The question, artless but benign, has been asked countless times since the return, and will surely be asked many more as we regress into The Real World of college and schedules and time and worries : What was your favorite part about studying abroad?
Well there’s Rafa and Coro and Ángeles and Fernando. Then there’s Javier and Sandra and los peques (the kids). And, of course, there’s the waiter at the Spanish bar on the corner (Lazaga, it’s called) who would smile and wave every time you walked by because you were unfailing habitués. (He’s probably serving un cubo of Cruzcampo and two montaditos to a group of Spanish college kids right now.)
There’s the uncomplicated approach to marriage and relationships: work hard, love your spouse and eat what’s cooked. And the lifestyle in which you spend more time doing things that matter — eating, drinking, being with family and friends — and less doing things that don’t — showering, driving, checking how many times your last tweet was favorited.
There’s the realization that Spaniards are just like their bocadillos (sandwiches), which consist solely of meat and bread: they cherish the essentials and cut out all else. (And, as it were, they are of the highest quality, fresh and saludable.)
Of course bocadillos were only one of a vast number of delectable dining options. There were the typical Spanish plates, the ones you read about in your blue picture vocabulary book in seventh-grade Spanish I. Paella, gazpacho, tortilla española, arroz con pollo and jamón ibérico belong to this group. Then there was the atypical (for an unassuming American): caracoles (snails, and their sea-green juice), chorizo de sangre (blood sausage) and mayonnaise as the principal condiment. Then there were the everyday staples: pan (bread) at every meal, tomates (tomatoes, the best you’ve ever eaten), aceite de oliva (olive oil; Spain is the world’s No. 1 producer) and fresh fruit. Out-of-home eating was equally elegant; Los Coloniales and Rayas were frequented for authentic Spanish cuisine and ice cream, respectively.
We can’t forget entering the sea of green and white at the Real Betis soccer game, before which thousands were guzzling the last of their Cruzcampos and packing their bocadillos (for halftime consumption) into their pockets. Then, as you entered the stadium, choking on the cigarette smoke and absorbing the atmosphere of the greatest sporting event of your life.
It wouldn’t be right not to mention the nightlife: there was Long Island, a very Westernized bar; Bilindo’s, a very Spanish discoteca; Calle Betis, Alfalfa and The Route 66 Challenge; Diego, Juan and the guy in rollerblades at that bar; La Cervecería Internacional (they had the world’s best beer, as voted by some unnamed entity); leaving a club at 4:30 a.m. and walking past a line of people waiting to get in; seeing a 60-year-old on his morning run on your way back from the night out.
There was the trip to Morocco, where you walked into a tapestry shop and met Elmo, the magnetic and brilliant storeowner (“If you buy this blanket the Moroccan people will smile; It’s a good investment of money”) who put into words the closest thing that you’ve heard to a Life Motto: If you smile at life, life will smile back at you. Then how it felt like coming home when you returned to Spain.
There was the time when you saw two policemen on horseback texting on their smartphones, and you realized that that image is Spain in a nutshell: embracing modernity but forever rooted in its past.
The moment you understood how attached you had become to this foreign land came, fittingly and genuinely, on your last night there, after you had just watched Spain defeat Italy in the semifinals of a World Cup tune-up tournament, when, on your walk home, someone asked you who had won. You said, “We did.”