Tag Archives: Spain

To Shave or Not to Shave Pt. II: A (Quite Literal) Exploration of Waxing

9 Jan

As promised, I’m back to continue my musings on my newfound obsession with hair.  Last week, I stuck to a general overview of all sorts of body hair, from the kind on your face and head to the sort on your legs.  However, this time I’ll be venturing into parts less known and even less talked about: the hair between your legs.

*True story: while writing this post in a popular coffee shop, a man came up to me. Our conversation went thusly:“What are you typing away about, sweetheart?” “I’m blogging!” “Oh?” He leaned in a little. “I like your scarf. Are you a fashion blogger?” “Nope! I’m writing about bikini waxes!” He choked on his coffee and I returned, quite satisfied, to my work.

Although you can get away with discussing shaving and waxing of innocuous body parts like eyebrows in polite conversation, pubic hair maintenance is a don’t-go-there kind of topic*.  You might as well mark it with a jagged, red X and write “Here be dragons” next to it (or at least “Here be landing strips,” “Here be vajazzling,” or any number of the bizarre things people do with their, er, lettuce groves**).   This made me insatiably curious, as taboo conversational subjects tend to do.  What kind of wax was used?  How much did it cost?  What was it like to be a salon technician and spend all day peeling hair off of people’s crotches?  Who that I knew got bikini or Brazilian waxes?  Was a bikini wax a gateway drug into harder stuff, like full-body waxing?  How did you avoid the awkwardness of stripping off your clothes and baring everything for a stranger?  What did the damn thing feel like?  And, most importantly, what compelled people to pay other people to apply hot wax to their genitals and then rip it off?

**I wondered a good deal about what to call the area to which a bikini wax is applied. The technical term would be ‘pubic region,’ but that sounds so unfunny and medical that I decided to call it a bunch of different things, some of them just as silly as ‘pubic region’ is dry.

I resolved that I would not leave Spain without answering this question.  And indeed, dear readers, I carried through on this resolution so that I could tell you all about it.  Here follows one woman’s maiden voyage into the waxing salon.

I had spoken with my friend Sarah, a waxing veteran, about my plan of attack.  She agreed to come with me as moral support – and potentially physical, should I be doubled over in agony.  Together, we chose a salon near the center of Valencia.  I strutted up to the counter, trying to look as if I had done this a hundred times before.  “I would like a wax,” I said in my it’s-obvious-she’s-not-from-here Spanish.

The man behind the counter pulled out an appointment book.  “We have an opening at 7:00.  Where?”

“On my…um…” It was only now that I realized I didn’t know the Spanish phrase for ‘bikini wax.’  I gestured at my crotch as if I were directing a plane to land there.  “Here.  I want it here.”

The man gave me a (justifiably) weird look.  “All…right.  We’ll see you at seven.”

Sarah and I frittered away two hours in Starbucks.  I kept biting my nails and twitching, wondering just what I’d gotten myself into.  When we came back, we were introduced to Leticia, the waxing technician, a woman in her late thirties with dyed-red hair, impeccable eyebrows, and a businesslike demeanor.

“So…this is my first time,” I said, imitating a nonchalant tone.

She took my arm.  “Your first time?  Are you scared?” she said in Spanish.

“Uh…a little,” I admitted.

“Don’t be.  I’m very good at what I do.  Go inside and strip down to your underwear.  And call me Leti.”

“Cool.  Um, can I bring a friend?” I pointed at Sarah, who was hovering in the doorway.

I got my second weird look of the day.  “Is she gonna hold your hand?”

“Hoping we won’t get to that point, but maybe.”

Leti grinned and shook her head.  “Yeah, she’s fine.”  She ushered us in and closed the door behind us.

I glanced around the room.  There was a massage table covered with a sheet, a bureau topped with neat stacks of paper strips, and a metal tray full of waxing apparatus.  A pot of greenish goo bubbled sinisterly in the corner.  I took off my clothes and shoved them in Sarah’s direction.  “Oh my god.  Oh my god.  Is she going to make me take off my underwear?”

***An awkward anecdote to add to this pile of awkward anecdotes: in Spanish, the word ingle means ‘crotch.’ The word inglés means either ‘English’ (as in the language) or ‘Englishman.’ When Leti asked if I wanted my ingle done, I tried to assure her that, sadly, I had no Englishman for her to wax.

“Probably not,” said Sarah soothingly, and patted my shoulder.  “Don’t worry.  You’ve got this, girl.  Go lie down.”

Leti knocked and entered a few moments later.  “Okay.  What do we want today?  A bikini wax or Brazilian wax?”***

Not a Brazilian,” I said, fervent.

She stirred the pot of goo – which was, as I had feared, the wax.  “And do you want any designs?  Hearts?  A letter?”

I briefly considered a ‘w’ for ‘why did I do this?’  “Er…no.  Just keep it normal.”

She began applying the wax to my skin in wide strokes.  “Do you have a boyfriend?”

I winced at the temperature of the wax.  “Yes.  Back in the States.”

Leti pursed her lips.  “Did he make you do this?”

“God, no.”

“Good.  Lots of men make their girlfriends do it here.”  She applied a strip of paper to the quickly-cooling wax.  “Ready?  It won’t hurt very much.”

I motioned for Sarah, who snorted and gave me her hand to grab.  I didn’t hold out very long, I thought.  “Grip your skin so it’s taut.  It hurts less that way,” said Leti.  I gripped.  She stripped.  It felt like one of Daenerys’ dragons from Game of Thrones had gotten caught between my legs and started belching flames while someone beat my nether regions with a brick.  I squeezed Sarah’s hand for dear life.

