Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Strange Fruit, 1

A barman at his station in Cadiz
After two and a half years living in a foreign country, the idea of what is "normal" has redefined itself many times over. The strange quirks that jumped out at me so dramatically when I first arrived now seem obvious. It's easy to forget that I ever didn't know that a long weekend is called a "puente"--or bridge-- because it often connects a legitimate holiday with the weekend, taking innocent days with it. And it comes as second nature that I have to think about what time I take out the trash because if a policeman saw me bring it out before 8 PM I could get fined. Although it takes some effort to return to that everything-is-new state of mind, I've been meaning to post some observations for awhile, so I'll do my best.

Thus, I present to you: 4 Strange Things Spaniards Do (That You Probably Didn't Know About.)  And if you enjoy these, I'll post four more next week, as well!

1) They say goodbye instead of hello
I've written about this before in a different form, so it makes a good place to start. One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Palencia two years ago was my neighbors' insistence on saying "Buenos dias (good morning)/"Buenas tardes (good afternoon)" and "hasta luego" (see you later) during our brief interactions in the elevator. It struck me as very odd, since American elevator etiquette relieves the rider from interacting with his/her riding companions at all. Why, I thought, waste the energy to greet someone, only to have to say goodbye to them 15 seconds later? (Plus, I found the Spanish way of saying "Hasta luego", which seems to elide multiple syllables into the linguistic ether, endlessly mysterious.) I was told, however, that not acknowledging one's companions in elevator travel would be a serious insult. Greetings are of tantamount importance here.
The strangeness only grew over the years: during walks in the evening paseo, I heard neighbors greeting each other, and once in awhile instead of hello's I heard instead "Hasta luego!" It seemed very strange that a person would start an interaction with someone by saying "See you later!", but after my previous assumptions I kept this thought to myself-- until I started to hear it more and more after I arrived in Talavera. Finally, I brought the topic up with my roommate. She looked at me like I was crazy. "Why would you open up a conversation with someone if you had neither the time nor intention of talking with them?" she asked me. "This way, we're saying 'Yes, I've seen you, but I don't have time to stop. We'll talk later, another time.'" I admit that this is a much more sensible explanation than I was expecting.

2) They tell strangers 'bon appetit'
Spaniards eager to improve their English often ask me what Americans say to each other before they eat. I am forced then to explain the awkward fact that we don't have any special phrase-- that, in fact, we stole the French phrase 'bon appetit' for the purpose (and that, actually, we stole a lot from the French... and the Germans and the Greeks and so on). 
 This is often confusing to them because the phrase "buen provecho" is an important part of Spanish etiquette, and it's hard for them to imagine a language that doesn't have its own version. Here, one says "buen provecho" before eating with friends or coworkers (usually in more formal settings), the same way one might use "bon appetit" in the US. But the big difference is that some people also say it to anyone they see eating, even strangers. They see it as a breach of etiquette not to do so. 
How seriously do they take this etiquette, you ask? Let's take Saturday a few weeks ago as an example. Hannah came to visit me from Jaen, and I took her to the monthly medieval-style market that takes place along the ancient walls here. (Did I mention that Talavera has 800-year-old Moorish walls? Cool, right?) We bought hunks of empanada, pastry stuffed with meat and veggies, and took them down to the river to eat by the Roman bridge (which is actually a Moorish copy of an earlier Roman bridge. Double cool!), while watching the water birds fly by. As we were tucking in, a bicycle came whizzing down the path in front of us. We barely had time to register his blur zooming past us before he was gone, with merely the call of "Buen provecho!" to let us know we hadn't imagined him.
So: really seriously.

The "Roman" bridge, Talavera

3) They continually use napkins that don't actually work
 Spanish bars are a nationwide gem: of this there is no doubt. On any corner in any Spanish city or town you can find one: a little counter, tucked in a corner, shabby but clean; a polished espresso machine, buzzing and whirring; a beer or cider tap flowing at all hours of the morning and evening; and a small TV playing a talk show, bullfight, or soccer game in the corner. There's always an old guy in a great hat having a beer (even at 11 AM); there's usually a leg of ham, half decimated, by the cold tapas display. Depending on the region, the walls are full of Basque slogans, hung with Real Madrid posters, or decorated with elaborately-painted tiles. And there are always, always napkins in polished chrome holders-- napkins which sully the good name of Spanish bars; napkins that defy logic and even, it seems occasionally, the laws of physics.
For the truth is that these napkins seem specially formulated not to actually do anything. Pulling one out of the dispenser, they always seem unobtrusive enough. They usually say something like "Thank you for your visit" on them; they're of normal size and close-to-normal texture. AND YET. Try to do something napkin-like with them, such as wipe off your hands after a gooey chicken wing or sop up a puddle of spilled beer... and you will somehow find yourself somehow messier than before, the napkin seemingly untouched. They are the scourge of the Spanish bar because of their low level of evil: they are just unobtrusive enough that after this particular instance you will forget all about your hatred of them... until, yet again, you find yourself helpless against an olive oil spot on your sleeve. They are everywhere, in literally every bar in this country, which means that people persist in buying and using them. I am baffled. BAFFLED, I tell you.

4) They throw napkins on the floor of perfectly respectable bars and restaurants
Oh, and another thing about napkins. A traveler walking into a Spanish bar (as described above) might be confused and disgusted to find the floor littered with crumpled paper. Fear not, however: actually, this is a good sign. Traditionally, throwing one's napkin on the floor of a bar has been a compliment, a way to show one's approval of the food. In fact, when I went to a famous Madrid tapas bar last year to write a story for GoMadrid (which you can find here), the owner told me that during the restaurant's golden age they used to employ people whose sole job was to sweep crumpled napkins and shrimp tails off the floor every 20 minutes. That means that, at least in theory, the more napkins on the floor of a bar, the better you can expect the food to be. Or, you know... maybe it's just a really dirty bar.
 (If I'm honest, the feeling of finishing up a tapa-- a nice piece of cheese and bread or some grilled pork in rich, savory sauce-- and throwing my napkin on the ground is thrilling in some small way. Plus, it's a chance to put those damned napkins in their place.)


Julia said...

They have those plasticky napkins in Japan and Korea too! It really would be satisfying to toss them on the ground.

Anonymous said...

Muy bueno lo del "Hasta luego". Realmente, como tu amigo te contó, tiene bastante sentido. En Sudamérica tampoco entienden que saludemos con "Hasta luego" en vez de "Hola"... Así que son cosas de españoles.

Genial tu punto de vista de nuestra cultura, sigue así.