When one meets an American for the first time, the odds are good you will part company with one of you inviting the other over to their house “sometime.”
Not so in Spain.
In fact, one of the things we read about as part of our cultural prep for the relocation was to be aware of a general two-fold rule:
– Don’t broach the topic of a house invite (inviting or being invited) too soon.
– If you are invited to someone’s home, go.
Ghosts of the past
The roots of the seeming seriousness to a home invite are mysterious, especially as Spaniards are generally laid back in all matters social. One explanation does stand out, however, which I first encountered in Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain. He reminds us that, while the rest of the world associates fascism, secret police, and night disappearances with Nazis and a period that ended in 1945, Spain experienced a horrific civil war from 1936 – 1939 that subsequently ushered in a fascist regime that lasted until 1975.
During that time, many people went missing, families were divided, and there was a persuasive atmosphere of fear and distrust. According to Tremlett, the vestige of that forty-year terror is that Spaniards will be friendly in general, but remain cautious in letting people get too “inside” to one’s family. When they do so, it is an honor of trust.
Our landlord, our amigo
When our landlord, Eduardo, invited Jiab and me down to his family apartments on the Mediterranean coast, we were both surprised and delighted, even a bit daunted.
We don’t have the usual relationship of most landlords and tenants in Spain. Expats complain on social media of never hearing from the landlord, especially when work has been requested. Often there is the language barrier, with neither side able to breach the gap. Landlords often put minimum into upkeep; “absentee landlord” is a repetitive phrase here.
Not with Eduardo. Perhaps it’s because we are renting his mother’s former flat, or because he’s just a plain nice guy, but we text a lot. When something needs doing, he will call someone to come in the next couple of days or he will come out himself. We rewired a chandelier together, and he WhatsApp’d me through a water heater repair job. We also bonded in that he walked El Camino a month before we did, and so he gave tips and we have exchanged experiences and jokes over time.
So, never minding that Jiab and I had just flown back to Spain two days before and were still jet-lagged, we hopped a bus and rode two hours down to Almería, where Eduardo and his family met us at the station and then drove thirty minutes more to a sea-side pueblo where we settled in.
Mi casa es su casa, y mi familia…
Eduardo planned the weekend well; basically, we were all free to hike, go to the beach, or do whatever we wished, but with everyone required to recongregate for lunch around 3:00 pm and dinner around 10:00. Jiab and I enjoyed the time away from our computers, and the desert hiking and nature watching was extraordinary, with a bonus of climbing a 17th century watchtower built to fend off Mediterranean pirates.
But it was the meals that made it special.
Hospitality is truly observed here, with no expectation that guests bring anything or help (despite our repeated requests to do so). Instead, we all talked while Eduardo and his wife buzzed about or took care to assign tasks to their young daughter and teen son. The son, 15 to be exact, was well-learned in English, and he welcomed the chance to practise with us. We talked about sports, music, and how school differed between Spain and the US.
The meal itself was fantastic, and it also struck me how similar our families are. The parents kept alternating between their own meal and overseeing their children’s eating; conversation wrapped around and moved through topics in a seamless flow of topics dictated by the interest of who had the floor. We spoke Spanish, English, and weird half-combinations of the two. We found profound commonality in banal topics such as getting kids to do homework. When we talked about my ancestry, I told them every German Jew is in some way related to Einstein, but that I actually was, closely. Eduardo laughed and said, “Every Granadino is related to Lorca, but I am, closely!”
I think one of my favorite moments was having coffee on the terrace. It wasn’t just because I needed a break from all the dinner wine and beer; it seemed like, in the cool breeze, things became calmer and even more intimate. I took the opportunity to probe about the civil war by asking if there were good books about Granada during the war and Franco times. Eduardo said he did not know of any, and then looked a little sad as he said it was a difficult time for everyone. He had one grandfather who fought for the fascists, the other against them, and so like many families, they decided that the subject was too difficult to address and was better left unexamined. I assured him I understood, as we in America still can not fully reconcile 150 years after our own civil war, let alone 45 years after emerging from a dictatorship.
Eduardo also used the quiet of the terrace to have his son, Manolo, tell me of his disciplinary problems at school and his struggle at being labeled a “bad kid.” When the young man told of his “poor decisions,” I chuckled a little at how, despite teaching students from all over the world for so many years, a knuckle-headed teenager is still the same. I assured him that what he did was a poor choice, but that it was more thoughtless than malicious, and that it was never too late to take responsibility of one’s life and create a new reputation with new friends. Eduardo slapped his son on the back and said “Did I not tell you this?” after which Eduardo and I shared a look that only exasperated fathers of boys who make bad decisions (which is all of them) could understand.
I think that is a part of Spanish families that I most admired. It was nothing but honest communication (at least about the present) with all family members included. Whether talking about Manolo’s problems, discussing cultural differences, or Lorca, everyone sat around the table, and the focus was on each other. No phones, no “let me just get this.” Manolo talked to his younger sister, Maria, with attention and love, even getting her to say some phrases in English. Phones were only used to translate words, or when we each played a song we liked (with Eduardo rolling his eyes when Manolo played a favorite Spanish rap group that Maria danced to).
We played cards afterwards, with Maria falling asleep on the nearby couch. Being with a Spanish family is like stepping into a self-contained, micro-universe in which there is nothing else, though it doesn’t feel too small, as one is less pent up as one is enwrapped in a union that is stronger than any outside force pulling at the members. We never went to bed the same day as we dined, as no one wanted to break the bond before midnight.
I usually like to end my pieces with a profound observation, to universalize the experience into some greater meaning, but in this case, I feel like that would dishonor the power that lies within the quantum world of a loving Spanish family, and especially Eduardo’s.
So, I’ll leave them be. With each other, they don’t need anything else.