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Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb


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Feliz Día de Acción de Gracias!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

I’ve had a wonderful (albeit turkey-less) Thanksgiving Day. Feeling almost 100% after a couple of days fighting a nasty virus, I have that sort of new lease on life that only comes from recovering from illness and realizing how good it feels to not be sick.

That said, it’s a holiday, and I’m not at home, which can lead to another kind of sickness…homesickness, of course. I don’t get homesick easily or often at all, but holidays are definitely harder than regular days. I could sit around and be sad to not be at home sharing this day with my family, but that doesn’t do much good so instead I’m focusing on how much I have to be thankful for. I’m experiencing a wonderful opportunity to live and learn and explore in one of the best places I’ve ever known. I have family and friends back home that love me, as well as wonderful new friends here. I’m healthy and happy. That’s more than enough to be thankful for.

I did a Thanksgiving-themed lesson with my students this week. Most of them knew very little about Thanksgiving prior to the lesson, but they were eager to learn more, curious about lots of details (mostly about the food…which is what it’s all about anyway, right? :-p) and gave me very genuine well-wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving. In case you haven’t caught on yet from this or previous posts, I LOVE my students. They are theeeee best.

On Saturday, several of my American friends and I will have our own expat Thanksgiving here in Billbao, just like we did last year. It’sbe sure to have all the fixin’s, along with my own special Midwestern specialty, Hot Apple Pie.

Bilbao Expat Thanksgiving 2011

To all of you back home: I hope you’re happily stuffing your faces with Thanksgiving goodness or already enjoying a nice, tryptophan-induced siesta.

Love you and thinking of you all! Buenas noches!

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manners matter

As I sat in a small café eating lunch yesterday, a man entered with his dog and headed back toward the bathroom, his dog following him. He nodded to me and said “Que aproveche” (Bon appetit) as he passed, then waved a vague signal in the general direction of his dog, who then promptly sat down about 6 feet from me. The man continued on his way to the back of the café to the bathtroom, and his un-leashed dog waited patiently for him, occasionally glancing over at me, probably envious of my succulent jamón ibérico. I got to thinking about how normal this whole scene was to me: the stranger telling me to enjoy my meal as he passes me on his way to the bathroom, the dog entering the café unleashed and then sitting patiently for his owner to return…where am I? When did these things become so normal to me?

No tying up necessary: a dog waits patiently for his owner outside a bank on my street

**Side note: the manners of the DOGS here is a topic that deserves a post of its own. As I’ve mentioned before, they’re not usually on leashes, and they’re soooo obedient! What kind of dog training programs do they have here that we don’t?!
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about differences in what is considered polite and impolite here in Spain and in the States. I started compiling a list a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine asked me on Twitter whether it was true that Spanish people say goodbye to each other when leaving an elevator. Yes, that is in fact true, and it really struck me how that had become so normal to me I don’t even think twice about it.
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So here is my ever-growing list of differences in manners/politeness between the US and Spain:
  • Say goodbye when you leave an elevator. I didn’t find this quite so funny until I was talking about it with my dear friend Jackie the other day and told her that you don’t actually say “Adios” but rather “Hasta luego” (See ya later!), as if you have plans to meet up with these strangers again later in this same awkward, claustrophobia-promoting scenario.
  • Say “Que aproveche/Buen provecho” to tables you pass in nicer restaurants. My roommates also do this at home– if I’m eating and they enter the room, they wish me an enjoyable meal. Adorable, no?
  • Don’t say hi to or smile at strangers on the street. They’ll think you’ve mistaken them for someone you know, or that you’re just crazy. The exceptions to this rule are: 1. When you meet strangers on a hiking trail and 2. When you meet strangers in the hallway or entrance to your own apartment. Then it’s totally cool.
  • Say hello and goodbye; it’s kind of a big deal. After living with a Spanish family this summer and now with Spanish roommates, I’ve concluded that they’re much more intent on saying hello and goodbye whenever they come and go, as well as goodnight before retiring to bed and good morning the first time they see you each morning. And the hellos and goodbyes themselves are a bigger production: when you encounter family or friends in the street/restaurant/bar/etc., you give them “dos besos” (two kisses) which aren’t exactly besos, but rather you pull them in, your right hand on their left arm (and them the same to you), and you touch cheeks with them on each side, making a kiss sound. I guess it’s a pretty intimate greeting/salutation compared to the way most Americans greet each other. It’s amazing, though, how quickly it becomes normal. Even my American friends and I here greet each other in this way.
  • Keep your hands on the table. Last year at a Christmas dinner at the house of some Spanish family friends, I learned that at meals here, it is most polite to keep both hands on the table at all times. This is something I still have to be conscious of almost every time I’m eating a nice meal here. From a young age, I learned that the proper thing was to keep your non-dominant hand in your lap. It turns out that here (also in France and maybe other parts of Europe), if you don’t have both hands on the table it signifies that you’re not really enjoying the meal. But I suspect that, in Spain, it could also have something to do with the fact that you have bread at every meal, and it is to be kept on the table (not the plate) on your non-dominant side. Children are taught that the bread can be used, in the non-dominant hand, like another utensil to soak up the oils or juices from the dish. So in this case you need the dominant hand on the table to be your “bread hand,” so to speak.
  • Get out of the way. In the US, when we bump into someone we pretty much act like we’ve fractured their skull: “Oh my gosh, I’m sorry! I didn’t see you there!!!” The return is often just as dramatic: “No it’s okay! I’m fine! I didn’t see you either!!!” Oh, so you mean you didn’t nearly die from me brushing up against your shoulder? Good good good. Well I have to say that here, it’s the opposite extreme, and I don’t like that either. People rarely apologize for bumping into you, even if it’s a pretty good shove. And I still haven’t figured out who moves aside for who on crowded sidewalks. Younger men will usually move for me, but among women it seems like I always have to be the one to step off the sidewalk onto the street  in a crowd. I guess I get voted off for my foreign-ness.
  • Raise your umbrella. In my 18th non-consecutive month living in rainy Bilbao, I think I’ve figured out the umbrella-raising codes. *Note: I know this may only be a foreign concept to my fellow North-Dakotans–not that it doesn’t rain there, but if it does we just run to our cars or avoid going outside. And in North Dakota you certainly never find yourself in the situation of walking down a crowded street where everyone has an umbrella, so it has been a big learning curve for me. Umbrellas make your space bubble a foot or two wider all the way around, so how do you navigate your much larger diameter through a crowded street? Umbrella-raising. In my experience, there are three simple rules in a head-on umbrella encounter: 1. If you’re a male, raise your umbrella. 2. If you’re younger, raise your umbrella. 3. If you’re taller, raise your umbrella. So being young and tall, I do a lot of umbrella-raising. That’s okay though, it’s good for the biceps.
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    Manners are a peculiar thing, and it’s good to be aware of how different they can be from country to country, culture to culture. Even the most culturally-conscious of us are bound to make a faux pas here and there. Laugh it off, learn from it, and move on.
    Buen fin de semana!