Asked here in Spain how much a college professor makes in the States, I can answer by recalling my dad’s salary. “That was a while ago,” I add. What does a waiter make? This time, I recall my own earnings in the several restaurants where I worked in my teens and 20s, and come up with a figure, but rather than yearly, it’s hourly. “That was a long time ago too,” I say, but with a smile as I remember the pleasure of a tip jar that tripled or quadrupled my pay.
Here in Spain, rather than yearly or hourly, salaries are usually monthly, whether for a teacher or lawyer, a dishwasher, waiter, or bus driver, and they include the usual four-week paid vacation, plus paid leave for personal matters, sick leave for your own illness or a close relative’s, time off for marriage, a family death, or the birth of your child, and all the local and national holidays. With the extras, the pay works out better than it seems, which is not much if you’re earning the minimum. This past fall, the government agreed to a 22 percent increase in the minimum wage in 2019, which is something to celebrate in the new year.
On top of the 12 paychecks, you typically get an extra two, one in June for the summer holidays and one in December, to cover the extra Christmas expenses. Sometimes there are more than two of these extra checks—three, for example, for a friend working in a plant producing grain. These additional paychecks are called pagas extras, and how many and how much they are and when they are distributed is stipulated in a convenio, the agreement between employers and employees in each sector, negotiated by the unions.
Distributing a yearly salary over 14 or 15 paychecks seemed strange to me. Your expenses at Christmas are larger than in October? That’s why you plan ahead. Your family vacation to the Canary Islands for three weeks costs an arm and a leg? That’s what savings are for. Making budgets and sticking to them is what adults do. Especially if like the Spanish you like big vacations and big Christmases and, in general, living it up. More than strange, even, it seems infantilizing to have an employer step in with extra money, recalling spending money handed out by parents, in no way a right, simply good luck: “Here, go have fun,” or “Buy yourself something pretty.”
It’s true that the Spanish, out till all hours, laughing at the crudest of jokes, cursing loudly and gladly, big eaters and social drinkers—in short, high-livers for a Puritan like me—sometimes seem childish in their pleasure. Fiesta and alegría, parties and fun, I was told, are the twin joys in this country, which seemed to me both wonderful and terribly wrong.
On the other hand, a certain adult dignity accompanies jobs that in the States are often left to college students or actors waiting for their big break, not making a career of the job. A waiter in Spain is usually a professional with all the protections of the law, earning a salary paid by the employer, and not dependent for his earnings on the whim of the customer. Some establishments even post a sign saying they don’t accept tips. Customers will often leave a tip anyway, called la propina, but it can be literally pennies: a 10 centimo coin left after paying for a cup of coffee or the euro change that the waiter’s told not to worry about for a 29 euro meal, not required or expected, at least not so far, though tipping is becoming more common. Sometimes on a shelf behind the bar sits a can where all tips go to be divvied up later, the good luck spread around. It’s called el bote, the tip jar.
With tipping, you don’t pay more for your meal, just pay in a different manner. Likewise, the Spanish worker doesn’t get more pay because of the extras, just gets it on a different schedule. And what’s wrong, really, with that? The paga extra at Christmas can be just what’s needed to make you feel, what? Lucky, I think. My favorite ad of all time, anywhere, was one on Spanish TV about 15 years ago. Arriving home, a young man pulls a shoebox out of a shopping bag, ties a ribbon around it, and sets forth again into the street, the box under his arm. At the bus stop he pauses. “Excuse me,” he says to a white-haired woman waiting there, holding the box out to her. “Could you hold this?”
She looks surprised, but gingerly takes the box he extends and is still staring at it as he bends to tie his shoelace. When a minute later he straightens up, he seems to have forgotten the box as he looks about, stares at the sky, drums his fingers together, and glances down the street for the bus. The woman, after a minute of confusion as the man ignores her, taps him on the shoulder.
The man turns politely toward her, then sees the box she holds out to him. “For me?” he asks. “A gift for me? Oh my!” He tentatively accepts the box, smiles, his smile broadens, and he clasps the box to his chest, closes his eyes in ecstasy, opens them, embraces the woman, who is more surprised than ever. “Thank you!” he says, “Thank you!” in great gratitude, and off he skips, light on his feet, gloriously happy.
At the end, a voiceover announced a product that I’ve long forgotten. Instead I remember the woman’s puzzled patience, the man’s practiced disregard, and then his tremendous gratitude and joy and her surprise at his happiness. It was a harmless bit of make-believe, but everything about the man said he believed his own act. Could it be the Spanish believe theirs, which is why they are out half the night, not just at Christmas but all year, celebrating like kids?
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