Mistrust abounds in Spanish society. In my last post, I went into how Spanish supermarkets regard their customers not as roaming assets, living embodiments of goodwill who must be cherished and pampered so as to maintain their loyalty and repeat custom, but as potential shoplifters. Outside the world of multiple retail giants, many small neighbourhood shops are mini-me’s of the big boys. These locally owned and run stores are virtual fortresses. Their doors are locked and you need to ring a bell and be buzzed in so that you can take a look at their wares. And when you’re inside deciding on whether to make a purchase or not, you feel that oppressive sensation of being under scrutiny. You also feel eyes burning holes in the back of your head when you’re browsing the shelves of a Chinese corner shop; these new inhabitants of Spain are more Spanish than the Spanish themselves in terms of viewing customers with suspicion rather than gratitude for deciding to spend their euros in their establishment.
There is a wide strand of suspicion to the Spanish national character. From an early age it is impressed on people to be on the lookout for those who want to do you over or con you, and to be nobody’s fool is seen as a very admirable trait. At the individual level, in business, all the way up to state bodies, everyone is on the alert for those trying to pull a fast one on them — to the extent that being on the lookout for sharp practice occupies a large sector of the Spanish cerebral hard drive. One wonders that if people were less concerned with being done over and instead more open and trusting, would things work better, more smoothly, more efficiently. Would Spain be less backward and more twenty-first century European?
For example, take one of my bugbears: public toilets and restrooms in bars and restaurants. I come from a culture where public toilets are one of those mundane things you take for granted. In Ireland they are ubiquitous in the streets and squares of towns and cities, and if you go to a forest park or the beach or a national monument the presence of a reasonably clean and well-maintained block of toilets will not surprise you. There will be soap, there will be toilet paper, there will be running water. Here in Spain there practically aren’t any public toilets. And the few that I have come across were in a lamentable state. Town hall and other official bodies who would be in charge of public toilets if they did exist feel that providing these conveniences would be to leave themselves open to being screwed over by a rapacious and uncivilized public. People would be stealing the soap and toilet paper. People would be shaving and washing their clothes in the sinks. People might even use the toilets as places to have their siestas, or worse, do a George Michael. And because your local mayor is nobody’s fool, he ain’t having that, which forces José Public to spend his penny in a bar or restaurant. How often have I had a café americano I really didn’t want, just so I could use the facilities of a bar?
And take it from me that it is not just local authorities who feel that if they provide first-world-standard restrooms a larcenous public will flock to their facilities to fleece them. In the bars and restaurants of Spain it is rare to find a fully kitted out khazi. In fact, even in quite snazzy eateries and drinkeries the standard of bathroom one is wont to find is quite appalling. Apart from the lack of overall hygiene, the grimy, rust-eaten taps, the chipped porcelain, the flies, the stench, one is unlikely to find a full complement of the . . . ahem, necessaries. There might be toilet paper, but there won’t be soap or tissues to dry your hands. There might be soap, but there won’t be TP. My partner is among the legion of women who never leaves home without wipes — just in case.
It is so rare to find a “nice” bathroom in a Spanish bar or restaurant that when you do it sticks in your head, just like the fine establishment in which I watched a recent football match between Bayern Munich and Barcelona. I don’t think the facts of it being a genuine German-run beer hall and possessing clean, well-stocked bathrooms are unrelated.
So my top tip: if you have a thing about dirty, poorly outfitted bathrooms, and odours and encrustations give you the heebie-jeebies, and you’re on your holidays in Spain, go to foreign-owned and -run hostelries. And, NB, franchises don’t count: MacDonald’s and Burger King et al here in Spain have gone native, if you know what I mean.
Mistrust is also manifest at gas/petrol stations the length and breadth of the country, where in many cases you can’t just fill her up and dash inside to pay. In order to prevent non-payments (called sinpas in Spanish) the petrol pumps are blocked until you and your credit card present yourselves to the attendant behind the counter. And if you ever move your car after filling but before paying (as I once did when there was a huge queue behind me — I was only trying to be nice and speed things up for everyone) you’ll get a flavour of what it feels like to be a suspected suicide bomber in the White House.
