Essays - Don't Pass the Tapas

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Life beyond the Spanish textbooks. How many times can I say, Gracias?

Every time I come down from my retreat among the olive groves of Upper Granada Province and set foot in "civilization" - that is, the north European variety thereof - in places such as Estepona, Mojácar or even Chelsea, London where I have some friends - I am struck by the amazing number of times which people say "thank you" without really meaning it, for a service as trifling as passing the salt during dinner. Living most of the time among Spaniards, "gracias" seems like a big word to me, reserved for gifts and favours of a more substantial kind. In my village, when we go into a bar and yell "íPepe, ponme una caña!", Pepe doesn’t expect us to say por favor, or gracias either, once the beer has been served; in fact, he would find it excessive and even ridiculous if we did.

This is because, in Spanish culture, the normal little things we automatically do for each other all day long, such as opening the door when we are the first one to get to it, are taken for granted; not doing them would certainly be commented on, but otherwise they are given no verbal tribute at all. There was on the coast a restaurant I know of which employed an English waitress because they needed someone who could speak to the tourists. After a few weeks the Spanish owner, no longer able to contain himself, called her on one side and burst out, "If you say "gracias" once more when the cook hands you a dish, you’re fired!".

These are the irrational little things which distinguish an Englishman from a Spaniard no matter how well he learns his host’s vocabulary. I have been an on-and-off resident of Montefrio for almost 40 years and I have still not ironed all of them out of my everyday behaviour. Somerset Maugham wrote that we are more willing to forgive people for being immoral or even criminal than for insignificant idiosyncracies such as, to quote his example, lining up peas on one’s knife and then lifting the knife to one’s mouth to eat them. Such cultural details give even the most diligent student of local language and customs away as belonging to another tribe.

It’s also funny to see the guests at my rental cottages, when having a drink with me and my local friends, pick up a plate of tapas from the middle of the table, where it is no closer to them than anyone else, and kindly proffer it to each of the surprised Spaniards, as if they had some physical impediment which made it difficult for them to reach out for themselves. Being deferential by nature to outsiders, the villagers dutifully take an olive or crisp, whether they feel like eating one or not. Here, we traditionally eat like Arabs, all gathered around a few big dishes and jabbing at them with forks, or even dipping into them with our fingers, without anyone to encourage or help us of course. I should add that this usually takes place amid such shouting and laughing that such niceties as ¨gracias¨ would probably not even be heard anyway.



Depressingly for those who are in the process of learning Spanish, knowing a little of it can often make the foreigner seem more idiotic knowing none at all. My father wandered through Spain in the 1930’s - just like Laurie Lee and Gerald Brenan - and comes back to see me here often. But, now in his 80’s, he has forgotten most of his Spanish and has a hard time making himself understood. Once, we passed by a house where there was an impressively thick and gnarled grapevine, or parra, growing on the porch, in the shade of which sat an elderly lady in black. My Dad wondered how old it could be and mustering all of his considerable pluck, went up to the lady and began enunciating, very slowly, the sentence, ¿Cuántos años tiene...? but faltered when he reached the word for grapevine, which he didn’t know in Spanish. The woman look up startled and fled into the house. A moment later her husband came out to indignantly ask Dad what he wanted - because, it seems, she had taken the sentence to be complete as said, and, as such, correctly understood it as meaning that my father wanted to know not the parra’s age but her own.

An American woman who stayed recently in the loft of my house - the apartment I call The Granary - told me about a friend of hers who lives in Salobreña and knows more Spanish than most. She had written an advertisement for renting her villa and went to the photocopy shop to have it printed up as a brochure - in Spanish, un folleto. There were two women in the shop and she said to them, unwittingly changing the gender of the subject, "Quiero hacer una folleta". The association of this new word she had just, as it were, invented with the very rude Spanish verb follar sent the ladies - to the americana’s great consternation - into hysterical laughter, since it gave the impression she was in search not of a Xerox machine but a lusty male.

Similar bloopers are made by American women who refuse a second helping at dinner by saying "Estoy llena" - "I’m full" - which in barnyard Spanish would be understood as meaning "I’m pregnant". But there´s no need to feel too bady about it – similar embarrassments are created by Spanish-speakers in our countries when letting people know they have a cold, which in Spanish is constipado.

Just last week the son of a neighbouring farmer asked me to help him write a letter (I’m well known in the region for my political pamphlets) to a young lady whom he would like to marry but is too shy to approach. I asked him what exactly he wanted to say in it, and he said that I could put it any way I thought best, but that his aim was to "entrar en relaciones" with her. Of course, he just wants to start a relationship with her which could end in something more specific, but if he had been in the situation of most English-speakers in Spain, I might have concluded that he was lusting after the same thing which, to the understanding of the ladies in the photocopy shop, drove the americana to make her shocking declaration.

But the most common source of friction is, without a doubt, our compulsive need to thank people for just about everything they do. Germans do it just as incorrigibly as the British, as illustrated by a joke I heard in France about the man who stayed in a hotel and asked the clerk in the morning if there was not a railway line passing nearby. No, she answered, and asked him what made him think that there was. Well, he said, it seemed to him that at intervals in the night he heard a train rattling past. Oh no, she said, that’s just the two Germans who are staying in the next room, and who are always saying to one another, "Danke Schoen-Bitte Schoen, Danke Schoen-Bitte Shoen...".

But the French shouldn’t talk - the better brought up variety are just as effusively thankful for being given salt and having doors opened as us. A Parisian friend of mine, who studied flamenco guitar in Seville, took his mother to Spain, and while she was here she tried to learn a few words of Spanish, because she hated having to depend on him in order to speak to the natives. When she didn’t know the right Spanish word she would blithely give the appropriate French one a Spanish twist, hoping that this would be understood. As they drove across the Spanish border - this was back in the 60’s when there were still immigration controls - she showed the guard her passport, and when he gave it back thanked him by saying, very clearly and as her parting shot at the long-suffering Spanish tongue, "Muchas mercias".