What's Strange About Spain?

Jonathan Harris | July 2023

Because of La Tienda, I get to visit Spain often, meeting with vendors across the country who work so hard to preserve the foodways of their amazing country. On a recent visit to A Coruña in Galicia, I spent a day with the artisans at Ternura, who produce incredible empanadas by hand. We were greeted by the owner and his head of sales, Paz Varas, and were given a hands-on tour of their small but efficient production facility. Once again, I was impressed by the hospitality and warmth of the Spanish people.

After traveling Spain for decades, I feel like Spain is a second home. No matter the region, I have always loved the energy and engaging nature of the Spanish people, and the pride they take in their local food heritage is always apparent. The fact that they live in 17 “autonomous communities,” as opposed to states or provinces, shows the strong pride of place that is felt in each region. Ironically, that sense of local identity is one thing that is shared across the country and helps create the Spanish identity.

But no matter how comfortable I am on my visits, there are many things that remind me that I am a norteamericano far from my home in Virginia. Thankfully cars drive on the right side of the road, and my iPhone seamlessly transitions to the Spanish mobile network, but there are many small experiences that alert me that I am in a different land.

One thing that struck me on my last trip is that Spain prioritizes walking over driving. It helps a lot that most towns and cities are compact, with lots of apartment buildings and less sprawl. I am sure part of the reason is government zoning and property taxes. But I think it goes deeper than that – the Spanish way of life is centered around a sense of community fostered by physical closeness. Walking to the local café or town square to get your morning café con leche is a chance to share a few minutes with friends. A walk after dinner with your family is good for the soul, and an opportunity to bump into friends and chat.

A concrete consequence of this walking culture is the confidence – bordering on suicidal – that Spanish people have when entering a crosswalk. Coming from a culture where the car is king, it is always startling to see a young woman or older gentleman blithely stride into the street as cars and trucks speed towards them. No left or right look is given, only a confident forward stare as they move on with their journey.  Since I witnessed no dead bodies lying at various crosswalks, I guess it is safer than my first impression. And it is clear proof of the importance of walking in Spain.

A second and less profound difference between Spain and the U.S. is the adventure of timer lights. If you have ever been in a windowless bathroom mid-stream and had the lights suddenly turn off, you will know what I mean! Startling is an understatement, and it is not always obvious how to restore illumination gracefully. These are obviously energy saving devices, but I implore the manufacturers to do a time-study trial before future installations.

Another small but interesting difference is how coffee is served in some parts of Spain. In many places, especially in Andalucía, your piping hot café con leche or cortado is served in a glass. And not a glass mug with a handle – a simple, fragile glass. Over the years I have mastered different strategies to avoid burning my fingers or dropping the glass with a crash on the table. Wrapping it with a napkin is the safest, or, if you are braver, you can pinch across the top rim and gingerly sip.

I asked a café owner in Sevilla about these coffee glasses, and he told me that decades ago, when Spain was less prosperous, ceramic cups were prohibitively expensive. Glasses were cheaper and available, so everybody used them for coffee. Over time people got used to them and even prefer them, so they are still a fixture in many cafés.

Finally, my favorite difference between the U.S. and Spain has to do with people’s relationship with food. The Spanish generally treat meals as a time to share quality local food with friends, and even the humblest dinner is enjoyable. In fact, some of the best meals I’ve ever had were in the most mundane places in Spain.

One time, I shuffled across the hot sand in my soggy swimsuit into a temporary chiringuito beach shack at a seashore in Cádiz. Inside, I sat with my wife at a proper table and feasted on seared Almadraba tuna and fresh grilled sardines with a fresh salad, all washed down with a frosty Cruzcampo draft beer. In the U.S., we might have to cross a hot parking lot to buy a couple of corn dogs and canned sodas. In Cádiz, Spain’s best foods were served right on the beach!

Another time, I pulled off the highway to grab a bite at a truck stop. I ended up sitting down to a three course menú del dia, including a salad, pollo al ajillo garlic chicken, arroz con leche pudding and a glass of decent wine. It took a little longer than devouring a burger and lukewarm fries in the front seat of my car, but it was so much more civilized and healthier to sit down to a proper meal.

I am fortunate that I get to visit Spain as often as I do, and every time I come, I feel like I’ve arrived at my home away from home. These stories I’ve shared about the differences I’ve observed may seem small or unimportant. But I think they hint at how Spain values a tight knit community and treasures great local foods. There is nothing more valuable than taking time for a stroll through town or a enjoying a quality meal with friends and family.