Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sun, Sauntering, Sundries And A Whole Lotta' Soul-Searching

(I actually wrote this post yesterday. So keep that in mind if you’re a fickler for dates. Although I don’t know why you would be. Okay, I’m going to shut up now. This post is long enough as it is.)

It’s my last day in Granada and I’m in a little need of catharsis. This marks the close of a six week-long adventure, one that has taken me through tortuous trials and unexpected moments of bliss. I come out the other end not knowing much more about Moroccan culture and contemporary immigration issues than I did a month and a half ago (more on that later), but I do emerge knowing myself better than I ever have before. This journey has presented me with mirrors at every turn, forcing me to study myself even if it would have been more comfortable not to. Anyone who thinks I spent my time in Morocco and Spain leisurely sipping mint tea, shopping the souks, drinking on some o’ that sangria and sunbathing would be … well, only a little wrong. There was some of all of that. But if this research experience has taught me one thing, it’s that there are many, many, many hours in the day. Especially if you’re alone, have no plans and nowhere to be at any particular time. So, what happens situations such as these? You go for a walk, turn a bend and the startling brightness of the summer afternoon sun forces everything into resplendent clarity. And it’s not often a comforting or comfortable experience.

On research and academia:

Someone had said that these travel fellowships were supposed to be about research or something. Let me share something with you: as a student of Williams College who can only ever be certain of himself when he’s sitting in Sawyer with a stack of books piled high at his carrel, doing fieldwork can be the most thwarting experience of an academic lifetime. The lack of concreteness in anything that happens, be it an interview or an observation related to space or culture, often leads the hardcore student in me to ask, “What’s the point of this? How is my looking at this research? Where’s the book published by the professor at UC Berkeley or Yale? Does this person’s opinion really matter?” Getting over these uncertainties and having faith in the fact that I was viewing everything and anything I saw on my travels through an academic lens (as my notes will hopefully prove) was enough to make this an academic experience.

I also learned something very important about issues of socio-anthropology: you might have a great revelation sitting at a desk an ocean away but that revelation may not translate very well when you go in search of its source. Let me be more concrete and relate this to my project: I was so excited to hear about the large Moroccan immigrant community in Granada that had set up shop selling everything from leather pouffes to choubakiya (traditional Moroccan sweets). I immediately thought, “This is an immigrant community’s attempt at fostering native space and implanting it onto space abroad! Like duh!” Ummm… well, okay, maybe. But when I walked through the area of Granada that is fondly referred to as “Little Morocco”, it felt nothing like the streets of Fez or Marrakech, as much as photos and travel reviews might like to set up intimate comparisons. More importantly, the Moroccans I interviewed didn’t think about their lives in that way. In fact, it seemed that most of them didn’t think about their lives at all. And how could I have expected them to? Sure, I’ve got critical distance from the subject and I can try to grapple with it and analyze it with intellectual tools – but we are talking about people’s lives and it is not often that someone takes a step back and says, “Oh, I must be doing this because it is a subconscious attempt on my part at recreating an Orientalist interpretation of Andalusian history.” I stupidly expected people to provide me with countless thought-provoking answers and that was… well, it was stupid of me.

The most important thing I learned, though, is that even these little fails formulate an important part of the research agenda. Every response, every observation, is a telling one, even if they are seemingly void or banal. It’s the ability to filter them in the right way that is the key. And it’s not a skill that I’ve honed yet, but I keep on trying the best I can.

On me:

Having to live and go out in search of answers alone in a foreign country does some crazy things to your ideas of selfhood. Surprise? I think not.

When I first went off to Morocco in May, people would keep asking me, “Wait, you have to do this alone? No travel companions? No contacts? No definitive plans?” “Yup”, I’d always answer, “and so what?” I think of myself as an independent soul and have always prided myself on the fact that I can pack up my life in two medium-sized cardboard boxes and two suitcases. It felt good to know I could wrap up and ship out of any place at a moment’s notice. I’ve got me, myself and I and that’s all I need to make a new life.

Not that simple.

