It all began when…
‘Guiri of the group’ or ‘our mascot’ mascota in Spanish means pet. This is just two of the ways I have been referred to by my wife. Sometimes it’s fun to be the token foreigner and at others it’s just frustrating and sometimes plain weird.
I met a girl from Leganes and 2 years ago we got married and moved to Madrid. Living here my Spanish has improved slightly, but to be honest I haven’t made much of an effort. I changed from being a nurse to being an English teacher, I got a D in my English GCSEs, so I’ve had to learn my own language as well as theirs. Well that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it! I think I sound like a Spanish version of Manuel from Fawltey Towers or an intellectual 5 year old.
Obviously, knowing the language helps and it is getting easier but there are rarities and curiosities that go way beyond any language barrier. Meeting other immigrants here, they also find it the same. Yet, not as many find it strange, as the British.
Being British can be humorous or it can be a curse. I would self describe, and I’m sure my friends would agree, that I’m a typical British person. Shy at times, as awkward as a teenage boy in the woman’s underwear section and I had the British efficacy fixed in my mind when I moved here. I had to learn to be flexible… as you can see it wasn’t easy!
This is 10 moments it is difficult to be British in Spain.
Now, I’m not a macho guy, I hug my friends and family, more when I’m drunk. Yet moving to Spain my perception of physical boundaries and contact was rumbled. I had to rebuild the concept.
On a bright sweltering summers day in August 2016, I was sat on a terrace in Madrid with my wife and friends planning our wedding. One small petite girl from Andalusia was practicing her English with me and we were speaking about the first time we met and how strange it was. As she let out a small spontaneous combustion of laughter, her head rocked backwards followed by her body, her short thin arms waved in the air. As she came forward her hand landed on my thigh. It felt like it was landing in slow motion.
It felt like the world slowed down, as it does before you get shot. I looked up at my wife and then towards her friend… I thought I was a goner. But they carried on as normal, thinking nothing of it, yet I was screaming inside. If I was single I would have thought I had pulled. Yet in Spain this is normal.
Contact when talking between friends and strangers is normal in Spain. Not just for sympathy or flirting either. It’s used daily as people are less stand offish and closer to each other. You can get used to it just don’t get the wrong idea.
Sticking with physical contact, upon meeting someone in Spain a simple hello and wave does not cut it. Men give woman two kisses, one on each cheek and men shake hands. Women also kiss women.
This is funny at first, it makes you feel like a cosmopolitan socialite but then you realise you are poor and that kissing people gets annoying. Initially you may end up kissing the wrong sex, like I did, and then you realise you have to do it to say goodbye as well as hello.
You have been starving waiting for a couple to arrive for dinner, you were meant to meet at 8 o’clock but they show up at 9:30, they finally arrive and everyone has to kiss each other. The more women the longer you wait. Finally you order and eat. You have to leave for the last train which leaves in 15 minutes… but no, you have to say goodbye to everyone individually and kiss them all. A communal goodbye is seen as strange. You end up running for the train, which unlike most things in Spain runs on time.
Please, thank you, excuse me and could you please… in Spain these words are selectively used, the natives say that it is all in the tone of voice, however I think it’s just an excuse.
It is true they do use their tone of voice more to show anger and questions but generally it feels rude to foreigners. Whilst my Spanish family visited me and my wife in London, we had a family dinner. I tried my best to speak Spanish, I said “excuse me, could you please pass me the salt, thanks” and a roar of laughter came from the table. I was informed that because I was around family I could just say “give me the salt “ but in a more subtle tone.
Being as I’m the guy, that said thank you to a cash machine for giving me my own money, you can imagine this is weird for me.
Another thing that I consider manners is being on time. Yes the stereotypes are true, in Spain it’s acceptable to be up to 20 minutes late and common to be 10 minutes late. I have learnt to lie about what time we are meeting, as people sometimes won’t leave the house until the time they are meant to meet.
Tell them an hour ahead and you will all be on time.
Rhythm and pace
Ok, so I moved from London, however Spain makes Swindon look like it has taken amphetamines.
So people are late and even when they are not, there is no rush. Table service is insisted on yet many times it would be quicker to go and cook the food yourself. It can take days to get a call returned and even bank transfers can take 5 days. You look like a very strange foreigner if you are stressed about things all the time.
My first trip to the bank I tried to queue, when I got in the queue a strange old man sat down behind me told me that he was the last, I was informed that I need to ask ‘who is the last’. In Spain people do not form a line to queue they ask who is the last and then sit where ever. This is only in most government buildings and banks and thankfully not in bars and fast food restaurants.
