Tag Archives: Arévalo

11 Lessons from a Year in a 6,000 Pueblo

I learned a lot this year, almost all of it the hard way.  Stripped of most of the things that make me happy, I learned the value of what we take for granted.

I was alone with very few friends in a stagnating village, unable to change my scholarship, unable to move to another city and unwilling to give up and come home.  The conclusions I have drawn in the last year may seem obvious to most, but I assure you they are all borne from deep experience.  So here they are, in no particular order – except for the first ; )

Mark’s Seemingly Obvious, Painfully Realized Conclusions from One Year in Spain

1) Friends and family are vital – When someone moves abroad, he temporarily gives up his friendships back home because he assumes he will make new friends in his new home.  But I miscalculated this one.  As I’ve previously described, there were only a handful of people my age in the town, all genuinely good people but none able to replace my friends I’d left in California.  Arévalo was a small town with no university, very little economy, and few prospects for ambitious young people so most people between 18-30 years of age left the town.  My four roommates dwindled to one, then none and I suddenly found myself all alone in the middle of rural Spain, praying to be reunited with my friends as soon as possible.

I constantly thought back to my time at UCLA, when I was constantly surrounded by friends and even made Social Chairman of my fraternity.  But because I had 30,000 students around me, each individual person’s significance can be diluted by the sheer number of other people.  You meet a great girl at a party, but lose her in the crowd five minutes later but it doesn’t matter because there are many fish in the sea.  Arévalo was a small pond with few fish.  Living in a 6,000 person town with a half dozen friends showed me how valuable every person is, that we should never treat people like they are disposable or replaceable.  We must bring small-town-style friendships to the crowds of our biggest cities.

2) Your Environment is Everything – I didn’t realize this until I’d moved into a negative environment.  All my life I have lived amongst successful people, from my family to my high school friends to my classmates at UCLA.  Being around successful, motivated and intelligent people encourages you to reach your best and provides you with stimulation.  In Arévalo, my sole roommate was so lazy he could hardly get off the couch to defrost his frozen dinner, the nearest intellectual conversations I could find were at my friends’ apartment an hour away, and, for lack of options I was forced to – eh-hem – stimulate myself.  Intellectually, that is.  I read a lot, studied Spanish a lot, but quickly realized the limitations of self-study in hermit-like reclusion.  That brings me to my next conclusion…

3) Living Alone Strengthens You, Maddens You, and Shows You What a Lazy Slob You Really Are  – At least in my case… In the absence of friends, I grew stronger by reducing my dependency on others for happiness.  A walk through town, smiling and chatting with the local villagers can overcome loneliness better than 2,000 peripheral Facebook friends and a dozen missed calls on your cellphone.  But solitude also maddens you – I talked to myself more than I’d like to admit and often longed for company and conversation, which goes back to conclusion #1.

[On a quick aside, I actually lived next to an insane asylum last year so most of the people walking past my apartment had serious mental issues.  This negatively affected me and a few times I thought I was going to lose it as well, so I conclude that living with crazy people makes you a little crazy as well.]

But above all, living alone forces you to come to terms with your most negative habits.  If the kitchen is dirty, it’s not because your roommate is a slob – it’s because you are lazy.  I have always relied on workout partners for fitness, roommates for cleaning the apartment, a buddy for cooking dinner et cetera.  This year I was forced to do this all on my own.

4) Live in the Moment, Not the Future and Especially Not the Past
For the first time in my life, I disliked the present moment.  All I wanted was to ride out the experience and move onto something else.  I reminisced about my travels in Asia, I dreamt about my future travels, and I lost myself by surfing the internet.  In this way, months slipped by as I distracted myself from my situation – that is, from my life.  The future, the past, the internet – none of these are realities.  The only thing that is real is this very moment, the room you are in the people you are talking to.  Focusing on anything else is mere distraction.

5) Travel Towards Something, Never Away From Anything
Every long-term traveler will eventually have to confront this dilemma.  I left home in search of certain truths, experiences and knowledge I could only find overseas.  I was running towards something.  I came to Spain to learn Spanish, to explore Western Europe, to spend time reading and writing.  But I so disliked my present reality that I began traveling every weekend merely to escape my village.  By mid-February I was burnt out from incessant travel, wondering why I found so little pleasure in something that had previously defined my life.  I took a break from traveling, reassessed my priorities and by the end of the year I resumed running towards my travel goals.

