The stories of a couchsurfer

A Review: Spain

Plaza de Toros

What started out as an intended two or three week trip to get a taste for Spain turned into a six week voyage around the Iberian peninsula. I guess that fact alone is indicative of the amount of places there are to see in Spain.

It was never supposed to work out this way. Spain was a country that interested me without being given a top priority. I only traveled to Madrid on a whim because a friend of mine was going to be there.

Nevertheless, I was excited to see it. It’s a principal country of Europe after all, and particularly in the summer months would have it’s peak tourism season. It didn’t take long, however, before that excitement drained.

It drained to the point where it wasn’t excitement that was being induced by Spain, but instead that had been replaced by frustration and grumpiness. There were many factors at play. In the latter half, I was becoming frustrated at myself with the length of time I was spending in the country. I was in Europe primarily to learn the French language and there was none of that happening here. The trip was dragging on far longer than anticipated and my mind was always looking forward to the next destination until I would finally be back in the bleu, blanc et rouge. I had failed to appreciate the moment.

But it wasn’t just that. I probably wouldn’t have cared that I was spending so much time in the country if I truly enjoyed it greatly.

The average Spanish that you will meet on the street is rude, inconsiderate, selfish and won’t make an effort to communicate with you in English. Stereotypes are typically not at all accurate usually for their description, not for their geography. Essentially what I’m saying is take all those stereotypes you’ve heard about the French, subtract the frogs legs, shift it approximately 1,250 kilometres south-west and apply it to Spain.

But this raises an interesting point. Why is it, I wonder, these stereotypes and this reputation have been applied to the French? It’s not a passing historical matter, as people continue to assure me that the French are rude and inconsiderate to this day. Yet I don’t seem to see it that way while I’m in France.

Perhaps even more interestingly, I met loads of travellers within Spain that didn’t share my opinion of the Spanish, instead holding the opposite opinion and quite enjoying them.

The language is the key factor for me in an attempt to explain this. I was shocked when I first arrived in Madrid and realised that it was going to be a difficult task to communicate here. I continued to hope that perhaps the next town, due to it’s increased education or booming tourist industry would be more proficient in English but I gave up on that somewhere around Málaga. Ultimately, it didn’t come until Barcelona.

The inability to communicate poses a lot of problems. First, you start getting frustrated at the fact that you can’t adequately get your message across. Second, they become frustrated for the same reason, but also because they can see that you’re becoming visibly frustrated. Now they become visibly frustrated.

But almost even more importantly is that without understanding of the content or context, it’s near impossible to learn the little subtleties of the language and this prevents someone from truly understanding the culture and the person behind it.

And it’s perhaps for this reason that I don’t mind the French, and the people who speak a little Spanish here don’t mind the Spanish. It’s not simply because they can speak to each other – sometimes that just makes the people worse when you can understand just how rude they may be. No, it’s because it gives them the ability to learn those cultural differences. Perhaps when the Spanish barman yells in my direction, it’s not a hostile approach. But I couldn’t know.

At the end of the day, I shouldn’t expect the Spanish to speak English. It was my responsibility to learn, or at least try, Spanish. But then when I pass to Portugal is it my responsibility to learn Portuguese? Then German in Germany? Czech in the Czech Republic? There has to be a limit and ultimately there will come a time where one travels into a country where they cannot speak or understand the first language there.

In any case, while the language was a major factor into the frustrations in Spain, it wasn’t the only one. The people seemed to lack a basic ability to think of how an act could affect another. They simply do as is required to meet their needs and the expectation is that other people will adjust accordingly. The inability to even check if there is someone behind you before pausing to have a browse on your telephone in the middle of the footpath. The inability to cramp yourself up a bit more in order to make more space on the métro to allow that one extra passenger to get on. It’s a dog eat dog world in Spain. Each man for himself. Courtesy is not a common act here.

Of course, they’re not all like this, the Spanish. There are genuinely kind and sensitive people here and perhaps there was a great deal of bad luck in causing my frustrations with the Spanish. The Couchsurfers were always an example of these. Kind-hearted people like Kurro and Javier and his superbly accommodating parents, to of course Vicente and finally Olga. In fact, I could make a note that you should exclude Barcelona from a lot of this analysis.

But the Couchsurfing opportunities were few and far between – another surprise that Spain had in store. I’m not sure if the Couchsurfing system is agreeable to the Spanish mentality or not but it was extremely tough to Couchsurf there. In Madrid I Couchsurfed with Cássio and his Brazilian troupe.

No Couchsurfer found in Salamanca.

No Couchsurfer found in Sevilla.

Finally, a Spanish Couchsurfer found after days of constant requesting in Málaga, and then staying with more South Americans.

Then I hit the trot where I could rely on previous contacts. I hate to speculate and this is a purely blind opinion, but there were plenty of active male Couchsurfers in Spain that had hosted a high proportion of female surfers. I get the impression that I was ruled out of possibility immediately for these hosts.

The transportation turned out to be an upside – despite not having good links with Portugal. The buses ran frequently and were comfortable. The trains were also super impressive. The problem was buying the ticket in the first place, which brings me to yet another gripe I have with Spain.

Their technology. It’s dreadful. My patience quickly waned and I lost all faith in any machine by the time I hit Granada. From swallowing credit cards to simply displaying incorrect information, the machines at the train station or wherever could not be trusted. Remarkably, they were still ten times better than the Spanish websites. Here’s a few for you – www.renfe.com and www.alsa.es – to look at. Play around a bit and you’ll soon learn the frustrations. That’s not even to mention the heart-in-your-mouth sensation of clicking that “Purchase” button after entering your credit card details. There was another website for the bus timetables in Salamanca, I wish I could remember the URL, that just showed a static picture of some busses! That was it, couldn’t even click on them.

Ultimately, Spain is popular with tourists for a reason. The country is naturally gifted with mountains and stunning beaches. The weather in summer is incredible and it keeps what little positivity remains strong.

There are loads of sights around the country and the best thing is that they’re not always highly publicised – I loved stumbling across little treasures that will stick with me forever. And of course there are the large treasures too. The Cathedral of Salamanca, the Plaza de España of Sevilla and the Patio de los Leones of Granada were three of the most remarkable sights I dare say I will see in all of Europe.

Spain is no doubt a place that is worth visiting. It’s just how and for how long that you need to get right. My frustrations were numerous and at the end of the day, I was glad to finally cross the border back into France.

I can hear the skeptics now.

But Chris, you haven’t seen anything yet. You’re going to face all those challenges and more when you tour X, Y or Z.

Absolutely I agree. Perhaps in a year or two when I will have visited X, Y and Z I’ll begin to appreciate Spain a lot more and realise its worth. Perhaps one day I’ll learn Spanish and it will all make sense when I return.

For now though, Spain will be remembered generally as the place of frustrations and the quest to return to France.

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