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A Pain In Spain
Gary Smith
July 22, 1992
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July 22, 1992

A Pain In Spain

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You're a conscientious person. A responsible human being. You've got your round-trip ticket to Barcelona, your hotel room booked and your car rented, but one thing still makes you uneasy. How? you ask. How can you avoid being the Ugly American in Spain?


Sorry. Had to get that out of my system.'re coming anyway. O.K., let's get one thing straight. I know you. I just finished spending a year in Spain, and there were a couple of hundred of you on my flight home from Madrid. The flight attendant was yanking out her hair trying to figure out what to do with the sombreros that wouldn't fit in the overhead compartments or beneath the scats. The plane was listing leeward from all the cardboard boxes full of Lladró figurines—necessary to fulfill a strict U.S. Customs requirement that every American citizen returning from Spain bring back at least $1,000 worth of porcelain puppy dogs, clowns, kitty cats, angels and ballerinas.

O.K., maybe you're not quite as bad as the father of an American friend of mine who bounced off the plane to Barcelona with his girlfriend wearing matching sweatsuits and insisting, seriously, on seeing The Plain in Spain. But you're probably close. No doubt you already feel it rippling through you, this irresistible urge to pound on restaurant doors for dinner at 5:30 p.m., while everyone else is still belching lunch and rubbing the siesta out of his eyes, and then to ask if they serve PIE-EL-LA. Face it, you are an Ugly American. But we can work with you. I think.

First off, and most important: Take a deep breath. Unclench your teeth. Rev down. Chill out. Tranquilo. Finished your dessert? Game's not over—it's only halftime. Light up a stogie. Add to the haze. Order a snifter of Quarenta y Tres. A bottle of champagne. Sing a song. Say something intelligent to the person across the table, or across the room. Those are the things people do after eating in Spain. It'll take an hour for the waiter to bring the check anyway, so relax. The customer is always right? Wrong. Here, the customer is never right.

You have to understand something: The Spanish know how to live. They know they know how to live. The waiter's or bartender's quality of life is more important to him than your money...which means the EC. Barcelona-Real Madrid soccer game on the TV screen is more important to him than your empty beer glass. Tranquilo. You're not the commander-in-chief of the universe here. Tran-keeeeeeee-lo. I'm not even an Ugly American, swear to god I ain't, but if I had a hundred pesetas for every time someone said "Tranquilo" to me in Spain, I could have bought Lladrós for all of Cincinnati and half of Des Moines—oh, you say they've already got them?

Why not relax, anyway? What's the rush? Turn your watch ahead six hours when your plane lifts off from New York for Spain...then take it off and throw it away. Dinner gets cooking at 10 p.m. Nightlife gets cooking at 2. When the sun rises, you fall. But I'll miss breakfast, you say. Big deal—it's a cup of coffee and a roll. But I'll have a hangover tomorrow morning, I'll fall asleep during my city tour. Deport this man, officer. He's thinking consequences. No one thinks consequences in Spain. It's illegal. Don't expect any help from the U.S. embassy if you get caught.

What do you have, two weeks vacation, three? You'll survive. Every half hour or so, just ask yourself what you feel like doing at that very moment, with total disdain for the concept of Tomorrow. If it's a pitcher of sangria, a pack of Marlboros and the chick with the big eyes across the bar, now you're talking Spanish, baby. Just say yes. That's the national motto. You've got a whole lifetime to worry about cause and effect. Hell, there's always coffee to get you through the next day. Drink it like they do. Strong. Often. Fast. No smuggling in bags of American instant coffee and ordering a cup of hot water, like my mother did when she visited us. Weak, Mom. Weak.

And no whining about the density of the cigarette smoke in every eating and drinking establishment you enter, please. Every American I've seen in Spain does that. So what if the haze is so thick you can't see your wife? Remember, this is your vacation. Don't demand a seat in the no-smoking section (there isn't one), don't ask the guy at the next table to snuff out his Havana. Sneak off to the bathroom and drown your eyeballs in Visine, if you must. Hold your breath for an hour. Order a couple of stiff drinks. Take your emphysema like a man. You've got to remember this: Crowds. Shouting. Loud TV. Music. Laughter. Smoke. That's ambience to a Spaniard. Practice shouting in your bathroom before you leave. When you can produce an echo, you're ready. I'm sorry, but if you can't abandon yourself to the fiestas that go off like a string of firecrackers in town after town during the summer, you can use up all the film on all the old churches you want—you're going to miss half the essence of Spain.

A few more quick warnings about drinking. If you're with a group of Spaniards, don't drift off to the bar by yourself and order a drink. That's ugly. Very ugly. People buy rounds in Spain. That's camaraderie. That's human decency. Don't grow roots in a bar. Empty that drink and exit. Don't panic; there are roughly 17.3 bars on every block in Spain, and besides, as a drinking partner of mine there explained on the run: "Every bar owner is a child of God. To drink two drinks in this man's bar and none in that man's bar... that is not just." Don't make a fool of yourself hunting down a trash can for the wet napkin or candy wrapper in your hand. Crumple it and chuck it. Hell, while you're at it, chuck every wrinkled business card, scribbled phone number and used Kleenex you can find in your wallet or purse—that's what Spanish barroom floors are for.

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