Notes from Across the Ocean The 5 Things I Learned about America by Living Abroad

My apartment in Madrid. | (c) Pedro Alberto Arroyo

My apartment in Madrid. | (c) Pedro Alberto Arroyo

There’s an old story about a man who travels far and wide in search of a treasure, only to discover that what he was looking for was back home the whole time. It’s a cute little story and it’s not difficult to see why it’s so durable: it reminds us not to take the here and now for granted, and most of us can stand to be reminded of that. It also has the added benefit of comforting those not wealthy enough to afford travel and, again, most of us can usually stand to be comforted.

After college, I was fortunate enough to spend a year living and working in Madrid. During that year I got to travel a bit, including a brief but entirely worthwhile trip to Egypt before the ouster of Mubarak. I’d be lying if I told you I’d seen it coming, but I at least had some context for it when it happened. There was the military man in the Valley of the Kings who wouldn’t criticize Mubarak, but did tell us who his favorite Presidents were, in this order: Anwar Sadat for bringing peace, and Abdel Nasser for being awesome. There was the Copt who thanked my then-fiancée and a dear friend we were traveling with for shielding his daughter from a street fight with the words, “We Christians have to stick together.” And then there was Mustafa, our barefoot guide for the day who was illiterate but spoke seven languages fluently. (My traveling group plus a couple we met there could verify that he spoke five of these languages, we gave him the benefit of the doubt that he spoke his native Nubian dialect, and by that point we accepted that he probably spoke German as well. But frankly, he could have said he spoke Klingon and I would have believed him.)

In Prague, I learned that if you build a cool enough clock, people will come to visit. | (c) Pedro Alberto Arroyo

In Prague, I learned that if you build a cool enough clock, people will come to visit. | (c) Pedro Alberto Arroyo

I didn’t go to Europe in search of anything in particular – perhaps besides the opportunity to be somewhere new – so I can’t say I came to discover that was waiting for me in Boston all along. But, in the sense that I had gone to Europe to learn more about the world out there, I did come to appreciate the surprising way in which what I really learned about from the experience was my own world back stateside.

I’m sure I’m still digesting my experiences and some of my better insights might still be to come, but here are a few of the things that most jumped out at me about America from a year in Spain and my travels from there:

(1) Our maximalist language on politics is really stupid.

If you listen to American political discourse, then you know that the political battle of our times is between the Socialist Democrats and the Fascist Republicans. So imagine my surprise when I moved to Madrid and witnessed actual political fighting between actual fascists and actual socialists. Now, to be clear, I’m not accusing the right-leaning PP (Partido Popular) of being fascist (that was a reference to supporters of Franco’s old regime) but their main opponents, the PSOE, are actual, bonafide Socialists. It was enough to make you feel that Americans throw around political epithets without first sitting down and trying to really understand these terms.

Similarly, any trip across the ocean is probably enough to, depending on your persuasion, either restore your faith in or make you lose all hope in the Democratic party. That’s because the Democratic party might be many things, but a strong leftist party it is not. The entirety of the American political universe, as it pertains to the role of government and how to regulate the economy, exists, with few overlaps, to the right of the conversation in Spain. I’m a regular listener of a podcast out of Madrid that styles itself ‘Libertarian’ – they’ve got the rhetoric down, but their politics are more akin to old Blue-Dog Democrats than to Ron Paul.

I don’t know how Spain comes off in this comparison, but the US does better than you’d think. Sure, it’s true that our conversation is myopic and bafflingly decontextualized, but there’s also a greater consensus in the American body politic than you’re led to believe. Democrats don’t fail to espouse the policies of the PSOE because they’re too weak to; they don’t pursue those policies because it turns out Americans, including the members of the Democratic National Committee, don’t actually favor socialism as much as you’d think.

In Ireland, I learned that no matter how well you plan a marriage proposal, you might have to improvise at the last minute. | (c) Pedro Alberto Arroyo

In Ireland, I learned that no matter how well you plan a marriage proposal, you might have to improvise at the last minute. | (c) Pedro Alberto Arroyo

Which leads me to my second point…

(2) An overbearing government is really obnoxious.

Growing up in a poor, Hispanic neighborhood and then being told by people who had been coddled and favored all their lives that life outcomes are largely the product of effort was enough to cure me of the worst excesses of libertarianism. But grocery shopping in Madrid was enough to cure me of the worst excesses of interventionism.

You know all those complaints people make about big-box retailers driving out mom-and-pop stores? Well, it seems that Madrid took those complaints to heart. As a result, nothing is open when you need it to be – except for those mom-and-pop stores. Price competition didn’t drive them out of business, and so they get to charge more. Also, their selection is awful. In other words, you know that whole creative-destruction thing Schumpeter talked about? Madrid has less of it than it needs and it shows.

