13 things I would change about Spain

Jun 19, 2013 by

If you’re reading this from the UK, I can imagine what you’re thinking right now.

Churlish bint.

She gets to live a life of sun, sea, sand, sandals and sangría – what has she got to complain about?

In contrast, what I’m thinking is – how can I shrink my myriad gripes and grievances, accumulated over more than two years in Spain, into a palatable baker’s dozen?


Claro que te amo  – now can you just work on these points?

So – in a very particular order – here we go.

1. Machista men

Every single day, Spanish men stare at me, make sexual gestures at me, make sexual comments to me, and generally make me feel like a piece of walking prey. On more than one occasion they have followed me, called me a whore, and even snuck into the lift of my building to molest me.

It’s a constant barrage of sexist crap, and for me it is the singularly worst aspect of living in Spain. Machista men, you’re not impressing anyone.

2. Sunday opening for shops and supermarkets

As a Brit, I admit I’ve been spoiled by our 24-hour, tat-on-tap culture. In Edinburgh I celebrated the fact that my local supermarket was open 24 hours, so that if I needed paracetamol at 3am, or whatever, there it was.

I also took for granted that after working full-time all week, I had two (two!) full days at the weekend to get all my shopping done, whether for groceries or anything else.

Not so in Spain. Unless you live in Madrid, where restrictions on Sunday opening were lifted a year ago, you can forget about buying anything on the Sabbath. Most visitors to Spain assume this is because of the country’s religious bent, but in fact, this doesn’t really come into it.

The thinking goes that if large stores and supermarkets were allowed to trade on Sundays, this would disadvantage smaller retailers who can’t afford the staff.

Hmm. These are the same smaller retailers, often family-run, who gaily shut up shop in August and award themselves a month-long holiday?

3. The autónomo (self-employed/sole trader) laws

Next up in my major grievances category are the laws surrounding any poor sod who thinks, in a mad moment of entrepreneurial inspiration – I know, I’ll go freelance.

In the UK, I understand the logic and agree with the sentiment. Set yourself up as a sole trader and you will pay income tax and national insurance as a fixed percentage of the profits you make.

Hacienda tax office

The annual tax return

In Spain, however, individuals working as sole traders are required to pay currently 256€ per month towards social security. Regardless of how much they’ve actually made in that month. Even if they’ve made nothing at all.

This fact is mind-blowing to most foreigners who arrive to settle in Spain. (It’s fair to say it’s not loved by the locals, either.)

In practice, what this means is that most autónomos refuse to register as such, and either invoice illegally or else get a friend within a big company to do it for them. Thus doing the Spanish tax office out of much needed VAT.

Rather than reform the situation for the better, the Spanish government is currently talking about upping the fixed monthly social security contribution.

4. Customer service (atención al cliente)

It’s diabolical. Don’t even start me.

5. Bank holidays that fall on random weekdays

Spain, like several other European countries, sticks rigidly to its national holidays on the actual designated dates. (So if you go for a job and they say you’ll get 32 holidays a year, bear in mind that if one of the bank holidays fall on the weekend, you ‘lose’ that day. Not like in the UK, when you get the following Monday off in lieu.)

In December 2011, two bank holidays fell within the same week. It just so happened that the 6th was a Tuesday and the 8th a Thursday.

In faintly ludicrous fashion, we all went to work Monday, stayed home Tuesday, went to work Wednesday, stayed home Thursday, before heading back to the office on Friday. Genius.

I believe there’s talk of moving certain bank holidays to Mondays, but, you know, let’s not rush things.

6. Failure to accept responsibility

In what I’m well aware is a sweeping generalisation, my impression is that Spaniards are convinced they are never wrong. It’s never their fault. Forget humility – you better start searching your own soul to see how you screwed things up.

Neglected to read the small print and were mis-sold a mortgage? Bank’s fault.

Still living with your parents at 38? Society’s fault.

Could this phenomenon be the result of Spanish society surviving for years under dictatorship? Where individual citizens are lumped into one big lumpen mass, collectively tarred with the same brush, and subject always to the whim of a higher authority?

Blame the system, blame the politicians, blame your next-door neighbour, but don’t expect anyone to hold their hands up and admit to any personal shortcoming any time soon.

7. Attitude to dogs

Dogs in SpainSpain, unlike the UK, is not a nation of dog lovers. Don’t get me wrong – Barcelona has plenty of dogs (most of which seem to be French Bulldogs named Elvis, inexplicably).

And yet…they’re not exactly welcomed with open arms.

You can’t take your dog on the metro, on the buses, or on the funicular trains (up to Montjuïc or Tibidabo, for example – exactly the spots that are ideal for a walk). Nor can you venture down to the seaside without fear of a hefty fine.

So to go anywhere with your dog, it’s taxis a plenty (if you can get one to stop when they spy the canine, that is).

8. The all-encompassing Castilian compulsion

As an amante of all things Hispanic, even I have to balk on occasion at the unrelenting supremacy of the Spanish language here.

Spain is a composite nation, made up of 17 ‘autonomous communities’, several of which have their own languages (Catalan, Basque, Galician, Valencian, Asturian). A Spanish friend of mine, who speaks three of these languages herself, made a brilliant point in conversation the other day.

Why don’t residents of Spain have ready access to all of these languages on TV?

Here in Barcelona, TV channels are beamed out in Catalan and Castilian, but that’s it. Having exposure to all of Spain’s languages in this way would be a really positive step in encouraging a bit of cross-regional understanding.

9. Risible inability to cope with rain

The rain in Spain falls mainly in the metro, it would seem.

sawsust Barcelona metroFair enough, we Brits don’t exactly cover ourselves in glory any time we’re hit with adverse weather conditions.

