I’ve been living in Spain for all of 9 months now and feel perfectly qualified to be opinionated about the country.
So here are my initial observations. But, first, a word of warning - they are nothing if not subjective and superficial. They are biased towards what I find either amusing or irritating about Spain. They simply don’t do justice to what is good about this vibrant and hugely varied country. And where I am positive, I suspect this owes more to the absence of what I disliked about the UK than to what is good about Spain. All in all, then, nothing to be taken too seriously.
Another large caveat – I live in Galicia and have done most of my travelling there. Galicia isn’t Spain, by a very long chalk. My observations – disregarding their accuracy for now – may or may not be applicable to the rest of the country. I shall enjoy finding out whether they do.
If there is one thing which defines Spanish culture, it is - of course - the approach to time.
Someone has written that no people deal with time quite like the Spanish. To him, these admirable people have an exquisite ability to eat time - to simply enjoy themselves; to take hours over a single drink; to relax in the sun. To the Spanish the delayed arrival of something you have ordered is of no great consequence. Possibly even a good thing in that it allows you to get on with other enjoyable activities such as taking hours over a drink, sitting in the sun, etc., etc. True, this can be a tad irritating on occasions but, on balance, it is an eminently sane and healthy attitude to life. And I am trying very hard both to adapt to it and to adopt it. And such is the range of good things on offer in Spain, the turning of lemons into lemonade is surely more easily done here than anywhere else.
One aspect of the Spanish attitude to time is that people simply have the inclination to do things that seem to have dropped off the earth in other, faster societies – to wait for you so that they can give you a lift home, to chat to you about the quality of the wine they have just brought you or to stop and have a coffee with you, even if it means keeping someone else waiting or missing a train. Until you experience (or re-experience) these little things that add up to so much, it is hard to take on board just what they mean for your quality of life. To the Spanish, all time is ‘quality time’. The notion that you might specifically create it would be too ludicrous for words.
More humbly than arrogantly, the Spanish believe that they have the secret to the good life (La Vida) and they are probably justified in thinking so. This is the sixth culture in which I have lived and easily the best. If you are bored with hearing that Spanish have a sense of vitality and that they know how to live, then you need to know that repetition does not vitiate accuracy.
Although the days of the real siesta are said to be long gone, the Spanish day is still a wonder to experience. As a basic rule, it’s safe to regard the clock here as being, say, two hours behind what it purports to tell you. So if it looks like 10 o’clock, it’s really 8. The ‘morning’, for example, extends well beyond noon, usually until whatever time the person talking to you takes his or her lunch. This is normally around 2.30 but can be as late as 3.30. It is always wise to ask people what they actually mean by ‘first thing’ in the morning or afternoon. Especially if you are waiting for them to deliver you something. I guess it’s no coincidence that the Spanish word for ‘afternoon’ also means both ‘evening’ and ‘late’. Some people must get up very early (say the equivalent of 6 in the UK) since their offices are open at 8.30, at least in the summer. But, generally speaking, the shops open at 9.30 or 10 and then close again for a couple of hours at 1.30 or 2. The period between 2 and 4.30 is a total write-off in Spain, unless, of course, you want to eat, drink or watch the ‘Midday’ news on the TV or grab some shut-eye. As everybody goes home for their big meal of the day and then returns to work a couple of hours later, whatever the rush hours might lack in intensity, they make up for in frequency. With various groups starting and finishing effectively 2 (different) working days, it is a devil trying to work out the traffic flows in and out of town. And to gauge whether parking will be just very difficult or impossible.
Then there is the night….. I have heard it suggested that the Spanish - in order to preserve their culture from Brussels-inspired standardisation - are resolved not just to keep their nocturnal habits but to entrench and extend them. If so, this would mean that many of them would not get any sleep at all, or at least not on Friday and Saturday nights. The Spanish do not, by any means, go out every night but, when they do, they start late and go on ‘til late. If you arrive at a restaurant before 10, it will probably be empty. And the younger you are, the later you meet up with your friends and the longer you stay up with them. It is not unusual for young people to agree to meet at 1 (having been to the cinema at 10.30) and to stay out until 6, 7 or even 8 in the morning. A percentage of them then go on to work. Some of my friends say that it was ever thus but others say that all-night carousing is a modern phenomenon. Whatever, it helps one understand how incredulous Spanish tourists are on Majorca when they see signs outside restaurants saying ‘Last orders by 7.30’. Of course, given that these are serving such British muck as sausage, egg and chips, they wouldn’t be seen dead in them anyway. Especially as they haven’t long finished lunch by 7.30.
But, however challenging the Spanish day is, there is one thing for sure – by breaking up the day so much more than anyone else, the Spanish really do get more out of it. The price may well be a lower aggregate of sleep but no-one seems to suffer as a result.