I don’t mean to rag on Madrid – after all, they have clean streets and their public transportation system was really top notch. But, given how much we fight about the role of regulation, this American in Spain was reminded of what can happen when you have too much – to say nothing of the macro-economic challenges Spain is facing or of their notoriously rigid labor market.

The jail at Heidelberg University. Presumably for ABD graduate students. | (c) Pedro Alberto Arroyo

The jail at Heidelberg University. Presumably for ABD graduate students. | (c) Pedro Alberto Arroyo

(3) We’re too big to hide.

America has always had an isolationist tendency. But despite our tendency to so often ignore the outside world, and our frustrating unwillingness to look abroad for models, much of the rest of the world can’t bring itself to look away.

My year in Spain overlapped with the 2008 Presidential contest. The ups and downs of that late summer and fall were front-page material for Madrid’s El Pais and ABC. I learned John McCain picked Sarah Palin from the front page of a newspaper. I was introduced to Joe the Plumber by the 12-year-old students in my English class. I saw the inauguration on a television in a fast-food restaurant. Everywhere I went people wanted to know what ‘Americans’ thought about this thing or another. As an aside, let me tell you how tired I grew of this formula. I could no more speak for ‘Americans’ than I can now explain ‘Spaniards’ to my countrymen from a few months in the capital. But, yet, there it was.

They also wanted to know, bless their hearts, what Americans thought about their then-president, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and I tried to gently break the news that most Americans would have no idea who he was. In fact, when McCain seemed to confuse Spain’s President Zapatero with Mexico’s Zapatistas, there was prolonged consternation in Spain about what this might augur for America’s relations with Spain.

In upper Egypt, a man I met outside a shop wondered at the idea that the next President of the United States would be a “black man, just like me.” I didn’t see the resemblance between our lanky President-elect and this stout, small-eared man with lighter skin; but I got his point. Here was a man who’d never known what it was like to select his own leader, marveling at the thought he might see some part of himself reflected in ours.

The truth is that the bright line we like to draw between domestic and foreign politics no longer exists, if it ever did. Whether it’s our gun debate, gay marriage, or Paul Ryan’s budget plan, what America does garners attention throughout the world. America is too big to hide. We should welcome that spotlight and while we shouldn’t eschew controversial and important debates, we should bear in mind that the world is still watching.

(4) Cultural homogeneity is borring.

Everyone who goes to Spain raves about the food and it’s true, Spanish cuisine is exquisite. But you know where else I can get pretty good Spanish cuisine? New York or Boston and, probably, Milwaukee. You know what I can’t get? Descent Vietnamese food in Madrid. After my tenth helping of tortilla española and papas bravas or gambas al ajillo, a man starts to get bored.

Americans are spoiled for choice and we’re so used to it that we’ve lost all perspective on just how wonderful that is. I know that what passes for authentic cuisine in the United States is oftentimes a pale facsimile of what you can get back in the old country – or in my mother’s kitchen for that matter. Though I think that’s more hype than reality: in a country of three hundred million people, the perfect Tibetan butter tea is somewhere to be found. But I’d dare say there’s nowhere in Spain you could get a quality helping of deep-fried-butter-on-a-stick.

(5) I’m American. Full stop.

America’s diversity is both our greatest strength and our greatest challenge. As the son of Latino  immigrants, spending a year in Spain was a special kind of experience. In the United States, there’s enough to make people like me feel like outsiders. It certainly doesn’t help when Newt Gingrich refers to Spanish as the “language of the ghetto”. We’re used to qualifying our Americanness with references to our race, ethnicity, or even our religious background. These tags are carried like amulets against what too often feels like a sense that our cultural heritage is less relevant than that of other Americans to the future this country is trying to forge for itself – or the sense that we’re somehow less accepted.

You would have thought that living in Spain, where the language and the seasoning on the food might seem more familiar, might serve to reinforce that impression. But the truth is that all of that fell away the moment someone asked me that all-familiar question: “Where are you from?” The truth is that in the States, it had always made sense to answer with my parents’ birthplaces, but overseas that answer felt incongruous. That question was meant to do what it is always meant to do – that is, get a sense for how the questioner should understand me. And in that context, only one answer made sense: “I’m from Boston.” That is, I’m American. That was only reinforced by my day-to-day experience, where I realized that my taste for fried plantains was a lot less relevant to my existence in this world than my unshakable conviction that speech must be free, that people should govern themselves, that monarchy is obnoxious, and that peanut butter is delicious.

The most important lesson from my year in Spain was this: while it is so easy to see all the ways in which we differ from each other, it is much harder and much more important to be aware of the ways in which we are all bound to each other by our common political, historical, and cultural heritage. Yes, even me – perhaps especially me: a child of immigrants.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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