Immigrant life

Why Spain is so much more than just “ham and beer”

EL PAÍS readers criticize Verne article, arguing it glorified and oversimplified Spanish lifestyle

A few weeks ago, Verne published an article by Casie Tennin titled ‘I’m from New York and my life has changed from spending three years in Spain.’ Before returning to the United States indefinitely, Tennin wrote about her time living in Madrid, Granada and Fregenal de la Sierra (a small rural town of some 5,000 people in the southwestern region of Extremadura).

Noise is a common complaint of foreigners in Spain
Noise is a common complaint of foreigners in SpainPablo Blázquez / Getty

Her conclusions about Spain could not have been nicer. She writes: “I’m constantly amazed at the generosity with which people share their lives, their time, their things and their food. I’ve been taught what it means to share without expecting anything in return besides company.” Of course, there was no shortage of praise for tortilla (Spanish omelette), Spanish ham (or jamón) and beer.

If this girl had come any Latin American country, people wouldn’t have even approached her

Verne reader

The article was widely read and shared. Some readers thanked Tennin for her kind words, but others found the article too indulgent.

For example, one reader wrote in the comments section: “We should be embarrassed by the absurd working hours of our country that don’t measure up to the bucolic tone of the article.”

Or another: “We are snobs…What I mean is that if this girl didn’t come from New York, but any Latin American country instead, people wouldn’t have approached her, not even with a mask, and certainly not with beer and ham to share.”

One American, Molly Lori, wrote directly to Verne via email after reading the article: “I’m from Michigan and I have lived in Spain for six and a half years. I love this country and my husband is Spanish, but I think that, aside from what Tennin wrote, it’s important to talk about other things as well. Not everything in Spain is ham, tortilla, soccer and beer.”

Flamenco students at Portacones, a school in Beijing, China.
Flamenco students at Portacones, a school in Beijing, China.Zigor Aldama

Molly later mentioned that, like Tennin, in September she will be leaving Spain to return to the United States. Molly wholeheartedly believes that life is better in Spain than in the US, but she is leaving for a job opportunity that would be unimaginable here.

“Salaries in Spain are not fair. There are people with inhumane jobs who earn very little. And who can leave work at 8pm and still have time to spend with their children? It’s a vicious cycle because you go to sleep later and sleep less. Additionally, movies do not start until 10pm, which does not help,” said Molly.

She also noticed the noise in Spain. As a teacher, she felt overwhelmed on her first day at school. “The kids can barely hear each other. You get used to the noise pollution, but if experts say noise causes stress, then it must be true. Many of my Spanish friends tell me they prefer living somewhere with lots of noise because it seems livelier. I still don’t understand,” said Molly.

Lastly, another Spanish trait she had difficulty adapting to was the constant gossip. One day, Molly was about to leave her house wearing yoga pants, until her husband stopped her and asked her where she was going dressed like that. In the United States, people frequently wear yoga pants and other pajama-like clothing and no one notices. But in Spain, people cannot stop worrying about what their neighbors will think of them.

What about immigrants from other countries?

Immigrant experiences vary depending on their country of origin, so we also asked people who came to Spain from other places what customs they had a hard time adjusting to and what we should be paying more attention to as the host country.

Vladimir Paspuel, president of the Spanish-Ecuadorian Rumiñahui Association, recalls his arrival in Spain 18 years ago: “The people here speak very curtly, which contrasted with my much softer form of Spanish. At first, I thought people were treating me poorly but eventually I realized that was the norm.” Paspuel believes that within a few years Spanish customs will begin to feel more familiar, as there is a large influx of immigrants from Ecuador. “Just as the potato came to Spain from America and became a common ingredient in local cuisine, I hope that Ecuadorian gastronomy and practices will begin to not be foreign and makeup a portion of Spanish society.”

Learning Spanish is as difficult for us as it would be for Spaniards to learn Chinese
Julia Zhang, Ni Hao Cultural Exchange Association

Julia Zhang has lived in Spain for 15 years, after spending the previous 20 years in Argentina. She presides over the Spanish–Chinese cultural association Ni Hao. For her, the main issue that Chinese immigrants encounter in Spain isn’t the customs, but the language. “Learning the Spanish language is as difficult for us as it would be for Spanish speakers to learn the Chinese language. Although we would like to, we often do not socialize with people from Spain because of the language barrier. People should be more aware of the language barrier and give us more attention to help us out. Ultimately, integration is a two-way street,” said Zhang.

Aleksandr Chepurnoy, secretary of the Association of Immigrants of Eastern Countries in Alicante (in the region of Valencia), said that one of his main issues in adapting to Spanish culture was with the word mañana. While it technically means "tomorrow" in Spanish, after 17 years of living in Spain, Chepurnoy says he has finally learned that if a Spanish person says, “We’ll see about that tomorrow,” then they actually have no intention of following up with you at all. He also had a hard time with the lack of punctuality. “In Russia, if you’re 15 minutes late, people will not wait around for you. But in Spain, you can casually show up an hour late.” Nevertheless, he maintains that despite these issues, life in Spain is worth it.

Bombo Ndir was born in Senegal but came to Spain 18 years ago. She is now the president of the Association of Sub-Saharan Immigrant Women. When she first arrived, she was accustomed to exuberant encounters: whenever she saw someone, they would shake hands, hug, and ask about each other’s families, houses, and even pets. However, the first time she spoke to her neighbor in Spain, he only said hello to her. “My friend told me this was because my neighbor still did not know me well enough, but for me simply being my neighbor is reason enough to have a more affectionate conversation,” said Ndir.

In Russia, if you’re 15 minutes late, people will not wait around for you. But in Spain, you can casually show up an hour late Aleksandr Chepurnoy, Russian immigrant association secretary

And finally, Verne even received qualifications from the very person who penned the original article: Casie Tennin. She acknowledged to the paper that, while she intended to list all of the good things she had seen in Spain, she also found her fair share of difficulties. For instance, “if you want to do something between 2pm and 5pm, then you might as well give up, unless you are in a big city and want to buy clothes from a chain store.”

Tennin recommends that Americans have a lot of patience when they visit Spain. "In Spain, you might encounter a group of old women blocking a sidewalk, or that the person in front of you in the grocery line might spend 15 minutes chatting with the grocer. In those cases, it’s better to take a deep breath and realize that that is just the way things are in Spain. Ultimately, tranquility is one of the reasons why I ended up loving the country,” said Tennin.

Tennin also noted one other thing, the particular meaning Spaniards ascribe to the word "now."

"Now can refer to something happening anytime between the moment someone says it and the next five hours," she says.

English version by Debora Almeida.

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