Monday, 15 June 2009

I love Spain but...

Can’t help it: I start thinking about the positive aspects of something, and the little negative (honest) voice in me starts piping up with the ‘other side of the story’. So, to follow my previous post on 10 things I’d miss about Spain if I left, here are ‘5 things I wouldn’t miss at all’ ;-) As a sort of disclaimer, I feel I should mention that if I were to write a list of the negative aspects of the UK or Sudan (my 2 countries of origin) it would be much longer!

1. The customer service. I read somewhere (can’t remember where), before packing all my belongings into a suitcase and jumping on the Eurostar, that in Spain the customer isn’t always right, and in fact the customer is at times a mere nuisance. And I have since found this statement to be at least partially true. Take the Corte Inglés (famed for having the best service in the country – maybe because for a long time it was the only shop where you could get a cash refund); for me a typical experience at the Corte Inglés involves being stalked by the ‘helpful’ staff who either have mistaken you for a shoplifter or feel that hovering over your shoulder whilst you’re trying to concentrate on choosing a new brand of toothpaste is in some way beneficial to you. Ironically, when you finally make up your mind which toothpaste you want and need to find someone to sell it to you, the woman who practically had a homing device on you 5 minutes before is now unexplicably busy counting pieces of paper, chatting to a colleague or doing some other ‘urgent’ task, and as such cannot sell you your tube of Colgate. I could repeat similar stories (which I’ve told before) about trendy restaurants where trendy-but-sulky waitstaff throw food at you as if your being in the restaurant has personally offended them in some way. However, as Spain is often the land of extremes, when you do get good service it’s great – efficient, quick, discreet and with a smile. I had always assumed that the unpredictability of the service in Spain was simply due to some shop assistants being nice people and others being not so nice, but a few months ago I realised this wasn’t the case: I was a pharmacy in Madrid and was served by a delightful young lady, the next day I returned to the pharmacy and it was as if she’d had a personality transplant! The girl who was smiley, helpful and warm the day before was now cold, moody and offhand. I cast my mind back to the designers I used to work with in my old company in Madrid – when they were having a bad day, they saw no reason to hide it and put on fake smile. I then pictured myself and other British colleagues at work and realised that come what may we tend to act as if ‘everything’s ok’ – call it fake, call it stiff upper lip – as a nation we often just don’t show how we’re feeling, whereas here it’s more common to express your feelings outwardly, be they positive or negative. My thoughts on this? Part of me says ‘I don’t give a damn if you’re having a bad day, I’m the customer, be nice!’, the other part of me recognises that it’s healthy to release you’re emotions (I say this in the knowledge that I have actually made myself physically ill in the past by holding in pent up emotions and not shouting and giving people a piece of my mind when needed). And in 7 years here I’ve become more tolerant - whilst I used to get annoyed at shop assistants talking for too long to the customer in front of me in the queue, I’ve now learnt that this is a part of the experience for some shoppers (in particular the grannies) who enjoy this chance to have a chin wag with the shop assistant. So nowadays I just wait my turn and have a good old chat at the till too (and make all the other losers wait behind me).

2. Lack of convenience food. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for home-cooked meals, and ‘proper’ food is one of the things that makes Spain great, but sometimes you get in from work after a long day and you just can’t face a take-away or worse still chopping vegetables or sauteeing anything, you just want to grab something and eat it. But what to eat? I’m not eating a banana for dinner, or a squishy roll of bollería industrial (see next point); and I know it only takes 5 minutes to fry a filete and slice a tomato, but sometimes I don’t want to do anything that involves more than simply pushing a button (lazy, I know). At times like this, I need Marks and Spencers, on hand with ready-made peking duck/dim sum/lamb biryani/beef wellington to stick in the microwave. This ‘negative’ is obviously a blessing in disguise; I’m aware that we eat a lot of crap in the UK, and convenience food forms a large part of this, but just once in a while I’d like the option of a fuss-free but delicious dinner that is ready in 3 minutes. Of course when in Rome... what I should do is adapt myself to the big-lunch, light dinner culture that people here follow, but the fact is that if I have a 3-course menu del día for lunch I promptly slip into a food-coma the minute I’m back in the office...

3. Bollería industrial. Food here is great, more than great, it’s amazing. But for some reason when it comes to sweet treats, it sort of goes awry... There are a handful of good desserts (Crema Catalana, Tarta de Santiago...) but when you want something to go with a cup of tea or as an evening snack, unless you go to some fancy artisan baker, you’re pretty much limited to bollería industrial – in other words pre-packaged, chemical-laden versions of pastries such as croissants, pan au chocalat and milk bread. I don’t know what kinds of preservatives they put in these, but the fact that I have witnessed opened packs of these lasting 2 months without refrigeration is enough to put me off! Even more worryingly, these are marketed as healthy foods (‘each bun contains 2 glasses of milk and natural chocolate, plus added iron, soya and Q10’) to feed to your children on a daily basis.

4. The red tape, the bureucracy. It perhaps isn’t fair to include this as bureucracy is a problem in all countries, and I have Spanish friends who said they found it virtually impossible to do simple things like open a bank account when they lived in the UK. It’s just that I have stood in so many queues, had so many fights with funcionarios (civil servants), and it sometimes seems that you need a piece of paper to merely breath. And in order to get that piece of paper you need to get 5 other pieces of paper from 5 different council offices, then photocopy and hand them in, submit 3 passport photos, go to a police station, hand in 2 recent bills to prove your address, queue from 6 in the morning outside some government office only to be told at 2pm when you get to the front of the line, that the offices are now closing for the day... Grrrrrr!

5. Grannies that jump the queue. Beware - those sweet little old ladies you see in your local Carrefour are not all they seem! Beneath the harmless facade of wire-rimmed spectacles and floral poly-cotton dress is a sumo wrestler waiting to get out. In the supermarket, at the butcher’s, at the doctor’s, this formidable silver-haired army have mastered a variety of techniques to make sure they get served first and you (a supposedly young, agile adult with your all your faculties present and your wits about you) get served last. How do they do this? Well, there are various techniques; one, which I like to call ‘sidling’ is one of the most lethal – the granny joins the queue at your side, instead of behind you. But she remains a few inches back so that you don’t feel too threatened, you’re about to get to the till and she swoops in right in front of you like an eagle. All this is done whilst rigorously avoiding eye contact with you, a sort of ‘if I can’t see you, you can’t see me game’. Others simply ask you, ‘I’ve only got this loaf of bread and some batteries, can I go first?’ In cases like this I always let them in, but then start thinking to myself ‘hey, I’m on my lunch break rushing to get my weekly shop, and you’ve got all day to hang around here, no, you can’t go first!!’

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