FRESH YARN presents:

The Rain in Spain
By Jonathan Green

You may have traveled in Spain, but you haven't really been to Spain until you've been pissed on in a phone booth at one in the morning. I know it's a cliché, but trust me, the experience really gives you a flavor for the place.

On the night in question, I'd figured out the time difference between Granada and Pittsburgh, and left my host family's apartment to walk a block to the pay phone to call my parents. We weren't supposed to make long-distance calls from the home phone; the study-abroad program director said it was a courtesy thing. As I was about to find out, the Spanish are all about courtesy.

My sister answered, but we'd hardly gotten to "How's Spain?" when three kids rounded the corner. They were about 12 years old, 14 at the most. Not "street urchins" or anything adorable like that, just Spanish kids out way past an appropriate bedtime. Or maybe not -- for all I know, the afternoon siesta throws the whole schedule out of whack. Either way, I was the only other person out on the street, and I tried not to sound worried as they approached the phone booth.

"The first week's been a lot of fun." The kids started making faces at me through the glass. I ignored them. "Uh-huh, the other people in the program are okay…" The kids were chewing on toothpicks, and now one of them was pushing open the phone booth door and spitting bits of wood at me. They didn't seem to want anything, it was purely gratuitous bullying -- and not even the kind of creative, one-guy-kneels-behind-you-and-the-other-pushes-you-over bullying that we do here in the U.S. "Uh, so… yeah. Things are great." I covered the phone and made an awkward shooing gesture with my elbow. "Vaya!" Note that I didn't add the customary "con Dios." Clearly I meant business.

And that's about when the pissing started. The littlest kid simply pulled out his frijole and went to town. It was surreal at first, and I watched his urine splash at my feet with a strange sense of detachment: Hmm. They didn't mention this in the Fodor's Guide.

Then I got tough. I wasn't going to stand there and let myself be violated by some 12-year-old troublemaker with no discernible curfew. I looked the punk straight in the eye and yelled "Un momento!" Which translates as: "I'm on the phone right now, but if you could wait one moment, I'd be more than happy to take part in your traditional Spanish ceremony of bladder relief."

Really, though, I didn't want my sister to know that the increasingly-harder-to-mask confrontation taking place was anything more than some impatient Spaniard in line for the phone. It wasn't that I didn't want her to worry about me. Acknowledging what was happening would have meant admitting to myself that things weren't going great. You don't travel halfway across the world only to get pissed on in a phone booth; I could have done that in New York, although it might have been harder to get college credit for it. I decided the best move would be to wrap things up. "Anyway, it's quite… a cultural experience. We're sharing a lot already. Hey, I should go, my shoes are getting wet."


"I said, talk to you soon, bye."

As I left the phone booth, the kids scattered, and I muttered over my shoulder a sarcastic "Hasta luego." Take that! You mess with an American and, make no mistake, he will hope to see you again later. I walked back to my apartment, feeling lonely, frustrated, and a little lost.

The Spanish have a word for that feeling. I imagine they do, anyway; I don't remember much Spanish. But in 1993, I was seriously into it. It was my junior year in college, and I was studying for a semester with the School For International Training. Although the name suggested that its students would graduate as refined diplomats -- or, at the very least, able to travel anywhere in the world and land a minimum-wage job in a flan factory -- it mostly attracted college kids who wanted to see what it was like to drink beer in a foreign setting. I, however, was there for the "cultural experience," and I fully embraced the school's total-immersion philosophy, determined to speak only Spanish (I even affected the Castillian "lithping eth," which I convinced myself sounded "clathy" -- Cindy Brady and Daffy Duck be damned). The goal, I had heard, was to start thinking in Spanish, a milestone you know you've reached when you start dreaming in Spanish. But in order to dream, in any language, you need to sleep. And that was impossible in the bottom bunk of the creaky, Murphy-esque, fold-out-of-a-cabinet, never-knew-such-a-thing-existed bunk beds I shared with my Spanish "brother" and his particular aromatic mélange of cigarettes and infrequent bathing.

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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