THE CULTURAL TIGHTROPE
the behaviour of the locals... left a truly warm feeling you do nOt get everywhere you gO
Having been responsible for the English translation of all of the conference materials, I was invited to a conference in San Sebastian recently, which gave me the opportunity to compare another part of the Iberian peninsula with the one I have called home for the past 27 years. I had been to the Basque Country before, on a trip to Bilbao with two friends when the Guggenheim first opened, but that was such a long time ago I had few memories other than of the museum itself and the very welcoming demeanour of the local people as my friends and I made our way around the city on the obligatory Saturday afternoon/evening tapas bar crawl amid the equally obligatory txirimiri, or persistent fine rain.
I went to the Guggenheim on this trip too, as it seemed a waste not to, and was again suitably impressed. And, naturally, we were again not spared the txirimiri. But once we arrived in San Sebastian, it seemed to have its own micro climate, as the clouds parted and we had a couple of days of beautiful sunshine over the gleaming bay, visible from our hotel balcony.
As for cultural comparisons, regular readers will know I always observe local behaviour very intently in order to draw a picture of their character, with all the limitations that entails, given it is drawn over such a short timeframe. Still, do it I must. Now in this case, a couple of similar incidents in restaurants caught my attention, for, aside from the general noticeably friendly attitude of locals, we also received exactly the same treatment in reaction to the same incident in two separate places. Let me clarify: on our final day we entered a heavily populated restaurant for lunch and were told there was only room at a small coffee table in the bar area rather than a proper dining table; short for time, we begrudgingly accepted. A minute or two after we sat down, however, the waitress seemed to change her mind and ushered us over to a nice corner table, much to our delight. Then came the whammy, as she returned a couple of minutes later saying, “Sorry, I thought you could have this table, but you can’t. I called the people who had reserved it and they didn’t answer so I gave it to you, but they’ve just shown up.” I complained that her solution was not acceptable and she could give the other couple the table they originally offered to us, but she said there were more of them and they couldn’t fit, and they had actually booked the table. Rather than make a big scene, we made our way back to the original table. I’m sure I would have left under other circumstances but we had already eaten here and the food was so good we really wanted to eat here again, so we accepted the inconvenience. However, a couple of minutes later, the waitress came back and informed us she’d cleared another table for us and was really sorry for the whole mess and we could now have a little table for two with a sea view. Lovely.
Now, as I have already intimated, this was the second time this had happened on our trip, since in Bilbao on the first day we had been shown to a table in the back of a restaurant, despite my protestations about preferring to sit near the huge window at the front. Again, within a couple of minutes the manager came across and transferred us to the nicer table I’d had my eye on, the other customers having noted our request, paid up and left. This may all seem inconsequential to others, but I have to say I felt that in both incidents the behaviour of the locals, added to other encounters we had with the local people over the days we were in the Basque Country, including shopkeepers, taxi drivers and others, left a truly warm feeling for the place that you simply do not get everywhere you go. So, in return, I’d just like to take this opportunity to say eskerrik asko.