Spain culture

Spain in the eyes of its neighbours

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No concept of time? Everything stops in the heat of the day? These are just some of the perceptions that foreigners have of Spain – thanks to guide books out there.

Spain's inhabitants have spent centuries arguing – and even warring – over what their national identity is and whether they even have one. But if Catalans, Basques, Galicians, Andalusians and Castilians cannot agree on what Spain is, foreigners seem to have no qualms about how to portray the country.

In guidebooks read by Britons, Germans, French, Italians, Russians and Japanese, age-old stereotypes mingle with sharper observations about modern Spain, today the world's second most-popular tourist destination, after France.

Of the 60 million tourists expected to visit the country in 2008, many will have found out that few Spaniards partake in a post-prandial siesta or arrive late for every meeting, though others will have had their ideas about Spain's party culture and sense of community reinforced. 

"You cannot avoid noticing the contagious enthusiasm for life of the Spaniards," observes Germany's Baedeker guide.

"The rhythm of life is guided by the need to meet up of an evening, all generations together, on the streets and in the tapas bars. That gives unity to the country," argues a French guide.

The Germans even go so far as to offer advice on how to partake in an element of Spanish culture that still exists in rural areas but is fast fading in the cities: the evening paseo.  

"Go at 5pm to a town square," the guidebook urges. "At first you will find yourself alone, because the siesta is just ending, but little by little people will come to the square. It is the time to gather, for aimless walks until late into the night.

“Simply join in, go to a bar, have a sherry, a red wine or a cider, try the marvellous tapas and forget about the dinner you had planned or the excursion schedule for the next day. We congratulate you. If you achieve that then you have experienced in a small but not insignificant part of the Spanish way of life."

Britain's Rough Guide adds another recommendation for those doing the rounds of the tapas bars.

"Drinking too much is not common. Even though it seems there is a bar on every corner, they are more for having coffee and socializing rather than for getting smashed," the book notes, describing Spaniards as "moderate" drinkers.

All guidebooks warn that Spain does not operate on typical European hours, with the Italians who wrote the Touring Club guide emphasising that "all shops shut and everything stops during the heat of the day."

Selection of tapas

The Rough Guide also presses the stereotyped observation that Spaniards have a different sense of time to everyone else. "In theory, Spain is an hour ahead of the United Kingdom, but conceptually it might as well be on another planet," the book says.

"In Spain, time is an elastic concept: unless it's to do with business, don't be upset if you have to wait 10 or 20 minutes."Perhaps a touch more observant of the realities of their southern neighbour, the French go into detail on the major cultural differences between Spain's regions. 

The Bibliotheque du voyageur writes:  "The Andalusians are by far the most exuberant Spanish people... the Galicians are the opposite. The Basques are hard workers and like to live well... The Catalans share with the Basques the burning desire to break the ties that hold them to the rest of the country."

And the Castillians of Spain's heartland? "[They] believe that the country belongs to them by divine right," the book argues.

Spain's regional divisions are noted by the Italians in reference to Spain's national cuisine, or, in their view, lack of one.

"Besides paella, tortilla and gazpacho, the country does not have a real national cuisine, but every region has its own dishes and local cultural traditions," the Touring Club book says.

Indeed, food is also high on the list of priorities for the Japanese, with their leading guidebook telling them to bring home olive oil, olives, sherry vinegar, squid ink, alioli sauce, and the candy on a stick called Chupa-Chups.

El Pais / Tereixa Constenla / Expatica

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1 Comment To This Article

  • Stephen McCartney posted:

    on 8th October 2008, 16:16:25 - Reply

    This article seems to dismiss the various views of the quoted publications. I would argue they all have some truth.
    If you visit Salou, Benidorm etc, then yes the "siesta" is difficult to detect, the beaches, shops and streets will be full, albeit not with Spanish people.
    If on the other hand, you find yourself in a "Spanish" Spanish resort like say, Gandia, then it is very noticeable.
    Venture inland, avoiding ex pat hot spots and real Spain, with Spanish people, although changing, is still quite traditional, matching those descriptions you dismiss as stereotypical.