It’s no secret that life is Spain is very much more outdoor than it is in the UK. Indeed, if the Spanish are denied their outdoor pursuits (e. g. by the dreadful rain of last winter), it is as if they have lost a lung. The most obvious signs of this externality are the wonderful range of cafés and bars and the daily ritual of the paseo, when everyone takes to the streets for their evening walk. Mind you, even in a town of more than 75,000 people, the areas favoured for the paseo are likely to be so small that you run the risk of bumping into the same people every evening, possibly twice or more. This helps to explain, perhaps, why the Spanish display a level of instantaneous bonhomie which comes close to the flowery, vacuous nonsense of the Persians. It also explains why I was told ad nauseam in my first few months that Pontevedra was a ‘small town’. Back then this seemed nonsensical but it doesn’t any more.
The Spanish are an open, affable race and it is less than difficult to start up a conversation, wherever you find yourself. It does, though, help to speak good Spanish as you will find that there is no-one in the whole of Spain capable of speaking what we would regard as slowly for more than about three seconds. As to hospitality, however, I have to say that I suspect that their reputation for this is misplaced. More a function, perhaps, of affability than anything else. Yes, they will assure you ‘Mi casa es tu casa’ (My house is your house); and, yes, if you attend a formal function you will be royally treated. But I wouldn’t advise that you risk turning up at their home uninvited, expecting a welcome. Entertaining at home is not a Spanish thing and your reception might well be edged with frost. Neither should you expect your neighbours to rush round with the Welcome Wagon when you move into your new house or flat. After nine months, I am still waiting for my first offer of help. Or, rather, I am not. But at least Mr and Mrs Cougher on my left always say ‘Hola’, whereas Mr Fat Ugly Bald Bastard on my right has yet to acknowledge my existence. But he will probably be all over me if I meet him at a party.
Spanish society is informal except when it is very formal. It is wonderful not to having to worry about what to wear, especially if you don’t care about being regarded as an English eccentric. Given that I have given away ten of my twelve suits, this is a very good thing.
The Spanish are a pragmatic people for whom not only speed and efficiency but also safety, hygiene, equality, racial sensitivity and political correctness have yet to be accorded totemic status. To be sure, this can sometimes seem offensive to those accustomed to other (‘more advanced’) ways but it certainly makes for a more relaxed, less anally-retentive society. One in which, for example, you can still take your dog to places you could in the UK twenty years ago, including the street cafés. To your astonishment, the serving staff will often bend down and pat the dog before serving you your sandwich. At times like this, you feel that sanity is making a comeback.
It is also a society in which everyone accepts that life is imperfect and tough at times; where things occasionally have to be done in defiance of rules and norms. So no-one objects when cars are driven down one-way streets or are parked on corners or turned round across double white lines. ‘There but for the grace of God’ appears to be the attitude taken. It all makes for a very common-sensible approach to life. Where there is more give and take. Where nothing is ever black or white but a shade of grey. That said, God help you if you delay for more than a second after the traffic lights have turned green. The basic rule appears to be that, even if it holds up the traffic for 5 minutes, you can do anything daft and dangerous so long as it helps you get somewhere. But don’t dally for more than a second at traffic lights or roundabouts or the heavens will descend on you.
I have a theory that – consciously or subconsciously – the Spanish believe that extremes are simply unachievable. So it is futile to pursue them. If you have a problem, far better to seek to mitigate than to eradicate it. If too many visitors are coming to the hospital wards, institute a pass system but don’t worry about the percentage of people who circumvent it by coming up the back stairs. Things are now manageable, if not perfect. Perhaps it is something to do with Spain’s Islamic past. In Iran, carpet makers deliberately incorporate a mistake in their work, on the grounds that only Allah can be perfect. Therefore, it should be made obvious to all that this has not been achieved by the carpet maker, who cannot be accused of seeking divine capabilities.
One of the most wonderful things about life here is that small children come up and talk to me, a middle-aged male, with or without their parents. The first time this happened, I was just too stunned to respond. I guess it means that there is no fear of paedophiles here. My theory is that this is simply because there is no gutter press to whip up the hysteria that is such an ugly part of UK society. I find it hard to believe that the statistics are much different between the two countries.
Another aspect of great wonder is the absence of aggressive young men. I have yet to see a single sign of yobbism. And ‘lads’ and ladettes are conspicuous by their absence. This is not to say that the young people here don’t drink or that their parents and teachers are not concerned about the collapse of Spanish society. They certainly do and they certainly are. And I have had to walk more than once through crowds of inebriated youngsters. But the drinking simply doesn’t convert itself into pugnacity. So it’s no great surprise that the Spanish (along with other Continental Europeans) are totally at a loss to understand British hooliganism, especially in a society whose previous stereotype was the English gentleman. Sadly, thanks to the media, they really do believe that hooliganism is an every day occurrence just everywhere in the UK except Buckingham Palace.
