The more you know

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Forty years ago, the American Field Service plucked me from a small, beautiful town on the central California coast and set me down as a high school exchange student in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of a bustling European capital. Madrid was still under the weighty thumb of Francisco Franco, and the sight of Guardia Civil on every corner wielding large guns and looking fierce under their three-corner hats, was jolting.

There were some difficult times that year—learning the language by ear, often feeling frustrated by being unable to communicate effectively. But there were wonderful times too, taking day trips deep into the original Sierra Nevada, crammed into crowded trains with other young people, sharing bocadillos and wine, and enjoying the crisp mountain air instead of the exhaust fumes of the city. By the end of the year, I was fluent in Spanish at a level you don’t learn in a classroom, and also wise in the big city ways of bus lines and subways, museums and neighborhood tapas bars where I could drink a cana and order calamares like any madrilena.

I still love Madrid, as anyone who has ever lived there does. There’s a surprise around every corner and an interesting person to converse with in any social setting. Friends disagree, loudly, over meals that go on for hours, but the discussions rarely turn rancorous. A lively discussion is a sign of friendship.

Last month, my best friend from Madrid brought her family on a tour of the Western U.S., traveling through California, Arizona and Nevada. Although they were rained out of the Grand Canyon and had to skip Yosemite altogether due to the wildfire, they loved the outrageousness of Las Vegas and the energy of San Francisco.

Traveling to Reno, we detoured into the Lakes Basin in California’s Plumas National Park, so her two sons, in their 20s, could experience a night in a mountain cabin, having never built a fire, ridden a mountain bike or a horse, paddled a kayak, or walked a path through the Sierra knowing bears were foraging nearby. On the descent into Sierra Valley they asked about cowboys, and it wasn’t long before we saw some, gathering to round up the cattle for a move to winter pasture.

We talked of the difficult economic times both our countries share right now, particularly the struggle for meaningful employment so many young adults endure, even those with a college education. Their delight in the Western lifestyle, the wide open spaces and impressive scenery was obvious. Their observations on the role of government and citizen were enlightening.

The Spaniards were impressed with the government support of outdoor activities, surprised to see Forest Service campgrounds and trailheads, bike lanes, and picnic areas, noting the significant amount of activity even in the chill of early autumn. They observed so many people hiking, biking, boating, fishing, and camping, they concluded everyone in the West must be an outdoorsman.

They enjoyed Virginia City with its kitschy presentation of the Wild West. They surreptitiously took pictures of several men with outsized holsters on their hips perched on bar stools in mid-afternoon, chuckling that our friends in Madrid would not believe them without proof. They’d expected to see hunting rifles or cowboys with shotguns on the range, but not portly gentlemen swaggering down the boardwalk, ready for a gunfight.

As one evening discussion veered toward aging and the increasing health care issues we’re each starting to confront, they confessed to not understanding why the richest country on Earth has “made such a mess” of providing health care to its people. Why, they wanted to know, do you turn over such a basic need to the profit-seeking private sector, at such a high cost and low return?

Why, indeed?