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Monday, December 11, 2006

Maps and Newspapers

I take a seat and order a 1€ cup of coffee and dig a 2€ El País Sunday edition out of a stack of abandoned newspapers at the bar (At least I think they are abandoned; maybe I’m stealing.). I read this Madrid daily whenever I find it lying around. I have yet actually to buy a newspaper here, not when I can swipe one when I stop in some place for a coffee. The classier places mount their papers on a stick like at the library. You can’t swipe the papers at the classy places. I avoid the classy places.

Besides improving my Spanish, reading—or just carrying—a newspaper helps me to disguise myself as someone other than a casual tourist. I notice that if I’m walking down the street with a paper in my hand I am much more likely to be asked directions. You would think that a tourist carrying a map would be a more appropriate candidate to give directions. They do have a map, after all, but a newspaper gives you instant authority. Lost people carry maps; people in-the-know have a newspaper under their arm. I keep my map hidden. Maybe I should hide it inside the paper?

I’m not as lost these days as before as I make my way around Valencia, at least not physically. Culturally I’m still stumbling around, feeling my way with arms outstretched and my ears open. The newspaper is a sort of map for the cultural maze in which I now live. I read a wonderful essay by Elvira Lindo in Sunday’s El País that answered my question about the two holidays of this past week and also matters relating to the Spanish attitude towards taking vacations.

The author lives in New York and the subject of her essay was the temporary inhabitants of her sleeper-sofa, Spaniards who have cobbled together a week’s vacation out of a couple of days off for holidays. They call it a “bridge” when a week off is built around a weekday holiday. This week was the holidays of The Constitution and The Immaculate. The author pointed out that even her fellow countrymen who believe in neither, and can agree on almost nothing, are of the same mind when it comes to “bridges.” Ir de puente (to go on a bridge) means to bridge an entire week of vacation across a midweek holiday. Elvira says that a Spaniard doesn’t emigrate, he goes on a bridge.

I should translate the entire essay. It was one of the most enjoyable pieces I have read so far in Spain. I felt like I have been let in on a secret. It seems like I see things a little clearer now, like after you look at a map of where you are going and you say to yourself, “Oh yeah, now I get it.” A map or a newspaper can save you a lot of head scratching, a lot of time stumbling around lost, and they can also open places and things you may have never learned through experience.

I don’t use my map very much these days. My compass has gone back to being just a decoration on my keychain. My dictionary I still carry with me most of the time when I leave the house. I write down in a little notebook every word that I look up. I did the same thing back in college with English words whose meanings I didn’t know. I remember years later coming across these words that I had written down on index cards. I shuffled through the deck of vocabulary and I found it amusing to think that there was a time when these native words were foreign to me.

I am trying hard to immediately absorb these new Spanish words. I will flip through my notebook while I ride the bus. It helps when after I look up a new word I come across another reference to it somewhere else. This happened this morning as I watched the news and saw a reference to the Puente Festivo, something that would have been completely foreign to me without Elvira Lindo’s article that I had just read.

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