Every time I go home I suffer from a bad case of reverse culture shock. My words come out in English, in the middle of a Catalan sentence that is, to much amusement of my friends, and I just need to read menus in English to recognize names of fish and vegetables.
I grew up in Spain, but I have lived overseas for the last 13 years and, although I am inherently Catalan and the fine expression of a true local, I can’t help but have acquired certain habits that are a mesh-up of all the places I’ve lived in and traveled to. When I come back, I am reminded of all the stereotypes that make Spain, Spain. I smile at all these encounters with the ways of life there and I get annoyed at all those which I forgot about and hence did not plan for. Lots of people come to visit the many places in Spain and are mesmerised or shocked about our traditions. Here are a few laughs at all the times I find myself wondering “But, why?” and all those other times when I have an “aha” moment.
1. Being late
I agree to meet with my friend Marlene at 1,45pm. She says she will be done with work by then and that she has to be home by 3pm because they are coming to fix her water heater. I woke up after a 30min nap, I am exhausted from the jetlag, and I realize I will be late if I don’t rush so I jump out of bed, put my shoes, scarf and jacket on and pick up my bag to be out the door in 2min. And I manage to arrive a couple of minutes early. Marlene, of course, is late. But in the manner that only Spanish people can be.
At 1,50pm she messages, relaxed, “I am getting out now”. No excuses, no apologies. She finally arrives almost 15min late, to our 1h lunch date. I am stressed because she only has 1 hour and that has now been reduced to 45min. She is not worried the least. In fact, she was all along assuming that she would be late to her next appointment too because the handyman would also be late. No rush, she is perfectly calm as she drags her bike to the “pinxos” place. Then it hits me. She hasn’t even acknowledged she was late, let alone apologized. 15min is within the realm of being on time in Spain. We laugh about it – her more than me, I am still in shock that I rushed for nothing and that time is a blurry and flexible concept.
Food is at the center of Spanish culture. All social gatherings will include some sort of food and I am talking about the feast type of spread. We enjoy eating and cooking and we have so many recipes and ingredients and such a bountiful agricultural tradition that I reckon you could eat a different dish every day and not run out of options in a year.
A Spanish person will always invite you to a drink and some tapas. Eating is sharing, it is taking from common plates and ordering for the group. Tapas is an obvious example but think about paellas or fideua (the version with short noodles).Pinxos, the individual creations mounted on top of a piece of bread that are common in the north of Spain are the next level, they are enjoyed standing and they are the very definition of food as a social event. Be sure to know how you should order pinxos to look like a local. Wine is to be opened, laughter and more food will be coming out.
And we enjoy it slowly. Ever wondered what people do in the lunch time break when shops close down? We go home, cook lunch and maybe, have a short nap. We don’t just break for a siesta, we do it so we can cook a proper meal and enjoy it with our family.
Spanish cuisine is Mediterranean by excellence and created to be savored. Of course, as all those who ever visited Spain will know, we eat fashionably late. I get shocked by this every time. On my last trip I tried to book a restaurant for 12 noon and it was impossible, I couldn’t find any open, not even in the most touristy of places.
To mitigate jetlag I asked my friends to meet early for dinner and none could make it before 9pm. Don’t even get me started about going out. You should never go to a bar before midnight or a club before 2,30am. So when do we sleep? Well taht’s why we have a siesta! 😉
3. Aperitivo is the new brunch
In Spain we don’t do brunch, we have an aperitivo. This consists of a cold drink, usually a vermouth, coupled with some salty snacks like toasted almonds, a packet of crisps, olives, clams and other specialties. This is enjoyed, lazily and slowly, before lunch, preferably under the warm sun, even in the winter months, and outdoors. Obviously, this is a pre-lunch routine that prepares one for the large weekend lunch afterwards. Brunch does not exist in Spain and this is the de-facto replacement, in fashion ever since Spain is Spain.
