During the eight years I’ve lived here in Spain, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been jaw-droppingly astonished at the unfathomably strange behaviour of people here in various everyday situations.
If you live here too, you may have experienced some of these quirks – and learned how to deal with them; and if you don’t – well, it’s a little insight into living in this intense, upside-down part of the world.
Some of these may be peculiar to Seville, in which case I’d love to hear what experiences other people have had in different cities around Spain.
1) Sales assistants are not there to help you (as if!)
If you have the temerity to walk into a shop and interrupt the dependiente (shop assistant)’s in-depth conversation with her colleague about the new boots/haircut/boyfriend she’s got her eye on, don’t expect a welcoming smile. At best: a scathing glare. At worst: you’ll be ignored. Similarly, if you’re bold enough to ask them for assistance – availability of item in different size/colour – you’ll be met with a bald “No!” – As in, “No, I don’t know if we have it”, “No, I’m not going to look”, and “No, I don’t care if I’m being unhelpful. You interrupted Carmen telling me about her hot date last night. Now get out of my face, guiri.” One well-known department store (the clue is in the photo) is especially notorious for the baaad-assed attitude of its sales ladies.
What not to say: “So, what did you really want to be? Before you became a sales assistant?”
2) Read it and weep (and then call to complain)
Scour your bank transactions (they send you a little slip for each individual one here, rather than a monthly statement like in the UK – an environmental crime by any standards) for strange, inexplicable transactions or fees. Banks often trying to slip charges in unnoticed, relying on people not reading those little stashes of paper carefully. If you query such a fee, it will often be refunded immediately and without argument. The same goes for phone bills – you can be unwittingly signed up, and charged, for premium services which add tens of euros to your monthly bill. Call and they’ll cancel them, no problem. However with traffic fines, it’s a different story – they can be taken out of your bank account without your permission or even knowledge (embargar la cuenta), and it is virtually impossible to get them refunded. In short: watch all bills like a hawk, and if in doubt, call and query.
What not to say: “You’re doing this on purpose because I’m foreign and therefore rich, stupid and fair game, aren’t you?”
3) Thank you kindly
Social etiquette is very different here – don’t expect notes of thanks for presents or parties, or even replies to invitations. I’ve hosted barbeques where I’ve been expecting anything from 10 to 25 people - an interesting catering challenge. And when I invited 25 school friends to my son’s fifth birthday, with an RSVP and phone number underlined, how many mothers do you think replied? One – and she’s German. If I do get a note/email/phone call to thank afterwards, I am overwhelmed with delight. (My own efficiency in sending thank yous to family back in the UK has become correspondingly sloppy.)
What not to say: “Oh, sorry, you didn’t reply, so I assumed you weren’t coming.”
4) Be fashionably late
Don’t turn up on time when meeting people socially – you’ll be standing around for at least half an hour. The Andalucian idea of time is, to put it politely, elastic. And once you’ve been here for a while, you’ll know that if you’re meeting your girlfriends for tapas at 9pm, don’t even think about arriving until after 9.30pm, or you’ll be nursing a glass of wine on your tod and trying to avoid eye contact with the opposite sex (or not, depending). In case your friends are even later than anticipated, a book or smartphone will keep you from looking conspicuously stood-up (or just sad and desperate).
What not to say: “But we said 9pm! You’re half an hour late!”
5) Run that by me again
Don’t be surprised if people sneer at you with a contemptuous expression when you try to communicate in their language (“¿QUE?”) – such rudeness is, sadly, normal. I still haven’t got used to it. Now I’m not saying my Spanish is perfect, and my accent is not great either, but their inability to comprehend me is more down to their lack of effort in trying to do so, than in my poor command of the local language.
What not to say: “I’m sorry my Spanish is so bad, it must be terrible for you trying to understand me.”
6) Mama rules in la cocina. End of story
Don’t be shocked if, when eating in a family home, the mother doesn’t sit down at the table and eat her meal with you. She will make sure everyone else has their food, before eating herself. Extraordinary but true. The first time I ate at my suegra’s house, I got up after I’d finished, to take my plate into the kitchen. She looked at me and said, “I’ll do that,” in such a way that I realised I’d crossed a boundary, and so I didn’t make the same mistake again. And you certainly don’t offer to help with the cooking, which is taken as an insult about her abilities in the kitchen. And never, ever imply, even in jest, that a Spanish woman’s culinary skills are anything other than exemplary. Every Spanish man says his mother’s gazpacho is the best ever – don’t even bother arguing, it’s not worth it – it’s his sacred place.
What not to say: “Is it me, or is this a bit overdone?”
(Unfortunately us non-Spanish don't get anything as snazzy as the electronic DNI - just a scruffy piece of paper.)
7) Copy copy copy, check check check
If you’re going to any government office – Social Security, Registry, Hacienda (tax office) - triple-check you have all essential documents before leaving, such as ID (DNI, passport, birth certificate), Certificado de Empadronamiento (recent). Similarly, whenever applying for any job/school/nursery/course/benefit take at least five photocopies of all essential documents (the originals will be signed in blue, so you know which they are). And a book. And a bottle of water. You’ll be waiting in the queue for a while. Also, when collecting an official document, read it carefully before you sign it, to make sure the essential information is correct. A friend had her baby’s birth certificate filled out with her husband’s two surnames, rather than his first one, then her own. So her baby’s name is legally wrong. This short film about someone visiting the Seguridad Social office to register as autonoma (freelance) is very funny. An exagguration of all the paperwork needed, perhaps, but you get the point. (Thanks to Ben for giving me the link, as I couldn’t find it.)
What not to say: “Oops, I forgot to bring a copy. Why don’t you take the original?”
8) Pull on your red… boots, baby
In Spain, as soon as November arrives, there’s a little-known piece of legislation which dictates that all Spanish women must discard their shoes and put on boots. Long, short, flat, high-heeled – every female will have her legs encased in leather for the next four months. Even if it’s sunny and 20 degrees. No, it’s winter, therefore it’s “cold” (er, no it’s not), and therefore I wear my boots. That is all.
What not to say: “Don’t your feet get a bit sweaty in this heat?”
9) Don’t be a litter lout – even if they are
Dropping litter is a national sport in Spain. Watch any person – child, middle-aged or elderly – eating in the street, and I’ll bet you my local rubbish container they drop the wrapper on the ground. Not sneakily or with any shame, just straight-out. No bad conscience, because such behaviour is not ill-thought-of here – they’re used to dropping pistachio shells and those teeny weeny napkins on the floor of tapas bars. Litter bins are just for decoration.
What not to say: (Pointing to rubbish bin) ”Ever seen one of those? Know what it’s for?”
Are there any aspects of Spanish customs which you find particularly strange, annoying or hard to understand? Tell me!