I was 22 years old when I first came to Europe and except for two brief “training trips” to Toronto and Montreal as a teenager, this was my initiation into the world of the “other.” Of course, I had traveled frequently in my imagination to various European countries, got to know Peter Rabbit and Peter Pan, Hans Brinker and Heidi, Oliver Twist, Pip and David Copperfield, Eloise and Ferdinand the Bull, Don Quixote and Narcissus and Goldmund, transported by both children’s and adult literature. Through the wonder of movies, I met Gigi, the Lady Who Vanished, Zorba the Greek, witnessed Death in Venice and a Roman Holiday and An American in Paris—and then later, the world of Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini. Of course, there was always music, the fjords of Norway singing in Grieg, Strauss telling Tales of the Vienna Woods, Beethoven taking a Pastoral trip in the forest, Debussy painting the French sea, Bizet evoking Carmen’s Spain (even though he was French) and more. I was prepared to love Europe before I even set foot in it and then I only loved it more. I was struck by the history, the charm, the romance, the architecture, the art, the attention to long meals savored and company enjoyed, the sounds of its multiple languages, the cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes.
And so tonight, I was sitting at the outdoor restaurant enjoying a well-cooked risotto dish with my new friends Prosper Gbolonyo and Tom Pierre, looking out at the Escorial Monastery (where I am staying), listening to the buzz in the air, watching the children playing freely in the plaza—at 10:30 at night—and felt myself falling in love with it all over again. It was Tom’s first time in Spain and Prosper’s first time outside of Ghana and it was so fun to be with them as they sampled their first paella, drank their first wine cooler, enjoyed a café cortado.
I first met Prosper’s brother Kofi in Salzburg and this was also his first trip to Europe. I remember being so fascinated by his questions and observations. So I asked Prosper what surprised him the most and struck him the most so far about his time in Spain. His answers:
• The light. Ghana is near the equator and it gets dark pretty much around the same time all year around—between 5:30 and 6:00. He was amazed that we were eating at 10:30 pm and that it was still light out.
• The architecture. Ghana definitely has a highly developed visual aesthetic in its fabrics, but not so (yet) in its architecture. Prosper was mightily impressed by the attention to beauty in the houses and stores and hotels and cathedrals and I might add that coming from slap-dash mall culture in America, I still am too.
• The cleanliness of the streets. I agree and again, it is so much better than San Francisco.
• The mall where we shopped for gifts yesterday for his wife and daughters. So many goods in one place, at once overwhelmed by the choices and astounded by the possibilities. And all with fixed prices—no bargaining!
• To my surprise, he added “the kindness of the people.” I can’t imagine a people more warm or welcoming than the Ghanaians we met, but here he was feeling the same from the Europeans welcoming him. And I have to say that dining out with two black men and not feeling a single hint (affirmed by both of them as well) of anything approaching racism, I ask my country, “Would they feel the same visiting us?” Well, Tom is from Washington D.C., so he knows the answer to that question.
• Prosper’s biggest criticism was the people smoking. I told him he was so lucky he didn’t come here 10 to 15 years ago when smoking was allowed inside restaurants. And told him of going to Kineopolis, at the time the world’s largest megaplex with some 30 theaters. To get a ticket, you went into a giant lobby where some 1,000 people were getting in lines—and almost every single one was smoking!!! I inhaled more second-hand smoke in those 15 minutes than in the rest of my life combined. And back then you could still smoke in the balcony inside the theater!
Thank you, Spain, for keeping the romance alive and treating my friends so royally. I know it’s not the whole story, but these days, I take my hope and appreciation from wherever I can find it.