My Spanish isn’t good enough to permit a real understanding of the press but there is an impressive range of national dailies and an even more impressive spread of local newspapers. In my town alone there are 4 local dailies. I suspect that much of the content is syndicated and that the rest is little more than press releases from the numerous local councils or parishes but the sheer volume has to be admired. Most notable of all is the absence of a gutter press.
I suspect that most people would regard Spanish driving as a negative but it has its appeal. I may come to regret this statement but I like the fact that you are occasionally called on to demonstrate your evasion and/or braking skills. Most of the time, though, Spanish driving is as good as anywhere else, if occasionally rather more, shall we say, pragmatic. There is, for an example, a junction in my town where five roads converge and allow exit only in one of two (opposing) directions. There are no lines on any of the roads, no traffic lights and no roundabout in the middle. If you cannot manage pragmatism here, you will never get past the junction. Or home.
Excluding consideration of any State or monopoly provider, service in Spain is usually excellent, though tipping is a rarity. What is really appealing is the ‘trust’ system which operates in most bars. You pay for nothing until it is time to go. And you are trusted both not to bolt without paying and to own up if the bill is miscalculated – as it often is – in your favour. This honour system contrasts somewhat with the rather more lackadaisical approach to integrity that one experiences outside the bars and cafés.
The family remains central to Spanish life. Sundays always seem to involve the sort of lunch at the grandparent’s home that was a feature of my own childhood. And Spanish children still live with their parents until they are married, often in their late twenties or even thirties. Even then some mothers seem reluctant to let their offspring go and try to persuade them to occupy the flat next door. The Anglo-Saxon idea of chucking your fledglings out of the nest at 18 in order to mature them quickly is repugnant to the Spanish. Of course, the other side of this coin is that ‘senior citizens’ still have an honoured place in the family. It’s quite possible that the expression ‘Old Folk’s Home’ is untranslatable in Spanish.
Travel by road in Spain is usually very good and sometimes little short of superb. I can, for example, drive 450 miles to Madrid without stopping at a single traffic light. By which I mean that there just aren’t any, not that I sail through them regardless of colour. The same is true of a trip to Santander, Bilbao or France, provided I stick to the motorways and main roads. Travel by train is altogether different. The trains themselves could not be bettered but the rails (often single track only) belongs to another century. Besides, Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe so speed is a very secondary consideration. Thus, for example, while it is possible for me to drive to Santander in under six hours, the train takes 15 hours, if it is on time. Which it usually isn’t. For the Madrid to Pontevedra journey of a scheduled ten hours (against five or six by road), a delay of two to four hours is not uncommon. As of now, I’m not at all clear as to who would want to take the train for long journeys. It wouldn’t surprise me it they ran totally empty.
To date – whilst I have had exceptionally pleasant service in a many (small) shops, petrol-stations cafés, and bars – I have found little evidence of a belief that the customer is king in Spain Certainly not amongst the protected fiefdoms (or medieval guilds) such as the pharmacists, notaries, opticians and the utility companies.
There are a lot of dogs in Spain. Mine – a Border Collie brought from England – seems to be the only middle sized one. All the rest are very small or very large, the former being astonishingly ugly, if only because they often only have three legs. And they all make a great deal of noise, barking at so much as an ant which has the temerity to walk past the garden gate. Nights can often be one long cacophony of sound. And as Pontevedra is the provincial capital and a pretty snobby place, it has more than its share of Look-at-Me dogs, including a sprinkling of Siberian Huskies, Irish Wolf Hounds and St Bernards. How they cope with the heat and life in apartment blocks beats the hell out of me
Talking of ugly dogs reminds me that there are a lot of what you would have to call ‘squat’ women in Spain. These move like pocket battleships and it isn’t wise to remain in their path when they are on the move, often in small herds. Or perhaps fleets. They are a particular feature of weddings, where they love to monopolise the dance floor, devastating everything in their path as they dance together. I am reminded of them because they often have dogs with matching squatness. Though not at weddings.
Begging appears to be one of the more efficient industries in Spain. There are three main categories here in Pontevedra. First there are the scruffy drug addicts. Then there are the slightly less scruffy gypsies, who live in a permanent encampment on the other side of the river from the town and who have a monopoly on the let-me-guide-you-into-this-free-parking-place-and -guard-your-car scam which takes me back to visits to the Everton and Liverpool football grounds in my youth. Thirdly, there are the well-dressed, middle-aged panhandlers who stand at the road junctions and meekly approach each car in turn. A variant of the latter is the immaculately turned-out chap who sits (head down) outside my bank with a small placard. Actually, a fourth category appeared on the street this morning, reminding me of tube rides in London. As I was drinking my coffee in an outdoor café, I was accosted by a man distributing a ‘free’ newspaper and seeking a contribution towards the living costs of himself and his family, of whom a representative sample (a young boy) was standing at his side. After a while, I told him that I was English so couldn’t read his bloody newspaper. Unfazed, he whipped out a laminated card which said in English, ‘I am a Rumanian and I have no money. My family are falling like flies around me. Please give me some money or we will all starve to death and you will be solely responsible’. Or something like that. I told him to bugger off. But not quite as rudely as I imparted the same sentiment last week to a gypsy hag who had cursed me for refusing to buy her pegs in the main square.
