace mucho tiempo. Un entonces joven muchacho deambulaba sin rumbo fijo explorando la zona fronteriza española cuando otro joven se le acercó y le ofreció ayuda. El joven galés le explicó hacia donde se dirigía y el español le dijo: “ven conmigo, es justo donde vivo yo”. Cuando los dos llegaron a casa de este último en el pueblo vecino, le presentó a su familia y le invitó a permanecer con ellos: “¿Por qué no te quedas con nosotros un par de días o más si te apetece? Al final el invitado permaneció dos años con la familia, tomándoles un gran afecto y desarrollando un aprecio por la forma de vida española igual de grande que su cariño por sus anfitriones. Aunque aquellos dos hombres sólo se conocieron por casualidad, ambos siguen manteniendo el contacto después de cuarenta años y huelga decir que el joven galés es uno más de la familia.
Me parece que la hospitalidad es algo innato al pueblo español. Recuerdo el día en el que como quien no quiere la cosa, le dije a mi amiga Carmen que Ruth y yo estábamos pensando en volar desde Virginia a la isla de Mallorca. Enseguida me dijo: ”Dime tu número de vuelo y quedamos allí”. Dicho y hecho, buscó un vuelo desde su domicilio en Andalucía, quedó con nosotros y pasó dos días haciéndonos de guía por la isla en la que había crecido. Incluso tuvimos una cena fastuosa en la que Ruth y yo conocimos a sus tíos y tías y, sobre todo, a su venerado padre.
Unos años después, el Viernes Santo del 2012, nos pasamos por el negocio de Carmen en el Puerto de Santa María a hacerles una visita a ésta y a su esposo Juan Carlos. Antes de ni siquiera darnos cuentas, íbamos de camino con ellos a visitar a la abuela de Juan Carlos, una ilustre señora de 96 años. Esta distinguida mujer nos recibió en su salón rodeada de tres generaciones de su familia. Incluso tuvimos la oportunidad de charlar con el prometido de una de sus nietas. El novio de otra de ellas era un encantador joven procedente de Escandinavia. Nos atendieron muy afectuosamente sin pensar por un momento en que éramos extraños. La madre de la familia se disculpó por no recibirnos como lo habría hecho normalmente por darse la circunstancia de que era Viernes Santo y por lo tanto un día de penitencia. Insistió sin embargo en que volviésemos el Domingo de Resurrección, día en el que seriamos recibidos adecuadamente por toda la familia.
Es esta clase de hospitalidad espontanea la que parece arraigada en la cultura española. Este sentido de la hospitalidad, esa “consideración debida a la dignidad de la naturaleza humana” que George Barrow ya había observado en su época, empieza desde la cuna. El recién nacido es querido y colmado de atenciones no sólo por su familia más inmediata y por todo el clan familiar sino también por sus vecinos que igualmente conforman su pequeño universo.
Incluso cuando el bebe está todo arropadito y listo para dar un paseo en su sillita, es inevitable que se le acerque cualquier señora mayor a pellizcarle las mejillas y decirle lo guapo que es y a darle un caramelo. Pero la cosa va más allá, el bebé en cuestión y todos sus hermanos y hermanas están desde el primer día incluidos en todos los eventos familiares ya sean diurnos o nocturnos. Cada vez que salimos a cenar con amigos a las diez de la noche, siempre nos encontramos con niños pequeños jugando juntos fuera del restaurante. No se les ve como una molestia sino como una fuente de alegría. Creo que no fue hasta que llegué a la universidad que salí a cenar tan tarde, cuando era niño me metían en la cama a una hora tempranísima.
Los niños españoles se responsabilizan los unos de los otros desde muy temprana edad, y no dependen de los padres para resolver los conflictos sin importancia que puedan surgir entre ellos, no salen corriendo con la cara llena de lágrimas a buscar las faldas de su madre a las primeras de cambio. Ese esta cualidad de preocuparse el uno por el otro que les prepara para las vicisitudes de la vida.
Estoy seguro de que muchos estáis al corriente de las duras condiciones económicas por las que atraviesa España hoy en día. Sin embargo, y pese a la nefasta situación, no se ven manifestaciones violentas. Mi teoría es que han crecido en un ambiente en el que siempre se puede contar con el clan familiar e incluso con los vecinos.
La juventud desempleada no está sola. Se les vuelve a recibir en el seno familiar sin preguntas de ningún tipo. Cuando la desgracia golpea a uno de los suyos, la familia instintivamente se esfuerza codo con codo para salir de la situación, y en la familia también se incluye a los vecinos. Permítanme que les de un ejemplo real sucedido en la población en la que nuestra familia vivió durante un tiempo.
Pacha y su esposo Antonio llevan una buena vida. Están criando a cinco niños adorables y , por supuesto, la abuela forma parte del núcleo familiar. Durante más de 20 años, Antonio tenía una trabajo fijo en una empresa bien asentada y su futuro parecía seguro, hasta que llegó la crisis. Prácticamente sin preaviso, Antonio fue despedido y su familia de ocho miembros se vio sin ingresos.
Pacha, una mujer de recursos y brillante donde las haya, tenía una buena amiga en el barrio llamada Maria que estaba pasando por la misma situación. Ambas se pusieron a darle vueltas y decidieron abrir una cafetería llamada “Quilla” cerca de la puerta de Fuentebravía, junto a las residencias de la base naval de Rota. Uno de sus vecinos les echó una mano dejándoles una local vacío de su propiedad.
Esto era un gran responsabilidad. Normalmente los bares y cafeterías están abiertos hasta dieciséis horas al día, desde las nueve de la mañana hasta los dos o las tres de la madrugada, dependiendo de cuando se marchen los clientes a casa. Antes de abrir Pacha tiene que ir al mercado municipal para hacerse con los productos frescos, el pan y todo lo necesario para su establecimiento. Mientras tanto, otro miembro de la familia, tiene que asegurarse de que los niños llegan a tiempo al colegio.
Durante todas estas horas siempre hay alguien que echa una mano sin esperar nada a cambio, desde los niños mayores de la familia hasta los vecinos. Algunos de estos incluso donaron platos caseros para mejorar el menú. En otras ocasiones otros se ofrecieron a cocinar y para mi sorpresa y gozo vi a Blanca, la que había sido mi secretaria hace 35 años, servir postres que ella misma había elaborado en casa. Blanca no tenía ninguna relación con la familia de Pacha y su familia tenía un pequeño negocio. Sin embargo en tiempos de crisis la posición social se deja a un lado. Todos tienen una misión común.
El pasado mes de abril, Ruth y yo volvimos a la cafetería para encontrarnos con que Pacha y su familia habían establecido un negocio próspero. La gente del barrio recomendaba el sitio a sus amigos y llevaba a su familias a cenar. Ni que decir tiene que esto no es todo un cuento de hadas. Pacha, Antonio y los niños dedican innumerables horas a su negocio. Con un poco de ayuda por parte de sus amigos, están prosperando como familia y sobreviviendo económicamente. La respuesta a la crisis de estas familias andaluzas es típica. Ayudándose los unos a los otros, mantiene su dignidad. Pensándolo bien, no somos todos parte de una misma familia?