Spain and the Average Physique

I enjoy the sentiment here that people are born looking a certain way, and that the particular certain way doesn’t define who a person is, so natural appearances aren’t messed with too badly (other than from certain socio-economics groups like our aging Spanish ladies). That goes for things we Americans methodically correct as a rite of passage, for example crooked teeth. Lots of crooked teeth here with no closed lipped smiles to hide what Americans would call imperfections. Even if you wish that guy with the tobacco stained, gappy set of chompers would adopt such a smile.

Body acceptance of others is the norm, and to an extent one’s own body. I don’t mean that there are fat acceptance groups or hyper vigilance to be politically correct about fat people (or anything else for that matter). What I mean is, if someone is fat, they may be referred to as fat, but it isn’t with disgust or contempt or scorn. It’s just a defining characteristic they have and it’s an easy reference. No one watches them eat and whispers Does he really need the extra slice of jamon on his bocadillo?? It isn’t anyone’s business but his own, and no one treats it otherwise.

That being said, the standard body size is far smaller than that of a typical US citizen. I mean in height and weight and everything else. For women, the median dress size here is about a US 4,  which means there are also a lot of naturally thin women who are much smaller, like a size 00-2. These are women who do not think twice about what they are eating. They drink beer, they eat a chocolate croissant for mid-morning breakfast, they drink regular coke and they eat dinner well past 10pm and it usually includes something fried. But they also may skip a meals because they get too busy or perhaps just forget to eat. So while there is a level of body acceptance, there aren’t a lot of fat people here.

There are a lot of differences in daily diet that I think may contribute to a naturally smaller size. The Spanish do not ever ingest high fructose corn syrup, they don’t eat much dairy other than a bit of soft cheese or very infrequently some grated hard cheese, they never eat butter in or on anything (olive oil is used instead), they eat fish daily, red meat and pork and chicken almost daily. I’d go on, but the hype about the “Mediterranean diet” has already come and gone so you know the components.

Now, I don’t know if any of this has anything to do with their natural set point in body weight, because on the other hand, they also put oil on everything and eat crème brûlée and patatas braves: fried potatoes usually served  with some mayonnaise-y type sauce which sounds gross but isn’t bad (in fact the whole concept of Mayonnaise came from the island Menorca, here in Catalunya so it isn’t a strange adoption like that of the Dutch who do put straight mayonnaise on fries, which you already knew because you saw Pulp Fiction).

And while the entire male world runs or cycles daily well into their 70s, the women generally aren’t very sporty. Spanish women may or may not go to the gym, but if they do, it isn’t with the fervor that the dieting (or the eating disordered) put into it. As far as I can tell, they go to socialize or to have something to do during the two hour lunch break everyone has. And they walk or ride bicycles or take public transportation, which involves a lot more walking than you think.

Despite the diet and exercise differences, I think a lot of it is in our genes. We of Anglo-Saxon decent (most of middle American and all of Northern Europe) are not just much taller than our Mediterranean brothers, but bigger breasted, assed, bellied and with substantially more back fat as well. Just give us an extra slice or two of pizza a week for a couple months, and we expand 3 pant sizes, while Alberto just has more energy during the day. We must have had some cold winters to naturally select that kind of fat storing efficiency. If we want to keep ourselves in check now that we are no longer hunting and gathering and storing extra fat blankets for lean winters, we have to be vigilant.  We could adopt the “Mediterranean Diet”, but considering what happens when you spend a week in Italy, I don’t think that is going to work for us. (That’s a joke, but regardless, I’m not willing to commit to such an experiment.)

Interestingly, I hear Spanish men discussing their diets all the time. As in “I’m going on a diet” and “I need to get some more exercise because my abs are no longer so defined you can scrub your clothes on them”. In the US, a layer of fat on a man goes unnoticed by him and is easily described (inaccurately) as muscle by others by using the adjective big, as in “that’s a big dude”, as in “that’s a strong dude” instead  of “that’s a chunky dude”. Men here are inscrutable about a handful of gut and will work hard to rid themselves of it.

Leanness  is king. Which means that yes, the smaller and less muscled look for men (what hipsters in the US affectionately refer to as European, or Gay?)  is completely acceptable. Instead of fearing a scrawny body and striving for the kind of overinflated biceps that every US high school boy spends hours sweating in his garage while listening to Rush trying to achieve, skinniness is A-OK. In fact it’s an asset: you’re a skinny kid? Get on a bicycle! Cycling here is so popular that a fit but really skinny guy is universally envied for his climbing skills, potential or actual,while bicycling in the mountains. Because cycling is the way out. It’s the equivalent to our poor kid turned basketball star/rags to riches story.

