It always begins with bleach. Sure, there’s the heat that hits when the plane’s doors open, then the ever-so-slightly altered look to the tarmac as I make my way to the terminal. But when I always know I’m in Spain is when the airport doors open and the glistening floor tiles greet me with that unique reek of bleach. There’s nothing quite as evocative as lejía. I put it down to the year spent in Madrid when I was 19, and the umpteen journeys back and forth necessitated by being separated from my first love.
And immediately I am alien, outside, stared at, a foreign body.
I arrived wearing wedges. This only served to accentuate my differentness. I am the tallest person in the customs queue, in some cases to an alarming degree.
The concept of culture shock has fascinated me since I came across it when the internet was still in its infancy (my god, how old am I?). It was 1996 and I was…what verb did we use before googling?…looking up advice online before moving to Madrid for a university year abroad. A word to the wise, the article warned. Culture shock strikes when you least expect it. For your first few weeks you may well be deliriously happy. The air smells sweeter, the sun shines brighter, you have never tasted food like it and the locals usher you to their hearths/hearts with a combination of awe and gratitude that you have graced their land.
Then you crash. You are sick of the sun. You get burnt and mosquitos seem to single you out. The food loses its lustre and you long for Heinz Tomato Soup. You don’t understand the jokes and why isn’t the frigging milk stored in the fridge like in every other civilised country?
I experience culture shock not as one sudden, almighty jolt to the senses, but the accretion of lots of little things. It’s not the weather or the food. It’s being left-handed in a right-footed world. It’s discovering I cannot do the most basic of things.
Like typing on a keyboard at work. The amount of times I had to ask my boss how the hell you get the ‘@’ key to come up was becoming embarrassing. Yes, I’d tried shift and alt and control. No, nothing was working. Or crossing the street. I train my mind to undo the teachings of a lifetime and instead look left first and then right, and feel momentarily chuffed at this mastery. Till I realise I’m jumping three feet off the ground every time a motorbike screeches to a halt alongside me, and I really don’t feel particularly secure in my decision to put one foot in front of the other. (This isn’t as daft as it sounds – Antoni Gaudí died from being run over by a tram in Barcelona. It happens even to geniuses.)
Or the correct etiquette for entering a supermarket. I tried to do just that within the first few days of arriving in Barcelona and the outraged reaction of the collective check-out staff nearly pushed me over the edge. I had committed the cardinal and elementary sin of trying to enter through an empty check-out aisle rather than through the official entrance. A shop assistant approached me sternly once I was already engaged in hunting for food. “Señorita, you can’t come in that way.” “Why not?” I was genuinely bemused. “Because you can’t. Go out and come in over there.” “But I’m already in the supermarket now. Surely you don’t expect me to walk out and then come in again just two metres away?” “Yes, exactly.”
I think the worst aspect of culture shock is when a feeling of disempowerment sets in. This can happen all too easily if you’re not on your guard. Dealing with Spanish bureaucracy in any form is particularly perilous – whether it’s recalcitrant civil servants or out-and-out rude customer service staff over the phone (hola, Endesa) – situations that back home would cause merely minor irritation can quickly achieve an ontological status, reinforcing how ill-equipped you are to fend for yourself in this foreign land.
All in all, I haven’t cracked in yet. Will be interesting to see how I adapt (or not) over time to my new surroundings – and what I then find jarring when I return to Scotland.