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Northern Exposure

JOURNEY TO ACCEPTANCE IN A SMALL SPANISH COMMUNITY. 

Welcome to Asturias.

How does an idea become a reality? I was once told to never refuse an offer and that is how the journey began. An offer to live in the small northern Spanish city of Oviedo in the region of Asturias, knowing no one and living with a lady who does not speak English. Challenge accepted. My journey began in late June with intentions of becoming fluent in Spanish and to be accepted amongst the small community. Knowing only a few words and phrases in Spanish, I knew it would be a challenge… but that’s all part of the fun. The international language of hand gestures works with strangers and short encounters when travelling through a new place, however, when immersing one’s self completely into a foreign culture, more than hand gestures is required.

Spain has always been such an appealing nation. Sun, surf, sangria, music, dancing, sun kissed skin and an exotic ambiance. That may be the case for the south of Spain along the Mediterranean, but not for the north. Upon arrival via train from Barcelona I was enlightened with the fact that Oviedo rarely sees the sun, which is why people are so intelligent because they aren’t playing out on the streets, instead they are reading books inside. My idea of an exotic Spanish summer soon diminished to thoughts of life inside bound to books, movies and studying language.

So how do you immerse yourself and become accepted by a community of proud ‘Asturian’s?

Step 1:

Never associate the region of Asturias with the rest of Spain. To make an analogy, let’s pretend Australia’s history dates back hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Nearly all of Australia has been conquered by a tribe, except for Western Australia. The tribe couldn’t cope with the conditions of the Great Sandy Desert bordering Western Australia and therefore was forced to turn back. That would mean for Western Australia, they remain the only ‘pure and unconquered land’. For Asturias, this is their story, their history. They have a saying here… “Asturias es España, el resto es tierra conquistada”. This means that from an Asturian perspective, every other region in Spain is conquered land by the Muslims. They believe Asturias is the true Spain because they were never conquered as the Muslim’s were unable to pass the fortress of surrounding mountains and were forced to turn back.

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Torrecerredo peak in the Picos de Europa National Park. 

To further confuse my idea of Spanish culture, for Asturias this means no paella (typical Spanish dish), no bull fighting, no tapas and no sangria. Instead they eat Cachopo (deep fried veal stuffed with cheese and ham) and drink Sidra (extremely strong cider) in a very unique fashion.

Step 2:

To immerse yourself, learn the language. “Aqui, no hablamos Español… hablamos Asturian”. In English this means “Here we don’t speak Spanish, we speak Asturian. Asturian is not an official language, it’s a modified version of Spanish that sounds like you have a lisp and have pressed an imaginary fast forward button. I buried what I thought I knew about Spanish and started from scratch. 1) Listen 2) Observe 3) Mimic 4) Forget. You can’t speak Asturian without knowing the corresponding hand gestures. So observe just as much as you listen and do exactly as they do.

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My brain felt like it was continuously doing double time whenever I was engaged in conversation. While the life situations seem to be the same anywhere in the world, the contexts, the names and acronyms were different. The language I was speaking was still Asturian Spanish but the phrasing and thinking patterns were completely different. I felt I had to listen, translate it to my own thinking and then find a response suitable for their context and then translate to their thinking pattern. This therefore makes storytelling a lot more difficult because it seemed my stories were not as meaningful to the Asturian’s who had not experienced my context. This added a whole new dimension to immersion as I forced myself to forget everything I ever knew about English and ensure every thought, every word and even every dream was in Asturian Spanish.

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“Fabada y sidra” Typical food and drink from the Asturias region. Image credit: Alexfoofoo 

Step 3:

Live exactly how they do. If immersion requires eating dinner at 11 O’Clock at night, then that is exactly what will have to be done. If every meal consists of 3 courses, then that is also to be done. If drinking sidra on a daily basis until you see triple of everything will contribute to my acceptance in the community, then I shall also welcome that to my daily routine. Sleeping in the middle of the day and staying out until sunrise to explore the mysteries of the night provided by the moonlight- well gentleman on the train who told me Oviedo is a quiet, book-bound town, it seems you have been proven wrong.

This journey has been like no other. The differences between travelling compared to living abroad are over-whelming at times but knowing that in such a short amount of time I have been accepted into such a wonderful community, makes up for any pre-existing uncertainty. Cultural relativism has been the most important factor to assist with immersion. I always believe that you receive what you put out to the universe.  By accepting and respecting other cultures and how they live, you will receive the same acceptance and be welcomed with open arms into the homes and lives of those around you.

Michelle Travaglione is a flint contributor living in Spain whilst completing a degree in Anthropology.

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