6) Busyness Beats Leisure After One Week
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, not his Decade Off.  Too much play and not enough work makes Jack a dull boy.  Without the toil of work, leisure becomes boring and after a year of working 12 hours a week, I have had more free time than I knew what to do with.  I’d prefer to join sports teams, organize social events, learn how to sail, surf more, sign up for French lessons and continue practicing my Spanish.  I’ll have less time to write, but it will be more compressed and therefore more efficiently utilized time.   

7) You Gotta Run Your Own Race
I was one of the only foreigners in Arévalo and my values and lifestyle differed substantially from my neighbors – especially my love of travel.  My town was not far from the Portuguese border, yet many people had never left Spain and some thought I was crazy for traveling so much.  I saw the proximity of such contrasting cultures made it impossible not to explore Europe, but I began playing down my travel experiences in order not to provoke misunderstanding or jealousy.  I ultimately realized that I could not hide my great adventures, denying their existence was denying a part of my own identity.  I was a nomad amongst sedentary villagers, but I can’t be ashamed of who I am or what I’ve done.

8) Life is Short – You Must Take Control of Your Own Destiny
This one is huge. When I first arrived in Arévalo, I had tried to move to a bigger city but I was unable to commute to work so I abandoned all attempts to improve my situation and resigned myself to a having a somewhat shitty year.  Life is too short to spend even a day living in an unpleasant way.  I realized this only months later, when springtime came and I found that we cannot change the hand we’re dealt, only the way we react to it.  Eventually I simply decided to be happy.  I came up with a list of small things that brought joy to my unpleasant living situation.  Running in the morning, walking in the wheat fields outside of town, dressing up smartly even if no one would see me, making my bed and tidying an apartment that no one would ever see et cetera.  I learned the daily habits that made me feel happy, productive, and worthwhile and I’ve repeated them every day since. 

9) Make Peace with What You Can’t Change 
But there were some things I could not change.  I couldn’t switch towns, I couldn’t become fluent in Spanish overnight, I couldn’t write the Great American Novel at age 23 – but that’s okay.  As the year came to a close, I learned to appreciate the town’s beauty, serenity, and lovely people.  I made peace with my gradual progression towards my goals, finding joy in the process of improving rather than the anxiously demanding the fruits of my labor.  In short, I made the best of my situation and stopped trying to change what’s beyond my control.

10) Experience is the Best Teacher of All
I thought I already knew this, but it wasn’t until I spent a year in Arévalo and read Zorba the Greek that it really hit home.  Zorba, the hero of this excellent 20th century classic, teaches the protagonist how to live life to the fullest.  The protagonist is obsessed with books, studying the Buddhist scriptures for happiness and wisdom, but Zorba shows him that by spending one’s life cocooned in books prevents you from having the experiences (and mistakes) that ultimately teach you the most.  In my desire to improve my situation, I read many philosophy books, in my desire to learn Spanish I studied many grammatical books.  But nothing taught me more than simply closing my books and getting out there in the world.

11) Everyone Gets Lost Occasionally
 At the end of the year, I didn’t really know what I was doing anymore or why I was doing it.  My original intentions of continuing my free-spirited travels, learning from the open book of the world and practicing writing had led me to a year of stagnation in Arévalo.  I was lost, as happens to us all at one point or another.  I had to find my way again, and so I chose to follow The Way of St. James – that is, El Camino de Santiago.

How I Was Mistaken for a Terrorist (Arévalo)

“It’s that damn beard of yours, Marko,” reasoned my mom over the phone, “That’s exactly why you were supsected of being a terrorist.  I mean, what do you expect? Walking around with a backpack and a guitar case like a dirty hippy…you just stick out like a sore thumb.  It’s time you cleaned up before you get any more problems.”

I couldn’t argue with her.  I do stick out a bit in Arévalo.  Despite my best efforts to fit in – wearing more European clothes and hanging out in cafeterías reading El País, sipping café con leche and eating tortilla – I obviously hadn’t quite blended in yet.

I thought about how I must appear to the locals.  In one word: peculiar.  Dashing here and there with my notepad in hand, jotting down thoughts and ideas for articles.  Speaking in a foreign tongue. Saying “Hola” to complete strangers on the street (God forbid).  Typing away furiously on my laptop in smoky cafeterias (the closest thing Spain has to coffee-shop in the American-sense).  All the men smoking cigarettes and taking the daily 2 PM shot of aguardiente before retiring for lunch and their siesta.

