Category Archives: Living Abroad

Four Annoying Things That Spanish People Do

Talking VERY VERY LOUDLY

When Spanish people socialise, even if it’s just two or three of them meeting up for a coffee, a curious thing happens: They seem to lose any awareness that there are other people around them. I’ve had to raise my voice on many occasions to keep communicating with a friend sitting  a few inches away from me because of a group of diners in another corner of the restaurant. They were not drunk or rowdy, just Spanish.

In the UK or Germany, this kind of behaviour also happens.  Usually, though, the perpetrators of  noise pollution are either hormone-crazed teenagers or legless lager louts. In Spain, well-dressed middle aged ladies have no trouble outhollering a busload of pupils on their annual school trip – after all, they have half a century of practice under their belts and are eager to demonstrate that they are not fettered by the shackles of consideration for others or any such social niceties. The louder the merrier!

Kids everywhere, at all hours

Spain has one of the lowest birth rates in the world – just 1.3 whelps per woman in 2015. Even child-averse Germany’s is higher (1.4).

And yet, you cannot get away from tantruming toddlers. A true paradox.

A visiting UK friend remarked to me once, on seeing a 5-year old being wheeled around in a buggy one late Saturday afternoon, “That child is too old to be in a push chair!” Indeed. What she didn’t know was that the vehicle wasn’t about saving the poor little blighter’s legs, but about saving everyone else’s nerves much, much later on in the day. That buggy, was, in fact, a mobile bed.

The parents were going to be out till the wee hours, enjoying good food and wine. After running around and shouting its little head off, the sweaty, worn-out sprog would eventually collapse into the wheeled sedan chair around 1am. It’s my personal theory that this is why events like concerts start so late here in Spain – everyone has to wait patiently until the kids finally pass out on their own accord before people can get on with the adult stuff.

In Germany or the UK, a young child in a restaurant (or any public place) after 8pm is a rarity. There’d be disapproving looks. The little one needs its sleep. Some would consider dragging a cranky minor around in the evening to be kind of child abuse. Not so in Spain, school night or not.

Incidentally, Spain has the highest rate of “fracaso escolar” (lit. “school failure”) in the European Union. According to Eurostat data released in 2015, 21,9% of Spanish students abandon the education system prematurely without any qualifications, compared to an EU average of 11.1%. Am I the only one wondering whether, perhaps, there may be a possible correlation…?

Finders Keepers

If you happen to lose your bag, your wallet, your favourite pen, etc, you may as well say goodbye to it the second you notice. The chances that anyone will hand it in or, if you’ve left it in a shop or a restaurant, keep it under the counter in case you return, are extremely slim. If you’ve forgotten it at someone’s house it’s perfectly safe, of course, but strangers encountering lost property seem to operate a strict finders keepers policy.

This miserly mindset, you may be surprised to learn, is sanctioned by a saint. Yes. A saint. An Italian one that goes by the name of Saint Rita, aka the patron saint of impossible causes.

There’s a Spanish saying that’s commonly evoked when someone is blessed with some unexpected providence: “Santa Rita, Santa Rita, lo que se da, no se quita”. Loosely translated: Saint Rita, Saint Rita, what is given cannot be taken. In other words: finders keepers.

I lost a nice pair of sunglasses once here in Toledo, in either one of three shops that I frequent on a weekly basis. They never surfaced again. I also lost a laptop in Copenhagen, which duly found its way back to me. Thankfully, nobody’s ever heard of bloody Santa Rita in Denmark! I rest my case.

She said you can keep it...

If she says you can keep it… who’s to argue with divine providence?

The smoking

Before moving to Spain, I’ve never really had any close friends who smoked. It’s not that I’ve consciously avoided making friends with smokers, but it just so happened that people I connected with didn’t usually smoke.

Smoking prevalence is higher in Spain compared the UK, where I’ve spent most of my adult life – 21.1% of Spaniards smoke compared to 18.4% of Brits. In the US, just 16.3% of the population are smokers and in Canada it’s 15.6%.

Another factor, in my observation, is that in Spain, just about anyone, regardless of social background or level of education, may whip out a cigarette on a balmy evening. In the UK, the US and Germany, by contrast, people who went to university are much less likely to be hooked on tobacco.

