For the past few years, Madrid has been invaded by tons, and tons, and tons of foreigners. English teachers and foreign exchange students are the norm here, to the point that you often overhear locals talking about the English they hear in their hometown. Today, this came in the form of a discussion over “guiris” – what Spaniards like to call the obvious foreigners – and how many there seemed to be all over Spain. As I stood by the Starbucks counter where I had, only 2 minutes prior, clumsily ordered a coffee in obviously anglicized Spanish (for me it’s impossible to say “cafe mocha” the way they do!), the woman next to me asked me if I had noticed this problem. What came next was the standard response I’ve received all my time here in Spain…
As I told the woman that I didn’t really notice this as I came from Canada, her jaw dropped at an alarming rate. The woman asked me to repeat what I had said, and then asked me if I meant the country. As she turned to the barista, displaying one of the most obviously-shocked faces I’ve seen in my time here, I said that I had barely spoken Spanish before I moved here to teach English.
The woman followed this up with something I’ve heard several times here: “but, you look like you’re from Spain! You are morena (brunette) like us!”. While I’ve always been told I look Spanish – even in Canada and the United States, where people specifically from Spain aren’t nearly as common as other internationals – I had begun to think I didn’t actually look anything like the locals. My daily metro rides and looks around made me think I stood out very clearly as someone who wasn’t Spanish; that, clearly, my naturally-light yet extremely-easily-tanned skin was the dead giveaway. Somehow, even my Spanish accent – which I never thought sounded very good – didn’t seem to be enough for the locals to know I wasn’t of any hispanic descent. Yet, here I was, explaining myself again.
When I first arrived in Madrid, the consensus among the locals seemed to be that I had to be either Italian or Spanish. While I look back and try to understand what it was that made me stand out more, I can’t seem to place it. It’s true that before I arrived in Spain, I dressed differently, maybe carried myself less like a big-city girl, was much less confident in Spanish, and had no glimpse of the tan I have now. Despite all that, pinpointing the reason for the now-virtually-universal assumption that I am Spanish has been difficult to do. Maybe, to some, it’s an aura you carry after a certain amount of time here? Maybe it’s a physical assumption, or that I now never seem to look lost?
Regardless, my experience in Spain has been very different from several of my fellow internationals here teaching English. Many of these friends arrived here with naturally blonde hair (naturally being the key word, as there is an overload of fake blondes here), skin or eyes that could possibly never pass for Spanish. While Spain is an extremely diverse country with virtually every look you could imagine, some merely stand out as obvious non-Spaniards. For them, it’s possible the experience is always going to be as a clear outsider. For me, my time in Spain has been underlined by one major point: that most of the time, those around me have assumed that I’m one of them. Whether this is good or bad, I don’t know, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this probably won’t be the last time this happens to me.
If you live in Madrid – is this your experience, too? If you don’t – have you ever experienced this?