Old World Charm
By: Melanie Lidman, The Diamondback (U. Maryland)
December 5, 2006 4:24 PM
(U-WIRE) COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Here in Murcia, Spain, I live next to a 16th-century palace, standing the same way since the Jesuits built it more than 500 years ago. The imposing brick building, still in use today by the municipality of Murcia, retains much of its original splendor inside with intricate wooden moldings and gold-painted decorations.
Being from the East Coast of the United States, I thought I was used to living with history. Old buildings are just another part of life, and cracked gravestones from the 1700s are taken for granted. But in Murcia and the rest of Spain, time passes a little differently. Five hundred years is nothing in a country that has seen thousands of years of the conquerors and the conquered pass through royal palaces on their way to historic greatness.
Here in Spain, I can touch history that reaches back further than I can comprehend. Cathedrals spiraling up toward the sky often date back before 1300. Whole neighborhoods in Barcelona have been preserved, and continually inhabited, since the 1200s. Not to mention the remains found in Sevilla while they were building a metro - an ancient Arab cemetery which could date back to the 600s.
I know that Spain by no means has a monopoly on historic buildings or events, and the castles, palaces and old churches I see pale in comparison to the archeological ruins in the Middle East, Peru or Africa. And surely there were developed cultures in North America near the year 800, but the history I learn in school has done a good job erasing their presence, creating a "history" that starts with the first English colony in Jamestown.
Spaniards scoff when I point out that my house in Lexington, Mass., built in the 1920s, is considered historic. A 16th-century palace in Spain is such a common sight that it doesn't even appear in any tourist books. It makes one feel rather small and insignificant to be such a tiny part of such a long history.
One of the reasons Spanish histories are so unique is the pride associated with hometowns and regions, and the strength of family bonds that keep extended families together in the same place for centuries. My friend Juan from Murcia taught me the words for generations: abuelo, bisabuelo, tatabuelo - the words for grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-great-grandfather. In his case, he was using these words to trace his genealogy back as far as he could go, to his tatabuelo, also named Juan, and also from Murcia. It amazed me that off the top of his head he could trace seven generations back, with his entire extended family living in the same region! He was equally shocked that I didn't even know the name of the Russian village where my great-grandfather was born, and he can't imagine how my family functions with an uncle in California, aunts in New York, a grandmother in Philadelphia, and my parents in Boston.
From an early age, Spanish children are instilled with a fierce pride for their region, or pueblo. Spain isn't a small country, but it's not a very large country either - you can drive from one corner to the other in a little over a day. But the cultural variations between the regions are so stark that in addition to strong accents, the Galician, Valencian, Catalan and Basque regions have their own languages, and learn Spanish largely as a second language.
Though I've only been in Murcia for a few months, I'm proud of my region, one of the least-visited regions of Spain, according to the guidebooks. The intense patriotism is contagious, and I'm already dreading leaving the streets I have come to love and the history that winds around every corner. It's funny how you can get attached to a place and the people so quickly.
Maryland, like Murcia, is an adopted home for me. It's hard to explain how I can be proud of a place where I can claim no blood relation and only a few semesters of living. I'm proud of College Park, with the big brick buildings and the thousands of sandwich shops and the way nervous freshman look on a bright fall day. I'm proud to be from the University of Maryland, but I have to admit, it could use a 16th-century palace or two.