Smoking is forbidden in Spain in bars and restaurants, and this is widely observed, but if you’re from North America or Northern Europe, you may be in for a surprise if you get invited to people’s private houses for a meal, a party, or some other type of social gathering. They will light up. Right there at the table. In a closed room. It will fill up with smoke, your eyes may be streaming, your unprepared respiratory system may start to convulse in distress. And nobody will give it a second thought. You have been warned.

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Disclaimer (of sorts): I admit, I was scraping the barrel when I wrote this post… the positives of hanging out with Spanish folk far outweigh the negatives. I gather from other blogs that, in many countries, new arrivals, especially those who are longer in their early twenties, tend to find it hard to enter into rewarding friendships with locals. In my experience – and I’m far from being outgoing, personality-wise – this is not a problem here in Spain, where people, on the whole, are welcoming, open-hearted, generous and inclined to strike up a conversation with a stranger and show genuine interest in them.

As an aside, the old stereotype that Spanish people are notoriously unpunctual, is, in my opinion, totally unwarranted. People may, on occasion, be a few minutes late. I may be a few minutes late. Noting out of the ordinary. The bizarre thing is that the Spanish seem to have internalised this belief about their chronic unpunctuality, and are highly apologetic about this perceived shortcoming – particularly those, it seems, who are rarely late themselves. I’m not quite sure what that is about. I’ve heard that poor time keeping is particularly rampant in the south of the country rather than in the central/northern parts, but since I have little experience of southern Spain, I can’t really comment on that.

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

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Language Matters: C-Words of Difference

A while back, I had a facebook chat with an American friend who left the US about a decade ago and settled in Costa Rica. It went something like this:

Her: So, now you’re in Spain… how’s your Spanish coming along?

Me: I’m getting there. Curious though that no sentence seems to be complete if it doesn’t contain either culo*, mierda** or coño.

Her: What is coño?

Me: Uhm… CUNT.

Her: ?!?

[*arse **shit]

soap

The fact that my American friend, who’s certainly no prissy, had not encountered this term, despite having lived for many years in a Spanish-speaking country (and being fluent in Spanish), speaks volumes. Latin Americans, on the whole, aren’t given to peppering their soft, mellifluous language with expletives.

The Spanish, on the other hand, have a reputation for being straight-talking and potty-mouthed. Since I’m quite partial to this communication style myself, I fit right in, but, I must confess, even after four years in Spain, I’m still a bit shy of the c-word.

I should get over myself. Cunts get dropped into conversation left, right and centre. It’s no big deal. You could be showing someone an infected mosquito bite and they’d exclaim, ¿Qué coño es esto? – What the hell is that!? Or you might have had a glass of wine too many at the expense of coherence when your still relatively sober drinking buddy confronts you with ¿De qué coño estás hablando? – What the hell are you talking about? 

¡Coño! as an exclamation by itself can mean a million different things, like “Are you shitting me?”, “What the hell were you thinking!?”, “WOW!” and “FFS!”. You get the idea.

If something’s “a big bloody hassle”, then it’s a coñazo – literally: a BIG CUNT.

So, there you have it. The Spanish are comfortable with their cunts.

Until they move to an English speaking country and discover that not everyone else is.

A Spanish friend of mine, who’s been living in London for more than two decades, avoids the ubiquitous little English word “can’t” at all cost.

The subtle differences in English vowel sounds are a real coñazo for Spanish speakers. Spanish only has five vowel sounds, while English has more than twenty. For Latin Americans living in the US, this is not so much of an issue in this particular case, but in British English pronunciation, can’t and the ‘unmentionable’ are dangerously close. Too close for comfort for my friend, who painstakingly resorts to “cannot” instead.

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

Hair My Cry, O Blog!

When you move country, the first thing you’ve got to occupy yourself with is finding those people (and services) without whom your daily existence would be a living hell. For example:

  • Somebody who gives you a place to kip and store your belongings
  • Somebody who plugs the internet into said place
  • Somebody who tosses you a handful of peanuts every month for whatever tricks you’ve learned to perform along the way
  • Somebody who fiddles files your taxes so you don’t go to prison
  • And, most important of all,  somebody who slashes the unruly growth on top of your head every once in a while so you get to maintain the outer appearance of a humanoid life form

I thought my move to Central Spain a few years ago was a brush stroke of genius on the follicular front. It is a dry region. Unlike North London. Those with curly hair will understand.

