The Spanish People

On The Road Travel Essays

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The Spanish People

A "Fair" People  Spaniards love their fairs, their fiestas, and this is the time to see them at their most intense (therefore their most Spanish). Years ago, the fairs were actually market-days, when farmers brought their produce in for sale, and the whole town turned out to buy, to gossip, and to let off steam. This tradition survives today in the fair, which often has a religious pretext. Each city and town, even village, will have its local fiesta (often coinciding with the feast day of the patron saint). They last long: a minimum of three days, often a week. Daily bullfights. The "fair" season in Spain is generally from March to October, when the weather's warm and the blood runs hot.

A Nation of Talkers  Spain has remarkable linguistic homogeneity. There are dialects (mainly Basque and Catalan), but with the exception of Catalonia, you'll seldom hear them. When Spaniards talk, the talk fast, with a high intonation (sing-song), talk all at the same time, and often slur the words just to get them out fast. Often they don't really listen to each other: the first person starts up a story, the second (seeming to comment on it) actually starts another story, the third yet another, and the first (when he gets the floor again) continues the now-shattered story he started. A "dialogue of the deaf". Yet, amazingly, at the end of the conversation, each person has understood the other and can repeat the various stories told with considerable accuracy.

Spaniards talk with their hands and whole body. There's nothing in the world like a Spanish shrug; the man's head all but disappears into his rearing shoulders. Eyebrows go up to the very ceiling, the mouth puffs out like a funnel. That's the way he really lets you know his meaning.

Two things spice Spanish speech: tacos (oaths) and piropos (compliments). Spanish is rich in blood-curdling oaths, most of which aren't taken seriously. The "compliments" are directed at the girls, and the boys don't expect a reply. (So, girls, don't give them one or they'll consider it an invitation.) Examples of piropos: "Hello, beautiful." Or: "You have a defect of the mouth; both lips are superior."

What are the usual topics of conversation? Bulls, naturally. Also politics, women, and jokes. When jokes are told, everybody is expected to laugh. If someone doesn't, he'll be called a stuffed shirt (or, in Andalusia, "bread without salt"). There's etiquette involved: you mustn't laugh until the joke is done, otherwise the person telling the joke will think you're really not listening, but laughing only out of obligation. Like everything else in Spain, conversation involves much ceremony, which is why the visitor must be especially watchful not to offend — it's best to be reticent until you have the confidence of the people you're talking to.

Entertainment  The usual image of the Spaniard is that he's a frustrated St. John of the Cross, or St. Teresa. Not so. The Spaniard lives to enjoy himself, and entertainment is probably as important a part of life as religion — possibly more so. The most widely attended form of entertainment is — the motion picture. This is true in spite of censorship and prudery, though these are being modified currently. The Spaniard likes to spend as much time as he can out-of-doors: at the theater, in the streets, at a cafe, the market, the fiesta. That's why most Spanish homes are rather sparsely furnished; the money goes into entertainment first, not into the house or the car. (Many a fairly successful businessman drives a rickety old car, yet entertains lavishly.) Besides, the Spaniard isn't at home that much, and during the warm season (about 6 months out of the year), he doesn't need to be. Amusements aren't limited to weekends (like in the U.S.); they're all week long. What are some of these amusements?

The cafe: Here's where the Spaniard feels most "at home." Every person has his own cafe, where he meets his friends regularly. You won't see these friendly gatherings if you simply look at the front of the cafe, outside. You have to go into the back rooms, where the smoke is thick, the conversation loud, and the inhibitions relaxed. Everything in life goes on at the cafe: business deals are clinched, loans extended, marriage proposals made, and books are written. At noontime, people nap on three chairs placed in a row. They make phone calls, receive and answer letters, and read books in the cafes. The cafes are open almost round the clock, closing only for six or seven hours late at night.