Meanwhile, this strange bearded man with the only laptop in Arévalo is asking for a coffee and something called “WiFi.”  The bartender is confused.  I resort to pantomime and tweak my pronunciation to mimic that of the Spaniards – eeennnteerrnet.

“Ahhhh!” he proclaims, “WeeeeeFeeee.”  I nod my head.  He shakes his.  “No, we don’t have it.”

How the hell am I supposed to write travel articles for a foreign magazine from a town where the Internet is regarded with a skepticism not seen since the Luddites?

Unfortunately, the Internet in my apartment doesn’t cut it.  When I first arrived in Arévalo, I unknowingly broke a few social mores by walking around my apartment complex asking my neighbors if they would want to split WiFi.  There were a few signals in the building, I explained, and since my roommates somehow didn’t need the Internet, I’d love to split it with someone.  Instead of the passwords to their networks, all I received was a half-dozen perplexed looks from my neighbors.  Unwilling to pay for an entire line for myself, I bought a 3G USB card.

Little did I realize that the Internet in Spain works fewer hours per week than the average Spaniard.  My expectations were still at American levels: 24/7/365 Customer-Is-King-Blistering-Fast-Internet.  Instead I was stuck with 3G – chances are it’s faster to load this page on your iPhone than on my computer.

But I am digressing.  This rant about the Internet has distracted us from the topic at hand – how my peculiar behavior in Arévalo made me a suspected terrorist in the eyes of our local police force.

“Local police force” is not an accurate description.  I was fingered by the Guardia Civil, Spain’s equivalent of sheriffs for the rural parts of Spain.  They were originally formed by Queen Isabella II to dismantle any revolutionary sentiment amongst the rural peasantry – especially in the Basque Country.  The Guardia Civil have been a constant irritant between the Basques and the Spaniards ever since.  The Basque struggle for independence from the Spanish goes back centuries, but unfortunately it is now best known for its radical extremists, the terrorist group ETA.  ETA has made several recent bombing attacks within Spain and France, including a car bombing in Madrid’s international airport.

I first met our local Guardia Civil officers last week under rather unusual circumstances.  I was walking to Arévalo’s train station with my backpack and my guitar.  Nothing out of the ordinary – just my routine escape from the unbearable stagnation of Arévalo.  I was going to hang with some friends in nearby Avila, and I was hustling to catch the last train of the night.

A Guardia Civil truck passed me slowly.  Two officers were eyeing me as I crossed the bridge that separates Arévalo from our lonely hilltop train station.  I’d become accustomed to getting strange looks from my neighbors, so I thought nothing of it.  Then, de repente, the car flipped a u-turn and blocked my path 100 meters ahead.  Two officers came out, stood aside their truck, and waited.

They approached me as I neared their blockade.  They greeted me politely, asked for my registration papers, and motioned me to follow them to their truck.  Confused as I was, I handed them my Spanish identification card and followed their instructions.

One officer got on the horn and began radioing my information to headquarters.  The other pulled out a notepad and started asking me questions.

Who are you?  Where are you from and what are you doing in Arévalo?  How long have you been here?  Why haven’t we seen you before? 

I didn’t know where to start.  Who am I?  Well, after an extended stint of traveling and soul searching, I still can’t say I’ve got that one down.  But who does?  So for now, just write down “English teacher.”

What am I doing in Arévalo?  I ask myself that question every night.  Why, lord, why?  Is it a cosmic joke for a globe-trotter to be stuck in the least cosmopolitan town in Spain?  Fate?  Why have you placed me in this small town, so close to the action in Madrid and yet so far away from where I want to be?

The first officer got off the radio and asked if he could look through my bag.  I agreed, and I continued answering questions as they inspected all the pockets in my backpack.

How long have I been here?  I had to think for a moment.  I felt like Tom Cruise in the final scenes of Castaway. I’d have to go back to my cave and count the marks I’ve tallied on the walls.  Half a year?  Maybe more?  My mind floated off, amazed at how much time I’d spent in this town.

Why haven’t you seen me before?  Maybe because I bounce out of this place every chance I get?

Then, all of a sudden, a third man popped out of the shadows.  He was dressed in all black and wearing a ski mask.  I could only see his squinty eyes and his frowning brow.  He got in my face and started his own interrogation.  He right to the chase:

Where were you two weeks ago on Monday morning, at nine fifty in the morning? 

