Friday, June 20, 2008

Spaniards. Part 1

Way too long to finish in one post.


When I came here, I had the mistaken belief that people were people the world over. Okay, sure, we all know China and Japan have an almost alien way of life with customs and philosophy that a westerner can’t really fathom. (On the street they have vending machines with not only 40 oz beers in them, but also women’s panties. That’s a culture I would expect to visit and see some major differences from what I am used to.)

Spain, not so much.

I expected to come over here and find that the people were similar to what I had grown up with. A little tanner, a little shorter, more black hair and hopefully too smart to fall for the horrible fashion statement known as “sagging.” But no, not only do their youth wear their pants halfway down their ass, the Mullet is still big here too. This place is a fashion nightmare. On Blackwell’s Ten Worst Dressed list this week it says “1. Victoria Beckham. 2. Lindsay Lohan. 3. Spain.”

Basically, I thought I was going to meet Americans that spoke another language.

Not so.

Spanish culture is shockingly different not just from American culture, but from most parts of Europe as well. In class, students from other parts of Europe express the same shock that I do about certain customs and habits most Spaniards exhibit.

Let’s start the good, move to the different, then finish with the bad.

Spaniards still have a very close family life. It is not uncommon to see an entire Spanish family strolling through a park at eleven in the evening. Teenagers, newborns, grandparents, all out together for a stroll in cool night air at what would be a very late hour anywhere else in the world. And they are very physically affectionate. Mothers will walk hand in hand with a sixteen year old son or have an arm draped over their father, his arm around her waist. One of the peculiarities of the culture is that the children will live at home until they get married. No matter how late that is. Once married, it’s not uncommon for a couple to visit their parents every weekend. And well, they should considering how much they owe them.

We were studying the family unit in Spain in class. There is a photo of a happy family posing with this curious caption underneath it. “Juan (57) and his wife Maria (54) live in Madrid with their three children, Jose (31), Mary (27) and Pilar (24).”

Can you imagine? You know what will help you imagine? “Makin’ babies.” This is a common expression for Wendy and I when we go jogging through a park in Madrid. “Did you see the couple makin’ babies over there?” Over there could be a park bench, or a clump of bushes or the swings or just in the middle of the grass under a tree! When you both live at home with your parents, where else do you go at thirty one years old to get some snuggle time with your date?

I’m happy to say, Spaniards are very proud of their culture and their language. If you are in a bar and ask about a dish, they will happily explain it to you. At the bullring, if the crowd starts to jeer, you can ask the guy next to you what’s wrong and he will happily explain the long history of bullfighting and why this bull is awful or what this matador is doing wrong to illicit catcalls and protest clapping from the audience. Ask them about Jamon and be prepared for a man who will lovingly tell you about the finest meat on the planet, how you should enjoy, how lucky you are that you have never experienced it until now, and please, take this beautiful meat that I am giving you, find a beautiful woman, an expensive bottle of wine and watch the sun go down with her. Please, no other setting is adequate for your first taste of Jamon. He bids you “adios” with a tear in his eye.

Stamina – No one has stamina like a Spaniard. What they lack in peripheral vision, lack of awareness that there are other people in the world, tact and grace, they make up for in stamina. Spaniards can stay awake longer than a college student on Ritalin and Jolt. They can, and do, regularly go out to the clubs until eight in the morning, go home to shower and then head to work. During the two hour lunch siesta, they will sleep in the park then go back to work, finish their shift and then call their friends to see where they are going next. Not just for one day, but for weeks at a time.

I compared notes on this with my friend Peter Jensen whose son is married to a Spaniard. His story is identical to mine. The first thing Spaniards, or even people who have adapted to Spanish culture want to show you is tapas. Tapas is the little snack that comes with each drink that you order. Sometimes, it’s not just the tapas, but maybe a racion that is particularly good. Racion’s you have to pay a small fee for, but they are the food the little bar is famous for. Different bars specialize in different little quantities of food. So, you arrive, you get some sleep, and then it’s time to see Spain. And by Spain, I mean, the bars.

You stop at one quaint little bar with a wall of wine behind the bar and ordered for you are “Seta’s” which is a mushroom with a little alioli sauce on a little piece of toast. Delicious! And so is the wine! Then you are off to another restaurant where the specialty is Gambas al ajillo, which is tiny shrimp fried in olive oil with a small red pepper and a lot of garlic. Oh that’s hot. Also delicious. But you need a beer to wash down that strong garlic and pepper. Then you’re off to a new place that has muscles in a hot tomato sauce. Also amazing and again everyone gets a drink. Then to a bar that specializes in Bacalao which is fried cod pieces that you eat with a toothpick. Just delectable, but a little salty, better have a beer with that. Hey, how far have we walked now? A mile? Three? What time is it? Not quite fortified yet, your hosts would like to hit just a few more tapas places and then, the discotheque! Which is so packed you can’t even move, let alone dance. And the drinks are ten dollars apiece.

