Hepburn Learning to Dispel Stereotypes

Reid Hepburn, with Eiffel Tower over his right shoulder, in Paris.

Reed Hepburn ’12 – Stereotypes are wonderful things. Yes, I realize that this sounds like exactly the kind of perspective that studying abroad is supposed to dismantle. But if you don’t believe me, try this: dismiss as myth every popular American notion about French culture and come spend a week in Paris acting on the assumptions of that model. Then get back to me. In my first few days here, I noticed evidence supporting every single stereotype I’d heard—the Parisian aversion to foreigners (especially Americans), general rudeness, widespread smoking, the bakery on every corner, and of course, the universal, hyper-keen fashion sense.

From my pre-departure research on Paris culture, I had learned a few tricks for blending in on the street—wear black, don’t make eye contact, avoid smiling, and never, EVER whistle. I followed this counsel, which was based on stereotypical assumptions, to great success. I was asked for directions by tourists almost every day in my first week here. A fellow US student in my program likes to wear orange and speak loud English. In his first week, he held eye contact for too long with a stranger, who graciously showed his disapproval by brandishing a knife. An anomalous example, yes, but you get the point… snare-snare, cymbal! If not for my preconceived notions, my adjustment to Parisian life would likely have been more difficult.

After some time, however, the apparent accuracy of my flagrantly American generalizations of this city’s people became somewhat troubling. After all, modern US media and academia alike incessantly preach against stereotypes, warning that these ideas necessarily foster prejudice and hatred. How could the stereotypes be right? Even more disturbingly to my post-C&T academic conscience, I soon came to develop my own generalizations. Parisians never hurry, raise their voices, draw attention to themselves, run, or laugh. Parisians never start conversations with strangers. Parisians never this, always that, etc.
Just when my list of “never”s and “always”s was primed to give Leviticus a run for its money, I witnessed what some would call divine intervention of the gods of social studies. All in the same day, I saw a group of girls laughing as they walked down the street, their conversation escalating until they were yelling over each other; I saw a throng of people rushing to catch their train; I saw a man running (and not to catch a baguette-thief, but for exercise); an unknown woman started a conversation with me; and- wonder of wonders -I passed a garbage man who was whistling as he collected the trash. This was about two weeks ago.

Since then, most of the sights of that day have proven to be rare, and in some cases, remain unique thus far. Nonetheless, the inner conflict between my observations and my assumed intellectual duty to disregard for stereotypes has been reconciled. I realized that stereotypes are called stereotypes, not facts or laws, for a reason. Anyone with a mustard seed of life experience can tell you that many stereotypes are based on generalizations that are, or were at one point, often true. There are always, however, exceptions, and that is what makes these ideas stereotypes. Nonetheless, as my experience here thus far has shown me, some of these can be extremely useful and should not be too hastily discarded from our mental libraries.

And, just for the record, Parisians are NOT, in fact as rude as their reputation suggests. As long as you gamely attempt to “parle français”, they will generally be more than happy to help out, whether you’re asking for directions, or they’re cooking you a scrumptious crepe. Additionally, Paris IS every bit as beautiful as they say. But that’s another post (or two) in itself. A bientot!

Fourth week in Spain…

Well, my first trip in Barcelona was a great success. Thanks to a wonderful find by another study abroad student, we stayed relatively inexpensively in a nice villa a quick train ride from the city. With all you can eat meals for under 10 euros (including some of the best paella I’ve had to date), the No Worries villa was literally the perfect place to stay. The villa’s pick-up service lived up to its name too—after a Ryanair flight was delayed for nearly three hours, Paul picked us all up from the airport. [Subliminal message: if you plan to stay in Barcelona and you’re still appropriately aged for the hostel scene, stay at No Worries – Barcelona].

After a good night’s sleep, we hit the town. Led by yet another study abroad student, our group travelled las Ramblas, la Sangrada Familia, and walked all over the city (punctuated, of course, by tapas—Spanish midday snacking).

In Güell Park

Most phenomenal to me was the “Güell Park,” Gaudí’s masterpiece in Barcelona. Amusingly devoid of symmetry, the park has a variety of colorful sculptures. I arrived back in Valencia completely tired but thoroughly enthused to continue viajando in Spain. Barcelona seems to me home of the slightly unbalanced and colorful, both in terms of street entertainers and architecture. Needless to say, I enjoyed myself immensely.

