Category Archives: Defining the Spanish

Why Spain Is Great #3: Fun Not Banned Yet (Mostly)

You know what this is all about. There is a country not far from here, where I come from, where things have gone a little bit mad.

Children in my good old UK are not allowed to have much fun anymore, lest they should hurt themselves while someone else is looking after them and courts of law get involved… they are often not allowed to run in playgrounds, and should they wish to use Blu Tack at school, they may be required to wear goggles.

In the good old days, I was allowed to take a penknife to school (the teachers only took it away from me once, to engrave my initials on it for me so I wouldn’t lose it, then they gave it back).

We played conkers (without safety glasses!), and in winter the sloping playground was sprayed with water at night to make an impromtu ice-run for the purpose of doing fun, long skidding slides down.

All banned now. No one ever got hurt when I was at school, but you know, just in case…

Adults have less fun these days where I come from too, as far as I can tell. They aren’t allowed to indulge wildly in public in many of the great pagan festivities that used to make life, well, more fun…

They have to STAND WELL BACK at exciting things like fireworks displays, once again, JUST IN CASE. They used to be allowed to get really close to the action, but now they mostly stand at A SAFE DISTANCE behind big barriers erected for their own good.

In fact the entire country where I come from is pretty much a ‘don’t do that, just in case’ culture these days as far as most of the old fun things are concerned, and much of this ‘just in case-ness’ has been enforced by silly but very strict laws.

(It seems the only thing that people are allowed to do with wild abandon and without restriction is to drink lots of alcohol… often until they are very very ill, and often while moaning a lot about all the things they can’t do anymore… This is also very very dangerous, to life, limb, and morale, but ironically it IS allowed and often encouraged as a way to RELAX… But is isn’t very relaxing when someone else that has been doing a lot of wild-abandon-drinking decides he doesn’t like the look of you and wants to kill you, and you don’t have time to retreat to A SAFE DISTANCE. This happens a lot on Friday and Saturday nights, even in nice towns, like Oxford.)

Spain isn’t like this… whereas people from the UK are advised to stand well back all the time, Spanish people like to stand very, very close to the action. Without barriers or hard hats, or security cordons, or silly laws banning fun things they’ve been doing for ever anyway.

For example, if they want to burn down very very flammable wooden statues in very tight streets, while standing very close, despite the risk that the whole city might catch fire and be destroyed forever, then that’s just fine. It happens in Valencia and is called Las Fallas.

If Spanish people (OK, OK, in this case Catalan people who are often unjustly lumped into the geographical notion of Spain for the sake of articles like this, but anyway…) want to stand on top of each other making improbably tall human pyramids, and send small children scrambling to the top of these pyramids at the risk of life and limb, then that’s fine too. They do that in Tarragona alot.

And I can’t say I approve of it anymore, but if Spanish people want to run around in front of half-tonne bulls which could easily trample them to death, then go for it! You can literally grab the poor bloody bull by the horns if you want.

Why is all the above allowed in Spain when you wouldn’t have a chance in hell of getting any of those fun plans past a UK town council these days?

Because people in Spain still believe in letting each other decide how to get their kicks. They still believe in doing crazy things that have been going on for generations, just because, well, that’s what’s been going on for generations, and history is more interesting than health and safety.

Mostly though, I think they just like to feel alive, and their government is often OK with that.

But let’s face it, all this irresponsible free-will-to-act-as-they-please may not last forever.

Far more speed traps on the roads in Spain these days. British people have been moaning about that for years, and I’m sure they are right… it’s a sign, one of those nanny-state things…

Few years back the citizens of a small town in Aragon were told that they couldn’t drop a live goat out of their church tower once a year anymore. Great news for goats, I’m delighted, but again, it could be a sign… Things might start getting BANNED a lot…

But for now, Spanish people seem to have quite a bit more freedom when it comes down to doing mad-crazy-dangerous things just for the fun of it, and that is to be commended (as good ideas go, that one’s dying out). It is just one more of the things that Makes Spain Great.

Discuss…

Why Spain is Great #1 – Honesty in Spanish Bars

Tapas, Pintxos, San Sebastian, Basque Country

I was recently asked just what was so great about Spain, so I’ve decided to dedicate a mini-series this summer to answering just that question. First up, the honesty system…

It never ceases to amaze your average Brit that you can walk into most bars in Spain, order as much as you like to eat and drink, and pay nothing until you are about to leave when, quite often, the barman will ask you to remind him what you had!

Clearly there is massive room for abuse here. Had 5 caƱas one night but only want to admit to 4? The worn out guy in the sweat-stained shirt who’s been working since 7 am isn’t going to notice… but as far as I know, this system is rarely exploited.

The most amazing example I’ve seen of the honesty system in practice was in San Sebastian.

You walk into a bar there and find the bar top covered in plate after plate of incredible tapas, or pintxos as they are known up there (see photo above), help yourself to as many as you like, and then casually inform the barman (who hasn’t been taking a blind bit of notice of your eating habits) just how much you’ve had. You then pay him and leave.

Can you imagine how much that system would be abused in other parts of the world if suddenly introduced over night? Yet in Spain this has been going for years. The bar owners trust the customers, and the customers basically act honestly in return…

…Except for those that feast outrageously then ‘do a runner’, or a simpa as it’s known in Spanish, but that’s a tale for another time… All in all, the honesty system is without doubt one of those things that puts the ‘great’ into Spain. Would you dare to abuse it?

