My morning cafe con leche arrives as I sit, as I do most mornings, on the terrace of my local cafe bar.
A slight sigh prefixes the “Thank you, caballero”.
“Oh. Yes …. sorry.”
Even after seven years, I can’t lose the ever-so-British habit of constantly giving thanks or apologies. The local camareros don’t really understand why we do it – especially when we’re the customer, for goodness’ sake, why are we thanking them? But they are used to me by now, and ignore it as just one more guiri eccentricity. I still can’t bring myself to summon their attention as their countrymen would, though, with an abrupt “oiga!”, even though I know it will cause no offence whatsoever. Somehow it’s just not cricket.
Spain for the novice expat is an assault not so much on the senses as on the sensibilities. The British in particular feel compelled to hide behind a wall of humility, delicacy and euphemism; a pathological fear of causing offence or embarrassment. There are certain things one simply doesn’t do, and certain subjects that one simply doesn’t broach, while in polite company. Spanish people, who just don’t have the same sort of reserve, find it all a little weird.
Once here, you need to prepare for your personal boundaries to be … you know, interfered with. You’ll be kissed on both cheeks by people you’ve never met before, and spoken to by anyone and everyone. It’s not at all taboo to start a conversation with a total stranger. Coo over someone’s toddler and you may end up with it in your lap while a grateful mother nips out of the bar for a crafty ciggy; I know, because it’s happened to us. Tell somebody what you do, and they may well ask you directly how much you make.
Punctuality and adherence to timetables, so dear to British hearts, are merely abstract and unproven concepts in Spain; more of an inherently unattainable ideal than a reality. Meetings or appointments are given something akin to an earliest limit; the event in question can take place at any arbitrary interval after the agreed moment, but never before. Shops and other businesses are often simply and inexplicably CLOSED, whatever it might say on the displayed horario. The typical Spaniard will just shrug and come back some other time. Or not.
Neither are our Iberian friends so fazed by intimate issues such as bodily functions or personal privacy. When you ask a Spaniard how he is, be prepared for him to tell you, usually in grim and colourful detail. He may even show you, if you hang around too long.
Not convinced? Look no further than at how Spanish TV advertising treats products that, to your average Brit, are of a rather personal nature. Whatever scheme of bodily plumbing you may have, ancient or modern, fully-indoor or half-and-half, and whichever bit of it is operating below its optimum, they’ll enthusiastically and graphically promote an unction, device or a spray to start it, stop it, lubricate it, sensitise it, disinfect it, flush it, vent it, scrape it, pluck it, soothe it, deodorise it, lift it, warm it, chill it or make it taste of fruit.
So next time you feel a need, stop being so bloody British. Go into that farmacia and demand what you require. Ignore your presumed place in the queue, yell to get the assistant’s attention, and announce publicly and graphically the nature of whatever latex-gloved torment you intend to undergo (if you have an iPad or similar, maybe consider a PowerPoint presentation for the benefit of other customers). Finally, after the transaction, don’t even think of saying thank you to the vendor; you are the customer, after all.
All of which depends, of course, on the damned place first being open when you get there; otherwise, just shrug and go back some other time.