“The Queen of England is the head of Australia as well?”
Marisa picked up her dropped jaw and hastily started translating to Javier in Spanish.
At least it seemed like haste to me, but then again all Spanish sounds hasty to me. Seriously, every café I go to and ask for water, I know they are going to ask ‘sin gaseo’ (‘without gas’, or as we would say ‘still or sparkling’) but when they say it, it always sounds like they are saying our alphabet as if it was a word “abcdefghijklmnopq…”
And I have the face of a Western tourist and they repeat it more slowly.
But, let’s get back to Marisa, Javier and me.
It was my second week in Spain. Every day I awoke with the assurance it would be sunny and we would sit altogether around the table eating lunch outdoors.
This conversation took place during one of those very lunchtimes. The kids had left to play and we adults stayed around the table talking like adults do (still shocked I am an adult that does these things now – when did that happen?).
Having filled Javier in, Marisa turned back to me, “Wow.”
And then it was my turn to say that same word as they described to me the Spanish government, or lack thereof, at that time. (I also said it in my head when they didn’t know the Queen was our head of state, I just figured Australia is the centre of the universe, people should know this, y’know?)
As it is, Spain just swore in a new Prime Minister a couple of days ago after 10 months without a government, due to a deadlock between the socialists, conservatives, and centrists.
Spain has a monarchy too, the history of which I learned a lot more about during my walking tour of Madrid.
This isn’t to go further into the political differences of our two nations. I don’t think I really could without reading more about Spain in English.
But, it was a pivotal moment for me realising being a traveller not only tests my assumptions, it also creates space to test other people’s assumptions too.
My time as an au pair has felt much less about me teaching the kids English and much more of a cultural exchange. Which is why I chose Spain over the UK.
Well done Spain, living up to expectations even if your government isn’t.
Let me give you some examples of the cultural exchange – reader of now or future grandchildren who have been forced to read about Mama Chief’s travels.
Example One: there is a saying in Spain about bread. A woman at the bakery said it to me because it reminded her of my name. You see in Spain, the part of the bread that isn’t crust is called miga (mee-gah). (And my name’s Megan, in case that part was necessary for any of y’all).
The saying was ‘Hacer buenas migas’, which means literally ‘You make good friends’ and is used when two people get along well. Not Spain’s best if you ask me.
At least, I think that’s what it was; that’s the only saying Javier can think of with miga in it and Marisa isn’t here to clarify.
Anyway, there’s plenty of digression today (the grandkids are used to it).
The point is that the word miga was used, which provoked Marisa to ask me how to say that in English.
‘Um, bread.’ She laughed, ‘You don’t know the name?’ I was dumbfounded. Do we have a name for that part of the bread and I’ve just missed out on it all this time? No, don’t worry, it’s just bread.
That’s what I find interesting about spending time here.
We may not be able to have full conversations, but I feel that our conversations are full as we are constantly asking one another about the meaning behind something or what the equivalent is in Australia/Spain.
Every day is filled with a new ‘Wow’ moment as we learn something more about each other’s culture.
One of the other biggest wows for me came as I decided to make Sergio a snake cake for his birthday.
I went to the grocery store sure that I’d be able to get everything I wanted.
I just assumed there would be food colouring with all the baking stuff. There wasn’t.
It ain’t got nothing on Woolies or Coles
And I realised something about the baking section – it was highly understocked. At least to Australian standards.
I realised the same thing about Marisa and Javier’s kitchen when I came home to make icing and found no Mixmaster to help me. So with clean, fresh hands, I set about doing the best I could with the raw materials I was given. These hands.
Once my hands had churned hard and finally made something that resembled icing and I began to ice the cake, Marisa struck with confusion at what the heck I had made.
Fair point for anyone to make, but I was also finding this reaction very particular to Spain.
It was the same reaction I got in the supermarket when I asked for food colouring to make icing and was led to the herbs rack.
Then it all clicked for Marisa, a worldly woman, and she explained that in Spain, you have to go to special baking shops to buy certain ingredients you or I would find at Woolies or Coles no worries.
She didn’t stop there.
Marisa went on to tell me the kids might not like the cake because it might be too sweet what with Spanish kids not being used to so much sugar and all.
Of course, my first instinct was to abandon this ugly wreck of a cake, but I persisted, if not for Sergio and for the euros spent on groceries than for me (to eat).
I thought to myself, ‘This is why Australians are obese’ and ‘We should really take a leaf out of the Spaniards’ book’.
Then I went to the party and saw the kids’ chowing down hard on lots of lollies and thought also of Sergio’s ice cream infatuation and it occurred to me maybe we are just in different chapters, not a completely different book.
We aren’t so different after all.
But we are.
Our supermarkets are stocked differently. Our meal times are different. The role of the man in Spain is quite unlike the role of the man in Australia. Our greetings, our sayings, our rituals. They are all different.
Some things I want to bring back to Australia.
For instance, in Spain, if a public holiday falls on a Tuesday, you get the Monday off as a bridging day.
Other things can stay here where I can visit them and then go again.
Travel provides me with so many stories, and some of my favourite are the ones that begin with, “Well in Spain, they…”
And the irony is you don’t have to be the traveller to collect those stories.
My Spanish family now have a number that begin with, “In Australia…” and usually end with “…and the kangaroo lived happily ever after.” I only speak the truth.
Of course, some stories are universal. I just said goodbye to Maralina the pregnant cleaner for the last time and we hugged and nearly kissed because I forgot about the second cheek kiss and was hugging her tightly still.
I was trying to wish her all the best with our English-Spanish-charades language and then I touched her bump and thought, Pregnant women hate that! All pregnant women. I am sure.
So I quickly recoiled and just rubbed her hand instead.
Sorry Maralina. And thank you Spain.
The stories you have given me brighten all corners of my soul.