“See?” said Leti, grabbing the wax applicator again.  “That wasn’t so bad!”

“Right,” I gasped.

“So,” said Leti, brushing her angular, red bangs out of her eyes, “if you’re not doing this for your boyfriend, then why are you doing it?”

“So I can write a blog post about it.”  I tensed again, waiting for the rrrip of the waxing paper.  It came.  I tried not to whimper.

“Whatever makes you happy,” said Leti, sounding doubtful.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” asked Sarah.

“I did,” she said.  Her face fell.  “For three years.  But we just broke up.”

“That’s awful. You want to talk about it?” said Sarah, ever the therapist.

Leti did.  So we launched into a conversation about the reprehensible behavior of our various exes, especially hers, who had cheated on her.  I found it more than a little ironic that we were man-bashing (which is not a good thing to do, but you just go with the conversational flow when you have hot wax on your lady forest, trust me) while conducting the stereotype of ‘crazy girl things.’

By the time we had finished about ten minutes later, I had been denuded of a pretty big portion of what I normally keep around my southern soul patch.  Leti gave me a cream to apply to my stinging skin and left the room so I could get dressed.  I’m not sure why, since she had already seen way more than I show most people.  “Make sure to write something good about me on your blog!” she said over her shoulder.  (Which I have done, because she deserved it.)  Sarah and I left the salon a few minutes later, thanking her one more time.  Dusk was falling in Valencia, and the elaborate displays of Christmas lights in the main plaza were coming to life.

“So how do you feel?” Sarah asked.

“Better than I expected,” I admitted.  The pain was slowly seeping away.  “But Jesus, Sarah.  People do that on a regular basis?”

Which is, essentially, what I’m taking away from this experience.  Sarah explained to me that some people do it because they’re allergic to the metals used in most razor blades, or because their skin is so sensitive that shaving inflames it (which is her situation).  But for those of us who have no such aversion, I can’t imagine going back to the salon every three weeks for this treatment.    As I said in my last post, my feeling is that women and men should be free to do whatever they’d like with their body hair, and if that involves getting it all waxed off, then so be it.  However, I don’t like the idea of people doing it to conform to some standard of nether hairlessness.  The biological truth is that we grow hair down there.  Waxing will only remove it for a few weeks at most (oh, and have I mentioned that it’s agonizing?).  In addition, it’s expensive – I paid €15 for it, which is about $20.50.  If you wax once a month, which is less frequent than the recommended every three weeks, it adds up to $246 per year.  That’s a lot of money to pay just to keep your hedge trimmed.

I suppose this essay comes down to one question: would I do it again?  The answer: probably not.  Not unless I suddenly become an underwear model, an Olympic swimmer, or a porn star****.  Although I felt a little more like Adriana Lima afterwards, I also felt guilty about subscribing to typical feminine beauty expectations.  No matter where it grows, the hair we’ve got is a part of us.  I’m assistant directing the Vagina Monologues right now, and one of the characters says, “I realized that hair is there for a reason: it’s the leaf around the flower, the lawn around the house.  You can’t pick the parts you want.”  Or rather: you can, but you have to go to an awful lot of trouble to do it.  The kick-ass Balpreet Kaur, a Sikh woman who has a bit more facial hair than the average woman, also exemplifies the same notion in her reply to Reddit bullies when she wrote, “My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body.”  And with that in mind, I’ll take a leaf from Balpreet’s book – at least in regards to waxing.

So, although I respect every person’s decision to do with their hair what they want, as I wrote last week, I don’t believe I’ll be engaging in any more wax-related bush-whacking, jungle-weeding, hen-plucking, or any of those other ridiculous euphemisms.  I’ll save my time for other things, like fighting dragons in Skyrim and reading McSweeney’s Internet Tendency articles until I pass out.

Read Pt. I here: To Shave or Not to Shave: The Cultural Aesthetics of Female Body Hair

****Hi, Mom!  I hope you’re not reading this!

The Big Bad Travel Story

16 Dec
The face of an entire trip.  photocred: Katherine Black

The face that launched a thousand misfortunes. photocred: Katherine Black

Let’s be frank with each other: we all have a Bad Travel Story.  You know what I’m talking about – the I-was-stuck-in-the-airport-for-48-hours, got-malaria-and-was-in-critical-care, had-my-everything-stolen-by-gypsy-children kind of story.  The one one you take turns telling on Thanksgiving, or the one you have on reserve to impress people at parties.  I have never been particularly patient with Bad Travel Stories, since it seems like most people exaggerate them (“and then we were attacked by a hoard of ravenous dingos!”) or are being a teeny bit whiny (“and then we realized that our hotel room didn’t have a private espresso machine!”).  However, after one of my more recent travel experiences, I not only have a Bad Travel Story of my own, but came away from it with some surprising conclusions.

My friend Katherine and I had been looking for a weekend getaway: something smaller and more picturesque than Valencia, maybe colder and more autumnal.  We chose Cuenca, a town an hour outside of Valencia by high-speed train.  Nestled on a steep hill, with its famous casas colgadas (hanging houses) clinging to its edges, Cuenca is one of Spain’s national heritage sites.  But el día de todos los santos, a Spanish holiday on November 1st when most Spaniards go back to whatever pueblo they’re from to visit their families, meant that all the hotels were booked.  Our only option?  Rent an apartment for the weekend.  And why not, we figured?  The apartment company had okay ratings on bookings.com.  What could go wrong?

