English seems to be preferred as the common language around the world, probably since efforts to establish Esperanto as a popular language have not exactly caught on.
On our recent trip, we encountered many Spaniards who were fluent in English, but noticed that those with the greatest fluency don’t seem to be employed to translate such things as menus and historic site flyers.
In Seville, we had a great cup of coffee at a little restaurant called Casa Kiko, which was tucked away in an alley across from yet another beautiful church. (I drink decaf, which you have to be very careful in ordering. Unless you specify that you want “descafeinado de máquina” — decaf from the machine — you get a cup of hot water and a packet of Nescafé.) We decided to have a little breakfast, too. The menu boasted “screambled” eggs, and it wasn’t even Halloween.
In a tiny town outside of Córdoba, called Almodóvar del rio, we visited a beautifully restored castle built on the very top of a 760-foot peak overlooking a river valley. It was originally built by the Moors in 760 A.D., was occupied by the Romans and then King Pedro the Cruel (or Pedro the Just, depending on your point of view) and other monarchs. It has a ghost, too: Queen Zaida, who roams at night dressed in white. Her story is told in a rather lurid film shown in one of the towers.
After we paid our entry fee, we were given a little photocopied flyer about the castle translated into English. The map in the flyer was very helpful, unlike the introduction, which went like this: “Hope you enjoy this trip we carry the past, where it seems that Peter I ‘The Cruel’ you received, illustrious habitants of this Castle in XIV Century.”
We read further: “you come to the courtyard still keeping two old tanks.” We looked at each other. Us? “Another point of interest are de dungeons, wich still retains the atmosphere of mistery.”
And, “on weekend and holiday you can enjoy our Middle Age Lunch.” Us for sure!
Finally, printed prominently on the top of the flyer, “NO SMOOKING!”
Smooking is still very popular in Spain, although a law was passed in 2010 prohibiting smoking in places such as museums, historic sites, and indoor restaurants. The streets and city squares, on the other hand, are chock full of delighted smokers, who are not at all the guilty-looking furtive smokers we are used to in the U.S.
We stayed away from tour buses and guided tours, with the exception of a horse and carriage ride around Córdoba after our trip to the wonderful cathedral/mosque, the Mezquita. The driver took us through a beautiful city park, and dropped us off at the bull ring, where we toured the ring itself and the museum. We also signed on to a guided tour of the Alhambra in Granada — Islamic palaces built for the last Muslim emirs in Spain, and subsequently occupied by the sultans of the Nasrid dynasty. After that, as was everything else in Spain, in 1492 it was occupied by the Reyes Católicos, the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella of Christopher Columbus fame. Columbus, known there as Cristóbal Colón, is much more celebrated in Spain than in the U.S., even though he did die in relative disgrace. His heirs continued lawsuits against the Spanish crown up until the end of the eighteenth century over what was owed to the family.
Spain offers perhaps the best example of how different cultures occupy a land and leave their mark. Evidence of Muslim, Judaic, and Christian occupation of Andalusia, the south of Spain, is seen in its preserved and restored architecture, art, music, food, and language. The United States is a relative newcomer to the globe in terms of influence and power, and we tend to forget that at one time a single country could directly rule vast areas of the world far from home.
A visit to Spain can teach us much about the history of the world before America was “discovered” by Columbus, and our country was catapulted towards a changed direction that could never be reversed.