13 things I would change about Spain
If you’re reading this from the UK, I can imagine what you’re thinking right now.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.