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Scribbling Down the Culture: An American "Notebooker" in Spain

After beating my alarm into submission, I open my eyes to see my left hand holding my small blue notebook, while my other hand furiously scribbles—“writes” would give a false sense of legibility—something about the Spanish subjunctive. I spend a few minutes trying to capture the thoughts as they stumble in. There. Oh wait, one more—there. I’m in Spain, and in order to assimilate to Spanish culture, I write down every phrase I hear that could help me better understand the language. My reasoning is that if I can speak Spanish like a Spaniard, I’ll be able to truly experience and be part of Spanish culture. I’m currently on my third notebook, making me somewhat of a notebook expert. In fact, I’m so particular about the notebooks I use that I had them imported from the US (1).

At 3 inches by 5 inches, my notebook is the perfect size for standard pant pockets. Any bigger and it won’t fit. Any smaller and every third word requires a new page. A metal spiral binding runs down the left side of the notebook. A size 19 rubber band (from Staples) wraps around the cover and all pages that have been used, providing easy access to the next blank page. A 4-color Bic pen (black, blue, green, red) attaches to the spiral binding. Normally notes are written in black. Sometimes they’re done in blue for the sheer excitement. All entries have a small dash to the left of them: black dashes are used to differentiate between entries. A green dash indicates that it’s a valuable entry. And a red dash indicates that I need to ask a Spaniard about the entry. If the entry itself is written in red then—wow—it’s an important one.

The notebook is housed in my left pocket, spiral and pen to my right. From this position I’m ready to write in three quick steps: 1. Left hand removes notebook from pocket and moves toward right hand. 2. Right hand meets left hand to grab pen and in a smooth upward motion disengage it from the spiral. 3. A flick of the left wrist opens the notebook to a blank page with the help of the rubber band. Steps 1-3 are done in one fluid motion. In the heat of a notebook moment, no time can be wasted.

The first entry to begin this compulsive practice was Joder, tio/tia (2). This was a no-brainer since no matter where you are, you’ll be able to hear someone saying it. At first I thought it was an indication of a weak familial structure in Spain. Why else would Spaniards constantly be cussing at their aunts and uncles, even when they weren’t there? But it turns out that Joder is just a common expletive and tio/tia is similar to “dude”; it’s used to refer to friends. It must be weird though for a Spanish guy to call a girl “aunt” one day, and then ask her out on another. What message is this sending to the children? After a while I got used to the lingo and now I also call everyone tio and tia. I think I’m using it correctly but Spaniards always seem to laugh when I say it. I still don’t know why.

After that first entry, my notebook became more like a friend than a simple tool; I recorded in it practically every semi-coherent thought about Spanish that I had. Over the next few weeks, I became an expert notebooker™. What most people fail to realize is that in addition to being a great note-taking device, a notebook is also a great exercise in interpersonal communication. This is where we find clear shortcomings in notebook etiquette.

Notebook etiquette is unclear as to the exact stage in a conversation when it is acceptable to (un)obtrusively transcribe the other person’s every utterance. Experience would suggest that this varies from person to person, and is a function of their exposure to you. Typically, if they already know you well, it doesn’t matter at what point in the conversation you start transcribing, since this odd behavior will only confirm their previous suspicions. Although transcription is possible with a stranger, it is inadvisable if further interaction is desired. It has also been shown that as relationships develop, people’s understanding of your behavior increases to a certain point and then plateaus, at which point laughter increases and the notebook becomes a point of ridicule from these “friends.”

Speaking of friends, I rush outside to meet Tiffany and I’m right on time (3). Tiffany is studying here through the same program as me. I’m in my third year at UCLA and she just graduated from there, but ironically we didn’t meet until we came to Salamanca. We decide to eat at a restaurant we found the other day, and now it’s just a question of finding it again. The small streets winding haphazardly through this town make it easy to stumble upon new restaurants, but difficult to ever find them again. We know the restaurant is near a cathedral, but in Salamanca that’s like saying it’s near a Starbucks back home.

We finally find the place. Once inside, my eyes water in silent protest to all of the smoke. In Spain smoking is allowed in restaurants—let me rephrase that: In Spain, smoking is mandatory in restaurants; you might not have a cigarette in your hand, but you’re definitely going to inhale a few cigarettes-worth of smoke during the meal. It seems my lungs have become used to it (4) and I forget about the smoke after a few seconds. We reach the counter and in an attempt to start a conversation I do everything by the book (5). But my ¿Qué tal? goes unanswered, and my smile is deflected by a blank stare (6). Although disappointing, I’ve learned to expect this from the Spaniards here in Salamanca.

