Well, it’s been a wild few weeks.  I was teeing up a post related to current events but I decided I needed a break … maybe this will be a fun break for you, too.

I served a mission in Spain (Madrid) twenty years ago and I’m planning to take my husband & kids there next summer for a couple of weeks.  It’ll be the first time I’ve been back since a quick visit the year after I finished my mission, and a first for everyone else.  To prep for the trip, I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of books and podcasts about Spanish culture and history.  If you’re not familiar with the history of Spain, it’s quite a fascinating country historically, culturally, politically, economically, geographically, religiously–all the things.  

Spain’s geographical location and features gave it closer contact with the Middle East & Africa than other European countries.  Although through marriage and dynastic unions it was still closely connected with the rest of Europe, its position surrounded by water and mountains, as well as numerous mountain ranges within Spain, insulated it from much of what was happening in the rest of Europe to a greater extent than other European countries.  It was one of the earliest parts of the Roman Empire, and many famous Romans (like Seneca and Hadrian) were actually Spaniards.  It’s been a place where the three major religions “of the Book”–Christianity, Judaism, and Islam–have co-existed (and fought).  Many portions of it were under Islamic rule for longer than not.  For long periods of time, it was culturally more advanced than most of the rest of Europe; it has produced great philosophers, artists, and writers.  At one time, it had the largest empire in the world and the Spanish Armada.  But it has also had an extreme rich/poor gap and things really fell apart when the riches it imported from the Americas caused inflation to run rampant.  It basically never had an industrial revolution like the rest of Europe (resting instead on wealth generated from colonial expansion), and then political corruption and economic unrest sowed the seeds for the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s long dictatorship which–having ended in only 1975–continues to impact Spanish economic, political, cultural, and religious life.  

What’s struck me, though, is how little about all of this I knew despite having lived in Spain for eighteen months.  In some ways, I was very culturally immersed.  I feel like I got a good understanding of how people thought and communicated and behaved, I lived more or less like a local in many ways, and I did hear a lot about how Franco’s dictatorship had impacted people (some impacts: a ton of people living with the effects of polio and other health problems because access to healthcare was shockingly bad for a developed country; a huge generational divide between people who loved the Catholic Church and people who absolutely hated it because of its role in Franco’s rule; a deep distrust of institutions).  But in most ways, I now find myself lamenting my lack of understanding and knowledge about the history and culture of the places I lived.  One of the books I’m reading, Iberia, has massive chapters devoted to small towns I lived in and I can’t believe all of the things that were right under my nose but that I never saw because I didn’t know about them.  Of course I saw some major tourist attractions, but there is a lot that I missed. 

There are a lot of reasons for this.  I don’t think American educational institutions spend a lot of time on Spain–while I took several semesters of European history in college, those courses really focused on Northern Europe–England, France, Germany.  I did study a fair amount about Spanish conquistadores in some American history courses, but we studied what they wrote about and did in the Americas, not where they’d come from (apparently, many had some from areas I’d lived in!).  

I left shortly after I graduated college and I didn’t have much time between graduating and leaving to read up on Spain even though I’d wanted to–graduating and taking the LSAT and moving and getting a bunch of other stuff ready took up all my time.  And, like most people, I spent my mission prep time reading scriptures and preparing spiritually–not learning about the country I was going to or the people.  Once I arrived in Spain, I was pre-smartphone, of course, so it’s not like I could do research on the fly while I was there and getting transferred to new areas.  

Spain was also unique for a missionary because most Spanish people were uninterested in talking to missionaries (see above re: distrust of religion & institutions), so I primarily taught recent immigrants from South America.  Now, of course, that was in fact a piece of Spanish culture that I got very familiar with–the lives of those immigrants–and I am glad for that experience.  But I probably learned more about Ecuadoran culture than Spain.  I certainly ate more Ecuadoran and Peruvian food than Spanish food–no joke.  

Finally, and most regrettably to me, as a missionary I had the attitude (as do many, but not all missionaries) that I had a superior understanding of the world than the people I was sent to teach and was there to teach, not to learn from, them.  I regret that I did not spend more time listening and learning about the people and culture I was surrounded by apart from trying to find angles to get them to accept the gospel or come to Church with me.  

What I’m wondering from readers is whether you had a similar experience if you served a mission or even just lived abroad as a Church member.

  • If you served a mission, do you feel like you knew or learned a whole lot about the place you were serving in, or were you mostly focused on Church topics?  If you did learn a lot, how did you go about doing so?  If you didn’t, why not?  
  • If you grew up believing in a One True Church (as I did), how do you think that impacted your interactions with other people and cultures?  Do you think it hampered your ability to listen to and connect with others, or did it improve it?  Why or why not?
  • Any recommendations or resources on Spanish history (especially kid-friendly, like documentaries or movies) for me?