I remember that one of the first thing my host mother told me when I arrived to her house in Madrid is that Spanish people are obsessed with two things: ‘jamón’ and ‘nata.’ Although I knew that – I am the type of person who can do research for hours about a new place and/or culture that I was going to visit—, I still acted surprised in order to create conversations during those first awkward moments. Perhaps because of that minuscule ‘victory,’ I thought that I knew everything about the Spanish culture. I can still close my eyes and see all of the articles that I have read—before, during and after my flight to Madrid— about the Spanish culture, economics, politics, fashion and so many other topics.
Just like a professor who can’t teach his students all of the vocabularies and nuances of a foreign language, neither can books, movies and documentaries show their owners everything that a certain culture has to offer. The only way for people to capture the subtle differences as well as the different shades and layers that a culture possesses is by directly experiencing life in the culture in question. And that is what I did when I signed those acceptance letters and enrolled in the biggest public University here in Madrid.
Having studied Spanish for the last three years intensively, I felt quite prepared to tackle the different subjects (literature, philosophy and even international relations!) in Spanish. And so far, I can say that I haven’t encountered any major issues in class. This boosted my confidence enormously, as I sincerely—though erroneously— thought (for quite some time now) that I am very close to mastering the Spanish language as well as its culture! And my distorted reality shattered right in front of me last Monday when I was taking the bus (and later the metro, which is, by the way, one of the best public transportation system I have ever seen!) to get to school. I discovered, for the very first time, the ultimate and probably most important Spanish obsession: the Spanish stare.
Yes, I’ve just revealed it. That’s the secret and the unspoken Spanish obsession that your Spanish friends will never tell you, because they themselves don’ realize or acknowledge it as an obsession! No one wants to tell you because s/he unconsciously wants you to experience it for yourself. And now that I have undergone (and is still undergoing) this experience, I can confidently say that I wouldn’t have believed people if they were to tell me that ‘staring’ could be an obsession for certain people… until I arrive here couple of weeks ago. So here is my attempt to explain the ‘staring’ system in this country.
Older women are the ones who stare the most (again, according to my own personal experiences) and their stares almost seem to be more intense than that of other ‘groups’ of “stare-rs”. They not only stare at people, but they also stare at objects. Let me clarify this, before I continue the blog post. The ‘staring’ activity that I am talking about is not necessarily a negative activity as the reasons behind the act of staring could be of many different natures (they like your shoes, they dislike your clothes, they have nothing better to look at etc.). They stare when they are curious, fascinated, annoyed, angry, hungry, bored and the list goes on. The main difference between this type of staring and the stare that you sometimes get in the States is that back there—perhaps due to the more PC culture? —, the American stare is most often more subtle or for lack of a better word, ‘sneakier.’ In contrast to that stare, the Spanish one is obvious and undisguised. I almost want to use the adjective ‘honest’ to describe it, because in most—if not all— cases, once you catch an older woman staring at you when you are waiting in line for a bocadillo for example, they wouldn’t feel embarrassed and look away. On the contrary, they would look straight at you with a certain static expression in their eyes. And since they have been practicing this art for much, much longer than I have, I usually end up being the intimidated one and look away while pretending that that exchange never happened.
Another group of people whom also stare, though perhaps a bit subtler and faster, are older men. In fact, their stares are more active: they stare at people for a shorter period of time and once they are caught, they immediately look away… only to be caught again, moments later. I have to admit, though, that these older men tend to try pretty hard to be subtle, maybe because on some unconscious level, they know that their look can make people (especially the foreigners) uncomfortable—whether that was their intention or not. I want to say that the way they stare at people is much more similar to the ‘American stare’ that I have described above and until now, I still can’t quite figure out why is the male stare so different from the female’s of this same age-group.
Last but not least, the younger crowds also have their own way to check things around them out. It almost seems like there are always some degree of nonchalance and indifference in their eyes, when they interact with the world. Of course, the only young people that I meet are the ones who take the bus with me every morning at 8am and every afternoon at 6pm. Perhaps because at those times, people are always either half-awake or half-asleep, and therefore their stare cannot be more expressive due to their lack of energy? I don’t know and probably will never know for sure the answer to these questions that have been occupying my mind for the past few weeks…
One thing that I do know for sure though, is that eventually you will get used to being stared at and eventually, you will definitely catch yourself staring at the world around you a way or another.