Last week, The Sunday Times Travel published an article that has been attracting lots of attention for all the wrong reasons. In today’s uber-connected society where the comment section outshines the article, there will always be people who go out of their way to be offended. This is not one of those times. At the risk of reading too much into this, there are a few aspects of this commentary that are crying out for attention.
I think we are meant to take this article as humor, but instead we read a half-assed instruction on culture that is neither enlightening nor engaging. The writer considers himself to be someone who has mastered the dichotomy of two cultures, at least having collected enough material to launch a clever cultural analysis. If a writer wants to produce a funny critique of a people using hyperbole and anecdote, then he or she must know how to do it right. Not only has the author missed the mark, we are left wondering what the mark was in the first place. One must ask: what is the purpose of this piece?
From any approach, it falls short.
If it is meant as humorous anecdote, we don’t get stereotypes that even try to build on any tenuous connection to truth. Rather we get a collection of observations from a disinterested weekender (does anyone who lives in Spain really think that sobrasada is what is always expected for breakfast? Perhaps it’s just a word that you picked up in Magaluf after the appalling realization that there were no baked beans on offer). We learn that there are two words meant to describe small portions of food: tapas and pintxos. We learn that the writer once learned the funny-sounding word guiri. Among other things, there is a rich field of humor just waiting to be cultivated in the darkness of the toilet after the 2-minute light timer has gone off. But any comedic richness in this, like so much else in the piece, is so thoroughly squandered.
If this is meant as actual advice, even half-hearted advice, on how to behave in Spain, we are only told to begin spontaneously swearing in Spanish to fit in, or to refrain from ordering butter at a restaurant, or to throw things on the floor in the bar. There are some funny truths in all of these, but truths that are lost in bad phrasing and subtle racial judgments glazed over with jokes.
If this is an attempt at social commentary, we only get fan-wielding ladies (yes, I´ve seen those Zuloaga paintings, too), a bizarre aversion to “please” and “thank you,” and the notion that Spaniards can find shade. Again, humorous truths lost in the wind.
No one can deny that the British are masters of self-deprecating humor. And we almost get a taste of this in the article, but the joke falls flat once again. “You can always spot the Brits. They´re the ones who walk into a crowded tapas bar and can´t believe there´s a table free.” Doing so well so far. “That´s because the Spanish sneer at tables. Tapas are eaten at the bar, while yelling at the waiter and throwing stuff on the floor. Except the glasses. Remember that.” Somehow Spaniards standing at bars is conflated with a disdain for tables. We can see flickers of a point there, but it doesn´t show us anything about what a Spanish bar is really like, it shouts a wholesale ignorance of terrace culture in Spain and it only flags the surprise of a narrow-minded observer whose observations are of little interest. The fact is, Spanish bars are often appallingly loud (and anyone who knows me has also been victim to my angry tirades on the subject), yet one does not have to paint a picture of a cave full of hooting troglodytes to make the point.
By the way, if you are going imply that your host culture obsesses about food, snacks and unnecessary naps, do better, especially when that host country boasts one of the healthiest and longest living residents in Europe.
One aspect of understanding the culture one lives in is seeing one’s own culture through the eyes of host country. Yes, host country. If you find a desire to write about a foreign culture, give it a try. A host is someone who invites you over for a drink (or tea, if that’s what you’re into), allows you to sit on the sofa and warm your hands next to the fire. This implies a certain measure of respect on the part of the guest. A writer who attempts to analyze a culture should know how to employ humor and be provocative well outside the echo chamber of other moaning, like-minded peers. No one finds themselves interested in moans, except those who are also moaning. Listen to the locals, what they make fun of in themselves, what they complain about, what they are slightly embarrassed about. But always keep in mind a standard of fairness which prohibits an attitude of cultural superiority. A useless piece of writing is one in which the reader learns nothing. And a humorous piece of travel writing should open a window on a place or inspire outsiders to sample the target culture, be it through humor, harsh critique or Rebecca West-style cultural analysis. Think Peter Mayle or Gerald Brenan.
Lastly, it must be said that I´m not the first reader of English who has noticed an ever-so-slight undertone of cultural superiority in some British travel commentary. If you imply a savage, uncivilized nature in a country by contrasting it with some fairy tale model of civility and manners in your own, you will be called out, at least by me. Take for example a perceived unrefined way people behave with each other: [when in Spain] “forget Anglo-Saxon notions of politeness, discretion and decorum.” When balanced with equal measures of healthy self-criticism and humility, this might work, but here we have only simple-minded condescension. And then the pièce de résistance: “…make sure that you eat everything you´ve ordered. Countries that have suffered famine are funny about that.” It might be obvious that funny famine jokes are rare, but here, impressively, the writer has found at least three different kinds of people to ridicule. Most importantly, if you are of an age that past spells of famine are within memory–a deep trauma that causes one to constantly ask grandchildren have you eaten today?– a passing comment on some humorous connection between starvation and Spaniards in 2018 eating all their helpings comes off as mystifying, much less funny. Secondly, there are those who know Spanish history and rightly find no parallel between pre-Civil War rationing and peculiar social behavior in Spanish bars. Thirdly, there are the young people who might have heard about how bad things were in grandpa´s time, but are just pissed off because don´t get the reference at all. Regardless, famine jokes wrapped in mean pity reflect a huge moral deficiency in the writer. I like to think that even with all the ills and damage that the internet and social media have done on society, that same internet has spawned a smarter readership where such lazy jibes are no longer permissible.
I should say that I don´t think a piece of writing should be governed only by some obsession to be nice. Furthermore, I see an increasing and unsettling pandering to avoid offense at the expense of overall quality. But if you find yourself sitting at your desk with an itch to write a distinguishing piece of travel writing as an outsider in a foreign culture, ponder this:
If you write about a culture and merely stir up contemptuous rejection from a native of that country, you are doing it wrong. If you make a local feel like a foreigner in his or her own country, you´re doing it wrong. If you feel that you come from a better place, you will write crap. If you find yourself falling into one or more of these traps, go to your room, think about what you´ve done, and try again.
Of all the tidbits of observation in this article, there is only one comedic gem, unintentionally funny in its irony: the writer’s suggested “first step” in “becoming” Spanish–learning the language.