AFAR writer Lisa Abend is a serial expat. She knows she’s officially settled in to a new home when she gains a true understanding of local etiquette.
One day several years ago, I was walking home with a baguette still warm from the oven under my arm. It was a sunny morning in Madrid, and in the few blocks that separated the bakery from my apartment, I passed the dim bar where an elderly man stood staring into his 11 a.m. beer; the market where a pair of Pekingese waited patiently for their owner to emerge; the kiosk where Manuel handed me my paper of choice every day without asking. It was in every way a normal morning, or at least it was until I decided to do the unthinkable. Feeling peckish, I broke off a heel from the loaf and began to snack. Almost immediately, I got my comeuppance. Watching me as I passed, a man in a jacket shook his head disapprovingly. “Quien come por la calle no se casa,” he admonished. “Whoever eats in the street will never marry.”
It was then I knew I finally fit in. Not because the man mistook me for Spanish; after six years of living in Madrid I recognized that your average Spaniard is just as likely to comment on the appropriateness of a foreigner’s behavior as a local’s. No, I fit in because I felt guilty. I knew that Spaniards consider it bad manners—so bad, in fact, that it will doom all chance at future romance—to eat anything besides an ice cream cone in the street. I knew, in other words, exactly what I was doing wrong.
“Quien come por la calle no se casa,” he admonished. “Whoever eats in the street will never marry.”
All expats have moments in which they realize they’ve acquired skills needed for their adopted home. For me, there was the party at which I danced a sevillana well enough to have my partner lean in and tell me I had duende, a particularly Spanish kind of “soul.” That time on the metro when I realized I could understand the conversation swirling around me without actively trying. That dinner in Barcelona when I found myself accurately dissecting the differences among Spain’s bewildering slew of political parties. But I think I only felt that I truly fit in when I got chastised for snacking on that baguette. In my feelings of guilt lay the proof that I had internalized at least a piece of the Spanish worldview: Only boors eat in the street.
Three years ago, I moved to Copenhagen and began the process all over again. I started taking Danish classes, I learned to ride a bike. I developed a taste for lumpfish roe. But these changes still feel superficial. I can tell—when that woman flinched as I leaned in to give her a good-bye kiss on the cheek after a meeting; when that man frowned after I referred to one of my own ideas as “brilliant”—that I still haven’t absorbed the subtle rules about what not to do.
Not long ago I traveled to Gibraltar, on Spain’s southern coast. The cheapest route entailed flying to Málaga, then taking a two-hour taxi ride to the British enclave. It had been a busy week, so once I settled into the cab, I pulled out my laptop, intending to catch up on work during the long drive. But then I remembered where I was. I knew that Spaniards love nothing so much as a good conversation, and that to rebuff one would be almost unspeakably rude. I put the laptop away. Over the next two hours, the driver and I talked about food and football and the lingering effects of the financial crisis. But mostly, we talked about how good it is to be Spanish.
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