Nomad Notes: The Spanish Rules

Casado con pescado. Turrialba, CR. Sometimes eating what's in front of you is not a chore.
Casado con pescado. Turrialba, CR. Sometimes eating what’s in front of you is not a chore.

Part 2 of 3 in a series less about coffee and more about travel, culture, and living abroad.

In “Pen on Page” I mention rules for traveling and living abroad that I developed during my year as a high school exchange student in Alicante, Spain.

The Spanish Rules I describe are:

1. New day new place

2. Keys phone wallet in purse

3. Never go anywhere without a pen and paper

But there are a few other very important tenets that make up the canon of Spanish Rules that still govern (or at least inform) both my travel and daily life while living Stateside or abroad.

4. Eat what is put in front of you.

I’ve never been a picky eater, but I decided to solidify my non-discriminatory omnivorous resolve and make a rule to Digest Culture in order to keep the peace by not offending anyone (I do have a tendency to appease) by turning anything down, and thus eat whatever anyone put in front of me, be it whole animal, partial animal, unidentifiable vegetables, dank cheese, or slabs of cold spam.

5. Dress presentably and versatile-ly, you never know where you’ll end up.

You just never know. You could go out for gum and end up running into a classmate who invites you to have paella with her grandmother, and you’ll feel silly if you’re dressed in a baggy ripped t shirt and the flip flops you wear to go in and out of the locker room when you swim laps at the pool. You could be folding laundry when a bunch of friends show up outside your window suggesting you go get kebab, which then turns into a full afternoon and evening of making the rounds to visit every person you go to high school with. You’ll feel pretty silly if your orange gym shorts don’t match your green tank top.

You also never know when you’ll innocently be lounging on your bed attempting to read “The Davinci Code” in Spanish, wearing a long sleeved maroon American Eagle t shirt that says “Baked with Love!” that you got for $2 off the sale rack and like because it’s the nice soft kind of cotton and is basically a pajama shirt, when your host father Gerard calls, “Raquel, vamos!” You never know when you’ll be obliged to obediently grab your purse (touching and laying eyes on all the big three items inside, of course), slip on your sneakers and follow Gerard’s voice down to the garage, where he, host mom Anne Marie, and host sister Mathilde are waiting in the white Cabriolet with the engine running. You never know when what you’re expecting will be a trip to the grocery store turns into a two hour drive to the German/British beach party town where you’ll be spending the night. You just never know if this could be the day when you’ll be drinking an Amstel Light and playing pool in a bar with sleazy Spaniards (and sleazier British dudes hanging around a vacation town in October), feeling quite silly trying to sink the 8 ball while wearing your “Baked with Love!” pajama shirt, and even sillier dancing to electronica in sneakers.

Versatile clothing is key. That way, even if you’re sitting around doing something innocent you won’t look like a fool if your day starts with translating verbs and ends without warning bumping in the Benidorm club.

6. Find a reason to love unconditionally the thing that is pissing you off.

Gerard, my host dad in Spain, was a big French enigma. I say big because he was in fact a large man. He loved all things any good Frenchman loves; wine, cheese, bread, and pork chops. He was an enigma because I never figured out what he did to make all his money, which of course led me to come up with many delightfully devious theories that I will disclose in later writing (if I dare!)

Whatever he did for work involved a lot of last minute, late night trips to France and constant phone calls on the four cell phones he had with him at all times. (As present as water glasses on table at the big midday meal were Gerard’s four cell phones, lined up neatly to the right of his knife.)

When he wasn’t off on some mysterious trip to Morocco or Mallorca, there was a 90% chance he’d be sitting at his desk, whispering into one of his cell phones (and a 10% chance you’d catch him at the table at mealtime). His desk was in the corner of the living room that shared a wall with my bedroom, such that the back of his desk chair shared a wall with my headboard. I’d often be sitting in bed reading after dinner and hear him shuffle over in his slippers and hear the chair bump against the wall as he sat down. These were all the typical sounds of a person’s rhythm you get used to when living with someone. Gerard’s habits reminded me of the way I could always tell whether it was my mom or dad was coming through the door just by the footsteps or even by the way the keys sounded in the lock.

