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Short Takes

March 24, 2014

Small Differences: The Spanish Way

by Susan Middaugh

07

In visiting Spain recently to hike part of El Camino, a trek that pilgrims the world over have been doing for centuries, I was prepared for the big differences that you associate with vacationing in a foreign country: currency, language, and climate. But it was the small differences, like finding a Starbuck’s closed at 7:30 on a Saturday morning in a big city like Madrid, that took me by surprise. (Click images for larger views.)

I’ll never forget the elderly man who interrupted his stroll down a country lane to give me a walnut or the two volunteers at a refugio (or shelter) in El Acebo who hosted a meal for twenty pilgrims from all over the world. The food, wine, music, hospitality and conversation that night were truly memorable.

03-1But in the course of my two-week hiking trip, there were some baffling moments too. These differences, unexplained in guidebooks, jostled my assumptions about the most mundane aspects of daily living. Some of them were positively mystifying and others made me laugh out loud. Take the hamburger. When I ordered one in Astorga, it tasted different. The chef’s view of our American staple was quite literal. The burger was made of chopped ham.

Another time, my limited Spanish put me at a disadvantage when ordering a sandwich. My lunch, though tasty, turned out to be a double dose of carbohydrates: mashed potatoes between two slices of white bread. It reminded me of a trip to Salt Lake City and a restaurant that served spaghetti with French fries.

The public restrooms were also occasionally baffling. At one private refugio for pilgrims in Hontanas, the stall to the women’s toilet contained no seat or throne, simply a hole in the metal floor and an outline of where to place your feet. Being pressed for time, I squatted over the opening in the floor, did my business and wondered how a handicapped person might navigate under similar circumstances. It was only later that I discovered, at the same location, toilets – with and without seats.

02Further down the road, in Boadillo del Camino, another restroom had me flummoxed. I looked around for a towel dispenser. No luck. But on one wall hung a metal contraption that resembled an automatic hand dryer. After pressing the knob, water sloshed all over the floor. I’m still confused. Was it for the cleaning staff to put their buckets under or a convenient tap for pilgrims to refill their water bottles?

Another time I tried to order a chunk of Swiss cheese, which was on special, at a deli counter at a local supermarket. The woman behind the counter said I couldn’t have it, but she was willing to slice another kind. Did the sale on Swiss begin the next day? I’ll never know.

train-stationPublic transportation in Spain is punctual, comparatively inexpensive, and comfortable. But my expectations about how things work were made in America. When traveling by train from Chamartín Station in Madrid to Burgos, I entered the coach and sat down, just as I would on Amtrak or MARC, Maryland’s commuter railroad. A young man approached, pointing and waving his ticket. It took me awhile to realize I was sitting in his seat. Sure enough, if I had looked closely, my ticket had a coach and seat assignment. I moved and the gentleman, who had graciously parked himself elsewhere, smiled.

We worked it out in a civilized way. Poco a poco, little by little, I was learning the Spanish way of doing things.

I wonder what first-time visitors to the U.S. make of our culture?

Copyright © 2014 Susan Middaugh.

susan_pic3Susan Middaugh is a self-employed business writer in Baltimore who also writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and on the website New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Several of her personal essays have appeared on this blog. To find them, simply type her name in the little search window, or check out the archives in the sidebar, beginning in April of 2009. Also in the sidebar under the Blogroll, Business and Writing labels, there are links to Susan’s website, Have Pen Will Travel.

Doodlemeister is looking for short first-person observations up to 1,500 words, on any subject, in any style, for this series. If need be, we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story about something interesting you saw, experienced—or simply thought about—please contact us by e-mail at jimscartoons@aol.com


Volunteer Vacation

July 13, 2009

By Susan Middaugh

WaterBars2Photograph © 2002  Gretchen Sacotnik.

At least once a year, go someplace you’ve never been. One fall I went to eastern Arkansas for a volunteer vacation sponsored by the American Hiking Society. (They sponsor summer trips, too. For complete information click the AHS link in the sidebar blogroll.)

Although the week long trip would be work instead of play, it appealed to me for several reasons. Physical labor was a complete change from my office job. Being outside in the fresh air, in the woods, away from email and telephones seemed like heaven. Encouraged by a positive experience during a Sierra Club service trip to Maine a few years ago, there was the prospect of meeting nice people from all over the country. The trip also suited my budget; preliminary expenses consisted of a round-trip airline ticket to Memphis and a modest registration fee. Finally, there was a sweetener. Not all AHS volunteer vacations include free transportation between the airport and the work site, but this one did.

Gretchen Sacotnik, the enthusiastic and outgoing superintendent of Crowley’s (pronounced Crow-Lee’s) Ridge State Park, picked us up herself. In our airport party was Ben, a chiropractor from Ottawa; Sarah, a young professional woman from Washington, DC; and myself. Before heading 90 miles west across the flat Mississippi delta to Arkansas, we stopped for lunch. For this Yankee, that meal offered an introduction to Southern cooking: gravy automatically goes on top of the mashed potatoes — whether you like it or not.

The rest of our party of volunteers drove in from the South and Midwest: Dallas, St. Louis, Louisville, Beloit, WI, Edinburgh, IN. We ranged in age from 30’s to 70’s; several of us, including myself, were grandparents. Eight of the 12 members of our group had been on AHS volunteer vacations before.

Our accommodations, built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in the 1930’s, were luxurious by backpacking and tent camping standards. We had heated cabins, indoor showers, and a spacious kitchen equipped with a commercial stove and refrigerator. Everyone took turns cooking and cleaning up after meals. Great grub!

Our day started shortly after 8 A. M. The work, repairing and rerouting hiking and access trails, was often strenuous. I used arm and upper body muscles I never knew I had. (One night in bed before 8:30 p.m.!) We lifted and hauled rocks, raked away leaves and topsoil, and created swales and water bars to prevent erosion. Usually we worked in teams with the more experienced volunteers leading the newcomers.

“Pace yourselves,” the parks superintendent advised. Snacks, water breaks, an hour-long lunch, and leaning on rakes helped. So did the two half-day field trips Gretchen planned.

At night we had campfires, conversation and the occasional board game. There were some surprises, too. A pet deer in a neighbor’s goat pen. And as the park’s law enforcement officer, Gretchen had to carry a gun. Working alongside a woman with a firearm on her hip was a new experience for me.

Also unexpected was the opportunity to experience new language and new meanings for familiar terms. I learned to use a “Pulaski,” a two-headed tool similar to a pickax. The Pulaski helped in removing roots to prevent hikers from stumbling up or down the park’s Dancing Rabbit Trail. When our crew leader told us to “ugly it up,” that meant covering the original trail with downed tree limbs, old logs and underbrush for diversion purposes, then creating a new path in its place.

The best part of the trip? Surveying our handiwork at day’s end. Although many of us were strangers at the start, it was heartening to come together for a common purpose and feel a sense of accomplishment, things one doesn’t usually expect to experience on vacation.

Copyright © 2009 Susan Middaugh.

Susan Middaugh is a self-employed business writer in Baltimore who also writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and on the website New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Several of her personal essays have appeared on this blog. To find them, check out the archives in the sidebar, beginning in April of 2009. Also in the sidebar under the Blogroll, Business and Writing labels, there are links to Susan’s website, Have Pen Will Travel.