(Credit for the cover picture: Mashrou’ Leila’s Ibn el Leil album art)
Sometimes life brings me echoes from my parents’ young years. Although I have obviously never witnessed them, I grew familiar with those days through old photo books and my favourite aunt’s stories.
I guess 1980s Spain can easily be romanticised, especially when it’s a plate served by a nostalgic storyteller. Yet, I’d bet that there was a certain kind of authenticity to it that can hardly be found in the country any longer. From what I grasp, life was bolder and naïve, and people more vibrant, in a fashion that reminds me of Macondo’s early villagers –who unfortunately I have never met–.
The more exposure I got to these stories, the more I felt I was longing for a past that I’d never been a part of. So, when I heard about my aunt friends’ spontaneous 300 km journey towards Porto after a night out with the only purpose of having breakfast with a view of the ocean, I couldn’t help but picturing myself on that rusty car.
Despite what it may appear, I’m not fond of having their stories told because I believe they are crazy or wild. What I came to appreciate the most about them is how naturally and unpretentiously the events unfold in them and, especially, that they do so at its very own pace.
Indeed, when my aunt revisits her memories, she doesn’t intend to entertain me. In fact, a thrilling passage of her teen years can be followed by twenty minutes of tedious referencing to old villagers for whom the bell tolled long ago. Each anecdote abides by its own rules, and there is no way it could be tailored following the contemporary restrictions imposed by the reign of time management.
Unlike me, a dedicated millennial journalist in a permanent quest for more efficiently conveyed messages, my aunt doesn’t display a number-of-characters kind of thinking. She doesn’t care about highlighting some sentences or starting with a flashy headline. She wouldn’t bother herself repeating a joke on fears that it didn’t reach its public. While sipping her wine, Tere –that’s how my auntie is called– would barely acknowledge my presence, her target audience being mostly my mother.
Wine and coffee are common features of this world that is no longer young. Sunflower seeds –whose consumption is worryingly decreasing within our youth– are as well, to the extent that they represent conversation for the sake of it.
The values informing the contemporary version of capitalism, deeply intertwined with our core ones during our upbringing, result in competitive, time-managing, entertainment-oriented and individualised versions of ourselves. The car ride to Porto would have probably not happened today: it deviates too much from the norm, it’s too spontaneous, it prevents us from doing something productive the next day…
Even if it happened, it would have taken place in a radically different way. Casual conversations would be replaced by 6-second Snapchat videos trying to convey a West Coast-convertible-drive-fun feeling. The trip itself would be turned into a test: are you fun enough to do that? Are you crazy enough? Do you have what it takes?
My dear aunt Tere and my mum were not raised to follow this logic. I can tell that when they gather and talk casually while smoking cigarette after cigarette as their coffees get cold. I miss that Spain that no longer exists but whose footprints I still come across from time to time. Gone for good in the cities, its reminiscences can be traced in the villages. I miss the Spain I never got to know. I strive for it.
As I opened myself to new realities, I came to the realisation that this authenticity was in no way restricted to the borders of my nation. Denmark seems an unlikely scenario for such realisation. As a rule, people are spoilt by the culture of awkwardness imported from the United States. Feelings make them feel uneasy, and individualisation is so ingrained within the community that Donne’s “no man is an island entire of itself” rings hollow.
Nevertheless, it was in Copenhagen where I first noticed my aunt’s cherished qualities in a 19-year-old Serbian called Predrag. I can’t assure it had nothing to do with the way he smoked or let his coffee get cold, but I would have bet the similarities went far beyond that.
My suspicions were to be confirmed later when I visited him and another friend of mine in Serbia the following month. Belgrade might feel cold as a city, but it never did with him. One night, after going out for some drinks with his friends, everyone said goodbye and we started wandering the deserted streets. I could feel the original pace of life, exuberant and multifaceted, gradually joining us.
That night we sat in a terrace to drink wine and discuss. We engaged in a bold conversation as we walked back home and I swear those kilometres felt like a single breath. When we finally entered his apartment at around 6 in the morning, his two roommates Isidora and Nevena were casually studying in the sofa, seemingly unbothered about the exam they were about to take three hours later. They were stoically coping with their unfortunate destinies drinking coffee and wine, and –of course– smoking like Turkish men throughout the whole night. They were so much like my mother and my aunt…
Predrag also accompanied me to the airport. That’s something we don’t do anymore. Airports are places where elderly Chinese tourist couples are supposed to find their way, so they shouldn’t pose a problem for an English-speaking young and smart European. He still came, though, and that gesture only made it harder to flight back to cold Denmark. The Serbian spell was over.