NOTE: The pro cycling world is perhaps an unfair example, as any fly on the wall will tell you that the preoccupation with eating and not eating rivals that of any group of unnaturally slim models: Food restrictions, diet pills, off season binges and of course the deliberate avoidance of speaking of any and all strange eating patterns marks the cycling world in general.

So the average Spanish guy isn’t going to weigh his food and abstain from alcohol (ever!), though he may take it easy on the pasta and skip the dessert if his gut is starting to protrude over his belt a whole 10 millimeters. And he is going to admire rather than make fun of the physique of the tiny dudes on bicycles, even if he never wants to be that size himself.

If you are now envious of the Mediterranean natural size o women and lean men with washboard abs, both of whom who eat bread dipped in olive oil everyday with their beer, let me help you feel better: They look older. That type of thinness over age 30 ages you a lot. And god help them if they smoke. (Or smoke while tanning, which I see a lot of women here doing. Trust me, they look 45 by age 35. So wear sunscreen and don’t smoke, for the love of Pete.)

And if you visit, or even come here to live, don’t worry about having a bowl of those olives and a glass of wine or two. These local delights are delicious treats like nowhere else on earth. And if you start feeling guilty, remember that there’s nothing like a little extra padding to make naturally age-thinned faces and necks look younger.

And no one is going to judge you for a couple of extra pounds either way.

On Learning Castellano

Something happened in Spanish class the other day that got me thinking about languages.

Whenever you mention to Americans that you speak another language, the first question usually asked is “are you fluent?” But really, how do you answer that question? Do they mean: Can you order stuff in a restaurant? Have a conversation in the supermarket? How about on the phone? Argue about politics? Each of those things take a different level of language understanding to which you could truthfully answer Yes to the question of fluency. When I learned German, I got to a point where I was dreaming in the language and forgetting words in English. I was fully immersed in the language, and also a lot younger, which makes a difference. Of course, I immediately forgot all of the language I spent over a year learning upon leaving the country.

When I moved to Spain at the end of 2008, I fully expected to be dreaming in Spanish in six months. Two and a half years later, I am finally reaching a level of proficiency where I no longer avoid certain social situations because I know there would only be Spanish spoken and I will not be able to hold up a conversation. Try that for three or four hours and you’ll understand that more than once a week is too mentally exhausting not to mention humiliating.

So I’ve been diligently attending four hour, five day a week Spanish classes since November (though I cannot make it every week, for example I took a six week break in December/January because I was in the US). I’ve been two three different schools of varying excellence or lack thereof. I also study every day for another hour. This is how much work it takes to learn a new language as an adult. There is no learning by osmosis just because you are surrounded by another language. You will invariably seek out your native language speakers at some point just to feel a connection with with people.

But classes are great, I love going to school. I feel totally at home with the wake up, go to class, study at home, go practice with someone in person over a coffee routine.  (Maybe that’s why I spent 5 years in University and another 2 in graduate school. Or maybe that was just to avoid getting a real job, I don’t know.) I love the international microcosm that the classes hold.  And I especially love when Japanese students are in the class. Not only because their cultural references are so different from the rest of the Western world (we picked a team name of Sharks, another team chose Bolts, and a third team who happen to all be Japanese students chose Mountain), but their fashion sense is awesome. Last year, I had a girl in class who one day wore giant clip on earrings, tube socks with shorts, and big Roy Orbison style black framed glasses with no lenses – just the frames. And that was just one day of many such delightfully fashionable outfits.

So anyway, my story about the other day: We had an exercise to do in class involving creating a name, slogan and advertising points for a fictional business to open in town. My partner (another American) and I chose “Internacional Casa de Pancakes”, our direct ripoff of IHOP, which would probably not be well received in any way by the Spanish since 1) they do not eat pancakes 2) they think our coffee is shit (which is true) 3)  their idea of syrup, indeed of anything sweet when it comes to breakfast, is either chocolate or caramel, and only chocolate or caramel 4) they don’t really eat butter either. So blueberry syrup on a stack of pan fried doughy disks with butter would be triply repulsive. But we persevered nonetheless, and we put blueberry syrup in our list of features to lure in the clientele. Except no one understood the word I was absolutely, positively sure was the word for blueberry.

