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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Random Observations about Spain

El Sal

Spanish food is wonderful but it’s extremely salty. I find myself drinking twice as much water as I would in the USA and I’m still thirsty at the end of the day. Everything has salt in it. Yesterday I got chunks of coconut in a salad that had been, you guessed it, sprinkled in salt.

Atencíon al Cliente

Spanish customer service is an oxymoron. Here customers don’t get served. At least not in the American sense. In America the persons performing “customer service” take it upon themselves to serve the customer, usually without prompting. In Spain the customer asks for service and then the usual response is “there’s nothing to be done.” Department stores are probably the strangest. A classmate of mine spent the better part of an evening looking for clothes and was waiting in line to go to the register when all the lights went off and the employees left their stations. Most foreign to us Americans, all of the customers also left their lines and simply dropped their planned purchases. In the US you’d get a countdown of sorts followed by a last call. And if by chance you somehow miss your chance to purchase items, most stores will gladly reopen the register and let you complete your transaction. And then apologize to you for the inconvenience (real or imagined). In America “the customer is always right.” In Spain the customer is still always right but both the customer and employee are indifferent and ignorant of the others’ expectations. And the Spanish customer has much lower expectations than his American counterpart.

The only exception are Mom and Pop stores where the owners put a lot of effort into helping you locate what you’re looking for and convincing you to buy it along with something more expensive.

Distancia Personal

While the distance used when speaking with an interlocutor in America is between two and three feet, in Spain it’s often about six inches. This is just as true with strangers as it is with lifelong acquaintances. And it seems to be especially true when you ask someone for directions. When talking to a stranger or making a point to an acquaintance, it’s quite common for a Spaniard to grab the arm of the person he’s talking to and look him or her right in the eye. The arm is grabbed above the elbow of a man and below the elbow of a woman. This is done even if it’s tucked against the person’s body. This can be quite intimidating for an American, especially when a Spanish man does it to an American girl. It is entirely normal and should be taken as a sign that you’re being listened to, rather than an occasion to grab for the mace.

A Voz Alta Por Favor

Not all Spaniards speak loudly. But those who do put more force behind their words than any Americans. This is especially true of rural people, who in many regions of Spain have the habit of having a perfectly pleasant conversation while screaming at each other with their faces only six inches apart (see above). I’ve been told that this is particularly true in Catalonia and Valencia. I’ve heard loud animated conversations in Valencia while rounding a corner and waited for the people to pass just to find out that they were some twenty yards ahead of me.

While Americans (and Latin Americans) alter their speech-volume to match their interlocutors, it’s quite common to walk by a conversation where one Spaniard is screaming and the other is whispering. You assume that the man and woman are fighting until they kiss before parting.

Dos Besos Por Favor

Spaniards traditionally say goodbye with a hug and two kisses, one on each cheek. Women kiss women, men kiss women but two men just hug unless they’re family members.

Vale Vale Vale!

Spaniards say vale (read: vah-lay) all the time. Vale can alternatively mean “ok”, “I agree”, “do you agree?”, “whatever”, “like so”, “yes”, or sometimes even “why?” Vale is said initially once, the interlocutor usually follows with three vales if he agrees and “no” if he doesn’t. Three or four vales are said if there is later agreement. Only one vale is used for a yes/no question.

How often do Spaniards say Vale? Well, take a typical Californian surfer dude or a valley girl and add up every time he/she says “ok”, “whatever”, “like” and “cool” and combine the totals and you’ll get the idea. I’ve heard two minute long conversations where every other word is Vale.

La Cola

Spaniards don’t form lines. They just don’t. When you walk into a store to be served or go to the register, you ask whose “last”, wait in a huddled mass and keep track of the order of your non-existent line. They call this “making a line” (hacienda una cola) but there’s usually no line to be found. Certainly not in the sense that Americans or the even more line obsessed British (“cueing is holy”) would consider a line. People don’t ever lie about their place in order and if they do people may talk about it for years. One girl told me that her sister’s husband tried once at a copy store when he was in a hurry and the copy store won’t let him in any more, having effectively banned him. Needless to say he’s an American.

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