Sunday, April 3, 2011

they hold these truths to be self-evident

It's bound to happen any time you move to a foreign country, really: you come up against the Local Truths. Things that had never occurred to you as possible outlooks on life, but there they are, confronting you and your American background at every turn. Here are some of my favorite facts of Basque life (and the ones that have challenged me the most).

1. "Spanish" is a palabrota, a cuss word. Don't call a Basque a Spaniard. Some do think of themselves as Spanish, but it's too politically-charged to say so nonetheless.

2. The word "Iberian" is a lifesaver. Because sometimes you want to refer to something that happens everywhere within the borders of Spain, but as we've learned, you can't just go around saying "Spanish." Although "Iberian" technically means the whole Peninsula, including Portugal, we know you're not talking about the Portuguese, are you?

3. Repeat after me: Staring. Is. Not. Rude.

4. You're walking on the street, and someone makes eye contact with you. What do you do? Give them a little, polite "Hi" smile, right? Wrong. This is one of the hardest things for Americans to adjust to, but adjust we must, because (at least for ladies) smiling at a random dude on the street can mean "hey, baby, you're lookin' fly!" For everyone else it just looks weird.

5. 14 is an appropriate age to begin staying out all night with your friends and drinking. And smoking, because it makes you look totally mature and cool.

6a. You can almost always tell who's, ahem, Iberian, just by looking.

6b. If you don't look Iberian, it will happen to you at least once that people yell at you on the street in whatever language they think you might speak (this is always English). Usually this means "Hello!", "I love you!" or one of the two cuss words they know.

7. Your waiter probably isn't being rude - table service just isn't as attentive as it is in the States.

8. Walking four people deep on a sidewalk is your inalienable right. You needn't budge - say, walk two and two - to let others pass.

9a. Stop worrying about efficiency - it's just not a priority here to the extent that it is to Americans. Yes, that means things will sometimes take 3 times as long as you think they should. But sometimes it can be a good thing because...

9b. ...Cheap food is usually higher quality than what you'd get in the same situations in the USA. Example: the sole restaurant by San Juan de Gaztelugatxe serves excellent pintxos. In the US, the only restaurant serving hungry visitors to a popular destination is usually not going to put that much thought into quality - probably a stand serving overpriced hot dogs and fries. Even though they've completely cornered the market, though, that bar puts out seriously delicious and affordable treats. Efficient, from a business perspective? Maybe not. Awesome? Heck yes.

10. Late isn't late, unless it is. Basque society is caught in this funny pull between Spanish culture and not-Spanish culture, and here's one of the places it shows. Sometimes (especially for social engagements) you don't show up on time. Other times you do. Beats me how they decide.

Other expats: what about you? What are some of the things you've noticed they take for granted in your new home that would never have occurred to you before? Which ones ruffled your feathers the most? Bonus points for expats from other places living in America - I'd love to hear which crazy American behaviors stand out the most!


  1. I'm not sure if this is just in País Vasco or all over Spain, but the not paying for pintxos and beer until you leave the bar really throws me off. The honor system must work here or they wouldn't do it, but it still blows my mind a little.

  2. Living with a Basque had me learning VERY quickly to never call one "Spanish", that the best thing to drink is kalimotxo, and as your blog is so appropriately named that euskal herria is the center of the world :) Love this post!

  3. You have to say hola when entering small shops, gyms, etc. Obviously, if you go to Corte Ingles, no, but if it's a small tienda selling tourist merchandise, yes! I kind of hate it.

  4. And don't forget to say "hasta luego"!

    How about the odd differences in dressing habits - my recap here:

  5. amen to this post! i would have to say paranoia of cold to be a hard thing for me to get used to. and how people HAVE to comment on anything you do that's out of the ordinary for them.

  6. Thanks everyone!!
    Erin- the dressing habits thing is huge. I just realized I should have linked to you in the next post! whoops.

    Kaley- wait, but we say hi walking into small shops in the US too, don't we?

    Jessica- Amen backatcha on the constant running commentary on everything about you ever from the host city's population. The amount of times I've wanted to yell, "hey, how about you mind your own business?" before reminding myself it's just culture shock is astounding.

  7. PS Jess, did you see Kaley's post ( on the same topic? it's hilarious.