After living in Spain for a decade, it is almost unavoidable that we have begun to inherit some Spanish habits, attitudes, and even ways of being. It isn’t as if we suddenly start dancing Flamenco in the streets and speaking while everybody else is talking. The changes are more subtle than that, as we, of course, remain English, Chinese, or Ukrainian (or for us, Mexican and Norwegian) at heart. Some things never change, yet most of us must admit that we gradually have become just a tiny bit more ‘Spanish’.
On some occasions, I realize that Andalucía has crept under my skin, and at no point is this more evident than when I come home to my native Norway. It starts already at the airport since I am no longer accustomed to being surrounded by tall, naturally blonde, and naturally white-haired individuals who gladly line up a long time before the gate opens. But then again, we do reside in a town with only half a dozen Scandinavians.
Everything in Norway seems new and different to me the first couple of days, like the cool and fresh air as one steps out of the plane and onto Norwegian soil, that more than half the passengers stop to buy Tax-free upon arrival, that there are no fights at the luggage carousel, the heartfelt, but restrained hugs at the exit, no illegally parked cars or honking, even if there are no police around, that drives use their turn signals in roundabouts and generally follow the traffic rules, that cafes leave the chairs and tables outside – without chains – when they are closed, and flower stores let people serve themselves and pay by VIPS when they are closed and that there are hardly any garbage around.
The sound level
One particularly noticeable difference between Spain and Norway is the sound level, and it is something that is almost impossible not to feel in one’s bones.
Take a railway compartment. In Norway, there will of course be muted conversations between travel companions, but otherwise, no grand gestures and loud banters across the aisles. Spanish buses and trains, on the other hand, sound like a cackling henhouse with unrestrained laughter and energetic exchanges. If they didn’t know each other before, they will get to know each other during the journey. The volume is regulated by how loud others are talking. If one waits until all are quiet and it is one’s turn to talk, one will end up waiting forever. So, the only way is to pump up the volume.
Of course, one mustn’t utter a sound when entering a quiet zone on a Norwegian train. I did the mistake of greeting the passengers with a polite ‘hello’ when I came into the compartment (at least I managed to stop myself from blurting out a cheery HOLA!), but nobody even raised their heads. In Spain, we often see Silencio signs in waiting rooms, hospital corridors and other sound-sensitive areas, but I have certainly never noticed any difference in the sound level.
And then it is the issue of the cold. I have lived outside of Norway most of my life. The northernmost point I have resided in the past 25 years, was Vancouver, BC, which is at the level of Nice. Though there might not be a scientific explanation for this, I believe that one gradually develops ‘thinner skin’ by living further south. At least for myself, I have become a real wimp when it comes to cold temperatures. While my sister in Norway who never wanted to even get her head wet as a child now has become a regular ice-bather up north, I take pleasure in being a true Andaluza and wearing long pants and a jacket when the tourists start to flood the streets in shorts and flip flops in early February.
After years in Spain, I have also thinned out my winter wardrobe. One rarely needs a full-length duvet coat and polar mitts in Andalucía. We use ski underwear a couple of times during the winter, but that is only because we live 800 meters above sea level. Otherwise, I have gotten used to the heat outside, and the cold inside, as Spanish homes tend to be freezing. I have never been so cold inside as in houses in Southern Spain. And in contrast to Norway, where people overheat their homes and have all their ambient lamps on for cosiness-effect despite astronomical electricity prices, we go outside to heat up here down in the deep south.
The social side
When one lives in a traditional Andalusian town and is constantly surrounded by Spaniards, it will affect one’s way of communicating. Gradually and perhaps without being aware, our arms will lift and start to move more as we speak. Throughout the years, our volume will also increase a tad, though I believe we always will keep our measured personal comfort zone.
In Spain, we get used to talking with neighbours and other customers when we stand in the line-up at the Butcher’s or while the Green Grocers tally up our purchases. We say «Jesus» when someone sneezes on the street, whether we know them or not, and we always wish «Buenos Días» to the people we encounter on a nature trail. But from the reactions I have received, these are not the general custom in Norway.
During my last trip back ‘home’, a young Spanish woman came rushing up to the gate announcing on her mobile that she arrived just in time and looked forward to starting her new job. Usually, being a true Norwegian, I would just have thrown a discrete glance at her and not said a word. After all, one doesn’t talk to complete strangers! But this is when my inner Española takes over, so I asked her if she was a nurse. (There are many Spanish healthcare workers working abroad). Irene from Sevilla, as she introduced herself, explained with a big smile that she was a pastry chef and was starting her new job in Oslo the following day. It turned out that she had never flown before, did not know how to board a plane and did not have a passport. Had it not been because I am now a little bit Spanish, I would probably have been standing there staring blankly at the departure boards, like everyone else instead of offering to help her. Not because we Norwegians are particularly unfriendly, but because we as Nordic beings ought to and want to manage everything on our own.
My so-called ‘Spanish-ness’ is not always well received. During a visit to Norway last summer, my husband and I set off on a forest walk we had heard about. I was not sure which street we had to take to get to where the trail began, something I thought would not be a problem. I knew the language of the natives and could always ask for directions. After all, it was broad daylight. Soon enough we passed a man who stood polishing his already shining Volvo. «Hiii. Could you tell us where the trail to the Hjertnes-forest starts», I asked. The man startled, peered up at us as if we had come to rob him and mumbled something about «up and over there». Then he went back to his polishing cloth without another word. His behaviour surprised me. Where had he spent his sheltered life to be so uncomfortable by two semi-old folks asking for directions to a simple nature trail?
Had this been Andalucía, the man would have come over to us (the car polisher kept a safe distance so he could rush into his house, bolt the door behind him and call the police if we entered his pristine driveway). An Andalusian would have given us a long and friendly explanation and if we had not understood the directions, he would point us in the right direction or follow us up the street. Come to think of it, he would likely have offered to join us on the walk to make sure we wouldn’t get lost.
Despite the lack of directions, we found the trail and had a lovely morning, though absolutely everybody we met, including children with their parents, looked suspiciously at us when we greeted them and wished them a pleasant day.
So perhaps one should be grateful that one has become a tiny bit Spanish, after all…
This was a fabulous explanation of what it looks like when we are a “little bit Spanish”! We always say Buenos Días to people in the street here. Sometimes they are a little startled (they are probably Germans) but most of the time, we receive a smile and a Buenos Dias in return. Thank you, Karethe! I loved the photos too!