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. So . . . you'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.
July 21, 1992
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.
Yes, you should count your change if you find yourself paying for something in southern Spain, but no need to scream and call the police if you've been ripped off. In Andalusia, it's a game. Just hold open your palm and say, "Más . . . másmásmás!" Nine out of 10 bartenders and store clerks will grin and cough it up. You don't want to fool around with the police in Spain, anyway. There'll be 42,000 military and police agents in Barcelona for the Olympics, many wearing bulletproof vests and clutching machine guns, peering at you to make sure you're not really a terrorist dressed up as a geek. Not long ago a buddy of mine accidentally snagged the strap of his shoulder bag on a Guardia Civil's Uzi at the airport in Barcelona and came within a finger twitch of becoming Swiss cheese.
Hell, chances are you're not going to have any change coming back to you anyway. Forget culture shock. Sticker shock is what's going to stagger Americans who've read Hemingway blather on about bottles of wine, fine and full and honest and red, and plates of paella, heaping and hot and honest and yellow, all for .000016 of a peseta. That was 1931, Harold. There's nothing worse than listening to a Yank whine about the same kind of prices that for years have kicked Spaniards in the teeth when they've traveled to America. And besides, the mixed drinks in Spain are big enough for both of us, so ante up and pipe down. Just don't get on-your-knees drunk, because in many bathrooms the flush cord's way up on the wall. What? No toilet seat? Just a porcelain-lined hole in the floor? You want to sit, go to a library. Keep reminding yourself of this: The most uncomfortable, most nauseating, most humiliating moments on your trip always make the best stories when you get home.
All right, all right. Now comes the point in the story when the writer—having thoroughly insulted, degraded, patronized, sneered at and smacked around the reader—is obligated to tell an anecdote that shows himself to be the same sort of hapless clod. O.K., but don't expect me to wallow.
Valencia. March. Nineteen ninety-two. Fiesta. Bullfight. Writer mistakes self for Hemingway. Enters arena carrying leather bota of wine, fine and full and honest and red. Takes seat, expertly squirts wine into mouth, shouts ole! at precisely appropriate moment. Sticks pouch under arm and stands to let fellow spectator squeeze past. Forgets he didn't screw lid back on. Hears shriek from beautifully dressed woman sitting behind. Turns and discovers white blouse, beige jacket, black skirt . . . and red Jackson Pollock painting. Hears another trickle. Turns and discovers his four-year-old daughter peeing in seat. Offers wine pouch to neighbors. Offers new dress. Offers suicide.
Good. That's out of the way. Now I'm free to fire off another five rounds of cheap shots at you.
You're probably fat.
Do yourself a favor. Shave off the pounds before you go, or at least leave the shorts at home. I remember standing at an airline ticket counter in Madrid, watching the jaws of a dozen ticket agents turn in unison and drop to the floor as a portly American in her 20's waddled past in cutoffs. I had to snap my fingers in front of my agent's eyes to break the trance.
The typical Spanish woman, after the age of 40, is a natural outside linebacker, but obesity doesn't exist. The Spanish walk a lot. They aren't big snackers. They eat powerhouse fat-laden lunches, medium-sized fat-laden dinners and caffeine-laden caffeine breakfasts. Prepare yourself. Half the ham sandwich you order is going to be fat—scalpel it off, and they'll question your sexuality. Eat it. Just eat it. The red wine of which you're expected to drink at least half a bottle at every lunch and dinner will soak up the cholesterol. Studies in France have proved that. Don't pout about all the whole wheat and oat bran you're not getting. No Plain in Spain. No grain in Spain. Got it? You're going to be sampling some new things. Like the lining of a cow's stomach. Squid cooked in its own ink. Pig's feet. Lamb's brains. Don't roll your eyes. Close them. It's a burger on the Fourth of July.
But let's get back to clothes, which are, of course, the most obvious way to be an Ugly American. Spanish women wear skirts, makeup, earrings and matching shoes and pocketbooks just to go to the corner shop and buy a half kilo of garlic. Be a real woman. Yank the sneakers, T-shirts and shorts out of your suitcase. Stuff in the nylons, dresses and heels. Bikini top: optional. Please, boys, keep your camera in its casing and your tongue in its mouth. Just because the 20-year-old señorita is lying topless on the beach, it doesn't mean she wants you. That's air-conditioning in Spain. Prepare yourself. It's going to be the dead of summer, and there won't be a window unit pumping out 5,000 BTUs in the hotel room for which you're pumping out 30,000 pesetas a night. If you can't sleep, then you haven't drunk enough. Turn on the TV. If it's after midnight, chances are you'll see more naked women. The country is virtually 100% Catholic, but God winks a lot in Spain.
There's simply no way around it: Language is going to be another problem. You can't walk into Spain as you can into Sweden, Holland, Germany and even a few parts of Miami—and expect people to speak English. You can't even expect people in Spain to speak Spanish. Some Catalans will insist on speaking Catalan. Some Galicians will insist on speaking Gallego. Some Basques will insist on speaking Euskara. Some Americans will end up eating cow's stomach.
A few simple guidelines if you'd like to try Spanish. Lisp your c's and z's. Beer, cerveza, is THER-VEH-THA. Barcelona, Barcelona, is BAR-THEH-LO-NA. Two l's together should be pronounced as a y. Lladró is YA-DRO. Paella is PIE-EH-YA. Llabadabaduuu is YA-BA-DA-BA-DOOO.
But if you've just got to hear some English, it's simple enough—stay up till 8 a.m. instead of dawn. A tape of ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings will come on Canal Plus, a cable network. O.K., it's the news from the night before, but almost everything is that way in Spain. USA Today is USA Yesterday. Trains crawl. Elevators inch. Things don't work. Tranquilo, buster. Tran-keeeeeeee-lo. Dial a seven-digit phone number in half a millisecond, like you do at home, and you're not going to get anything but heartburn. Dial information for the number of the restaurant you're staring at from your hotel window, and the operator's going to tell you it doesn't exist. Bring along every credit card in your fleet—chances are half of them will be rejected by the telephone verification system because the lines are fuzzy.
In fact, the only thing you can do faster in Spain than at home is drive a car. Drive 80 mph on the highways, and Spaniards will blow by you like you're picking dandelions. Stopping for pedestrians, allowing one car length for every 10 mph before cutting back into the right lane . . . that's sooo ugly. Weave. Scream. Gesture. Unbuckle those seat belts. "¡Dios mío!" my friend Paco cried recently. "Seat-belt laws. No-smoking sections. Cholesterol tests. I like Americans, but they have this . . . what is the word? . . . this fear of life. "And Paco's an insurance salesman.
Abandon your fears. And always remember, if you do commit a blunder, it's not the end of the world. The Spanish are very understanding people. Just smack your forehead and hiss what they all hiss at such moments: "¡Me cago en la leche!" It means, "I crap in the milk!"
Don't ponder why they say that. This is not a country for pondering, alarm clocks, Nancy Reagan, smoke detectors. Experience Spain. Surrender your inhibitions. Except at Cafe Baghdad in Barcelona when the naked lady asks you to come on stage. Don't ask me why. Just say no. Stay in your seat. Tranquilo, buster. Tran-keeeeeee-lo.