Erica’s recent post on life in Italy versus life in France was charming, and made me think about my experience of Spain and France. I’d never been to Spain before I moved to the south-west corner of France in 1997, only an hour’s drive from the Spanish frontier at Le Perthus. For years it was just a destination for quick day trips to buy cheap olive oil and petrol, and eat copious lunches in some country restaurant in the hills behind the Costa Brava. But over the last few years I’ve learned some Spanish and spent more time there, culminating in a 3-month stay in the Pais Vasco.
The more time I spend in this vast and varied country, the more fascinating I find it, and I itch to find out more. I love the conviviality and spontaneity; Spaniards always seem to be ready to party. And I continue to be amazed by the rapidity of social change in Spain since the death of Franco. The French are generally very resistant to change (yes, despite the French Revolution and 1968!), whereas the Spanish seem very open to it. In fact I wish I could have two lives so that I could spend one of them in France and one in Spain.
Anyway, here are just a few differences and similarities I’ve noticed.
It’s almost dead in France, at least outside large cities and major tourist attractions where there are enough tourists and other visitors to keep it going. It’s very difficult to make a living from a cafe; bars and bistros in villages and small towns are closing at an alarming rate as their owners retire.
In Spain, though, it’s alive and well. Every village with more than a hundred inhabitants has its bar, and in towns the streets are lined with small bars, usually packed. Spanish people love to talk, and rather than invite people into your home, there’s a tradition of meeting friends in bars to chat over a beer or a coffee. I particularly love the evening paseo; in every town, from about 7 pm, the streets fill with people unwinding after a day’s work and filling in the time before dinner: strolling, chatting, shopping, dandling children, sitting at cafe tables, meeting and greeting friends.
And anyway, the coffee in Spain is much better than the poor-quality coffee served in most French bars. Even if in both countries they’ll look at you askance if you order a café crème or a cafe con leche in the afternoon.
Spain is a noisy place. For one thing, there’s always construction of some sort going on. Every town worth its salt shows two or three giant cranes on the skyline as you approach, and the ghastly mess Spain has made of its Mediterranean coast testifies to the importance of the construction industry. When we were in Terrassa in the holiday month of August, the whole of the town’s ramblas had been dug up and sweating workmen were toiling in the 35-degree heat repaving it, shouting at each other over the noise of earth-moving machinery. People sat outside nearby cafes apparently unperturbed by the racket.
When there isn’t any background noise to shout over, it has to be created. The Spanish love piped music, or rather muzak. Everywhere. They drive their cars onto the beach so that they can open all the windows and listen to the radio. We were once staying in the isolated Parador at Cazorla, which is in a field surrounded by woodlands in the middle of a national park. On the terrace in the evening, guests watched the moon rise in a clear sky and listened to the twittering of birds settling down for the night. Or at least they did after I’d found the switch for the muzak dribbling out of speakers on the terrace and turned it off.
And then there are the all-night parties 🙂 The French like to party too, but they can’t hold a candle to the Spanish.
I could write an entire blog post about this. Oh, I already have! I’ve always found it easy to slip into the Spanish timetable, eating lunch at two and dinner at nine or ten; it suits my body clock perfectly. But, accustomed as I am to leisurely meals in French restaurants, I can still be disconcerted by the rapidity of service in Spanish ones. It may take quite a while for the staff to take your order, but once they have, courses arrive at the table with bewildering speed. You have barely laid your fork down when the hovering waiter snatches up the plate, ready to serve the next course. I still remember the occasion (in another Parador) when the waiter snatched my plate from in front of me while I was still sipping my shot glass of gazpacho, and smiled tolerantly at me when I protested. It’s also not unheard of for them to serve one person’s main course while the other is still eating her starter. This would be considered terribly bad manners in France.
From observation, though, we eventually learned a way of spinning restaurant meals out. Groups of Spanish people eating out often order a selection of first courses and have them delivered to the table either singly or all at once, with clean plates for each person, and then everyone shares them, tapas-style.
Speaking of which, tapas are definitely the way to eat out in Spain, saving you from the stodgy, unimaginative menus del dia that proliferate in restaurants (unless you can afford to eat in one of Spain’s many Michelin-starred restaurants of course). Although eating tapas can work out rather pricy if you choose to do it somewhere like San Sebastian, where the pintxos are imaginative, delicious – but often expensive. We still treasure the memory of Andalucia, true tapas country, where you will be given (unasked) something to nibble with every drink you order; it could be anything from a plate of crisps or a few olives to a bacon sandwich. And by paying 2 or 3 euros, you can choose from a range of delicious hot and cold tapas. So a bar crawl can turn into dinner with little effort.
In France, of course, eating the menu of the day in a good brasserie or bistro is nearly always the best-value option: you’ll get fresh seasonal food chosen by the chef, cooked in the inimitable French style, and attractively presented. Plus time to linger over your meal as long as you like.
France is very much a country of regions, each with its own local peculiarities, from accent to food to music and folklore, and people take pride in their origins. Spain is that in spades. The regions seem even more diverse and independent (though admittedly I’ve spent most time in the more “semi-detached” regions – the Pais Vasco and Catalonia). There are even four official languages, as opposed to only one in France.
The outsider’s stereotype of Spain as bullfights, flamenco, sun, sea, and sangria only really applies to Andalucia (and even then only to parts of that vast region). The Basque Country is absolutely nothing like that; you barely feel as if you are in Spain at all. And Catalonia doesn’t feel that foreign to me because it has a lot in common with the southern part of France where I live. One of the great pleasures of travelling in Spain is its amazing diversity; I’m longing to discover Asturias, Galicia, and Castilla y Leon, as well as the parts of Andalucia I haven’t visited yet.