Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at Many Lands: Spain by Edith A. Browne
Peeps at Many Lands: Spain by  Edith A. Browne

The Stranger in Spain

A little knowledge of Spanish manners and customs adds greatly to the comfort of the stranger in Spain.

Foremost among the experiences which ignorance has the power of making very unpleasant are the constant encounters with beggars. Go where you will in Spain, you cannot escape the whining vagabond, and more than likely the creature is a revolting, disease-devoured spectacle, a hideous deformity, or at best a vermin-haunted mass of rags. But be careful how you express your opinions on the loafer problem to a Spaniard; appearances certainly suggest that the self-respecting natives do not feel any responsibility in connection with their pauper brethren, whereas the actual position is quite the reverse. There is no national spirit of responsibility for the beggars, and it is difficult to conceive of such a spirit ever being created in Spain; for here private charity has such a stronghold that everyone who does not beg gives to the beggars as a matter of everyday duty. The distribution of alms is a vital part of Spanish religion; and apparently the beggars are encouraged to remain a feature of the populace, so that they may be supported in the interests of their patrons' spiritual welfare, This extreme point of view may not be quite so definitely expressed in the minds of all the givers, but both those who cast their bread on the waters, and those who are actuated by simple goodness of heart, contribute to the same general result.

I have endeavoured to make you understand how it is that the beggars of Spain continue to thrive and multiply exceedingly; but always remember you are treading on very delicate ground whenever you begin to investigate the pauper problem of a foreign country, and be careful not to form opinions until you have studied the question in every light. Now I want to show you how useful it is for a stranger to have even the vaguest notion that religion and beggary are some-how related in Spain. You can only free yourself from the ever-recurring attentions of the men and women who beg "in God's name," by asking every time to be excused, "in God's name." It is useless to attempt to ignore these folk; persistently whining, they will follow wherever you silently lead the way, till they get some sort of satisfaction out of you. Nor will it help you to lose your temper and threaten to call the police. But if you quietly say, "My brother, will your worship excuse me, for God's sake?" any beggar-man will turn on his heel and leave you in peace; and if you address a beggar-woman in the same strain—as, "My sister"—she will do likewise.

I am afraid I am powerless to give you any unfailing remedy for the onslaughts of beggar-children, unless it be to defy any and every principle you may have with regard to indiscriminate charity, and distribute half-pennies to rid yourself of the nuisance every time the infantile pests attack you. I remember one horrible occasion on which I determined to be firm. Two little urchins smiled up at me in the most bewitching manner, and pleaded in an ingratiating tone, "Thinko thentimos" (cinco centimos, a halfpenny). I shook my head, and walked on. On they cache merrily shouting, " Thinko thentimos thinko thentimos!" They walked to heel; they came by my side, and patted me on the arm; they danced round me, still smiling, and coaxing, and cajoling in the same pretty little voices. Presently they changed their manner and their tone.

"Thinko thentimos!" the demand rang out defiantly, and almost simultaneously that demand was echoed by a dozen militant voices. Where did the other children come from? I have never solved that problem; they seemed to drop down through the air to the support of the ringleaders. Within a few seconds I was being held up by about two score young highwaymen and highwaywomen. Nothing would have induced me at that juncture to part with a single halfpenny; but how to make good my escape? I was longing to take one of the youngsters by the shoulders and make an example of him, but his cries would certainly have brought the whole neighbouring village round me in a storm of indignation. Fortunately, before I quite lost my temper, a man appeared on the scenes, took in the situation at a glance, and put the fiendish youngsters to flight.

It is a curious fact that, in the midst of this beggar-ridden country, it behoves one to be very careful not to give offence by offering a gratuity for every little service rendered. Many of the very poorest self-supporting Spaniards regard it as an insult to be offered a tip. They will go far out of their way to show you your way, but they have no thought of making anything out of you for so doing. They regard themselves as gentlefolk and your equal, and without a doubt many a Spanish peasant is a born gentleman in manners, if not in rank; so, in nine cases out of ten, particularly in the country, you can only give courtly thanks for courtly services.

Do not attempt to bring the same rules of conduct to bear on your intercourse with the Spanish gipsies as with the beggars of genuine Spanish extraction. The Spanish gipsies abound in Andalusia, where they live in caves. They have many traits and customs that are quite alien to the Spanish character and mode of life, and they compare very badly even with the worst specimens among the native beggars, whose profession they follow as a means of livelihood. From the picturesque point of view, they are most attractive, but beware of them, for they can demand your money in a most unpleasant fashion if you let yourself be tempted to go alone into their quarters.

Generally speaking, the golden rule for strangers in Spain is: Be patient and polite to all sorts and conditions of men under all circumstances. But, as a last peep at the country, I want to show you how progress is at work there, by telling you about an occasion when I broke that rule at the instigation of a native.

There is no more hopeful sign of progressive civilization than to find the lower classes taking up a stand against dirt. My comrade and I elected to spend one night at a so-called first-class railway hotel in Spain. Our bedroom turned out to be the dirtiest, without exception, that we had ever had to face in the whole course of our travels. On consulting the time-table, we found that we could obtain release by catching a train that passed through the adjacent station between three and four in the morning. Directly we heard any movement in the station, I called through the bedroom window to attract attention. A porter appeared, and I told him to get the hotel door opened, and come up to fetch our luggage. When he arrived in our room, we pointed to the lively walls, in explanation of our desire to get out of the place as quickly as we could, and, with a sympathetic gesture of disgust, he picked up our portmanteaus. The moment we reached the platform he gave vent to his indignation. He knew all about it . . . the place was a disgrace . . . we must give the proprietor a lesson. The said proprietor was getting into his clothes to come down and make out our bill . . . on no account were we to pay him. All this, and much more, as we paced up and down the platform in the dawnlight; and finally that porter instructed us how to protest fluently in his own language that we would not pay the bill. I volunteered to be spokesman, for, according to the method by which we always shared travelling business, that unforeseen task fairly fell to my lot. The porter repeated the lesson over and over again, and begged me to prove that I was word-perfect in it:

"Your beds are so dirty that we could not possibly sleep in them; the room is so dirty that we could not possibly stop in it. . . . I am not going to pay the bill. Here's a peseta to pay for the washing of the towels and the sheets . . . and if that doesn't satisfy you, I shall call the police."

I walked back, and entered the bureau; there stood the proprietor in his shirt-sleeves, with a candle in one hand and my bill in the other. I said what I had to say very emphatically, and flung down the peseta. He looked at me in alarm, but did not utter a word, and when I walked quietly away, he did not attempt to follow me.

That porter had come under the influence of progress in more ways than one. He was not above a tip. But evidently his conscience troubled him by making him afraid that the hotel proprietor should suspect him. I looked up and down the platform, but he was nowhere to be seen, and I began to think that he was a paragon of all the virtues. Presently he appeared at the carriage-window, remote from the platform, to claim his well-earned reward.

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