Tales from abroad: Málaga
“Vale, Vale, Vale.” I heard this word countless times every day while studying abroad last summer in Málaga, Spain. It is a word with many meanings including “okay,” “I understand,” and “well,” and is quite possibly the most popular phrase among the Spaniards.
When in Spain, the response to everything is “vale” and life is never stressful. In Málaga, it was commonplace to wake up at 11 a.m. on a weekday and see an apartment building bustling as if people had no jobs to go off to. I would often see the same people every weekday, including the hombre desnudo, or naked man, who would wake up and go out to his balcony to stretch at the same time each day as if he had no cares in the world. To add to the relaxed atmosphere, I watched this apartment building each weekday morning from my Spanish poetry class held in none other than a hotel’s pool house. While in Málaga, this poetry class was my only academic commitment. Five days each week, I, along with five other students and my professor would gather in the pool house and discuss 19th century romantic poetry and how it related to our lives and to society at that time. The class was the opposite of stressful, and I am positive that every student received an A and the full nine units for it. For our final, we convinced our professor to allow us to write an ode to the hombre desnudo we saw in class each day — in perfect poetic form, of course.
Throughout my time in Málaga, I was able to experience life at the southernmost tip of Spain, surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea and only 90 miles from Africa. The sun was stronger than I had ever experienced and a day in the sun without any sun block was like a kiss of death. The strength of the sun prompted shopping streets to be lined with large translucent sheets hung above the building tops to protect pedestrians from the violent rays. The beaches were the areas of the most intense sunlight and also the areas where women felt quite comfortable topless. Topless beaches were the norm on the Southern coast. Never before had I seen women so comfortable running through the sand, swimming, and eating chicken bones, all the while topless — sometimes even a mother with her 12-year-old daughter. As Americans, we were identifiable by our usual habit of wearing full bikinis. This is not to say that we did not try out the norm for one day on our trip — even then, however, we still stood out as Americans who could not stop giggling as we walked toward the sea to go swimming and reflect on our attempt at cultural immersion.
Málaga was not only home to topless beaches, but also to the origins of flamenco dancing, a Spanish tradition made famous by flamenco dresses, mariachi costumes, and castanets — the clappers used by the dancers. Seeing flamenco in Málaga was like being transported into another world where men and women traveled in West Side Story-style clumps, yet danced in the most rhythmic and beautiful ways imaginable. The costumes were equally magnificent and only added to the scene. At the end of the show, the most attractive male dancer of the group shook our hands and we couldn’t have been more excited. He had dark, flowing hair, the body of a dancer, and had been dancing solo for the last 10 minutes of the show.
The looks of the flamenco dancer, however, were nothing compared to the Spanish fútbol, or soccer team, who played in the finals and then won the Eurocup, all while I was staying in Málaga. My hotel was located in Torremolinos, a small province of Málaga. For each game, the people of Torremolinos gathered at a few outdoor restaurants in the town’s central square. It was there in that square that I realized just how much the Spaniards value their fútbol. The game was watched with so much intensity that the waiters and waitresses essentially stopped serving food — only the occasional alcoholic beverage, another favorite of the Spaniards. The wait staff and everyone there were wearing bright red Spanish national jerseys and sitting there without one made it hard not to feel like an outsider. My friends and I learned after the semifinals that to really fit in, we needed to get those jerseys and up our enthusiasm a thousand times over. For the finals, we were prepared — adorned in jerseys, we got to the square early, had horns, and cheered our hearts out. When Spain won the final game against Germany, the crowd erupted. My friends and I joined the festivities in jumping into the town fountain then going out to the local karaoke bar, El Open Arms, and wandering through the streets with the beaming crowd.
There were many more little things about Spanish culture that took us Americans by surprise. When my girlfriends and I took a trip to see the new summer hit Sexo en Nueva York, or Sex and the City, we learned that movie theaters had assigned seating and that popcorn with butter was a foreign concept — salt was the major preference. Whenever we would ask the wait staff in a restaurant for jugo, or juice, they would not understand — and we soon learned that juice was actually called zumo, a word none of us had ever heard of. The Spaniards were also strangers to virgin alcoholic drinks. When one of my friends asked for a virgin strawberry daiquri, the waiter looked at her in confusion and just said “daiquri?” and brought her the alcoholic form.
Male Spaniards were all very friendly, and when going out at night as an American girl, it was quite easy to find a salsa partner. Their friendliness was sometimes so much that it necessitated interference from friends.
My time in Málaga was the best time of my life. While I miss all the attractive men, the delicious sangria, and the soccer pride, what I miss the most is the atmosphere in Spain and the willingness of the people like the hombre desnudo to live their lives how they please or, as they would say, “Que pasa, pasa.”