People are the same wherever you go – yet their approach to life can be so different. Women in Morocco may decide to cover their hair and dress modestly, while women in Spain may wear their hair free and dress provocatively. But at the end of the day, both women will go home and love their families.
The differences on the surface can be stark – with people, places, and things. This post is about that: the obvious differences that strike me between Northern Africa and the predominantly Muslim country of Morocco, and Southern Europe and the predominantly Christian country of Spain.
We stayed in Tangier, Morocco, for a couple of nights to end our 33 days in Morocco. Then we took the ferry to Spain, ready to spend the next three months in Spain and Portugal. As soon as we got into the port town of Tarifa, Spain, many cultural differences were immediately obvious. Additional differences became apparent to me over the next few days as we spent time in Seville – a city that fought to battle back Muslim dominance over hundreds of years, and then fought to gain dominance in the world for a couple hundred more years.
This history is mixed up with our present age of junk food, smartphones, religious beliefs, and more, and it fascinates me.
People look like they are better fed in Spain – or maybe they just have more money or more access to junk food. Asses are wider, stomachs are larger, and some people are way more flabby than most Moroccans.
For whatever reason, I immediately saw more fat and obese people in Spain than in Morocco. I couldn’t miss it.
Bathrooms are different
In Spain, the public bathrooms seemed like palaces. I’m a traveler who has experienced many bathrooms that don’t have toilet paper or soap, and I’ve used bathrooms that don’t have a seat toilet. But in Morocco, more public-use bathrooms really, really needed a severe cleaning.
In any case, I (almost) always have hand sanitizer and tissues in my day pack whenever, and wherever, I travel.
Eye contact with men
Spanish men look me in the eye, greet me with a hello, smile at me. In Morocco, many men avoided any direct eye contact with me, unless of course they were trying to sell me something at the market or in the medina.
This may sound trivial to people outside Western civilization. However, it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I’m not a witch, I’m not a whore, and I’m not some subservient human being invisible to another human being who considers himself better.
Coffee is more popular than tea
Yay for coffee! Although it’s still not brewed coffee in Spain. In Seville, I went into the first Starbucks I’d seen in about a month. Even here – at a Starbucks chain – there was no brewed coffee. Mint tea was a novel thing in Morocco, but it doesn’t have the caffeine kick this addict craves.
Also, most places in Morocco are not making mint tea with bottled water. Let’s just say my digestive tract is now acting somewhat differently than it had before Morocco…. and I’m happy to leave the Moroccan water you just can’t escape from being served at every restaurant and cafe.
Fewer people on cell phones
Fewer people are constantly on their cell phones in Spain, from what I’ve witnessed. In Morocco, as in Mexico, the U.S., and probably most countries, everyone was sitting around looking at their ‘smart’ screen – practically oblivious to anything else going on around them. In Spain, people actually look at each other in cafes. They actually talk to each other. Yay for reality!
Churches are opulent; mosques are sensible
Our walking tour guide in Seville had a great phrase – “More is more.” She used that to describe Spanish mentality on church architecture. Only the best, biggest, heaviest, newest whatever is used to construct houses of worship – even if a city is broke. In Morocco, recycled material can be used in mosques because it makes economic sense. There is an opposite mentality when it comes to mosques that is quite practical: “less is more.”
These philosophies pervade each culture on a foundational level. In Spain, opulence is everywhere – from fancy stores to decorated balconies to the perfumes I smell all over people who walk by. In Morocco, things look simple, and people aren’t bathed in perfume.
This is not to say that mosques are not beautiful – because they are. The only mosque I’ve ever been in was in Casablanca, and I wrote about that here. That post has pictures that show gorgeous design inside, which is beautiful in a different way from Gothic or Baroque styles found in churches in Europe.
Directions and payments
In Spain, strangers will offer directions and expect nothing in return. Of course, that was sometimes the case in Morocco, but often times, directions came with a price tag. It’s one of the ways some Moroccans try to ‘hustle’ tourists.
We don’t blame them for trying – we’ve seen it in other places in other countries in areas with many tourists. However, the “hustle factor” was high in Morocco. A young man would proclaim a small walkway in a medina to be closed, and he would offer to show you the alternative route — for a fee, of course. Sometimes, the walkway wasn’t closed at all. If you refused the directional help, the young man might walk in front of you – anticipating your route, and then demand payment for “showing” you the way. You see what I mean.
Animated vs. angry speech
Spaniards talk to each other in ways that sometimes are animated, but always with a smile. In Morocco, we actually saw animated discussions devolve into angry arguments over the month that we were there. In a couple of cases, it was about to get physical in a negative way between the participants – and sometimes those people were women.
It’s almost as if there is an undercurrent of anger among some people in Morocco. It left me feeling somewhat unsettled, and sometimes downright uncomfortable. Yet, anger isn’t limited to Muslims, of course. I bet I’ll see some anger when I’m in southern Europe a bit longer.
All of that said, I never feared for my personal safety in Morocco. And —- there certainly were not any lunatics with guns shooting down kids in schools or people at concerts — as is the case back home in the United States.
Look, I’m not saying anything about Morocco or Spain is bad or wrong. I’m simply saying some things are dramatically different from Northern African to Southern Spain to an observing traveler who’s never before experienced either region.
Seville’s impressive cathedral features a former minaret. This tower was part of a mosque when the Muslims ruled this part of Europe in the 12th century. When Christians reclaimed the land, they modified the tower with a Gothic style top. It was further modified as a bell tower in the 16th century. This tower fascinates me. It’s symbolic of different approaches to a single god. And men in each religion- Islam and Christianity- tried to kill the other followers. Yet, in the end, by working together unwittingly- they actually created a tower that somehow survived centuries of war and earthquakes. Ironic, right?
I am glad to be in a new region, on another continent, in a new country with a different culture, to observe more, and to learn.