I had to think.  I told him I was probably teaching.

No!  You were standing in front of the Guardia Civil station taking notes on our activities from across the street! 

WTF?!?!?  What could they be talking about?  Then it clicked – they were right.  I had been in front of their station taking notes – because their station is directly across from Arévalo’s only Internet café and I had been waiting for it to open so I could use their Internet to research an article I was writing for OffTrackPlanet.  I had been brainstorming as I waited and writing down my thoughts for the article.  I told them all this and I explained that I wrote for a travel magazine.

The three of them looked at each other confusedly.  A travel writer?  Here in Arévalo?  They asked to see my notebook, and I handed it to them. They skimmed through it and stared blankly at the pages of English-language notes.   One of them scratched his head.

They looked to each other, then to me.  You’re free to go.  I asked them why they had stopped me, and they told me they had thought my suspicious behavior meant I was some sort of terrorist, planning an attack on their police station.  We can’t be too careful these days, they said, with ETA and all.

Jesus.  Me, a terrorist?  As they hopped in their car and drove off into the night, the implications of what had happened set in.  The man in the ski-mask lingered in my thoughts.  They had been following me, and when they saw I was about to leave town they popped me.  How long had they been trailing me?  How had I not noticed them?

It seemed to me that it was my peculiar behavior that caused them to notice me.  The individual in conflict with small-town Spanish society.  As my mom said, maybe I should try to blend into the crowd better.  But is conformity the best answer to avoiding problems with the government?

The terrorist problem that faces Spain is similar to that which faces western society as a whole.  The difference in Spain is that the terrorists, a handful of radical Basques, look ethnically quite similar to the Spanish.  This can trigger a paranoid fear that anyone in the crowd could be a threat to society.

After being fingered as a terrorist, I started questioning whether this approach was the best way to combat violent extremism.  Is the problem the man taking notes across the street from the police station?  Not quite.  Individual attacks are the symptoms of deeper problems, ones that these extremists feel can not be changed within the system.  Terrorism is the desperate resort of those who are unwilling to engage in the political process.  It is the responsibility of governments to engage with all members of society and to bring even the most extreme citizens of the world to the table.

I am no expert on the conflict between the Basques and the Spanish.  I know there have been wrongs on both side of the long history.  But I want to learn more about this conflict, and I hope that my neutral position as a foreigner can allow me to hear both sides equally.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am planning on moving to the Basque Country next year.  Tomorrow I leave for the Basque Country to spend 10 days traveling throughout both the Spanish and French sides of the Basque Country.

I am currently reading a fascinating book, The Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this oft-forgotten corner of Europe.

As the Guardia Civil found out, I am not a terrorist, though my friends in Arevalo jokingly call me el etarra (the ETA terrorist).  I have not abandoned hope in resolving the all the world’s problems peacefully.  Travel has shown me that none of the cultures around the world are too different to co-exist in peace.  Hopefully we will all realize this soon enough, and one day all eccentric, bearded travel writers can take notes in front of police stations in peace.  ; )

Pax Vobiscum, I’m off to the Basque Country – on a mission of peace!

The Anarchist’s Pad Pt. 3 (Lisbon, Portugal)