But Barcelona seems particulaly ill-equipped to cope whenever one of its almighty downpours grips the city.

Sawdust strewn on the floor to tackle puddles – truly a 21st-century solution.

10. Mad motorists

I’m thinking of taking driving lessons here later on this year so include this point in the vague hope that the entire nation of drivers sorts itself out before I hit the road.

Red lights here are like red rags to a Spanish bull. They exist to be jumped. Hapless pedestrians attempting to cross the road are met with conspicuously ramped-up revs and the realisation that they’re risking their lives on a daily basis.

Road rage is such a part of life here that it puts most foreign drivers off ever getting behind the wheel. Which is a real pity, given that so much of the Costa Brava is accessible only by car.

11. Dubious dairy products

Why doesn’t Spain do cheddar? Why is it impossible to buy proper cream? Why does Manchego cheese taste consistently of cardboard? Why is ‘nun’s tit’ cheese so highly prized?

12. Refusing to pay for a round

To be fair, this may well be a Barcelona rather than Spain-wide issue.

Back in Scotland, if you’re out in a bar with a group of friends or workmates, it’s the done thing to ask everyone what they want to drink. You get your round in. Some people may leave the group before reciprocating, but no-one really cares. You assume they will return the favour at some point in the future (if you even think about it all).

Here, they’re having none of it. Whether you go for lunch or for a few drinks after work, the procedure is identical: everyone queues up afterwards to scrutinise the bill and then duly hand over their part – and not one cent more. For a Scot, this is a staggering display, and one I complain about vociferously as much as possible.

13. Dirty cutlery

Spanish restaurants, at least in Barcelona, expect you to use the same set of cutlery for your main course as you did for your starter. I know this is no earth-shattering issue, and yet it irks me regularly.

Even after two years I still automatically offer back my starter plate with fork and knife included, only to be rebuked or glared at and handed back the same manky set of cutlery ready for round two. I can’t quite fathom where this custom comes from – surely it can’t be to save on Fairy Liquid costs? Anyone out there who can shed any light, adelante.

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  1. Sebastià

    All philologists agree that Catalan and Valencian are the same language. It is also recognized by law corts, especially of Valencia.
    I am sorry about machismo you suffer. I suppose it depends on the part of the city or the social class, because (as a man) I don’t see it as general. But of course I can be wrong.

    • Hi Sebastià. Thanks for the comment and sentiment:)

      To be honest, I think that the decent local guys of Barcelona have a huge role to play in combatting the street-level sexual harassment (even if this does seem to be directed mostly at foreign women). Most of my male Spanish friends have no idea that it goes on either. Maybe you could all have a strong word with your machista compatriates and get them to start treating women with respect.

  2. Sebastià

    About refusing to pay for a round it is characteristic of Catalans, while Spaniards use to pay for a round. Actually this is called “pagar a la catalana”.

  3. Barceloner

    Catalan = Valencian (dialectal variety)

    Dubious Dairy products: true, specially if you buy them in a supermarket. You would find slightly better products in dedicated shops, farmers markets, and alike.

    Cutlery is usually changed for every course when you eat ‘a la carta’ in some fancy restaurant. Never in daily menu restaurants.

    • Cool name:)

      Yeah, have looked in farmers’ markets and the like, but I’m afraid cheddar is the preserve of high-end supermarkets like the Corte Inglés who charge a fortune for it. Cream – single, double, whipped, sour, clotted – is nigh-on impossible to find. Nata just doesn’t cut it.

      On the cutlery theme, you’re right, in classy joints they do change them. But I don’t exactly eat in dives most of the time, and am always surprised that even in ‘normal’ type restaurants, you’re expected to use the same dirty set of cutlery for different courses.

      I’m aware that there’s a lot of debate about whether Valencian is indeed a language in its own right, or a dialect of Catalan. People in each region seem to have quite different views on it. But the Spanish Constitution recognises ‘Valencian’ rather than ‘Catalan’ as the language of Valencia though, doesn’t it?

      • Javier

        Hi Julie,
        the Spanish constitution doesn’t mention explicitly the languages of Spain other than Spanish. Same thing with the autonomous communities, which didn’t exist yet. It’s the Valencian Estatut (basic law of the region) that explicitly mentions “llengua valenciana” and “idioma valencià”, especially after the 2006 reform, merely for political reasons as the academic consensus is Catalan and Valencian are one and the same language.

        • The plot thickens! So Valencian is absolutely identical to Catalan? Valencian people I’ve met have always told me otherwise, and obviously have a different name for the language too. Purely for political reasons?

          • Javier

            To make things clear, just check how the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, an institution that clearly hasn’t got a pro-Catalan bias, defines “valenciano”:

            5. m. Variedad del catalán, que se usa en gran parte del antiguo reino de Valencia y se siente allí comúnmente como lengua propia.


          • Thanks Javier. I think that settles it!

  4. MemorialHall

    As a Catalan I would eagerly accept all of your changes, except #12. I hate rounds for a few reasons:

    If everyone is having beers and I ask for a gin tonic I feel like an asshole if someone else pays. When I want a canya and everyone is asking for cocktails, I feel taken advantage of when I pay.

    If I’ve had enough or want to go home before my turn I feel obligated to stay/drink more.

    Some people you otherwise get along with are extremely weaselly with money. They would consistently avoid paying for rounds and get expensive drinks on others’. This would erode the friendship.

    Here you ask for what you want, whenever you want, and pay for it. The mechanics are annoying if you don’t have small change, but you can always pay separately or ask someone trusted to get your part and reciprocate later. People also frequently offer to pay for other people’s stuff, but that’s always a voluntary gesture with no reciprocation expected.

