A hall, with plastic chairs and a projector. A short, smiling Spanish lady fiddles with the computer controls as she tries to make the presentation show. It starts late. We’re in Spain, so no apology is deemed necessary. Patience is expected. The first presentation begins with a man who speaks a challenging form of Spanish. Here they drop the ends of the words, particularly anything with an ‘s’ and speak ever so fast. I don’t catch a single word.
The heavily-abridged English translation, haltingly forced out by another Spaniard who’s uncomfortable with having to translate, could be summarized as ‘welcome’.
Then the men disappear; the cheery Spanish lady takes over. It’s an improvement of sorts. It feels like a meeting that’s convened because having such a meeting is the done thing. She informs us that on moving to a new country it’s useful to adapt to your new culture. I agree, to a point. However, in my opinion, this isn’t something you learn by being told.
In my opinion, it’s an uncomfortable process where your habits are wrung out of you. You cling to your old ways of doing things but are squeezed into something new. Round peg, square hole. Little by little you come to realize that there’s more than one possible way of living. Maybe you get there quicker intellectually, you know you have to adapt, but physically and emotionally, I think even the most seasoned traveller has norms they fight to cling to.
We were advised that sticking rigidly to dinner at 7pm would result in a very limited understanding of Spanish culture. And here I agree. Food is everything. If you are going out for dinner and you turn up at 7pm, you’re only going to find people eating in the most touristy locations. It was a message intended for those people who would later complain about Spanish food, but it missed the point. The same people will still complain.
To fit in with the Spaniards you need to show willingness to do things like them so that they understand you want to join in. But it would be silly to think that all Spanish people do things in an identical fashion, or that eating a meal at 7 o’clock in a restaurant with friends who were happy eating at such an hour would be a problem.
We eat breakfast at half eleven here, toasted baguette with tomato, olive oil and salt. This suits me because after three classes I’m hungry. I’m told it’s the traditional Spanish way of doing things, but not everyone eats breakfast. One teacher has tea and toast without tomato, I have a café americano and another teacher has a glass of orange juice.
What’s more, when I arrived home from work at one o’clock this afternoon, my Landlady was finishing her lunch. Lunch here is typically a three o’clock affair, but that’s not always convenient.
One Spanish lady I met, who had been a nurse in Manchester told me that eating at English hours had been the hardest thing about her placement to England. She explained to me that in her opinion, you have to listen to the needs and habits of your body at the same time as embracing a new culture. I think I agree. I’m easy going and have tried a variety of different food here in Spain. But I can’t deny I miss my mother’s cooking and Indian food. On a week night, if I’m heading to bed shortly after ten, I’m not interested in eating at nine. If I’m alone I eat when I’m hungry. The children at school inform me that in Spain you have five meals a day. When you want to eat, it’s probably time for one of them.
When I ask my classes how many of them would be willing to try a Yorkshire pudding or toad-in-the-hole I’m faced with only a few courageous hands. Fish and chips fares a little better. Not everyone is adventurous when it comes to eating. Food has a lot to do with nostalgia and comfort and a sense of home. Just because you’re living in a different culture doesn’t mean you don’t still have these same needs, albeit maybe they’re less strong.
I think that the advice to eat at nine, not seven is misguided. I think that time is not the important factor. And I think that the advice should be if you choose to live like a Spaniard, and it’s a choice, you need to surround yourself with Spanish people and invite them to share with you their culture so that you can learn. What’s more, when you decide that there’s something you don’t like, politely say no. You get to choose how you adapt, and when and what you eat.