I am writing about this weekend in Lisbon for a reason.  In many ways, it was a turning point for my time in Europe.  The depressing monotony of Arevalo that had engulfed me in the past months was replaced by a new world of alternative lifestyles.  Small town life in Arevalo was boring, but I discovered that I could use CouchSurfing to meet interesting people like this virtually every weekend if I so desired.
I spent the next day walking around with new Peruvian friend, Shaman From the Jungle.  He showed me a side of Lisbon I never would have seen on my own.  We walked from neighborhood to neighborhood to drop in on his fellow South American friends.  All of them had immigrated to Europe in search of a better life.  Some owned Peruvian clothing stores, some sold goods in markets, while others eeked out a living from busking (playing music on the streets for money).  We watched six of his friends play flutes and guitars on the main square while fully dressed in traditional Incan clothes.  We walked to the second-hand market where Shaman From the Jungle sold his paintings.  Many of his friends had no immigration papers.  They were clandestinos, as the Manu Chao song calls them, and they showed me a glimpse of the daily life of illegal immigrants.
I gained a lot of insights that weekend.  From the hitch-hiking German girls and the Anarchist, I got a few tips on hitchhiking and insight on the European punk movement.  One night we went to a punk bar in a seedy part of Lisbon and their political beliefs almost got us into some trouble.  According to The Anarchist, the bar was the ‘oldest punk rock bar in Europe.’  It was, as we later discovered, run by neo-Nazis.  When the girls tried to enter the bar they were stopped by the bouncers, who asked them bluntly “What are you?”  They labeled themselves as punks, and the bouncers pulled them closer and inspected all the pins and patches that covered their sweaters to determine their politics.  The girls started freaking out and yelling at The Anarchist in English.  He tried to tell them that the bouncers were idiots, that they weren’t Nazis, they were just racists against the Angolan immigrants.
The German girl was actually quite pretty despite her best efforts to hide behind piercings, patches and pins.  I imaged what she would have looked like two hundred years ago in pre-industrial Germany.  Some long-haired innocent farm girl. But in the aftermath of Germany’s industrialization and subsequent attempts to conquer Europe, she was now an Anti-Nazi German Punk being denied entrance into a Lisbon punk bar by Portuguese Neo-Nazi Skinheads. Ironic? Labels were flying around everywhere that weekend: anarchists, punks, neo-Nazis, communists, capitalists, liberals, conservatives, etc.  Is there no room for someone to just be themselves, free of a label?
Labels aside, The Anarchist taught me a good deal.  I considered his political views and enjoyed learning about his philosophy on alternative lifestyles.  We talked about my ambitions to write a book and I told him I doubted that it could get published, but that I had to write it for personal reasons.  He showed me a list of self-publishing websites and explained that I didn’t need a large publishing house if was just writing for my own personal satisfaction.  I could do it myself.
I went out on the town with the Erasmus students on Saturday night.  We took the metro downtown and emerged from the station in the midst of a swarming crowd of young people all moving in the same direction – towards Bairro Alto.  We joined in the crowd and floated along with the crowd.  We moved away from the station and up the hill to the bar area. The streets narrowed and the crowd thickened.  Bars lined each side of the street but no one seemed to stay inside for more than enough time to buy a beer and take it back to the street.  Thousands of Portuguese were gathered in circles drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and passing joints around.
Street after street was packed wall to wall.  People hung off their first story balconies and flirted with passers-by on the street.  Chupeterias sold 1€ shots to fuel the party and beers cost 2€ for a liter.  Spanish was almost as common as Portuguese, and I had no trouble making myself understood.
We all exchanged past travel stories and planned adventures.  I told the Frenchies that I wanted to learn their language.  They said I could get a job picking grapes in the summer time, which would be a good opportunity to pick up some French.  Or maybe I could move to Marseille and get a job in a tourist area for a the summer.  Surely they would need someone fluent in English and Spanish to handle the hordes of tourists.  The possibilities were endless.
Yes, the possibilities were endless indeed.  That realization grew excessively painful near the end of the weekend as my train returned to Arevalo.  I had spent the whole weekend surrounded by interesting people and enjoyed a taste of a new world that was opening up to me.  That interesting world of adventure made my apartment in Arevalo seem hollow and dead.  Back to work for a week.  I realized the hardest part about living this double life would be giving up my adventures every Sunday.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Train Station (Arévalo, Spain)

Arévalo’s train station sits atop a hill a half-mile from town, alone and tragic like one of Hemingway’s short stories.

I was sitting by myself in the one-room brick station reading A Clean, Well-Lighted Place when an elderly man opened the door.  He walked inside past the ticket counter and sat directly beside me.  I glanced at the other three empty benches, then closed my book and greeted him respectfully.

“Buenas noches,” he replied.  He was leaning forward in his chair with his hands upon his cane.  He sat there for a minute stroking his thick gray mustache in silence.  His brown tweed jacked was pulled taut by his paunch and his gray sweater was sprinkled with breadcrumbs.  His deep breaths smelt of anis. I opened my book and continued reading.

What he said to me next I cannot recall, as our subsequent conversation was so peculiar that it overshadowed whatever small talk we may have had.

“I am alone,” he said.   “My wife is dead.”  I offered my condolences but he brushed them aside and cut right to the chase.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked.

“Not at the moment.”

“Then you are alone as well.”  He sighed and tapped his finger against his cane.  “Why don’t you have a Spanish girlfriend?”

“I just arrived three weeks ago.”

“Ah, I see.”  The Old Man paused and stared at his feet.  He looked me in the eyes.

