Spanish nuance: examples of both Heaven and Hell

Beyond the obvious language barrier, Spain’s organizational or management systems, especially with regards to civil service, are downright illogical.

IT’S an innocent enough joke I suppose, often told about Europeans. The humor plays off of exaggerated stereotypes and observational behavior.

It goes something like this:

In European Heaven the; Cooks are French. Engineers are German. Cops are British. Bankers are Swiss. Lovers are Italian.

In European Hell the: Cooks are British. Engineers are French. Cops are German. Bankers are Italian. Lovers are Swiss.

Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of Spain. Where might Spain fit into this equation?

Is there nothing in the Spanish ethos that can evoke visions of heaven and hell?

Could the larger reason be that perceptions of the Spanish defy generalizations?

Consider if you will, the notion that Spanish nuance, or those subtle differences and shades of meaning, are simultaneously, examples of BOTH heaven and hell. Work with me…

Spanish Nuance as Hell

Most expats who have spent anytime in Spain, have probably come face to face with that hellish font of frustration known as the Spanish bureaucracy.

Beyond the obvious language barrier, Spain’s organizational or management systems, especially with regards to civil service, are downright illogical.

Simple procedures such as internet and phone hook-ups, car registration and insurance, local residency cards, visa questions, passport issues, taxation etc. become excessively complicated administrative issues.

When confronted with the actual jefe or the ‘person in charge’, we are often met with a blank face and a repetition of instructions that are beyond vague.

There is a scarcity of yes and no answers but multiple variations of ‘maybe’.

Any friendly helpful suggestions to the person in charge such as; “wouldn’t it be easier to…” or “Why exactly do I need to do this?” are met with a vacuous blank stare.

The typical Spanish tendency to cover one’s tracks is omnipresent with an entrenched inability to admit a mistake.

It would be easy to dismiss this behavior as some sort of cultural disconnect but my Spanish friends tell me they are victims of the same hellish “nuance” as well.

Consider too how this dynamic has percolated itself linguistically. The word for tax, impuesto literally means imposition.

Rather than a notion of taxes as a civic duty or a positive obligation to our fellow citizens, impuesto implies the state is a resented outside force inflicting a burden.

A taxpayer, un contribuyente, (contributor) makes the entire tax system sound extemporaneous, free-form and voluntary.

The pejorative mordida, or tax bite with a kickback, further distances the idea of a state system from the notion of a smooth, above board, operating system of rules and guidelines.

Nuance as Heaven

A couple of literary heavyweights long associated with all things Spain, namely Miguel Cervantes and James Michener, have used the variances of dissimilarity, i.e. nuances, as central themes in their works.

The genius, comic satire and literary innovation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote have been recognized by four centuries of readership.

The contrast between the knightly Don Quixote’s utopian idealism and Sancho Panza’s earthly pragmatism has been described (sometimes ad nauseum) as emblematic of Spain itself: so dreamlike yet so brutally real.

This rich juxtaposition has not been lost to esteemed literary critics such as the World Library Commission, (a society of best-selling contemporary authors) which has given the novel the distinction as the “best literary work ever written.”

Strong praise indeed! It is perhaps no accident that the novel, described by Cervantes himself as an exercise “shades and hue”, is in fact, a Spanish production.

We tend to see ourselves in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and for this reason, this example of Spanish nuance as heavenly, must be given positive consideration.

American author James Michener uses the same methodology as Cervantes, albeit with a different subject matter, in his epic bestseller, Iberia; Spanish Travels and Reflections.

Michener uses the concept of the iconic bullfight to illustrate Spain’s contradictory nature.

Michener is quick to point out the controversial brutality of the sport.

For the uninitiated foreigner (especially one who loves animals), the spectacle can be extremely bloody and unrewarding.

Yet, the speed and Zen-like grace of the matador contrasted against the savage beast, tells the larger story of Spain’s mysterious relationship between the primitive (the bull) and the drama of hopeful man (the matador).

The Spanish proclivity to nuance both in a maddening way and in a sublime way is perhaps what keeps Spain out of this essay’s opening joke.

The paradoxes, the contradictions and yes, even the nuances are what gives Spain its essence and richness.

To try and do otherwise just wouldn’t be Spain…

Jack Gaioni is an American citizen who is spending the first few years of his retirement in Almeria. His articles have appeared in various newspapers and magazines in Spain and the US. 

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