How much does your average American know about Spain?
Probably very little.
So are Americans all ignorant? Well, that’s a longer story, which I’ll tell here.
Let me speak from personal experience…
I’ve been here in Spain for about 19 years now. And a lot of people ask me why I chose to come to Spain and what I knew about it before I arrived.
Why is a long story, which I tell in another article. (Short version: I was young and having an adventure, plus there was a certain girl in Madrid I wanted to hang out with.)
What I knew about Spain before arriving is a much shorter story, because I always have to admit, somewhat apologetically, that I knew absolutely nothing.
Yes, I moved halfway around the world without having any real idea of what to expect. I didn’t even really have an opinion or a mental image of Spain.
I had spent about a week here, travelling from city to city, and I liked the feel of it. I’d seen a couple of neighborhoods in Barcelona, a bit of Valencia, Granada and Madrid.
That was enough to get me on the plane.
Also, I was young, stupid and idealistic, and moving to Spain was just one of a long series of bad ideas I had in my teens and early twenties – a bad idea that actually turned out surprisingly well, now that some time has passed.
Anyway, how much do you really need to know about a country in order to catch a plane? I’m not into over-planning. And in those days I wasn’t even into underplanning. I bought a ticket to Madrid, put my six best t-shirts in a duffel bag and figured I’d work out the details later.
These days I know that you learn much more spending a couple of weeks in some other country than you ever would reading books or travel blogs. But this was 2004, so we didn’t even have travel blogs. I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and called it a day.
Of course, I did learn some Spanish before coming. Which was an adventure in itself.
Wanna know about American ignorance? Read on…
Perro Pepe and elementary school ignorance
I remember quite clearly that my first introduction to the concept of Spain was in elementary school Spanish class.
It was during the Barcelona Olympics.
I guess that was 1992, so I was about nine and a half at the time. Our teacher (she was from Ecuador, I believe) showed us where Spain was on a world map – a small peninsula just south of England, basically – then briefly explained that in Spain they spoke Spanish and that it had 50 states just like the US.
Then she went right back to teaching us useless vocabulary like hipopótamo, jirafa, and elefante.
That was it! No Spanish history, nothing.
And I guess I should mention that I didn’t believe the “50 states” thing at all. How were they gonna fit 50 states into such a small country? Turns out I was wrong. They actually do have 50 provinces, which is sort of the same thing.
(My ignorance of European distances and how kilometers work lasted me through my first several years in Spain. I remember once getting in a friend’s car in Madrid at around 11AM. We were going to Toulouse in the south of France, and I just assumed that we’d be there for lunch. I believe we eventually got there for dinner the next day, after spending a night sleeping in the car in the Pyrenees. But I digress.)
Anyway, I hated learning Spanish back then because even in my little pre-adolescent brain it was clear that knowing the names of a few African animals in a foreign language was a waste of time.
The teacher didn’t teach us how to talk about anything we might find in Arizona, like rattlesnakes or scorpions or teddybear cholla. It was all so abstract and impractical.
In any case…
When we weren’t learning how to say hipopótamo and jirafa, we were watching low-budget videos of a fat guy in a dog costume – Perro Pepe – who would teach kids Spanish vocabulary.
You can watch Perro Pepe on YouTube, it’s pretty absurd, and was probably produced in LA or Miami.
It’s fun, though. Now. At the time I was unimpressed.
Why don’t Americans speak more languages?
I don’t want to speak for all 330 million Americans – or whatever the number is right now – but I can tell you that in my case, nobody made a compelling case for language learning in my middle-class life, growing up in the Arizona desert.
With math, they tried much harder: learn calculus or you’ll end up flipping burgers for the rest of your life. You don’t want to be a total failure, do you?
Well, I learned calculus, and still, the local Burger King never called me back about my job application. My high school offered French and Spanish – I took Spanish because I was under the impression that I’d need a foreign language credit to get into college.
