The “Spanish Image” for Travelers

When traveling, we all have an “image” in our minds of the destinations we’re planning to visit. For Paris, we imagine the City of Lights with it’s grand Eiffel Tower and stereotypically snooty French attitudes. For Venice, it’s the romantic, arched bridges over the canals and striped shirted, singing “drivers” of the boats. For Los Angeles, it’s the rampant crime and drive-by-shootings, movie stars, and Disneyland Family Fun.

The above are all “visions” or images or conceptions of what we expect to experience when visiting any destination only to realize it may not be as we imagined it to be.

Unless you’re a VERY informed traveler (and many are), you didn’t know that in PARIS you’d have to wait in line 4-6 hours to go up the Eiffel Tower and that French people are generally very very friendly. You didn’t know that the canals in Venice have a not-so-nice smell, the things “floating” in them aren’t so romantic, and the canal boats are ungodly expensive and the driver doesn’t/can’t/won’t/shouldn’t sing. For Los Angeles, you didn’t know that you’d really have to know where to go to find common drive-by-shootings, that movie stars tend to stay at home because they’re always hounded by fans, and that Disneyland, while fun, costs an-arm-and-a-leg for a family of four, causing it to be UNaffordable for “average” families.

The same is true about Madrid, Spain. The longer I live in Madrid the more my conceptions and shiny fantasies about the city dissolve. I’m not saying I don’t love Madrid – I DO! I’m CRAZY about it! Really, I awake everyday with a fresh smile on my face, so happy to be waking up here. But my honeymoon period is quickly coming to an end. I no longer see the city as I dreamed it through the postcards on my cubicle walls in Columbus, Ohio. The monuments of Madrid and still alluring but the face of Madrid is changing – errr.. has changed. Since my first visit in 1995 to now, 2007, Madrid (and Spain) has changed A LOT! The same can be said for most of Europe. THIS IS evolution at its best; Adaptation & Survival.

Here’s an example: Yesterday I had some time to kill before meeting friends to see the 6pm movie showing of The Bourne Ultimatum at the Cine Ideal on the Plaza Jacinto Benavente. I was starving, not having eaten lunch due to a very busy day. So I walked down the Calle de Alcalá a short distance in search of a bar for a snack – and found one. From the outside, looked like your typical, standard bar with the big Coca-Cola-sponsored sign which bordered the name of the cafetería. PERFECT! I walked in, took a quick glance around the clientèle sitting at the tables, totally Spaniard. This must be a good place! Good choice. I walk up to the bar, which looks like it hasn’t been renovated/updated in 30 years. I’m happy. I love these places, bars de “toda la vida”, a little “cutre” (“kitsch”/old-fashioned), and usually known for their cheap prices, decent food, and gruff service from the bartender who’s been working there for the last 30 years.

…. Nope. I step up to the bar and for a moment I thought I’d made a mistake. The bartender, young, thin, attractive, soft-spoken, and ………Chinese. I looked to the right and the waiter and other help staff looked to also be from China. I placed my order: “Un pincho de tortilla y una cerveza sin alcohol, por favor.” Then she asked me a question which I didn’t understand – and my Spanish is not bad. I asked her to repeat her question, and again, and again, and then I understood. She asked me if I wanted my slice of “potato pie” heated. I said no, thank you.

At this very moment, while writing this, my stomach tells me it’s not politically correct to think such things, let alone WRITE THEM or even talk about them. I can only hope that my words will not, later, be taken out of context. To continue….

First, allow me to say that I don’t have anything against Chinese people. Just the opposite. The few Chinese people with whom I’ve come into contact, usually store/bar/restaurant owners, wait staff, or people shopping at the grocery store, have always and only been very very friendly, soft-spoken, respectful, and seem to be possibly the hardest and most industrial people/culture I’ve ever seen in my life. Of course there’s always good and bad within any culture or group of people so one cannot and should not generalize but…. I’m going to generalize now because you ALMOST NEVER read in the Madrid papers or hear on the Madrid news that a Chinese person was involved in anything negative. It seems to me these people live a very subdued, very simple life, going rather unnoticed. And yet there are A LOT of Chinese people in Madrid. A LOT!

