An Eejit Abroad: No, the Country isn’t Going Out of Business, it’s a Siesta
By CB Makem
I like to avoid tourists when I’m visiting other countries, which I know is a little ironic and without a doubt physically impossible, but I’ll do you one better: I don’t want to be recognized as a tourist. I know I’m not unique in this. Admit it, you’re the same way, you want the locals to see you as one of them.
It’s easy as duck soup when I’m in Ireland. I can stand on a sidewalk and gaze slack jawed at a parked car like some seedless grape and locals will ask if I’ve tried the prawns at such and such restaurant.
No fibbing, I had one woman who was convinced I had the “worst fake American accent” she’d ever heard, and she saw me on the number three bus to Ballywalter regularly.
Not so much in Spain, from where I’ve recently returned. And do you know how I know I looked like a tourist in Spain? Because several people introduced themselves to me in English, which I have read in reputable publications is not how the Spanish greet each other. It made me seriously question my Spanish pedigree.
Now I should clarify that of the three billion letter pairs in my DNA code, not a single entry has an iota of resistance to the effects of the sun or the allure of a pint of Guinness. Which is to say my genealogy is essentially 100 percent Irish.
But I do like Bikini sandwiches, those being Barcelona’s answer to grilled ham and cheeses, and I took Spanish for three years, which means that two weeks was enough time to figure out how to order a cup of tea (tell the inquiring Spaniard, “Té negro, con léche y azucarera, por favor” and after they reply with something you don’t understand, say “sí,” and then you’ll get a nice cuppa). (Caveat: I realized in the airport on the way out of the country that they might have been asking if I wanted cold or hot milk with my tea, so the answer to that shouldn’t have been “yes”).
Anyway, figuring out how to order tea in Spain was a treat and only one of several things I learned while spending a couple sun-drenched late winter weeks there. I can tell you, for example, that Barcelona only has about 600 or so residents. The rest of the people you see are American or Japanese. (That’s admittedly a rough estimate based on visits to popular tourist sites). Also, the parakeet is a bird that lives in the wild, and not just in cages at the mall. They’re majestic, fond of palm trees and louder than a businessman from New Jersey on his phone in a nice restaurant, which is to say loud.
Libby and I had two weeks in which to immerse ourselves in Spain. As you might expect, it was nowhere near the amount of time someone would want to really experience a country, but seeing as how there’s a deadline for the Ohio Irish American News and the editor always overemphasizes the syllable “dead” when pronouncing the word deadline to me, it seemed a smart move to limit our stay.
Now you can always read about Spain in flashy, trendy books and travel websites, but I’m here to give you the real lowdown, which can only be gleaned with at least two full weeks in the country. So here goes.
When someone tells you that the Spanish like their siestas, they’re not kidding. I’m not saying that everyone heads home to take a nap; it’s not like that. There are two siestas: one for most people in the afternoon, when they close up shops and head out to bars and restaurants for socializing, and another for the bar and restaurant workers who don’t get to take a break with everyone else.
So, if you’re wandering aimlessly through Barcelona and most of the shops around you are closed, don’t jump to the conclusion that the city is on the brink of going out of business. Just check your watch, or your phone (if you can see it on the end of your selfie stick). It’s probably somewhere in the 3-5 p.m. range.
Don’t panic. Go to a bar and wait it out. That leather handbag will still be there and you’ll be feeling a few glasses of wine better.
What’s next? Let’s see. Remember when your father told you that when he was growing up, he had to walk to school and it was eight miles, all uphill, both ways? I’m here to tell you that according to the laws of physics, that’s impossible … unless he went to school in Granada. Known worldwide for the Alhambra (an ancient sprawling, walled-in metropolis, atop a breathtaking mound) this scenic and historical town has puzzled physicists for centuries. You see, no matter where you go in Granada, it’s uphill.
Going from your bed and breakfast lodgings to a highly rated Tripadvisor restaurant? I have news for you. It’ll be a climb. Returning from a highly rated Tripadvisor restaurant to your bed and breakfast lodgings? Yes, that’s right, onward and upward.
How is this possible? I don’t know. I seriously don’t know. Granada is where physics goes to die.
Okay, what else isn’t in the cookie cutter travelogue? Flamenco shows are undoubtedly focused on luring in tourists. And despite this, you need to go see one. First of all, it really is part of Spain’s Andalusian gypsy culture, but second of all, it’s a great way to spend an evening, especially if you’re in the Andalusia region, and that’s coming from someone who thinks that every night should begin and end at a pub (it still can). The guitar playing alone will keep most people with a heartbeat satisfied, but the dancing is quintessential Spain.
I know, I know. You’re going to tell me that a show set up for tourists might bear only a passing resemblance to authentic culture and a first-time visitor can be easily fooled. So, skip the Flamenco show, see if I care. But know that you’re a stick-in-the-mud.
And there you have it. Everything you need to know about Spain. Oh, and the capital is Madrid. There, now that’s truly everything.
*CB Makem spent 22 years traveling and honing petty gripes as an Irish musician, and enjoyed a further 13 years of people not returning his calls as a journalist. He is fluent in English, American and old Kerry farmer. More of his photos are on Instagram under cb.makem.