When it comes to cultural differences between the USA and Spain, some come to mind more readily than others. Tapas culture is beginning to permeate foodie scenes in certain US cities and everyone knows that Spaniards quite literally party until the sun comes up, while most US bars are only open until 2am (4am if you’re from Buffalo, like me). But what about all of the little quirks, or even major differences that you don’t even realize exist yet? I had a small taste of Spanish culture when I studied abroad in Granada in 2009, however I unfortunately didn’t get to know any Spaniards and pretty much stuck with my group of United Statesian (yeah I’m fabricating adjectives…so what?) friends as we explored the city. Not until I moved here to Andalucía two years ago did I really begin to understand how many differences there actually are and how they make living in Spain totally unique. So here’s my round up based on my years here down south. There are myriad more but I want to hear what else you guys come up with.
1. Food Traditions
Food traditions in Spain are like… sacred and ritualistic. I can (and probably will) write an entire post on this because it’s one aspect of their culture that is demonstrated multiple times daily and it fascinates me. I’ve learned a lot more about typical Andalusian foods this summer since I’ve been living with my boyfriends mom and now realize that there’s a whole lot more to Spanish cuisine than croquetas and tortilla. This summer has been filled with lots of garbanzos and gazpacho, picadillos and pisto chock full of tomatoes, squash, and eggplant. I love that Spanish cuisine tends to follow the seasons, something that the USA doesn’t do as much due to the mass production of all types of foods in all seasons. This spring and summer I’ve been introduced to higos chumbos (prickly pears) and nisperos (loquats), two fruits that I’d never heard of (let alone eaten) before. Spaniards also stick to a pretty strict eating schedule, unlike in the US.
In addition to the different types of foods I’ve encountered, I’ve also discovered the ways habits attitudes about eating differ. One I learned early on was the no-egg-for-breakfast clause… it’s just not done here. Eggs for lunch or dinner…sure. But breakfast is a piece of fruit or toast. Cereal is for little kids and oatmeal attracts weird looks. Breakfast number one is when you wake up in the morning… maybe some juice or milk and a piece of fruit. Then, around 11am there’s a break for breakfast number two. A coffee or tea along with a tostada or a little sandwich are usually eaten. At about 2:30 is lunch time. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day and will often have three courses: a salad of some sort, the main dish, and fruit for dessert. Around 6:00 it’s time for merienda, a snack. Chocolate milk and a muffin, a coffee and a pastry… you decide. That will tide you over ’til around 10:00 when dinner is eaten… any earlier and you may be referred to as a gramma. Another habit central to the food culture (at least down here in the south) is the use of bread during meals. Notice I say the USE of bread rather than the consumption of bread. That’s because bread’s first and foremost occupation here is it’s usage as a tool. Using bread to push food onto a fork, or to sop up juices, or to mush up the tocino into the pringao. That is, using it to mush up a slab of lard into tender pork, meant to be eaten all mixed up and soft. At restaurants bread will often be served along with picos, hard little bread sticks that are strangely addicting. With all the bread being passed around, it’s easy to get caught up in a carbohydrate complex… watch out!
2. Party Culture
Pretty much everyone in the USA is aware that Europeans start drinking younger. With Spain’s drinking age being 18, kids have their first sips even younger than that. There is often the argument (in favor or lowering the drinking age in the USA) that since drinking is more integrated into the culture in Europe, the younger drinkers are more responsible because there isn’t so much stigma attached. In my experience, that’s not true. I’ve seen my 14 year old students drinking in the streets and the teenagers here get equally irresponsibly drunk. One hugely interesting aspect of this is the botellona. In order to curb young people from gathering and drinking in plazas all over town, most towns have a designated area specifically for people to go drink at before heading to the bars. I first experienced this in Granada at a GIANT botellona where probably 500 people were gathered. I was shocked to see everyone standing around in little groups, bottles of liquor and bags of ice in the center, drinking out in the open. In Arcos where I live now the botellona is located at the fair grounds which are unused all year except for during the five days of feria. Young people gather and blast music from their cars while drinking mixed drinks from tall skinny plastic glasses until it’s time to head to the club around 2, or later. Can you imagine if it were legal for young people to gather at your local park at home to drink in public until the wee hours of the morning?
Another really interesting part of the party culture here is how it is a total family affair. Babysitters aren’t really a thing in Spain as far as I’ve seen… if you’re a young parent heading out to meet friends, your 2-year-old is coming with. I was shocked during my first feria in Arcos. Ambling through the casetas at 3am I was pretty tired, but it seemed that the party was just getting started as everything got more crowded. Multiple times I pushed past ladies in high heels with half-full drinks… and their sleeping or confused babies in a stroller. I’m not sure I’ll ever agree with this aspect of the culture… of course young parents can and should go out and have fun, but at what point is it time to be taking your infant back home? My opinion: before the sun comes up.
3. Business Hours
Pretty much everyone is aware of the Spanish siesta. I mean, a nice after-lunch nap… what’s wrong with that? What I didn’t realize was the extent to which siesta affects life! In most cities, businesses shut down from the hours of 2:00 to 5 or 5:30. I definitely didn’t think this would be such a widespread practice before I came here. Sure, it makes sense for a mom and pop shop to close down while they eat lunch and rest. But I think I can only name a handful of businesses in my town besides restaurants that stay open during siesta… Mercadona, one of the chinos and el Kiosco de Juan. It took me months to get over the urge to want to go run my errands after lunch, making plans and then realizing… shit, it’s closed. It can be really inconvenient at times (especially for banking!) but when it’s super hot you won’t feel so guilty hiding out inside next to your fan; nothing’s open anyway.