    Very nice and fun people will cheerfully take advantage of you if you act as if you don’t care about money. It’s not considered bad taste to protect yourself from the picardía. Nobody expects the honor system to work outside a small group of very close and trusted friends. Or even with a close friend who is known to be weaselly with money but otherwise trusted.

    • I see your point and get the logic of it, but it still seems a very cold & calculating approach to social exchange. Personally, I couldn’t care less if someone orders a drink that’s more expensive than someone else. Nor do I feel obligated to stick around – I would get my round in without feeling I have to stay and drink myself. Or not, and do it the next time. There’s a huge flexibility in our approach, which is completely lacking here. Friends standing there scanning and itemising their exact order, and quibbling over a matter of cents, leaves a bad taste.

      • MemorialHall

        Interesting. I agree about it being calculating, but I don’t quite see why you find it cold. Is it because it’s considered friendly to not care about money? Or because showing that you care about it can be interpreted that you don’t trust the other person to be fair?

        Would you be bothered if someone in your group consistently avoids to pay for their rounds but drinks in others’ or you really wouldn’t notice/care?

        Or would you find that behavior so antisocial that you’d stop hanging out with that person?

        People are often unreliable here, in different ways. Some will be consistently be late and sometimes not show up at all, without any warning. Some will never keep a promise but extract as many favors from you as they can. Some will avoid paying as much as possible, overtly or covertly (for instance by paying for your stuff in a cheap place when they know you’ll go to an expensive place next). My very closest friends are awesome and I’d trust them with my life, but I’m also good friends with people who are unreliable and completely shameless and have no patience for any of this social contract nonsense.

        Paying for your own stuff is a way to ensure fairness, but I think that more importantly it’s also a way to signal trustworthiness. That’s why we feel agitated when we’re not allowed to pay for our part if we don’t know the other person well.

        To be sure unreliable people exist in similar proportion in the rest of Spain, and they seem to care less. It does give the impression that we are evaluating people all the time in a way than the rest of Spain doesn’t. Perhaps it’s because the historically commerce-oriented nature of people here? Perhaps it’s related to the (rather self-serving) cliche that we are less friendly superficially, but our friendships run deeper?

        Well, that went on a tangent.

        • Thanks for making me think about this so analytically:) You’re right to question what I take as an accepted social practice. I guess that’s a big part about living abroad in the first place…you’re forced to question what you take for granted in your own culture.

          Yes, in the UK if someone in the group consistently shirks buying a round (over various different occasions) people do notice. They then tend to tease that person so that they’re embarrassed into playing fair. Usually this is pretty effective.

          The thing about people here tending to be unreliable…that’s pretty much the Spanish stereotype that exists in the UK. “We’re punctilious, they’re unpredictable.” Sometimes it’s true, although not always. And I do appreciate the sense of fairness that pervades society here. I have never thought Catalans were out to take the piss, financially. People here want to pay their fair share, and as far as I know I’ve never seen anyone – taxi drivers, shop assistants, whatever – try to swindle me.

          My issue really with the lack of rounds system goes to the fact that these people are your friends and colleagues. They’re the people you choose to socialise with. And yet you can’t treat them to a drink, because of an unconscious social paranoia over who owes who what, who paid last time, whether people think you’re generous or tight. I dislike the obsession with it, the fixation, the precision of only paying for what you actually consumed. It leaves me thinking life’s too short for this.

          Are Catalans naturally ‘colder’ than people in other parts of Spain? Hmm. I used to live in Madrid and honestly don’t remember unbridled generosity there either. The ‘mañana mañana’ stereotype I don’t think applies in Barcelona at all. People here generally seem stressed out their trees, whether it’s screaming at other motorists or the checkout staff who chuck the groceries at you in record speed in the supermarkets. Was it always like this, or is it La Crisis taking its toll?

          • MemorialHall

            I lived in Girona before La Crisis, so I can’t compare. Things are more relaxed there.

            Teasing people into paying does sound like fun, actually.

            We treat each other for drinks all the time. Here’s how we do it:

            We specify we are doing it in advance (“¿Que quieres? Te invito.”), before ordering. It’s in surprise treats, when you were expecting to pay and suddenly the other offers to pay when we get confused. The treater also orders the whole thing, while the one getting treated doesn’t order anything. The treater usually asks what the treated wants. Or sometimes you just order something you think the other will enjoy, perhaps confirming they like it to make sure (“Te apetece un Bloody Mary?”).

            Now I’m not completely sure that this is a universal Catalan rule or just what my friends and I do, but it always goes smoothly.

          • MemorialHall

            Of course it occurs to me that this is very similar to a round; Asking what the others want and ordering it yourself. Perhaps the main difference is that you specify you are treating them and it implies there’s no expectation of reciprocity.

            And we do do rounds sometimes, by saying “Yo pago esta”, and it implies the others will pay for the next. But we just do it with small groups of close friends whose drinking habits you know. It would seem inappropriate otherwise.

  5. Barceloner

    We don’t do cheddar here, get over it. Dairy products are better in northen countries, because of the rainy weather I guess, though you can find some good “artisan” products here as well. Usually you can buy decent nata in pastry shops.

    Spanish constitution, the spaniards’ holy bible. They try to fragment the Catalan language, culture and nation as much as possible, hence the different names (dialects indeed) for Catalan. That’s their poor strategy.

    • Yip, in Scotland we definitely do rain (and cheddar) better than anyone else.

      About your second point…hmm. In my experience, it’s Valencian people themselves who call their language Valencian, rather than some evil Madrid masterplan.