There was, of course, a good deal that went wrong.

Perhaps thinking that we were lesbians because we attempted to book an apartment with one bed, the company ‘upgraded’ us to another apartment.  Except they conveniently forgot to tell us where it was.  Also that the front door didn’t open without kicking it.  Also that there was no heat or hot water.  (And may I add that it was about 30 degrees in Cuenca that night?)  But, to our great good fortune, we happened to ask a particularly helpful local for directions.

“Eh?  Rincón de Malu?” he said, scratching his thick, white beard.  “Don’t know where that is.”  And before we could stop him, he had banged on all the doors in the vicinity.  “Hey!  Anyone know where Rincón de Malu is?”

A woman in curlers stuck her head out the window.  “Nearby.”

Another woman, this one clutching an icon of the Virgin Mary, said, “The next street over.  I’ll help you with the door.”

Katherine and I spent the evening cuddling and watching the first Harry Potter movie in Spanish.  We slept in the same bed anyway, piling all the blankets from both beds together to keep warm.  (Take that, homophobic rental company.)

The next morning, I was awoken by the rental company calling.  “Your debit card number didn’t work,” said the woman on the other end.  “Give it to us again.”

I blinked, groggy.  “Um.  Only if you cancel our other two nights here.”

“Give it to me or I’m calling the police.”

I shot out of bed.  “Woah.  Okay.  That is not necessary.”

Despite everything, Cuenca was...actually really pretty.  photocred: Katherine Black

Despite everything, Cuenca was…actually really pretty. photocred: Katherine Black

From her rapid Spanish, I gleaned that she’d give us our money back if we left by 9:00.  It was 8:50.  We threw our clothes in our suitcases and dragged them up the narrow, cobbled streets of Cuenca to the bar where we’d been promised free breakfast.  There was, of course, no record of this when we arrived.

“That’s okay, though!  You’re wearing a Valencia soccer club scarf.  Have some toast!” said the restaurant’s owner.  And he plunked two plates of bread in front of us, chattering as we pulled out my laptop and bought new return tickets to Valencia for that night.

“You all want to leave your luggage here?” he asked.  We nodded, grateful, and he whisked it away to a back room filled with entire legs of jamón.  From there, we left to take advantage of our one day of sightseeing.  We went to the Cuenca cathedral, filled with gorgeous panes of modern stained glass.  We walked down trails lined with fallen autumn leaves.  We visited the modern art museum and pondered what a clump of steel wool glued to a canvas meant.  (Our favorite work of art: a square canvas, covered entirely in gray paint, entitled “Gray Square.”  Changed our way of looking at the world.)  Then we picked up our bags from our cheery friend the restaurant owner and headed back to the train station.

However, because this was November 1st, there was no one there to print our tickets.  We climbed onto the train anyway, exhausted.  When the ticket-checker came by, we explained our situation.

“Just give me your names and I’ll call the operations center,” he said.

“Elizabeth.”

“Eli – what?”

“It’s not a Spanish name,”  I said.  “E.  Liz.  A.  Beth.”

He looked at me balefully.  “Why couldn’t you have been named María?”

“I…don’t know?”

“You know what?”he said, shaking his head.  “Just stay.”  And we slumped back in our seats, relieved.

But, to put the proverbial cherry on top of our sundae of misfortunes, the train pulled up short an hour outside of Valencia.  There was, we learned, a train strike.  We were shunted onto the metro system instead.  Katherine and I wandered, lost, until two men (they introduced themselves as Juan the Valencian and Gonzalo the Colombian) kindly took us to the right stop.  The next metro didn’t come for an hour, so we sat on top of our suitcases, trading jokes in Spanglish.  Gonzalo gave us cookies.  When the metro came, they both kissed us on the cheek and wished us safe travels.

Katherine and I still haven’t gotten our money back.  We probably never will.  But what we do have is a swell Bad Travel Story, even more unique because we chanced to meet so many generous people.  And we also learned that a) life tends to turn out okay (as long as you take the advice of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and DON’T PANIC), b) we love the smell of police threats in the morning, and c) wearing a Valencian soccer club scarf will make you friends everywhere you go.

“Did you at least have a good time?” my host mother asked when I got home at 1:00 A.M. that night.

“Did I ever,” I said, and fell asleep in my chair.

Katherine and me in a rare moment of put-togetherness.

Katherine and me in a rare moment of put-togetherness.  photocred: Katherine Black

What’s the Difference between a Spanish Latte and an American One? More than You’d Think