At three a.m. I fell asleep standing in a large, tightly packed room playing American pop and stayed there for two hours and never fell over.

Spaniards, and those who have lived here long enough, can go forever. They can drink from two in the afternoon to seven in the morning and then go to work. Large Russian men raised on copious amount of Vodka have been known to beg “no mas. Por favor, no mas!”

“No no, just one more place I have to show you. Okay, maybe two.”

Festivals – Can I even list the amount of things that Europeans have going for them over Americans? (Which isn't to say America is bad, I still love America. It's just that some things, Europe actually does do better. Some things.) Well, let’s start with a small list. Universal Health care is one. Five weeks of vacation a year when you first sign up for a job is another pretty good one. The ability to go to lunch, have a beer or a glass of wine and not only not get fired, but not warrant a second glance is pretty good. Tasteful nudity everywhere. Porn videos discretely sold at every corner newsstand. And of course, the festivals.

In Spain there is a festival every three weeks. Sometimes a bit less than that, often quite a bit more than that. Added on top of that is the very special, and yet, still very common, “puente,” which means bridge in Spanish. For one thing, have you noticed in the states our holidays are one day, and sometimes you don’t even get the day off? July fourth. Labor Day. Halloween. Martin Luther King day. New Year’s day. Two days out of the year, (Thanksgiving and Christmas) you will probably (not guaranteed) get two days off in a row. Woo Hoo! Lucky you!

There’s a reason we’re the most medicated country in the world.

Spaniards would riot and burn all of Spain to the ground if they got as few days off as Americans.

Many Holidays in Spain last two days. Some last three. Some three weeks. And they don’t move holidays depending on what day it falls on to maximize the work week. No. If a Holiday falls on Thursday, then they have a four day weekend. A Puente. If no one is coming to work on Thursday, why would you work on Friday? Wouldn’t a four day weekend be much better? Of course it would, so everyone takes one. And they don’t use vacation days either. This a puente. The business just doesn’t open. The best puentes are when there is a holiday on Tuesday and Thursday. Free week off for everyone! (Well, everyone except the service industry which is always the worst industry in the world to work for because of this. Really, who wants to work on Christmas? )

In May there was a two day holiday. Madrid’s second of May is similar to Mexico’s “Cinco de Mayo” or fifth of May, celebrating the kicking of Napoleon’s ass. Now, the second of May was actually on a Friday, but for some reason, Thursday and Friday were both Holidays. Maybe they were off on Thursday so they could get ready for the holiday. I don’t know. School was closed both days. One of my teachers asked if we could have class on Tuesday instead of Wednesday because she was leaving early Wednesday morning to beat the traffic out of the city.
See if you can follow this.

Friday is the actual holiday.

Thursday is sort of a gimme.

Most businesses closed by noon Wednesday because the next two days were holidays. My teacher left early Wednesday morning to get out of the city before the traffic started to get bad.
In America, you might not get Friday off (the only real actual holiday) but in Madrid, you leave work at noon Wednesday.

Can you see the draw to live in a country that doesn’t care about nudity, gives you five weeks of vacation the day you sign up for a job, allows you to have a beer at lunch break, has health care for everyone, a proportionally stronger economy than the US, and leaves for a Friday vacation at noon on Wednesday?

They’re kind of relaxed here.

The flip side of that is, they’re kind of relaxed here.

How is that bad? Well, they don’t post hours on the doors of businesses. That way, they can open and close whenever they want, and often do. I’ve tried the door at McDonalds at ten in the morning and found it closed. While searching for a time they opened, nothing could be found on the doors or windows. Wendy and I once waited , starving, until nine p.m. (their normal opening hour) to visit our favorite Paella place only to be turned away at the door. “Why?”

“Well, business was so brisk in the afternoon we just decided to stay open through lunch and close early.”


Waiters don’t live on tips so it makes dining much more relaxed. Rather than upsell you, if you ask, they will even tell you that yes, fatass, you have ordered too much food for the amount of people you have. And they love it when you dawdle at the table because they are not in a rush to turn it. If you leave they have to do more work on the next people that come in. They have to get them menus, then take orders, then get drinks, then the orders are ready… So much bother! It’s much better if you just sit and have another glass of wine. On the house.