Spain is a noisy place. Bars almost invariably have a TV blaring in at least one corner. People talk loudly and simultaneously. Sometimes it is hard to believe that anyone is a group is listening to anyone else. A single table of four Spaniards can easily make more noise than a whole restaurant full of Portuguese. One wonders at this stark difference between neighbours. Even on a quiet night in a small bar the music will be at a level that forces one to shout at the only other person there. No-one seems to notice that this is going on, which gives a surreal quality to the evening.
Spain is also a smoky place. Women in particular appear to believe that a fag draped from the corner of one’s gob is the height of sophistication. No Smoking signs are treated with contempt.
Most of the buildings of 19th and 20th century Spain are rather ugly. The rest are extremely ugly. This contrasts sharply but sadly with the wonderful architecture of earlier centuries. Most Spanish cities have an old quarter and they are usually jewels within dross. Outside the (protected) old quarter, it appears that there are no planning regulations whatsoever. Buildings of some character and appeal can and do disappear overnight, to be replaced by yet another modern, high-rise apartment block of no aesthetic value whatsoever. In the worst case, a view you might have enjoyed for years from your 6th floor window disappears when a 10th floor building is erected two metres away from it. Actually, I may be doing Spain a very great disservice here, writing – as I am – with a Galician perspective. There is a lot of granite here and houses are invariably made of it. Sadly – regardless of the wealth of the owner – most houses in Galicia appear to me to be one or other variations on the theme of a brick. Very few have any attractive design features and even fewer have anything resembling a garden, as opposed to a patch of land around the house. The worst feature – which harks back to the days (not so very long ago) when Galicia was dirt poor - is to have the ground floor sort of unfinished and half-open, as a repository for cars, machinery, firewood, old stoves and the like. These replace the animals which would previously have lived there and provided at least some of the heat for the first floor. Starkly contrasting with these unprepossessing buildings are the houses of North Portugal, which show a vastly greater range of designs and which usually sport a carefully tended garden which any Brit would be proud of. What emphasises this difference is that North Portugal was – and still is – even poorer than Galicia. Anyway, I was not surprised to read in an editorial this week – in a local paper – that an official report had labelled Galician houses the ugliest in Spain. Fortunately, the natural scenery and flora compensate greatly.
Because of the importance of personal relationships, Spain may well be a much less equal and meritocratic country than many of its European neighbours. How you are treated and, indeed, how well you progress, they say, depends in at least some part on which family you are from, who you know and who you can claim to know. As a Spanish friend put it, ‘Here your CV only needs to be one line long’. Or in the words of a British friend, ‘Society here is still hierarchical and feudal. Decadent even’. The good thing about this is that one or two well-connected friends can make settling in a great deal easier than it would otherwise have been. In the other hand, the role of personal connections makes Spain less economically fair in that the many who are ‘unconnected’ must subsidise the largesse available to the few who are connected. Within the banking system, for example.
There are two areas of Spanish life which merit their own section; so here they are:-
There are 5 national terrestrial channels and several local channels. The quality of the latter can sometimes be below that of your ageing aunt’s home videos. The compensation for this, I’m told, is free porn after 2 a. m. There are also 2 or 3 satellite providers but I have yet to enjoy their offerings.
The first thing that strikes you about Spanish TV is that the quality of the picture moves between excellent and awful, sometimes on just one channel and sometimes on all of them. Perhaps it is the mountains. Or the effect of the sea ‘breezes’ on the antennae.
The second thing that strikes you about Spanish TV is the volume of advertising. I would guess that ads are showing at least 80% of the times I switch on. This is partly explained by the fact that they extend for a full 15 minutes at a time. So, for example, there are no half-time commentaries during football matches; the entire break is taken up with advertising. In addition, several of the most popular programmes are sponsored – usually by cosmetic or hair care companies – so there are regular breaks for product testimonials from the glamorous female presenters. And this week the already-irritating host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire broke off halfway through the programme to tell us about the benefits of one of the mobile phone companies, while ‘Publicidad’ blinked in the corner of the screen.
The third thing that strikes you about Spanish TV is that it is virtually all rubbish operating in something of a time warp. Sophisticated – except in production values – it is decidedly not. There is an obsession with glamour and celebrity. Nearly all the female presenters are exceptionally pretty and well-endowed. And they dress as if they were attending a cocktail party, even at 8 in the morning or when reading the news. Daytime TV comprises soap operas, quiz games, banal talk shows and the TV version of magazines such as Hello! (a Spanish creation, of course). This appears to be based on the practice of sticking microphones up the noses of, I suppose, celebrities who are arriving at Madrid airport or running for a taxi.