Another thing that I discovered this year was the summer hours business schedule. Lot’s of restaurants, shops, and public offices have shortened business hours, with some restaurants taking off for up to two weeks right in the middle of summer! In a country struggling with a vast range of economic problems, it seems counterintuitive to me that they would cut hours for the lucky people who ARE working, for example the woman who works 10:00am-1:00am at the Extranjería (foreigner’s office) in Mérida, especially when during the year those same public offices are only open 9-2 anyways! I constantly have to remind myself to go with the flow and not to criticize; but sometimes the git-‘er-done American inside me rears her productivity valuing head and roars!
4. Openness About Money
For a country in deep economic crisis it makes sense that financial matters would be a topic of conversation. I NEVER expected, however, that personal finances would also be on the table! Within minutes of meeting me people would ask how much I was paying for my apartment or how much I made a month… two things that most people in the United States might only talk about with close friends and family. After a while, though, it becomes slightly liberating as you don’t have to worry about making remarks about money in fear that someone might be offended, because you’ll probably be pretty familiar with their financial situation (many Spaniards’ financial situations being like, non existent). If you’re like me you might even start to feel guilty that you’re living in their country and making money while a huge number of highly educated and motivated Spaniards are unemployed. Of course it’s not out fault; English teachers are in high demand as pretty much all types of jobs require that Spaniards have a basic level of English. Imagine if in the USA you had to be able to speak Spanish in order to qualify for even a waitressing job! Money is a go-to topic for lots of people here, and I’ve found it really helpful to actually read about how finances work in the US because lots of times people will ask me things like average costs of houses, how unemployment benefits work, retirement savings and 401ks, and it’s pretty embarrassing to not know the answer to something pretty fundamental… I know from experience!
5. Importance of Language Learning
Going along with what I said in the previous section, learning a second (or third) language is SO important in Spain, and I think all around Europe! It’s really sad to me that language learning isn’t started younger in the US. In the bilingual school I worked at the past two years, the 5th and 6th graders also learned French in addition to having English and Science classes taught completely in English. It’s really selfish to expect others to speak English everywhere you go, and I always feel especially guilty when traveling to other countries where I can’t even say thank you in the native tongue. Of course it’s pretty obvious that language learning is valued in Spain as told by the fact that I am (and many of you are) here teaching English. I try to imagine the tables being reversed and that this level of eagerness to learn were prominent in the US and it’s really interesting to think about.
6. University Culture
College a.k.a. University culture here is vastly different from that of the US. “College towns” are non-existent and Universities pretty much only have campuses in bigger cities. Students largely attend public universities and a huge amount of students get grants to help them pay for their degrees, degrees which are extremely cheap compared to the US. I’m talking 700€-1300€ per year for a Bachelor’s degree (un grado), and a 60-120 credit Master’s degree (1-2 years) costing between 1,000-4,000€ total. I’m not sure exactly how these becas (grants) work, but I don’t recall any Spanish friends saying that they’ve had to pay for school out of their pockets or apply for loans.
Aside from the huge price tag difference, the university social life seems to be pretty different, too. I can’t speak from experience so please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure a traditional campus with big green quads and lots of extracurricular groups just isn’t really a thing here. Spanish students take their studies really seriously. The image I have of Spanish university life is very much “all business” and not much of a community feel, whereas my image of US university life is lots of fun with classes during the day, a community of students living together and learning together. That’s not to say that US college students don’t work hard because I KNOW they do… but we also play hard with our classmates. It’s really sad to me that so many dedicated Spanish students are getting Bachelors and Master’s degrees and are then resigning to working in a grocery store, if they can even get a job at one. Of course the whole economic situation is bad, but I especially feel for all of the young people who study to find work, can’t find work so they decide to go back to school, and then are classified as over-qualified and remain without work.
Going along with the difference of the social scene at university here is the fact that lots university students will go home for the weekend. Usually within a couple hours of their hometown, on Friday afternoon students from all over Spain hop on a train to head home for the weekend where they can enjoy mom’s cooking and laundry services. Some lucky coeds even get tupperware containers full of frozen stews and other mom-specialties to tide them over during the week!
7. Close-Knit Social Groups
I have had a particularly hard time with this one as I’ve been trying to wheedle my way into my boyfriends close-knit group of friends for a year. There are so many variables stacked against the “outsider” trying to make her way in: the language barrier, the cultural differences, the fact that you haven’t had all the memories with them since you were ten years old, differing interests, etc. As hard as I try to be my normal witty, snarky, silly self with Paco’s friends, it never seems to be quite good enough and I still feel like I’ll always just be Paco’s girlfriend. I never realized the aspects of friendship I would miss until I found myself surrounded by people I was supposed to try to be friends with. Pop culture references and viral internet video quotes usually fall on deaf ears, and quoting movies in Spanish just doesn’t do it for me. Luckily, I’ve been able to explain a lot of my go-tos (“Is this real life?!?!”) to Paco, but I’m always looking for ways to get “in” with his friends. They like me and all, but if I’m going to be in this for the long haul, I’d like them to be my friends and a support system as well! One argument that consistently pops up every now and again is that I need to make more of an effort with Paco’s friends, which really pisses me off! I try to be myself and to make an effort to talk to his friends, but am I the only one who thinks that maybe the friends should be putting in an equal amount of effort? Can’t they understand that it must be difficult for someone to try to form a bond with a group of people who have known each other like the backs of their hands for the past 15 years? This is one cultural difference that I consistently struggle with; I have to tell myself it only gets easier or else I’ll go crazy!
So, what other big differences have you guys noticed between your home culture and Spain’s? What about differences from another culture you’ve lived in? Are there any that really irk you or that you prefer to your own culture? I’d love to hear what you have to say about it.