Spain 101

Spain is an interesting country.There are beaches, mountains, deserts, valleys, gardens, forests, ghettos and suburbs. Surely, every country has a mixture of this but every city in Spain is so different. There is no east coast or big south that boasts the same everything. From the train on I found completely new weather, customs, foods and there was always something brand new. This is utterly confusing because you arrive with misconceptions. You expect for everything to be revolved around windy, rocky beaches and bullfighting rings. I didn't think tapas would be as primitive as it was. I didn't expect Spain to be as modern as it was. I truly didn't know what it was to be Spanish. There are really no parallels in North America. Surely, there are concepts and traditions that we have taken but we have diluted most of them. Honestly, Spanish culture is more than olives and flamenco. Spanish culture is about relaxation, luxury, high art, design and love. All the infusion into Hispanic, Latino, and Caribbean culture as we know it cannot even begin to compete.

First, Tapas/Small Plates is the one vice of Spain. Whatever you thought or heard about tapas is not correct. In the states, there are two options for tapas - big chain tapas concepts and small spots. There are issues in both of these because these are inspired dishes made small to create the illusion of tapas. In true tapas there are no pizzas, salsas or quesadillas. Tapas isn't Mexican or Peruvian but there are things made of corn and ceviches. Tapas is just much simpler than that. In my experience, tapas was more for gathering and seeing what Spain has to offer. Fresh seafood, local cheeses,jamon/ham, tortilla (Spanish omelette), assorted olives etc. Tapas in bigger cities are priced competitively and at bars it is complimentary with drinks. Tapas can be surcharged when not at eaten at the bar. If there is inside dining you will pay what price is on the menu unless mentioned. If there is outside seating in lieu of a dining room you will be charged a higher price to eat tapas out there. The idea of this is that you order and consume the tapas at the bar where it is freshly made. This also allows for community among patrons all enjoying drinks and tapas. Once dining, there are other options and a wait time which comes at a price. For waitstaff to then bring tapas, drinks and other menu items all the way to the curb for outside diners there is a higher surcharge up to 15% more than menu prices. Sadly, we were never informed of this custom but travel books forewarned us and some menus did state it in Spanish or Catalan. Also, there are some gratis things that are just expected. There are always assorted olives, Russian salad, fresh manchengo cheese and exotic croquettes. We hardly saw contrived things like empanadas or flan. Sweets were never that because panderias were limited typically offering cream based items, meringues and Violettas candy. 

The beauty of paying a little more for dining in or out Spaniards also do not tip. Yes, Tipping is not a thing in Spain. Travel books will inform you to tip a percentage so low it's best just to round up. However, most Spanish patrons will only tip with parties of six or more or during special occasions like a business lunch. Even then patrons are only expected to tip a total of 1% to 3% which again is barely anything unless there is a fairly large bill. Since tipping isn't a thing, just like France do not expect great service. Most tapas places had numbered menus and slow service. There was no crazy interaction time with a server and sometimes you would watch your tapas sit at the bar for minutes on end. Dining in Spain is sort of experimental because you really never know when to eat or what you may get when you order. Most menu dishes are tapas sized and can be unfulfilling. Portions were always small no matter where we ate. Most places seemed to have menu offerings all day but didn't really have an enthusiastic rush until after 10 PM. Surely, you can eat anywhere but if you are looking for a full dining room and the experience of a service it won't happen until 9 PM through midnight. So most diners will leave out around a normal dinner time for drinks, multiple tapas while drinking and wind down for an actual dinner. Breakfast or Desayuno is by far the most simplest. Most everyday people take loafed bread/pan lined with crushed tomatoes and salt for a walking breakfast with coffee. There are options with Iberian ham which is an oily cured ham sliced to order with no frills. When cheese and or sandwich bread is involved the name is changed to bikini or toast. When it comes to lunch sandwich options there are also montaditos, pinxtos and bocadillios. This is all so confusing because they offer the same fixings or toppings, just some are open-faced, cold, hot or just for tapas. Fries are Patatas Bravas; a traditional dish of small fried potatoes covered in a peppery red sauce and topped with a garlic aioli. They can be served plain like frites or fries. There are also a zillion regional varieties to the full dish i.e. sauce on the side, underneath, not spicy, way spicy.

Again eating can be difficult because of the timing of it all. Spain does believe in and utilize Siesta. Entire cities shut down between 12 PM and 5 PM and there is no consideration for anyone and anything. Yes, stores, malls, restaurants just close out of nowhere. In other countries this made sense for different shifts. People generally are accustomed to fine dining establishments closing between lunch and dinner. However, big brand stores just shutting with no notice is strange. Having worked retail most of my life I wondered how did they staff with this major break? I guess this also confused the typical lunch rush because with that much time within a work shift one could simply go home to eat, nap and then return to work. The only way this phenomenon was validated for us was to find a Vans store closed in Malaga. They had the decency to put a printed English sign on the window because any American or British tourist would have a melt down without a proper explanation. Indeed the break is necessary, considering drinking most of the night, eating late then waking early for world's most boring breakfast. 

