So I am back in Barcelona after a week in Scotland, holding hands with the home country (here’s a gratuitous picture of a peaceful Perth by way of proof).
As usual, my swithering between two tierras prompts a flurry of comparisons. Scottish and Spanish societies refuse to stack up evenly against each other. And the most noticeable parting of the ways is the relative peace and quiet of the Celtic environment compared to the furore of Latin land.
My god, the noise levels here are ear-watering.
It starts on the streets, where horns are honked in onanistic fashion and wifeys wail like banshees at their wayward offspring, even though they might be standing half a mile off. Around festival time, which is roughly once a fortnight, the noise levels get ratcheted up a notch and the petardos start. These fire crackers, which local kids insist on hurtling full pelt at pavements, are enough to make you wet yourself if you haven’t been forewarned.
Things don’t get much better when you enter the world of work (an open-plan office, in my case). Standard email etiquette as we know it does not exist. I remember being taken aback when I started last year, reading emails with subject lines in all caps and body text that the author clearly thought inadequate without a liberal peppering of exclamation marks. WHY DO YOU ALL WRITE LIKE THIS???!!! I asked, which fell on ears turned deaf by apparently one too many petardos.
If I thought emails were strident, worse was yet to come.
Meetings, always previously of dubious worth, took on a whole new level of futility in Spain. There was no clear chairperson – or if there was, they had been long since drowned out in a sea of conflicting voices. Who all felt the need to opine at the exact same time. (Clearly, most of the time my own point of view was skulking, somewhat petrified, near the exit. Even if I could figure out how to compose the requisite past subjunctive, my feeble peep didn’t stand a chance in that racket.)
It wasn’t till months later that I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, where I smiled in recognition at the following lines:
“On my second day at the barracks there began what was comically called ‘instruction’. At the beginning there were frightful scenes of chaos. The recruits were mostly boys of sixteen or seventeen from the back streets of Barcelona, full of revolutionary ardour but completely ignorant of the meaning of war. It was impossible even to get them to stand in line. Discipline did not exist: if a man disliked an order he would step out of the ranks and argue fiercely with the officer.”
Express yourself, god dammit
It’s not just the physical volume, which in itself is considerable. (Although to be fair, I’m not exactly a rambunctious sort myself. Visiting the family of my Madrid penpal when I was 18, at the first sign that I might be on the verge of pronouncing something – anything – the father used to theatrically shoosh everyone in the room, mute the volume on the TV and finally turn to me to say “now – please go ahead”. Rendering my attempt to ask where the toilet was all the more excrutiating.)
Alongside the aural din are the competing visual expressions of the opinionated masses, clamouring for your attention. Flags hang from balconies, subconsciously pushing separatism. Protest signs dangle from doctor’s surgeries and schools put out posters articulating their political allegiance. It’s not just protest marches where people make their feelings known – free-floating opinions are everywhere, till you feel like you’re living with a recalcitrant 4-year-old who just won’t GO TO BLOODY SLEEP.
Because it has to be said, Spanish society actively encourages splurges of self-expression. It’s your God-given right to vent, and the more brazen the better.
“Es un destape”, someone said to me recently, commenting on the people’s fondness for a demonstration. The word choice is ironic. ‘Destape’ is literally an uncovering, used here in the sense of venting. But it’s also the term that was applied across Spain in the wake of Francoist censorship, when the country began to prise itself out of its cultural shackles. I do wonder sometimes if all the ‘noise’ is worse here in Catalonia, which wouldn’t be surprising considering the cultural cloister it was subjected to for decades.
Have they got a point?
Sure, there are times I can see the merits of healthy self-expression. Who knows, maybe that’s a better approach than the typical British way, when someone gives you a sympathetic look, offers a cup of tea and changes the subject. Or worse, smiles politely but harbours the mother of all grudges for the next 20 years. People here definitely don’t seem to take things as personally as we do. Nor do they squirm with embarassment when their kid yelps like buggery on the train. Still, I find the volume level generally one of the hardest cultural differences to get used to. Thank god for i-Pods.