I never guessed that coming to Spain meant I would learn more sign language than Spanish. Apparently pointing to your crotch and doing “the potty dance” is universal for “Where are the restrooms?” Once, my friend Danielle tried to tell our adviser that she had a sinus infection and accidentally said she had a breast infection. Only when she pointed to the center of her face did he understand what she meant.
While I struggle to learn Spanish there are, however, two words here I understand clearly: siesta and fiesta. From 2 to 5 p.m. everyday, most stores close for naptime. If I walk the streets between these hours, it feels as though a nuclear war might begin and I am the only one not hiding in an underground shelter. I haven’t slept through the middle of the day since kindergarten, so at first, a three-hour nap did not feel natural. Coming from a capitalist country where most stores are open until around 9 p.m. doesn’t help either. But, when you party until sunrise five days a week, I think the siesta is essential for survival. Did I mention that the sun does not come up until after 8 a.m.?
I stood outside the window of a restaurant during siesta once and I felt like that woman from that Mervyns commercial as I opened and closed my hands repeating, “open, open, open.” Not even a hungry-looking face pities them into prying the doors open early. As they say here, “No me hagas una cara de cordero degollado,” which means don’t pout at me, but literally translated means, “Don’t make the face of a decapitated lamb.”
Sadness and siesta aside, the Spanish fiesta more than atones for the times I have gone hungry during the middle of the day. Without a doubt, Alcalá de Henares – my study center city just outside of Madrid – knows everything about merrymaking. One minute giant puppets parade the streets, the next a Renaissance Fair arrives to sell handcrafted swords, grilled ribs, and herbs to cure flatulence and impotency. We actually had a day off school to celebrate Miguel de Cervantes, the famed writer of Don Quixote.
Additionally, only in Spain can you ditch your Education Abroad Program orientation discipline lecture to attend the largest food fight in the world – La Tomatina. Playing with food is a common childhood activity for most, a sexual fantasy for some and an annual extravaganza for the entire population of Buñol, a small town outside of Valencia. Every year approximately 20,000 people crowd into the narrow cobblestone streets of this city to launch 8 tons of tomatoes at each other for exactly one hour. Longing desperately to relive childhood memories of mixing ketchup and other condiments at the dinner table, I chose to embark on this adventure a couple of months ago, but not without last minute preparation, of course.
Since the bus to Buñol didn’t leave until 5 a.m. we had no choice but to head directly to Madrid and dance until our estimated time of departure. Unfortunately, the two guys that accompanied my girl friends and me exhausted their money on alcohol. When the bus came, we could hardly scrape together sufficient funds for transportation. As such, we had a mere 5 euros to spend on food for the day. At the gas station, we bought two pieces of white bread each and one bottle of water. Hungry once again, I hoped my starvation might prompt the necessary hostility to vigorously launch tomatoes, or tom-ah-toes as some say.
Either way, it is difficult to speak when you stand atop a white van and a solid green tomato flies 20 miles per hour at your face. Yes, the impact does hurt, especially since I did not carry ammo. I did not bring a shield, and the only defense I had against the other tomato throwers was quick wit and my uncanny ability to curl up and fit into small spaces. I may have done more fleeing than fighting that day, but I came out of that tomato war alive, though smelly, and ready to take advantage of the many other Spanish cultural activities.