I think I've just sat through one too many conversations containing the comments:
"They've got no idea how to go round roundabouts have they?", "They don't know how to build a wall in a straight line – just look at the floor tiles!" and "That would never be allowed in England." It's not that I disagree with these statements. On the contrary, I not only agree but have complained as bitterly as everyone else when they've affected me personally. "It's all mañana over here", "Why do they have to make so much noise?" "They've no idea about electrics". Yes, yes and yes, it's all true, and I have long since given up any attempt to defend or justify the Spanish work ethic, road sense or general way of going about things. I suppose I've learned to live with a lot of things, although there are still some aspects of life in Spain that are guaranteed to wind me up, most notably small-minded obstructive receptionists and old ladies that barge me out of their way on the pavement.
But sometimes, like today, I just want to say to the moaners – "Yes, but what about all the good things?" "What good things?" say my hard-bitten companions. "Well, there really are plenty…" and that's when they glaze over, and I decide to take to my computer at the earliest possible moment and relieve myself by writing some of them down.
So here's what I think is good about the Spanish. I don't mean that they have a monopoly on these virtues, nor that there can't be a negative side to them, nor indeed that every single Spaniard that ever walked the face of the earth possesses these qualities to perfection, but they are my personal observation about the things I like, and admire, about the Spanish way of life.
Firstly, the extended family. For the Spanish the family comes first. In fact a lot of the inadequacies of the Spanish state system exist because of the assumption that people have family members to support them. And they do. Anyone who is hospitalised will be accompanied by members of their family day and night. Young people stay on living at their parents' home much longer than in Britain, and as there is no unemployment benefit for people who haven't contributed into the system – who will they be supported by? Their family. The negative side of this is the lack of independence that it generates, but on the other hand granny and granpa have a much better chance of being cared for in the bosom of their own family in Spain than in many other parts of the world.
Virtue number two – the ability to be spontaneous. I think the Brits (and I include myself totally in this) are much too dependent on our diaries. We don't tend to say – "I'll give you a ring sometime later this week, and we'll do something". We need to arrange when, where, what time and exactly what we're going to do about three weeks in advance. In this respect we are as different from the Spanish as we could possibly be. They hate being tied down to arrangements. I can't remember what the Spanish did before they had mobile phones but it must have been very difficult. They will have some vague arrangement to meet someone at a named time like "la hora de vermú" vermouth time just before lunch, or "después de cenar" after supper which could be around about 11 p.m. but it would never be any clearer than that, until within about 30 minutes after the approximate time when final arrangements would be made by mobile phone. I know, to us it sounds horrendous, but there's something very freeing about it. You don't have to look at the clock all the time and worry about being on time, if you remember you've got something else to do first, well, there's time to do it and if you turn up earlier or later than your friend it doesn't matter too much as long as you finally get to see each other and enjoy the moment when it comes.
I think enjoying the moment sums up a lot of the Spanish way of thinking, and can make us look awfully stiff and starchy in comparison. This is really the basic philosophy which underlies all the fiestas. All year round a huge amount of money and preparations go into the enjoyment of a few days of wild and extravagant partying, but those few days are often the most important in a Spaniard's life. If you live in a big city, going back to the "pueblo", the village where your family originated from, to celebrate the annual fiesta is priority number one for many people. We can object till we're blue in the face, but the fact is that if the builder stops building because his village is having a fiesta week, there's precious little you can do about it, and just maybe, he's the one who's got the balance right between work and play and is living a happier life as a result.
The next thing I like about the Spanish seems to be in contrast with the above, and that is a strong sense of balance in many of their daily habits, especially their meals. I've always found Spaniards somewhat fixed in their ideas about what you should eat, and when you should eat it. The midday meal, for example is sacred, you are very strange indeed if you don't sit down to a full and prolonged midday banquet. The Spanish are brought up with these ideas from childhood and on the whole they are much stricter with their children about eating a varied diet in a sensible way. No children's portions for them, they have to eat up their plate of lentils and sit and listen to the adult conversation without complaint, or there'll be trouble.
This takes me on to the Spanish attitude towards children. Rarely have I come across a Spaniard who does not genuinely like children, or who at least is not prepared to be kind and patient with any infant they come across in almost any circumstance. This adoration of children tends to over-indulgence, but it is rooted in genuine kindness. The Spanish do not suffer from our paranoia about paedophiles and would never even think of objecting to a man picking up and kissing a little girl, watching children play or helping a child in distress, in other words the kind of innocent behaviour that the vast majority of decent men would do naturally if it wasn't for the suspicious way such things have come to be regarded in the UK. In this respect, Spanish society still has an innocence which we have lost.
One last virtue – the Spanish speak up for themselves. They know that if they don't no-one else will speak up for them, so whether they are not satisfied with a meal in a restaurant, think that someone's pushed in front of them in a queue, or don't agree with the way a meeting is being conducted, they are far less shy than we are about standing up and jolly well saying so. Maybe over bigger and wider issues they tend to be passive, but in the everyday hussle and bustle of life they're there making sure their voice is heard and their needs are attended to, and frankly I think we could learn a lot from that too.
So, that's just of few of the things that I think are good about Spanish society. Every culture has its strong points and its failings, and even these virtues have their negative side, but just think next time you moan and groan about the Spanish way of doing whatever it is, there are a lot of other ways in which they have got things right, and maybe they could even teach us a thing or two, even if it isn't how to wire a house!
This article is published courtesy of CB Friday in association with thinkspain.com