The Spanish are a tactile people. As well as kissing twice by way of greeting or leave-taking, they find numerous other ways to press the flesh during daily intercourse. To a man like myself, raised as an Irish Catholic and taught that touching others (not to mind oneself!) was sinful, all the elbow-squeezing, backslapping, shoulder-rubbing, belly-poking, hand-holding and wrist-stroking makes me very uncomfortable. In fact, it makes my skin crawl. I don’t think I’m alone in this either: most other northern Europeans in my workplace complain of the same thing. We’re thinking of getting the personnel department to issue a circular along the lines of: “Dear Spanish Employees, Stop touching foreigners — they don’t like it.”
The only thing is that the circular wouldn’t work. The Spanish, in a similar vein to Robert Palmer are addicted, only it’s not to love — it’s to touching. It’s a badge of pride, something they wear with honour.
“We love touching!” they say. “We’re warm, passionate Latinos! If you stop us touching, we’ll stop being ourselves.”
That’s all well and good until they lay a gentle hand on the shoulder of an unsuspecting Irishman tapping away on his computer, causing said Irishman’s autonomic nervous system to go into melt down. You see, I don’t know what to do with unsolicited physical contact. For years, between toddlerhood and adolescence, belonging as I did to an Irish family that was strictly opposed to the whole touchy-feely thing, I had no physical contact with another human being. And then: bam! Girlfriends started arriving on the scene and physical contact made a dramatic and welcome reappearance in my life (I won’t go into details)! From then on, kissing, touching and hugging have been almost exclusively romantic or sexual.
The shock, then, when I first landed in Spain fourteen years ago and found myself being kissed left, right and centre! At the start, a reflex action on feeling another cheek being pressed to my own would cause stirrings in my tongue and it was all I could do to prevent the Spanish double kiss automatically turning into a Frenchie! This visceral reaction to the kiss as greeting produced a serious yuck factor when the cheeks being touched off my own were those of someone’s maiden aunt or mother-in-law and feelings of conflict when the kissee was a hottie. I had to train my body not to recognise the greeting kiss as sexual. The casual touching, however, I’m still having problems with. I usually manage to step out of the way to avoid a backslapping, a shoulder rub (very common in Spain between male friends) or a hand on wrist, but the odd one gets past my evasive manoeuvres. When contact lands, my body interprets touching as someone coming on to me. A recent seriously icky hand on shoulder came from a heavily pregnant woman. I’m still shuddering at the thought of it, which probably means there’s something seriously Freudian going on in my unconscious.
Sometimes all the touching backfires on the Spanish and they get a taste of their own medicine. A Dutch woman at work threw herself with great verve into the whole touchy-feely thing, but without quite understanding the complex rules behind when and where (including where on the body) touching could be engaged in. So, she would be sitting down beside her male Spanish colleagues when her hand would suddenly land on the inside of their thigh and begin working its way upward . . . The Dutch lady is no longer working with us but there are still people shuddering!