Aperitivo is a social gathering at heart. The food and the drinking only accompany the merry sound of laughs and of anecdotes told and re-told too many times. This is one of Spain’s happiest traditions and one that is sacred. Even if you don’t go out, aperitivo can still be enjoyed at home. When I was little the bottle of vermouth would always, and only, come out on Sundays as we enjoyed the same snacks at the lunch table while the Moto GP, F1 or failing both, The Simpsons, would play in the background. It is a family tradition as much as it is a friend’s weekend reunion. It is not rare for people to then go back home to enjoy late lunch after having aperitivo with friends. Sunday meals in Spain tend to be a family affair.
But don’t worry. Should you not have any set lunch plans let the aperitivo turn into a lunch with some tapas and into dinner as long aperitivos lasting a few hours until the evening are not unheard of.
4. Having a Sunday stroll
Sundays are the days of rest. Or so the government thinks. So all stores except for those in areas of special touristic interest will be closed. So what do people do? They stroll along promenades, La Rambla, the seaboard or anything long enough to allow for a slow wander. That may even be Ikea so beware!
If you are intending to get somewhere arm yourself with a lot of patience. People will stroll and chat as they do so at a snail’s pace so be ready to zig-zag.
When I moved out of Spain I remember talking about what we would do as children and teenagers: we would simply meet at the park, sit on a bench or stroll and laugh. We were not doing anything in particular, we were not intending to get anywhere. We just socialized in the most basic of ways. Spaniards do just that. We live outdoors, we enjoy the sun, the sea breeze, the mountains, the parks because the weather is always mild enough to be outside, even in the middle of winter. Do as locals do and have a walk.
I used to follow football closely, I am a huge Barca fan. In fact, every other week, when Barca would play at home, I would often join my dad at Camp Nou, the famous stadium. But since I moved out, following became harder as games were very late at night or even early in the morning and, now that I live in Singapore, games are at 4-5am and I has become impossible to follow.
And so I had forgotten that Sunday evening means football. No matter where you are, what you are doing or with who, the football score of the main teams are a fixture at every house, bar or restaurant. It’s the Spanish version of Church, so much neglected in the 21st century. All radio stations will transmit the games, the TV will play them and entire families will gather around the TV to watch it together. Every other Sunday, Barcelona fills with 100,000 fans flocking to the stadium. There’s beer, there’s food and there’s yelling and screaming at the referee, the opponent and the under-performing players.
And when the season is over, the talk continues. Around the new coach, the new hires, the pre-season training. Anything that remotely relates to football.
There is nothing more quintessentially Spanish than football.
You get out of the house, you’re half awake and still trying to open your eyes to the glaring sun and, as you walk past the ever-present construction sites, the friendly construction workers whistle at you in the way only Spanish guys can: completely open and direct. Most of the times the whistle will come with a word or even a sentence: “Guapa!” or “Que buena que estas”.
This vastly innocent way of reviving your day works out pretty well. Feminists, of which I am one, will consider it rude, sexist and unacceptable. To me, it is a sign of the culture I grew up in and which hasn’t changed. It is true, Spain is a greatly sexist country. Although I hate gross generalizations, I know that in a sexism ranking Spanish men would not fair well. But the truth is that these compliments, or piropos in Spanish, are friendly and funny more than anything else and, when heard by someone who does not live here, they are an endearing trip down memory lane and a sign that things have, unfortunately, not changed.
It only took me a day to be the target of such behavior. I smiled, I turned around to shout “thank you” back and carried on. I bet they did not expect it.
7. Pulling over anytime, anywhere
I am driving around the city and I remember the easy going, relaxed way of Spanish. Lanes are narrow, cars don’t and can’t go too fast and drivers just pull over to run errands. It goes something like this.
“Oh honey, don’t we need some ham for dinner?” “Yes,that would be great”. Then she just stops, a “doble fila” – we even have a name for stoping in the middle of the street next to a row of parked cars – and runs the emergency lights, which in Spain simply mean “Be back soon” and gets out of the car to grab dinner.
Everybody does it, all of the time, it is forgiven and it is a way of life. Traffic gets disturbed, queues start to form and others simply sway on the very narrow lane. But nobody buzzes or swears. In all likelihood, they will be doing it in at some point during the day.
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