A typical Spaniard is courteous, proud, enthusiastic, undisciplined, tardy, temperamental, independent, gregarious, noisy, honest, noble, individualistic, boisterous, jealous, possessive, colourful, passionate, spontaneous, sympathetic, fun-loving, creative, sociable, demonstrative, irritating, generous, cheerful, polite, unreliable, honourable, optimistic, impetuous, flamboyant, idiosyncratic, quick-tempered, arrogant, elegant, irresponsible, an aficionado, hedonistic, contradictory, an anarchist, informal, self-opinionated, corrupt, indolent, frustrating, vulgar, voluble, helpful, friendly, sensitive, a traditionalist, insolent, humorous, fiery, warm-hearted, chauvinistic, bureaucratic, dignified, kind, loyal, extroverted, tolerant, macho, frugal, self-possessed, unabashed, quarrelsome, partisan, a procrastinator, scandal-loving, articulate, a bon viveur, inefficient, conservative, nocturnal, hospitable, spirited, urbanised, lazy, confident, sophisticated, political, handsome, chaotic and a football fanatic.
You may have noticed that the above list contains ‘a few’ contradictions (as does life in Spain), which is hardly surprising as there’s no such thing as a typical Spaniard. Apart from the differences in character between the inhabitants of different regions, such as Andalusia, the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia and Madrid, the population also includes a potpourri of foreigners from all corners of the globe. Even in appearance, fewer and fewer Spaniards match the popular image of short, swarthy and dark, and the indigenous population includes blondes, brunettes and redheads.
A complex class strucutre
Although not nearly as marked or rigidly defined as the British or French class systems, Spain has a complex class structure. The top drawer of Spain’s aristocrats are the 400 or so grandees, who are followed at a respectable distance by myriad minor nobles, all of whom tend to keep to themselves and remain aloof from the hoi polloi. Next in pecking order are the middle class professionals, the lower middle class white-collar workers, the blue-collar working class and the peasant underclass.
These are followed by assorted foreigners, a few of whom have been elevated to the status of ‘honorary’ Spaniards (usually after around 100 years’ residence). At the bottom of the heap, below even the despised drunken tourists, are the gypsies ( gitanos), Spain’s true aristocrats. Gypsies are treated as lepers by many Spaniards (except when they’re celebrated flamenco artists or bullfighters) and are even less desirable as neighbours than the Moros (Moroccans).
Spaniards are often disparaging about their compatriots from other regions. Nobody understands the Basques and their tongue-twister of a language, the Galicians are derided as being more Portuguese than Spanish, and the Andalusians are scorned as backward peasants. However, the most widespread antagonism is between the cities of Madrid and Barcelona, whose inhabitants argue about everything, including the economy sport, history, politics, culture and language. Catalans claim that Madrileños are half African, to which they reply that it’s better than being half French. However, although they’re proud of their regional identity, most Spanish aren’t nationalists or patriotic and have little loyalty to Spain as a whole.
In harmony with the foreign population
Most Spaniards live in harmony with the foreign population, although many foreigners (colloquially dubbed guiris, from the word guirigay meaning gibberish) live separate lives in tourist ‘ghettos’, a million miles away from the ‘real’ Spain. The Spanish don’t consider the concrete jungles of the Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca, Majorca and parts of the Canaries to be part of Spain, but a plastic paradise created for and by foreigners so that pasty-faced tourists can fry in the sun and get drunk on cheap booze.
However, although the Spanish aren’t generally xenophobic, they’re becoming more racist and many would happily eject the gypsies, Arabs and North Africans from their country. They don’t care much for the Portuguese either, who are the butt of their jokes (when they aren’t about the Andalusians). It’s an honour for a foreigner to be invited to a Spaniard’s home, although it’s one rarely granted. Nevertheless, Spaniards do occasionally marry foreigners, much to the distress of their parents.