There is very little that might be considered ‘heavy’ on Spanish TV. And at Prime Time, nothing at all. In the morning, when very few people are up and about, each channel has a serious-looking panel (all the men have beards and all the women are ugly) who chat about topical issues. My guess is that there is some sort of quota which they all fill in this way. The amusing thing about these panels is that, even when an attempt is being made at intellectual discussion, all the participants talk loudly and simultaneously, just like everybody does in bars and restaurants. There is nothing to compare with BBC2 or the US PBS channel. Actually, there is nothing to compare with BBC1 or even Channel 4.
The most fascinating programmes – well, they are beginning to lose their charm – are the variety shows, complete with Tiller Girl type dancers, which go out on Friday and Saturday nights. These music-hall type shows died off years ago in the UK but are going as strong as ever here. To say that the humour is unsophisticated is to understate the situation; it would not be out of place in a pantomime.
Spanish TV has a fascination for two things – the ‘crutch shot’ and the ‘gore shot’.
Given that no opportunity is missed to show a scantily clad (or naked) female form, there are endless opportunities for the crutch shot, fore and aft. In fact, one of the weekly variety shows has a parade of both female and male models clad in ‘lingerie’. The entire purpose of this appears to be to put groins on the screen. But even this was shoved into the shade by the approach taken for the Miss Spain competition, which I will leave to your imagination. Given that Spain is still a Catholic country, one is inevitably left wondering whether women still fall into one of only two categories here – Madonna or whore.
The gore shot is the zooming in on a patch of blood (or, preferably, blood and brains) at the scene of every important accident or terrorist incident. Given the vigour of the current ETA bombing campaign, we are not short of opportunities to revel in this macabre aspect of Spanish TV. The most astonishing example of what might be considered elsewhere an insensitive clip was the showing – 5 times in quick succession! – of an accident during a car rally in Portugal in which two spectators were tossed high into the air and killed outright. Possibly the director thought it was a bullfight and they were simply being gored. Actually, it might not have been the worst. Watching one of the few serious documentaries (as opposed to those dealing, say, with the ‘problem of prostitution’) I was compelled to switch off when it became clear that we really were going to see an entire clitorectomy on a screaming 12 year old African girl.
There are two types of females who dominate Spanish TV – 1. women who don’t seem to realise quite how old they are, and 2. blondes. The former are usually ex-singers (most often Flamenco) who also don’t seem to realise that their singing days are behind them. Despite the fact that they have also clearly lost whatever dress sense they possessed, they are treated like royalty by sycophantic hosts, who shower them with words like ‘Estupendo’, ‘Divino’ ‘Precioso’ or ‘Fenomenal!’. My own view is that they should be taken outside and shot. As for blondes, if you relied on Spanish TV, you would conclude that every woman in Spain was of Scandinavian origin. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the main sponsoring companies are called PharmaTint, NaturColor or the like.
It is common on Spanish TV for the audience to sit behind the performers. Given that many of them often look bored out of their skulls, I’m not convinced that this is a smart move on the part of the producers. Worst of all is the comedy programme in which the audience actually stand behind the seated performers, looking extremely bored.
One of the most fascinating programmes is the Fortune Telling Hour on the local TV channel. This is done by meigas, who are ‘good witches’ and not to be confused with brujas, who are ‘bad witches’. These sit surrounded by potions and charms, shuffling their tarot cards and muttering until some pathetic listener calls in. The programme reaches its apogee when the fortune teller makes a series of tentative statements to the caller (e. g. ‘Your husband has been very sick, I think’) and each of them is met with a curt ‘No’. Of course, neither the fortune teller nor the less-than-intelligent caller is fazed by this but carries on regardless. Throughout this programme – with a logic that defeats me – there is a large banner advertisement along the bottom of the screen calling one’s attention to a phone number on which one can have live ‘erotic’ chats. Mind you, the same thing happens when a priest is addressing us during the (very occasional) God slot.
Finally, my bete noire – dubbed films. In themselves, these are not too bad. And the dubbing is very well done. But, as far as I can tell, every single actress in every film ever made is dubbed by the same Spanish woman, who must by now be a billionaire. This wouldn’t be so bad if she had an attractive voice. But she doesn’t. Someone else to be taken out and shot. Preferably before I put my foot through the TV screen.
It would be wrong to say that Spain is a corrupt society but it certainly appears to be less law-abiding than the UK. In truth, by English standards, it often seems to be a rather dishonest place. Certainly, the Rule of Law in Spain is a watered down version of that operating in the UK. If you have powerful friends, the law can be bent. Or simply ignored.
