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Spain in Words

In all probability, my future will take place within the US. It’s not that I’m not open to the possibility of living abroad, I just don’t expect to. My semester in Spain, then, could be the only time I actually live outside of the US. It’s very exciting.

But as the weeks race by, I find myself wondering what it is I’ll take from my four months in Madrid; what, thirty years from now, I’ll remember. Thus, in the spirit of learning, I do my best to be analytical of the things I see; attune to the differences I feel; observant of the things around me. I’m trying to soak up every morsel of knowledge while I’ve got the chance. It’s a lot of pressure.

In part, I do this all with the goal of having a legitimate answer to the ubiquitous “how is Spain?!” There’s a part of me that feels that I have to be able to give “Spain” a narrative; that I have to be able to put “it” into words. But the reality is that I find the differences hard to articulate. Really, the differences amount to feelings—a fleeting smile crossing my face, a slight head-tilt in confusion. I can’t give “Spain” a narrative because it doesn’t have one: my experience has neither a concise, nor a linear storyline. What I can do, though, is explain what makes me smile and explain why I tilt my head.


As my friends and I sat in the middle of a dimly lit plaza at around midnight and casually drank the lukewarm beer we had just bought from a woman selling them out of her backpack (she assured us they would be cold), a slightly disheveled man with a large folder approached us.

“Would you like me to give you my poetry?” he said in Spanish, opening his folder and revealing dozens of poems. “What do you want? I’ve got love, war, society…”

“You want to give us your poetry?” I wondered. “There has to be a catch. Who just gives away poetry…? The poems must not be any good.”

“Uh, how about society?” somebody responded. And so he picked a society poem he felt was appropriate and read it out loud, his voice, deep and raspy from too many years of smoking, filling the air.

By the time he was done, we were shocked. It was an incredible poem: powerful and beautiful. I found myself questioning the material, capitalistic culture in which we live; asking myself why I valued the things I valued and believed the things I believed. Apparently this man was a talented poet.

“Here, for you,” he said to one of my friends, giving her the poem.

“How about you?” he said, looking at me. “What do you want?”

“Uh…” I said.

“Fine, how about… a love poem?” he asked, shuffling through his stack of poems, looking for one in particular. After finding it a moment later, he began, “This one’s called, Today I Declare War Against You.” (The English translation doesn’t do the Spanish title justice. In Spanish the title is Hoy Te Declaro la Guerra.)

Again he read the poem, his shockingly low voice humming through our ears. When he finished, we were all silent. “Wow,” said another friend. “That was incredible.”

The man handed me the poem: “What’d you think?” he asked.

“I loved it,” I said truthfully. “The title is spectacular.”

“For you, then,” he smiled.

“Very powerful,” I muttered to myself.

“Yeah… It’s about a man whose love for a woman feels like a war. I wrote that while I was sitting on that bench over there,” he said pointing. “I spend a lot of time around here, just writing poems. If you’re ever downtown by Gran Vía near the McDonalds, I’m always sitting outside there. Every day of the week. You’ll see me.”

We went on chatting for another fifteen minutes and it turned out the man had spent the last 30 plus years walking around Madrid, writing poetry; he was well-known amongst Madrileños for his work.

Finally, the conversation came to an end. He looked at us uncomfortably, paused, and asked, “do you uh… do you think you could spare some change?”

And while I ended up giving him a euro, I couldn’t help but smile.


My nuclear host family consists of a mother and brother. Fortunately for me, my brother plays basketball between two and three times a week and, as a lover of the game, I go with him.

In the US, at, say, the local YMCA, there are a few common trends amongst pick-up basketball players. There is no such thing as “team” because it’s every man (or woman) for him/herself. There is little passing, less teamwork and absolutely no defense. Games often end with two “teammates” chastising each other about defensive effort or shot selection. When I was in high school, I used to go to gym on Sunday mornings to play basketball, but stopped after only a few visits because I grew tired of listening to grown men argue bitterly over whether or not they had stepped out-of-bounds. American pick-up basketball, in other words, is a violent, angry sport.

But my experience couldn’t be any more different in Spain. To begin with, unlike in the US, defensive players call fouls on themselves instead of offensive players calling fouls on the defense. It may seem like a minute detail, except for that for whatever reason, people here are brutally honest if they commit a foul. As an American accustomed to playing pick-up basketball, this experience is baffling.

More than anything else, it seems that people here play basketball with a different mindset. The goal is not to make a cool-looking three-pointer, or wow people with dribbling skills; rather, it’s about playing the game the right way. The goal, it seems, is to have fun, not necessarily to win.