Though I might be an independent soul – I can hold down an apartment, cook, clean, grocery shop and happily keep myself amused with my own company (ummm…?) – I’ve learned that I’m no hermit. I cannot eschew a life of friends and companionship in favor of complete solitude. I need my friends. They remind me to take a break; to savor life a little. It’s still funny to me that some of my favorite moments in Spain were when Fadey (my best friend from home), Saeed (her brother) and I were all together during their visit, not doing anything particularly Spanish. Did we go out on the town? Yup. And we killed it. But the most fun we had was while lazing on the couch with the entire third season of Sex and the City, a large bottle of Veuve Cliquot (we do it up right, child) and a box of donuts (didn’t I tell you we do it up right? Also, interesting note: Spaniards are obsessed with donuts. God knows why.). They reminded me that no matter what I was doing, this was the summer and I deserved to feel like I was not at school. And I also equally deserved to feel like I needed their company. There was no shame in watching Carrie’s antics or a couple of hours during the day: the only reminder you need that you’re in Spain is the bottle of Rioja that you’re cradling.

Four weeks in Granada also showed me that size is of the essence (if you just smirked, you have a dirty mind. And that’s probably why we’re friends). And no, I don’t work well in small cities. Granada is quaint. Charming. Idyllic. Gorgeous. (Ring a bell, Ephs?). But it ain’t no New York, Paris or Madrid. I need a city, a real city, to quench my thirst for life. I need to go to art galleries, museums, large bookstores and relaxing coffee shops to feel like I’m doing something. And sure, that sounds plenty pretentious and a tad snooty. But maybe I’m a little bit of that, too. ;)

All this solo travel has taught me to better handle the entire cohort of conflicting emotions that hound you on your little independent walks around town: happiness at being some place that’s different, breath-taking and beautiful; frustration at feeling boredom and loneliness; the loneliness itself; the insecurities about the validity of your project when it’s been days since you’ve felt like you’ve done anything project-related; the knowledge that this experience is life-changing; the understanding that you are so lucky to have this invaluable opportunity; the excitement for the culture that surrounds you; the anticipation for the countdown to when this will finally be over and you can be done with it all; the self-loathing for counting down the days when you feel like you should never want this to end. Yes. I felt all of these things and more in the course of a minute. Was all this travel an emotional experience? You betcha.

So now it begs the question: would I do this again? Absolutely. Because I know what’s good for me. And if you know me, you know that I always like to see the glass half full. I’ll take all those rapturous times with sunshine and wine with the requisite dose of uncertainty and depression that comes with it, because I like the self-aware package that got dumped off at the end of the road. I thought it would take an entire summer and a semester of traveling to get here. But all I needed was six weeks on the road.

So the next time you laugh off the summer travel fellowships as a joke, laugh a little louder, because they can be. Mine, for what it’s worth, was life-altering, not for the substance of my research but for what it taught me about the man in the mirror (for one thing, he needs to shave, but that’s just the start of it.)

Now for pure frivolity – we’ve had enough hard talk for one day. Let me list my top ten favorite moments in Spain (in no particular order):

1. Watching Satyajit Rai’s “Mahanagar” (a classic of Bengali cinema) at the Filmoteca de Andalucia in Granada

2. My first taste of tapas – and real Spanish wine – which made for some interesting times one crazy Friday … at 2PM.

3. Noshing on some top-notch nosh at Mercado San Miguel in Madrid

4. On my last day in Granada (as in today), I walked into the coffee shop I’ve been going to every morning. The barista took one look at me and said, “Café con leche y una media tostada con aceite y tomate, ¿sí?” Why yes… how did you know?

5. Stumbling on the quaintest, most perfect square I’ve ever seen in Sevilla and letting the sun set while contemplating life

6. Eating (twice) at a dirt-cheap Chinese restaurant with Candace, where a four course meal is less than 6 euro, and then following that up with a trip to my local hipster bar where the bartender is so damn cay-ute!

7. Mojitos and Mirador San Nicolas. Perfect combo. ‘Nuff said.

8. Dancing to ‘Waka Waka’ at a club where a window overlooks the dramatically-lit Alhambra

9. Noticing that my mouth was open when I was looking at “Las Meniñas” at the Prado.

10. How could SATC+Champage+Donuts not be on here?

Adíos, España. Go on and win the World Cup! You rock and I’m so happy that you’ll always have a part of me. Now for one last walk around Granada and a swishy afternoon in Madrid and then it’s onto New York City!

(Thank you to all those who read this post from beginning to end. You’re a true friend. Also, thank you more generally to people who are reading my blog regularly. Your support means so much to me!)


  1. Baby, I'm so proud of you. You seem to have learned so much about life and yourself, and I can't wait to hear all about your adventures.

    You are my love. You are my heart..Even though we've been apart...


  2. Hmm... perhaps I'll give spain a shot for the cup 'cos it's impressed you so much.