Never Mind the Manners

Natasha pic

Theme: When something changes – good or bad. A twist of events, an unexpected turn of events, a change in the wind, weather, love, whatever.

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Written by Natasha Young*, Brilliant Guest Blogger

There was once an episode of the British comedy programme The Mighty Boosh called ‘Nanageddon’. A diminutive grandmother was the devil incarnate and she summoned an evil hoard of elderly killer knitters. Were that to happen in real life, those grannies would be Catalan and the mayhem would start in Barcelona.

Catalan seniors are mean. Really mean. I once saw an old lady punch a man in the back and then ram her shopping trolley into his ankles for blocking the bus aisle. Across the city, older folk queue-jump without mercy, berate hapless tourists on the bus and chastise shop assistants for their shortcomings. Being old here means getting to say and do whatever the hell you like. It looks fun.

Coming from England where manners matter and queue-jumpers are strung from lampposts, it can be difficult to acclimatise in a city where it’s not just older folk who fail to mind their p’s and q’s. Of course politeness is important here too, but the Catalan language is far more direct than English and pleases and thank yous are less culturally important. Social pleasantries are kept to a minimum and small talk with strangers is left to the mentally troubled and yapping foreigners desperate to be liked.

In England, you’d never dream of telling anyone what you really think unless you had at least two bottles of wine, whereas here in Barcelona, getting things off your chest is considered conducive to good mental health and a way of saving time. If the soup is cold you holler at the waiter and if your flatmate’s new idea for a business sounds harebrained, you tell them so. I’ve watched friends scream obscenities in each other’s faces, only to make up seconds later and carry on with their day contentedly, arm in arm. From an English perspective, I find this uncouth and admirable in equal measure. While I have a deep-rooted horror of airing my dirty linen in public, I’m fully aware that holding grudges to my deathbed might not be best practice.

Of all the difficulties involved in finding my feet in a new country, it is this directness and lack of need for social niceties that I’ve most struggled with. Of course it’s not been easy getting to grips with the language, of which there are two in Barcelona. My job as an English teacher is badly paid and far from secure. I’ve had to find new friends and share flats. Rent is sky-high in this beautiful city by the sea, and I’m writing this in the depths of winter in my tiny unheated flat wearing gloves and a blanket fashioned as a cape. But I’ve gotten used to all these things and mostly had a ball whilst doing so. Yet I never stopped yearning for a little chitchat at the bus stop or hoping that people will keep their opinions to themselves.

But I’m changing. Slowly. Several years ago, I got into an altercation with an old lady in the supermarket. It was the last frazzled Friday before Christmas and she wrongly accused me of pushing in the queue. For an English girl, this was too much. I snapped. Words were exchanged. She started yelling that immigrants like me didn’t know any better and I was a hair’s breadth away from slapping her with my Dr Oetker spinach pizza. It was a pivotal moment. I told her what I thought, in public, and it felt good. I became a little more Mediterranean. A little more Catalan.

Since then, the changes have kept coming. Where once I would have so many ingredients in my sandwich that I had to practically sit on it to close it like an overstuffed suitcase, now I’ve discovered that fresh bread only really needs a little olive oil and salt to make it sing. English chocolate has started to taste a little over-sweet. And while in my home country, meals are all too often a race to the finish line, I’ve grown to love ‘sobremesa/sobretaula’ – the local practice of putting the world to rights over the remains of a long lunch.

The biggest change, one which is new for 2015, is my attitude to others. My English manners are here to stay but I throw in a bit of Catalan nanageddon when it’s called for. So what if the bus driver doesn’t always respond in kind to my cheery greeting? It makes it all the more special when they do. Who cares if small talk doesn’t work with the locals? Lost tourists sure appreciate it. But if an elderly shopper tries to cut in front of me at the fish counter? I’m finding that a muttered ‘get back in line grandma’ and a sharp elbow do the trick.

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*Natasha Young is good at things that will never make her rich. She lives in Barcelona where she pays the bills by teaching English and writing for a high profile business magazine, which is a hoot considering she’s never had a business and her degree is in drama. In England, she worked in the music industry where she once got Pete Doherty on stage on time. She misses the smell of wet trees and England’s green fields but loves Catalunya’s coastal paths, cheap wine and abundant seafood. She lived for a while in Santiago de Chile and dreams of one day having a dog with a beard and her own swimming pool.

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