One of the things that I love the most about Spain and something that I discovered almost immediately is how people make a connection with one another during life’s simple moments. This first happened to me in Valencia on my very first trip in the elevator in the short-term apartment I rented when I arrived here six years ago. My older brother and I got into the small lift with a young woman and her boy of about 4. He had a toy boat with him and I asked him where he was going, you know, small talk stuff. When we got to the bottom floor the woman said “Hasta luego” (meaning “latter” or something like that) as we parted. I think Americans are about a million times chattier with strangers than Europeans but we rarely talk to anonymous strangers on an elevator, so this was a bit of a shock to me.
I learned very quickly that the Spanish have very different ideas than Americans about what is considered polite and impolite behavior when interacting with strangers. The guidelines here in Spain are fairly simple so I’ll attempt to explain a few of them here.
When you leave an elevator you always say “hasta luego.” You wouldn’t say it if there is no one else on the elevator, of course, unless you just like the sound of those two words. When you leave a bar you say “hasta luego” to whoever served you and to everyone in general. Some of the customers may bid you farewell, that’s just the way it is. When you are walking down the street and pass someone you know but not really well enough to stop and have a chat you say “hasta luego” instead of “hola” or some other greeting. You say “hasta luego” when you part company with just about anyone with whom you have had the slightest bit of interaction, like borrowing their lighter, or asking them for the time, or asking directions, or asking if they have finished reading the paper in a café, or any possible human contact beyond simply being in the same general area—although sometimes even this warrants an “hasta luego.”
The other day I stepped into a book and print shop to buy a couple of ink pens. The proprietor was photocopying something for a young man who probably attends the local technical school. She stepped away from the copying machine and attended to my purchase which only took a few seconds and then went back to doing whatever it was she was doing for the young man. I bid farewell and both she and the young man answered, “hasta luego.” I was sort of tickled that the young man somehow felt an accomplice in this minor scene and was thus compelled to participate. But when you think about it, why wouldn’t he? We’re three human beings sharing a common space albeit for only a couple of seconds. Why shouldn’t we be outwardly civil to one another?
I actually feel self-conscious about leaving a bar without saying goodbye. If the barman is in the back I will wait a bit for him to return so that I don’t sneak out like a rat without exchanging pleasantries.
Most people who simply read about this behavior wouldn’t think it’s a very big deal, and I’m not really saying that it is. As I mentioned, it’s just different rules for politeness but there are many times when I’m surprised by how these two simple words can lend an air of intimacy to an otherwise completely mundane situation.