Lands of the Setting Sun: Getting Ready

Bella Hispania

Bill Bryson has never written about Spain, nor has David Sedaris. Michael Palin and Charley Boorman both went through Spain, but only a little bit around the edges. I was beginning to worry. I had planned this trip meticulously for months, and with only two days to go, I’d run out of ways to prepare.

In England didn’t need any book or travel show; the country was omnipresent in English-language media. And in Israel I’d been in a Birthright group with a guide. My impending journey into Spain seemed somehow lacking.

Months earlier, trapped on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I decided to read the Oxford University Press’ history of Spain. Somehow, they managed to turn the story of this country, the product of endless cultural invasions, wars, and political intrigue, and make it dryer than the winter rash that had developed just in time for the trip. My only option was to talk to my friend Sam Ettinger, who had spent a semester there.

“When you go, are you going to use an American or British accent?”

I ignored his bizarre conceit. “Why don’t I just speak Spanish?”

“I didn’t know you spoke Spanish.”

“Remember that time I was on the bus in San Francisco, and that old racist lady sat next to me and went on a rant in Spanish about how the Mexican kids in front of us were shaming her ethnicity by acting black?”


Actually, my Spanish was shaky. Despite growing up near towns where Spanish is the first language, taking five years of Spanish classes, and understanding the written language, I faltered embarrassingly when trying to hold a conversation. On the other hand, it seemed to be only Northern Mexican Spanish that gave me trouble; I chatted for hours with some Argentine girls in London who didn’t speak any English, so my luck in Spain was anyone’s guess.

“My point being,” Sam continued, “you don’t want them to think you’re English. They really don’t like the English right now, what with all the vomiting on the beach.”

I was well-acquainted with the English in Spain through television. Spain– Valencia and the Balearics in particular– is full of wintering British who hole up in their own community with no interest in the country around them, and queasy students yakking all over the place, berating the locals for not serving chips. It’s a problem. On the other hand, Spaniards love the Duke of Wellington and Joe Strummer, so I came out of the conversation having learned nothing about what English-speakers face in the country.

I’ve wanted to go to Spain since I was ten years old, and thought it might actually be the inspiration for Hyrule in the Legend of Zelda games– particularly Ocarina of Time, which has lots of Moorish and Islamic influences going on there. And because California was settled by the Spaniards so much later than the rest of Latin America, their influence was much more recent; the people of 18th century Los Angeles probably spoke with Castilian accents, but since the original Spanish-speaking community was effectively eradicated by the influx of Americans, we’ll probably never know.

In either case I planned meticulously. I was taking my mom; despite growing up in a Spanish-speaking region, she never learned the language well enough to speak in a foreign country, and there were some things I knew she would want to see, though I had no idea how much.

Compared to other European countries, Spain is huge; bigger than California, and not long and narrow like that state. Seeing the whole country would be impossible, but I decided on a few locations that were important to me: Barcelona, Madrid, and Córdoba. I also made arrangements to visit Gibraltar and Tangier nearby, and our plans included an overnight stop in London on the way back. All apologies to the Basque Country, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Granada. Next time, I promise.

To be continued…

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