One is constantly told (with a certain resignation) about things that should not have happened and are, in fact, illegal – the building of a new roundabout, the destruction of some old buildings, the pulling down of trees in a town square, the erection of a fence around a particular plot of land, or the building of houses in the coastal strip which is supposed (for military reasons) to be free of construction. The universal assumptions are that palms have been greased and that any attempt to rectify the situation would be a waste of time and effort. In like vein, the ubiquitous road works which are plaguing my town are frequently said to be of greatest benefit to the new mayor. Any suggestion that something should be done about any of this is met with a smile. Likewise the question as to whether one might be able to sue the local authority, e. g. for a pavement manhole left uncovered for months on end, prompts a query about one’s sanity. It simply doesn’t lie within the realms of practicality. This does raise a question or two about the level of personal freedom in Spain and about the power of the State against that of the People. But I don’t get the impression that Spaniards lie awake at night worrying about these issues. Rather, I suspect they take the view that where – in the Continental way – you are technically only allowed to do what the State has formally authorised you to do, it is incumbent on you to retaliate by ignoring as many of the laws as possible.
So, on a personal level, the Spanish have a somewhat existential approach to rules, whatever their provenance. If they think they are sensible, they will obey them. If they don’t, they won’t. The list of (‘irksome’) rules which are frequently ignored is a long one – the most obvious ones being drink drive regulations, speed limits, safety belt laws, parking restrictions and health and safety provisions. On balance, I am comfortable with what I have decided is a very sensible and pragmatic approach to life, especially when the risk of facing a sanction is very low indeed. On the other hand, the flouting of safety regulations (when they are not mad) is clearly indefensible. Last week, for example, a young girl was gored by a bison in a local zoo, through a fence that probably doesn’t conform to EU requirements. Or possible even to pre-existing Spanish requirements. One rather doubts that her parents are currently considering suing the management of the zoo. I couldn’t help but notice on the TV news that the fence had not been modified in any way after the accident, even though it had naturally become the place to visit in Vigo. Especially for children.
Perhaps the hardest thing to deal with is the universal assumption that no-one tells the truth, especially when money is involved. Even when friends are dealing with friends. Of course, since everyone is doing it, this is not considered reprehensible. Just a fact of life that has to be taken into consideration. Rather as if you lived permanently in the Tehran bazaar.
There are two negative aspects of life which hit you very quickly when you take up residence in Spain - bureaucracy and inefficiency. Of course, these are connected, in that a bureaucrat must be inefficient if he is to achieve his sole objective of retaining and expanding his job. But inefficiency in Spain ranges far beyond the boundaries of government offices and State monopolies. There simply seems to be the absence of a belief that efficiency is a good thing. The impression gained is that it is actually regarded with suspicion, as something which threatens Spanish culture.
I can’t say what it’s like to seek residence in the UK but I do know how easy it is to arrange connection to the electricity, gas or phone suppliers. Here, these take hours of your time, a good deal of leg work and small forests of paper. The goals of all this appear to be, firstly, to ensure continued employment for the less-than-friendly-and-helpful ‘functionaries’ with whom you have to deal and, secondly, to totally eradicate the possibility of risk for the suppliers.
The most obvious visible evidence of all this bureaucracy is the photocopying shops (copisterías) which one finds on almost every street corner. Or sometimes all in a row. These all possess the most impressive machines and appear to be the busiest (and conceivably speediest and most efficient) places in Spain. Certainly one of the cheapest, reflecting the volumes of paper with which they deal. Then there are the numerous express photo shops, who will provide you very cheaply with the endless copies of your picture that you need.
Another reflection of the complexity that results from untrammelled bureaucracy is the existence of gestorías. These are high-street offices whose sole purpose appears to be to help you through the interstices of the Spanish system. To shine a torch where there are only darkness and dead ends, not just for you and me but also for millions of Spaniards. They seem to be a cross between a solicitor, a tax accountant, an insurance agent and the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. Needless to say, these are the last people in Spain who are going to rail against bureaucracy and inefficiency, even if they seek and achieve the latter themselves. Which, naturally, they don’t.
Then there is the notario, (the notary), who is there to put his stamp on such things as your property purchase contract. The nice thing about this is that he serves as an agent of the State, acting for both parties and ensuring that legal niceties are observed. Even so, it is usually the buyer who pays all the fees. Of course, if the State didn’t insist on his existence and involvement, nobody would have to pay him.
As well as the notario, there is the asesoria. This seems to do for companies what the notario does for private individuals but I couldn’t swear to that. I only know that my British friends with language schools here (always called ‘academies’), spit when they have to use the word.
Finally, there is the need to carry your identity card with you at all times and to quote your tax number for a variety of transactions, including connecting to each the five utility companies you will have to deal with. I have never been anywhere in the world where my identity has had to be proved so often when using a credit or debit card - including each visit to the supermarket. And I refuse to believe the standard line that it is all for my benefit.
