a wandering woman writes

Monday, December 12, 2005

Smile, you're in Spain

I'm famous for laughing to myself. Anywhere. For all the times that the people who know me catch me at it, twice as many secret Erin snickers make it out unnoticed. Anonymous street grins, we'll call them. C'mon, it's another Rear Window thing, don't you love when you are walking down street and see someone else chuckling away?

The Guardian ran a
fun article
this weekend about a reporter and photographer who ran around London trying to catch people at it, without being discovered. There is a rather amusing American tale at the end.....

In Salamanca I've developed the habit of grinning back. Or maybe I've just slowed down enough to notice that I can't help but join in. And I am proud to say that's despite having been warned on my arrival in Spain not to smile too much: "The Spanish don't trust people who smile."

So you know, dear loyal Spanish readers, I am grinning as I type this. You'll do what you feel you have to do.

The NO SMILING advice came from 2 American women who thought they knew this place inside out.

One night during my first few months in Salamanca, I went out for pinchos with a couple of American women who knew each other from a shared study year abroad in Spain, 5 or 10 years earlier. When I met them, one was working for a few months in Vallodolid, and the other was in Salamanca chaperoning a university study abroad group. Their Spanish was better than mine was then, and they seemed to know Spain better than I did, but something struck me funny. Well, first, we spent the evening in English, which never makes sense to me if we all speak Spanish. Sorry, it's a hang-up, but when in Spain....

But the bigger shock was this: they didn't seem to LIKE Spain. Or the Spanish. They both peppered every paragraph with huge doses of "Oh, how I love Spain!!", but every comment betrayed them. In between envy at my "luck" at living here, and schemes about how they'd come back next time, they'd launch into detailed tirades about what was wrong with Spain. The food. The customer service, or lack thereof. The music. The bureaocracy.

The stern warning not to smile stunned me. The study group chaperone told me I had better stop smiling, as she had, because the Spanish never smile at strangers. She loved the country, she told me, and she wanted to live here, but she hated that the Spanish had taken away her right to smile at nothing. And strangers. And she poured out 3 or 4 anecdotes about how smiling before knowing people intimately got her into trouble here. We're talking bartenders, or walking in to a restaurant and asking for directions. Buying a paper.
I left the evening with a bad taste in my mouth, partly because I have never enjoyed complaining (which, as I promise to share in an upcoming post, my beloved Spanish neighbors do love, and practice with panache, without ever expecting me to join in), and partly because I couldn't possibly suddenly turn smileless.

I finally got to this: I never can quite soak in why we can't just TRY to remind ourselves, once in a great while, that we each see the world through our own, very powerful lens. Why would anyone in their right mind blame Spaniards for not acting like farmers from Iowa? Where exactly would Salamantinos have learned "farmer from Iowa" golly-gee gushing?

I watched my neighbors for a few weeks after that conversation. While I noticed that Salmantinos - a famously reserved group by the way, this would be a whole other experiment in Andalucia - don't necessarily break into toothy grins at strangers, neither do the New Englandahs I grew up alongside. What I have found is that if I just forget where I live and act like me, the people whose dogs and kids crack me start up conversations, and the man I buy my paper from tells everyone who walks up that I am the happiest customer he's got. Maybe you should be buying El Pais instead of El Mundo, he told the man behind me one day, that may just be her secret.

So, just in case my two paisanas make it to this blog someday, or another new resident of Spain hears the dreaded smile warning: I think I've figured it out.

Know what I found, behind the (admittedly different) Spanish reaction to new people? Respect for authenticity. OK, it's more like intolerance for a lack of authenticity, and maybe just a little paranoia about who's authentic and who's not. Neither strikes me as a bad thing. And since I can't help but smile, or laugh, or crack a joke in my almost-there Spanish, I pass every test and meet dancing eyes, warm grins, and long humorous monologues I am not sure I catch all of.

I hereby advise all wandering smilers, Iowan farmers included, to relax and be themselves on the streets of Spain.

Sorry about all the time between posts, by the way. Lots going on, and lots of news I hope to post about in the next few days...............

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  • Somtimes I thimk we are crazy everywhere... Spain, US, UK, etc...
    Everybody thinks his country is the best one.
    Good Blog!!!

    By Blogger El Gran Chimp, at 1:25 PM  

  • I agree with your friends about the lack of customer service. ¿Why is it that except in The Corte Inglés, asistants don't greet you good morning or thank you for choosing their establishment? It really makes me want to walk out of the shop leaving everything on the counter.

    Oh, another thing, your newsagent is probably right. Reading "El Mundo" gives people a nasty grin on their face


    P.S. I read El País also.

    By Anonymous Alex, at 4:38 PM  

  • I agree with Alex a little bit about impersonal service in Spain.
    There's nothing wrong with smiling with strangers.
    Sometimes it is contagious and they may pass it on!

    By Blogger cream, at 8:25 PM  

  • Thanks, chimp. Welcome.

    Alex and cream, I am with you 100%. Customer service doesn´t exist in Spain (even El Corte Ingles pales next to Lord & Taylor on Michigan, or my sweet Nordstroms in California, sorry Alex...) I fantasize about the day customer service FINALLY arrives in Spain, and everyone at Telefonica's call center is spontaneously fired. Daily. And I've shared that with them, because, you see, I've seen service, and I know it is coming.

    Guess I just don't see the point of bitching about it. How incredibly bad the service was somewhere I just left is often what I chuckle about walking down the street. Plus I am SO tempted to start a business -- I could rule the world just by offering simple customer service, no?

    And Alex, there's this weird contradiction that gets me. Explain this: in a small store, a neighborhood ferreteria, for example, they will wait hand and foot, for hours and hours and hours, as long as it takes, on the lady in front of me who wants to evaluate every curtain rod ever made, before moving to the next person, me, and my one minute light bulb purchase. It's true, isn't it?

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 11:08 PM  

  • I don't really know if what you're saying about people smiling/not smiling in Spain is true or not... but after doing the "Camino de Santiago" and getting used to smiling to everyone I passed by and getting smiles back from them, I went back home and realized I just felt like smiling to everyone I saw. I did, and they did look weirdly at me. Anyway... I'm from the North, they define us as "cold people" =)

    By Anonymous Cristina, at 2:56 PM  

  • Dear WanderingWoman, I'm afraid I've been a bit naughty and your question about the "ferretería" has served as an excuse for a post in my blog.


    By Anonymous Alex, at 10:50 PM  

  • I don´t know if I´m used to smile or not but it´s true, I suspect people who smile me without reason.
    (For example: My new boss smiles me, it´s suspicious. He is hiding something.)
    Well, I´m spanish.

    By Blogger Nomadita, at 2:15 PM  

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