12 Dec

latte

For the most part, American stores and restaurants aren’t common in Valencia.  You’re more likely to see a hole-in-the-wall cafe, its display cases filled with Spanish tortilla and jamon-covered bocadillos and its espresso machine hissing behind the bar, than a Panera.  If you’re looking for clothes, you’ll stumble upon 15 Zaras, Mangos, and Sferas before you find the Lacoste boutique.  However, lining the fashionable streets of Gran Vía del Marqués de Turia and Calle Colón are a few businesses that both Spaniards and Americans love to hate and love to eat at: Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Starbucks has three locations in Valencia, both with the name emblazoned on its storefronts in familiar, green lettering.  At first glance, Starbucks seems to be much like its American counterpart.  Jazzy Christmas music fills the air, warm-toned prints cover the walls, and deceptively plush-looking couches surround a collection of tables where Valencians meet for interviews or a casual cup of coffee.  However, apply a keener eye to the store and you’ll notice the differences.  The Wi-Fi, for example, is password-protected, and only available for 45-minute intervals.  Spanish Starbucks guard their internet connection like Smaug squatting on his hoard, as if afraid that someone might steal the whole Internet when the employees have their backs turned. The bathroom is similarly protected.  A number pad, its code only available if you’ve bought a drink, keeps the facilities perpetually locked.  Behind the cash register is a sign that reads, “Beware of your personal items.  Professional pickpockets operate in this zone.”  In my mind, this converts Starbucks into a shifty back alley: every gaggle of teenage Spaniards, laughing and sipping their chai lattes, is waiting to steal the iPod out of my pocket and the scarf off my neck.  I wonder if the pickpockets are waiting to jump out from under the armchairs or tackle me from behind glossy displays of Kenyan dark roast.  (Maybe they all got locked in the bathroom?*)

*MAJOR NOTE OF SADNESS AND CAUTION: As some of you may have already heard, my iPod was stolen off a table at Starbucks a few days ago when I turned around for all of three seconds to grab my drink.  Irony is a cruel, cruel bitch.  Bottom line: like Luke discovering that the Force was inside him all along, I discovered that the pickpockets were, in fact, with me.  All.  Along.

Also, unless you specifically ask for your drink to go, the baristas will give it to you in a white mug, froth almost spilling over the sides.  This, in my opinion, is an excellent idea – it cuts down on waste and makes you feel a touch classier.  Though the menu is smaller, the drinks are generally better-made.  Teas are steaming, flavorful, and made with milk, even for cups of non-chai.  Cappuccinos come with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings.  Instead of bagels, cake pops, and pretzels, the food options include croissants, toast with tomatoes and olive oil, and camembert-and-turkey sandwiches on ciabatta.

Despite what it may sound like, I do not go to Starbucks that often.  In fact, I go mostly because it’s a reliable source of central heating (something which my apartment in Barrio Ruzafa lacks).  This, I admit, is still sad: imagine me curled catlike in a chair, greedily using every single second of my 45-minute Internet allotment, sucking in the heat as fast as I’m sucking in my caramel macchiato.  Living in Valencia has turned me into a sunflower.  I look for patches of heat and light (and coffee).

A Valencian McDonald’s.

The McDonald’s on Calle Ruzafa takes up two stories and most of the street outside.  Although most Spaniards I’ve met seem to think that McDonald’s is the font of all American obesity (more of them than you’d imagine have seen Supersize Me), they still, in the way of Regina George hating on Gretchen Weiner’s hoop earrings so she can wear her own, consider their own McDonald’s a trendy place to sit down for dinner.  In a supreme rejection of the phrase ‘fast food,’ they treat their Happy Meals like gourmet burgers, taking up to an hour to leisurely slurp down their Cokes and polish off their McChickens.  Weird but true: as ketchup is, to them, a symbol of American excess, they tend to eat their fries naked.

Yeah, I had a hard time believing that McDonald’s could produce something this appetizing, too.

European McDonald’s often have an even classier aspect to them: the McCafe.  Imagine finding a dress without any cheap sequins or fraying pleather in the dizzying loads of clothes at Forever 21.  This is the McCafe.  It’s filled with assorted flavors of macarons (my favorites so far have been pistachio, raspberry, and cappuccino), cream-stuffed pastries, and surprisingly delicious cups of cafe con leche.  If it weren’t for the ‘Mc’ appended to the name of every menu item, you could almost forget you were at a McDonald’s at all.

Although it isn’t a matter of preference, comparing the habits of one country to another when their citizens are occupying the same business space can tell a lot about that country’s underlying culture.  James Watson’s book “Golden Arches East” explored consumer behavior in Asian McDonald’s from an anthropological standpoint and found some significant differences between the way citizens of Beijing eat a hamburger and the way Americans do.  The same idea can be applied to Spanish McDonald’s and Starbucks.  In general, the things I’ve noticed reflect pretty significant differences between the way Spaniards and Americans treat the act of eating.

I have to admit – when I come back to the States next week, I’ll miss my creamy McFlurries and hazelnut hot chocolate.  But at this point – call me a consumer whore – I’d give up a hundred bocadillos for one pumpkin spice latte.

An Open Letter to UVA on Sexual Harassment and Assault

17 Oct

Two weeks ago, I celebrated my one-month anniversary of living in Spain by grabbing bocadillos (thick, bready Spanish sandwiches) with my friends Sarah and Katherine.  We chatted with Rita, Katherine’s intercambio (language partner from Valencia), mouths full of bread, egg, and chicken.  The steady 2:00 sun filled the cafeteria of the Valencian psychology department with light.  We remarked on how much better our Spanish is getting: no longer do we have to fish around for quite so many words, or blush and stutter because we can’t get our point across.

Studying abroad has taught me two crucial skills thus far: to communicate openly and to know that I am stronger than I think.  Writing these posts has been a way of being frighteningly, cathartically open about my experiences.  Living in a country in which my native language isn’t the one emblazoned on street signs, splashed across advertisements, and spilling from people’s lips means that I treasure every moment of honest communication I can find.  Five weeks ago, I wondered whether I had it in me to stay here until December.  Now I know I can, and that knowledge has given me the peace of mind to discuss another subject that I feel is worth talking about.

