Friday, April 07, 2006


[Note: This is an essay that was recently published in Expatica Spain.]

As I type these words, my laptop and I are sitting on the strikingly uncomfortable seat of a Cercanias train en route from Guadalajara to Madrid.  This is the standard mode of transport for those of us who are too far from the city to walk, yet too smart to drive. 

But liberation from the tyranny of traffic and parking isn’t the only reason that I like taking this train. There’s another. Each train ride reminds me of how much Spain’s face—and faces—have changed since I moved here six years ago. Let me explain.

One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Spain in 1999 was the homogeneity of its people.  Street after street, block after block, bar after bar...everybody looked the same. Short, thin people with dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin. In other words, everybody looked like ME—but with much nicer shoes.

Perhaps I would’ve taken such homogeneity in stride if I were an expat from—say—Japan or Iceland. But I moved here from the US—a country that prides itself on being a melting pot (or perhaps more accurately...a mosaic) of cultures.  Worse still, I came from Chicago—a city that is diverse even by the US’s lofty standards. In Chicago, it’s rare to walk past three consecutive people that have the same color of skin, hair or eyes.

This was, in fact, one of the things that I liked best about Chicago.  I could throw a dart at a world map and whichever country it hit, I could find that type of restaurant, store or neighborhood somewhere in the city.  In a single day, I could eat kielbasa sausage at a Polish buffet...then drink ouzo at a Greektown bar...then fill my shopping cart with kimchee, dried cuttlefish and barley tea at a Korean strip mall...and then watch belly-dancers until 3am at a Lebanese cabaret while smoking a hookah pipe stuffed with apple-flavored tobacco.  A night on the town in Chicago was like a vacation with Michael Palin.

Which brings me back to the train. The homogeneity in Spain that so shocked me in 1999 seems to have long-since evaporated—and I’m reminded of it every time that I ride this commuter train. During the one hour journey, my ears are bombarded with Slavic languages and Spanish spoken with South American accents. I see Africans and Asians and Hispanics. Lamentably, I’ve yet to find myself seated next to a belly-dancer...but I remain hopeful.

These observations are not, of course, limited to the train. I’ve noticed plenty of evidence of the demographic shift elsewhere. I was shopping recently at the Alcampo hypermarket in Alcala de Henares—a distant suburb of my standards, at least. The store had a huge “Welcome” sign over its entrance.  The sign was written in three languages. One of them was Polish.

One of the Guadalajara-area newspapers includes a regular supplement written in...Romanian!

And I was a resident of Barcelona during some of the heaviest waves of immigration from sub-Saharan Africa—including the period when the mass-squatting of black Africans in Plaza Catalunya was making national headlines. Rarely has a walk across a Spanish square seemed so exotic.

From my perspective, this is a good development.  I say that not just because I’m an expat here myself.  Rather, I truly believe that Spain’s expanding cultural mosaic makes it a much more interesting country. 

Many—if not most—of these new immigrants are working low-skill, menial jobs like construction, agriculture or house cleaning. But I’m REALLY looking forward to the day when these Poles and Russians and Nigerians lay down their hammers and feather-dusters, and start opening...restaurants!

And then—for the first time since Chicago—my days will be filled with kielbasa and kimchee and hookah pipes stuffed with apple-flavored tobacco.

But until that day arrives, I guess I’ll have to be content with fantasizing about belly-dancers on the train.


At 10:19 PM, Blogger Lisa said...

all I can say is when my son and I were in Barcelona, we stuck out like a sore thumb. My son is 6'5" and is a mountain of muscles. I'm tall 5'11". I felt like an Amazon.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger woman wandering said...

Nice post Sal, I realised that I have almost no idea of the reality of Spain ... I tend to paint it with the Italian brush.

Hey, and good luck with the lap dancer ... ;)

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Mrs. TBF said...

Sal, you almost make me miss living in Chicago-land. I lived in Chicago until I was 14 years old and then moved to the suburbs when my parents sold their business and retired. TBF and I met at Northwestern U., married and moved to the suburbs. in Europe has changed us permanently and if we ever do move back to Chicago...the city is where would more suburbs for us! Being able to live in a place where you can wlak to all kinds of great ethnic restaurants (and some of the best Italian ones) is very appealing indeed.

At 10:39 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Hey Lisa: You tower over me by 2 inches. Needless to say, I fit right in during my time in Barcelona. Perhaps you and your son might try Finland. Everyone there is Andre the Giant-sized. There must be something to that sauna-thing.

Lady Di: I've been to Italy several times. About the only similarity I find between Italians and Spaniards is that they both like wine. But that's it. They are two completely different creatures. BTW...Spain has MUCH better beaches.

