On the 21st January a Times Travel section journalist called Christ Haslam wrote a piece called ‘How to be Spanish’ for a Spain Special segment in the newspaper. I think I understand what he thought he was getting at. I (hope) it was supposed to be an overly exaggerated piece playing on stereotypes and dripping with supercilious irony.
Unfortunately it was not written well enough, or obvious enough, for this to come across. Other elements were simply wrong or lazy and the whole piece lacked a nuance of either knowledge or endearment that would have helped the article come across as tongue in cheek as opposed to a little mean and haughty.
Safe to say I haven’t seen the Spanish media, social or otherwise, kick up this much fuss and vitriol since Jamie Oliver had the audacity to add chorizo to paella. Chorizo does make paella taste better by the way; it makes everything taste better. If you like chorizo…
An El Mundo editorial fired back, with some less than perfect translations of what Mr Haslam said, virulently negating almost every point he made and not seeing, or choosing not to see, the funny side of any of it. There has also been a large online backlash with Spanish people, understandably irked, pulling out the drunk hooligan card and firing back with equally distasteful stereotypes about the British.
After eight years living and loving here - and with no dreams of ever moving - I thought I would throw in my two cents about this article; an article which, in 2018, was written, and paid for, for a reason that I cannot fathom. It shouldn’t exist.
So let’s have a look at what he wrote, section by section. I’ll eschew the humorous introductory paragraph.
‘First, forget Anglo-Saxon notions of politeness, discretion and decorum. Being Spanish involves walking into a bar, kissing and hugging complete strangers, shouting “oiga” at the waiter and chucking anything you can’t eat of drink on the floor. Except glasses. That’s too much. But you can drop the please and thank yous. They’re so unnecessary.’
So far so wrong. The Spanish are not impolite. They are frank, to the point, less anal about manners, but not that that would make them impolite or indiscrete. Being Spanish involves walking into a bar, kissing and hugging people you know. Not strangers. Why in sweet buggery would they do that? The only time you hug and kiss a stranger is when that person is someone you don’t know that you are introduced to.
Oiga…no one says that. If the bar is loud, and they often are, you may have to raise your voice, but you’ll say ‘perdón’ or ‘disculpa’. Unless you’ve been waiting for the bill for an hour and you are thoroughly pissed off, you won’t hear ‘oiga’.
In some old trad bars you might throw tissues, chorizo skins, toothpicks and olive stones on the floor. It was the old-school pre-Tripadvisor way of knowing if the bars were any good. But these days it’s not that common really.
The Spanish also do not drop the please and thank you. It’s true that their language does away with the constricting over-polite modal-obssessed language of some English people: ‘Evening, I don’t suppose you’d mind ever so awfully bequeathing me, if it’s not too much trouble to your kind self, one of your most loveliest and scrumptious beers, if you don’t mind, thank you ever so much kind sir.’ Instead a simple ‘me pones una caña, por favor. Gracias.’ Will do the trick.
‘If you’re a lady, carry a fan. Over here, it’s a tool, not a souvenir, and regardless of gender, do try to develop the uncanny Spanish skill of knowing instinctively where the coolness is. Not hipster coolness. The ambient one.’
I don’t really know what to say. If you’re an old abuela in the middle of summer, yeah buy a fan. If it’s 45 degrees outside, get a fan. Other than that you won’t seen that many about.
‘You also need to unlock that potty mouth. Spoken - or rather, shouted - Spanish is shot through with obscenities of astonishing inventiveness and anatomical awareness, and it doesn’t matter who you’re talking to. In Salamanca, I heard a teacher on a school trip tell his pupils to “**** off for lunch”, and that any “****er” who wasn’t back at 3:30 sharp would be “****ing left behind for social services”. The kids seemed cool with that, even though being Spanish requires utter disdain for punctuality. Arriving anywhere 30 minutes is actually considered quite early and quite rude.’
Now there are a couple of interesting truths here, but his writing has missed the mark. The Spanish do swear a lot, and it is both creative and beautiful. But it’s not really a ‘potty mouth’ as the words are not usually used aggressively but just flow as part of the language. It should be celebrated. I once saw a father trying to convince his adorable little 4 year old boy to come to him in the Retiro Park. The kid was in his own world and on the fourth try the dad said ‘joder coño, Jaime ven aquí’, which literally translates as ‘shit c**t, Jamie come here’, but of course that’s not really what he said.
The Spanish linguistic gymnastics around ‘swearing’ is joyous. They shit on everything ‘me cago en…’; from milk, to God, to your dead or the mother that gave birth to you. But again they aren’t really saying that. They’re just words, usually devoid of power and anger. Swearing releases happy hormones; maybe that’s why they’re less uptight than the Brits.