Rape and sexual assault on college campuses and other educational institutions has become such a topic du jour around sites like Jezebel and xoJane that it seems as if some people ignore it entirely.  Not so long ago, I would have counted myself among that number.  It happened, I knew, but surely not at my school – or if it did, it couldn’t occur frequently.  Then I came to Valencia, and during some of the most open, frank conversations I’ve ever had, I heard stories from almost every girl I met.  One got drunk at a party, went home with a boy but told him she didn’t want to have sex, and found him on top of her later.  Another was raped at a frat and then blacklisted.  The cases of assault and harassment seemed to be the rule rather than the exception.  With those stories filling my ears and humming in my blood, I decided to tell my own.

Almost six months ago, when joining an organization at my university that I very much enjoyed participating in, I found myself in need of fulfilling one last requirement to join.  As a prospective member, I had to get to know several long-term members in an informal setting.  The day before the semester was over, I needed one more meeting.   A man in the group had reached out to me previously, and since we shared interests in travel and foreign languages, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind chatting with me over coffee to nab that final requirement.  As the day wore on, the situation began to change.  First he pushed the meeting back to night.  Then he said he’d pick me up.  Then he said we could just go to his apartment.  Then there was no one else there.  It became clear to me that a casual conversation about all the places we’d traveled wasn’t what he had in mind.  Despite my repeated excuses, he continued kissing me, pinning me to the couch, and touching me.  It took me two hours to convince him that I wanted to go home.  I walked, shaking, up the steps to my dorm room, papers in hand.  In the ‘location’ space for the meeting slot on my sheet, he’d written that we’d talked in the library café.

It wasn’t rape, I kept telling myself over the following days.  It wasn’t rape.  I never said no, not exactly.  The other half of my brain kept picking out the flaws in those words.  He was twice my age, twice my size, and twice my strength.  He held a position of power over me, both physically and metaphorically, because he knew I needed one last meeting before the next day.  He probably thought that, as the only first-year female in my prospective group, I wouldn’t turn him down.  And just because it wasn’t rape didn’t mean that it didn’t signify anything.

I eventually went to the president of the organization to tell her exactly what had gone down.  Furious at what had happened to me, she wrote out a list of my resources.  Let me take a moment to say that, during this step of the process, I met a group of dynamic, intelligent individuals who took the time to constantly make sure I knew all my options.  I was fed waffles.  I was treated at the Pigeon Hole.  I was given legal advice and personal advice, all of which was sound.  But the president told me that the only way to expel this member from the organization was to hold a hearing and pass a vote.  Not only would this man have the chance to twist the scenario to his liking and reveal my name, I had no evidence.  This was a classic example of a he-said-she-said case: no evidence on either side, just bitter feelings and a gnawing sense that this had been wrong.

I then considered reporting him to the university.  In my research on that front, I found some truly disappointing statistics.  In the past twelve years, UVA hasn’t expelled a single student for sexual assault.  However, during the last academic term alone, it’s expelled six for violations of the Honor Code.  For those of you who aren’t students here, UVA expels students who break the Honor Code, as per the single-sanction rule.  The Honor Committee website defines an honor violation as follows: “a Significant Act of Lying, Cheating or Stealing, which Act is committed with Knowledge. Three criteria determine whether or not an Honor Offense has occurred:

  • Act: Was an act of lying, cheating or stealing committed?
  • Knowledge: Did the student know, or should a reasonable University student have known, that the Act in question was Lying, Cheating, or Stealing?
  •  Significance: Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?”

Call me crazy, but sexual assault seems to be on par with, if not worse than, lying, cheating, or stealing.  To put things in perspective, let’s apply the same parameters to what happened to me.

  • Was an act of sexual assault/harassment committed?  Yes.  Again, let’s look at UVA’s resources.  The sexual violence page defines sexual assault as “any form of forced sexual contact.”  Compared to cases of rape and other forced sexual contact, I was lucky.  But did I want this contact?  No.
  • Did the student know, or should a reasonable University student have known, that the Act in question was sexual assault/harassment?  This one is a little harder.  Perhaps this student somehow interpreted my friendly behavior as a sign of interest.  I doubt that he took me to his apartment specifically thinking, “I am going to sexually harass this girl.”  But my reluctance and lack of verbal consent should have been a clear sign that I wasn’t interested.  A reasonable UVA student – hell, a reasonable human being – should know not to proceed from there.
  • Would open toleration of this Act violate or erode the community of trust?  I cannot imagine a response to this question other than “yes.”  Imagine a situation of sexual harassment or assault happening to someone you trust, and who trusts you.  Would you like that to happen?  No?  That’s answered, then.

I try not to pretend to be anything other than what I am.  I am only a writer.  I am not a lawyer, nor am I an educator, nor am I any kind of authority on what kinds of laws govern sexual harassment/assault cases on university grounds.  I was not raped, just put in a situation that made me queasy.  And outside of the organization in which I am involved, I didn’t report this to anyone.  In some ways, that makes me part of the problem, and I wish I had taken further action six months ago.  But I know enough to say that all people – women and men both – who are enrolled at any educational institution deserve proper protection from that kind of situation.  If it does happen (and it will – I’m not naïve enough to imply that it can be eradicated entirely, even by the best schools), they should feel safe in the knowledge that whatever happened to them will be treated with the same gravity as lying, cheating, or stealing.  To any members of the UVA Sexual Misconduct Board who happen to read this post: you are on the right track, but you are not doing enough.  When students who have been courageous enough to report their stories (Kathryn, Annie, Anonymous Wahoo) consistently come away saying that they feel blamed and that their perpetrators are able to get away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, you may want to consider that the way that you’re evaluating cases could use some work.

