Friday, September 27, 2013

Tearing Down 6 Spanish Stereotypes

Except for three months home for the summer, I’ve been living in Spain for one year now. After reading countless blogs about the country, running into my fair share of tourists, and sharing my experiences with friends and family, I’ve gotten a sense of the sort of stereotypes that Spanish culture has in the minds of the rest of the world. In this post, I’ve gathered six of them that I find particularly annoying and have tried to break them down, giving more accurate examples of what Spanish society is really like. Let me know what you think of them in the comments section once you’ve finished reading!

1) Paella is the national dish

Seafood paella in Valencia
Paella (pronounced “pah-AY-yah” [paˈeʎa]) is a famous rice-based dish that originated in the Mediterranean region of Valencia. Saffron gives the rice its warm, golden color, and the savory rice is usually cooked with vegetables like artichokes and meat like rabbit, chicken, or various crustaceans and shellfish. It’s a big part of the culture of eastern Spain, and families often have paella for dinner on Sunday much like a Sunday roast in the UK.

But I need to emphasize that paella is a regional thing; it wouldn’t be correct to label it “the” national dish at all. While folks across Spain will order it for dinner or make it themselves every once in a while, there are other dishes that you can find all over the country that are dear to every Spaniard’s heart. I suggest as more appropriate national dishes the tortilla de patatas—a potato omelet eaten hot or cold—and the many varieties of jamón—whole cured ham legs, the meat of which is sliced super-thin and served on its own or in sandwiches, with cheese, etc.

2) Everyone loves bullfighting—¡olé!

Pamplona bullring
Bullfighting is a centuries-old sport art that involves a series of opulently-dressed toreros (bullfighters) taunting testy bulls before finishing them off with a huge sword. In many parts of Spain even the smallest village will have its own plaza de toros (bullring), and the bullfighting season from March through October draws big crowds in Madrid, Sevilla, and town fairs.

While el toreo still commands a large, devoted following, it’s still understandably controversial. Movements to ban it have succeeded in Cataluña and the Canary Islands, and you would be hard-pressed to attend a fight in Galicia, where only a single bullring exists. I personally know a handful of Spaniards who refuse to patronize bars and restaurants decorated with bullfighting memorabilia and stuffed bull heads.

There was an article published last week on CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown blog that claims “Spain has at least one common thread: bulls.” Ha! Hardly. Want to know the real national sport? ¡FÚTBOL!

3) Sangría is the national drink

(Source: Mitchell Bartlett)
Sangría—emphasis on the I, not the first A—is a mixed drink of red wine, chopped fruit, sugar, brandy, and usually something fizzy. Spaniards usually drink sangría in the summer, often at parties or at get-togethers for friends and family. Think of it as kind of like punch, as it’s sometimes served in the equivalent of a punch bowl.

It’s the mark of a green tourist, though, to order sangría at every meal; although many places do, indeed, make pitchers of the stuff, it’s as weird as ordering fruit punch with your hamburger in America.

Instead of sangría, Spaniards tend to imbibe a similar refreshing wine-based drink called tinto de verano, “red (wine) of summer.” They add some ice cubes and lemon slices into a glass before they fill it halfway with gaseosa (sweetened carbonated water) and top it off with a few glugs of red wine. It’s also called vino con casera (“wine with Casera,” a brand of carbonated water). This isn’t the national drink by any means—wine from Rioja will cover that—but it’s a more authentic beverage than touristy sangría.

4) Everyone can dance flamenco

(Source: Peter Johnen)
Flamenco, a unique style of music and dance combining western and eastern rhythms and sounds, began hundreds of years ago in Andalucía, where the gypsy community is strongest. This passionate genre involves not just dance but also guitar-playing, hand-clapping, and extremely soulful singing. I can’t get enough of it, whether it be local youth flamenco contests or spontaneous saetas sung during Holy Week.

However, flamenco—be it the dance of the accompaniment—is an art form that people have to study and practice all their lives, mainly people from the southern half of the country. Your average Spaniard walking on the streets of Córdoba or Sevilla, while probably very familiar with all things flamenco, wouldn’t be able to break out in claps and fancy footwork on cue unless they’ve been trained. You’d have a much better chance of running into somebody who knows the fancy footwork to the traditional jota dance or a Catalan who can join in on a sardana.

5) It’s always sunny

San Sebastián, seen from Mount Urgull
Probably because of Spain’s reputation abroad for its thousands of kilometers of sunny Mediterranean beaches, many people assume that all of Spain is always sunny. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To be fair, temperatures in the central meseta plateau can reach 100+ (40+) in the summer, often accompanied by months without rain. But Spain has seasons, too, y’all! This past winter in southern Spain was one of the most brutal I’ve ever experienced: overcast skies and rain at least once a week, for days at a time; temperatures hovering above freezing—WITHOUT central heating; and strong winds blowing in from the flat plains to the north. This was the norm from, oh, November through March, almost half the year!

Additionally, the entire northern coast of the country, famous for being lush and green, is equally famous among Spaniards because llueve mucho there, it rains a lot. Regions like Galicia and Asturias are called the Irelands of Spain because the climate there isn’t Mediterranean Paradise™ but temperate rainforest—much different from the stereotypical sun and heat!

6) Everybody takes a siesta

(Source: Manuel Romero)
Now, although Spanish society shuts down between the hours of 2 and 5pm for the midday siesta, this doesn’t necessarily mean everybody lies down to take a nap. In fact, most Spaniards, if asked, would probably admit they don’t sleep during siesta, either because lunch stretched for a long time (a good sobremesa conversation), or because there simply wasn’t enough time for it (having to go back to work or take the kids to activities).

A custom that a majority of Spaniards partake in, however, is the paseo, or afternoon stroll that immediately follows the siesta. The contrast outside can be rather jolting for first-time visitors to Spain, as the previously-deserted streets are now full and bustling with people going for a walk, meeting up with friends, walking the dog, or getting a pick-me-up cup of coffee. The paseo lasts anywhere from 5pm until suppertime.

Do you agree with how I’ve torn down these stereotypes about Spain? What would you add to this list? Talk about it below in the comments!
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