My Ugh/Aha Moment in Spain

(Posted by Julia)

When we first arrived in Spain, I found a Rick Steve's Spain guide in one of the apartments we rented. There was an entire section in the book describing how people in Spain felt about Americans. Some of the adjectives used were naive, rude, parochial, selfish, etc. I thought for sure the book was not talking about us, but the other Americans. We actually did encounter said Americans at dinner one evening. The ladies next to our table were loud, rude and insulting to the waiter. Our dinner group felt quite ashamed to be clustered with them.

I also found that whenever people ask us where we're from, there is noticeable disappointment and/or a period of silence after we tell them "los estados unidos." I generally chalk it up to our last administration or tourists like those ladies at dinner.

Then a few things happened that made me realize that I was unknowingly contributing to the ugly American image. The first thing that happened was when I tried to go to a pharmacy to buy baby shampoo. At this pharmacy, the items were behind sliding glass doors on the shelves. I was used to shopping in US drugstores where you can take things off the shelf and inspect the items before purchase. So I slid the glass door open and carefully reached in for the bottle of shampoo. It was quite a crowded shelf and I did this several times to see the different brands. Then out of nowhere, this lady at the counter started to yell at me in Spanish. I only understood a few words but the sentiment was clear - you can't just touch anything you want and you have no right without asking first. Then another sales lady rushed over to help me select what I was already holding in my hand.

The other instances occurred at markets where I was buying some fruit. At one market the lady simply told me "no touching" so I put the fruit back immediately. The sales girl then selected the fruits for me and packed it up. When I got home, I found a moldy container of figs because I never inspected the package at the store. Then today at another market, the sales lady simply took the avocado from my hand, put it back on the stand and told me to ask for help. I then simply pointed to the exact same avocado I picked out and had it bagged by the sales person.

These instances made me very angry and I sat down to write this entry in order to vent my frustration. Then I realized something that was so obvious but that managed to escape my parochial mind. Both the store clerks and I were acting based on our respective cultural norms, and not based on some negative intent. I was angry because I felt personally slighted, but in hindsight, it probably wasn't the case. They thought I was being rude and entitled by not respecting their rules, but I never meant to. If I understood that this was the way business was done, I would have behaved very differently.

As a tourist, a person has very little time to understand the cultural norms and may walk away feeling very frustrated with the system. But over time as you learn about the culture, you begin to develop respect and understanding for each other's way of life. I know this, but I am only beginning to understand this. With all the packing and unpacking that we have been doing on this trip in addition to raising a rambunctious one year old, I rarely have time to step back and let it all sink in. Since Jackson won't remember a thing from this trip, I will encourage him and any future children to travel the world just as James had encouraged me to do so. This is truly a once in a life time experience and I am so glad to be here.

“Go, see the world. You will never regret it.” (The Namesake)
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