With earpods in—one for me, one for my roommate—we would listen to Bad Bunny or Calle 13; the Latin pop would occasionally inspire us to dance if the bus stop was otherwise empty. We would spot the dark blue bus driving through the roundabout and prepare to raise our right hands so that it would stop for us.
Last summer, I was in Alicante, Spain, with CIEE, an organization that brings high schoolers and college students abroad. Their courses range from social-service projects to filmmaking to marine-biology research. For my program, the goal was not only to become fluent in Spanish, but also to absorb Spanish culture. But what did “absorbing the culture” mean? For me, culture was a word reserved for music magazines or intellectual class discussions about differences between Eastern and Western literature. The word sounded unnecessary to the program description, as if they had tacked it on to the end of “language” to make the course sound more prestigious in comparison to other “service and leadership” programs. How different could my home city of Philadelphia be from Alicante? Would I really experience the “culture shock” symptoms described in my pre-departure course: anxiety, excessive sleep, disinterest, and anger?
The first day of class, we brainstormed a list of what culture could mean: values, fashion, music, food. Over the next four weeks, our program leaders brought us to cooking classes where we learned to make gazpacho, flamenco lessons where we practiced curling our fingers and clapping our hands, and archaeology museums where we read about Alicante’s history. But none of these group field trips gave me a better sense of the culture than the time I spent riding the bus.
Because I was living with a family whose house was far from where our classes were held, I spent almost two hours on the bus each day, commuting for class and for our group activities. It wasn’t long before I started recognizing familiar faces of fellow commuters. Our morning ride included Japanese exchange students who would ride side by side without saying a word to each other, a 12-year-old girl and her 8-year-old sister on their way to summer camp wearing matching green camp T-shirts, a 20-year-old woman who commuted every day in six-inch heels, and a Guatemalan construction worker who sat with a book in his lap. It wasn’t the specifics of their nationalities or ages that mattered; it was the regularity of their presence that made me begin to feel at home.
There were moments that reminded me of my school commute on SEPTA back in Philly, like people crowding into every inch of space available or yelling to the bus driver to “hold the back door.” There were many more things that surprised me because they differed from my experience. Instead of being able to exit from the front of the bus, everyone needed to exit at the back. Conversations between strangers were much more frequent and much more friendly. It was typical that at least one pair of strangers would be chatting about their sick aunt, new dog, or, if all things personal failed, the general lack of rain. In Philadelphia, I was used to hearing only short phrases like “excuse me” or “you just dropped something.” I wouldn’t describe this difference as “shock.” I felt that it was how things should always be.
This friendliness stemmed from the cultural value that strangers should be involved with one another on a personal level—even if that involvement didn’t result in kindness. There was an elderly couple that frequented my afternoon bus. The husband’s first priority was always making sure that his wife had a seat. He was talkative, with an indoor voice that could be heard from the back of the bus when he was standing next to the driver. One day, in the hour before siesta, they boarded my bus, already filled to the brim with sweaty bodies and tired minds. After he made sure that his wife had a seat, the husband noticed another frail woman who had just boarded and was still standing. Nearby was an eight-year-old boy who had not yet taken the initiative to offer his seat to the woman.
I couldn’t hear what the man said to the boy, but the boy got up and stood in the crowded aisle, barely tall enough to reach the hand grips above. A woman, who appeared to be the boy’s mom, began to say something to the man about how her son wasn’t aware that he needed to stand. Instead of appreciating that the boy had given his seat to the older woman, the man grew defensive, raising his voice to add that the boy should have known better. Others joined the argument: some siding with the mom, others yelling at the man to be quiet. Some passengers who could not resist the thrill of being involved but who detested the heat of an argument began to act as mediators. Still others watched, exchanging glances with those around them, half-smiles that made it clear that they were in the situation together: a crowded late July bus in the hour before food and sleep. I could only catch wisps of what was being said; my ears were not yet tuned enough to be able to turn the flying Spanish words of anger into meaning, but the tones of voice and volume gave me enough hints to follow the thread.
Confined by the bus walls, compressed by the bodies of fellow riders, and consumed by the words of argument, I felt absorbed by Alicante’s culture. No longer an abstract concept, culture became the women’s shoes, high flat platforms. It became the sound of babies crying and the subsequent sounds of their mothers’ comforting attention. It became the European car advertisements lining the side of the road.
Flamenco lessons and one-time cooking classes cannot accurately capture a culture. Through my daily routine of riding back and forth across the city, on packed buses in the morning and empty buses at sunset, from a stop at the hospital to one at the university and another downtown, Alicante opened herself up to me.
Join the conversation!