by the Night Writer
…or, as they’d say in Catalan, the official language of Barcelona, “El meu aerolliscador està ple d’anguiles.”
Knowing that Castillian Spanish wasn’t necessarily welcome in Catalunya (Catalonia) was one of the things that I was aware of before traveling to Spain. There were other things I was kind of aware of, but still more were a complete unknown and I tried to catalogue the cultural differences during our 17-day trip. For example:
Greeting women: In the U.S., the handshake is the common “pleased to meet you” or “good to see you again” gesture for men and women. In Spain, the two-cheek kiss is de rigueur (and yes, I know that word is French, not Spanish) for man-to-woman/woman-to-man or woman-to-woman. This is true even when you’re a man being introduced to a woman for the first time. It goes like this: you meet a friend or are introduced to someone new (female), you both lean in, cheek-to-cheek, and make a kissing noise, starting on the left and moving to the right. The lips don’t typically touch the cheek except with people you’re close to. I’ve also noticed that women are more likely to be louder in making the kissing noise. It’s the common way of doing things here, but the the familiarity is unusual for Americans. I know I’ve seen people from my company’s European offices come to the States for meetings and greet American women in that manner, which usually tweaks the freak-out meter a bit for the women not expecting it. Because I’ve seen that, however, and witnessed other people on our trip doing this, I wasn’t caught completely flat-footed the first time a new acquaintance thrust her face at me, even though it happened right in front of my wife. She wasn’t bothered by the action — only, perhaps, that I seemed so practiced at it.
Speaking of Spanish women: The ladies of Spain have refined techniques for dealing with the hot climate of the country — and with hot-blooded men. The most common tool for both is the Spanish fan, a device that suggests affectation in the U.S., but is very practical here … and can be used to suggest affection. I first noticed the hand-fans while on the Madrid Metro the first night in Spain, and not just in the hands of women of a certain age. Teen girls also carried fans and used them with grace and skill to fan themselves in the often muggy, underground air. Some were especially impressive with their intricate wrist movements in opening, closing and using the fan. I later learned that there is, in fact, a language of the fan in which a woman can signal her interest, lack of interest or general availability to a man while keeping her cool in more ways than one. It was interesting during the afternoon and evening meals in our week in Cazorla to see just about every espanola whipping a fan out of her purse at different times, though I’m sure the purposes were quite innocent. Along with the fan, most also wore some kind of shawl in the evening. This is also imminently practical since the hot climate means lots of air-conditioning and one can easily become too cold as well as too warm. With a shawl over her shoulders or across her back and over the elbows to be ready for deployment, plus a fan in her hand or purse, the Spanish woman is ready for whatever the evening may require. Given the summer temperatures in the U.S. it is surprising that the hand fan hasn’t caught on to any great extent in America.
The Spanish men: Spanish men wear capri pants and ride Vespas. Do I need to say anymore? Well, I guess I do. It was startling to me to see how common capri pants are among men, especially in a leisure setting. There were so many that it almost started to seem normal to me. I don’t know if they were all pirate-wannabes or perhaps they heard The Village People were getting back together and looking for new cast-members. I suppose American cargo shorts must strike them as equally odd, but who can really explain style, anyway? As for the Vespas, Madrid and (especially) Barcelona are Scooter-central. They are everywhere, scooting through gaps in traffic or lined up two-deep along the sidewalks and corners of the cities. They are really a practical way to get around, especially in the crowded roads and mostly hot, dry climate. You see all kinds of people riding them here from matted-hair hippie types to guys in suits and ties, and a fair amount of women. There are also all kinds of models from the older putt-putts to the powerful and space-age looking units, buzzing like wasps on steroids as they cut between two taxis and a tour bus on their way to tapas. If I lived in Barcelona I would definitely get a scooter, but I don’t think I could ever wear capri pants.
