Home > Class, Culture, Language > Observations: Episode II

Observations: Episode II

As with last time, I’ll just kind of write, with observations first and stories second. Here goes (how’s that for an introduction?).


  • Though I don’t eat out at restaurants often, I have picked up on one thing. In Spain, you don’t tip the waiter, no matter how nice the restaurant. I’m assuming their salaries are higher, more like a regular job. In the USA, the waiter’s salary is generally lower and they depend on tips to make up for the lower pay rate–for this reason, tips are expected. Additionally, if you don’t ask for the bill, it’s not coming. They consider it rude to drop a bill off at a table, as if you’re pushing them out the door. Makes sense–it’s just different.
  • Taking care of its citizens is a major concern of the Spanish government, whether liberal or conservaitve, and it manifests itself in many ways–sometimes small ones. One example is that, at crosswalks, the street posts beep audibly to let you know when it is safe to cross. It’s a GREAT idea, and not only does it make it safer for people who aren’t paying attention, it makes a world of difference to the blind. Spain helps the blind a lot: spoken names of bus stops and Metro stops (as well as talking signs to tell you when the bus you want is coming), different sized paper money, etc. This technology might also exist in America (NYC or Chicago maybe?), but I know it exists in Madrid, Barça, and Amsterdam.
  • I’ve raved about the public transportation system the whole time I’ve been here, and I’m still quite happy with it. It’s cheap, easy to use, and easy to navigate (once you get used to it). The other day I found out you also get free WiFi use on all the buses. They’ve done public transportation the right way–nothing like Facebooking as you’re riding down the Paseo del Prado.
  • Though I’ve been here for three months, I still never hear Spanish music. Going to clubs, eating at restaurants, walking into stores–no matter where you are you almost always hear American music. There is one exception that I can think of: I went to a cheap-o Indian restaurant one time that has included some Spanish songs in its playlist, but the songs they played were by artists Juanes and Julieta Venegas… The songs were Mexican.
  • Though the American economy isn’t as strong as it could be (1.49 dollars to the euro), in some respects, we’re still far better off than Spain right now. They’re sitting at around a 20% unemployment rate right now. That’s not a typo. The Prime Minister, Zapatero, is hated here much like Bush was and is probably blamed more for the crisis than Obama was by the right. The ugliness of politics is universal: nobody’s ever happy, and it’s always the other guy’s fault.
  • Europeans introductions: As a male, if I meet a new guy, I greet him with a handshake. However, introductions with females are made with kisses, one on each cheek. Don’t try to shake a girl’s hand–the resulting situation is just awkward. I think this type of introduction is present in Latin America as well (and maybe in more places), but I’ve still never been there, so I wouldn’t know firsthand.
  • Drinking alcohol here is very much different from the United States–in legality and culture. Obviously I’m allowed to drink here legally, but its societal role here is much more than recreational (which is not the case for people my age in the USA). I generally have a glass or two of wine with every lunch and dinner, and it is incredibly normal. In fact, Pepe (the host dad) drinks wine with me every day. Returning to the States where it is neither culturally nor legally acceptable will be an odd relapse.
  • The Spanish word for buzzkill or party pooper is aguafiestas, which made me laugh endlessly when I learned it. It doesn’t translate well in a literal sense, but a rough translation would be “water to parties”, which to me for some reason is really funny. Along the same silly lines, the word for handcuffs is esposas: “wives”. Languages can be pretty funny at times.
  • I still can’t roll my R’s too well. My intercambio, Pedro, makes fun of me pretty endlessly about it (in good fun). When I try, I either end up doing a uvular trill (back of the tongue and/or in the throat) or a really weak hiss sound with the correct part of my tongue. Oh, I should also mention that I have something between a Spanish and an American accent now. C = th. ‘Nuff said.
  • Smoking–everyone does it. Walking into school every day means walking through a small cloud of smoke from the kids loitering around the building’s entrance. The number of smokers is astronomically high here, particularly among the younger generation. According to this site, 40% of young women smoke here (I will say that it seems that even more women than men smoke here). I have also seen other figures that are higher.


  • For Mythography class the other day, our teacher Patricia took us through the underground scene of Madrid. In Lavapiés, a place known for its diversity, we were taken into a previously abandoned warehouse that had been seized by this sort of hipster young crowd. The entire building was decorated with artistic graffiti (a la Banksy), and full of young people dressed like revolutionaries (almost). We toured it, walking through a coffeeshop among kids with thick-rimmed glasses and plaid shirts. In one room, there was a trade-shop. Clothes were placed pell-mell throughout the room, and if you wanted something you could take it. It was just understood that you’d replace it with something of your own–a trade. Later on, we ended up into a large room where there was strange music playing in the background while a man and woman dressed in metallic clothing were seated, unmoving, on a raised platform in the middle of said room. The man, who looked a bit like he belonged in Daft Punk, was wearing fake glasses with big, bulging eyes, while grasping his hand to his throat and grunting as if struggling for air. Surrounding them were around 100 art students, drawing the scene quickly from different angles. In yet another room, we saw some teenage girls practicing acrobatics on giant ribbons hanging from the ceiling. It was easily the oddest place I’ve been to in Madrid, and perhaps the strangest thing I’ve seen in all my life.
  • The Champions League is in full swing right now, and the most recent match that Real Madrid played was against Tottenham Hotspur, a team from the English Premiere League. The day before the match was the day I came back to Madrid from Amsterdam, and while riding the Metro back home, I heard two folks speaking English. This is relatively rare in the Spanish Metro, so I generally make a point to talk to people when I hear it. Turns out, these two men, Ivan and Joe, were Irishmen who were in town for the game (Tottenham has a large following in Ireland). Additionally, neither spoke a word of Spanish and both were extremely lost. They had simple directions to their hotels and to the stadium (where they had to pick up their tickets), and the Madrid Metro system can be a bit intimidating and unhelpful without experience on it. I took pity on them and chaperoned them to the stadium. At the Bernabéu, all you have to do when you buy a ticket is stick the credit card you used to pay for the ticket into a machine and it prints it for you. However, one of the tickets was incorrectly cut by the machine, cutting it directly in half. I ended up having to go talk to their main office to get the ticket reprinted for them, but I suspect that without me there, Messrs. Joe and Ivan might have been out of luck. I left them with more detailed instructions on how to to get to their hotels and went back home. They were both very grateful, calling me a “good samaritan”. Just doin’ my part to make ‘Murica look good. Tottenham lost 4-0.

Tomorrow, I’ll be in Galicia. On Thursday, I come back to Madrid, but I’m staying in the airport to fly out to Berlin to meet Felipe Gaitan. After that, I’ll go to Stockholm to see Felix Wibergh’s family. Should be a great Spring Break. It’s not that much time until I come back home, which is a strange feeling to be sure. I now have a routine established here–something of a life established. Furthermore, I am going to have a ridiculously difficult schedule upon my return. But alas, little I can do about it except enjoy the time remaining, then work my ass off when I return.

As always, gracias por leer!

Categories: Class, Culture, Language
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