Habeis ganado? Que si, hombre

by Alissa Greenberg

Palencia Calle Mayor by night.
Palencia Calle Mayor by night.

A year and a half after arriving in Spain, I still remember a comment one of the American consuls made during the orientation for the language assistant program that brought me here. She was speaking about safety, urging us to be careful of muggings and pickpockets. “But,” she added, almost as an afterthought, “there’s something you have to understand about Spanish people. To them, the street is an extension of the living room, and they treat it as such. You need to be careful, of course, and sensible. But help is never far away on the Spanish streets.”

When I first arrived in Spain, I was too busy in my head to see much of anything, and by the time I had adjusted and settled in, the days were ending earlier and the trees bending over the Rio Carrion in my adopted town of Palencia were tinting yellow. Outdoor tables at cafes were stacked and put away; the fog of winter (both bone-chillingly literal and metaphorical) obscured what had come before. That spring wasn’t ideal, either– after the driest winter in 70 years, we had several weeks straight of cold, raw, rainy unpleasantness.

And then suddenly in May–summer, and I understood finally what she had meant.

The heat arrived without any real warning or transition, and it happened to coincide with a very important soccer game, the championship of the European League. I’d never been much for soccer, but the electric atmosphere combined with the sudden warmth of the air to create something remarkable. Tin tables and chairs sprouted like mushrooms, and the streets were choked with the chatting and strolling multitudes. At game time, children chased soccer balls of their own in the main square while muffled roars sounded from the surrounding bars. I sat with friends and savored the first outdoor beer of the season, then walked down the deserted main street listening to the game’s aftermath. We passed a couple of celebrating fans in striped red-and-white jerseys. “Habeis ganado?” we asked them– “Did you guys win?” “Que si, hombre,” the taller one yelled over his shoulder. “Obviously!”

We turned the corner and passed a similarly exuberant bar, festooned with red cloth and team flags, spilling warm yellow light into the street. Through the window I could see a cluster of men packing food into plastic containers to bring home. Outside, by the window, three grandmother types played cards and sipped beer. I looked at my watch: 12:30 am. The week before, the streets had been empty, reflecting moonlight in freezing puddles. Now it was like these women had always been here; like they had never been cold in their lives.

Such sudden summer called for a shift in schedule. Things felt lazier, more relaxed… and they were definitely pushed later. For a  night owl like me, it was a welcome new rhythm. There was something thrilling and right about sitting in air as warm as bathwater with a group of friends drinking a beer, surrounded by a crowd so robust that the waiter had to tell us any food we ordered would take an hour to arrive. Palencia summer nights were dark, thick, hot, and ringing with the clink of glasses and jostling cutlery. There were sleepy children eating ice cream and older couples walking arm-in-arm. In the United States any of these people would have been snug, safe and sound in their beds. But in Palencia, it was 1 AM, and summer had arrived.

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