Usually when Spaniards and foreigners come into contact (conflict), it concerns official business and results in a profusion of confrontations and misunderstandings (few foreigners can fathom the Spanish psyche) and does little to cement relations. Spain has among the most stifling (and over-staffed) bureaucracy in Western Europe (even worse than the French!) and any encounter with officialdom is a test of endurance and patience. Official offices (if you can find the right one) often open only for a few hours on certain days of the week; the person dealing with your case is always absent; you never have the right papers (or your papers and files have disappeared altogether); the rules and regulations have changed (again) and queues are interminable (take along a copy of Don Quixote to help pass the time). It’s all part of a conspiracy to ensure that foreigners cannot find out what’s going on (and will hopefully therefore pay more taxes, fines, fees, etc.).
Official inefficiency has been developed to a fine art in Spain, where even paying a bill or using the postal service (a world-class example of ineptitude) is an ordeal. The Spanish are generally totally disorganised and the only predictable thing about them is their unpredictability. They seldom plan anything (if they do, the plans will be changed or abandoned at the last moment), as one of the unwritten ‘rules’ of Spanish life is its spontaneity. Spain has been described as part advanced high-tech nation and part banana republic, where nothing and nobody works.
The bumbling bureaucracy
Almost as infuriating as the bumbling bureaucracy is the infamous mañana syndrome, where everything is possible ( no problema) ‘tomorrow’ – which can mean later, much later, some time, the day after tomorrow, next week, next week, next month, next year or never – but never, ever tomorrow (the Spaniard’s motto is ‘never do today what you can put off until mañana’). When a workman says he will come at 11 o’clock, don’t forget to ask which day, month and year he has in mind. Workmen (especially plumbers) don’t usually keep appointments and, if they do deign to make an appearance, they’re invariably late (and won’t have the right tools or spares anyway). The Spanish are good at starting things but not so good at finishing them (hence the numerous abandoned building sites in Spain).
The Spanish are dismissive of time constraints and have no sense of urgency, treating appointments, dates, opening hours, timetables and deadlines with disdain (it’s said that the only thing that begins on time in Spain is a bullfight). If you really need something done by a certain date, never tell a Spaniard your real deadline. It’s significant, however, that the Spanish have a much lower incidence of stress-related disease than north Europeans, which is somewhat surprising in the noisiest country in Europe and the second loudest in the world (after Japan).
Over half the inhabitants of Spanish cities endure noise levels well in excess of the World Health Organisation’s ‘healthy’ limit of 65 decibels. Most noise is caused by traffic, lustily supported by pneumatic drills, jack hammers, chain-saws, mopeds (usually without silencers), car horns, alarms, sirens, radios, televisions, fiestas, fireworks, car and home music systems, discos, bars, restaurants, incessantly barking dogs, loud neighbours, screaming children and people singing in the streets.
In Spain, a normal conversation is two people shouting at each other from a few feet apart (not surprisingly, Spaniards are terrible listeners). Spanish cities are the earthly equivalent of Dante’s hell, where inhabitants are subjected to endless noise. Maybe creating a din is the Spanish way of releasing tension? Spaniards don’t care to waste time sleeping (except in the afternoons) when they can party and cannot see why anyone else should want to.
The world champion hedonists
Spanish men are world champion hedonists and are mainly interested in five things: sex, football, food, alcohol and gambling (not necessarily in that order). The main preoccupation of the Spanish is having a good time and they have a zest for life matched by few other peoples. They take childish pleasure in making the most of everything and grasp every opportunity to make merry. The Spanish are inveterate celebrants and, when not attending a fiesta, family celebration or impromptu party, are to be found in bars and restaurants indulging in another of their favourite pastimes: eating and drinking.
Spaniards have a passion for food, which consists largely of paella and tapas and is always swimming in garlic and olive oil. Like the French, they eat all the objectionable bits of animals that ‘civilised’ people throw away (e.g. pigs’ ears and bulls’ testicles) and will eat any creatures of the deep, the more revolting-looking the better (e.g. octopus and squid). They’re particularly fond of baby food (baby suckling pig, baby lamb, baby octopus), which is preferable to ‘grown-up’ food as it’s easier to fit into the ubiquitous frying pan (when not eaten raw, like their ham, all food is fried in Spain). Contrary to popular opinion, the Spanish are a nation of animal lovers: they will eat anything that moves. They do, however, have an unsavoury habit (at least most foreigners think so) of ‘playing’ with their food and can often be seen chasing their steak around a ring before dinner ( ¡Olé!).