Serbia was only an appetizer, though. Morocco proved a full immersion into what I call –in the absence of any better term– “the spirit of 1980s Spain”. Here, the core Western notions of independence, privacy and individuality are contested every single time. This can prove annoying when poorly managed, but it’s also refreshing like abandoning yourself in a sunset dive in the Atlantic.
People greet more, and people greet differently. Danish university libraries were full of people that knew each other but would look away in order not to bother themselves in saying hi, God forbid. Small talking is considered awkward and uncomfortable, and the more you can isolate yourself the better. In Rabat, a person I barely knew and whose look I was avoiding so I could skip a greeting exchange came to my seat to handshake me.
Moroccan greetings encompass more interactions than Danish little talks. You are supposed to say hello, and then almost obliged to ask how is it going, so your interlocutor will greet you, answer your question and send it right back at you. That simply triggers conversation.
The entrance of my host university seems to me more like the main square of my grandma’s village on market day. Many came earlier to revise in the library but never made it through the door. In fact, they will most likely be late to their courses. The danger posed by those smoking and chatting under the sun is not to be underestimated.
When it comes to compensating for the damage caused by the happy procrastination days, we are all in the same boat. Last week, we had our house invaded by a group of students organising a three-day major event at uni. Our house felt like a newsroom on the eve of election day.
Coffee was prepared on an hourly basis, at 4 a.m. the night was still young and my bed was a haven for those who needed a 30-minute nap before continuing their sleep deprivation endeavour. The terrace was regularly nestled by smokers on the verge of a breakdown.
The night is dark and full of terrors, they say. But when a huge noise broke the silence of my apartment and I was too scared to go back to sleep, I could rely on Youssef to come to my rescue. Having noticed my terrorised state, he came by taxi, told me to pack my pyjamas and took me to his place so I wouldn’t spend the night alone.
Anouar is like that as well. He wouldn’t stop spoiling me with presents that are not even meant as those: “You are keeping that piece of underwear, it’s your size”. “You shouldn’t give me those pants back, you only have like two pairs, you need to keep them”. He once called to ask me about my T-shirt size because he had spotted one that would look good on me…
In a way, it’s like seeing my grandmother. “Do you need money? I can pay for your taxi”, “you’re so broke, dinner is on me”, “bitch, come join us, I’m inviting you to a drink”. Fighting over the bill is a recurrent motif, and he was determined to buy a pair of glasses for me when he visited Paris. He finally showed up with a book.
But it gets even crazier. He brings food to the house in the same way my grandma does when she comes to our home back in Spain. She clearly considers us incapable of properly feeding ourselves. He insists that I should get a jacket when I go out because “it’s not summer yet, habibi” (the temperatures rarely decrease below 18 degrees). Whenever I want to go somewhere by foot at night he would get furious and claim Rabat is unsafe. He makes Cidade de Deus look like a children playground.
Morocco displays all the charm Spain had during my parents’ young days. In fact, my dad wouldn’t stop taking photos to absolutely everything and everyone when visiting. Then he would send them to his brother and they daydreamed about those days. It still feels untamed. Even if capitalism is as prevalent here as pretty much everywhere else, it hasn’t got to people’s souls. Personal profit is not yet what leads people’s lives and hospitality is still not an empty word.
Loneliness is not chronically pandemical, and people don’t show a permanent uneasiness. They just don’t easily feel uncomfortable or awkward, nor they treat each other with a fake layer of customer service smiles. They would silently share a 5-seat car with six unknown people and it would be business as usual. The mere notion of grand-taxis would make a Dane lose his sleep.
Despite gender segregation and other types of ridiculous bullshit, Morocco remains a very sensual and tactile country. Kisses and hugs are on sale and, when in a gathering, you can’t get away without kissing at least four times everyone on the table.
Dear mum and dad, how did you manage to endure such transformation? Can we reverse the revolution of awkwardness? Can we appropriate again the notion of hospitality? I wish we could place humans back at the centre of the stage, and free the pace of life from its current reality-show time constraining format.
Life is shy and requires time to unveil its marvels. At night, it’s always best. We should all let our coffees get cold as the hours pass and unpretentiously drink wine with our loved ones. We should embark in an improvised journey to Porto to watch the ocean and strive for the long gone golden days to be back.
I guess it can all be resumed saying that we should connect with the human being that inhabits all of us. Because it’s there, and we are longing for it.