But there was one sound in Gerard’s repertoire that made me crazy. Sometimes the calls he made or took on one of his many cell phones (or his desk’s landline) were not hushed, they were peppered with landmines of explosive, cackling laughter. I’m all for humor and have some pretty unattractive tones of laughter myself, but there was something about Gerard’s guffaw issuing through our shared wall that grated me. Maybe it was because he only seemed to assume this annoying laugh when I was trying to sleep, or wade through calc homework in a foreign language, or do something that was not enhanced by someone else having a loud and hilarious conversation. It seems like laughter shouldn’t be on the list of things that piss you off, but ill-timed, cacophonous laughter juxtaposed against ones own sleepiness or frustration does have a certain corrosive quality.

I rolled with it because there was nothing I could do. It continued to annoy me for several months, and one day it really got to me and I reached my limit. I don’t remember what I was doing– maybe I was actually trying to sleep in on a weekend (I always got up early on weekends to run on the beach before all the topless women started to show up)– but that high pitched laugh that started as a belly rumble and escalated to a squeal just pierced my soul and I sat up in bed and told myself, “Enough! Today is the day I do something about this.”

Obviously I couldn’t tell him to not laugh, obviously I couldn’t change his desk or my room, obviously I couldn’t hide his cell phones and cut the land line, so I was left with very little influence over the situation. Really, the only influence I had was over how I felt about it. I couldn’t change the cackle, but I could change the fact that it was pissing me off. In some spirit of kumbaya, passive resistance, or Biblical loving of one’s enemies, I decided to wholeheartedly embrace Gerardo’s grating glee.

I sat myself down and told myself, “You are not allowed to get angry when Gerard starts cackling into his phone. Your skin is not allowed to bristle when he plops into his chair and erupts into squeals of hilarity at something one of his four cell phones said. You are going to love this. You are going to embrace this annoying quality as one of the things that most makes Gerard Gerard, and you are going to laugh with him.”

And that was what I did. For the rest of the year, when Gerard cackled through his phone calls, I embraced the sound as a sound only Gerard and his large enigmatic French self could make. I reminded myself, “When you’re back in cold, snowy New Hampshire you won’t be able to hear Gerard’s bizarre albeit annoying laugh any more than you’ll be able to feel the Mediterranean sun.” I turned the grating cackle on its head, and imagined the funniest possible thing that the person could be saying on the other end of the line to warrant such an ear-splitting response. I pictured all the fat bearded Frenchmen who came to lunch, dressed in gold lamé and high kicking in a chorusline;I pictured the little Terrier Nana occupying the starring role in the window display at Macy’s. I imagined the faces of the mean teachers at the Spanish high school I was attending if they were dropped into first period bio taught by the beefy football coach I’d had as a teacher back in the States.

I embraced Gerard’s laugh, gave it a big bear hug, and it never bothered me again. The sixth Spanish rule of loving unconditionally the thing that is most bothering you is what has carried me triumphantly through months of showers in frigid water, hours of bus rides with strangers’ backsides pressed into my face and strangers’ babies drooling over my shoulders, and the handful of times I was served cold spam for breakfast.

I’ve found that if something is pissing you off it will continue to piss you off, but if you give something a big fat hug, it has a much harder time driving you crazy.



  1. I ate my first morcilla in 40 years at a friend’s house on November 30. We were there to celebrate La Alborada, Medellín’s boisterous midnight welcome to December, and when Doña Herlinda sat us down to plates of morcilla and other delicacies, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her I don’t eat blood sausage. So I ate it, but I didn’t compliment it. My wife did, and ended up with seconds! She left the second piece on her plate.

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