I returned from Madrid three weeks ago and I can confidently say that the biggest differences between it and New York are that in Spain's capitol the people wear less black clothing and the subway system is a lot cleaner. I could go into any cafeteria or restaurant and ask for una hamburguesa, the people conversed in English in lieu of a shared mother tongues and Harrison Ford's "Air Force One" was the most popular movie around.
One would think that this demonstrates what a small word we live in--a global village predicated on common ideas and linked by those telecommunication networks that are always being bragged about on television. But far from reflecting worldwide esprit de corps, Madrid merely reflects the struggle between declining Continental traditionalism and new-fangled American pop culture, a struggle which the New World is rapidly winning.
American media saturates the Spanish airwaves. During siesta time, I would watch Mr. T beat the bad guys on "The A-Team" and relive "Growing Pains" with Mike, Ben and Carol Seaver. In fact, the people of Spain have elevated cheesy American sitcoms and made-for-TV movies to the rarefied status of telenovelas. And the more crime and sex, the better: These decade-old American exports are invariably about a wife driven to infidelity by her husband's extramarital affairs; she takes a teenage lover, convinces him to murder her husband and, of course, mayhem results.
I suppose I shouldn't complain. After all, my popularity in Spain was due in large part to my California driver's license, to my ability to claim residence in the land of "Baywatch" and buxom, blond lifeguards. Store owners and custom officials would take a glance at my Los Angeles address and become chummy and friendly, eager to chat. "Harvard," on the other hand, triggered no special response and "Boston" merely elicited a blank stare.
Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Levi's Jeans are the magic words in a land that is being overrun by American consumerism: Coke is served at every meal, the golden arches sit imperiously on every few city blocks and entire stores are dedicated to the purchase of los blue jeans.
Turn of the century American novelists such as Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about the conflict between the Old World and the New, about how the old-fashioned denizens of Europe were supposedly corrupting their fresh, young American counterparts with deceit and superficiality. Almost 60 years later, American journalists and teenybopper magazines used the same analogy of a "British invasion" to describe Beatlemania, couching it in terms of a phenomenon which could not be repelled but which also should not be embraced unequivocally.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. The Americans are coming and bringing with them the attitudes of a society mired in the complacency of mass consumption. Elderly American tourists crowd the art museums looking for Diego Velazquez and Joan Miro prints to send home to the family, snapping photos ransacking gift shops along the way. At night, everybody straggles home from the bars and discotheques, but it is the Americans who are singing.
We have done such a good job of demonstrating our spending prowess that on the Gran Via, a main shopping thoroughfare in Madrid, there is a cafeteria Iowa, el restaurante Ohio, el Hostal American and el Hotel California--all designed to make us feel more at home.
Of course, there are still countless Americans roughing it out in backpacks and blue jeans, doing the poor student's version of the Grand tour, living humbly and unobtrusively in the campgrounds and hostels of Spain as well as the rest of Europe. But it does seem a shame to come so far, only to see so much the same as it was in the land we departed.
In 1492, Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella funded Christopher Columbus's journey to the New World. In return, some 500 years later, we repay them with Cokes, Big Macs and Pamela Lee.
Abby Y. Fung, a Crimson editor, is a junior living in Mather House.