Last week at school was also enlightening. From a Buñuel film on power, feminism, and maturation to the moral complexities of Leopoldo Lugones’ “The Rain of Fire: Evocation of a Ghost from Gomorrah,” this past week has been intellectually enjoyable. It’s a pity that there’s such a high linguistic barrier preventing some of this stuff from entering into the new C&T. This week looks to be poetry and feminism… I love being in survey literature classes—variety and plenty of room for further reading.

With that same feeling of exploration, I visited Toledo this past weekend. Unbeknownst to us, Toledo was hosting the Ms. Spain beauty pageant, a convention for the deaf and dumb, and a Star Wars convention.

As a Junior in college, a Galactic invasion is the strangest thing that's woken me from a nap.

Toledo itself is a preciously unique city—full of winding streets, ancient buildings, and delectable pastry shops. In Toledo, our group met up with Wabash legend Michael Opieczonek ’09. Led by our whims and occasionally by a phenomenal guidebook (I’d recommend it, but it was in Polish), we walked, bused, and ate our way through Toledo.

The city itself has seen three unique religious cultures—Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim. Even within the Cathedral, we saw a chapel covered in mosaic more evocative of a mosque than a Catholic chapel. The infusion of such a wide range of cultures into such a small, winding town has clearly produced some of the most iconic architecture in Spain. From attending mass to walking the streets, this city’s diverse and ancient culture pervades virtually every building and alley.

Our flight the next day left at eight in the evening, so we passed the afternoon in Madrid’s phenomenal Museo del Prado. In the four hours we spent in the museum, I feel like we probably saw half of what the galleries had to offer. I definitely will be returning to Madrid, and anticipate spending more time in el Prado.

Now I’m off to get my first haircut in Spain… good to see Wabash prevailed in Homecoming, and here’s to another fantastic week.

My Typical Day in Spain

Mi Habitación

At precisely 9:00 in the morning, my cell phone blares some digitized jingle while vibrating furiously. The window is open but the shades are drawn—allowing just enough of the cool morning air in while blocking out some of the light and noise from the street below.

The restroom is small (my closet is bigger), and the water never really gets hot. Utilities, I am told, are quite expensive, so I’m sure to turn off the water while lathering myself with soap. A restroom ceiling fan is conspicuously absent.

My breakfast is already on the table—Mery’s nightly routine includes laying out the sliced bread, cereal, and valencianos necessary for my morning appetite. “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper,” she says (though my dinners never seem to be a particularly low calorie event). This is hardly a general Spanish belief; many of my fellow Americanos are forced to forage for more than the single croissant they receive in the morning.

I eat leisurely and read the Psalm of the day (en español, por supuesto), and then make my way to the bus around 10:00. A twenty minute ride is spent digesting, reading one of several local papers, or wishing that I’d gone to bed earlier.

My class schedule is as follows:

Monday and Wednesday

10:40 AM-12:10 PM—Texts and Interpretation

12:25 PM (it always starts several minutes late)-1:50 PM—Latin-American Literature

Tuesday and Thursday

10:40 AM-12:10 PM—Introduction to Spanish Linguistics

12:20 PM-1:50 PM—Advanced Conversation and Film

On Monday afternoons, I also meet with Dr. Enrique Pellayaz to discuss my progress on an independent study on the art surrounding the Habsburg family. Currently, I’m reading “The Genealogy and Lives of Spanish Queens” to wet my feet into the world of the Spanish and Austrian dynasty. More on this to follow (including a variety of excursions).

Classes here have a different dynamic than dear old Wabash, but are nonetheless interesting, challenging (I have yet to roll my r’s), and thought-provoking. The homework itself is relatively straight-forward, but Valencia’s engaging atmosphere makes concentration nearly impossible.

Another beautiful day in the vecindario

After classes and chatting with Americans, I ride back to home for lunch at 3:00 with Mery, Diana, Jose (Diana’s husband), and Oscar. Oscar’s daughter, Sara, generally wreaks havoc around the house. So far, these conversations are the best test of my Spanish capabilities—multiple participants with a high degree of familiarity, accents (Valencian and Peruvian), and mouths full of delicious Spanish food. With the exception of Mery, all are fairly fluent in English, and are more than willing to explain various words or cultural quirks. Their thoughts on news, difficulties, and Sara’s antics make for a thoroughly enjoyable meal on a daily basis.

After lunch, I typically sit down to work on homework—so far this has ranged in difficulty from a simple linguistics worksheet to a literary analysis paper. Of course, if I feel like procrastinating (this invariably happens about 15 minutes after beginning to work), the beach, shopping centers, or parks are enjoyable and readily available distractions.