“Have you follado a Spanish girl yet?” he asked, his eyes wide with curiosity.  I begged his pardon and he repeated and clarified the one question I had never expected a 75-year-old stranger to ask me.

I tried to evade his question.  He persisted.  The Old Man turned, leaned towards me, and continued in an excited whisper.

“Spanish girls go all night, don’t they?  Come on, tell me!  How many have you had?”

I reduced my Spanish proficiency and pretended not to understand.

The door opened again and a girl about my age walked inside.  The Old Man straightened up and smiled, then followed her eagerly with his eyes as she walked past.  When she leaned against the counter to buy her ticket The Old Man couldn’t control himself anymore.  He elbowed me, pointed at her, began tracing the contours of her body with his wrinkled hands and longingly caressing the empty air.  He winked at me.

She took her ticket and sat down across from us to wait for her train.  I slid away from The Old Man and hoped the presence of a third person would end this awkward scene.  I opened my book and continued reading:

‘What did he fear?  It was a nothing that he knew too well.  It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.  It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.  Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada, nada pues nada y nada y pues nada.  Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada…’

The Old Man bumped me with the handle of his cane to get my attention.  I threw him an exasperated look.  He was holding his cane with the heel in the air.  His slid his right hand down the cane about a foot from the end and pointed his left hand toward my crotch.

“How big are you?” he whispered.  His mouth was slightly ajar and his eyes were open wider than ever.  He slid his hand an inch closer towards the end of the cane.  “¿Asi?”

I looked at him closely and noticed again the breadcrumbs that covered his chest, probably remnants of his last solitary meal.  No wife to brush off his crumbs, no reason to look in the mirror.  I opened my mouth to say something but I pitied him too much to get angry.

I stood up and said good-bye.  “Mi tren viene ahora.  Cuidate.”

“Where are you going? Your train doesn’t leave for another 17 minutes!” he called after me as I walked outside into the cold.  I crossed the tracks and saw his black silhouette staring at me from the waiting room of the station.

It was a cold, dark night and I could see my breath as clearly as the constellations above me.  I have eight months left in this town, I thought.  Lord, please spare me from such a fate. 

The light of my train appeared in the distance.  I tucked Hemingway into my backpack as the train passed the factories, slowed, and stopped at the platform.  I swung onto the train and sped away from Arévalo.

And so began my double life.

Paseo Through Arévalo

 

Each day before sunset the people of Spain traditionally leave their homes and take a leisurely stroll called a paseo.  I take my paseo at five in the afternoon and join the rest of the pueblo in their daily walk through our village, Arévalo.  I descend the steps of apartment to the street below and merge into the slow procession of townsfolk wandering through the old barrios, past the abandoned mansions of forgotten caballeros, around the crumbling churches of Catholic Spain, and towards the castle that crowns the northernmost tip of the five-pointed town.

As the sun dips below the horizon, I walk behind the castle that once housed Queen Isabella, stand at the confluence of the two rivers that encircle Arévalo, and gaze across the fields of Castile.

Castile, the heart of historic Spain.  It was here that Castellano, the language commonly known as Spanish, was born.  It was here that Queen Isabella and Ferdinand allied their kingdoms and swept the Moors off the Iberian Peninsula in the reconquista.  It was in this town that the Spanish and Portuguese divvied up the New World. And it was across the plains to my south that Don Quixote rode in search of adventure.  In those times Arévalo was a thriving village well situated between the economical and political centers of power in Madrid, Valladolid, Segovia, Avila and Salamanca. That was the Golden Age of Castile.

As dusk sweeps across the central Spanish meseta, I stare into the twilight and imagine the golden days of Arévalo.  I turn and face the castle and peer through the slotted apertures into the candle-lit chambers of Isabella and listen for news of the reconquista.  I sneak past the sentries and pull my donkey through the shadows and past the palacios of the gentry, deferring respectfully to the armored caballeros who ride past on horseback.

The church bells ring loudly from the belfries of the town’s dozen churches, one for each of the twelve barrios as mandated by Isabella the Catholic.  It’s nighttime now and the paseo is almost finished, but through the mist I descry the stream of people ahead and walk towards them.  A string of lanterns holds the darkness at bay and a muted rumble of voices and laughter slips from the taverns and warms the night air.  I rejoin the paseo and follow the townsfolk down cobbled streets into the central plaza of Arévalo, Plaza del Arrabal.

