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The Rain in Spain
By Jonathan Green

Alfonso was a goofy, mischievous 16-year-old who got yelled at by his mom about 80 times a day. "Fonso!" she would scream, so angry that you could tell she was using both the regular exclamation point and the upside-down one at the front. But I liked him, if only because he was the only member of my host family whose name made any sense. His brother was called "Curro," as a nickname for "Francisco" -- not, as one might expect, something straightforward like "Curjamin" or "Curtholamew." And their two sisters were both named "Maria" after their mother, the George Foreman of four-foot-eleven, 60-year-old Spanish ladies. The whole thing was a census taker's nightmare.

The program paid families a stipend to accommodate students in their homes, and my host family was clearly just in it for the money. I was the 14th American they'd hosted, and they no longer had the energy to pretend they cared. (I was, however, only the second Jew to pass through; the first apparently didn't like breakfast, and only ate an apple every morning on her way to class. From the day I told Maria Prime that I was Jewish, there was always an apple left for me by the front door. I ate it, and considered myself lucky that the heathen Jewess hadn't followed our people's custom of drinking goat's blood.) The family also knew how to stretch the stipend, without wasting any of the money on frivolous luxuries like, say, feeding the guest. In three and a half months, I must have lost 15 pounds -- 18 with the ponytail.

Yes, I had arrived in Spain with a ponytail, at the height of my college wannabe-artist phase when, instead of actually bothering to do something creative, I had chosen simply not to get my hair cut. But in an attempt to "immerse," I had taken my host mother's subtle suggestions ("Ees bery ugly, Yonatone") and had it cut off. In a horrifying lapse of judgment, I mailed it to my girlfriend in California as some kind of -- and I'm guessing here -- joke? Maybe it seemed like a good idea in Spanish. All I know is that, along with an enthusiasm for firecrackers and torturing animals, air mailing a clump of one's own hair, still wet from the barbers, is one of the warning signs of a future serial killer. Had the Patriot Act been in place at the time, I wouldn't have been allowed back in the country.

But this is how out-of-touch I'd become in the months since the phone booth. Between the sleep deprivation, the isolation, the language confusion, the lack of food, and the occasional slighting of my religion, I don't think it's going too far to say that the conditions were exactly like Guantanamo Bay.

And maybe that's why, despite my lofty goal of speaking only Spanish, the highlight of my trip was a weekend on the island of Gibraltar, still a British colony, where everyone speaks English. Gibraltar is the gigantic rock from the Prudential logo, famous for the population of apes that roam freely over the island. In fact, one tour guide guaranteed he'd refund my money if he didn't get a monkey to sit on my head. Which, if I'm not mistaken, is also an interrogation technique at Guantanamo. His promise struck me as odd -- if tourists come to see the apes, why put one in the only place they won't be able to see it? I mean, I've been to Australia, and nobody ever threatened contact between my scalp and a kangaroo's ass. But the guide wouldn't take confused, awkward protesting for an answer. Before I knew it, he'd strategically placed an M&M on my shoulder, and wham -- automatic monkey hat. I was only glad my ponytail was no longer around to suffer the indignity. And again, this was the highlight of my trip.

The truth was, I enjoyed the idea of living in Spain, and being able to say afterwards that I had lived in Spain, more than actually living in Spain. The whole semester was a lesson in not trying to be something I wasn't -- whether a native Spanish speaker, a longhaired hippie, or a guy having a great time, barely noticing he's being pissed on in a phone booth in an AT&T commercial gone horribly wrong.

Maybe that's the message the kids that night were trying to get across -- a reminder that no matter who I thought I was, how much I thought I could blend in, I was still just a tourist getting pissed on in a phone booth. Or maybe they were just a bunch of little Spanish pricks.

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