Of course, the downside of that is… waiters don’t live on tips. I’ve been ignored for an hour and found my waiter watching TV when I finally tracked him down. Of course, ignored would be too strong a word. Ignored is what would be happening in America. In Spain, it’s just the culture. The attitude is, hey, you were having wine with a pretty woman . If you wanted something else, come in and find me. No problem. Glad to help, just ask.

Eventually the waiter will come back and ask if you are finished and would like anything else. Dessert perhaps or some coffee? No, nothing else. Totally stuffed, thanks.

Plates are cleared. You have made it plain that you want nothing else.

The waiter disappears and the bill never comes. No matter how many times we go out to eat this always astounds me. Again, the relaxed culture. It’s rude to present the bill to the customer after he’s eaten. They don’t want to rush you out. You have to specifically ask for the bill or it won’t come. You could sit until doomsday. We have actually sat at a bar until they started putting chairs on tables and pulled the metal gate halfway down to obscure the door. We finished our drinks and Elvio asked - "What are you doing? Where are you going?"
"Um, you're closing."
"You shouldn't rush like that, it will affect your digestion. Relax, we still have more to do" and poured us another galss of wine. On the house.

It’s just funny in Spain. When you do remember that you have to ask for the bill after a meal, the waiter will offer you an after dinner drink. There are a select group of traditional after dinner drinks that you can ask for, and are normally free. I assume as a gesture of “Hey, thanks for eating here.” I prefer Licor de Hierba. Which is a green drink that has a nice minty taste to it.

They bring you a little shot glass and the bottle.

That’s right, the whole bottle.
Have as much as you want.
Sit as long as you want.
It's very relaxed over here.


  1. Great stuff. All of this is being cataloged for your "An American in Spain" book/travelogue, right?

  2. Bring me back some of that spanish porn when you come home next month. Make sure the region code will work :)

  3. Have you had a chance to practice any MMA or Ji jitsu in Spain?

  4. Have you had a chance to practice any MMA or Ji jitsu in Spain?

  5. years ago in myrtle beach i worked with a group of spanish kids who came to work for the summer. they worked two jobs from 8am-11pm and then went out dancing and drinking until 4am, then they invited everyone to their place until 6am. it was amazing and i never heard of them taking a day off from it.


  6. Jamie, when it comes to work in Spain, you haven´t mentioned the best part, namely "jornada de verano (intensiva)". SEVEN hours of work each day through the Summer! Start early and leave even earlier!!!
    See u this weekend at the "Batalla del vino" ;)

  7. So that you know, the Thursday May 1st was Worker's Day, which, interestingly enough, is also a holiday so we don't have to work :-)

    But yes, you have everything right about us spaniards. Too relaxed for my taste to be honest.

    And I agree, the "jornada intensiva" at work is great. Except when you work with an American company, like me.

    I come here from time to time to see how you are doing in my city. I am sure now I can learn a few things about Madrid from you :-)



  8. Hi Jamie, haha, had a laugh about your description of us, this race called The Spaniards.

    Missing the tapas and the fiesta a lot in Australia although they're pretty relax down under here as well.

  9. Read and thoroughly enjoyed your book--a great precursor to my extended stay in Spain and am glad to have found your blog. This is a great post-I was just working on some similar observations today after a short time in Spain. Your book's descriptions of the love of jamon have proved not to be exaggerated:-)

    The tapas, jamon & seafood and most esp. the wine (gotta love a place where a 3 Euro wine at the local grocery store can be wonderful--or better yet where you can refill plastic bottles from large casks), knowing how to enjoy life and the good things it has to offer. Many of the qualities you mention make it hard to ever want to leave here...

  10. I went to Spain on a class trip in 12th grade for a week and I can say that after reading this article, I really didn't get to know very much of the country. Many years later, now that I speak the language, I think that I could better appreciate the culture if I were to return.
    I really enjoyed reading this and now I'm looking to read part two!

  11. Hi,
    Enjoyed reading this and must say there are many similarities with Italians! :-) The relaxed, whenever working hours at some places, the 'ponte' long weekends - which work in the same way here adding as many days as possible, the love and pride in their food, and the living at home until all ages, too. Here they also typically have transit strikes on Mondays or Friday. I think it's just for another way to have a longer weekend as many people will just stay home from work rather than trying to find an alternate way to work.
    As one person mentioned, May 1st is International Labor Day/Workers Day. It is a holiday in Italy, as in many other countries, and here in Rome, they have a free all-day concert in front of the Basilica San Giovanni, the first church of Rome.... it's a madhouse, with tons of people happy to have the day off, tons of music from known and unknown Italian bands, but unfortunately, also with tons of empty bottles and trash all over the ground by late afternoon.
    Looking forward to reading more of these. :-)

  12. How do you think to work at a American company ? is it a challenge ?