The men of the town are gathered here speaking to one another and suddenly I feel out of place amongst the merchants and gentlemen of the town.  They discuss news from Madrid, trade with the Americas, war with the English and they gossip of their neighbors.  I sense them starting at me and I look down at my worn clothes and ashamedly try to sneak out of the crowd before I become the subject of more gossip.

The Spanish are a sociable people, always gathering in large public groups and making it nearly impossible for the foreigner to make himself scarce.  But tonight I have it.  I escape from the plaza and round the corner to the calle principal, when an old man stops me and, not recognizing my face, inquires about my business in Arévalo.

Buenas noches, Señor.  I am a humble English teacher in the secondary school.  I hail from the distant colony of San Diego, in California Alta and I am staying here for a year to teach the children of Arévalo the English language.  I have just finished my paseo and I now am repairing to my abode to finish the most recent work of Señor Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote.

Don Quixote!?!”  The viejo, exclaims.  “That Cervantes is as foolish as that character of his!  Why, I can’t understand why a man would spend the last years of his life writing about a buffoon riding across Castile tilting at windmills!  You are a teacher, my boy, why do you read such whimsical non-sense?  Surely you could be studying works of more importance, works of practical significance, works that would bring you closer to God!  Would you teach this garbage to Arévalo´s children?  And why would you teach them the language of our most hated enemies, the English?  And…”  …so on, and so on into the night.  I nod my head, and at the soonest opportunity bid him farewell and slip into the night fog.

Don Quixote has a bad rap, I thought, What is so wrong about harboring romantic dreams of adventure?  The mist thins as I pass the last church in the beautiful old town and walk past the petrol station and along the park into the new part of town.

To my right is a row of Franco-era apartments, many of them covered in aggressive graffiti – anarchist signs, crossed out swastikas and anti-monarchist slogans.

As I approach my building I am greeted by the stench of manure blowing across the plains from the wheat fields that surround Arévalo on all sides.  My fingers, frozen cold in January night, fumble with my keys and after a minute I enter my lobby, flip on the light switch, check my mailbox and walk up two levels to my door.

It is dark and empty in my five-bedroom flat.  My only roommate has turned off the heater and lights (as always), ostensibly to save money but more likely to freeze his wacky roommate to death until he moves back to California.  I walk past his room, closed and locked (as always), and stick my tongue out at the green light spilling out from the television behind his door.  I throw my letters on my desk – all bills, no letters from damsels in distress – and collapse on my bed.

I think about all my dreams, about traveling to foreign lands, sailing across distant seas, speaking exotic tongues, and writing words that change the world.  I wonder if these dreams will come true.

Am I just hopelessly quixotic?  I stare at the ceiling, but the peeling paint offers no answer. Will my dreams surrender to rigid realities and prove to be nothing more than the chimeras of idealistic youth?  My roommate emerges from his cave and slams his door, loosening a flake of paint from the ceiling that falls falls falls down onto my cheek.

Dammit.

I sit up and survey my room and wonder once again if life in a 7,000-person town is slowly driving me insane.  The piles of books heaped in huge teetering towers on the floor, a dozen corners of the room bedecked with trinkets from a dozen corners of the world, a massive California Republic flag, and a map of Europe tacked against the wall and perforated with a geographical to-do-list: pins poking across the continent, from the Basque Country to the Balkans, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, north to Norway and south to the Sahara.  My dreams have exhausted my supply of pins.

Then there are the countless pieces of paper that cover the rest of my room like the crazed wallpaper of some Beatnik poet gone-mad.  About half of them were a collection of poems and quotations written by my favorite authors and, increasingly, by myself.  The rest of them are flashcards covered in red marker with commands (START WRITING!!!), questions (What is your book about?), themes (Search for individualism in modern society), chapters (Buying the Minsk – Saigon, Vietnam), topics (The Dalai Lama and China) and orphaned epiphanies searching for a home somewhere in the first draft of my first book.

My roommate farts, and the noise bounces through my paper-thin walls, something that would make me smile if my situation were not so bleak.

What the hell am I doing here? Am I ever going get this book together, or will I just get lost along the way? Is it even possible to write a book in such a stiflingly small town?  And if I get the book written, will it ever get published?

I have no answers, only the strange faith born from the audacity of dreaming the impossible.  I sit down at my desk, stare at the START WRITING!!! message on my wall and pick up a pen and paper.  Dear Don Quixote, It’s January 21th, 2010 and it’s time to assess my dreams, both those realized and those still lying ahead…