I have come to love so many aspects of my university: lying on someone’s old quilt spread across the Lawn on a fall day, taking creative writing classes with the incredible English department, blissfully stuffing a Bodo’s bagel in my face.  Others I have come to hate, and none more so than this one.  The University of Virginia already has a centuries-old reputation for sweeping distasteful problems under the rug, such as misogyny and elitism.  It is now also gaining a reputation as an institution that fails to protect its own students in the most basic of ways.  Nearly ten years ago, Hook wrote a story called “How UVA Turns its Back on Rape.”  I’m still not sure it’s accurate to say things are much different.  Today, when debates over rape culture, allocation of blame, and nitpicking over sexual assault laws, semantics, and definitions run rife through the media, it is now more important than ever for UVA to tighten its standards.  A true community of trust, after all, does everything it can to foster that trust in every aspect of student life.

An aside: thank you to all the students I’ve met who have shared their stories with me.  You have all survived so much and are so incredibly strong.  You are my role models.

An Idiot’s Guide to Valencian Traffic

2 Oct

                

The Spaniards have a reputation for taking life at a pace that’s a little less frenetic than that of the U.S., and that was one of the aspects of Spanish culture that I most wanted to see for myself.  As someone who’s used to meticulously organized calendars, meeting deadlines, and rushing around Charlottesville or Richmond with a notebook in one hand and a caramel macchiato in the other, I was hoping for some relaxation.  And, for the most part, that’s what I found.  At 11:00 A.M., the avenues of Valencia are full of people stirring sugar into their morning tea and spreading olive oil over toast, chatting with their neighbors.  At 2:00, when the Mediterranean afternoon swallows up the city in a haze of sunlight and heat mirage, most stores are locked up tight for the siesta.  At any time of day, I see throngs of Valencians ambling down the central garden of the Río that runs the length of the city, pushing strollers or walking dogs so slowly that I wonder if they are actually moving.  Things aren’t so crazy here, and I like that.

                But when it comes to driving, all those notions go straight out the window.  Spaniards drive like they are participating in a nation-wide NASCAR race.  They zoom through narrow streets at speeds that make me cringe, constantly changing lanes and swerving around motorcyclists.  Stop signs and red lights seem to be a gentle suggestion to many rather than a command.  What’s even more unnerving is that plenty of people drive while texting or calling.  On my second day in Spain, a friend and I were walking along the nearby Gran Vía del Marqués del Túria when a young guy, texting and driving, ran a red light and rammed the car in front of him.  Both cars shuddered from the impact, and a thin plume of smoke rose from the first car’s hood.

“Holy shit,” I said (eloquent as ever).

Traffic continued to hurtle down the avenue.  The other driver opened her door and got out, surveying her smashed fender.  I fully expected obscenities to be shouted, accompanied by calls to the police.  But the two drivers only looked at each other, then at their ruined fenders, then back at each other.  The woman shrugged.  Then they both got back in their cars and drove away.

“Holy shit,” I said again, this time in awe.

Think it looks easy to get to this picturesque fountain in the middle of the street? Think again!

This nonchalant attitude towards automobile damage seems to extend to pedestrians.  Valencia has many wide, multi-lane streets split down the middle by small gardens or rows of palm trees.  This means that crossing the entire street can become a high-stakes adventure in two seconds flat.  The electronic walk signal or not has a habit of blinking once, then suddenly turning red.  Many are the days that I get stuck right in the middle of a busy street when the little green man on the signal disappears.  When that happens, traffic speeds towards me, splitting around me as if I am a rock in the middle of a river.  As you might imagine, this is somewhat unnerving.  My roommate Sally, who has nerves of steel, often rides her ValenBisi (a public bike you can pay to use and park in designated Bisi spots all over the city) inches away from these cars.  I, too, would like to get off my butt and Bisi around the city, but the thought of being smashed into a pile of gears and fleshy bits keeps me from actually renting one.

“One day you might learn how to drive here.  You never know.  I got used to it,” the UVA program director told me when I commented on it to her.

I am still not sure how to explain the discrepancy between most of Spanish life and driving, but I am now pretty sure of one thing: I will probably never drive a car in Valencia.  Getting over culture shock is one thing.  Getting behind the wheel, though, is another.

Serendipity

22 Sep

A story about getting luckier than I deserved.

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) at night

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) at night

 

Last week, I began rereading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, trying to rekindle that love of travel that I thought she and I shared.  When I first read the book years ago, I envisioned her strolling through the streets of Rome with hazelnut gelato in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, the Mediterranean sun glinting in hair that was as golden as mine.  That, I thought, was what my experience was going to be like.  Gilbert makes it sound so easy.  Don’t speak the language?  No problem!  No friends in this country?  Don’t sweat it!  Eat some pizza, visit some fountains, and everything will turn out fine.  Right?

The truth, I’ve discovered, is that it’s anything but.  But I kept going back to the passage she wrote in which she collapsed, sobbing, on the floor of her bathroom.  God, she says, spoke to her then.  He said, Go back to bed, Liz.  I always found that part the hardest to swallow.  Why would god take the time to talk to someone who’s never bothered to speak with him before?  Why that moment?