      • Barceloner

        Sure, Valencians, and even Catalans, call Valencian Valencian. The point is Catalan and Valencian share the same language base, it’s basically the same with some dialectal differences, regardless how you call it. Balearics, Catalans, Valencians,… we can understand perfectly each other. There is a dictionary which includes all the varieties of language within those territories http://dcvb.iecat.net/ Look up for any word, they are 90% (or more) the same. So, call the language whatever you like.

        Even the Valencian territory gets different names from the Valencians themselves, according to their political perspective:

        – Comunitat Valenciana: they consider the territory to be a region of Spain (that’s the official name)
        – Regne de Valencia: they consider the territory to have nothing to do with the Catalan Countries
        – Pais Valencià: they consider the territory to be a region of the Catalan Countries

        Spain’s interest is to look down on all things Catalan. As far as language is concerned, they have been making laws to fragment it in the different territories, calling it “Catala, Valencià, Lapao, Mallorqui, Menorqui, Eivissenc, Formenterí,…” as its official name in the different territories, yet many philologists in those places claim it’s the same language.

        There is some little rivalry Barcelona-Valencia, so many Valencians are against Catalans for that matter, and would even feel insulted if they are ever considered to be speaking Catalan.

        And also, you can find many Valencians who are proud of sharing a common history and culture, and even support the independence of Catalonia (and Catalan Countries, though that is a more utopic view) from Spain.

        • Barceloner

          Similarly, some Catalans feel themselves just Spanish (the unionists), some feel just Catalan (and don’t give a fuck about Spain and the other Catalan speaking territories), and some Catalans (not all, I’d say only a few of them) embrace the concept of Catalan Countries (notice some Valencians are paranoid and really believe all of us Catalans want to take them over, thus they hate us even more).

          In my experience I have met both Valencians who despise Catalans, and Valencians that will tell you with no remorse that they speak Catalan and are happy (and proud) of it.

          As a Catalan native, the idea of Valencian and Catalan languages being separate languages is ridiculous and out of discussion imho. Sorry to insist on that but this really pisses me off.

          • No worries, I see it’s an emotive issue! There’s a similar (though not identical) situation in Scotland, surrounding the issue of whether Scots is a separate language or a dialect of English. I grew up in Ayr, where our national poet, Robert Burns, was from, so am well used to Scots. Yet when I went to a poetry reading in Scots I left having understood around 5% of it. Technically, though, Scots is classifed as a dialect of English rather than a language in its own right. To be honest, I don’t really care either way – the interesting part to me is how people react and appopriate discussions around it to make a political point. (I don’t mean that’s what you’re doing – I understand it’s the same language.)

            Wow, what a minefield here in Spain with the different regional languages. Do you think having TV channels in all of them accessible to everyone in the country would help?

          • MemorialHall

            –Do you think having TV channels in all of them accessible to everyone in the country would help?

            Err… perhaps. But this is a case of “If my grandmother had wheels, she would be a bicycle”.

            The lack of accessibility to languages other than Spanish is not due to carelessness. There is a deep hostility to the minority languages from monolingual Spain. It’s usually presented as concern for wasting money and time with useless languages. Especially when everyone already knows glorious Spanish, the language in which half the world became civilized.

            Sorry if I sound bitter. This is deeply tiresome for us as well.

          • 🙂 I’m going to Nicaragua and Guatemala this weekend. Will be interesting to see how they view the civilising influence of Spanish (Guatemala with its 50 odd native languages).

  6. Barceloner

    For your interest (and your readers’):

    English writer Matthew Tree explains Catalonia to American students

    • Thanks for this, very interesting.

      Good old suffrage, eh? What is the deal with foreigners who live and work here, paying taxes etc, who aren’t allowed to vote?

      If you have any resources on the specific issue of sexism/sexual harassment of women in Spain, I’d be really interested to see them.

  7. Sebastià

    Spanish constitution does not say anything about this question. Valencian is recognized as official in the Valencian estatut but it is not said different from Catalan. Actually, 40 sentences of Valencian courts recognise the identity of Valencian and Catalan. The same language can be called with different names, as Castilian – Spanish, Flemish – Dutch. Most Valencians Valencian-speaking use to call their language as Valencian but without the idea of speaking a different language.

  8. Marie

    I’m an expat female and have lived in the Barcelona region for more than five years. I’ve never been bothered by any male in the city or surrounding regions, nor has anyone I know. It sounds like you’ve received an unusual amount of attention. I’ve found the men here even more respectful than in my home country.

    Among the many things on your list I disagree with a few really confuse me. Do you truly not understand why dogs should be not be allowed on public transportation? The hygiene issues alone are pretty obvious. I have three dogs and love them dearly, but I’d certainly never expect others to deal with them on a bus, train or tram. Same goes for taxis and walking them on the beach.

    As for the cheese, there are plenty of amazing variety of cheese out there. Avoid purchasing it at the grocery store and stick to the mom and pop stalls at the market or specialty shops. Trust me, you’ll eventually find one you enjoy.

    I’ve yet to encounter anyone who doesn’t fight me for the bill while dining out or having a coffee or cocktail. In fact, I find the Catalans to be extremely generous whether it be having a drink with friends or stopping in a local shop and receiving free samples.

    In regard to your irritation with “dirty cutlery”. It’s no big deal. It’s not like you’re expected to eat with someone else dirty utensils. It’s cutlery you just ate with five minutes prior. Wipe it off on your napkin and get over it.

    While I can see a bit of validity in some of your other complaints, I have to wonder why you are still here. I too can be irritated time to time with the things you pointed out, but the bottom line is if you don’t like it, either find a way around it or perhaps consider going back to your home country.

