Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Spain is Different

           In the 1960’s, a young politician named Manuel Fraga, who would serve both during the dictatorship and later when the country became a democracy, only retiring in 2011, coined the phrase “Spain is Different.” It’s a phrase that was quoted to me over and over during the years I lived in Spain, whenever I would remark on the myriad of differences between our countries. To this day, when I stop to think of the differences, I still shake my head in wonder.
          Differences in money (the fact that the bills were all different colors and sizes), foods (another blog post will be about the first time I inadvertently ate octopus and bull testicles, good and ick, respectively), names (like one of the characters in my book, Pilar, which comes from “pillar” because it is said that a virgin once appeared on a pillar, or the name, Mar which means “sea” for another virginal appearance,) and clothing styles were not difficult to anticipate.
          But there are a ton of other more subtle differences that amused and surprised me: little things like the fact that when there is only one light switch in a room, the “down” position is “on”, or the fact that most bathrooms have the light outside the room, not inside. The Spanish strongly believe that if you lie down for nap after a meal, even if it very hot in the room, you MUST cover your belly with a blanket, and people of all ages, up into their 80's, love walking every day. Since everyone else is also walking, there are plenty of people to greet with the customary two kisses every time they meet. (I remember thinking I'd never kissed so many people in my life!) I also love to walk, and was baffled as I tried to make my way around town and couldn't find street signs. Then I learned that I should not look for them on metal poles on street corners, but rather up on the walls of the buildings, usually between the first floor and the second, which they call the ground floor and the first, and there I'd find the street name, often on a ceramic plaque.  Trees are kept cut very short, and while walking, I often looked down at the sidewalks, which are not boring cement, but rather tiled in different patterns in every city. And I always found it amusing to see shop keepers mopping the sidewalk outside their stores, though now I understand the logic.
          Other differences are that egg yolks are a very different shade of yellow, there is only one salad dressing (no one ever asks if you want dressing or which kind), milk is rarely ever bought fresh but rather in Tetra-Brik cartons that last for months unopened, however, bread MUST be bought daily, (it’s just a fact of life) and oranges are commonly peeled and eaten with a fork and knife—i.e. without ever touching them with your hands. Napkins are often little tissue paper squares, cereal is not a common breakfast food, and sandwiches made with crusty Spanish bread and chunks of chocolate are a typical snack for kids. Pumpkin pie is unheard of (a cute chapter in my book tells of the characters on a quest to find orange pumpkins!) though everyone who tasted it when I made it, loved it. Peanut butter, however, is looked on rather as we see marmite—as one of those exotic and not so pleasant foods that some foreigners eat. Oh, and ALL Spaniards, young and old, hate the taste of Dr. Pepper, which they say tastes like bitter almonds. How is it that everyone knows what bitter almonds taste like?
           Language expressions are a huge source of entertainment to me (yes, an author, amused by words, no stretch there). For instance, if you would say in English “It’s a good thing that…” in Spanish the phrase is “It’s a less bad thing that…” And I was surprised by the number of expressions using the word “milk”: for instance, a friend might say of someone who is in a bad mood, “What bad milk he has!” and a mother might scold a child, “If you do that again, I’ll give you a milk!”  (meaning a slap, not a treat!) Noses aren’t picked, but rather touched, and were you to walk into a room, say, a kitchen, and hear a Spaniard saying to someone, “Oh, the milk! Don’t touch my eggs!” you would know that he is very angry and it’s better not to mess with him.
          Church vocabulary is also commonly used in expressions, so if you’ve just finished the final version of a report, you might say, “This one goes to mass,” and rather than losing your train of thought, you say, “My saint went to heaven.” When you do a favor for a stranger, they always say “God will repay you for this.” And the most common forms of swearing involve things from mass, such as the host, as in “Host! I forgot I had to…” And of course the chalice is also employed in all sorts of creative ways.
           Another common swear phrase involves, well, taking a dump on things as in, “I poop on the ocean”, or, not surprisingly, “I poop on the milk” is a pretty strong one.
          But for all the differences in language, foods and customs, you can’t help but fall in love with Spain when you go there. I know I did! And so did the characters in my book, which I’m sure you will enjoy reading. As a matter of fact, as you read about the life there and enjoy the narrative, I bet you’ll soon be scheduling your trip to go see for yourself how “Spain is different!”

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