And yet, as I lay in my lumpy bed last week, listened to the traffic roaring by on the Gran Vía, and cried (as usual), I couldn’t stop thinking of it.  God had never spoken to me before (except he maybe hit me in the head with a fifteen-pound cross on Christmas Eve last year, but that’s a story for another time), so he probably had better things to do than talk to me, anyway.  But I couldn’t help whispering through my tears, “I can’t do this alone.  I thought I could, but I can’t.  Please help me.”

For days, I didn’t think he was going to answer me.  Sunday morning, I ran out of tears and just sat in my bed, thinking about what to do.  My host mother had been gone for most of the weekend, leaving me alone.  I hadn’t slept in three days and hadn’t eaten anything substantial in two.  I had left messages in Spanglish on the phones of my Spanish psychologist and the program director, telling them I had run out of options.  I was going home.

However, I was incredibly lucky to have been blessed with good friends as soon as I got here.  Stephanie and Sally, two other UVA students living nearby, answered a desperate Facebook message I sent.  They dropped what they were doing, showed up in my host mother’s apartment, and made me a cup of tea.  Then they carved up a melon and fed it to me.  “Look,” said Sally, “why don’t you come over and have dinner at my place tonight?  I hope you don’t mind, but I told my host mom about you.  She wants to meet you.  Maybe talk things over with you, if you’d like that.”

Image

Sally and I pose in front of a Spanish McDonald’s (classy, right?)

Blanca, her host mother, lived in an old building with laundry flapping from clotheslines in the inner courtyard and a smooth, beveled staircase that rose nine floors into the Valencian skyline.  When we arrived at her apartment door, she had just gotten back from the beach with her son and daughter.  Her skin was still warm from the sand of the Malvarrosa.  Half Swedish, half Spanish, she had blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and pale skin spotted brown from forty years in the Spanish sun.  “Come here, Elizabeth,” she said, smiling.  I (surprise!) burst into tears.  She enfolded me in her arms and let me sob into the shoulder of her housedress.  Then she handed me a set of keys.  “I want you to know,” she told me, “that you are a friend, and you can always stay here.  Always.”  She sat me down on the couch, made me a cup of chamomile tea, and massaged my hands.  “I am going to feed you dinner, you are going to take a long, hot shower, and then you are going to sleep in my extra bedroom.  But first my children are going to take you to a movie.”

Blanquita and Manu, Blanca’s thirty-something children, kissed me on both cheeks, gave me a glass of orchata (a sweet, creamy Spanish drink made of almonds and sugar), and whisked Sally and me off to the movies.  They chose Asalto al poder (White House Down in English), a very silly movie in which Channing Tatum shoots a lot of people, blows things up, and drives cars through windows.  Manu paid for our tickets.  When I protested, Blanquita winked and said, “When a Spanish man offers to pay for your ticket, you don’t say no.  It doesn’t happen often.”

For the first time, I felt like Valencia was somewhere I could be content.

Dinner, instead of the tongue-burning, salty vegetable mix I had grown accustomed to, was a variety of foods I recognized and wanted to eat.  (Tomatoes with goat cheese!  Ripe peaches!  Whole-wheat bread with olive oil!  Flan!)  “I think dinners should always have music in them somehow,” Blanca told me as we served ourselves.  She slipped a CD into her CD player, and the strains of the Appalachian-tinged song “Ashokan Farewell” filled the room.  “Now, Sally tells me you can sing.  Yes?  Would you like to join a choir?”

I blinked.  “Um.  Yes, please.”

“We can do that!  And do you play any instruments?  Piano?  Guitar?”

“I play the flute,” I told her.  “But I didn’t bring it with me.”

“Ah!  Well, then we’re going to rent you a flute to make you happy.  You are a sensitive girl, yes?  An artist.  And artists need their art.”

I could only stare at all of them as they ate: the way Manu gesticulated with his fork when he talked about the English classes he was taking, Blanca and Blanquita’s bright blue eyes, the crinkling of Sally’s brows when she laughed (which was often).  After dinner, as Blanquita and Manu washed dishes, Blanca made me more tea.  “Tell me,” she said, “do you believe in god?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted, after a pause.

“But you recently asked god for help?”

I was floored.  “Yes.”

“God sent me to you,” she said matter-of-factly, stirring more sugar into my tea.  “I am an angel, but I am not special, because there have been and will be many angels in your life.  We are all lucky in that way.  Just remember, Elizabeth, that I will always be here in my house for you.  So will Sally.”

Yesterday, after a twenty-four-hour waiting period so that Sally, Blanca, and I could be sure of what we wanted, I moved into Blanca’s apartment.  “I feel like Harry Potter going to Hogwarts,” I told the program director as she helped me haul my luggage (bulging from the haphazard way I had re-packed it) into a taxi.

“It’s wonderful to have you here for good,” Blanca said when I got there.  She kissed the top of my head.

Every time I think I’ve had it in Valencia, life tosses something else – namely, someone else – my way.  I have had the honor of meeting an incredible group of people here, and I hope my luck doesn’t run out during this semester.  And I still can’t tell you whether I believe in god, but after having my own Elizabeth Gilbert moment, I can say that the bonds which connect us are much more curious and delightful than we are led to believe.

Hiraeth: Homesickness When It’s Least Expected

10 Sep

I know I haven’t posted anything here for quite awhile, but since I’m abroad this semester, I may sporadically or regularly update this blog with thoughts from my travels.  If you read my blog before, welcome back!  If you didn’t, I hope you enjoy it now.

