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extract from "The Expat's Pajamas"

Insider Service - extract from "The Expat's Pajamas"

by R.S. Gompertz

Author R.S. Gompertz
Author R.S. Gompertz
After you’ve lived in Spain for a while, you’ll grow immune to the occasional frustrations that once got under your skin. The squat matriarch who bustles in front of you in the crowded bakery to grab the last baguette won’t offend your sense of fairness; she lived through the war, after all. You’ll find deep reserves of patience for the car stopped ahead of you, hazard lights flashing, while the driver, who’s also your neighbor, calmly paralyzes traffic to milk a cash machine and chat with the local tobacconist. As an advanced expat, you’ll share stories of the under-equipped plumber – recommended by your trusted neighbor – who stranded your family without a working toilet, leaving you in the middle ages for the entire month of August.

It’s all part of the expat experience. When and if you return “home,” you’ll realize that whatever land you come from isn’t much better anyway.

So new expats take heed! Before complaining about what may seem like injustices, ask yourself honestly: did you invest the time up front - typically one or two generations - to build a relationship with the baker, the tobacconist, or the plumber and his extended family?

If not, the indifferent service you receive is no one’s fault but yours. Take time, lots of time, to build relationships. It may take years to become an insider, but once you’re in, you and your offspring will be treated like family.

An illustrative example: towards the end of our last summer in Barcelona, my wife saw some cute sandals on display in a storefront window. She ran into the shop only to hear a litany of reasons why the shoes couldn’t be sold: they were the last pair of the season, the line had been discontinued, no more could be ordered, and so on.

The dueña’s disinterest in commerce made no logical sense, so my wife gently engaged the storekeeper in friendly conversation about how quickly vacations had passed, how the kids would soon return to school, and how lonely those last sandals of the season looked sitting sadly in the window. Within minutes, the sandals were on her feet and she was reaching triumphantly into her pocket for a handful of pesetas.

At that very moment a panic-stricken young woman ran into the store and asked about the sandals she had seen in the window earlier that day. The dueña, looking down at my wife’s feet, appeared conflicted.

In perfect Spanish, my wife calmly and logically defended her claim to the shoes that, in fact, she was already wearing.

“Yes, but I’ve known this lady since I was a girl,” the dueña said. “Our mothers are neighbors.”

I’m still not clear on how the sandals were extracted from the ends of my bride’s ankles, but within seconds the other woman - the insider - walked out of the store, prized footwear in hand.

Bad service? No. Unfair? Au contraire. The relationship logic was overwhelmingly clear. Imagine the dueña’s shame if her mother ever learned that the sandals had been sold to a complete stranger - a foreigner - just because my wife had arrived first, thrown her money around, and started an awkward argument about “fairness.”

Rather than insisting, my disappointed wife left the lost shoes in stride. She understood that relationships matter more than money. It may take a generation or two, but she’s confident that someday our grandchildren will have earned the right to buy the last sandals of the season.


R.S. Gompertz was born high above Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles, California. As a boy, he always had the sensation of living in a suburb of Disneyland. Gompertz has lived and worked as an Engineer in Paris, France and Barcelona, Spain.

"The Expat's Pajamas - Barcelona" is a short collection of humorous and occasionally insightful articles about his family's experiences, encounters, defeats and victories while living abroad between 2000-2005. He is also the author of the humorous historical novel “No Roads Lead to Rome” which chronicles an expat's near-death experiences in the Roman province of Hispania (Spain) in 123 AD. The decline and fall of nearly everything is set in the region between Tarragona and Southern France in a wild saga that anyone who has ever lived abroad will find familiar. More at www.noroadsleadtorome.com. Gompertz now lives with his family in the State of Washington and is busy plotting his next expat adventure.



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