Spanish Hugs

24 03 2014

Recently we hosted a young, international family in our home in Indianapolis. What ensued was a brief, but beautiful series of interactions, with rich cultural exchange.

 

catalan spain mapThe woman, Maria, booked one night to stay with us, explaining that her husband had been gifted a single ticket to go see a basketball game in the Circle City (Indy), and they would be driving over from Cincinnati, Ohio for the event. She also mentioned that they are a Spanish couple, with their 17 month old daughter, visiting the U.S. on a one year teacher exchange. Because it was only a one night booking, I did not spend too much time going back and forth via email to get to know them first. I simply clicked “pre-approve” for their selected date.

 

I had another guest checking out that Friday, and so I asked Maria if we could arrange a later arrival time. She agreed to meet me at 5pm, so that I could get home in time to change the sheets and vacuum before they got there. We’ve only been hosting in our new house for about a month, so I’ve been extra careful to have everything just perfect for our guests’ arrivals. The pillows were plumped, the guidebook was open to a list of local restaurants, and a bottle of filtered water waited for them on the window ledge, along with two blue glasses, and a little blue plastic cup for their toddler. The dogs were outside playing, and I was ready to greet them.

 

I saw them pull up, driving sloooowly the wrong way past our house. Then they saw my little 2-seater hybrid parked in front and decided this was surely the right place. They parked their car, unpacked their things, and slowly approached the front porch. They were a little unsure, because they are new to AirBnB. It’s a weird concept to pay to go stay with strangers in a strange city, at first. But they never regretted it.

 

Maria and her husband, Elliot, warmed up quickly as I welcomed them inside. They started to remove their shoes on the porch, and I ushered them in to remove them in the entry instead. I took their bag and showed them to their room.  She carried her daughter on her hip, and her smile was framed by a clearly European haircut- squarely shaping her face with a flat cut of short bangs, with wisps heading straight down in front of her ears. Her husband had a thin frame, with a casual but tidy appearance, sparkling eyes, and soft, curly hair. After a quick tour of the house, they made themselves right at home, plopping down on the large, pea green and lemon-colored area rug in the foyer. It was clearly the softest spot to let Tatiana stumble around, since the floors were bamboo and ceramic tile. I stood a few feet away, leaning into the white-painted opening to the kitchen, and we continued our conversation.

 

They’ve been in extreme culture shock where they landed in Cincinnati, she explained. He teaches science (in Spanish) in an underprivileged school in the poorest part of the city. Ironically, they are renting a house in the rich, white suburbs. The disparity was starker than they expected, and the behavior of the suburbanites blew their minds.

ohio schools“I would not have believed this if I had not seen it myself,” Maria exclaimed, “they all have to get in their cars just to buy bread!” We talked at great length about suburbia, and the link to the poor inner city schools, about mass transit, and the upsurgence of urban dwellers like us. I tried to do justice in explaining that not every city’s bus system was broken, about how I used to love riding the bus in Ypsilanti or Austin. But here, it is broken.

 

Elliott had an option to stay here for up to three years. They would have considered it if not for the dire situation at the school. He is not allowed to greet his elementary students with hugs and kisses, like he does back home in Spain; that is forbidden in the U.S. public schools, for fear of molestation and abuse. Meanwhile, the children struggle to learn, with grumbling bellies, and anger management issues, but he is not allowed to stop teaching science in order to explain simple life skills, like conflict resolution. His principal is so focused on test scores, he cannot fathom letting his teachers take on the extra problems of hunger, poor role models, and abuse.childhood_obesity_2

 

For Maria, the worst part has been the feeling of isolation. As we were talking about the sense of community that we cherish in Fountain Square (and in Ypsilanti before that), a knock came at the door. It was my friend and nearby neighbor, Jerry, who was dropping off his keys for me to watch his dog and borrow his truck. He was on his way out of town for a weekend trip to Chicago with his wife, but stood briefly to exchange a little Spanish with our Spaniard guests. After just a couple of minutes, he turned to leave, and then reached forward to give me a hug. I wished him a safe trip, closed the door, and turned back to my new guests to revive our great conversation.

 

Maria stared at me, mouth agape, with a corner smile and look of surprise. I cocked my head to one side, questioning her expression. “What is it?” I asked.

“This… this is the first time we have seen this since we have been in the U.S.!” she exclaimed.

“Seen what?” I asked, even more confused.

FREE_HUGS,_in_Hibiyakoen,_Tokyo_Prefecture“To touch another person! We do not see anybody do this here. And for us, this is so normal, to hug and kiss and be close!” she explained.

Wow. My forehead wrinkled in a look of pity. These poor people have not had a simple HUG in all the months that they have been living here! That is so sad!! This is something I take so fundamentally for granted. I surround myself with people who love to hug. I had to learn how to hug when I was 14, because I grew up in a family that never expressed love, and I could never imagine going back to a world without hugs! No wonder they were in culture shock.

 

I wished that I could have plucked them from Cincinnati and transplanted them to my neighborhood. I wished I had more than one day, to show them all the wonderful people I know, and to prove that the stereotypes were just that. I wanted them to see that, while it’s true that we drive our cars way too much, and lock ourselves inside boxes with busy schedules, there ARE people who reject this American lifestyle. I wanted to walk to the market with them and introduce them to my favorite tea guy; to sit in the park and make friends from strangers; to have wine and conversation late into the night with neighbors; but all I had was a few hours with these beautiful souls.


I_Need_HugWe had a wonderful time getting to know each other during their one night stay. They left the next morning around 9:30 am, but not before we had some more rich discussion about our opposing cultural norms. I wished them well, and asked them to please reach out to us with any questions about Indy, or Michigan, before their last road trip in June. I made some wonderful new friends that day, whom I may never see again. As they stood there, waiting to open the front door and be on their way, I smiled and gave them each a big, long, loving hug. Elliot was surprised by the closeness of our embrace, as it seemed so ‘un-American’ to him. Maria let out an audible sigh, and held me for a full thirty seconds.

 

It felt great to be the unofficial hug ambassador on behalf of my country. Send all the Spaniards you’ve got. I’ll hug each and every one of them.

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