The most puzzling aspect of all this is that everyone seems to tolerate it with complete equanimity. No-one seems to question whether things couldn’t be done more efficiently. Or whether things should be done at all. I seem to be the only person in my street who finds it amusing but odd that the mayor of my local district should send me a personally signed and stamped confirmation that I am connected to the water company. And no-one in Spain appears to have realised that there is an alternative to the frustrating system of multiple, separate queues in banks and post offices. As I say, it’s as if they believe that introducing the efficient single queuing system prevalent in other countries would strike at the very soul of Spanish culture. The thin end of the wedge. And maybe they are right. Certainly, if efficiency became the totem it is elsewhere, it would create a rip in the fabric of Spanish society that could well grow quickly. I suppose the real question is how long – in a competitive world – can they hold out against the god of efficiency? Maybe they have already given up in Madrid and Barcelona.
Meanwhile, I love to provoke the look of complete bewilderment on the faces of people when I tell them that nobody carries proof of identity in the UK and that no-one there seeks it when credit cards are presented. This is quite simply beyond their comprehension, so inured are they to the way things are done here.
Being English and having been brought up to say Please and Thank-you at a frequency which amuses every race except the Japanese, I inevitably find Spanish society less ‘civil’. To English ears, the directness and bluntness in which the Spanish deal can sound very harsh indeed. Apart from the virtual absence of Please and Thank-you, there is the answering of the phone with the rather un-flowery ‘Speak to me!’ Or even worse, ‘Speak!!’. And kind gestures towards other drivers virtually always go unacknowledged, leaving you wondering why you bothered in the first place. Along with a lower level of civility goes a lower level of civic-mindedness. There simply seems to much less concern for society as a whole than for the people you know personally and who are entitled to higher levels of, say, generosity and hospitality than would be on offer in the UK.
When my elder daughter wanted to go to a salsa class, she found that it wasn’t scheduled to start until 10.30 in the evening. It actually got going at 11.15, once the teacher had arrived. No-one commented on this. In like vein, I attended a round-up of horses in the mountains last weekend which was scheduled to start at 11 but actually got going some time after 12. My impression was that the deciding factor was the rate at which the seats were filled up. This, of course, guaranteed a late start since no Spaniard would bust a gut to get anywhere for the official starting time. I was reminded of the old joke – ‘What time does it start?’ ‘What time can you get here?’
A month or so ago I dropped off a friend in town and parked just along from the main police station. As I had only a few minutes to wait, I did what everyone does and double-parked the car and sat in it. It then struck me that (to help the traffic flow a bit) I could back up (in a one-way street) and park in front of a police van which itself was double-parked amongst a large array of police vehicles directly opposite the entrance to the police station. This I did, in full sight of the two policeman chatting on the pavement. But when one of them moved to get into the van, it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to go forward a bit so that I was no longer blocking his exit. Before I could move, he was in the van and manoeuvring around me, without so much as a look of irritation, never mind a gesture of annoyance or a threat of a booking for at least one motoring offence. I just cannot think of any other place in the world where this would happen.
Although the Spanish appear to be far more willing to queue than their reputation would have it, they compensate for this by ignoring the queue when it suits them. To be sure, this is usually only to ask the post office or bank clerk a brief question but it is noteworthy that there is never ever a suggestion from anyone that they wait their turn.
Yesterday, I finally achieved payment of my bill for the collection of rubbish over the last quarter – all of 6 quid. This was my fourth visit to the bank and I found it hard to believe that this time they were actually prepared to take my money. The first time I was told that it was ‘too early’ to pay as the company (which threatens you with death if you are late) was not yet accepting payments. The next two times I was told that I had come at the wrong time since the bank only accepts payments for domestic bills during hours when most Spaniards are still in bed. Anyway, I will know next time.
Two weeks ago there was a small ‘book fair’ in the main square here. As I had been trying to find a particular book about Spain by Laurie Lee, I went from stall to stall to ask whether they had it. At each, I got the same blunt response, ‘No’. No smile, no expression of regret, no suggestion as to where I might find it. Just ‘No’. I know that this is not considered impolite in Spain but it still gets to me.
Swearing is pretty common amongst all ages and all classes in Spain, with both the F and C words in frequent everyday use. In fact, the C word has little of the impact of its English equivalent and is used freely in the street and on the TV, even by women, as a term of endearment. I have to say it takes some getting used to the fact that it means little more than ‘You old rogue, you’. Even harder to take on board is the notion that you will be the subject of a vicious physical attack if you call someone ‘cabron’. Or ‘goat’.
I was warned by several friends that civil servants (‘functionaries’ here) could be absolute bastards. I have to say that this wasn’t my experience for the first 8 months. But 2 weeks ago I got my Residence Card and was promptly treated like dirt. Presumably up to then I had been a tourist whose views counted.