    With a big list like you’ve made, I can’t fathom how you make it through a single day. It’s another culture, you can choose to assimilate or spend your time in misery. It’s actually very simple. It’s not easy, but it is possible.

    • Hi Marie, and thanks for such a detailed reply.

      I’m glad to hear you haven’t been at the receiving end of sexual harassment on the streets. Sadly, it’s not an uncommon phenomenon in Barcelona, particularly if you’re a foreign female. I have many foreign female friends and colleagues who report the same negative attention regularly. Are you from the UK? If so, I’m afraid I really can’t relate to your point that men here are more respectful. My experience has been the extreme opposite.

      When it comes to dogs on public transport, it comes down to being a responsible owner. In Scotland there is no issue with dogs (on a leash) travelling on buses or trains. If dogs are banned from all forms of public transport, what options are left to you? If you want to own a dog you have to buy a car? As for the beaches, again, it’s down to the owners. If they’re not cleaning up after their pets then they should be heavily fined. The solution is not a wholesale ban, punishing those of us who are responsible.

      You’ll notice I made a specific point about not paying for rounds, rather than a blanket statement that Catalans aren’t generous. Actually, I find them to be extremely fair people. Any time I try to pay for the other person they tend to get quite upset, and always seem to keep a mental note of exactly who paid for what last time round. The way they fixate on this is astonishing – but I think it’s because they want to make sure they’ve paid their fair share.

      I’m sorry, the cutlery thing is just gross.

      Yes, I too wonder from time to time about staying here! Especially after the run of things that have happened over the last eight months (being pickpocketed, assaulted in my own building, mugged with force, hospitalised for three weeks). Ultimately, I could make a similar list of things that annoy the hell out of me in Scotland. The topics would be different, but the sense of irritation would be the same.

      When you say it’s actually very simple to assimilate, I don’t agree at all. Moving alone to a foreign country is not at all easy. It’s a constant process of adapting – of accepting some things, while rejecting others. In two years of blogging I would say I’ve maintained a fairly cheery, balanced outlook on life here, and this post I suppose is a dumping ground for all the negative stuff. It had to come out sooner or later.

      • Hi!

        I found your blog today and started to read but, I cannot agree with you at some points.
        The thing that shocked me was the harassment part. I lived for 3 years at Barcelona and I can’t remember a single time that something like that happened to me.

        Dogs? Well, when I arrived to Barcelona I thought it was a paradise because in my country (Portugal) they aren’t welcome almost anywhere because people are very uncomfortable with them.

        About the cutlery, at the beginning that disturbed me too but after a while I accepted that it’s their culture and it’s not that grouse.

        • Hello! I’m glad to hear you had no problems with the men in Barcelona. If you’re from Portugal, I imagine you wouldn’t really stand out too much physically in Spain. I do, however. I’m tall (even for a Scottish person), with blonde/red hair, blue eyes and pale white skin. In a million years you could never mistake me for a Spanish girl. Also, I go about the city mostly alone. Given how much I stand out phsyically, and because I’m not accompanied by a male companion to ‘protect’ me, a lot of men here think they can say and do anything they like to me. Yet when my father was here I didn’t have the slightest problem. It’s beyond depressing that this is still the case, in western Europe in the 21st century.

          Anyone out there who’s struggling to take in the scale of the problem I’m talking about, I cheerfully invite you to come spend a day with me walking about in Barcelona. You will soon see exactly what I mean.

  9. Barceloner

    Regarding the possibility of having regional tv channels available to all the country:

    In fact there are these three big Catalan tv channels: Televisió de Catalunya, Canal 9 (Valencian), IB3 (Balearic Islands) (and possibly there are other smaller region wide Catalan tv channels in Andorra and Aragón as well).

    It went that over the last years the Valencian government (Partido Popular, conservative, totally pro-Spain and against all Catalan aspirations) banned Valencian tv being broadcasted in Catalonia, and Catalan tv being broadcasted in Comunitat Valenciana (they literally pulled the plug of the repeater antenna which had made the transmissions possible). That’s part of the divide and win strategy I was talking about. Many Valencians were against this (check for instance the “Si a TV3” campaign http://acpv.cat/siatv3/ promoted in the Valencian region).

    The Spanish government really don’t give a fuck about protecting and promoting the linguistic and cultural diversity in Spain, it is rather an annoyance for them.

  10. Bill

    Hi Julie,

    I’m male so I don’t experience the Machismo but I feel for you. I do experience something a bit similar though. I am black (well mixed really) and fairly frequently, daily actually, I find myself attracting negative attention from absolute strangers who know nothing about me at all.

    I’ve been refused service at a restaurant (the waiters simply skirted around our table), had cars slow so they could shout some unpleasantness (only twice), walked into restaurants and had other diners fix me with sustained stares as they whispered to each other and frequently pass older people on the sidewalks who openly scowl.

    Getting a bit personal, in my early days I slept with a Spanish woman who later confided her surprise that my skin did not smell!

    Racism and I imagine sexism are both slowly corrosive. At one point I found myself wasting a few minutes steeling myself before stepping out the door. It can make one feel exposed and unprotected while simply trying to go about one’s life. I’m from the melting pot that is NYC and was wholly unprepared for this. Sometimes it’s like constantly walking against a stiff headwind.

    The main difference between your experience and mine I suppose is that I’ve never once felt threatened. Having that additional layer in the turd cake must be a nightmare. One thing that works for me: headphones pumping punk from my old days stalking the East Village and shit kicking boots. I find a little defiance goes a very long way.

    As to your cheddar problem, I did once find a shop that sold a decent one but cannot for the life of me remember where. The only solution is to invite a lot of friends from back home.

