Forget learning a few words of Spanish and introducing a morning brandy into your café-life, there’s more to becoming a Spaniard than not turning green each time they put a bull-fight on the telly.
First of all, you have to look Spanish. Many people from foreign parts manage this easily enough, and the whole thing is, I agree, down to fate, but, if you look like a Swede, it doesn’t matter how fluent you might be in the language and culture, you will still be on the outside, looking in. In short, Mother Nature is cruel about our looks: take the case of two Nordic looking Spanish friends of mine. I once went out to some local dives in Marbella with these two work-colleagues, Alfonso and Juan. Alfonso is blond and has a beard. He comes from Motril. Juan is a redhead and is from Estepona. Me, I look like a Swede. After Alfonso was complimented on his Spanish for the third time (‘not bad – how long have you been in Spain…?'), and Juan was advised to try a glass of ‘we call this vee-no’, we decided to either split up – or to stick to the English bars.
My dad was once drinking in a bar in Murcia with some fellow who, as my father recalled later, ‘looked like a syphilitic Turkish tax-inspector’. ‘Where do you suppose I am from?’ asked the swarthy gentleman as he bought another round of drinks. ‘Denmark?’ suggested my father to his delighted companion, who triumphantly admitted that he was, in fact, a tax-inspector from Istanbul.
‘Spanish’ is not a language (it’s called ‘Castilian’ anyway), but a cultural identity. There is no point speaking it if you have nothing of value to say. You need context. Please don’t go on about Gordon Brown because no one in Spain has heard of him. Just say the same stuff but switch to Zapatero. In fact, try watching Spanish TV which not only helps you with the language, it also helps you with the culture, informs you about what’s going on around the corner and increases your enjoyment and understanding of this country. You can’t carry on living like an exile like a child pressing his nose to the glass of an English toyshop, missing 95% of what’s happening here (and who’s doing it), just for the sunburn.
To assimilate here – and I don’t mean just being able to buy a drink for the old shepherd who lives in the frightful dive across the hill and whose vocabulary is probably around a hundred words (say two weeks of study with a Donald Duck comic in Spanish) – you need to adopt a few new mannerisms. Three things spring to mind. The proper use of swear-words, never using a winker and the correct disposal of rubbish.
These are the Spanish equivalents of those naughty words that Spellcheck doesn’t like. All those three, four and six letter words that we learnt at a tender and impressionable age. Here, they don’t use asterisks. In Spanish – a wonderful language for swearing in – what might be considered as the harsher words to our way of thinking are here used to great and often gentle effect. You will find the most remarkable terms used towards friends and family, and I will, since the subject is considered disturbing in English, limit myself to just one example.
Lorenzo (a vile old boozer who lives across the way) was telling me about his lunatic and alarmingly cross-eyed son, who had, just that very morning, enjoyed a short conversation with his father about the colours of the sunrise as they briefly melted and blurred into the sides of the hill. ‘Si, hijo mio. Tienes razón coño’, his dad assured him. ‘Bloody right yes, you silly bastard’ would be an understatement as a direct translation, but, in effect, the old boy was really being quite understanding.
Never use your winker while driving. No one ever does. On roundabouts a winking car usually means a foreigner is driving, or else the winker has been on for months. Don’t trust it and expect anything. The only time it’s used is probably when the motorist says to himself ‘bugger me, I wonder what this knob does..?’ Actually, in the old days, when driving was a more neighbourly and enjoyable activity than it is today, when we had roads instead of sterile motorways with speed cameras hidden in bushes, when driving half-crocked was considered socially acceptable and people asked for a ride by standing in the middle of the highway, the winker was used by truck-drivers to allow you to overtake. The left-winker meant: ‘the road is empty ahead, please feel free to pass at your convenience’ – or perhaps it meant ‘I’m turning left and there’s a huge pantechnicon bearing down on you’ – or, as I’ve said, ‘help, my winker is stuck’. But that was then. Now, no one uses them. The horn, now there’s a useful button. Very handy for zebra crossings.
A Spreading Waste
The third vital thing to know, if you want to pass yourself off as a Spaniard, particularly one from the south, is the proper disposal of rubbish.
What you do is you throw it out of the nearest window.
This is the hardest of all to get right. Really. And you thought windows were for the view!
Bung it out the window or chuck it on the floor or dump it in the corner-
It’s starting to sound like a song, like the recipe for sangria (‘one of white and one of red…'). Everything must go.
The ditches are full of rubbish, with plastic bags gamboling playfully in the wind and empty beer cans rolling noisily across the highways of the province. Dead cats stare reproachfully at the traffic as empty disposable lighters bounce off their crushed skulls. Of course, it’s not just the Great Outside that’s brimming with junk that, all too rarely, receives a cursory scrape by order of the local government.
Although, we are beginning to see some small political will towards cleaning up, putting things in containers and bottle banks and generally looking like ‘somebody is doing something’.
I remember being given a gamba when I first came to Mojácar. I stripped it down, ate it and chooped the brains (as instructed), but then, feeling uncertain, I put the shattered remains, sticky legs and surviving goo discretely back onto the tapa-dish. No, no! On the floor! I learnt. With the rest of the junk. I had noticed that I was standing up to my ankles in paper, tooth-picks, stoppers, used lottery tickets, fines and pictures of Franco. But, soon enough, a drudge scuttled under me with her broom and plastic scoopy-thing leaving the scene fresh for further onslaught. Nowadays, they either don’t give you a tapa, or else there’s some little baskets invitingly scattered around below the bar, which appears to be a sensible arrangement.
At least, to a fellow who looks like a Swede.