Another thing is Spanish paperwork, it takes forever! Just make sure you take photo copies of all paperwork to get something from the government as they don’t believe in scanners.
I can understand why though. Yes I’m not just moaning! but it is hot here so there is no need to rush about, but it can take a year to become accustomed to the rhythm. The saying here is ‘Mañana, mañana’ which means tomorrow, tomorrow and the saying definitely holds true.
If you need to go to the bank or a government office in Spain you need to go between 9-2. Yes you probably need to take the day off work to sit in a queue. But when you leave the bank at 2pm don’t expect to do any shopping as all the shops will be shut.
Unless you live in the centre of Madrid, most shops close from 2-4 daily for the siesta hours. People will point out to you no one has a siesta in Spain and that it’s a stereotype, but the shop opening hours don’t help with this. I’ve often been the only one in the street in Leganes at 2pm. I walked past the barbershop with the owner asleep in his own chair. Well it is the hottest hours of the day, who would go shopping then? Me or people on their 3 hour lunch break.
Lunch breaks for most people in Spain are two to three hours long and people leave work at 8pm. Funnily the shops and banks are shutting at the start of most people’s lunch breaks.
Yes lunch is at 2pm but it is said in Spain there are 5 meals a day. Which is rubbish for people like me.
I like a small lunch at 12 and a biggish dinner at 6. But everywhere is shut. They still serve breakfast till 12 and don’t start serving lunch till 2. Some people have lunch as late as 4! Lunch is the main meal and you MUST sit. Eating on a bench, by your computer or on public transport is really weird. People will stare till you stop eating. It wouldn’t surprise me if they invited you with them, as eating alone here is also not common.
People from different departments will sit together at lunch just so they don’t eat alone. Personally I cannot think of anything more annoying than having to make conversation with a complete stranger, when I’d rather be enjoying my food.
Lunch is also the main meal of the day, this normally consists of a starter, main and desert along with this you often see people drinking a small beer at lunch time, even if they work in a factory or an office. This can be a slippery slope for a British guy. That extra beer can make you fall asleep on the metro when it is 35 degrees.
With this dinner is not normally till 10pm yes 10pm is normal, 8pm is early and many restaurants don’t even open till 8 PM, some people eat as late as midnight. I’ve often found myself grumpy and hungry when not in sync the timings. I still get grumpy now when I return home to find a light dinner of salad… after starving all day.
Drinking and partying
As I said drinking at lunch time here is normal because they drink sensibly here. Weddings have open bars and people manage to drink all night till 6am without passing out… I’m still learning their ways. I have to ‘research’ is what I keep telling my wife. I’ve often been the embarrassing drunk or hungover Guiri.
I’ve only seen a few people passed out and I’ve never seen a drunken fight. This is the capital and believe you me I’ve been to a few shitty night clubs here. The drinking culture is much nicer but the banter is not up to standard.
My wife has been told that her sense of humour is much darker since she met me. We both worked in the medical profession which makes you open to warped humour, but since shes lived in England we have kept each others sarcasm, wit and humour about death going.
As funny as she is you need to have British humour with male friends whilst drinking, if you find it cherish it , as it is rare here. Spanish people don’t get dark humour or sarcasm very much they think you are weird or just playing horrible.
They also don’t get people being negative or sarcastic about situations. If I’m moaning I’m happy I often say, they must think I was born unhappy.
One thing they love to moan about though is politics.
Since the transition to democracy over 40 years ago, Spain had been rife with corruption. Even before the first elections Franco’s ministers were buying positions in the parties or in the legal system. Since then politicians and parties have accepted bribes and stole public money in plain sight. The levels of distrust in the system are unreal and when they get caught the politicians don’t quit, they may even get re-elected!
People vote for parties here and the civil war has caused divisions in people’s political opinions like you cannot imagine.
Whether it’s Cataluña or corrupt politicians everyone has a strong opinion and they won’t agree to disagree. So it’s better not to mention it. I’ve changed the tune of many a dinner party, not for the better. And don’t mention Gibraltar.
It’s so hot here! Madrid reaches 40 degrees in summer and summer can last 3 months. Whilst not constantly 40 it is hot all day and all night.
Maybe this is the reason for much of the above, being happier, drinking less, being more touchy and laid back. But fuck me they manage the sun well, something us british have never done!
Well you never see many sun burnt Spaniards.