What My Dad Thinks of Spain

My dad just came to visit me in Arcos three weeks ago. It was his first trip to Spain, and I thought it would be interesting to have him jot down some of his observations about anything he felt noteworthy. He stayed in Arcos for about a week (we took day trips to Cádiz, Jerez, Sevilla, and the Sierra de Cádiz: Grazalema and Ronda), and then spent four days in Barcelona. The following are the unedited impressions that my father e-mailed me. (The photos are mine.)



 When I first arrived in the Arcos, late on a Sunday night after an almost 24 hour journey from Boston, the first thing that struck me were a few familiar, American-style things. For instance, there’s a place called “Big House Restaurant” that seemed on the outside like something you might see on Route 9 in Framingham. Where, I wondered, is this magical, exotic, alien place that I’ve been hearing about?

Not far away, it turned out. Arcos is like nowhere I’ve ever been. Rather than try to string together a narrative, I’m going to give a series of observations.

•The streets are all lined with orange trees, laden with juicy looking fruit. What a paradise! But no, Lincoln warned me–those oranges are not for eating. I insisted that before I left town I had to try one for myself, so Lincoln picked one from a tree near his house. I cut it open and took a (small) bite–enough to prove Lincoln right. It was sour/bitter and awful. The tree had somehow forgotten to manufacture sugar. So all the time yo walk around Arcos, you’re surrounded by beautiful looking but inedible fruit just above your head. That must do something to the psychology of the populace.

•You can’t walk anywhere in Arcos without going up or down very steep hills.. Maybe people from San Francisco find this familiar. I didn’t, and it made every ordinary walk a vigorous hike. People in Arcos must develop strong legs. Many of them also develop gasoline engines–motorbikes are everywhere. I didn’t see many bicycles.

•The Old Town is a storybook -like place, with impossibly narrow stone streets winding their way between white-washed buildings. It’s common to see people out painting their walls or mopping their porches.

•Walking through Old Town, you quickly learn to always be aware of where you can move to get out of the way of traffic. It seems impossible for cars to use these roads at all, but they do–leaving not much room for pedestrians.

•The physical setting of Arcos, while clear enough from the photos, is still pretty amazing to see in real life. It sits atop cliffs that jut hundreds of feet above a river valley of sorts (the river itself isn’t much to look at nowadays–apparently much of its flow is diverted for other purposes). Lincoln says that there are caves in the cliffs, and that some of them are inhabited or used as commercial establishments. You can imagine people in the Middle Ages building a town up on these cliffs and assuring themselves that boy, did they ever hold the high ground!

•The aforementioned motorbikes dodge pedestrians pretty well, so unlike with cars, it’s not quite so imperative to flatten yourself against the wall when one passes you on the tiny street. Lincoln finds it annoying that so many motorbike owners have removed the mufflers.

•Arcos seems to have taken solar energy to heart. Many rooftops have solar panels attached to cylindrical structures that I am guessing are water tanks to store solar heat for use in heating water and room air. I don’t think these are photovoltaics, though I have read that Spain has a pretty vigorous photovoltaic effort.


•Looking out the windows of Lincoln’s apartment at night, you see a long line of flashing white lights–kind of like the flashbulbs that go off (pointlessly) at sports stadiums when people take pictures. These are apparently the lights from windmills some miles away (we drove by these windmills a few times during the day). It’s kind of an inspiring sight. I’ve read that Spain is the #3 worldwide producer of wind electricity, behind only the U.S. and Germany.

•Not many people in Arcos speak much of any English. Since I don’t speak much of any Spanish, that had the potential for trouble. Obviously, when I was with Lincoln, there was no issue. But even on my own–at the Internet cafe, shopping in Old Town, walking to the bus station–I found it easy to function. You can go a long way with…

cuánto cuesta….?
dónde está…?,
no entiendo…

•The elementary school where Lincoln works reminds me quite a bit of the place I went to school in Northern Virginia in the ’60s: kids sit in rows of desks facing the teacher at the front of the room, writing in workbooks. They have recess out on a big blacktop area next to the building, which is what I recall doing as well (our big field was usually reserved for P.E.).