Of course, mistrust works both ways. If the authorities, retailers, restaurateurs and publicans don’t trust the great unwashed, why should the great unwashed trust them? In a dysfunctional dynamic where those that provide us with services and sell us stuff regard us with the disdain reserved for petty thieves and looters is it surprising that our response is to meet slanty-eyed suspicion and wariness with more of the same. Thus, customers and clients in Spain are every bit as watchful and on the alert for being ripped off as the establishments they frequent. Thus, shopping here is rarely a leisure activity. Supermarket aisles are trod by shoppers displaying the same levels of vigilance as Marines patrolling in ‘Nam, with signs announcing “bargains” scrutinised with the same rigour as if they were landmines or trip wires. Stress levels are off-scale. It’s never a simple case of grabbing items from the shelf, tossing them into your trolley and getting the hell out of there. A special offer is never just a special offer. If the price seems too good to be true, there must be a catch. Someone is out to diddle you. So you mull over each item, pull the phone out to calculate price per litre or kilo on those two-for-one offers. You wonder if that thirty-three per cent extra free really is and whether you should buy the small 300 gram jar or the family size one kilo whopper. But you’re sure, no matter what you do, no matter how carefully you do your sums, the store will still manage to screw you.
Which is why you check your receipt the moment you have paid for your goods. It’s something I found very different about Spain, arriving here as a newbie: as soon as someone receives their change back after paying for their items in a shop, a very blatant counting of said notes and coins is engaged in, followed by a close inspection of the till receipt. I was always taught two things in quaint old Ireland: if you count your change, do it as subtly as possible so as not to offend the cashier or arouse his indignation; and move the hell on out of the way after the transaction has been done in order to allow the next customer through. The Spanish are not as worried about offence-causing as the Irish, about whom it could be said that we go to extreme lengths not to rub people up the wrong way, and so those pennies and tupennies are laboriously clinked and clanked and summed and reckoned. If you’re ever behind a poor-sighted, arthritic granny or grandpa while this process proceeds then it’s take a deep breath and pray to St Monica for patience. And if you have the misfortune of being behind someone who insists on going down through a long till receipt and querying a number of items, then perhaps something more tangible and instant than saintly intercession will be necessary (a mouthful or three of that whiskey you picked up in the liquor aisle might ease the pain). Once more, comparing Spain and Ireland, in the Emerald Isle nobody would ever choke up a cash desk with queries about the extra cent charged for a can of beans at the till compared to the stated price on the shelf. But maybe us Hibernians just aren’t as assertive (that not wanting to cause offence thing again) or perhaps we have a surfeit of manners. Or perhaps we just take our problem to the customer services desk where it bloody well belongs (neither St Monica nor the aqua vite is working today)!
The few times we’ve gone to a customer service desk in a Spanish supermarket we’ve gotten the bum’s rush. Here on the Castilian part of the Iberian Peninsula they’re not too smart on the whole customer-is-always-right malarkey. If someone’s default attitude is that you’re out to do them, then they ain’t gonna give you no satisfaction when you report a price discrepancy or a faulty product. When we returned to our local supermarket recently with a tray of mouldy minced meat that was a couple of days inside its best before date, not only did our polite complaints fall on deaf ears, but the head butcher basically asked us what did we expect: minced meat was a lottery, he explained, and we’d just lucked out. Although he didn’t explicitly spell it out for us, Mr Butcher, at the back of his mind also probably suspected that we’d bought cheaper meat at another store, waited for it to go bad, changed the label for the more expensive meat purchased from him and returned to his counter in expectation of a refund and a couple of cents’ profit. This is the kind of thinking that is prevalent when everyone believes that everyone else is out to do them.
So they’ll keep fobbing off those of us with genuine complaints and we’ll keep clogging up the checkouts until the warm elixir of trust and goodwill eventually reaches Spain.