I was amused by the comments on the piece 20 moments you’ll experience in Spain — amused, but not surprised. Most were Spaniards commenting on the inaccuracy of these clichés. Many of them were insulting the author of the article.
It’s true. Stereotypes can be pretty offensive, even if they’re based on observable features of a culture. It made me wonder: What stereotypes form the image of Spain around the world, as well as inside of Spain?
When I was living in Buenos Aires, someone told me Argentina was considered the Europe of Latin America. I laughed and said, perhaps Spain is considered the Latin America of Europe.
1. Spaniards don’t work. They party all night and sleep all day.
That’d be really nice, but it’s not true. However, it’s not at random that Spain is seen as a lazy, chaotic, and unworried society, where having fun is more important than bringing forward the national economy.
First off, Spain has the most hours of sunlight of any country in continental Europe.
The siesta was created as a cultural defense against extreme heat. During midday hours (in Spain, from 1pm to 4pm, approx), working can be dangerous. That’s why some shops and offices close at those hours. And if it’s too hot to move? Sleep.
2. Spaniards drink…a lot!
I like bars. I’ve been in many bars around the world, and compared to other Europeans, who use booze as a social crutch, I’d say we have a moderate culture of alcohol that tends to avoid over-drinking.
The drunkest people I’ve met have been in Northern Europe. I once partied with some Swedish people in Barcelona. I went to bars with them, and I don’t think I’ve seen people drinking more than that. I don’t even think it’s possible to drink more than that.
Spaniards drink less. Culturally, we abuse alcohol less, with the bar often serving more as a meeting place. Spain actually has the most bars per capita in Europe, but here a bar is not a place specifically for getting wasted.
3. Spaniards are poor / lazy.
Sometimes the image of a hot, exotic region is linked to the idea of poverty / laziness. Spain is actually the 13th largest economy in the world (the same GDP as Canada). In actuality, there are few countries richer than Spain.
Of course, Spain is currently in the middle of a deep political and economical crisis. A very deep crisis. But that’s another story.
4. Bullfighting is the national pastime.
In the States and Canada, everyone kept asking me if I was able to bullfight. They thought it was as common as playing soccer or basketball. No, I don’t kill bulls for sport. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever killed an animal in my life, other than flies and spiders.
Bullfighting is actually forbidden in two regions of Spain: the Canary Islands and Catalonia.
The sport is a significant national totem for a large number of Spaniards. It’s the national icon of shame for the rest. Some people see the elegance, intelligence, and courage of the matador; others, the brutality, despotism, and confusion between culture and torture. A lot of people cry when watching a corrida — some with passion, some with horror.
Bullfighting is constantly attacked by animal rights defenders. To talk about bullfighting in public will surely create controversy. I do it as often as I can.
5. Spain is paradise for tourists.
Every year, many young tourists die in Spain’s East Coast hotels doing something called balconing: jumping from one balcony to the the next. Drunk. And sometimes they fall and they die.
It’s a symptom of what happens with a very specific kind of tourist from Northern Europe and North America. They appear to think it’s more or less permitted to pee on the street, shout at night, consume cocaine, and engage in many forms of vandalism.
When I lived in Italy as a teenager, a lot of my friends knew Barcelona as a capital of marijuana use. This doesn’t mean Barcelona’s inhabitants smoke more than the rest of Europe — it just means a lot of tourists come to Barcelona to do that.
Spain’s economy depends heavily on tourism. It’s attractive for many reasons: lots of sun, pleasant temperatures, more miles of beaches than any European country, the aforementioned many bars, classic Mediterranean cuisine, and the possibility of partying until late.
Along the Spanish coasts, there are whole communities built specifically for tourists, where they’re served and treated in their own language and they have bars and shops just like those in their countries…except with sun and beach. Mallorca is practically Germany, Menorca could be mistaken for Britain, and Formentera can feel like Little Italy.
Of course, the most worrying of the Balearic Islands is Ibiza, known worldwide for being the capital of partying.
6. Spanish people don’t speak English.
Okay, I’ve had this conversation thousands of times. First of all, I don’t accept critiques from English speakers. (Not all of them, but a lot of) British, Australians, and North Americans are used to traveling around the world using nothing but their own language. I imagine going to the fanciest cafe in New York, Vancouver, Melbourne, or London and speaking Spanish to the waiter. My café con leche would never get to my table.
Secondly, it’s a matter of language families. Spaniards have an easy time learning other Romance languages like Italian, Portuguese, or French. It’s the same for the Danish, Dutch, and Germans speaking English — they learn it easily. But they do struggle when it’s time to speak Spanish or French.
In Nicaragua, I met a group of Americans who told me my English was “not that bad.” I asked them how long they had been in Latin America — they said a couple weeks, and they didn’t even know how to say “gracias.” They thought my English wasn’t perfect. Their Spanish was simply nonexistent.
Watch the mayor of Madrid, Ana Botella, defending her city as a contender for the Olympics for 2020. I challenge you not to use subtitles.
Anyway, it’s not true that we don’t speak different languages. Spain actually has four official languages, with Spanish being official nationwide, along with Catalan/Valencian, Basque, and Galizian in their historic regions. Fair warning if you came to Spain to travel around and practice your Spanish skills.
* Feature image by GonchoA