The Tertulia: This is the name given to regular gatherings of friends, usually at the cafe. They talk of this or that, criticize outsiders, pound fists on the table, tell jokes, even sing. The phrase "to settle Spain" is used to refer to the sweeping pronouncements made by the participants — the latest cure-all, the newest "idea," the best-yet solution to Spain's problems, or the "best" bullfighter. All this talk is good therapy: the Spaniard has no pent-up frustrations to take out on pedestrians (when he's driving), and psychiatrists in Spain are few and underemployed.

Dominoes: While mouths move during the Tertulia, the hands are busy with dominoes. This isn't the child-like game that Americans suppose. Sometimes it's played for money, more often to decide who'll pay for the cognacs. Spaniards insist on a marble table, so that they can click the pieces on it while plotting their next move. If you go into a crowded cafe at noontime, you'll hear this clicking over the sound of chatter. Dominos, Spanish-style is a memory game, not something for kids. It's amazing how many numbers the veteran players can keep in their heads.

Other Amusements: Card playing. Most taverns supply their own packs — worn and dirty from use, but fondly used. Or the lottery. You'll see old women selling regular lottery, and the big-prize Christmas lottery. (The latter has a public drawing, with much ceremony, suspense, and nationwide media coverage.) Strolling is both good exercise and a social occasion in Spain. Most Americans' walking is confined to the space between the garage and the back door of the house. In Spain, every city, town, and village has a special place for strolling. The time for strolling is between 8:00 and 10:00 in the evening: that's why Spanish cities come alive only at night. On holidays, it's between noon and 2:30 p.m. Sometimes traffic is blocked off at these times: pedestrians only. In Madrid, the favorite place for strolling is on the Castellana. People meet each other, lovers are reunited (away from their parents), old friends enjoy reunions, and plans are hatched. The amusement park is a major institution in Spain. Madrid has one — all big cities have them. For the Spanish, the amusement park is fantasy-land — all things are possible. It provides release from the grind of daily work, or (for the young) from the discipline of family life.

Spanish Faith  Due to Spain's Reconquest — which was as much a religious crusade as a military campaign — Spanish Christianity has always been militant. The Spanish missions established in California are examples of this — faith as a crusade. Philip II, e.g., when he ascended the throne, said: "My only aspiration is to preserve the lands inherited from my father in the purity of his faith".

Practicality: But Spanish Catholicism is practical too — when a Spaniard prays, he expects to get something for it. Spaniards expect miracles, and get angry if they don't happen. If a saint's statue or other relic doesn't get "results", it's likely to be chucked into the river. There's a saying in the town of Alcarria, near Madrid, about the crazy people who threw a statue of Christ into the river because after praying for rain, there was still drought. Miracles are an obsession: the popularity of saints is measured by the number of miracles they have wrought. The Spanish say about a popular saint: "He's a miracle worker", and about a less popular one: "He won't even tell you the time." In Madrid, there is a Christ who, according to legend, grants one out of every three prayers. So the people simply repeat their requests three times ("health, health, health"), hoping that the one-in-three rule will guarantee results. On St. Antonio's Day, Madrid seamstresses put pins into the mantle of the saint so that he will reward them with a handsome boyfriend. In a country monastery in San Saturio, there's a hole where you put your head and recite the Lord's Prayer — guaranteeing you no headaches for a whole year! Every saint has a special power: for healing, for getting boyfriends, for helping you find lost articles, for good weather. San Blas cures sore throats; Santa Rita is "mediator for the impossible" — i.e. if no other saint will do it, she will. These examples could be multiplied.

Formalism: Ceremony is the essence of Spanish faith: the right prayer, the right gesture, the right words. Weddings, baptisms, funerals are executed with precision, because the results expected are felt to hinge on accuracy of ritual. It's hard for Anglo-Saxons to understand this, but formalism has always been central in the Mediterranean religious consciousness.

