Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Culture Shock

I arrived in China, two years ago, knowing that my new life was going to hold things which I had never previously imagined. Time does funny things to memory and of course I've left things out of the blog which it didn't feel right to talk about, but I don't remember having any sort of culture shock as I settled into life in a city of 14 million, in a country of 1.3 billion, with cultures, and social practices I had never come across.

Inevitably as I settle into life in Santiago de Compostela I will have to draw comparisons with my past two years, some of which will be good, and some of which will not. Exactly the same thing happened in Beijing.

I arrived here on Saturday and had the weekend to myself to explore and get to know my surroundings. On Sunday as I walked around in the afternoon and evening, having spent the morning getting down to some Spanish grammar in a cafe, I started to feel the closest I've come to culture shock on my travels.

Santiago de Compostela (which I shall from here on call SDC) is a city of 90,000 and the main city areas can be walked across in around half an hour. The centre is made up of an old town, with windy streets, built around the Cathedral, and a new area, with shops, cafes and flats traversing the sides of the hills upon which the city is built.

My feelings of shock are rather hard to explain and have gone away ever since I arrived in the office on Monday morning, met the group and have since learned much about life here.

Sunday it turns out is a bit of a strange day in SDC. Shops are of course all shut, people are it seems mostly with their families, and those who are not (predominantly men) are filling the bars to bursting point, watching the football.

I certainly didn't want to spend my second day sat in the residence reading so I walked around the area, not particularly wanting to join the football fans (I regularly shocked people in China by explaining how I was an Englishman who genuinely had no interest in football). So, I just wondered, rather aimlessly, covering the same ground again and again, feeling rather a lot like I was rattling around in a cage, with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

By 7 I wanted a bite to eat and so started trying to find a suitable cafe or restaurant to indulge, but none seemed to be serving. I went into one where the woman (one of the few people in the city who has admitted to speaking English) called me sweetheart for being so naive and told me to come back later.

So, I continued to walk around the same area, getting more and more hungry, until eventually restaurants started opening their doors and I dived in to get some food in me (I'd missed the fact that the clocks went back and so had last eaten some 9 hours previously).

Anyway, the lesson it seems is that on Sunday this city is dead, and my tour was not illustrative of the place in general. My worry as I walked around was that I was going to spend 3 years in a place with nothing going on except football and a cathedral, but I have since learnt that this is far from the truth.

All of November sees the SDC film festival in a variety of cinemas around the city, the modern art scene seems to be flourishing, as does the music (both classical and contemporary) and the guests who come to visit are impressively varied (this goes both for the town itself and the department - David Berenstein will be out here shortly, among a list of people I look forward to meeting).

Yesterday evening saw a talk given in the museum of modern art by Peter Lax, recent winner of the Abel prize in mathematics. He spoke for an hour on the life of John Von Neumann, a fascinating and important character in many areas of mathematics, physics and engineering. I would rather have liked to hear something about Professor Lax himself, but hearing his stories of Von Neumann was interesting too. In a week or so we will have John Nash coming to give a talk which I'm extremely excited about and will try and report on that in detail.

Anyway, along with slightly claustrophobic feelings over the weekend which have now gone away, the language issue turns out to be rather stranger than I had expected. As I arrived in China I was entirely cut off from any Chinese conversation. Here however I can understand what people are talking about perhaps half the time (though I miss most of the details), yet can't say anything back. This feeling of vocal paralysis is extremely frustrating for the time being, but I imagine it's something I will get used to in the time before I can actually interact properly.

And finally, tomorrow is officially a holiday for all of Spain so I shall be looking out for an appropriate cafe to sit and get on with some work, now that administrative duties are quieting down.


Photos from Chengdu and Jiuzhaigou are slowly coming online. (Apologies for the first two which those who don't like strange foods may not enjoy). At some point I'll pick a few to post up here.


Alejandro Rivero said...

I understand one of the traditions in SdC is the "Paris to Dakar" pub race.

Unknown said...

Well, it would seem a shame to part with tradition!