And punctuality. Yeah, to be fair the Spanish ‘in general’ are not that great. But if a lawyer has a meeting, you can bet your bottom dollar he won’t be late. The laissez faire tardiness only really comes into the fray on social occasions. The 30 minutes being considered early and rude is stupid. But I would say that on average punctuality, in the day to day realm, is less observed here. And yes, it can be annoying. But who cares?
‘You need to learn food etiquette, too. Start with a breakfast of tostada, sobrasada and a cortado, and don’t ask for butter. This is olive-oil country. Stop whatever you’re doing at 11am and nip out for a beer and a sandwich. That should keep you going until lunchtime, at 2pm. You’ll be going for a three-course menu del día, and it will take between two and three hours. Then have a kip.’
Some good bits here; although barely anyone outside of maybe the Balearic Islands or Valencia will be having semi-cured chorizo on toast for breakfast. Had he not been referencing small-town life on Mallorca - my unfounded theory - he may realise it is more common a tostada de tomate with maybe some ham on top. The butter is funny, and kind of true. This is olive oil country, but breakfasts in bars often have jam/marmalade and maybe some little plastic tubs of one-use butter.
11am - the media mañana - breaks can exist. It may depend on the company itself if employees are allowed to nip out. This may be when they choose to actually have breakfast, perhaps just having a quick coffee at home after waking up. Beer? Maybe. More likely a coffee.
Lunchtime at 2pm? Yeah, good. Menu del día? Very possible yes, good! But two to three hours? Not really. In the week if employees are leaving for their two/three course set lunch, it’ll be for an hour. That’s how Franco designed it. Quick and hearty. At the weekend yes they can extend. But an actual menu del día is fairly swift.
No one is sleeping except a nap at the weekend after a hearty lunch maybe. Also the siesta, much misunderstood, is not really about sleeping. You might have forty winks - no more than 30mins - but the point was originally for the farmers and shopkeepers to get out of the heat during the hottest part of the day.
‘Next, tapas. You can always spot the Brits. They’re the ones who walk into a crowded tapas bar and can’t believe there’s a table free. That’s because the Spanish sneer at tables. Tapas are eaten at the bar, while yelling at the waiter and throwing stuff on the floor. Except the glasses. Remember that.’
He could have just stopped with ‘you can always spot the Brits’. Good observation, actually. In Spanish tapas bars it very common for the locals to stand to nibble. But they don’t sneer at tables. It’s an unwritten rule that tables are really for people in for a while and ordering a lot of food. Generally going for tapas involves eating less at each place and bar hopping. So the tables are usually kept free. Don’t yell, unless it’s noisy.
‘Then go home and watch telly. Got Talent España and Sabado Deluxe - a sort of Jeremy Kyle for celebrities - are good choices. They’re probably on TV in the bar, what with all that shouting, you won’t be able to hear a thing.’
Yup, on point here.
‘Ten o’clock is dinnertime. Start with beer or ice-cold red wine, because cocktails are for after dinner, and make sure you eat everything you’ve ordered. Countries that have suffered famine are funny about that. Don’t go overboard on tips (it’s not done here), be ambivalent about bulls and, finally always take your phone to the toilet. This is a) so you can check for messages from your secret lover, and b) because every motion-activated toilet light on the Iberian peninsula is programmed to go out after four seconds.’
Ice-cold red wine? Sometimes; either in tourist trap bars serving what is essentially toilet duck in a wine bottle, or during the height of summer, so the drinker has more time to enjoy her glass of Ribera del Duero before it turns to soup.
Famine. Oh lord, what an unequivocal arse. He has inferred that a country with a long history of agricultural living in tough climates equates to famine. Spain has had famines; one killed 20,000 people in Madrid in 1811. But here comes the arrogance verging on racism: Britain suffered 95 famines during the Middle Ages so does that same rule apply to us? When I’m in a pub in England and I’m getting full, do I force myself to finish my chips because of my ancestors 800 years ago? No, it’s stupid.
People finish their food because they’ve paid for it. And Spain, like every country, will have the grandma saying ‘don’t waste your food, there are kids in Africa…’ The difference might be that the jovial waiters will ask you if you’re done here more often than perhaps in the UK. And with all the free tapas it’s actually quite common to find food left on the plates.
Ambivalent about bulls is a wise point.
Phone to the toilet. This made me laugh. The toilet lights are useless here, though Haslam gets it wrong. You won’t need a phone light for a motivation-activated light; all you’ll need to do is move a bit. But it’s the touch-pad lights do go out quickly. And sometimes the pad it outside the bloody cubicle, plunging the tipsy bloke aiming as best he can into darkness. Maybe the rule should be ‘always sit down’.
All being said and done, I don’t think Haslam meant any harm from his article and perhaps some of the Spanish should have taken most of it with a pinch of salt and just laughed at both themselves and some of the heightened jokery a bit more. But on the other hand I think it needed to be written better, and by someone with more insight. Perhaps we can all move along from these Fawlty Towers-esque commentaries from now on and actually use humour to tell the truth.