Feminism: Spanish faith is feminist: upheld mainly by women, and therefore centering on feminine figures. It is said that there are more Virgins in Spain than in any other Latin country: "Virgen de Lugen", "Virgen de..." etc. Each one has staunch adherents; every town or region has its own "Virgen".

Drama: Spanish faith emphasizes the dramatic, even the extreme: think of St. Teresa's poverty, St. John of the Cross' visions. Hell is more vivid to the Spaniard than Heaven. One sees this drama in Spanish painting, where saints are shown in their most extreme state: in tears, in ecstasy, in despair, in wild hope, etc. During Holy Week, self-flagellation in country towns is not unknown.

Popular superstitions: These have little to do with religion as such, but they show the continuing influence of pre-Christian paganism in Spain. A black cat brings good luck (surprise!), as does the hump of a hunchback. Bad luck, on the other hand, is brought by: a broken mirror, spilt salt, a chair spun on one leg, an umbrella opened inside the house, a hat on a bed, walking under a ladder, and speaking the word "serpiente" (serpent). To avoid using this word, elaborate substitutes are chosen, usually "bicha" (beast). Thirteen is unlucky, and Tuesday is the unlucky day. There's a saying: "En martes, ni te cases ni te embarques" (On Tuesday, neither marry nor embark.). Andalusia is the continuing stronghold of these superstitions; there, undertakers are shunned socially, since they bring bad luck. Gypsies still tell ghost stories and tell fortunes too.

Summary  To sum up, these are the characteristics of the Spanish people you're likely to come across: generosity (the Spaniard always invites you, and doesn't wait for you to do the inviting); extrovert (he'll tell you his life's story from A to Z five minutes after he's met you); a passion for conversation — many things are done for the sake of being able to tell friends about them afterward. It is said that Columbus, an adopted Spaniard, voyaged to America only so that he could talk about his adventures in his local taverna. Exaggeration: everything the Spaniard talks about is the "most/\." Insatiable curiosity: the Spaniard always bites off more than he can chew (Don Quixote, or Columbus again). Nationalism: the Spaniard always thinks there's no place in the world like Spain (indeed, there isn't!). Traditionalism: in customs, in respect for history, for folklore. A pagan streak: popular superstitions, as we've seen, but also the love of entertainment and amusements. Dramatic: it's either the best or the worst of times, sometimes both. Business is never "as usual". Sensitive: easy to offend, but just as easy to make up with. Always has a sense of humor, and can laugh at himself easily. Dignified: the shoeshine boy accepts a tip as solemnly as the man who gives it to him. Servility is an un-Spanish trait; even the down-and-out in Spain have a certain snobbishness; there are things even they won't do. Honor is all.

Regional characteristics: Castile: As this has been the center of national administration for centuries, the Castilian is likely to be austere, somewhat puritanical, religious, and dominated by an ancient sense of nobility, dignity, and honor. The land of Castile is poor, so the Castilian has long been used to sacrifice. He is an idealist. Don Quixote couldn't have been anything else than a Castilian. Everything in Castile is severe: architecture, family relations, art, religion. Castile is the "heart" of Spain: the cradle of its language (modern Spanish is really the Castilian dialect), the center of national unity, the country's "nervous system."

Exception: the Madrileno — the exception that proves the rule about Castile. Being a city dweller, he's cut off from the soil and the sacrifices it imposes. In a way, he's a bit of an upstart, even a charlatan. He likes practical jokes, works as little as possible, jokes about history. He's a bit of Andalusia smack in the heart of Castile.

Andalusia: The Andalusian is the inventor of two elements of Spanish folklore: bullfights and Flamenco. He also invented sherry, the philosophy of "living for today," and the ritual of Holy Week. He is a bit of a rogue and a liar, good-natured and always relaxed. His Arab origins leak out of every pore. He tells jokes, chats away until all hours, and lets his imagination carry him away. He is the exact opposite of the Castilian, which is why a visit to Andalusia is the necessary complement to a stay in Madrid.

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