Mrs. TBF: Boy, you pose a tough dilemma. I don't know which way I'd lean. On the one hand, you're right about the benefits of city life. On the other hand, once you've lived in a house (with a basement...and a backyard...and no neighbors above you who walk on their heels at 3am) it's hard to go back. During the time between law school graduation and moving to Spain, I lived in Oak Park for two years. I think Oak Park achieves the delicate balance. But there ain't many Oak Parks in the world.

BTW...I'd give my right arm to be eating on Devon Street right now.

At 4:47 AM, Blogger Lisa said...

well, I don't know about towering over you (by a whole 2 inches)...and I promise not to wear high-heals if we ever actuality I'm probably only 5'9-10 on a good day but you still get the picture.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger CanadianSwiss said...

I wish the Basel area would develop a bit more ethnically in restaurants, too. That's what I love when we go to Amsterdam; so much diversity. On the other hand, I'm not sure I'd want to live there... well, maybe just for a while or until I've eaten my way through ;-)

Maybe the belly dancer is on another train strech, just wondering where you are.

At 6:12 PM, Anonymous Karl said...

Hi Sal,

I'm going to have to look up Lebanese caberets in the Yellow Pages the next time I'm in town.


At 12:07 AM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...


The place I'm referring to is on the north side. I can't remember the name (I'll ask my friend), but it was written up in Chicago magazine--in the back pages--all the time during the 1990's. I went there twice--once with the chicks, next time with the guys. It was a fantastic joint. There was an Arabic band that played until 3am. Hookahs with apple tobacco were $15 and went down sooooo smoothly. And there was a Greek belly dancer named Suraya who was both a gifted dancer and drop-dead gorgeous. I hope it's still open, because the place was a blast. Unfortunately, I discovered it just a few months before moving to Spain.

I'll try to come back to you with the name.

Canadian Swiss: Yes...Suraya is the belly dancer that I keep waiting to sit next to me on the train.

At 6:23 PM, Blogger Expat Traveler said...

sal your wisdom and advise just cracks me up. It's interesting to know how much spain has changed. I guess many areas are also this way, but one thing is still different, not enough diverse restaurants... Well at least that is what I see from your write up being the same as here in Vancouver.

At 9:49 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Hey Expat Traveller:

I'm surprized to hear that. I always assumed that Vancouver was full of Asian restaurants (you know...being so close to Asia, and all).

Well, at least you have good skiing.

At 10:46 PM, Blogger christina said...

Oh my yes, Vancouver most certainly IS full of ethnic restaurants of any kind you could ever imagine - every sort of Asian cuisine, Indian, African, Persian, Italian, Greek, Polish, French etc etc etc - you can't get more multi-cultural. You just have to know where to look. :-)

Great article, Sal!(as usual) I haven't been to Spain since 1991 and I guess then I was playing tourist and wanted *Spanish* stuff so I wasn't looking out for ethnic diversity. I'm sure I'd be really suprised if I went back today.

Hey, you'd probably find Germany pretty "Multi-Kulti" (as they call it here) too - our friends' 15 year old daughter has a hookah and apple tobacco. :-)

Here's hoping that some day that belly dancer will be saving a seat just for you!

At 12:37 AM, Blogger cream said...

Last Summer I discovered a Russian restaurant in Tunisia!
The world is shrinking so fast!
I've always believed that anyone who can cook opens is a good ambassador! Food should be synonymous with peace!

At 5:05 PM, Blogger euro-trac said...

I once discovered an Iraqi restaurant in Paris! One of the finest meals that I've ever had!
So, I didn't make it to Barcelona in the end - I'll try and get there in the summer! (I have printed out your advice and will take it with me)I was having far too much fun with my friends in France to bother to leave! Popped over to Girona for a stroll about though... lovely! (and the best coffee by far during my 12 day trip!)

At 5:46 PM, Blogger Tracie B. said...

i sooooo miss good ethnic food!

At 7:46 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Cream: You are right. If everyone in the world was well-fed, then there would be a lot less to fight about. Plus, everyone would be too sleepy to fight.

E-Trac: I followed your adventures on your blog. Don't worry about Barcelona. It will wait for you. Now, please tell us who (or what appliance) is Gladys!

Traci: At least you can take solace in the fact that you live in the town with the world's best pizza. I spent four days in Naples a few years ago, and couldn't bring myself to eat anything but pizza. I would KILL for the recipe for their pizza dough. You know...the kind that you can fold twice-over and it won't break. People always seem to equate Napoli-style pizza with a thin, crispy crust. I laugh when I heard that. If anyone dared make a crispy crust in Napoli, they'd be chased out of town. BTW...being a Texan, you must be dying for smoked brisket and good Tex-Mex, eh? I know that I am, and I'm not even Texan.


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