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.
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.
All expats have moments in which they realize they’ve acquired skills needed for their adopted home.
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.