I have today paid my sixth visit to the notary in respect of a Spanish equivalent of my English will. So far this has taken 5 months and I know that I will need to make at least another two visits before something is ready for me to sign. A major cause of this is that service providers don’t usually call you when something is ready and arrange an appointment for you to come and sign or talk about it. Rather, you are expected to visit the offices and check, meaning that if the person you want to talk to is either occupied or not there, you have to either wait or come back at another time. This inefficient way of going about things is a great waster of one’s time but as I go into town for coffee every morning, I can take it in my stride. But it is probably a good thing that I have not died in the last five months. [Postscript: on what turned out to be my penultimate trip to the notary, he advised me that his partner (‘a real lawyer’) had advised him that pretty much everything written to date was wrong and that a new Will would need to be drawn up, conforming with Spanish law. I left to get a coffee while they did this. An hour later I read and signed what must be the shortest Will in the world, reflecting the simplicity of my requirements. If the notary was the slightest bit embarrassed that this had taken almost six months to achieve, he hid it very well.]
The Spanish have two surnames and one forename. For those of us with two forenames and only one surname this inevitably leads to confusion and complication. For example, the computer of the Spanish phone company (Telefonica) has me down as Davies Colin, David (what it thinks are my two surnames and one forename) and refuses to deal with me if I try to use my correct name. In similar vein, when people call me on official business they usually ask if I am Mr David Colin. I find it easier to say yes.
Book shops are charmingly old-fashioned in Spain. As is their concept of service. I doubt that any of them has considered keeping a catalogue in a computer database and they seem to think that an acceptable reply to the question as to whether a promised book has yet arrived is, ‘Yes, it’s true that I took your order 2/3/4 weeks ago. And I did place it with the supplier. But it isn’t here yet. So do call again. Maybe in another week or so.’
If there is one rule which the Spanish seem to obey without exception, it is the (apparently unwritten) law that every song must contain the word corazon (heart). When you are listening to a song here, the question never is will it contain this word but just how long into the song will it be before it makes the first of its many appearances. I suggested to some friends that it would be very much simpler if the Spanish entry for the Eurovision Song Contest was called Corazon de mi corazon (Heart of my heart) and consisted simply of the repetition of the word corazon, sung to the catchiest tune the population could come up with. The didn’t appear to understand and agreed it was a good idea.
Spain may or may not still be the very religious country it often appears to be but, as I write this, the evening news is showing the equivalent of the FA Cup being blessed by the Bishop of the city which won it last night – in his cathedral. I really can’t imagine this happening in Liverpool or Manchester.
Everyone I know here has an illegal satellite card which allows them to see 500-1000 channels, including all the pay-per-view film and sports channels These cost about 20 quid, though you have to either buy another one when the satellite companies ‘zap’ them via a central signal or invest in a more expensive version which deflects the zapping signal. The fascinating thing is that these cards are not sold surreptitiously in bars and the like but are openly available from the same shops who act as agents for the satellite providers who are hit by this.
On the surface, New Spain is well into the 21st century, quite possibly ahead of the UK in, for example, the provision of public services and the quality of its roads. Down below, thank God, lurks Old Spain. On many counts it is a ‘less developed’ society. But also a superior one in so many ways.
It has raised one nice question in my mind – If you know that the mail might just arrive, not at 7.30 on the dot but between 11 and 1, and if you accept that delivery promises are worthless, you perforce lower your expectations somewhat. When you do this, you are less often disappointed and irritated. And your stress levels are appreciably lower. The question, therefore, arises – Is institutionalised inefficiency to be recommended?
I came to live in Spain because I had become very disenchanted with life in Britain. I was in search of an advanced but ‘less developed’ culture. In essence, I wanted to go back in time to a culture of more traditional values but where, at the same time, my creature comforts were secure. By the time it came to leave the UK, Spain had more or less chosen itself. That said, I feel now that my stints in the Middle and Far East were solid training for this fascinating country. It’s as if I was destined to settle here.
If you want to live in a society where the approach to life is rather more sane than it is in the UK, where priorities owe far more to common sense than to ephemeral fashion, where the pursuit of the impossible is forgone when it clashes – as it usually does – with the enjoyment of life, then come to live in Spain. At least if you are planning to retire or to seek a simpler line of toil. If you need to continue working at what you do now, you might want to give it a second thought. Especially if you are self-employed and have high standards.
For all the faults I have described, I am convinced that Spain gives me what I was seeking. In fact, since I have so much time with which to deal with its shortcomings, I would go so far as to say that Spain has rejuvenated me. On the other hand, if I had to work here, then I am equally sure it would be the death of me. Unless, perhaps, I had excellent connections and could play by the unofficial rules
When I lived in the Far East, it was common for old hands to quote, as a warning to me, the Kipling lines:-
At the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late
And the epitaph drear: ‘A fool lies here who tried to hustle the East’
This little bit of doggerel lurks below the surface of my consciousness here and I daily congratulate myself that I have had the sense to give up the struggle.
Pontevedra, Galicia July, 2001