When I return home for Christmas (or, indeed, any other occasion), I land beneath a clear, blue sky, and my family receives me in floral dress, clapping hands and tapping heels to the rhythm of flamenco music. And when I march through the door, I’m presented with two kisses, a weak beer in a miniscule glass, conveyor belts of tapas and an enormous paella designed to lull me into an afternoon-long siesta.
There are many stereotypes about the Spanish, some of which are humorous and have a generous portion of truth to them, others which are nowadays rather erroneous, and a good few which are more than a little pernicious. But as we Spanish (sometimes) say, cuando el río suena, agua lleva – “if the river makes a noise, it carries water” – or “where there’s smoke there’s fire”. I believe the following idiosyncrasies are both widespread and particular enough to the Spanish that they warrant inclusion in a 9-step guide to Españolize yourself. And if you’re intending to move to Spain or spend your holiday there in the near future, this guide will be a valuable induction!
- Rule number one is well-known: an (e)Spanish may never go unnoticed. It’s not a question of vainly seeking attention, it’s just that there’s an imperceptibly fine line between speaking audibly and shouting. Almost all gatherings in bars and at family dinners are served with a healthy dose of decibel, and we like to carry such customs with us when we head abroad. Recognition of one another’s fellow nationals is always audiovisual, but we’re given to accentuating the audio, especially if we’re in the middle of a botellón.
- We Spanish are amigos de lo gratis – “friends of the free” – and we’re not talking Amnesty International here. Whether it’s the opening of the Museum of Paint Drying or a scintillating lecture on the most suitable fonts for tax returns, if there’s free food and drinks, we’re there! But the more, the merrier, as the English say. And we promise to be merry, especially once we’ve stained our lips with vino gratis and snuck a montadito into our pocket para luego.
- Say hello, joder! Enough with the tonterías (“silliness”) already! Our mothers didn’t raise us to withhold our innate exuberance in social situations. Spain follows a slightly different set of social rules, and we think we’ve got it right on this one. Comfort zones are there to be expanded, and as any colonial power knows, expansion is most rapidly achieved through invasion. A Spanish salutation does not only consist of nods and words, no, no, ¡Consiste en mucho más! We’ll plant kisses on the cheeks of our colleague’s mother’s friends, and expect them in return. On a number of occasions I’ve entered bars and gone through the motions only to realize I’d just left residual saliva on the faces of assumed friends of friends who, alas, were complete strangers! So just remember, as I sometimes forget, that proximity does not imply familiarity.
- As my padre says, la paciencia es la madre de la ciencia (“patience is the mother of science” – it works better in Spanish… ). I guess this is why those posters with “stay calm and …“ have proved so popular in my country. So relax, because everything takes its time and everybody has his or her own rhythm. When you enter a bar, don’t expect immediate attention, nor should you expect to be attended to within 10 minutes. These waiters know how to avoid your gaze, and they’re in charge. But patience pays, especially when a lovingly prepared tapita eventually finds its way onto the bar in front of you.
- Speak Espanis, please: we don’t mind making fools of ourselves in just about any situation, except when it comes to languages. If you learn a little bit of Spanish, you’ll find you have friends springing up all over the place. We love to communicate, after all, and if it’s in the language of Quijote, then all the better. And we don’t only like to españolize people – we like to do it to words too: consider güisqui (“whiskey”) or beicon (“bacon”), or our parallel universe of rock bands where U2 is “U dos” and ACDC is “AceDecé”, complete with multiple lisps.
- The Spanish are very spontaneous, and sometimes a bit too spontaneous, which means that we often seem to defy our own desires; one minute we’ll say we don’t want to go out, and the next minute we’ll be identifying which tapa to consume in the local bar. The journey home from work can be a gauntlet of offers to grab a quick (and almost always diminutive) cervecita (because if it’s diminutive, it won’t take so long, right?), and it’s just not in our DNA to say no.
- Small talk: Small talk means different things in different countries. It implies the discussion of trivial topics, but that’s the point – different things are considered trivial in different countries. For us, small talk may encompass plans for the weekend, football, the election results of a country which doesn’t really matter to us, the malfunctioning photocopier in our office, the new iPhone 7, or neighborly advice on how to relieve hay fever. Awkward silences have no place in a Spanish elevator. Spend a ten-second plummet confined and in the company of your elderly neighbor, and there’s a good chance at least three of the above topics will have been covered by the time you reach ground-floor freedom.
- The concept and practice of sobremesa is of paramount importance to the Spanish. For the uninitiated, sobremesa is the precious time spent at the table with friends and family following a meal. You may accompany the ping-pong conversation with a coffee, a digestive or a dessert – or all three – but the conversation is king. Participation is by no means obligatory, but if you do choose to remain at the table, be prepared to fight for your airtime.
- Sleeping in complete darkness: in Spain we have around 4,800 hours of daylight every year, which is quite enough. We don’t accept half-baked solutions to windows’ propensity for letting in natural light. Curtains? Pah! You may as well dangle cheap tissues in front of your panes. If only the rest of the world knew that persianas are what is necessary to get a good night’s sleep, we would have accomplished world peace years ago. Feed persianas into Google Translate and after a split-second’s rumination it’ll spit out “blinds”. But a persiana is more akin to a caterpillar track than a blind. As you lower it and the tank treads roll into place, get ready to be bathed in perfect darkness. We’ll see each other tomorrow around four in the afternoon, but until then, good night!