Spanish Hospitality

Don Harris | July 2012

"I will say for the Spaniards, no people I know in the world will exhibit a more just feeling of what is due to the dignity of human nature." - George Borrow

These are the words of George Borrow, an Englishman wayfarer who traveled the byways of Spain in the 19th century, lingering in dozens of villages where he met all sorts of people. His book, "The Bible in Spain" makes fascinating reading. It is available for free on Kindle.

Just last week, I heard an account from one of our La Tienda community members that is a modern day affirmation of George Borrow’s appraisal of the Spanish people. A Welshman and his wife stopped by our store in Williamsburg and he told me of an amazing relationship he forged with a Spanish family.

It was many years ago, when he was a young man randomly exploring the countryside along the Spanish border, when a Spaniard came up to him and inquired whether he could be of help. The Welshman indicated where he was heading, and the man said, “Come along with me. That is exactly where I live.“

When the two of them arrived at his house in the neighboring village, his companion introduced the Welshman to his family, and then invited the young man to stay with them, “Why don't you stay with us for a couple of days, or longer if you would like.” It turned out that he stayed two years with the family and gained a deep love for them and an appreciation for the Spanish way of life. Although they only met by chance, the two men continue to keep close contact forty years later. He is a part of their family.

I find that hospitality is second nature for the Spanish people. I remember one day when I casually mentioned to my friend Carmen that Ruth and I were planning to fly from Virginia to the island of Mallorca, she replied “Tell me the flight number and I will meet you there.” Sure enough, she booked a flight from her home in Andalucía, met our plane and devoted two days to showing us the island where she grew up as a little girl. We even had a sumptuous dinner with her family, where Ruth and I met her uncles and aunts and most importantly, her revered father. 

A couple of years later, on Good Friday in 2012, we dropped by to visit Carmen and her husband Juan Carlos at his family owned bodega in El Puerto de Santa María. Before we knew it, we were driving with the two of them to visit Juan Carlos’s stately 96-year-old mother. She received us in her drawing room, surrounded by three generations of family members. We even got to chat with the fiancé of her granddaughter. The boyfriend of the other granddaughter was a delightful young man from Scandinavia! They all greeted us warmly – with no thought that we were strangers. The mother apologized that she could not greet us as she normally would because Good Friday was a penitential time, but urged us to return to her home on Easter Sunday, where we would be received properly by her extended family. 

It is this kind of spontaneous hospitality that seems ingrained in the Spanish culture. This sense of welcoming and, as George Barrow observed, this “honoring the dignity of human nature” begins at the cradle. The newborn baby is cherished, and showered with affection – not only from his immediate and extended family, but also by his neighborhood – his little universe. 

Even when the baby is bundled up for a walk in his stroller, inevitably a kindly old lady will come up, pinch his cheeks, and exclaim adoringly, “¡Que guapo! – How handsome!” and slip him a caramelo

Even more than that, the little one and her brothers and sisters will be included by the family in all of the events of the day and the evening. When we dine with friends at ten o'clock at night, invariably we will see little children playing together along the margins of the restaurant. They are not viewed as a distraction, but a source of joy. (I think I was in college before I ate out that late! When I was younger, I was popped into bed at an amazingly early hour). 

Spanish children feel responsible for one another from an early age, and do not rely on parents to resolve any petty conflicts between them – there is no tearful retreat to mother’s “apron strings.” It is this quality of mutual caring which prepares them for the vicissitudes of life. 

I am sure you are aware of the severe economic conditions in Spain. Yet you do not see many violent demonstrations, as dire as the situation may be. My personal theory is that they have grown up in an environment where the extended family can always be counted upon to be there - even the neighborhood.

The jobless youth are not alone; they are welcomed back into the family without question. When there is a misfortune, the family instinctively pulls together, and the neighborhood as well. Let me give you an example from real life in the town where our family lived for a while.

Pacha and her husband Antonio have a very nice life together. They are raising five attractive children – and, of course, grandmother is included in their household. For more than 20 years, Antonio had stable employment in an established business and their future looked secure - that is, until the economic crisis. With little warning, Antonio was laid off and the family of eight people had no income. 

Bright and resourceful, Pacha had a close neighborhood friend named Maria facing a similar situation, so they put their heads together and decided to open a café, named Quilla, near the Fuentebravía gate - close to housing on the naval base at Rota. One of her neighbors lent a hand by making available to them a vacant shop he owned. 

This was quite a commitment. Normally cafés are open up to 16 hours a day - from around nine in the morning until two or three the next morning, depending upon when the patrons go home from the bar. Prior to opening, Pacha had to go to the municipal market to pick up fresh produce, provisions and bread for the shop. In the meantime, another member of the family had to make sure the children got to school on time.

These long hours were covered by older children in the family as well as friends and neighbors who helped Maria with no thought of compensation. Some of the neighbors donated home cooked dishes to enhance the menu. At various times, others volunteered to cook. To my surprise and delight, I saw my former secretary, Blanca, from the chaplain's office serving desserts that she had made at home. She had no immediate connection with Pacha’s family, and her family owned a small bodega. However, in times of crisis, social position was not given a second thought. All have a common mission.

Last April, Ruth and I returned to the café and found Pacha and her family had established a thriving business. People in the neighborhood recommended the place to their friends, and brought their own families to dine. Of course, this is not a fairytale story. Pacha, Antonio and the children are committed to working long hours. With a little help from their friends they are flourishing as a family and surviving economically. The response to a crisis of these Andalusian families is typical. By helping one another, they preserve their dignity. After all, are we not all part of one family?