By that time, I was pretty suspicious about adults who said I needed to know things. Most of the adults I was acquainted with seemed to know very little. But it seemed more likely that I’d run into a Spanish speaker some day than a French speaker, so I signed up.
(We had students form Mexico in my school district, but they were off in some ESL program somewhere and I almost never saw them around.)
In any case, I wasn’t sold on the Spanish language until I dropped out of college and ended up working in a kitchen. (I wasn’t flipping burgers. I was grilling paninis, which is much classier, thank you very much.)
Being in contact with Spanish speakers at work made language practice more fun and interesting than anything I did in high school.
Eventually, I’d spend a couple of decades as a language teacher, and draw some new conclusions about why Americans don’t all speak multiple languages. Basically, it boils down to two things:
- Learning a foreign language is hard.
- Most people who learn languages do it because they need to.
That is to say, people who learn languages for fun, or in order to become more well-rounded, knowledgeable individuals, are pretty rare. Because actually learning a language takes years.
People who learn 200 words and then just claim to speak a language at native level are more common. As are people who think “I’ll just learn the local language from a phrasebook on the plane. How hard could Japanese possibly be, right?”
So, long story short, my theory is that Americans don’t speak languages because they don’t need to, or want to. Just like most other monolingual people out there.
But back to my more ignorant teenage years.
My knowledge about Spain grows very little in the coming years…
In high school, when we learned about the Age of Exploration and the colonization of America, there must have been some mention of Spain, but mostly the teachers talked about what was going on in the Americas or on the high seas.
The names of the Spanish conquistadors, the fate of the Armada, all that.
As far as I can remember, Spain as an actual country in Europe, with its own history and culture, was not really a part of the picture.
In high school Spanish class, I remember doing an activity that involved picking out some of the words in Mecano’s classic song Maquillate, which was a truly awful experience. Mostly, what I got out of the whole thing was the knowledge that other countries also had crappy pop music.
It’d never occurred to me that there might be other types of music outside what was being played on the radio stations around Phoenix.
Anyway, that was my introduction to “world music” – and also Spanish reflexive verbs. Even today I can’t get more than 10 seconds into a Mecano song without wanting to vomit.
Sorry, Spanish culture.
If the teachers, back in 9th or 10th grade, told us anything about Spanish life, history or geography, I obviously wasn’t listening.
I guess I was too busy having hormonal fantasies about getting the fuck out of Arizona.
So, in one way or another, between the Barcelona Olympics and university, I managed to spend about 10 years without giving any serious thought to Spain.
Did I give any serious thought to other European countries, like France or Italy during that time? It’s doubtful.
Where’s that damn vaseline?
At university, I had a real madrileño teaching me Spanish for a semester. Our homework was usually to go to the video library and watch early Almodovar films.
If you haven’t seen any early Almodovar, well, that’s your loss!
Let’s just say that I remember one film (La ley del deseo) had a gay sex scene involving a very young Antonio Banderas (there was some comic relief when his lover has to search around for a tub of vaseline, if I recall correctly), and another film called Matador in which one of the main characters (also played by Antonio Banderas) was a bullfighter.
It ended kind of badly when the two other main characters committed murder / suicide in the middle of, uh… “lovemaking”.
Some weird sex and death fetish. Don’t ask.
Almodovar was, perhaps, the worst possible introduction to modern Spanish lifestyles – the films were so obviously surrealistic that all I learned about Madrid or Spain was that a lot of people lived in red brick buildings. Literally.
As for the bullfighting, well, I took that as a symbol for something. I never expected to come over and find that people actually did it.
(The red-brick building thing wasn’t an exaggeration either.)
So here’s the mystery…
How is it possible that I managed to graduate high school and even do “some college” and end up knowing virtually nothing about Spain?
I’m not quite sure! All I can say is that what I remember of my experience in the American educational system is that we mostly focused on ourselves.