On with my story about the bar and traveler’s perceptions…

The service at the bar was great, friendly, smiling, and professional. The prices were fair and affordable at 3.20 Euros for the tortilla and beer. The tortilla de patatas was possibly THE BEST I’d ever had in my life. Wow. It was really delicious. I had to wonder if they’d made it themselves or if it had been made elsewhere and brought in – which is what many/most/all bars do. My only negative of the place was that the restrooms were not in the best condition, a little dirty, one of the urinals was “bagged” and covered, wall covering torn, and in desperate need for renovating.

SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE ABOVE PICTURE? If I was in the United States or Canada (or China!) I would think nothing of it because immigration in those countries has/HAD been the bedrock on the development of those countries.

The vast majority of foreigners have come to Spain in just the last 20 years – and most in the last 10 years. So the “face” of Spain has changed, and changed forever. This is precisely my point. Don’t think I’m upset that people come to Spain in hopes of a better life for their families and more opportunities. I have no problem with legal immigration either. And in some cases, ILLEGAL immigration is justified.

Now to the point… (finally!) Travelers to whichever European destination, including to Madrid, read guidebooks about things to see, things to do, things to eat in XYZ restaurant, and hotels at which to sleep. RARELY do guidebooks speak – or dare to speak – of the “Face of XYZ City”. What does this do? This leaves the reader with a misconception – or at least a less-than-complete picture of Madrid – in this case. Travelers come to Madrid expecting a picture postcard, all-SPANISH experience. Now, this is not attainable and the traveler needs to be informed – but they never are. Why? In part, because people seek a culturally “pure” experience – and can you blame them? When you go to Italy you expect to be surrounded by only Italians. When you go to France you expect to be surrounded by French persons (snooty or not). When you go to Spain you expect to be surrounded by Spanish persons. Upon arrival the travelers enter the city they see a surprisingly large percentage of non-Spaniards. What are they to think? When they enter [what they expect to be] a Spanish restaurant or bar and are then served by non-Spaniards, how do they feel? When tourists ask directions to someone on the street, in Spanish, and the pedestrian’s answer is in an unfamiliar language, how does that leave the traveler? The short and obvious answer would be… finally enlightened! It’s unfortunate, however, that these travelers have to have a kind of culture-shock which is apart from the national culture they’re actually visiting.

It’s a shame these travelers are unaware of the now-diverse cultures living in Spain and throughout Europe. Many retired people from the armed services whom visited or were stationed in Europe in the 60s, 70s, and 80s and then return now to those places have an unexpected culture shock.

Why aren’t travelers informed? In part, I believe, it changes the traditional image which the tourism industry is working hard to maintain. Imagine if a TV commercial in the USA was advertising “This Is Spain” with some wispy, aerial views of Spain’s wonderful beaches and golf courses (a pet peeve of mine), the grand monuments of the country, and then some restaurant scenes showing an African person with a welcoming smile and holding up a paella? Wouldn’t this advertisement leave the viewer a bit confused? THIS is the confusion visitors often have when going to Spanish restaurants (like Restaurante El Botin, the Oldest restaurant in the world according to The Guinness Book of World Records and a favorite restaurant of mine) when the wait staff is Spanish but, upon passing the kitchen, they see Latinos preparing the Spanish food these visitors will soon be eating? Is THAT the “Spanish Experience” they expected?

Change of image must start somewhere – it must change. The face of Spain has changed forever. This NEW – and in many ways is an IMPROVED – face needs to be shown as it is. Travel agencies can focus on the history & customs of Spain. Great! They should. But they should also show the mix of cultures which now exist. ONLY in the last year have I seen public service announcements on local television showing mixed cultures going about their lives in Madrid, participating in events, and conducting business. But this is only on local television and never on international TV. The governmental attempt is likely hoping these images can assuage or soothe the expected racist feelings by many locals whom have not ever before had foreigners – as next-door-neighbors – in Spain.

The face of Madrid has changed. We need to recognize this and “change our minds”, our perceptions. We need to realize that while all these news cultures in Madrid may not be Spanish, they are – now – all Madrileños.

Saludos, MadridMan

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