Shopping and brands are a big thing in Spain. During my travels Spain had the most Starbucks, fast food and H & M's. Rebaixes a.k.a. sales were way cheaper than soldes in France. In fact, some of the same clothing and shoe items were sometimes up to 30% cheaper in Spain. However, service while shopping was nothing like other countries. Most things are sort of self serve and higher end shops are fair game. We never felt like we couldn't just waltz into shops like Lowes and Tous. Most sales people weren't intrusive but that lead to opportunities for people to gather while shopping. I experienced a lot of messy fitting rooms and insanely busy grocery stores. Things are just fast paced in Spain and there is more interest in the design or what you're buying or eating than the service. Design or Diseno is by far the best thing to come of Spain. The best artists, architects and designers in all mediums were born in or inspired by Spain. Just walking the streets there are mosaics, fountains in every square, exquisite gardens and the best architecture. Spain also had some of the best museums and galleries I've ever seen. There isn't enough time to take in all the beauty and culture that Spain has to offer. There are also natural and ancient treasures throughout Spain considering the Moorish occupation that shapes all modern day motifs. Almost every city offers a distinct history with ruins and sites to back it all up. Be it Roman columns, chapels that look like sand castles, Moorish tiles or abandoned forts there is always something for the eyes to see. You seriously won't have to seek out any of the above because it will find you at almost every turn.

Nightlife and the political environment in Spain isn't for everyone. We witnessed a protest in almost every city from corrupt banking to lack of benefits for seniors. We were accosted about going to night clubs so much so the idea of going to one was off-putting. There are plenty of decent bars with great activity among locales and tourists. So there really is no need to seek out big night clubs or after hours spots especially when someone is always trying to lure you into one. Spain does have its fair share of street performers, vendors and peddlers. There are also people who harass you with noisy items they claim to be selling and prostitutes and Gay exhibitionists that line popular areas almost holding up the trees. Police officers seem to condone it but rov everywhere in case of trouble. Thankfully, Policia are all absolutely gorgeous and open to answering questions for those who are lost or simply entranced. It's better to see the sights during the day and head back home around primetime hours. You can always indulge yourself in wines and beer at the hotel. There are also some great fro-yo and gelato chains which make for a great walk home dessert. Beware of weird flavors, I actually succumbed to the Smurf flavor which no one can explain. It could have been Spain blueish Pitfuro fruit or dyed breast milk - both are a thing. I also mistakingly ate a few shrimp heads. I seriously was relieved to have not eaten any pork cheeks disguised as lovely little pork medallions on picture menus. Avoid the picture menus outside of tapas. Do read up on Iberian and Basque culture before eating or doing anything outside of the box. When trying to stay in a box, avoid any wait staff that promises you the dreaded "Pizza, Pasta and Paella". That little jingle may pull you in a trap any cheap, hungry tourist can fall into. 

Spain took me by the stomach. I got into the eat to immerse oneself mode and forgot about everything else. However, once out of the cities and valleys into paradise and onto La Playa I had a 180. Beaches in Spain are seriously fabulous. Now this comes from someone raised in New Jersey and living in Florida. In all cases, the beaches are populated and sometimes dirty. Spain just has enchanting beaches that come up from nowhere. You can be walking past non-beachy shops, restaurants and suddenly feel a breeze. You walk up some stairs, turn a corner, walk down a hill and theres this beach for miles and miles. It almost feels like the beaches were hand carved into these dusty, old cities as refuge. The Spanish live for the beach and there is such a variety of beach goers. The topless, the old ladies, the Gay boys, the chicas, the surfers, the hustlers. You can literally come with nothing and someone will sell you a swimsuit, a coverup, sunglasses, a drink and lunch. There are huts offering straw umbrellas, women offering massages and cabanas with the best BBQ. There was nothing like laying out, swimming with fish, drinking a 16 ounce fresh pina colada and then having a whole fish cooked to order. The experience was bar none in comparison to Nathan's hot dogs on the shore or walking down Daytona's trashy A1A. For those residents trapped in the middle of Spain there are holidays and "bacations" that simply entail the beaches. Depending on which beach you wind up you may be visiting Africa and thats a whole history lesson that everyone will fail. 

Spain has a monarchy. Spain has territories in Africa. Bullfighting is illegal in most places. The Running of The Bulls though is still a thing. Upon arrival in Barcelona we walked the streets not too far from our hotel. We were in some strange district of nothingness not even realizing the beach was right there. Being hungry and tired we walked to the nearest cafe where breakfast was served. We had to remove a few articles of clothing to survive the new climate and ordered Valencia orange juice which was a strange red. We then snacked on bikinis. We attempted to take the bus but transit in Spain was way out of our league. Some places had a subway, others had new trams that weren't really operating and that bus map looked like some stringed out war strategy. We took a cab and of course the machismo was immediate whenever we took one. While driving there was nothing but big billboards, McDonalds and women in heels with short shorts. There was disorientation because streets are sometimes six or eight lanes wide. In the middle of all those lanes is always some fountain with a conquistador or royal commission with lights. There are also motorcycle and bicycle lanes. The streets are painted with messages in Spanish about pedestrian deaths reminding you to cross "correctly". Even with signs, noises and lights most drivers don't care about the peds. Meanwhile, you cross with a grey eyed businessman, a grandmother with grocery and a fashionista with a big ole sunhat. You look up and there is Carolina Herrera, a Gaudi house and someone selling fruit cups. On the corner a Taco Bell, an active casino with bingo and an open market with people eating octopus. It is very hard not to get distracted and not look all which ways. Best advice is to move fast, drink agua and don't blink.

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