•The children themselves had pretty much the same demeanor that you’d see in kids their age in the U.S. The 5th graders seemed quite restless, especially a few boys, but were not, as far as I could tell, all that disruptive. Lincoln had warned me that the 6th graders were pretty unruly, but the day I was there they acted quite maturely (Lincoln says they were probably on better behavior because of the presence of a visitor, i.e., me.)

•Public transportation access in Arcos is extraordinarily good, considering it’s a small city surrounded by farmland. Lincoln and I took a bus one afternoon to the other side of town so he could go to the home of a trio of 7 year old girls who he is teaching English. I can’t imagine using a bus like this in a similar-sized U.S. town. There is a separate bus station for the longer haul buses that take you out of Arcos (e.g., to Jerez or Cadiz). One nice touch: bus drivers in Spain seem quite happy to make change. Hand them 2 euro coin for a 1.40 euro fare and you’ll get back 60 cents–plus a printed receipt. (I was never quite sure why I should want this receipt, but you always get one.)

•A few members of the 5th grade class were very keen on explaining to me that the two girls who didn’t look like everyone else–they were much darker skinned–were in fact gypsies (not sure what the Spanish word is for this). I wasn’t sure if they were explaining this as a point of pride, or just so that I would not be confused. Which was a little amusing–a typical U.S. classroom in Boston, or even Newton, has far more ethnic diversity. These gypsy girls, I believe, spoke Spanish as their first language (I have no ability to discern if they speak with an accent).

•This is probably too much of a generalization, but from my brief exposure to the schoolchildren of Arcos, quite a few seemed, well, pudgy. (Boys especially). Lincoln says that it’s because their parents let them eat whatever they want.

•During the English lesson in 5th grade, Lincoln asked the class what their favorite TV shows were. The two most common answers: “The Simpsons” and professional wrestling.

•The sports bars in Arcos–at least the one place that Lincoln took me a couple of times–could have been in the US, or Ireland, or probably anywhere. People drink beer, eat pizza, and watch their team on huge flat screen TVs. In our case, the bar was home to fans of FC Barcelona, the popular soccer team that is Lincoln’s favorite (and so became mine). Nothing makes you feel more like part of a community like shouting primitive roars of approval in unison with strangers all around you when your team scores a goal.

•I’m not too sure about this, but in thinking back, I’m not sure I saw anyone in Spain reading (or even carrying) a newspaper. I also don’t think there were newspaper vending machines on the streets.

•General comment/complaint about Spanish ATMs (not just in Arcos): the banks seem to insist that you walk away with a 50 euro bill in your wallet. Say you ask for 80 euro. A U.S. ATM would of course spit out four crisp twenties. But the Spanish machine would instead serve up one 50, one 20, and one 10. That’s kind of like US ATMs dispensing $50 bills as their default denomination (actually, at the moment 50 euro is worth about $66). Spanish merchants don’t seem to mind taking 50 euro notes, but this still made me a little uneasy.

•Speaking of carrying cash around–maybe it’s because of Lincoln’s multiple assurances in the past, but I never felt the least bit unsafe in Arcos with regard to pickpockets. I’m sure that with my pretty nonexistent Spanish and my generally befuddled expression, I must have been instantly identifiable as a tourist. Maybe I was just lucky, but I just did not get any kind of vibe from the town that thieves were lurking around every corner.

•Standing atop the old town and looking to the landscape beyond, it is striking how concentrated the population is. There seems to be little or no U.S.-style sprawl. Instead, people live cheek by jowl in the town, surrounded by vast tracts of open space in which there are grove after grove of olive trees.

•Why are there so many optical shops in Spain (not just Arcos)? They seem almost like convenience stores in their ubiquity.

•The Spanish sure have a thing for hams, which you see hanging from the ceiling in grocery stores and many other places. It’s tasty stuff, too.

•Dogs roam loose everywhere, in Arcos, and I don’t know that I saw a leash the whole time I was there. Also not seen: cats.



~ by lincolnbrody on March 30, 2009.

One Response to “What My Dad Thinks of Spain”

  1. […] some point in the near future I expect her to send me some thoughts and reflections from the trip, as my dad did after his visit, at which time I’ll post those as well. Holy Week penitentes, Sevilla Crucifixion paso, Holy […]

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