American girls all have blonde hair, claimed my Spanish "mother" with whom I stayed while studying in Madrid last year. They carry fat wallets. They dress in bright colors. They live in houses with two-car garages. They . . . In fact, I could sense her disappointment when I turned out to be neither tall, blue-eyed, nor smothered in embroidered reptiles.

The images of America my Spanish family held were common in Spain, I was to find, despite the tourist boom following Franco's death. The Spaniards' reaction to the increased contact with other Europeans and North Americans often seemed hostile and resentful. "They come here, drink our wine, take out our women, and then go home and can only speak of what barbarians we are," a friend from the University of Madrid complained bitterly.

I learned to avoid any comparisons between the United States and Spain in front of my new friends. When I complained one night at the dinner table about what seemed to be a Spanish passion for inefficiency, the family took it as a personal insult. "All Americans want are huge cars and a dishwasher," they said. Spaniards, explained my "mother," prize culture, education and other values."

But while comparisons were resented, my Spanish friends constantly asked about my life in the United States: How many cars I owned, how much my camera cost.

The comparisons appeared to have added significance to my friends as they watched their nation's new democratic institutions struggling under a stagnant economy and political and social fragmentation. "We thought democracy would finally get Spain back on its feet" said one. During a train ride to Galicia, on the northwest coast, my bright backpack provided ample opportunity for other passengers to ask about America, and to point out that Spain too had great potential for prosperity. The woman next to me stamped her foot in anger as we stared out the window at the western countryside. "All that potential, that good earth, and nothing has become of it. If only the government . . ."

What my friends in Spain found even more annoying than the idea that all Americans were rich was that despite their adoption of much the same political system a few years ago, they were not rich. Each month, after the baker had collected on his bill, my "mother" would complain about the escalating prices. Even the beloved bars and nightclubs that had flourished in the first years following Franco's death were now empty most nights.

"Where is the famous Madrid night life?" my American friends asked as we made the rounds of deserted discotheques. Apologetically, our Spanish dates explained that, four years ago, the dance floor would have been packed.

And yet it was clear the new government had brought new freedoms to my family in Spain. Several of my professors had found it necessary to leave the country because of their political beliefs during the previous regime. Even my "mother," who had supported Franco until his death, admitted enjoying the now somewhat objective newspaper articles, instead of limiting herself solely to the crosswords.

Going to the movies, my family noted the government's more liberal attitude toward censorship. Foreign movies, which had been dubbed under Franco in order to remove offensive or radical ideas, were now released in their original languages, with accurate subtitles.

But the new freedoms appeared to fuel, rather than quell, the frustrations my Spanish friends felt with the nation's new institutions. The liberalization of the press had also brought an explosion of pornography, which was sold on streetcorners and shocked even outsiders used to seeing this month's centerfold. While my friends and professors assured me that under Franco most violent scenes were cut from imported films, I now left the cinemas thinking the sex and violence matched anything I had seen in the States.

"At least under Franco there wasn't this much violence in the streets," one Spanish woman confided, echoing a common complaint. Even the family, the center of Spanish life, was threatened by the new freedoms the General's death had brought. As a male friend explained, "four or five years ago, American women were considered much easier prey than Spanish women. Now things have changed. Giving a Spanish woman a kiss no longer means you're engaged."

It was a change my Spanish "mother," for one, did not welcome. Like everyone else in the nation, I had watched the nightly reports of demonstrations, assassinations, and separatist violence.

The first few years after Franco's death had brought much hardship and instability to Spain. But my Spanish "mother" had already seen her children learn what she had never learned and question what she never could have questioned. Despite all her misgivings, she realized the new freedoms were offering her children choices in their thoughts and lives that could no longer be taken back.

When the crucial moment for the new government came after the attempted military coup last spring, she abandoned her crosswords and headed to the rally in favor of democracy.