1. The almost fanatical need to be outside for every minute the sun is in the sky
Although I come from the sunniest part of Britain, the very British habit of dropping everything to be out in the sun for the fleeting moments it deigns to shine was very much part of my life before coming to Madrid.
The idea that I would be inside writing this with the blinds down on a beautifully sunny day at four in the afternoon without having ventured out of the house all day would appall the me that used to rush outside to have breakfast, read a book or head to the park at the merest glimmer of sunshine!
2. Being automatically deferential toward elderly women
No demographic I’ve yet encountered think they’re more entitled to your spot in the supermarket queue or spot on the bus than Spanish abuelas.
They obdurately walk three abreast down narrow pavements at speeds that would suggest they have no destination and no other purpose other than to wind up everyone who has to walk into the road to overtake them. They try to get on metro trains without letting people off first, and one of them actually slapped my girlfriend with her handbag for standing in front of her at an intersection.
British me was always deferential toward the elderly; Spanish me has a healthy respect for them and keeps well clear.
3. Saying hello to strangers in lifts and at urinals
The first time I was said “hello” and “goodbye” to by a stranger in a lift, I pulled an awkward face, uttered some monosyllabic grunt in response, and wondered if I actually did know this stranger after all. The first time someone in the gent’s turned their head 90 degrees, and made eye contact with me over the urinal to say “Hola. ¿Que tal?” I was stopped in my tracks.
In Britain, being in an intimate space with a stranger is something to be either ignored or stoically tolerated in silence. After consulting some Spanish friends about this, it turns out that Spanish attitudes toward men’s room platitudes are somewhat different from the British. I was told that I was a cold and heartless guiri from such a frigid culture that I couldn’t even bring myself to say hello to someone who was urinating two feet away from me.
Since having my flow so cruelly cut that day, I’ve started saying hello to strangers in the lift at work and occasionally I’ll say it in the gent’s too, but never while actually expelling bodily fluids.
4. Asking for a cup of tea every time someone offers a drink
Despite the horror of ubiquitous UHT milk and the scarcity of decent tea bags, I haven’t actually stopped drinking tea altogether (the most British of habits). I have, however, stopped asking for a cup of tea at someone’s house or in the office.
Often when I’m offered a drink in Spain, it’ll be a coffee until whoever’s offering will suddenly remember I’m British and switch to a cup of tea. I always used to pander to the stereotype and ask if they wouldn’t mind awfully making me a lovely cuppa.
Once I was with a new client trying to make a good impression with the Human Resources department. They offered me a cup of tea and I accepted as it was 8 in the morning and I was gasping for a brew. The woman who went off on hot drinks duty was gone for a long time, and when she came back she looked annoyed, handing me a mug of tepid microwaved water with a green tea bag bobbing around appetizingly on the surface.
Not having (proper) tea bags, and in some cases not even having kettles, apparently doesn’t stop the Spanish from being friendly enough to ask us Brits if we’d like a cup of tea. I have learned now to stop accepting their offers.
5. Stewing if people didn’t show up on time
I’m a very punctual person. I really am. The reason I’m not a punctual person in Spain, however, is because I am a punctual person who expects others to be as punctual as I am. For the first few months I lived in Spain, I would arrange to meet someone at a certain time, I’d turn up at or before the time agreed upon, wait at least twenty minutes for the other person to turn up, and then I’d pretend that I hadn’t been letting those twenty minutes put me in a bad mood.
Much like not saying hello in the gents’, I was told by Spaniards that the problem was with my sensibilities, not theirs. If I had been sitting on some freezing cold bench or standing on some sizzling street corner stewing in my righteous, punctual indignation that was my problem.
“Few things tend more to alienate friendship than a want of punctuality in our engagements.” The 18th-century author William Hazlitt probably wasn’t talking about my predicament in particular, but I’ve taken his advice anyway. I now leave home at least fifteen minutes later than I would in Britain.
6. Drinking beer like a Brit
The net amount of beer I consume nowadays is probably about the same as when I lived in Britain, but the environment in which I drink it, the pace of the drinking, and the all-important outcome of the drinking, have all changed in the last two years.
Brits and Spaniards both have close relationships with beer, but the differences between them were illustrated perfectly for me recently at The Triskel Tavern in Malasaña. A British friend and I were in the bar watching the Six Nations rugby surrounded by curious Spaniards, everyone was sober enough and having a nice time until two British tourists, identified by their bald heads and pasty complexions, stumbled our way. The first inebriated Brit-abroad tripped and poured a full pint over the head of a Spanish guy, and while the apologies and recriminations ensued, the other fell backwards down a flight of stairs knocking himself out and soaking another Spanish guy coming the other way.
The fact that the first Brit was left to yawn his lunch onto the pavement outside while number two, who fell down the stairs, was politely helped to his feet and asked to leave with no violence or threats, shows the rarity of this type of situation here. The Spanish don’t tend to drink in dimly-lit pubs, they don’t tend to drink pints, they don’t drink too much or too quickly, they don’t usually leave half-digested beer stew on the street, and they almost never get drunk before 11 pm.
Now I’m pretty sure that at some point in the past I have fallen down stairs and spilt beer on someone after too many pints. Nowadays, though, I prefer sitting in a sunny plaza with a little caña of Mahou pretending I don’t miss dingy afternoons in the pub.
7. Remaining neutral while watching sports
Before coming to Spain I could calmly sit on a sofa and watch Barcelona play Real Madrid in El Clásico, and simply appreciate the quality of football on show in the greatest grudge match in sport. I didn’t comment on whether an individual player seemed like a nice guy based on his haircut, or on the national / regional character of the opposition’s fans, I didn’t scream at the TV and I didn’t deny that the opposition deserved to win despite romping to a four-nil win.
I now live with a die-hard Madridista. Enough said.