Jay-walking? Prepare to die! You need to take the “walk” signals at intersections very seriously in Madrid and especially in Barcelona. The traffic moves very fast and there appears to be little grid-lock, and while Madrid is mostly laid out in a grid pattern the streets and traffic lights in Barcelona appear to have been laid out by Gaudi as the roads curve and lanes swoop in from different directions. Pay attention to the walk signals or you might be surprised when a scooter or motorcycle suddenly roars down on you unexpectedly from what looked like a clear intersection. The lights are prominent and the drivers and riders pay attention to them, but will crowd right to the edge of the lined crosswalk when they have the red, throbbing to shoot across as soon as they get the signal. The lights stay green for pedestrians for a suitable amount of time for you to get across as many as six lanes of traffic and a boulevard, but they will start to blink (or in Madrid, make a faster beeping noise) as they are about to change. It’s best to step lively.
Calling Nutty-Buddy: I can appreciate as well as anyone that hot weather combined with a lot of walking around can build up a lot of heat and discomfort in strategic areas that affect smooth locomotion, and how a cooling breeze can be most welcome. There are extremes in dealing with this, however, that stretch my understanding, as in the case of a couple of guys I called Donkey-Boy and Balloon-Man. We first saw DB swinging down the Ramblas while we were waiting for lunch, “wearing” swim trunks that were tattooed onto his butt and hips. I don’t mean they were trunks that were so tight they appeared to be tattooed, I mean they really were a tattoo. Meanwhile, from the front, his Slinky bobbed and weaved down by his knees in a way that would make small dogs give up dreams of chasing cars. He later made an appearance down by the beach, making me want to say “Put a sock on it.” The beach was also where we “met” another exhibitionist (Balloon Man) who appeared to have injected “the boys” with air so that his two dependents looked like a single kitten-ball. Neither guy was leaving anything to the imagination, unless your imagination turned toward thoughts of what a well-placed knee might do to either one. Since you may not believe me, I’d like to bring both of them to Minneapolis. In February. And forget to tell them about the Skyways.
Dining in Spain, pros and cons: I found a lot to like about eating in Spanish restaurants, such as the way they’d typically bring you a little snack such as olives or pickled vegetables when you sit down in the same way U.S. restaurants bring you water. The price fixe, menu del dia for the mid-day meal are usually a good deal, providing you at least two courses plus a dessert and a beverage. I also (generally) liked the slower pace and multiple courses except when we needed to catch a plane or get to an attraction before it closed. Really, it’s best not to even try to eat in most places if you don’t have 1 1/2 to 2 hours to spend. Another custom is for the proprietor to bring you a free shot of liqueur or rum at the end of the meal if they liked you. Another difference is that the tip is usually built into the cost of the meal and nothing further is required though if you were really well-served you might leave an extra euro or so; 5% is very acceptable and 10% considered generous. Things I didn’t like are few, but especially aggravating. For example, we were generally hot and partially dehydrated when we sat down to eat but they don’t bring you water as in the U.S. You can order water, in which case you’ll get a bottle of mineral water that may be no more than 200 ml but costs 2 euros. Soft drinks are similarly smal in size and even larger in expense. We learned later that you can ask for them to bring you a pitcher of tap water (and that they’ll usually do so but won’t be happy about it).
Water of life: I’m talking about coffee, of course. My wife and I are thoroughly addicted to our caffeine and it is plentiful in Spain, though usually offered in espresso form. If that’s too stout for you you can order a café con leche which is about half and half espresso and cream and they give you a large packet of sugar as well. I don’t typically get cream in my coffee but this was a good mix, though I eventually found myself order café cortado which is espresso with just a couple of drops of cream. Both, though, were satisfying and effective in quieting our caffeine jones.
It’s great to go to new places and see and experience (and taste) new things, even if some of these experiences aren’t so pleasant. The unusual and the unexpected is what lets you know you’re really traveling and not just visiting a series of malls and chain restaurants. For every Achmed, Donkey Boy and Balloon Man we met we also met about a dozen interesting people who were eager to share their country with us.