I had the good fortune to spend eight days in Spain for family vacation this June, the latter four in Madrid, a Big City with the expected hordes of tourists like ourselves, and the Prado, and churros, and late-night dining at outdoor tables. Madrid was hot, but “it’s a dry heat,” said the tour guide.
I will testify: it was a dry heat. So dry that toweling off after a shower was hardly necessary. So dry that I bought an extra tube of body lotion and depleted it. So dry that my curly hair didn’t curl.
At the risk of seeming weirdly obsessed with my hair, let me note that for better and for worse, while I was growing up (my formative years!) the reactions of strangers and friends to my unruly curls heightened my already-extreme self-consciousness of adolescence to a point of mild hysteria about the frizzes — I didn’t see another caucasian person with hair like mine ’til I was 25 years old.
But I digress: my hair changed, dramatically, in the dry heat of Madrid. I’ve been to deserts, lived in one for three months during a field study program, but never had it go so straight. By the afternoon, it dangled, limp and disinterested, into my eyes. Obscuring my view of Spanish
While stumbling about thus blinded, I nonetheless caught glimpses of the locals talking, eating and drinking on a wildly different schedule from my American one. They have a light breakfast of espresso and maybe a pastry, because they were up late the night before. They work a bit (those lucky enough to be employed — Spain’s unemployment rate hovers around 25%), have another espresso and snack at 11, then break at two for lunch and/or siesta. They return to work from 4-7 PM, and eat dinner after that. Itty-bitty toddlers stroll with their parents until 10 or 11 in the evening; those without children head to clubs or bars. As my 16 y.o. put it, “up late at night, nap in the afternoon: this is a great schedule for a teenager, Mom!”
I’d read the guidebooks about Spain before going and knew what to expect. Being in and amongst that daily routine, however, was like standing next to the speakers at a live concert instead of listening through earbuds. Anyone who’s traveled or lived in a non-American country has probably shared this experience.
At the risk of stating the obvious, watching myself slip into a different lifestyle, be it for only a few days and only during vacation, I tiptoed into my brain’s quiet little side room of “what if.” What if I’d been born in a country less hell-bent on self-improvement and less interested in acquiring stuff? What if my hair hadn’t been that big a deal during those formative years?!
I’m old enough now, and enough at peace with my life, to indulge in speculation without triggering regret that will in turn trigger life-choices-analysis-paralysis. Thus, I noted in my journal those elements of Spain that nurtured me. Some are vacation-dependent: It’s easy to manage siesta time without daily life, simple to stay out late when the dogs don’t need to be walked. But I found a short, doable ritual to bring home, too.
In the morning now, I sit in quiet with a (teeny tiny) cup of scalding-hot espresso, without reading the paper, listening to the news, or even reading a book. Just sipping, tasting, and swallowing. It takes five minutes (10-12 if you include espresso-making, which is not as snooty-patooty as it sounds and does NOT have to cost a thousand dollars for a snooty-patooty machine!). I use my Gramma’s pretty espresso cup. I stir in a scant spoonful of sugar. I finish, rinse the cup and spoon and I’m done.
Perhaps this is a ridiculously small new habit; perhaps if I had been born into a different time and place I would be weirdly obsessed about a non-hair aspect of my physical self; perhaps if I weren’t born into this time and place and culture I’d never travel and never know the difference ANYway so what does it matter?
I believe it matters to be taken out of our normal routines and shown different approaches to everything because we are so interestingly, almost infinitely different. Because it’s fun.
Because when we are reminded that our habits are creations of time and space and place and not, in fact, Deep Truths, the door of possibilities is cracked just that little bit wider. You never know when that bit-wider is going to let in a big amazing don’t-know-what-it-is-yet that will blow the door off its hinges and change everything.
Here’s to paying attention to small actions every day, and opening ourselves up. Here’s to doing so in our writing, too. May it be so.