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Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

The 10 enduring mysteries of Spain to a foreigner

Por: | 09 de marzo de 2015

Cash machine 2 - carlos rosillo
Credit: Carlos Rosillo

I recently celebrated my 40th month as a resident in Barcelona, making me officially over the Spanish hill. To celebrate, I decided to reflect on the 10 continuing mysteries of Spanish life, the kind of puzzles that keep me up at night and make me forget the milk on a trip to the supermarket. 

Here’s to the next 40 months then - and here’s hoping we can finally crack these enigmas.

1) The irregular advertising quandary 

Televisions programmes, as a rule, have regularly scheduled breaks in action during which the network can go to adverts. These, typically, are to be found half way through the programme or at a comforting, regular division like thirds.

Might it make sense, then, when showing imported TV programmes to schedule your adverts to coincide with these friendly breaks?

Yes, of course: the vast majority of the world.

Why on earth would you want to do that? Spanish television argues (and Antena 3 I’m particularly looking at you.) 

In fact, the scheduling of advertising breaks is one of the most troubling puzzles of Spanish life. A two episode block of The Simpsons on Antena 3 at 2pm should be the perfect accompaniment to a lazy lunch and resulting digestion. Except Antena 3 inserts ad breaks at such brain-changingly odd times it makes the whole thing into some kind of weird endurance test.

A typical Simpsons episode double bill on Antena 3 will go: opening credits; six minutes of adverts; first episode scene one; seven minutes of adverts; the rest of the two episodes crammed together with no room to even make a cup of tea.

It’s baffling. Maybe Antena 3 thinks this is the best way of getting us to watch as many ads as possible. But if this was the case, then wouldn’t The Simpsons US creators have already thought of this? Wouldn’t other TV networks around the world have copied this innovation? Wouldn’t TV as a whole look entirely different, in fact?

2) The newspaper knife enigma

What is it about newspapers that makes people want to buy knives? Is the news so bad it makes us yearn to slice our own throats? Are the recipes within so delicious that they positively demand the fresh slicing edge of new metallic fury?

I don’t know. But one thing is certain: in Spain, publishers definitely think newspapers and knives go together. In fact, barely a month goes by without some newspaper announcing that this Saturday in the kiosks they will be offering eager readers the opportunity to buy a complete set of steak knives alongside their morning paper for “only” €12. 

Who buys them? Why is it always knives? What kind of crossover is there here? Reader, I’m as baffled as you are…

3) The Barça knife baffler

… and talking of knives, why on earth would even the most ardent of Barcelona FC fans want to buy a set of knives emblazoned with the Barça logo? A T-shirt? I can see that. A duvet set? I suppose so. For a child.

But knives? Who wants to think about football when slicing a lettuce? Who wants to get all upset about dodgy penalties when chopping a tomato? But such dodgy logic certainly doesn’t stop papers like Sport perennially offering up Barça knife selections up to its readers, usually for “only” seven tokens and €10. 

I would imagine these knives, like much football merchandise, are designed to show off your love of the club. But who ever sees your knife collection? Seriously. Your intimate family, maybe. And they already know you like Barça. You can hardly take your knives out to the bar in the vague hope someone will see them and cut through the blackened silence of solitude by talking about Alves’ red card.

The same, incidentally, applies for Madrid melon peelers, Valencia vacuums, Espanyol espadrilles etc.

4) The cash machine conundrum

The Spanish economy may have picked up slightly of late, but I can’t help thinking it would look a lot better if banks and businesses were only able to break the eternal cycle of cash-based frustration that is engendered by cash machines not giving out low denomination notes and shops never having change for €50. 

It just doesn’t work. And many is the time I’ve decided I could probably go without that little snack / newspaper / cup of coffee rather than enrage the poor shop keeper with my €50 note.

I, like most people, don’t necessarily enjoy going to the cash machine. It’s not one of those little treats, like a small pack of peanuts or a nice sit down in the park. I see it, in fact, as a task to be endured, albeit a small, eminently manageable one.

As a result, when I do go to the cash machine, I try to get out funds that will last me for at least the week. And that would be fine, were said cash machine not trained to spit out as fewer notes as possible, preferably in the kind of high denominations that get infuriated local shops gobbing in your morning baguette.

