Even my Siamese cat has learned to say “please”. When the urge for a bit of cooked fish becomes a problem she calls and stretches on the work top. For a “thank you” she licks my nose, by no means a treat if the fish was more than a day old. Our Persian cat does not bother. He spends his time looking beautiful and super clean. Not a mean task for a Persian. That breed looks like its founder members had run into a brick wall at 100kms an hour. Hence the constant care of a fairly non-existent nose that nevertheless leaks constantly. But it is good manners to look as clean and well turned out as can be.
I read with dismay in an English speaking newspaper a little while ago that you can consider yourself a Spanish local when you finally forget to say thank you or please when you ask for a drink in a bar. It is also very ethnic according to this writer to drop your fag ends on the floor and ball up the serviette that helped you gulping that greasy tapa and let it join the rest of the litter you are standing in ankle deep on the floor.
The writer of that piece must be moving in the wrong strata of Spanish society. I am not talking about “classes”. That expression belongs entirely to England and has no equivalent in Spain. I have known a few Spanish grandees during my catering life in this country. One of them, speaking perfect English, always used the expression “by your leave” prior to his leaving my house. Another one used the other version “with your permission and God be with you”. You must admit that it beats “bye” or even worse “tah-rah” any time. At the other end of the scale a Spanish friend of mine, a man who started life with one truck delivering water on the beach 35 years ago and ended up with an 180 trucks company, always opens the car door for me, always holds the door of the café we go to for a drink, always ask me first what I would like before ordering for himself, pulls out a chair for me and once I am comfortable he then settles and we are ready to get on with the business at hand.
A far cry from the usual tourist lout who drags his family behind him, orders a pint (in English), gets some teeth rotting fizzy drinks for his children to keep them quiet and finally remembers that he has a wife somewhere who might be thirsty. “And you! What do you want?”. Lovely guy. Must have exciting manners between the sheets.
In our lazy and aggressive society of today to keep a modicum of good manners can be a minefield of gaffes. Like introductions to unknown people. The lazy “Hi!” or even “Hello” is not on and should be kept to nursery school acquaintances. General Charles de Gaulle, whose achievement in French politics did not match his physical stature, at least left a simple formula for the occasion: ”Ravi de vous voir” (pleased to meet/see you). In Spanish the simple “encantada" or "encantado” is easy to remember and to use. And a husband should not introduce his wife as “my ladywife”. This is pompous and ridiculous. Especially if she is dressed like a jumble sale stall. Again the Spaniards have got it right: “Carmen, mi mujer”. Simple and effective. A little trick I have learnt from an American friend if you find yourself in the embarrassing situation of meeting someone you met before but cannot remember their surname. Just say that you wanted to make sure of the spelling of the name. He/she will oblige. This is a trick to use only once on the same person otherwise you will pass for a stop short of a sentence.
Manners deteriorate even more once at the table. It is nice to have a gentleman to pull a chair away from the table so a woman can organise herself. It comes from days when the volume of feminine attire had to be spread about before the lady’s “derriere” could be put down. We may not have “crinolines” now but the female bag holds everything but the kitchen sink. So, yes, a bit of help to sit down comfortably is welcome. Especially when the lord of the manor asked you to put his mobile (on top of yours) in your bag, plus the newspapers, plus a heavy small bag of whatever from the ironmongery, plus the monthly supply of repeat prescriptions, plus that gadget that will join the others in the skip. Yes, a little help is useful.
The use of knife and fork is fairly recent but it is now an established custom in the West. I have lived in some countries where eating with your fingers is the normal state of affair. Couscous in is always balled up with fingers and dunked into the stock. Very often there is no meat, just vegetables. Not everybody in the world can afford stinking lamb and three frozen vegs from goodness where. But in the wilds of the Sahara this is what they do and have done for centuries. Normal.
What is not right is the rapidly developing habit of Westerners eating, drinking and smoking in the street. Ten fingers are not enough. I saw a man once balancing an amazing array of disgusting items: a carton of fish and chips, a can of Coke, a cigarette and a mobile phone.
And telling his small boy that if he (the child) did not effing shut up he (the father) would effing lock him in the effing boot of the effing car. It was a very hot August.
That little boy had no chance to learn any manners.
On the other hand, a few years ago when we were looking for a house in Antequera there was a little incident that always makes me smile. The pavements in our lovely town are very narrow. It was built for donkeys, mules and narrow carriages. I had my usual bout of bad back and was holding onto the wall. A local family came across and the little boy pushed by me. Swiftly the father caught him and brought him back to me:
“When you see an old person on the pavement you give way and help if need be!”. The little boy said to me:”Perdone Senora”. That boy will be a fine man. And I am getting older. The pavements seem to be getting narrower.
Manners are the oil that makes the wheels of modern society turn; if not smoothly at least roughly. A bread and butter letter to thank someone who had given you a bed for a night or a meal on a cold day does not cost very much. A smile costs you a split second to offer a friendly face to someone in distress. It also exercises 40 muscles of your face. We are not talking about money there. The photo attached shows how two cultures can meet happily and with manners. Chris is asking our little neighbour, Antonio, where his father is in the procession of Good Thursday. Antonio obliged and showed us the brochure. Very proud Antonio was and so were we, the foreign neighbours.
I am talking about trying to live peacefully with other human beings.
We are stuck on this rock so we might as well get on decently with each other. Otherwise, like manners, we shall be gone.