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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Homage to Spanish waiters

Camarero en Guirilandia (aka Barcelona)

I am astonished at the forbearance of Spanish waiters.

They earn roughly 6 euros an hour, in the great majority of food service establishments. I mean the bars and the cafés all over this city; the average joint where you’re likely to find a greasy copy of Metro or yesterday’s edition of El Periodico, minus a few torn out pages; where the waiters are Galacian and Andalusian, or descendants of Galicians and Andalusians.

Waiting in the average Spanish bar* is slightly more desirable than paleta work - or unskilled construction work. As with construction work, there is no requirement to be bilingual (in the strictest sense), like so many of the higher paying jobs.

But for six euros an hour you’re busting your ass for 960 euros a month, before taxes. Why do people live with their extended families, packed into 50 square meter apartments? Because on average this is what people earn (working class, I mean).

And the average apartment goes for about 600 euros a month. At least the ones I’ve seen.

(You should know I make no pretensions about this being rigorous reporting. But a quick check on Infojobs or the classified section in la Vanguardia will confirm what I’m saying, I’m sure of this)

An essential part of waiting tables is the service you provide to the customer. At least in the States - I can’t speak for countries I haven’t visited yet - tipping is a must. Waiters and bartenders make their living off tips. Therefore they smile and try to give reasonably good service. They earn the minimum wage, but pull in many times that amount in tips, which they are required to divide up among the staff according to degree of responsibility.

Tipping isn’t customary in Spain. I don't think it ever has been. I often see people swiping up a measly 5 cents after getting their change ... leaving nothing. Rarely have I seen anything approximating the standard 15% in the States.

I asked a waitress the other day why she does what she does for so little money. Her answer was she simply "liked it" … "Yo me paso bien." And she was serious. I admire that philosophy, but am afraid I would never be able to adhere to it. It's obvious she didn't really like mopping up spilled beer, she just knew it was one of the only options she had.

It’s not entirely a cultural "fault" that there’s no tipping. The fact is, many simply can’t tip. Wages here don’t permit it. She told me that most of the people that go to her bar are pinching pennies at the end of the month. That’s why she doesn’t make a fuss when at the end of the day she’s earned approximately 5 Euros in tips.

But, even so, it can’t hurt that much to leave some change. I mean, I do, and I’m earning average wages.

What I find incredible is the people with money that don’t tip. The pijos from Pedralbes for example (I work up here, amongst them, so I’m merely stating this based on personal observation). Many don’t even tip, say 25 cents after a €1.75 canya. They conveniently conform to the non-tipping tradition. Obviously they’ve never had to work in the service industry.

(By the way, if you're a non-tipping pijo, you'll never be my friend. Just thought I'd let you know. You make my head hurt)

So I see these guys waiting tables, their often times rude behavior, their ho-humphy Spanish pride, their spontaneous good humor and cliched jokes, and I have to admire their resilience. It’s a smelly, tiring job. And when I leave a 25 cent tip they’re genuinely appreciative.


* In average Spanish bars the waiter is also the bartender, is also the guy or gal that mounts and dismounts the bar stools and tables outside and inside, that mops up the place, that prepares bocadillos.