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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