Thursday, March 14, 2013

Because Spain: The Definition of a Draft

Before I moved to Spain, I'm not sure that I understood the phrase drafty.

Sure, the meaning was clear conceptually, but this was terminology reserved for literature or television, not to be applied to day-to-day life. Perhaps this is telling of a privileged existence, the American bubble where movement centers around perfectly climatized houses, cars, and places of business; leaving exposure to the elements to be tolerated only intermittently on the in-between. Perhaps this is also telling of America's electric bill.

tina cozying up by the radiator

But, economics and global warming aside, some climatization choices seem more intuitively connected to the realm of sense than culture. The heat is on? Shut the windows. Trying to attract customers? The ambient temperature should encourage clientele. The building will be occupied all day? That's when the temperature should be controlled.

Spain disagrees.

At the public high school where I work, it's not uncommon for teachers and students to have class wearing their coats. Between classes and during breaks, radiators usually draw a crowd. And yet, the windows are open. As I write this entry in a popular café, everyone in sight is wearing their coat. And the door is open.

Whereas America tends to favor central heating, Spain is a radiator guy. I thought that this could be the key: One system is more effective than the other, maybe radiators operate by different rules. But Google, with its answers to everything, is ambivalent. Both systems are adequate, it says, rendering the difference merely a matter of preference.

So it's not the system, it's just Spain.

And the thing is, Spain doesn't seem to mind. This edition of "Because Spain" is a prime example of the effect that costumbre has on perception, because, to the Spanish, any discomfort is only minutely noticeable. The only effect of indoor temperature that I've seen has been as a source for small talk, an exclamation of "¡Que frío!" here or there to punctuate the day. My attempts to ask questions about the heat usually end up lost in the tangled mess of extralinguistic barriers to communication, in a foreign language.

As the foreigner, however, I have slept in my winter coat on more than one occasion. And I am not the only one. Many of my expat friends have shared this experience, and while asking a Spaniard about climate control is akin to speaking Greek, the first words exchanged among fellow travelers often center on this fact. Did she just ask me if I want the heat in my room on for one hour or two? A British man once asked me, taken aback and shivering. Bundle up, I should have said, you're in Spain!

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