How to be Spanish… What the Times got wrong

February 1, 2018

Well… what’s shakin?

Around here, the big news this week is about a Sunday Times article called “How to be Spanish”.

I read it, I enjoyed it.

It actually sounded like a better-worded version of something yours truly would write on this humble expat blog.

Less list-posty, and more literary.

That’s why some people get paid real money for travel writing, I guess.

Of course, Spanish people have little sense of humor when they’re the butt of the joke.

So there’s been quite a bit of hubbub online.

In my opinion, however, most of what the author, Chris Haslam, says is true and rather obvious.

The author mentions the custom of throwing napkins, olive pits and shrimp heads on the floor of the typical old-man bars.

No surprise there.

He mentions that Spanish people can be loud, arrive late, and use obscenities that make us timid Anglo-Saxons’ hair stand on end.

And he notes the tendency to serve red wine cold (which I’ve never understood) and the local phobia where butter is concerned (ditto).

And that they’re not big fans of our culturally-defined ideas of courtesy.

So far, I’ve got no beef…

However, I feel like there are a few things he missed.

Pour yourself a glass of ice-cold Rioja, and read on…

Spain’s obsession with bread

For the brave of heart and strong of stomach, I propose the following experiment: cook a delicious three-course meal for some Spanish friends.

Serve it, and wait.

how to be spanish during holy week
Holy Week here in Madrid… and a great time was had by all!

Chances are, their hands will reach out and clutch at… nothing. Someone will say, “But where’s the bread?”

It doesn’t matter if you’re serving pad thai, gumbo or enchiladas – they’ll want to mop up the sauce with a hunk of baguette, and feel insulted if you don’t provide it.

I guess it’s worth noting that bread for all was one of the promises of Spain’s fascist dictatorship that lasted nearly 40 years – and that for most of the 20th century it seems like bread was a synonym for food in general.

“Ni un hogar sin lumbre ni un español sin pan.”

It was one of Franco’s most important slogans, both during and after the Civil War.

So get with the program, and give them some bread.

But if you’re thinking of putting some chorizo in a paella, don’t. Is nothing sacred?


A lack of understanding of foreign cultures

This one is (probably) fairly universal. Most countries are mostly ignorant of what’s going on outside their borders.

But Spanish people can get on RyanAir and move to any country in Europe for close to nothing. They’ve got work visas and mostly free government healthcare all over Europe.

All the same, I feel like Spanish people only recognize 3 types of foreigner: moreno, chino and guiri.

On my end, I’ve spent a fair amount of time explaining to people that no, just because I speak English doesn’t mean I am English.

And listening to their stereotypes about guiris as well – mostly culled from the news reports about the lowest level of British football hooligans and holidaymakers in Ibiza.

My friends from other parts of Europe and Asia have experienced something similar: being called “la china” when they’re from a completely different country, or being accused of “speaking guiri” – because obviously all non-latin European languages are just dialects of the same thing.

(Just like French, Italian, Catalán, Spanish, Occitan, Portuguese, Galego, Romanian and others, which clearly are dialects of Vulgar Latin… Just sayin’.)

Anyway, I’m sure at least a few of the comments on this article will include some version of “Go back to England, you creep! If you can’t be 100% positive about Spain all the time, we don’t want you in our country!”

And that’s okay.

‘Cause it’s better than trying to explain that no, not English-speakers are English, and not all Americans are from New York.

And finally…

Living with their parents forever

I might have discussed this in some other article

And certainly some people will disagree with my generalization.

But Spanish people live with their parents, on average, until well into their 30s.

Just ask around.

Spanish people will universally tell you about the horror which is renting a flat.

“Vivir de alquiler es tirar el dinero”, they’ll say.

how to be spanish in madrid
La osa, el madroño, y la tienda de Apple… symbols of Madrid.

The only other option?

Live with their parents as long as they can.

Then, when they finally get that job in middle management they studied for, they can move out, into a tiny mortgaged flat on the 9th floor of a soviet-era block in Moratalaz, and congratulate themselves on their savvy investment.

But until then, it’s decades of languishing on Mom’s sofa, eating family paella every Sunday, making love to their significant other in the backseat of Dad’s borrowed car.

How to be Spanish… the conclusion

So I guess the Times left a few things out.

Of course, I can already hear the well-thought-out rebuttals that will come my way because of this article:

“At least a quarter of my friends moved out of their parents’ house before age 40… you ignoramus!”

“I only eat bread 21 to 28 times a week, you moron! Toast for breakfast, bread with lunch and dinner, and an occasional second breakfast or merienda which is also bread-based.”

“Why, I recognize not 3 but 4 categories of foreigners… Just the other day, I explained to the Bangladeshi guy at the frutería that he’s a hindú. He said he’s a Muslim, but I know better. Silly Indians…”

(You think I exaggerate, but I once heard a Spanish woman lecturing my Bangladeshi greengrocer about his supposed Hinduism. I just wanted to buy some lemons to mix with my booze. And he’s Muslim. But whatever.)

In any case, I still love Spain. And only occasionally hate a few things about it.

Obviously, there is no perfect culture, or perfect country, but I think Spain is close.

It’s got so many things going for it that I’m willing to be called an ignorant Englishman from time to time.

If you’re still not offended, check out my article about the differences between Spain and the US.

Or hey, I’ve got a new and much more complete article over here: top 5 Spanish stereotypes.

And have fun!


Mr Chorizo.

P.S. If you don’t like this article, well, I understand completely. But if you do, you might like my book, The Zen of Blogging. Lots of smart people are fans. Also, beautiful people. Also, smart and beautiful people (’cause some of us are both).

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Hi!
    Just wanted to say I laughed at every part of this. Made me chuckle remembering my time in spain. My husband and I live in NY now (he is Spanish and I am from NY.) We will moving back soon. Something tells me you guys would be buds. I can’t wait to have him read this. Gotta run, haveta break out the fresh baguette. 🤓


  2. Ha ha… yes I have to agree with your extra notations. I am of course always being called British (I’m Canadian) and when they find out I am Canadian they are surprised to find out I speak English. Spain seems to have only heard about Quebec in Canada—the English speaking provinces have been dropped of their geography meter all-together. And as for Spaniards living at home with mom making their bed everyday doing the laundry and ironing….. that we will have to leave for an entire article.

  3. It’s, at least, curious, that coming from the US you get surprised by people generalisations. In your country a Spanish person is, generally, whoever who comes from Latinamerica. Even in the official papers, a Spanish person marks as Latino while the real Latinos, the Italians, mark as white.
    However, I work with English people in the Costa del Sol and they fit in the profile The Times claim for the Spanish. Loud, rude (still waiting for any of them learning words like “por favor” “perdón” “gracias”) and smelling funny.
    The funniest thing is that most of them live and work in Spain permanently, but they are “expats”, never “immigrants”. Couple of times I’ve heard how rude the Spanish people are for not speaking in English with them. Because we are the immigrants!

  4. I was born in Spain but have not lived here since I was 11, 55 years, although we often visit, I agree with everything in your article, it made us laugh because we had just been complaining about the noise, however, I have noticed an improvement in manners. Just take us as we are. 😃

  5. Excellente! Yes, most of my friends are from Spain. Although I have Puertorrican roots, just because I speak English and live in the US, I am called guiri, because I teach English. “La Yankee” because I was born in New York and “Boricua” for my Puerto Rico ancestry. I am planning to move there one day but sometimes I think twice because of their lack of good customer service. It takes an hour to be served the appetizers, and two to get the main course. Good luck on moving back.

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