    A friend who spent two years living in Prague complained that he found it difficult to spend much time with the other expats there because all they did was, well complain. There’s some truth to this. I believe that when we first move to our dream city we arrive with an idealized notion of the place firmly in place, at least I did. Even the faults we expected to find seemed quaint blemishes that would contribute to its character. After some time, after we’ve tripped a few times over these blemishes we become horrified that the place hasn’t lived up to our ideal. I’ve met any number of people in NYC who moved there and found the going more difficult than they’d expected. In the end though, if we’re patient, hopefully it all irons out.

    • Hi Bill, and thanks very much for this. Your description of it being like walking into a stiff headwind is exactly how it feels to me too some days, when the attention from men is getting to the point of ridiculous – and tedious. I have tried the headphone tactic but the problem is that after being mugged, I need to be able to hear who is coming up behind me, and blocking it all out with music leaves me even more vulnerable, I suspect.

      Although I have no first-hand experience of it, I have often wondered how racist a society Spain is. I have a friend of a friend, a black English woman, who came here with her white husband on honeymoon a couple of years back. She said the experience was horrendous – locals assumed she was a prostitute and made her life a misery. Interesting that even coming from New York City, you find things tough here.

      Yeah, I can completely understand what your friend in Prague means:) The idealisation, the novelty, wears off after about four months, I’d say, when the city starts to really expose itself and you’re confronted with the reality. Or, at least, YOUR reality, which is very different, as a foreigner, to what the locals know and recognise. Expat friends are great for making you feel you’re not going insane and that no, certain things you find hard to accept here are unacceptable to them either.

      I love Spanish, and most of the time, love Spain, but I don’t think integrating into foreign society means you have to meekly accept everything about it warts and all. Otherwise integration would merely mean a complete renunciation of your own personality, which has after all been heavily informed by your home society. It’s an ongoing process of weighing things up. I guess in the end it can only go one way or the other.

  11. Bill

    I just wanted to add, I’ve found the apprehension I encounter usually melts away when the locals discover (when they permit themselves to get so close) I’m from the States. I shudder to imagine the height and the breadth of the walls immigrants from sub Saharan and North Africa encounter. It’s no wonder they seem to lead lives completely disconnected from the Barcelona you and I experience.

  12. Hi Julie, been following your blog for a few months now – have tweeted you a few times too. I sympathise with some of your complaints, esp the annoyance caused by sunday closing + You can’t get pharmaceuticals in supermarkets because the pharma lobby put pressure on the government not to allow it. Absurd I agree. Those small things used to make my pine for London when I lived in Spain. Dogs – yes, it’s a harsh city to be a dog – you notice the lack of green spaces and even then barely anywhere to let them off the lead. I always suggest people take their dogs up to tibidabo, the quiet hill road that winds its way up from the end of the tram is a fantastic route for joggers and walkers alike. re: harassment, again I wouldn’t know (although I did have a bad run-in with some neo-Nazi skinheads (Espanyol fans) when I was a student at the UAB in the mid-90s. As for the language, I personally fully support the catalan government taking a militant stand. if they didn’t, then the language would wither and die, like Breton or French catalan through neglect or in some cases discrimination. It’s no coincidence that the PP have pulled every trick in the book to try and attack Catalan, claiming that Spanish speakers are discriminated against. Propaganda to whip up anti-catalan feeling in the rest of spain. The conflation with valenciano is a complicated one because they have the same roots but nothing like the same number of people in Valencia speak it though and there is little sympathy with the Catalans (Valencia is traditionally staunch PP) anyway, I’m waffling. Finally, rounds – the Spanish has a whole don’t get as pissed as us. I think that’s a large part of it too. Borracho has negative connotations in Spanish yet a piss-up is a rite of passage for any Brit as we all know… Anyway always enjoy your blog and hope your experience of Spain improves. Oliver

    • Hi Oliver, and thanks for the comment. Tibidabo is great for dogs, the only problem being they’re not allowed on either the buses or the funicular trains, which means a taxi all the way from Sants to get there. Not exactly cheap. Same goes for the beach – it costs me 15 euros in a taxi just to get there with the dog. Not worth it, especially since she’s not allowed on the sand! The Spanish are definitely not as alcohol-oriented as the Brits. Which is no bad thing, let’s face it. It may not seem like it from this post (!) but generally I do like living here. It’s just there are some aspects that rile me. A recent post, summing up two years living here, did focus on the positive, I think. Cheers, Julie

  13. Wow, there are some emotive responses here, a really fascinating read. I’ve often considered writing a similar article and a lot of your points would also feature on my own…
    I’m surprised that point number one has been disregarded in some of the comments. Having lived across various parts of Spain, I experienced varying degrees of ‘machista men’ from quite sweet comments to downright vile statements on account of being tall, blonde, pale and unaccompanied. Barcelona was the main offender… and such comments could very well come from a homeless drunk or a respectable man in a suit on his way to the office. One particular incidence came as a complete shock as a kind-looking family man on his bicycle rode slowly past, leaned in and quite plainly called me a whore. I was wearing jeans, a jumper and not a scrap of makeup in broad daylight on a busy street.
    In fact, of all the things I love about Barcelona, ‘machista men’ is one I will never come to understand or accept but as with all things, it depends on each individual- I hope nobody has an experience like yours in the lift of your apartment and that slowly, this kind of attitude will become acknowledged as wrong rather than refuted and become a thing of the past.

