When you move to another country with different cultural norms, you are bound to commit a few faux pas. After living in Barcelona for nearly two years, I thought I had gotten most of mine out of the way. Alas, I was sadly mistaken.
Last weekend, my friend and I decided to go to Quilombo to have a few drinks and sing our hearts out without judgement. I love the high energy vibe of this place. It is a dive bar with musica en directo. The entertainment – a man with a guitar. There are no mics. Back up is sung by the crowd, and the instrumentals are make shift maracas made of beer cans filled with beans placed at every table. People shout out requests and sometimes break out into spontaneous dance. Most of the songs are in Spanish and its taken me several visits to learn them! Sadly, messing up the lyrics to one of these songs was not my faux pas.
We arrived at the bar at around 1am – prime time for Quilombo on a Friday night. The place is small, but that does not stop them from packing people in like sardines. After about a 10 minute wait we were escorted to our seats – a round table with two other parties – in front of a table with another 8 people tightly packed around it. One of the performers had just started his set, and I sat down on the stool facing the singer. Then I heard someone say espalda but didn’t really think anything of it. A few seconds later, my friend tapped me on the shoulder and giggling, told me to turn around. I had forgotten that it is very rude to give someone your “back” in Spain. In this situation, proper etiquette dictated I sat facing all the strangers at the table, not the performer. Oops. Blushing, I spun around on the stool and came face to face with their disapproving looks. I wanted to explain to the strangers that I was just American and not rude, but instead I just took a sip of my beer and started singing. “Why would you face the singer?” my friend asked. “Why would you not?” I replied.
This is not the first time I’ve violated the “back”rule. The first time was at work – on the elevator. Unlike the US, where we all face the elevator door, people in Spain ride an elevator facing each other – almost in a circle. Needless to say I rudely rode the elevator for weeks until one day someone said, “That guy is so rude, he is the type to always give his back to everyone when riding the elevator.” I am not sure if this was a subtle hint directed at me, but after that day I made sure to always stand with my back to one of the walls. When I talked about it with my co-workers they were in total shock we in America rode the elevator facing the door. “You mean that isn’t just in the movies?” they asked. Incidentally, it is also proper elevator etiquette to bid farewell to your fellow elevator companions when you or they exit – even if they are perfect strangers and you probably won’t see them hasta hora. It took this New Yorker a few rides, before she started enthusiastically responding adios instead of looking behind her wondering who they were talking to.
I was provided with a cultural orientation course, shortly after my arrival in Spain. In this course, I learned, that one should never talk about Franco, to never expect things to happen at their scheduled time, to not be offended when people talk amongst themselves during a meeting or even pick up a phone call, and to always make small talk rather than get straight to the point. Never was this “back” rule ever mentioned. I guess some cultural norms you just have to learn the hard way.