I said to the teacher over and over: Mirtillo. Mirtillo! I spelled it out. No one recognized the word or what I was trying to describe. Finally the doubt crept in. Maybe those are the red berries, not the blue ones?  The teacher told me arándano. I looked it up: arándano. Where had mirtillo come from?

As you know, there are two official languages in this region, and occasionally, especially with food because I learn the names in the markets but sometimes words to do with household related things, I learn and use the Catalan word for something. Finca instead of edificio for building, pruna instead of ciruela for plum, and I don’t even know I’m using a Catalan word. Here, if you are speaking Spanish and throw in a few Catalan words, it goes unnoticed as everyone does that anyway. So I figured, ah ha, I used the Catalan word and my teacher is from Peru, so she didn’t recognize the word.

But I just looked up the word in Catalan for blueberry. It’s nabiu (nah- BEE). Mirtillo is Italian. I’m mixing three languages. I sound like my boyfriend when he tries to speak Spanish – it starts out OK then degenerates into a big mess of Italian/Spanish/Catalan. Everyone understands him, so it’s fine, and he doesn’t care in the slightest. But I want fluidity. I want no one to be able to detect where I am from and I want smooth, unhalted conversations on complex topics.

So I may be studying for the rest of my life. If nothing else just to keep what I have already learned in my head. But I like school, so I’m OK with that.

Spanish TV is Painful.

Since I’m on a “Complain about Spain” streak, let me complain about television over here. I’m not much of a TV watcher, but I do try to use it to enhance my listening skills and vocabulary. But there are three things I absolutely cannot stand about Spanish television that inevitably will make me turn it off after a few channel rotations:

1. Dubbing television shows and movies here is standard. Now, I cannot stand dubbing in the first place. Give me sub titles any day or make me try to figure out the story on my own by looking at the images.

But the problem is not the dubbing in itself. It is that there are two people (one man, one woman) who do all the language dubbing for programs bought from foreign (American) markets. I am so sick of hearing their voices I want to scream. And not only because they are overused voice “actors” and rarely fit the character on the program. And also not because I know that Brad Pitt does not sound like a 50 year old radio announcer.

It’s because they aren’t actors at all. I swear they don’t even try. They sound like two people reading a bedtime story to some kid, altering their voices to portray different characters and doing a shitty, lazy job of it. Imagine whiny, cranky sounding whimpering when someone on Law and Order is weeping over someone’s death. I’ll wait. OK, got it? It’s worse than that.

2. The music put to news stories never has anything to do with the story. Example. Today a story about a credit card scam was backed by – ready for this bit of production genius? – Huey Lewis and the News, Power of Love. I am serious, and this is not an anomaly. That dumb-ass song has the line “don’t need no credit card to ride this train”. And therefore the professional editors felt it appropriate to use this jaunty tune to enhance a story of thievery.

Another brilliant example is the use of the 1960s song “California Dreamin'” every. single. time. the state of California is mentioned. And as a location too, not the subject of a story. If you must have the word California in a song, there are around 700 other songs to choose from. Does another, more un-newsworthy song exist with the word California in it? No. And how amateur (or lazy?) is it to just use a song about California instead of the theme of the actual story? Where do these media people learn their craft?

3. Did I mention there are only 2 people working in the dubbing department for every single movie, Simpson’s episode and Sex and the City re-run? Because there are. Only two. Ridiculous.

4. Belen Esteban with her bright yellow, home hair-dye job, and her horrible, smoke ravaged, heavily made up face with it’s protruding lips and eyeballs is on the TV constantly. Girl, I have some advice for you: skip the lip collagen and plastic surgery and invest in some Botox, and maybe a facial peel or two. It may also be time to start using some sunblock. (Note: link on her name goes to a Facebook page dedicated to her “old” face, the one before she lost a lot of weight, had a bunch of plastic surgery, and evidently started smoking so much and baking in the sun Enjoy.)

I think I’ll stick to the news for practicing my listening skills, since the irrelevant music is the least offensive of the three crimes. I’ll just crank up the volume and sing along with Huey next time one of his songs backs a story (which is often) since it’s gonna remain in my head for the next week regardless.

Or at least until California is mentioned in the news again.