Somewhere around 7:00, I’m starting to tire from the days activities, so I go for a 30-90 minute siesta. I wake up slowly and stumble into the kitchen, where a warm dinner awaits. Perhaps the defining aspect of my homestay has been long after-dinner talks. Spanish nightlife typically starts at 11:00 at the earliest (some clubs don’t open until 2:00), so there’s always some down time.

Mery, my host mother, is from Puerto Rico. The former nurse married a Valenciano, who passed away unexpectedly a number of years ago. She has several remaining siblings in Peru, but concentrates the majority of her time on her children and grandchildren. Slightly a different environment than living in College Hall, to say the least. But Mery is kind, and has a wide variety of experience traveling and working throughout the Americas and Europe, so conversations are always fluid and interesting. There is no better way to absorb Spanish culture than conversing with someone who slowly became a part of it.

After dinner, it’s anyone’s guess… late night walks (I’m told this is an unsafe practice. The weather is worth the risk), out on the town with Americanos, or reading. Tonight, I’m getting on a plane to Barcelona for the weekend… so needless to say, I should probably start packing. More next week on meeting my “intercambio” (exchange student—I teach them English, they teach me Spanish) and my various activities in Barcelona.

Coming soon... Barcelona

First week in a Spanish paradise

The similarities between “extranjero” (foreigner) and “extraño” (strange) are becoming increasingly obvious. I am in a different world.

My voyage to Spain was appropriately bizarre. For a phenomenal €470, I obtained a spot on a Royal Dutch Airlines flight to Madrid. Announcements, magazines, and flight attendants were equal parts English and Dutch. To add to the Anglo-Saxon diversity, I was seated beside two Danish grandparents whose English was limited to “vater” and “danke you.”

Sunrise in Amsterdam

After a lengthy layover in Amsterdam, I came to Madrid, capital of Spain and home to 3.3 madrileños. I had booked a hostel that day in Chicago, so went on an epic quest across the city to find it. I did, and fell asleep promptly. Naturally, I slept through the two redundant alarms I had set, so I was forced to shower and eat rather quickly.

The people of Madrid were extraordinarily helpful on my trek to the bus station—from giving me change at the subway station to helping me find the correct route. One woman, Carla, even guided me to the right bus station. In the spirit of paying it forward, I helped a Spanish lady and her daughter decipher their bus tickets. So, despite the overcast skies of Madrid, I headed into Valencia with a sunny (albeit sleepy) disposition.

¡por fin! I'm in Valencia (específicamente la Cuidad de las Artes y las Ciencias)!

Upon arriving at Valencia, I placed a call to my host mother, Mery (she dislikes her given name: “Hilda”). This was my first phone conversation in complete Spanish, and I was still disoriented, so I interpreted her as saying “Meet me at the Cinca Roja.” The Finca Roja is a local landmark near the house for the taxi driver’s reference—as Calle Honrato Juan is a rather obscure side street.

After the taxi driver found the apartment in a small red book of maps, I spent my first 10 minutes in Spain fumbling with a padlock protecting my luggage from the ladrones known to frequent hostels…naturally, I locked the combination securely in the bag and promptly forgot it. And thus began my time in Spain.

Life here is hard to translate. Food, for one, is eaten at 8:45 (by early morning people like myself), lunch at 2:30 in the afternoon, and dinner around 9:30. Sidewalks start emptying around 1:00 for the cycle to begin again. The weather is phenomenal—right now it’s a sunny 82 with a gentle breeze (the beach is calling me).

It’s the little differences that make the experience. Milk doesn’t need to be refrigerate. Crying children make more of an “eeeeeeeeeee” sound than an “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” sound (school started yesterday; my pseudo-niece, Sarita, was not enthused). Iberico ham (in the States priced somewhere north of $50 a pound) is served regularly on epically proportioned sub sandwiches.

Perhaps the most strange thing about the trip so far is that I’m different. Political correctness doesn’t seem to have quite as strong hold in Spain (or, at least, not in the American sense), and people are accustomed to openly staring at anything they find interesting. It’s a slightly disconcerting feeling to sit on a bus where everyone is staring at you.

La Plaza de La Virgen

Of course, fundamentally, people are the same. I’ve certainly enjoyed the company of the few locals I’ve had the opportunity to meet, and enjoy discussing cultural differences with my widely travelled host family—Mery is Peruvian, and her children have all studied English abroad. So I’m well-situated to discover this new world.

I’ve already seen quite a bit of Valencia, from touring with friends to unintentional hikes (doesn’t help that street signs are in a local dialect, if present at all). There’s always more to do and see, so my ever-increasing knowledge of local spots should yield an interesting post later this year… but for the moment, I’m back to la vida española. Hasta luego!