The existence of other countries outside the US was an incidental and largely irrelevant fact, and the majority of Arizonians seemed to think that people in other countries were living barefoot and hungry in little mud huts, or were doing everything they could to emigrate to America for a better life.
It was “common knowledge” when I was growing up that everybody else in the world spent most of their time wishing that they had been born in America…
How was I to know any better?
You can call me ignorant, but the fact is, I think my level of ignorance was completely normal.
Does the average American know anything about Spain?
Does he know anything about any other country?
Why don’t Americans travel more?
Originally, I wrote this article because of a little international crisis.
Several years ago, How I Met Your Mother did an episode in which Ted, as a teenager, travels around Spain. In the course of his travels, he runs into a mariachi band and dances a tango.
Mariachis are Mexican, and tango is Argentinian. Neither of those cultural trends have anything to do with Spain, the country in Europe. Obviously, Hollywood isn’t doing much to educate anybody.
Challenged about these facts by a student at the language school, I decided to write about this famous “American ignorance”.
And I had to admit that it’s true up to a point. We don’t know a lot about Spain. But I don’t think that Americans have any sort of monopoly on ignorance.
I’ve shared some more recent thoughts in a newer article, called European Stereotypes Revisited. Check that out if you want more.
In other news, a lot of people in Europe also like to criticize Americans for not travelling more. That famous statistic about how some massive percentage of Americans don’t even have a passport, blah blah. (That percentage may be around 50, it may be 63… depends on who you ask. But it hasn’t been 90% for many years now.)
I think what the critics miss, though, is the fact that international travel is expensive, and that most Americans live hundreds (or thousands) of miles from any international border.
Here in Spain, you can get a reasonably-priced flight to any of thirty or so different European countries, and be there by lunch time. The visa-free Schengen area and the unified currency make travel a breeze.
This survey on YouGov is clear about it: the higher someone’s income, the more likely they are to have a passport – and presumably, the more likely they are to travel abroad.
What about the he rest of us Americans? Well, let’s just say we’re not taking romantic weekend jaunts to Paris quite as often was we might like.
So how much do I know about Spain now?
After almost two decades living in Madrid and Barcelona, I now know a lot more about Spanish life.
I’ve read some history books, watched some films, learned how to cook some awesome Spanish food.
I’ve read a bit of Cervantes in Spanish, learned some profanity, and travelled around as much as I have been able. Mostly, I’ve just talked to a lot of people.
But I’m far from being “really Spanish” – whatever that means!
And Spanish people will get offended, even now, if I can’t locate their hometown on a map.
These are often the same people who think that Arizona is somewhere in the Midwest, or that the Grand Canyon is in Colorado, or that I’m an asshole for not considering Puerto Rico to be a state.
“You Americans are all so ignorant!” they’ll say. “You don’t even know your own geography, even the most obvious things like the fact that you have 52 states!”
It’s a bit frustrating, but I guess I understand where they’re coming from. Spaniards have spent their whole lives watching American TV and movies, and they at least imagine that they know a lot about the US and its culture.
And they think we should probably know an equal amount about them.
Well, sorry Spain. We don’t.
In any case, Spain has a lot of wonderful things, a lot of beautiful places, a lot of history, and a lot of interesting stories to tell.
Check out my viral article 32 reasons why I love Spain for something about that… I love the shit outta this country (if you’ll pardon my French).
Anyway, I’m going to continue writing about Spanish life and some of the cool people, places and foods we have over here.
I hope you all enjoy it! Maybe you’ll even learn something.
P.S. Is there anything you’d like to see me write about? Have any comments on my ignorance? Want to give me money? Let me know, right here. Love ya!
P.P.S. See also: Who are some famous Spanish people?
P.P.P.S. Since I wrote this article, some people have pointed out that Spain actually played a large role in US independence – something I was not previously aware of. Anyway, apparently Spain funded the Battle of Yorktown and helped out in some other ways. Check this wikipedia page for more about that. And thanks as always to those who take the time to fill me in on things I don’t know about.