This summer, I spent two months in the autonomous community of Galicia, Spain, in its largest city A Coruna. I traveled there to take Spanish classes and work for a local nonprofit to improve my speaking ability, but I learned so much more than Spanish, specifically in the realm of Culture and Politics.
Learning how to speak Spanish comes with understanding a different way of painting a picture with your words of what you want to say. And learning about a new culture happens the same way; one must observe customs and interactions from an outside perspective, and then they can patch together the cultural foundations of a nation.
Observing and interacting with the customs and people in Galicia taught me the importance of living all aspects of life with intentionality. In short, love your friends and family, eat with gusto, and celebrate the joys and wonders in the world with reckless abandon.
I studied, worked, and what felt like vacationed, in A Coruna, a town in the autonomous community of Galicia. A Coruna has an approximate population of one million people but feels like a small town with a walkable isthmus, safe, family-filled neighborhoods, and large beaches along every centimeter of the city.
Spaniards practice intentionality foremostly in the sector of fondness. Caring for the well being of one’s family, friends, and neighbors is of utmost concern. Contrary to the commonality of independence in the U.S., for example, the majority of young people aged 25-30 still live at home with their parents.
My fellow students and I had the pleasure of meeting and living with a variety of Colombian families who proved to be extremely welcoming, loving, and caring beyond belief. They cooked for us, hugged and kissed us, and gave us immensely wise advice. Not to mention that friends from work, neighbors, and seemingly Spanish strangers were more than willing to dole out an enormous amount of generosity and love at even a meek request. Learning from the loving Spanish lifestyle, our student group grew even closer as a result.
In Galicia, and in the majority of Spain, stores and restaurants close on Sunday to prioritize rest and family time. It was always a joy to be invited to Sunday lunch at the apartment downstairs and see people in the street traipsing to the homes of their parents and grandparents for lunch. Intentional care and quality time with loved ones was a marked cultural trait of Spain.
Gente de mi familia de casa, mi companeros de escuela, y otros amigos.
Just as Spaniards regard family, they regard food with a serious attitude. The Mediterranean gastronomy calls for quality produce and fresh seafood; food and drink should be fresh and flowing.
While “observing” the intentionality with which Spaniards regard their diet, and, by proxy, their health and well being, I happened to eat a lot of delicious fresh seafood, Spanish tortilla, and empanadas. The rich tradition of Mediterranean cuisine in Spain granted me the opportunity to learn how to make my own Spanish tortilla, which I completed on my own one time!
On another level, the meals are the gathering of family and friends, and restaurants in Spain cater towards this cultural tradition. In the middle of the day for “la comida” menus are designed for families to order shareable “raciones,” bread, and pitchers of beverages. It was refreshing to see a culture enraptured by food but conscious of the quality of the food that they were consuming and the context in which they did so; eating made for a delightful experience for the health, the social life, and the taste.
Spaniards, notoriously, also practice intentionality in the realm of festivities. It was breathtaking to live in Spain during summer, as there are a myriad of festivals and concerts all summer long. On June 23, we were privileged to witness the San Juan Beach Festival. On this night in A Coruna, where one of the largest celebrations of San Juan occurs, hundreds of bonfires light up the sky all night as people barbecue, dance, sing, and watch fireworks. Intended to honor the summer solstice and the magic in the air on this night, the festival also showcases the love that Spaniards have for enjoyment and partying when they have the opportunity.
Thousands of people, including families, friends, and neighbors, lined Playas Riazor and Orzan all day Sunday, playing music and waiting for the sun to set to begin preparing the celebratory meal. At our bonfire spot, we had over thirty people talking, dancing, and singing all day; members of our exchange student group, all the neighbors from our apartment building, the friends of our neighbors, and even strangers that barely knew us felt it was important to spend time on the beach and celebrate. The love for celebration and genuine enjoyment was enchanting as the sun set on the beach and the fireworks came out.
We enjoyed many more fiestas throughout the summer, including free concerts in the Plaza, la Feria Merival, and even a German festival! Coming from the U.S. where there are few days of rest from our busy lives, let alone national festivals, it was refreshing to view the way that Spaniards prioritize celebration and enjoyment in their lives in such an obvious manner. They party often and party hard, and seem better for it.
I observed the festivity habits of Spaniards but also the working conditions, as I interned with a non-profit that assists refugees and their children called Equus Zebra.
Observing the work environment in Equus Zebra provided another lens to understand the culture and politics in Spain. First of all, Spaniards work very hard. Despite having the ability to take a siesta from 2-4pm for lunch, my coworkers and I started work at 9am, worked until 2pm, and then returned at 4pm to work until 8pm.
Not only was the duration humbling to observe, but observing the immigrants, neighbors, and customers that entered and exited Equus Zebra was enlightening. Equus Zebra stretches their thin, non-profit budget to help refugees and their families from many countries in Africa and South America. They provide food, housing and job opportunities, schooling, and childcare to families in need. In addition, the non-profit is majorly supported by profits from the thrift store that operates in the front of the building!
Equus Zebra’s mission and hardworking staff work extremely hard to provide love to all of the people that they assist. I was particularly enamored with the efforts of Mar, the children’s activities coordinator who worked with all of the kids all year round, 5-6 days a week, for 9 hours a day, completely volunteering. Compared to her, I felt like I was doing the absolute minimum feeding and teaching fifteen 3-6 year olds for five hours a day for three weeks!
The kids were so smart and engaging, the neighborhood community was so supportive of Equus Zebra, and it seemed like Equus Zebra garned a positive and happy environment for refugees that were not supported by the majority of the surrounding Spanish community. The Spanish government provides a variety of services to children of refugees, while their parents can barely apply for housing or work in the private sector. The director of Equus Zebra explained to us this dichotomy by pointing out that while working in Equus Zebra you see the children having fun, but when you leave the building and begin your walk back home, you see many adults of African or South American descent selling wares in the street to make ends meet.
A microcosm of Spain’s proclivity for intentionality in action and a prolific supporter of a political minority, I am thankful to have observed and worked with the hard working people and genius students at Equus Zebra.
I miss Spain, writing this from U.S. soil. I miss hugging and kissing the Colombian neighbors in my building every day, drinking 1 euro coffee with friends, and walking by the beach and through my neighborhood with all the kiddos from Equus Zebra. I miss the attitude, the language, and the lifestyle. And, for now, Spain is far from me. But its unique cultural components, which made it an inspirational place to live, study, and work, no longer sit misunderstood or far from my mind. Being surrounded by intentional Spaniards all summer, I was challenged and pushed out of my comfort zone but also garnered an immeasurable amount of love, for which I am immeasurably thankful. Te amo, y hasta pronto, ojala.