Upon the end of my junior year at Trinity College in Hartford, I realized in horror that this was the last carefree summer remaining before I had to cave to my parents’ demand to follow their footsteps and join the capitalist, American work force, earning my own income, like any other “capable young adult.” Anxious about the future and eager to make the best of the three summer months, I decided to move to Barcelona, interning as a hotel receptionist, praying that my Spanish skills would suffice for direction inquiries and plentiful tapas orders.
The beginning was hard. I found the Spanish attitude towards work to be an absolute contradiction. Yes, I had expected Spaniards to take things more easily than the constantly-rushing Americans, but I was in for a big culture shock. The internship provided accommodation and meals at the hotel, sharing a room with other international college students. The staff was equally as lax as the work ethic – I was surrounded by an extremely friendly group of coworkers, who I went to las discotecas with, sang karaoke and went to beach picnics with. To my surprise, the general manager frequented all of these outings, completely challenging the professional hierarchy by telling you which clubs to go to and how to cure your hangover after one too many Damm Limon beers. Yet, like a victim of the Stockholm syndrome, I craved the rigor of the American cutthroat work attitude. On one hand I loved the feeling of camaraderie within my little team, but on the other, I felt restless, needing to do more and provide extra services for the guests, from basic things like remembering their names, to helping them carry their heavy luggage when the valet was not around. I felt like a wild salmon slamming its scaly body against the stream, defending its idea of what “should be,” shocked why everyone else seems to turn a blind eye on good work ethic, but how could you be a hotel receptionist and not do anything about a baby screaming in the lobby for 30 minutes?! Or how do you tell a guest to accept the fact that the air conditioner in his room was broken in the sweltering, mid-August heat and be satisfied with a complimentary ice pack instead? In my mind, this was absolutely unacceptable.
Having stayed at 4 and 5 star hotels during family vacations in the United States, where the concierge agent immediately runs to the store to buy the Kettle One vodka your mother demands in her Martini, it drove me absolutely crazy to be scolded by my supervisor for spending 15 minutes resolving a guest’s problem, given the fact that no one else needed my help at the time. Here is the contradiction which complicated matters further: I had to work much more than expected. My training agreement with the employed had promised the regular 40 hours per week, which is why I had already planned all of my weekend mini adventures. Needless to say, that dream got shattered as soon as I received the schedule for the first three weeks of work. Work became a constant and unpredictable roller coaster, having to work 7 consecutive days at a time with a 3 day break, or 5 days a week, followed by a single day off. These nearly sixty-hour weeks proved to be quite challenging for my original vision of taking photos of Park Güell and frolicking in the Spanish countryside. What was I to do? I was anxious because of the lax attitude towards the job, and because of the lack of time to escape and explore Catalonia. I had to think more creatively. With the help of my Italian co-workers and roommates, Imma and Silvia, I was able to piece together a few three-day weekends, during which I left the city to admire Dali’s art in Figueras, eat paella in Valencia with my friend Benito and sunbathing in Gavá. Though I deeply enjoyed these mini-adventures, I still couldn’t shake the anxious feeling of the uncertain future, as though it were a rope tightening around my neck with every passing minute. My American work mentality had me extremely frustrated at first, until the breaking point – a trip to Valencia by invitation of my college friend Benito.
Benito and I had attended Trinity College in Hartford together, and he had graduated a few months prior to my arrival in Spain. His family owned a beautiful, beach front apartment in Mareny Blau, a small neighborhood in the Sueca municipality of Valencia. It was a true slice of paradise with its smooth sandy beaches and palm tree leaves gently caressed by the cool Mediterranean breeze at night. Benito’s balcony overlooked the clear, blue waters of the Mediterranean sea, surrounded by the fine, golden sands of the small beach. “This used to be Franco’s private residence during the regime,” Benito explained. No wonder, I thought, who wouldn’t want to live in this pristine paradise. Since Benito’s family lived in a private housing complex, they had established very close friendships with their neighbors. In the US, you don’t necessarily know who lives around you, and tend to communicate indirectly, via the police, when they have a loud party or chop down your oak tree without permission. In Mareny Blau, Benito’s neighbors were regarded more as his aunts and uncles. “Come along, dear, we must introduce you to everyone,” Benito’s mom, Margot, informed me. “It would be very rude if we didn’t. People here need to know everything and are uneasy around strangers.” The next half hour was a frenzy of meeting countless”uncles” and “aunties,” whose names I gave up on trying to remember after the third “Manolo.” Though foreign to me, I enjoyed the notion of being immersed and accepted as “one of them,” the residents of the tiny coastal neighborhood community.
Margot was adamant about having lunch at the best paella place in town. “You know, paella is from Valencia,” she told me very seriously, “don’t trust anyone else in the country who sells you paella!” Benito’s father, Benito Senior, called the owner of the restaurant, asking him to keep it open for an extra hour so that we could have a long lunch. “Pepe wasn’t too happy to curtail his siesta,” he told us while putting down his cell phone, “but he agreed. Vamonos!” Thus, we embarked on the epic mission of finishing an enormous plate of rabbit paella, accompanied by too many glasses of wine, finished by a rich, chocolate cake. I don’t know whether it was the glorious taste of well-done rice and finely-chopped pieces of tender rabbit meat, woven together with Pepe’s “secret” spices, or the feeling of my acceptance in Benito’s loving family, but that was the best lunch I had ever had. (Benito, Benito S., the paella and I pictured below) Naturally, it was followed by a two-hour long inadvertent siesta back home. The evening had more surprises in store for me. Margot took me out shopping, or actually, bargaining with the local vendors, which was a cherished activity in Spain. One “Prada” purse later, we sat around the dining table again. If I had been unsure how Spaniards express their love thus far, one look at the lavish plethora of dishes on the table pointed towards the old saying “love is felt through the stomach.” Unfortunately, my time in Mareny Blau was up sooner than I knew it. “Those Catalans work you too hard!” I was told by Maria, the downstairs neighbor. I said goodbye to the Fernandez family and hopped on the train back to Barcelona.
Upon my return “home,” my Italian roommate Imma asked me about the trip. I told her at length about my adventures, inadvertently moving on to work-related worries, such as my schedule for the upcoming week and rude hotel guests. Imma laughed at me and said: “Why do you worry so much? Tranquila!” “Just be,” she said with a preaching tone and tapped my shoulder. What did this mean? A meticulous worker trained in the United States, I had come to terms with the fact that stress inevitably accompanies every career. Could I really clear my head from the anxiety-ridden thoughts and simply exist?
The following week was an experiment. I took Imma’s advice and tried my best to exercise this foreign philosophy. Then something incredible happened! I let go. I was no longer worried, laughed more, and even mastered the art of relaxing into the comfortable seats of the Renfe train for a sweet siesta. Just like that, I opened myself up to the soothing leisure of Spanish culture. I stopped overthinking every detail of my life and slowly began learning how to actively live it day by day. Tranquila. It worked for me and I dare you to let go and enjoy the moment, too.