A fountain in the Ciutat Vella, the oldest section of Valencia.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to travel.  Given half the opportunity, I will jump on a plane, train, or bus to anywhere.  My wanderlust began five years ago.  After visiting Ireland, Italy, and Spain for tantalizingly brief periods of time during high school, I had all kinds of pipe dreams: attending Trinity College in Dublin, working as a writer and waitress in Siena, and visiting museum after museum in Barcelona’s Barrio Gótico.  When I ended up in the same state as my hometown for college, I let go of those plans for the next item on my travel bucket list: studying abroad.  Most people seemed surprised when I told them how badly I wanted to go gallivanting off to Europe.  “Why would you want to leave UVA?” they asked, bewildered.  But for me, the question was never why.  It was where, and how soon.

As soon as I discovered UVA had an established and respected program in Valencia, I set my heart on going my second year.  I scrutinized the online schedules (Hispanic Linguistics!  Islamic-Iberian Culture!  The Art of Picasso!), delighted that all the classes would be taught in Spanish only.  I perused photo galleries of students smiling at the Valencian beach, in front of the futuristic Ciudad de Artes y las Ciencias, and on a weekend trip in Paris.  How, I asked myself, could this be any more perfect?  I didn’t so much as ask my parents to go as tell them that I was going.  (Fortunately, I am blessed with parents who are used to dealing with a high-strung, whimsical, and stubborn daughter).  Money was deposited.  Plane tickets were bought.  Suitcases were packed.  On September 3rd, 2013, I left the Richmond airport for a JFK flight to Madrid, where I would take a commuter plane to Valencia.  I knew no one, would be staying with a host mom I had only seen a picture of once, and spoke the local language like a demented seven-year-old (if Spanish even counted as the local language; I spoke nary a word of Valenciano, the local dialect).

And (much as nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition), I did not expect homesickness.

The Welsh word hiraeth, a languorous, chew-on-it-for-a-moment kind of word, has no direct translation in English.  It means a combination of longing, yearning, nostalgia, and wistfulness.  This is what I did and am feeling.  It was probably compounded by getting sick my first day in Spain.  I started feeling lightheaded and nauseous on the plane ride.  On my first morning in Valencia, when I was supposed to attend orientation, I couldn’t get out of bed without collapsing.  I missed most of orientation, the proficiency test the next day, and the all-day trip to a nearby beach the day after.  My mood was one of the bleakest I’ve ever felt.  All I wanted to do was buy a plane ticket back to Virginia (and that’s not an exaggeration; if you were to look at my browser history, you would find all kinds of searches for air fare).  I kept crying unexpectedly and for no reason.  Walking down the stately Gran Vía del Marqués de Túria near my apartment, with its tall palm trees and old ladies walking Pomeranians and young couples pushing strollers, I cried into my sleeve and tried not to vomit.  Later that day, I went into a supermarket to look for nail scissors and couldn’t find them.

“Please, where are the finger cutters?” I asked a clerk in broken Spanish.

Mercifully, she understood.  “Over there,” she said, pointing.

“Thank you,” I said, and burst into tears.

Yesterday I was walking back from the UVA center in Valencia with my new friend, Stephanie.  I was telling her how terrible I felt, tears welling up in my eyes once more.  She stopped in the middle of the street.  “Elizabeth,” she asked, “why are you here?”

I answered without thinking.  “Because I want to endure surprises.  Because I want to improve my Spanish.  Because I want to be independent.”  And I knew it was the truth.  Despite my desire for travel and my head-in-the-clouds nature, I am a schedule kind of girl.  I like knowing where I am going and how long I will be there.  If it were possible to map out my entire life, I would probably do that.  But arriving in another country means that there is no order.  Being in Spain feels like drowning: no way to breathe, no way to hold myself up.

Some of my new friends and I enjoying the good weather in Valencia

Some of my new friends and me enjoying the good weather in Valencia

However, I know that somehow, order is going to coalesce out of this chaos.  I am going to learn to live with the dreaded not knowing sometimes.  Already, things are beginning to settle down.  I stood by the window of my bedroom, staring out at the square in front of my host mother’s apartment, sobbing once more.  Suddenly, I realized that I was smiling.  I was crying from happiness.  I’ve begun my classes, with their familiar uncomfortable desks and students unwilling to talk on the first day.  Last night I watched a historical bodice-ripper called Isabel (about Queen Isabella) with my host mother, the kind with verbal smackdowns in rapid-fire Spanish and the weird sort of sex with all the covers pulled up and all the clothes on.  It was awkward in the familiar way that watching Game of Thrones with my American mother is awkward.  Today, I rode the bus to school by myself and got off at the right stop.

I think it is safe to say that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  At home, I have a family, friends, a boyfriend, and a school that I love.  I won’t see them for a while.  But here, I can spend my evenings eating helado until 3:00 in the morning.  I can go gallivanting off to France for the weekend.  I can see the Roman ruins of old Valencia.

I may still fail at this.  It’s possible.  But I want so much to succeed, even if it hurts this badly.  All I can say is: wish me luck.  It’s going to be a wild ride in so many more ways than I expected.

This song’s been comforting me a good deal.  Thank god for progressive bluegrass and Nickel Creek.  Some of the lyrics: 

Your first dawn blinded you, left you cursing the day.
Entrance is crucial and it’s not without pain.
There’s no path to follow, once you’re here.
You’ll climb up the slide and then you’ll slide down the stairs.

It’s foreign on this side,
But it feels like I’m home again.
There’s no place to hide
But I don’t think I’m scared.