CurlyHair

Remember this one going round on fb? = ME AT 7AM!

Shortly after my arrival, I stumbled into a nearby hairdressers called “Diseños” (Designs). Sounded like a creative sort of a place, I thought, and the fact that La Friseuse in attendance was close to my own age and also sported curly hair, gave me hope. I’m gullible like that. I imagined her channelling her creative juices into giving me a flattering cut that would, perhaps, make my witch’s chin stick out a bit less.

But no. My veteran Figarette happened to be of those people, who had figured out their solution to their hair troubles, and that would just have to do for everybody else. She herself had resorted to straightjacketing her wiry mop into a rectangular shape, which kind of suited her, but sometimes, one glove does not fit all.

This is actually pretty much matches my appearance as well as my facial expression post-redesign - just imagine a sticky-out chin instead of a snout.

This pretty much illustrates the result. And also my facial expression post-“redesign”. (Just imagine a sticky-out chin instead of a snout.)

Since I don’t really care for having a square head – I’m already German, let’s not forget – and adding the fact that the salon’s “design” component referred more to its prices than the craftsmanship, I went in search of a new chop shop as soon as my rebel locks had managed to break free from their cuboid confines.

This time, I asked about the price first. Twelve bucks, I was told, and one can’t argue with that. In North London, you wouldn’t even get a drunk on the Tube to drool on your head for that. Like I said, I’m gullible.

Now, haircare professionals do have a bit of a reputation for enthralling their captive audiences with tales of their all-inclusive summer break at CattleProd Resorts, but THIS was something else.

If you are acquainted with British English, you may have heard the expression “talking the hind leg off a donkey” – a disparaging reference to a tedious person’s excessive loquaciousness. At forty minutes in, I was very nearly at the point of fearing that my extremities would drop off due to necrotic tissue damage induced by the most inane of moronic monologues I had ever been subjected to in my entire life.

But the ceaseless chatter wasn’t the worst part. What really drove me to distraction was that the girl would stop short after every snip in order to accompany her onerous outpourings with wild gesticulations. At one point, überchatty scissor sister was exposing all the parts of her body to me which had ever been nibbled on by a mosquito. Don’t ask me how we got there. I can only assume that those bloodsucking creatures are, in fact, totally soundproof.

No, I told her, a blow dry really wasn’t necessary. Yes, I was aware that it was the midst of winter, but putting on my woolly hat would probably stop my dripping fringe from freezing to my eyebrows on my way home, and I’d see myself out, thank you very much.

On my second visit, it was the owner who cut my hair. (I had made sure he was holding the fort all by himself after peering through the window at a stealth angle). He was pleasant, professional, and, above all, soothingly SILENT. I was in and out of there in twelve minutes flat. INCLUDING a blow dry. An 87% time saving on my first visit. And the cut was good.

This week, it was high time to excise the felt mats once again, and so when I walked past the salon on Tuesday afternoon and found it empty but open, I  decided to seize the opportunity. I wish I hadn’t. As soon as I entered, I spotted her, slithering out from behind the spiral staircase. Miss Verborrhoea.

As she led me to the washbasin, I felt my eardrums tighten in anticipation. So far, she’d not actually uttered anything besides standard salon protocol. Maybe she’d been on speed last time, and had sworn off it since then.

All was well for about five more minutes, until she suddenly stopped working the warm lather into my pelt. Did I mind if she nipped off to the toilet for a second, the water tablets her doctor had prescribed made her want to pee every five minutes.

Did I enquire, with a caring look on my face, what terrible affliction would require such a sprightly 20-year-old to be popping diuretics? You bet I did not. But I would find out. In excruciating detail.

Thank heavens it’s still summer here in Spain. My hair dried in an instant as I shot through the door into freedom at supersonic speed an interminable hour later.

Baby’s Got Whiff? Dip It In Perfume!