National “caracter” – Spanish girls take no s**t…

The Spanish do not suffer fools gladly. Spanish women do not suffer fools in any way whatsoever! They know instinctively and immediately when someone is messing them around and they will not stand for it. Examples include setting a bill straight when a surly waiter has added one too many coca colas, dealing with someone who has pushed into a queue, and whipping useless customer service reps into shape when a phone call isn’t going to plan. Telefonica hasn’t sorted out your internet connection in time? Got a Spanish girlfriend/flatmate? Get her on the case!

Now this is by no means meant as criticism. As long as you aren’t on the sharp end of a determined Spaniard it’s a marvel to behold, and in my case, Marina’s abilities in this field have saved us hundreds if not thousands of Euros and sorted out endless problems.

But what is it that makes the Spanish woman so strong? It has been suggested that it’s a back-lash against years of macho oppression by the chauvinist Franco regime, or perhaps it’s just a Spanish version of feminism. It is almost certainly a reaction to the fact that Spanish women know they have to put up a good fight in a country where they still face promotion glass ceilings at work, and are usually paid one third less than their male counterparts, even in multinational companies.

Whatever the case, as you get deeper into Spanish culture, you will often hear reference to a person’s carácter, a word that doesn’t refer to personality as a whole, but that fiesty bit in all of us that wells up to sort out annoyances. “¡Qué carácter tienes, macho!“, Marina tells me when I’m in a bad mood, to which I’ll reply, “Carácter, me???”

But Carácter gets money knocked off bills and internet connections installed faster, and keeps husbands doing their share of the work in the kitchen. I hope this post celebrates the famous national carácter, but I’m still left wondering, will I get into trouble when my Spanish wife reads it? ;)

Defining the Spanish – Passion and Wild Abandon

Torre de Cuerdo, Gaucin

Photo: Toro de Cuerda, Gaucin, by John Harris

Last week there was a passionate response by Spanish readers of this blog to a post I wrote linking to a satirical article making fun of 24 hours in the life of a Spaniard. It made me think that it might be interesting to attempt a serious definition of the Spanish, and the question of passion and wild abandon (recklessness?) seemed an interesting place to start.

Are the Spanish passionate? Can they be reckless? They speed up at the site of orange (or recently red) traffic lights, let seven-year-olds play with fireworks (in Valencia at least) and run in front of bulls – all that suggests a recklessness to their character that you won’t find in, say, the UK – but that may just be because in the UK all the things that seem to make the Spanish wild and reckless have long ago been quashed by rules and regulations designed to put safety ahead of wild abandon and fun. A shame, as anyone who has been to a riotous Spanish fiesta will know that there is nothing better than a good dose of wild abandon once in a while.

And how about passion? The Spanish might not be as romantic as the French, but they have just as much national pride, and will defend their favourite national dish or corner of Spain tooth and nail… and boy can the guys at the bar talk about football. So passionate in fact are the Spanish when it comes to a healthy discussion about almost anything, that many newcomers to Spain often mistake a lively conversation on a street corner for a full scale argument – though the Spanish word for argument is ‘discusión‘, so I don’t know where that leaves us!

Before I am shot down, I would like to add that all this passion and recklessness is balanced by a seriousness of character and respect for correct manners, comportment, and indeed a respect for respect itself, that it is hard to find elsewhere, but we shall come back to that later. In the meantime I want to start two small lists, perhaps you can add to them below in the comments?

When the Spanish are at their most passionante:

  • Talking about Spanish cuisine or the beauty of Spain
  • Discussing politics
  • Arguing with difficult or dishonest taxi drivers or waiters
  • When someone has ‘faltado el respeto‘, shown a lack of respect, or been ill-mannered

…and reckless?

  • Playing with bulls, while drunk, in town fiestas everywhere
  • During Las Fallas, anywhere in the Valencia region
  • Behind the wheel of a car (according to accident statistics – over 100 dead again this Easter)

Do the Spanish strike you as passionate or reckless? Is there a link between the two? What would you add to these lists?

Spanish table manners, do you know the rules?

Sandwich MixtoTable manners in Spain can be a minefield for the uninitiated. Imagine, you are on a language program, sit down for the first meal with your host family, and wonder why they are doing those weird things with their bread…

Well, here are 5 quick rules to start with, perhaps you can add more in the comments:

1. Dipping your bread in the soup. Don’t you dare! Big faux pas (excuse my French, how do you say that in Spanish?) But…

2. Do use your bread as another piece of cutlery. Strange this one. Spanish people will often hold a fork in their right hand, and a small piece of bread in the left, which is then used to help push food gently onto the fork. Not really acceptable behavior in restaurants, but no problem en familia, and actually pretty handy – saves chasing those last few peas around the plate.

3. Get your elbows off the table! But put those hands where I can see them! Either side of your plate, muy bien. Hands left in laps are no friends to the Spanish dining table (and bad for your eyesight, or something).

4. Big spoons are for soups, lentils, beans etc (platos de cuchara), desert is to be eaten with something the size of a teaspoon. Very frustrating at times! Don’t be surprised to receive a small knife and fork with your croissant/morning tostada either – strange I know, but saves washing sticky hands afterwards.

5. Don’t stop talking for too long! Noise is key to any good family meal in Spain. Try to talk to the person diagonally opposite you, and shout if you have to make yourself heard, which is quite likely as everyone else in the room is also talking to the person diagonally opposite them as well. So rare is silence at a the Spanish table that they have an expression for such occasions based on an equally improbable event: “Ha pasado un angel!” – An angel has just flown over the table!

Any more Spanish table manners hints I’ve missed? What customs do you find strange in Spain?