Whether you are a recent arrival or a long-term expat in Spain, you’ll never cease to be amazed by how extraordinarily hospitable Spanish people can be. If you walk in a bar or a grocery store, it’s easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger. If a neighbour has a problem, many neighbours jump in to help. It’s likely that any expat will take no time in finding a circle of Spanish friends, as hospitality is intertwined with family closeness, the food-sharing ritual of going out for tapas, good weather and a homogenous social behaviour. With these factors representing the tip of the iceberg, this column is dedicated to understanding Spanish culture, starting with why Spanish people are so majos, or friendly.
To begin, let’s look at an important point in Spanish history that marked our DNA. ‘Seven hundred years of Moorish occupation’ is a term my North American father learned from my Spanish grandfather, and he used it to express why Spanish people are so hospitable and differ in punctuality or formalities compared to Anglo-Saxons. Some Spanish people describe the time when Moors lived in Spain as an occupation, but as this residency extended to seven centuries, I feel settlement is more appropriate, and very positive too. The Moors brought innovations such as new sciences, the concept of universities, and food diversity, and many of their introductions have influenced Spanish hospitality and character.
Spanish society needs that hospitable human closeness. I call it the honeycomb warmth effect. In Spain, people often live bunched together, as opposed to the ample space in North American suburban neighbourhoods or British townhouse residential areas, although closeness can have its drawbacks. I used to teach English in Madrid, and will never forget a married student commenting about how he made the mistake of buying an apartment in the same building as his in-laws. “My mother-in-law comes in without knocking, and she tells my wife how to raise our children”, he complained, before adding that they also had to have lunch together every Sunday. However, he never complained about having the convenience and comfort of placing the kids with grandma while he and his wife went for a night out.
A Scandinavian sociology professor once said “the more south in Europe you go, the more people bunch together”, which he supported with the example of public buses. When Swedes hop on a bus, they tend to sit as far away as possible from any other passenger. In Spain, I have sometimes experienced just the opposite, when with plenty of empty seats to fill, someone gets on and sits next to me as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
Another amazing aspect of Spanish tradition is the family. Family unity is strong, and once any individual joins a Spanish family they are accepted and treated equally with other members. The importance of the mother is also interesting. When there’s a problem, she’s the first point of call. I have some close American and British friends married to Spanish women, and they all say the same things as my father used to say in the 1980s: “I visit my in-laws just about every Sunday for lunch, and you won’t believe how well and how much we eat.” Family gatherings and food go hand in hand in Spain, and no one should leave the table hungry. There is a TV programme called Españoles en el Mundo on TVE1, during which Spanish expats are interviewed while living abroad. When asked what they miss the most about Spain, the answer is always ‘their family’ and ‘going out for beers and tapas with friends’.
Tapas, Spain’s global cuisine craze, definitely has Moorish roots, with everyone sharing all plates on the table, although I couldn’t imagine going out for tapas without a cold beer or a nice red Ribera or Rioja wine. The traditional Anglo-Saxon dinner ritual, however, is one plate per person, and never put your fork or spoon in any common dish in the centre of the table.
The Moors introduced a variety of spices, along with rice, sugar, and a lot of the fruit and vegetables that we take for granted today. Thanks to that historical settlement, Spanish food has such a wide variety of dishes and ingredients. The tapas concept has travelled the world because it’s fun to choose from and enjoy a variety of dishes at the same time. As my Spanish friend says, going out for tapas is like doing a pre-wedding food tasting.
The excellent Mediterranean climate in the south and along the coast is another key hospitality factor, although seasons in Madrid vary from extremely hot to very cold. Fortunately, hot normally covers more months than cold, with plenty of sunny days throughout the year. I have fond memories of spending Saturday lunches in the city centre with my family, watching my dad grab a terrace table for lunch, and then enjoying a warm March sun shining on our faces. Terraces are packed and lively when the weather is good, so if you’re ever looking for an apartment to rent in Madrid, and want to sleep at night, make sure your bedroom window doesn’t face a busy street. As an example of bar popularity, urban legend has it that there are more bars in Madrid’s working-class Vallecas neighbourhood than in all of Sweden.
Spain is a homogenous society and quite conservative in many ways. We don’t like changes and frequently follow the option ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’. A good example of this behaviour is summer holidays, which are still usually taken in July or August, with many families or friends repeating the same plan year after year. A Spanish saying perfectly describes this repetitious ritual: más vale lo malo conocido que lo bueno por conocer, meaning ‘a known evil is better than an unknown good’.
Customs and traditions flow from history. Spanish hospitality has a profound deep Arab influence and plays a key role in our social habits and the way we interact with family, friends and strangers. If you have recently moved to Spain, you have probably felt that hospitality, and if you have been here for a while, it’s probably one of the reasons that you haven’t moved elsewhere.
Half Spanish and half Anglo-Saxon entrepreneur operating in Spain’s bustling tourism sector, I have lived both cultures and can honestly reflect upon the differences between them through their traditions, customs, habits, food, clichés etc…