    • Thanks Sally. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the ‘unaccompanied’ bit. The vulgar comments, gestures and downright seedy behaviour from men on the streets just doesn’t happen to me whenever I’m walking along with a guy – whether father or friend. It’s enfuriating. How interesting your comment about being called a whore. The exact same thing happened to me on Plaça Catalunya last year. It was January, I was well wrapped up, and heading to meet a friend, when a well-dressed Catalan gent passed me and hissed ‘whore’ under his breath. By the time I realised, he had passed, and I was too shocked to react. Yet Spanish friends here struggle to believe me. I guess they just don’t see the treatment of foreign, single women on a regular basis. I’ve even had it when I’ve been out walking the dog – no make-up, old clothes, hair tied back – in short, making myself as plain as possible. It’s mind-boggling. I agree that the first step is for Spanish society to start accepting that the problem exists. At the moment, denial it’s happening is the most common response.

  14. Luisa De La Rosa

    Julie, I say that your description of the guys at Barcelona is unfortunately very accurate. I am blonde, uk/Spanish/German mix, born in England and look like I’m from Sweden. I love cataluña. Barcelona is my favourite place because of the beautiful architecture and multicultural society. However, as I am…a free spirit, I like to explore and take photographs of my journey through life alone…I cannot walk 1 minute down the street without a man calling me a disgusting name. I’m called a whore on a regular basis…for what?…for walking down ‘their’ street with blonde hair! I’ve been told to fuck off back to my own country for flagging a cab down for me and my girlfriend….clearly the guy didn’t realise I understand Spanish. But then again, its not all that bad, I mean, the guys are so sweet, beautiful, I had a boyfriend of Barcelona about a year ago, everything was perfect until I found out he had a wife and child. I only found out when I heard him arranging to take his wife to the hospital for a baby scan…may I say…the conversation was in catalan, maybe because I would find it hard to understand. And I still get messages from him, naked photos, dirty txts etc. I have dated several men from Spain and they are all quite similar in their disrespect for women, f they can get away with it…obviously without their girlfriends and wives seeing it. I mean, what do they think ‘oye oye rubiaa rubiaa wapa wapa’ is going to achieve in the street?…”oh yeahhh…let me just drop my pants now”?! If any foreign girl has not experienced this then they are either dog ugly or dumb listening, fact. I don’t want to feel like I have to cover up to go to the supermarket. Whenever I walk Barcelona, I take a boy with me now after I was grabbed by a guy in the street, at daylight….and guess what?!…no men catcalling, no grabbing. nothing. Not even looking at me. I would love to meet an exception to this typical macho boy…but alas my tries are so far in vein.

    • Ugh, not good, Luisa. I would be tempted to put it down to a few neer-do-well individuals, from what you say, but unfortunately my experience on the streets is very similar. It’s not uncommon for me to arrive at work (at half 8 in the morning) and already have had to fend off several lecherous advances/comments from random males. Not a great way to start the day, feeling like you’re a walking sexualised target. I’ve been here over two years and am still trying to figure out the optimal emotional arsenal to cope. Sometimes I challenge them, which is temporarily satisfying, and usually leaves them flailing, but isn’t sustainable as a long-term strategy. Again, though, I do think acknowledging this is often the reality for foreign women here is the first step forward.

  15. Luisa De La Rosa

    Julie, you’re much braver than me. I’m too scared to challenge them. Scared that it may come across as an invite to give me more grief. I have found that walking with an ipod to be effective, if I can’t hear it then it doesn’t bother me. I did have a situation where a guy was following me, trying to talk to me, I was ignoring because I had my ipod until he stood directly in front of me and wouldn’t let me pass. Forcing me to engage in conversation.
    I’ve never known anything like it. Everyone enjoys compliments, but not shouting them in the street so that every man and his dog turns round. Its really embarrassing and makes me feel awful, I feel strange enough being in a foreign place alone without eyeballs following my backside as I walk across the road. I’m sure you can relate to this one, it happens all the time to me. It must just be chewing gum that I sat on 😉 I would say its the only thing I dislike about Barcelona. You should try the ipod thing XD especially for the 8am chancers. Who would bother that early!?

  16. Luisa De La Rosa

    I’m really curious about the name calling ‘puta’- whore. Whenever it has been said to me its usually accompanied by guapa and rubia etc. In what way would calling me a whore impress me? I can understand the logic behind the other words. but not this one. Why throw an offensive word in with ‘compliments’ It makes no sense.
    Your point about the cutlery, I hadn’t noticed it until recently, maybe due to the wine intake at meal-time. When I did notice, I did the same, handed back my plate with fork and knife placed on top. And had them slapped down on my table infront of me again. I thought at the time it was just a bad place. But now you’ve cleared that up for me, its their way. I’m not too fussed by it.
    I love the fact you made the Sunday supermarket closure point 2. This is so annoying because Sunday is the perfect day for food shopping if you work in the week. I found out after walking all the way to Mercadona one Sunday afternoon.
    Your point about the driving, its on a whole new level of dangerous you’re right. I think there is quite an issue with the drug-taking and driving mix going on in Barcelona for sure. I can’t believe how normal it is for 18-25 yo to smoke weed. How do they function doing this all day every day? I would be very careful about learning to drive at Barcelona, it seems quite dangerous. I dated a guy who kept a massive wrench wrapped in a rag in the door compartment of his car. When I asked him why he has it, he explained that if he smashes into a guys car and the guy gets angry then he will use it to protect himself. That comment alone put me off wanting to drive. Not to mention the parking tickets….I would get so wound up with that and have a stack of fines in no time. I do love the fact that most boys at Spain drive an own a car, that’s very different to England.
    Shocking about the self-employment laws, I had no idea it was like that. And losing a day holiday from work if it falls on a bank holiday! I would feel cheated