My experience with basketball in Spain can be summed up by a 5-second interaction I had with an opposed player only three days ago. I was playing defense on a guy who had a few inches and about 50 pounds on me. As he barreled towards the basket, I tried to get in his way to make a shot a little bit more difficult. Surprised by my decision to step in front of him, my opponent stuck his arm out to clear some space for himself, forcing me to whack at his arms so that he wouldn’t get a clear shot.

“Foul!” somebody yelled, after I obviously hit him too hard.

Fully expecting the foul to be called on me, I turned to him to apologize for the whacking.

As I turned, though, I heard him say, “Sorry man. I think I might have shoved you with my forearm just now.” Astonished, I thought I must have misunderstood what he had said. “Their ball, I fouled him first,” he yelled to the rest of his teammates before running back to the other side of the court to play defense. He was literally giving me the ball.

A newcomer to this Spanish style of basketball, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. All I could do was tilt my head a bit in confusion, shake my head surprise, and smile.





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3 comments on “Spain in Words

  1. jyarchoan
    October 12, 2012

    Cool article Nick. I would recommend staying in Spain and watching Vudu and the Jews get crushed by Ball Fever from abroad.

  2. mmilov
    October 12, 2012

    Love the update Nick. For what it’s worth, I felt similar feelings while traveling in Europe two summers ago: feeling a desire for consolidating experiences abroad in a clear way (for both my future reflective self and current friends/family), yet feeling that creating such clear, linear narrative of before-and-after growth was impossible without in some way making my diverse experiences artificial—untruthful to how I actually felt. One can feel a lot of pressure to come back home with a linear before-and-after story (I.E. I went to Spain an immature, dependent boy. Now I’m a mature, independent man). At the end of the day, I think this idea of the abroad narrative is a romanticized fiction that puts pressure on traveling young adults to force experiences to be a certain way, ultimately making it harder to simply be present and live those experiences.

    But it sounds like you’ve overcome this pressure imposed by society/friends quite well with an admirable maturity and self-clarity (something I definitely struggled with). And that’s really awesome to hear dude! Keep doing exactly what you’re doing: smiling at wandering poetic souls of Madrid and tilting your head at the bizarre Spanish basketball norms (by the way, that’s fucking weird about the fouls)

    Also John, Ball Fever hasn’t won a game since Buffalo graduated. If you had made it to the finals or even the playoffs last year, you would have seen in the brackets that it’s Voodoo and the Jews, not Vudu and the Jews.

    I miss you buddy. I’d love to skype sometime.


  3. Matt DeButts
    October 13, 2012

    Great post, Nick. I echo what Mike says about resisting the study-abroad-narrative. You’re on to something here. There’s great pressure, especially at Amherst, to impose narrative/logical structure on thoughts, experiences and feelings. When I’m being generous, I attribute this pressure to a desire for empathy and communication — I want to know what’s going on in your life and how you’re doing, and narrative is a language in which to connect with you. But I’m not sure it’s all about communication, either. There always seems to be an element of evaluation…as in, the narrative must be of a certain quality, or follow some kind of arc, lest it be “judged” inadequate or deficient. I think you’re right in resisting the pressure to narrativize everything. Something is lost in the process, and anyway, to hell with judgmental people.

    When I travel abroad, I feel the same urge to relay an anecdote or bottle up an experience in the hopes that somehow, my reader will understand a chunk of what I’m going through. The anecdote method (which is a horrid way of describing your post here) seems more honest, while also getting at the need for communication with others. I feel, after reading about poetry man, like I can glimpse the plaza that day and estimate how you were feeling. That is communication, even if it’s not of the holistic and logical variety. Furthermore, the fact that you don’t try to capture your experience in a narrative acknowledges the role that you play in crafting your own narrative. Or in other words: narratives can seem objectively true; anecdotes acknowledge the role that you, Nick Schcolnik, play in the conceptualization of your abroad experience. Anecdotes admit that their “communication” is incomplete. Again, they seem more honest. Which, not coincidentally, is probably the word I most associate with you.

    Lastly, and I’m partially talking to myself here, I want to emphasize that resisting the narrative is NOT a retreat. (Not a retreat, not a retreat.) Amherst College is a wonderful intellectual environment, but it is not particularly good with other human modes of interaction. This place will train you in argumentation, but not in how to be a good spouse, or a moral person, or an enjoyable conversation partner. It places upon us a burden, embodied in your post here, to “make sense” of everything. Amherst takes as a given that “making sense” of things is worthwhile. It’s like everything here is questioned except the necessity of the questioning itself. Resisting the narrative compulsion — and ultimately, it is a compulsion — is in a way the greater expression of intellectual intrepidness. It’s not a retreat.

    Anyway, it’s lovely to hear from you. I hope you’re doing fabulously, and judging from this post, it sounds like you’ve got at least a few moments of fabulousness. I’m sure your pal Austin would be proud.

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This entry was posted on October 12, 2012 by in Sports, Travel and tagged , , .

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