Small Differences: The Spanish Way
by Susan Middaugh
In visiting Spain recently to hike part of El Camino, a trek that pilgrims the world over have been doing for centuries, I was prepared for the big differences that you associate with vacationing in a foreign country: currency, language, and climate. But it was the small differences, like finding a Starbuck’s closed at 7:30 on a Saturday morning in a big city like Madrid, that took me by surprise. (Click images for larger views.)
I’ll never forget the elderly man who interrupted his stroll down a country lane to give me a walnut or the two volunteers at a refugio (or shelter) in El Acebo who hosted a meal for twenty pilgrims from all over the world. The food, wine, music, hospitality and conversation that night were truly memorable.
But in the course of my two-week hiking trip, there were some baffling moments too. These differences, unexplained in guidebooks, jostled my assumptions about the most mundane aspects of daily living. Some of them were positively mystifying and others made me laugh out loud. Take the hamburger. When I ordered one in Astorga, it tasted different. The chef’s view of our American staple was quite literal. The burger was made of chopped ham.
Another time, my limited Spanish put me at a disadvantage when ordering a sandwich. My lunch, though tasty, turned out to be a double dose of carbohydrates: mashed potatoes between two slices of white bread. It reminded me of a trip to Salt Lake City and a restaurant that served spaghetti with French fries.
The public restrooms were also occasionally baffling. At one private refugio for pilgrims in Hontanas, the stall to the women’s toilet contained no seat or throne, simply a hole in the metal floor and an outline of where to place your feet. Being pressed for time, I squatted over the opening in the floor, did my business and wondered how a handicapped person might navigate under similar circumstances. It was only later that I discovered, at the same location, toilets – with and without seats.
Further down the road, in Boadillo del Camino, another restroom had me flummoxed. I looked around for a towel dispenser. No luck. But on one wall hung a metal contraption that resembled an automatic hand dryer. After pressing the knob, water sloshed all over the floor. I’m still confused. Was it for the cleaning staff to put their buckets under or a convenient tap for pilgrims to refill their water bottles?
Another time I tried to order a chunk of Swiss cheese, which was on special, at a deli counter at a local supermarket. The woman behind the counter said I couldn’t have it, but she was willing to slice another kind. Did the sale on Swiss begin the next day? I’ll never know.
Public transportation in Spain is punctual, comparatively inexpensive, and comfortable. But my expectations about how things work were made in America. When traveling by train from Chamartín Station in Madrid to Burgos, I entered the coach and sat down, just as I would on Amtrak or MARC, Maryland’s commuter railroad. A young man approached, pointing and waving his ticket. It took me awhile to realize I was sitting in his seat. Sure enough, if I had looked closely, my ticket had a coach and seat assignment. I moved and the gentleman, who had graciously parked himself elsewhere, smiled.
We worked it out in a civilized way. Poco a poco, little by little, I was learning the Spanish way of doing things.
I wonder what first-time visitors to the U.S. make of our culture?
Copyright © 2014 Susan Middaugh.
Susan Middaugh is a self-employed business writer in Baltimore who also writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and on the website New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Several of her personal essays have appeared on this blog. To find them, simply type her name in the little search window, or check out the archives in the sidebar, beginning in April of 2009. Also in the sidebar under the Blogroll, Business and Writing labels, there are links to Susan’s website, Have Pen Will Travel.
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