It’s become some kind of game: €90 is good because you’re guaranteed some 20s. €130 is loads of 20s - unless the cash machine also does 10s. €100, however, is the big bust, coming inevitably in two €50 notes. Go straight to shop keeper shame. Do no pass Go.

Maybe some people would see this kind of mental wrangling as fun. I am not one of those people.

5) The indoor football inquiry

Football I get. 22 people on a pitch for 90 minutes of skilful bloodlust. Pick a team. Support them. Go wild. 

But what kind of football-depraved sociopath would you have to be to follow indoor football, a kind of life-size Subbuteo which appeals to the same kind of instinct as writing really small on a piece of paper just to see how many words you can fit?

A Spanish football depraved sociopath is the answer to that one. And don’t get me started on beach football.

6) The August obscurity

“Gone on holiday,” the sign read on my local launderette. “Back in September.”

I checked the date. I checked it again. But yes, it was August 1 and the launderette was taking the month off. As I would soon find out, far from being the kind of once-in-a-lifetime month-long blowout, this is in fact the norm in Spain.

Yes, people in Spain - possibly even most people in Spain - take August off. And that’s all of August. Not three weeks in August. August.

You almost want to applaud. Who wouldn’t want August off? Not me. I’d love August off. But there’s something in me that’s far too British to do it. 25 days holiday a year is what you get. And you have to take that in week-long blocks for fear of your boss getting angry.

Pathetic, I know. So let us salute this troubling yet wonderful dedication to taking August off that the Spanish enjoy so much. Even if it does make getting your clothes washed something of a summer headache.

7) The Portugal paradox

Before I lived in Spain, I always assumed it was pretty close to Portugal. I mean, of course it is physically close; they’re both on the Iberian peninsula. But I assumed this translated into an enduring kinship and cultural closeness between the two countries.

I couldn't have been more wrong. It’s not like the Spanish dislike Portugal. They just sort of ignore it. Portugal’s never on the news, there are few Portuguese cafes and shops (at least in Barcelona) and you rarely hear Spanish people talking about their love / affinity / vague respect for Portugal.

I once asked my girlfriend about this. She just shrugged. 

This, I think, pretty much sums up Spain’s attitude to Portugal.

8) The strawberry anomaly

Strawberries are a summer fruit, right? They go with long summer nights, ice cream straight from the fridge and Wimbledon on the telly.

Not in Spain. No, in Spain, the strawberry - that eternal harbinger of warm summer fun - is considered a winter fruit. They allegedly grow in winter. And don’t even try to argue the toss over this one. I’ve tried and it simply does work.

In fact, I suspect that this may be simply Spain’s rather sophisticated method of reminding us how much hotter the weather is over here than in freezing Britain. Hey - Spain appears to be saying - our weather’s so damn hot we have strawberries in winter. Still missing your English breakfast?

9) The bakery brain breaker

People in Spain like bread. They like it a lot. A meal, my grandmother in law thinks, is not a meal without bread. And you will typically find a nice crusty baguette perched on the table when meal times come around.

Even so, the amount of bakeries in Barcelona is truly staggering. Within five minutes’ casual stroll from my house there are at least seven, with most supermarkets and corner shops also selling bread. How is that even possible? How much bread can one barrio cope with? And why do none of them ever have change for €50?

10) The pig fat puzzler

Seriously? You’re going to eat that? A slice of pig fat that looks like the bits you normally get rid of from bacon? When you’ve got all that other wonderful Spanish food you could be enjoying?

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I give you panceta de cerdo, the main reason that vegetarians can keep on the straight and narrow in Spain, a disgrace to the concept of bacon and the most disgusting thing ever to put put in between two bits of bread and considered a sandwich since the invention of corned beef.

Hay 5 Comentarios

Barcelona is everything, but Spain

Un buen bocata de panceta, my friend, es pura felicidad. Droga dura sin cortar!

Trying to revive this long-dead blog? This is the kind of article that will work. However, I think you could have been EVEN more patronizing, mate.

I think you are living in the moon and not in Barcelona. There are a lot of other things that can seem strange but not the list you did

Regarding to "Portugal paradox", portuguese people generelly speak low, spanish people speak loud

Los comentarios de esta entrada están cerrados.

Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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