My theory about store and restaurant workers is that they have a mental clock running. In the US, after a minute or two of helping you, they get fed up and make it clear that you’re not welcome. In Salamanca, it seems that workers start this mental clock before you even arrive. By the time you’re ordering they’ve lost all interest, and their hostility provokes a frantic attempt to please them by ordering the first thing that comes to mind, usually a Spanish tortilla (7).

We get our tortillas and on our way out reciprocate an enthusiastic hasta luégo (8) to the rude Spaniard behind the counter. The use of Hasta luego in Spain is a fascinating phenomenon. The bizarre accentuation of the phrase sets Spaniards apart from anyone else in the world, since only a true Spaniard can say it the Spanish way. One of us saying it only draws attention to the fact that we’re American (a euphemism for “stupid” in Europe).

Another reason hasta luego is so important in Salamanca is that it represents all of the genuine human contact you will have in a “business” interaction (restaurant, store, etc.). There’s no small talk, and they forget to pretend to care about you. But when you’re ready to leave, and you don’t think they’re even aware of your existence, they give an enthusiastic “hasta luégo” to send you on your way. It’s as if, for a few moments, they forget all of the indifference they clearly felt for you before, and are actually reaching out to make a real connection. But as the phrase fades into the fleeting sound of “luego,” their original demeanor immediately returns, and you hastily make for the door. For this reason we don’t wait around after this brief, but touching, exchange of words.

We decide to see a movie, so we get to the theater early to try to buy some tickets. I say “try” because it’s not an easy process. At first the woman doesn’t take our money for some reason. Why can’t I understand what she’s saying? Maybe she’s speaking too fast. Or maybe it’s that there’s a large pane of glass between us. After a lot of pointing, we realize that it’s assigned seating, and we need to pick where to sit. Not knowing which end is the front, and not wanting to ask, we point at two random seats. Once inside, it’s a good thing we have assigned seats because the theater is almost completely empty. With a few minutes to spare, we sit down and wait. Some Flamenco music is playing in the background and I pretend to listen to Tiffany while I strain my ears to hear the next olé.

Now, don’t confuse this olé with the stereotypical olé associated with bullfights. In Flamenco music it’s totally different. This one word is more powerful than any combination of words. In English we use words like great, excellent, and wonderful in an attempt to convey our feelings about something. But their limiting definitions prevent them from matching our true feelings. Olé, however, doesn’t have an actual definition; the meaning is not found in the actual letters, but rather in how it’s said: the way the syllables are drawn out, the way it’s pronounced, the emphasis the sounds are given. Olé gives a voice to your raw emotions, without sifting them through artificial words like “good” or “great.”

After a final olé, the lights go down, and “Troya” (9) begins. At first it’s a little disturbing to hear Brad Pitt speaking with a lisp in a deep Spanish voice. It’s also a little odd that this voice sounds exactly the same as the one in all of the other American movies I’ve seen here. Apparently there’s not much competition for voice-overs, and Javier (as I like to call him) has a monopoly over the industry. Every time I see a movie, though, I wonder if it’s really appropriate that he does Sean Connery in one movie and Jackie Chan in another.

About half way through the movie, Brad/Javier uses the passive se (10) in an unexpected way and I realize that I have a serious problem: How do I retrieve my notebook from my pocket without alerting Tiffany to my dorky activity? I discover that I can maneuver my hand to my pocket, while keeping my upper-arm motionless on the armrest. Slowing my breathing, I try to calmly reach into my pocket, while at the same time telling myself to hurry it up because I don’t want to forget the great phrase. Notebook extraction: check. Writing in the dark: difficult. In the end, I succeed in recording the phrase. ¡Olé! (excitement, pathetic sense of accomplishment) (11). But apparently I wasn’t as sly as I had thought, and Tiffany is now shaking her head. ¡Olé! (embarrassment).

After the movie we walk around a little and find ourselves in the middle of a procession for “Saints Week” (all I know is it has something to do with Easter). The ironic thing is that I’m Jewish and today happens to be Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays, and yet here I am watching the Virgin Mary approach. The people around me await the procession with looks of reverence and excitement, while I try to stifle my boredom. But I like to think of myself as being mature enough to appreciate other religions, so I politely (meaning I don’t throw things) observe the procession.