When not eating (or playing guitars or flamenco dancing), the Spanish are allegedly having sex – Spanish men have a reputation as great lovers, although their virility isn’t confirmed by the birth rate, which is one of the lowest in the world. In any case, most of their conquests are drunken tourists (only too keen to jump into the sack with anything in trousers), so their reputation doesn’t bear close scrutiny. (A recent survey found that the average Spaniard makes love badly and infrequently: just 71 times a year compared with the world average of 109 – how do they know these things?) Their macho image has taken a further pounding in recent years as women have stormed most male bastions and today are as likely to be found in the university, office, factory, professions or the government, as in the home or the church.
Most Spaniards are anarchists and care little for rules and regulations, generally doing what they want when they want, particularly regarding motoring (especially parking), smoking in public places, the dumping of rubbish and paying taxes. Paradoxically they’ve taken to democracy like ducks to water and are passionate Europeans, firmly believing in a united Europe and the euro (so would you if you’d had to put up with the peseta!). However, like most sensible people they care little for their politicians, whose standing has plummeted to new lows in the last decade following a spate of corruption scandals.
Beware of criticism!
The Spanish are sensitive to criticism, particularly regarding their history and traditions. Whatever you do, don’t ask an old man ‘what he did in the Civil War’ or mention Franco, the Falklands or Gibraltar. Spaniards are intolerant of other people’s views; criticism of Spain is reserved for the Spanish (who do it constantly) and isn’t something to be indulged in by ignorant foreigners.
Since throwing off the shackles of dictatorship in 1975, Spain has resolutely turned its back on the past and embraced the future with gusto. In the last quarter of a century, the country has undergone a transformation influencing every facet of life. However, although most changes have been for the better, many people believe that the soul of traditional Spain has been lost in the headlong rush towards economic development.
The modern Spaniard is more materialistic than his forebears and has taken to the art of making a fast buck as quickly as any North American immigrant ever did. Progress has, however, been purchased at a high cost and has led to a sharp increase in crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty, begging, and the devastation of unspoilt areas by developers hell-bent on smothering the country in concrete and golf courses. Despite being hard hit by the recession in the ’90s, the country has made a strong recovery in recent years and has one of the most promising outlooks of any EU country.
Despite the country’s problems, the Spanish enjoy one of the best lifestyles (and quality of life) of any European country and, indeed, any country in the world; in Spain work fits around social and family life, not vice versa. The foundation of Spanish society is the family and community, and the Spanish are noted for their close family ties, their love of children and care for the elderly (who are rarely abandoned in nursing homes). Spain has infinitely more to offer than its wonderful climate and rugged beauty and is celebrated for its arts and crafts, architecture, fashion, night-life, music, dance, gastronomy, design, sports facilities, culture, education, health care and technical excellence in many fields.
For sheer vitality and passion for life the Spanish have few equals, and whatever Spain can be accused of it’s never dull or boring. Few other countries offer such a wealth of intoxicating experiences for the mind, body and spirit (and not all out of a bottle!). But the real glory of Spain lies in the outsize heart and soul of its people, who are among the most convivial, generous and hospitable in the world. If you’re willing to learn Spanish (or at least make an effort) and embrace Spain’s traditions and way of life, you will invariably be warmly received by the natives, most of whom will go out of their way to welcome and help you. Spain is highly addictive and, while expats may occasionally complain, the vast majority wouldn’t dream of leaving and infinitely prefer life in Spain to their home countries. Put simply, Spain is a great place to live (provided you don’t have to do business there).
¡Vivan los españoles! ¡Viva España!
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Spain.
Click here to get a copy now.