My Spanish husband and I agree to disagree on many things. One thing we cannot agree on however, is table manners.
It seems that we attended different etiquette schools in our youth. The Spanish and English rules are not just different, but contradictory.
I’ll stare at elbows of random Spanish people in cafés, swallowing the rage to the back of my throat. ‘Elbows off the table, fork in the other hand!’ I scream inside myself. ‘And damn it, if you slouch anymore I’m going to stick a ruler in your jeans’.
Of course I’ve never said anything out loud. Firstly, because I’d be hauled away for antisocial behaviour and secondly, because the rules of play are different in every country and Spain is not my playing field.
I was taught to hold my fork in my left hand (stab, never scoop) and my knife in my right (slice, never stab). Peas were always served with mashed potato ‘because a fork is not a spoon’. Pencil pushers (those holding a knife incorrectly) would be tasked with clearing everyone’s cutlery. That is, unless there was a ‘pilot’ on the table (those leaving their knife and fork at 90 degree angles on their plate and creating the shape of an aeroplane), in which case all the table miscreants would tidy up together.
Meanwhile in Spain it’s a crime to cut egg, or any dish made with egg, with a knife. And swapping fork hands is not just permitted, but encouraged. Elbows on the table are as common as olives, but you have to eat an orange with a knife and fork.
I’ve checked with the ultimate authority on etiquette and social behaviour, Debretts, and hoorah, I’m right on every single count and my husband is wrong. Admittedly Debrett’s is a very British institution, so perhaps for the sake of fairness I should refer to their Spanish equivalent.
Except I doubt they have one. Maybe countries who care too much about manners don’t care enough about food?
This may explain my French friends’ love of dunking baguette into their chocolat chaud and sipping it from an oversized bowl. Somehow they make it look refined, elegant and sexy. Here in the north of England we dunk biscuits in our tea (only the aristocracy do it in private), but it isn’t quite the same.
In the Indian Himalayas my landlady would signal she’d finished eating with an almighty belch. The first time it caught me by surprise and I dare say I let out a childish giggle louder than her burp. ‘For the record, we do not do that in Delhi!’ clarified my flatmate.
Every region and every country is different and doesn’t that make expat life all the more interesting? Perhaps I should cut my husband some slack after all. It seems Debretts got it right: ‘the golden rule of table manners’, they say is,‘think of the person sitting opposite.’