When Mary and her entourage get closer, I’m so confused by what I see that, for once, I don’t even feel the urge to reach for my notebook. What would you do if you saw 20 men in KKK outfits approaching you? The fact that no one is running away assures me that men in robes and pointy hats with covered faces is normal for this type of procession. I have to be fair, though, and point out that there is a fundamental difference between these they make the outfits in kids sizes as well, as children walk by sporting the latest spring fashions in KKK robes. In an attempt to not let all this Catholicism get to me, and to stay true to the Passover holiday, I hypothesize people and real KKK members: instead of an evil white, their robes are a holy blue. After a moment of serious reflection, I whip out my pen: How do you say “white supremacist” in Spanish? I’m disturbed to then find that that the Afikomen (12) is under Maria (I can tell by the pained look on her face). Unfortunately this theory goes untested due to the overwhelming KKK presence.

To recover from this inspiring experience, Tiffany and I decide to go to a club. On the way, we stop for some dinner at a great all-you-can-eat Chinese place nearby. Don’t ask. We then make our way to the night club. Once there, Tiffany and I struggle to find a spot on the dance floor. After inadvertently rubbing up against way too many people, we find an open space. For a rhythmless white guy like me, the nice thing about Spanish clubs is that since the dance floor is so packed, you can claim to be dancing while remaining completely stationary. The question “Do you want to dance?” becomes “Do you want to go stand sandwiched between all of those people and then try to talk over the music?”

Speaking of the music, it’s frustrating that no matter how far away you are from the US, you can never get away from American music. I naively request a Spanish song and the DJ responds with a hostile glance. The next thing I know, all of the girls in the club start screaming and begin to sing along with the next song: “Hit me baby, one more time.” We head for the door.

Our “walk” home seems more like a crawl. After glancing at Tiffany, my left hand makes for the notebook: translate “cobblestone,” “high heels,” and “excruciating pain.” If you enjoy subjecting yourself to extreme discomfort and unnatural posture, try wearing high heels. For more of a challenge, try to then walk on cobblestone. Disclaimer: No guarantee is made that you’ll actually be able to get anywhere like this. This apparently sounds appealing to girls, though, since they continue to buy (and complain about) new high heels. Tiffany is no exception, and our incredibly slow pace enables us to take in all that Salamanca has to offer at this time of night/morning: A lot of drunk people stumbling home in the dark. We finally reach Tiffany’s place, and I head home.

As I’m walking, I think back to a book my Spanish teacher told us about the other day in class. The book described some men who obsessively took pictures of all the events in their lives that they wanted to remember. Upon looking back on their photos, they realized that they were not actually involved in any of these important events, since they were always off to the side taking pictures. That’s a scary thought. My notebook has become an important part of my life here. But is it preventing me from truly experiencing Spanish life?

I get into bed and put my notebook down on the night stand. I’ve decided that it might be a good idea to be more selective about when I use my notebook in the future. Happy about my resolution, I close my eyes. A second later a subjunctive idea pops up and I successfully suppress the notebook temptation ... for about 11 unbearable seconds; I then grab the notebook and scribble the idea down. Change is a slow process.


1 In other words, I brought them on the plane with me when I came here.
2 “F**k, uncle/aunt”
3 Actually, I was supposed to meet her 10 minutes ago, but Tiffany knows to always meet me 10 minutes later than we’ve planned. So today, relatively speaking, I’m on time. On the rare occasions that I’m only 5 minutes late, I make the claim that I’m early.
4 This can’t be a good sign.
5 Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
6 Carnegie was full of it.
7 In Spain, tortillas don’t involve beans and cheese. Instead, think of it as a potato omelet.
8 The accent here is added to highlight the extreme emphasis placed on this syllable.
9 Troya = Troy (for those who lack both Spanish skills and imagination)
10 If you’re part of the small minority that knows what this means, don’t flaunt it—it’s grounds for either being labeled a nerd, or being stoned.
11 Since the meaning of olé lies in how I say it, let me give you a clue as to what this particular one means.
12 On Passover, the Afikomen is a piece of Matzoh wrapped up in a napkin and hid by the parents. The children then try to find it, and whoever does gets some money. (At this point, the other children whine about how the winner cheated, and they all end up getting money.) What this has to do with the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, God only knows.


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