Spanish babies are a malodorous breed. To disguise their offspring’s offensive stench, Iberian mamas have a powerful weapon at their disposal: Half-litre bottles of “Baby Cologne”. You want proof? Here are some pics I took this very morning in my local supermarket:

lala

Lalal

“Low in alcohol”

Now, I must confess, I know nothing whatsoever about miniature humans or the fancy potions that are meant to maintain their olfactory acceptability. It was my Spanish teacher who first drew my attention to this cultural difference in paediatric hygiene a few years ago, when she told me about her frustrations in trying to hunt down such a product in North London chemists after the birth of her first daughter, reaping nothing but raised eyebrows and contemptuous glares.

I can’t get my head around the concept either. Surely, most people dunk their whelps in a warm frothy bath at the end of the day in order to remove suspect residues, probably employing some sort of industrial cleaning product which is already lightly perfumed. Why would anyone expose their little princess’s pristine peachiness to any more chemicals than are absolutely necessary? And chemicals they do contain:

lalla

Contains one third less alcohol than other brands, apparently. And a healthy dose of Tirdeceth-9 Octane… WHAT?!  Oh, but look, it’s soap-free!

lala

The question at the top reads, loosely translated, “What does it do for my baby?”, and then goes on to explain that the product lends an “original smell and wellbeing”, and that it “stimulates [the baby’s] senses owing to its special fragrance and your cuddles, which it loves so much”. I guess nobody would want to risk making physical contact with an untreated beast… Theres’s also a series of warnings, including “avoid contact with eyes”, “do not ingest”, “keep out of the reach of children”, “do not use near naked flames or heat sources”.

I’ve already professed my abject ignorance on the subject, but I thought I’d check some figures before hitting the ‘publish’ button. Owing to my work, which I do on rare occasions to finance my cake habit, I have access to a vast database detailling the sales of consumer goods by country, including toiletries and cosmetics. From this, I gather that “Baby and Child-specific Fragrances” are chiefly sold in six countries: Brazil, Spain, Mexico, France, Russia and Italy. This does seem to be a bit of a Latin thing…

Spain is the world’s second largest market (after Brazil), generating retail value sales of US$55.3 million in 2014, and Nenuco and Johnson’s (see my photos) are indeed the leading brands here in Spain. In annual per capita terms, Spanish consumers spent US$9.60 on its defenceless victims aged 0-11 years of age,  while Brazilian parents dowsed millions of tiny botties with US$11.50 worth of the stuff in 2014. Sales in the other countries I mentioned were rather minimal by comparison, hovering around the 1 dollar mark per child.*

So, people, do tell me, are babies sanitised in this way in your country…? Or do they prefer them au naturel?

 

[*For data source, click here]

 

 

Expat 101: How To Give Everyone Culture Shock

If the blogs are anything to go by, we expats are in a perpetual state of culture shock. It’s one harrowing experience after another – waiters don’t smile back at us, there’s hamster paws sticking out of our stir fry, one’s gophers keep ringing the doorbell at all hours for irritating reasons like returning a pile of freshly starched shirts.

And it doesn’t all end when the expat eventually returns to the homeland, oh no. There’s the much talked about phenomenon of reverse-culture shock, when people, after a prolonged period of absence, discover that they don’t neatly slot into their native culture anymore. It’s all very distressing.

How the hell, you might wonder, do expats stay sane?

I’m about to tell you. It’s a well-guarded secret that nobody ever talks about, not even on the blogs. ESPECIALLY not on the blogs.

Culture shock is like an electric current that constantly whooshes through our insides, torching our mental and physical wellbeing. To stop this beast from killing us off, we have to try and discharge some of it by zapping an unsuspecting victim.

Just about anyone will do, but by far the best targets are found among a particularly hapless group commonly referred to as ‘The Locals’. (By Locals I mean people who have not left their country of origin for any significant amounts of time, besides annual holidays or the occasional business trip.)

Individual talent for dispersing culture shock waves varies considerably, of course, but by rule of thumb, the expats harbouring the most virulent strains are those who have spent more time outside of the country that issued their passport than within it. Their power is further amplified by the number of countries they have lived in, and also by how old (read: young) they were when they left.

So, how do you go about offloading a hefty dose of culture shock? One highly effective way is to scramble your conversation partner’s conversational “script” from the get-go.