  17. Dubious dairy products – Julia I hear you 😉 That’s the constant complaint in Spain. But their food more than makes up for it.
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  18. I find this all very amusing. I haven’t yet visited Spain so this was a learning experience. I always enjoy reading perspective of other nationalities in a different country. In the U.S. we too often hear about Americans bitching about things. The cheese thing is too bad. I love good cheese.
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    • Nah, I don’t see why it should just be down to Americans to bitch about life abroad. Stay in a foreign country for any length of time and you’re bound to compare and contrast with things back home. The cheese thing is a killer, I tell you. My only known provider of cheddar and feta shut down recently (after 23 years in operation – welcome to Spain in ‘la Crisis’) so I am currently bereft of all things dairy. And don’t even start me on the cream situation. Do visit Spain, though. It’s mostly great:)

  19. Loving the blog Julie! I’m going to have to visit Spain on my next Euro trip!

    That being said, lots of these things happen where I’m from too (the Caribbean) such as the whole machismo thing (which I despise) and Sunday openings (which I found so lovely when I was living in the UK)
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    • Thanks very much, Daryl, that’s really kind of you. I’ve not been able to blog all summer, tied up with other projects, but planning to pick up the pen again soon. Cheers, Julie

  20. Eve

    Thank you so much for writing this post, Julie. After having lived here for five months, I can relate to everything on this list especially the machista men. I am a Mexican-American woman in her 30’s and consider myself well traveled as I’ve been and lived all over the world and I grew up in rough neighborhoods in Chicago and New York . That being said, I have never experienced the amount of sexual harassment and fear of simply walking down the street as I have here. When I share these experiences with my Spanish friends they too seem to be unaware of any sort of problem and I often get backlash for bringing it up at all. I want to apologize for people’s comments and incredulous responses on here, men and women, who say they have lived here for years and have never experienced or observed it so it must be your fault. That is victim blaming and they are inadvertently serving as catalysts for this very real and very disturbing problem. Whatever happened to sympathy? I empathize with you and want to thank you so much for addressing this very real issue. I’m seriously considering leaving the country because the sexual harassment is unbearable. Hope it gets better for you.Best, Eve

    • Oh Eve, I’m so sorry to hear that. It is amazing to me still how Spanish friends seem blithely unaware of the problem, and seem annoyed at you bringing it up at all. As if just because you move to another country you’re expected to put up with blatant sexism as somehow part of the ‘deal’. Sod that, for want of a stronger expression.

      Do let me know if you fancy getting together for a drink and a hug:) Take care, Julie

  21. Diana

    Hi Julie, I enjoyed your column. I´m from the USA and came to Spain in the late 60´s, married a Spaniard and have stayed in Spain off and on for many, many years. I am now an old lady, so i don´t get the harrassment I did when I was young from undereducated and underemployed men, hanging about on the street. But I thought that those customs had disappeared due to the general rise in culture over the past 40 years, and I am very sorry to hear that they have not.

    I live in the south of Spain where rounds are a way of life. This is still hard for me to get used to after all these years because in the USA friends split the bill routinely or roughly estimate their portion and just count to make sure that tip and total are the right amount when all have thrown their money in.

    Like your correspondent Marie, I cannot understand at all that you would complain about the prohibition of dogs on public transportation or the beach. While I understand your point of view as a dog-lover, the sidewalks of the small resort town I stay in are absolutely littered with excrement everyday. Everyone here has a pet and I think only the English clean up consistently after their dogs. Fortunately the Ayuntamiento has excellent cleaning services on the street early every am. I think maybe your culture is more careful about picking up after animals. My own American culture and Spanish culture are not consistent about this and I shudder to think that dogs might be allowed on beaches. As we both know, enforcement of lesser regulations can be very arbitrary, often to one´s advantage, often not.

    Finally, the idea of a complete set of new cutlery for every meal is completely new to me and seems to me to be a very minor cultural issue, one you might have grown up with and therefore expect. Just to present another perspective on this matter, I did not, in my middle-class American family, Of course a soup spoon, dessert spoon, and sometimes there is a salad fork is usually provided in a restaurant, but that is provided here too in addition to the basic knife, fork and spoon. In my home town, while some expensive restaurants do this to distinguish themselves from mid-range restaurants, it is viewed by many as a flourish, and also somewhat wasteful (maybe our Puritan background). All restaurants in my city would give you new cutlery for each course if you request it, but people do. A long way to say I was surprised to find out that there are people who routinely expect this – so I´ve learned something about Scottish cuture too.

    Anyway, I enjoy your blog. And I particularly like your modulated and respective responses to every comment whether the people agree with you are not. Carry on!

    • Hello Diana. Sorry it’s taken me so long to answer – just back from TBEX in Dublin last week.

      Interesting that rounds are also the norm in the south. Amazing how customs can differ so much even in the one country.

      Of course, you’re completely right about the dog owners who don’t clean up after their pets. It leaves the streets filthy for everyone. That’s sort of my point, I suppose – the whole attitude to dogs is one of the things I would change about Spain. Plus the atrocious custom of keeping puppies in tiny cages in pet shops, or the social opprobium you’re forced to undergo if you (responsibly) decide to get your pet neutered, or the tendency to let dogs behave however they want in parks, even when they’re known to be aggressive, etc etc. Spain seriously needs the dog whisperer. Someone could make a fortune here.

      Had to laugh at the idea that a clean set of cutlery would be considered wasteful:) Not quite sure what’s being wasted? It’s entirely the norm back home, so much so that as you can see, I was genuinely taken aback that it doesn’t happen here. Buy hey, there are worse things in life. Cheers for the comments:)

  22. Diana

    respective = respectful
    but people do… = …but people generally do not…


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