Like most Americans, I started out wildly frustrated with what I saw as the inefficiency and backwardness of the Spanish bureaucracy—you’d go to pick up a package at the post office and you’d have to wait for hours in line. I felt hampered, obstructed, thwarted at every turn…until it finally became clear to me that it was impossible, in Spain, to go about your business—your life—in a purposeful manner, to be goal-oriented, because sooner or later you’d drop dead in an apoplectic fit of frustration. There was nothing to be done, then, except stop trying to row so bull-headedly against the current, draw in your oars, and let the river take you.
Once I did this—not that easy for an A-type personality—my life became about “process,” as they say. And then there was time enough for everything. Spain forced me open. Like a pruned rose bush, I kept having my expectations and determinations smartly lopped off, until I was made to flower, in spite of myself.
At the University of Madrid, our classes lasted all year, rather than ten weeks (CAL had switched to the quarter system), which allowed us to explore our subjects in depth. There were no quizzes and almost no homework, only midterms and final exams. This meant that there was no outside pressure—no constant coercion, as I’d always experienced it—to study. Once I was free of external imperatives and was allowed to rely on internal ones, my excitement about learning returned.
History, which had always seemed a dead subject to me, came alive, especially now that I was surrounded by it. When I took short trips, hitchhiking with friends—when it was their turn to stick out a thumb—I would sit in a ditch avidly reading about whatever place we were bound for. I found, for the first time, that I wasn’t forgetting what I learned as soon as I learned it, probably because anxiety wasn’t running interference—and so I was able to begin to weave the facts I was absorbing from various disciplines together into a sturdy tapestry of knowledge. I can’t describe the intensity of the intellectual ferment I felt then. I realized that I’d always had a strong natural curiosity, which had been blighted by the rigidity and regimentation of the American public school system and curriculum. I found myself wishing I could have been home schooled or educated by tutors, my intellectual curiosity given free rein.