All Locals have firmly embedded, pre-existing scripts to help them deal with The Great Unknown, which, needless to say, includes foreigners. When confronted with such a specimen, the first question will inevitably be, “Where are you from?”

You answer will trigger a set of script responses. For instance, when I first moved to the UK, the initial reply to “I’m German”  would invariably be countered with, “I have a brother/cousin/ex-window cleaner who’s stationed at [insert name of British Army base somewhere in Germany]”.

Now, I have never seen or been to an army base in my life. These places, as far as I’m aware, are inhabited by a barely literate species typically referred to as  ‘Squaddies’ who only leave the grand hive in search of…erm… certain services that can’t be provided by their fellow drones.

Subsequent script lines would pertain to the Oktoberfest, German cars and, of course, beer. At one point, I seriously considered writing out a set of flash cards with the answers and handing them out on social occasions, with the words, “please read these. Once you’re done, can we talk about something interesting, pleeeeease”.

Well, I was a mere novice back then, but I’ve learnt a thing or two since. For example, that it’s far more fun to throw something at The Local that completely corrupts their script. So, one could say, for instance, “I have a French passport, but I’ve never actually lived in France. I grew up in Norway, went to University in the States, and then I worked on Asian oyster farms for fifteen years.” (Though my own script busters are much less adventurous than that).

For a few long seconds, The Local will assume the semblance of a fish pulled onto dry land, momentarily robbed of the ability to blink, their mouths gaping as if trying to suck in air through their paralysed gills. You can almost make out the cogs spinning behind their glassy little eyes, bashing against their square little brain cells in the desperate hope of extracting a viable comeback. But it’s too late. The contagion has taken hold and a short circuiting event is imminent.

It’s not only The Locals who make suitable targets, but also fellow expats, especially those fresh off the boat. Long-term expats’ accents, for example, can be a great source of confusion. In my case, I get mistaken for a Brit. NOT by actual Brits, I hasten to add, they can tell, but everybody else, including Americans, Australians, etc, are routinely taken in. I do get a modicum of amusement out of that, I must admit.

Once, on a flight to Miami, a Central American lady mistook me for being Spanish. I have no idea how that could possibly have happened (a lot of engine noise??), but it sure cheered me up. On the flip side, I’m sometimes told that my German is really quite good…

But anyway, these “linguistic perks” that are part of the long-term expat package provide a fun opportunity of changing nationality for an evening, enjoy a novel set of script questions (yipeeeeh!), and then, if so desired, go full throttle for the killer reveal.

So, are any of you bored stiff by having the same cliché questions and trite topics flung at you over and over again? What are your least favourite subjects? I might do a separate post on this, so I’m hunting for ideas…

Up For Contemplation: Cultural Differences In Reading Habits

The most fascinating thing about blogging, without a shred of a doubt, is other blogs. Populating every nook and cranny of this globe, there are REAL people willing to share their view of the world with you. Often, a seemingly mundane snippet torn from their every-day life provides enough reflective fodder to keep my cogs spinning for a week.

An example of this is the post below, published by Eastraveller. It offers an insight, which goes some way towards explaining her observation that few people in the Middle East appear to be reading books simply for fun.

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Three Bad Boys Who Gave Reading A Bad Name – Posted by Eastraveller on 11 March 2013

I am an obsessive reader. I read everything I can get my hands (or eyes) on. 

I suffer withdrawal symptoms when I haven’t got enough reading matter at hand (and despite being a reading addict I am quite selective about what I like to read, which makes my daily foraging task doubly difficult). 

When I first came to the Middle East my confessions on the subject were met with suspicion.

Hello! What are you doing?

I’m reading a book.

Why? 

It soon became apparent that most of my my bright, charming, lovely new friends hated it with the same passion I hated chemistry in school- and as I came to realise, for pretty much the same reasons: incomprehensible, deadly boring stuff somebody forces upon you for no obvious benefit. As filled with pleasure as a fork in the eye.  

A young Syrian guy I know went to London and he came back full of praise and awe. Everything was so beautiful, he said, but there was one thing I didn’t understand: people read everywhere, on the tube, train, side of the road, cafe, you name it. His mate listened to this account in disbelief, then said: “You must have been in a university district of some sort,  they were probably studying for an exam.”

Every time reading comes up as an entertainment option people shudder in horror. 

So when I said to my inner detective, dear Watson, we must get to the bottom of this, here’s what he found: 

1. There are two Arabic languages. There is Fusha (classical Arabic), the language of books, university lectures, news, serious stuff. And there is colloquial Arabic, which people speak every day and which, by some accounts, bears as much resemblance to Fusha as Dutch does to German. 

Now if you or I had to read the latest Nick Hornby in the language of Beowulf, we’d probably also find that a type of torture. Students are made to read a lot in school and all of it is in a difficult (though beautiful and poetic) language they don’t speak. No wonder the memory of it all is akin to my chemistry nightmares.

I know somebody who needed private tutoring during university to cope with the language of the courses. Eventually, he decided it would be easier to just switch to English.  

2. Reading is seen as a solitary occupation. You basically sit and read and ignore the rest of the world. Now here this is a big no no. The social structure of big families with very strong ties, in permanent verbal contact, means you are very rarely on your own. 

It would be supremely rude of you to sit in a corner engulfed in Pride and Prejudice while Uncle Ahmad is relaying the latest news of your cousin. And if you are on the bus alone, your phone rings every 2 minutes for much of the same, so no time at all to open that Orhan Pamuk novel you thought you might like. 

Obviously, this is a huge generalisation. There are people who love to read, who master the two languages (and more) with an intellectual ease that makes me green with envy. 

But for those who don’t, I have a suspicion that taking the combined baddies of Forced, Solitary and Hard out of the reading would make it fly.

Book clubs, dialogues, reading circles, a spoken follow up to anything you read would just inject life in its tired veins. Take the word of a reading junkie:)

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PoppyReading this post sparked off a train of thought, which made me reflect on my own experience of growing up in a region where the local dialect differs considerably from the ‘official’ standard version of the national language.

Now, I know more about soil composition on Mars than I do about the culture of any Middle Eastern country, so the validity of the comparison I’m drawing here is, at best, questionable.

As you may have guessed, I love reading. It’s the only thing that kept me from chewing off my own toes during my teenage years, spent languishing in a tiny Bavarian village.

Bavaria is a region (and a state) of Germany where Bavarian, a dialect of German that is largely unintelligible to other Germans, is spoken. It’s still German, but it diverges, on occasions quite significantly, in pronunciation and vocabulary from standard High German (Hochdeutsch).

All Bavarians understand and (except perhaps for some elderly people living in rural areas) also speak Hochdeutsch; it’s the language of education, the media, literature, etc. Bavarian, by contrast, is not a written language, although there are a handful of authors, notably Ludwig Thoma, who have authored books in Bavarian, the latter with notable literary success.

I digress – the main point I’m trying to get at is that Bavarians read books just like Germans from other parts of the country. Bavarian is what you speak at home, with your friends, with your (Bavarian) work colleagues. Being a native Bavarian speaker is in no way detrimental one’s ability to understand and enjoy material produced in Hochdeutsch, or, heaven forbid, receiving an education. Bavaria is home to Siemens, BMW and Audi. It is, in fact, the most prosperous of all German states, despite its natives talking funny and having a reputation in other parts of the country of being…erm… let’s say, a tad eccentric.

I’m not going to pretend that I have even a sliver of a clue as to what degree the ‘standard’ Arabic used in written communication and news casts deviates from the versions spoken by people in the street, but I find the idea, that the two are light years removed from each other, disturbing. By the sounds of it, it leaves the average person effectively cut off, not only from education, but from communicating with anyone outside of their locale…?

This begs the question: Why isn’t there a thriving publishing industry in Middle Eastern countries churning out everything from leisure time reading (like novels etc) to educational material that people can actually understand and, even more importantly, enjoy? Is it because Middle Eastern economies are, by and large, underdeveloped with many ordinary people struggling to meet basic needs and hence, reading (for pleasure or otherwise) is way down on their list of priorities? And could this maybe be due to a lack of accessible education…? Who stands to benefit from this state of affairs if not the ruling classes, who, ironically, send their kids abroad to be schooled…?

So many questions…

[Here is a link to Eastraveller’s blog]