Adjusting to Spanish Life

Yesterday I hit the 6-week mark of when I first arrived to Madrid! It feels like time is flying but at the same time it feels like I’ve been here forever.  Although there are times I miss the little things from home (like giant grocery stores with a large selection of food), I am still loving every second that I’ve been living here.  Over the past 6 weeks I have observed some big and small cultural differences between the States and Spain.  When moving to a foreign country, it’s only natural to need some time to adjust to these differences before they become “the norm.”  I would say I am on the cusp of this period.  There are many differences that still catch me off guard sometimes, but for the most part I have grown accustomed to seeing them on a daily basis (Yay! That means my cultural immersion here is progressing!)  Here is a list of differences I have experienced between the US and Spain so far:

1.  Dos Besos:  When Spaniards greet each other, they give each other “Dos Besos” (translation: two kisses) or a kiss on each cheek.  I’m still getting used to this since I’m not big on physical interaction.  The teachers at my school shook my hand when they first met me because they know that’s what Americans do when they greet each other.  I could tell they felt a little awkward doing this but it made me feel great!  The Dos Besos are very endearing and makes you feel less like strangers, but I still feel like I’m awkwardly dodging their lips every time they come near me.

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Dos Besos

2.  Personal Space:  This is sort of a follow-up from the Dos Besos.  Spaniards interact in a much closer proximity with one another than Americans.  Some of them have no problem being on top of you while talking or standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you on the metro.  I wasn’t too bothered by this, until a couple weeks ago at school when one of the teachers was talking to me.  He was saying he had a fever and didn’t feel well.  …He was telling me this from about an inch away and I could feel his germy breath hitting my face.  I was freaking out inside!  I tried to hold my breath so that I wouldn’t breathe it in but the second I got home I washed my hands 5 times and took an immune-boosting vitamin.  This might just be the way this one particular Spanish person interacts with other people, since I haven’t had another situation that was that bad.  Overall the close proximity doesn’t bother me too much, just as long as the person isn’t sick!

3.  Unrefrigerated Milk:  Milk is kept in 1 Liter cartons in bulk on dry shelves at the grocery stores.  I find this disgusting.  I can’t live without milk though so I make sure to refrigerate it for a whole day before I use it.  It’s also relieving to know that my students say their families refrigerate their milk too.  So then why don’t the supermarkets?!

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Just a small glimpse of the unrefrigerated milk section.

4.  Pace of Walking:  I find myself having to slow down because I walk way too fast around these Spaniards.  Most of them are happily strolling down the streets at a snail’s pace.  I have not been able to adapt to this lifestyle yet.  I have places to be people!  But it does make you stop and wonder, What’s the rush?  But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying treating the sidewalks as a super highway and weaving in and out between the slow people!

5.  Not Being Rushed at a Restaurant:  Having worked in a restaurant in the US, this is a crazy concept for me.  In Spain, you’re allowed  to sit at a restaurant for as long as you’d like and there is no waiter or manager trying to push you out in order to meet table-turn times.  Spaniards cherish their meal-times and being social, so they would never think to disrupt your time spent socializing.  This was an easy adjustment for me.  Within a matter of a week I had no trouble sitting at a café for hours with friends, tapas, and a bottle of wine.  I got so used to it, in fact, that I had a crazy experience here where a waiter actually was rushing my friend and I out for some reason!  He was literally hovering over me waiting for me to pay.  This caught us completey off guard because we got so used to how relaxed every other restaurant is!  Normally, you literally have to chase the waiter down if you want the check, which is the complete opposite of America where we’re told to constantly check-in with the table and drop the check ASAP.  I much prefer the relaxed atmosphere that Spanish dining creates.

My friend Corinne and I enjoying sitting for hours at a restaurant with a bottle of wine (for only 6 euros!)

6.  Well-Trained Dogs:  I don’t know what it is about Spain’s dog-training system, but American puppy schools need to take serious note.  I noticed this big difference my very first day in Spain.  I was walking through Retiro Park, Madrid’s main park, and noticed that there were hardly any dogs on leashes.  If this was happening in the US, there would be dogs running wild through the streets.  Not in Spain, though.  These dogs are somehow trained to be by their owner’s sides at all times.  No running away.  No aimlessly chasing squirrels.  No attacking other dogs.  Nada.  I don’t know how they do it!  But these are the most well-behaved dogs I’ve ever seen in my life.

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Dogs without leashes are so common!

7.  The Schedule:   Spaniards eat lunch at 2 and dinner around 9 or 10.  I was starving at 5 on a Sunday one week, but no place was serving hot food before 8.  Fortunately I found a café that I could order from, but that was after I was rejected by a few other restaurants.  Also, most shops are closed between 2-5 for the siesta.  All the shops in my neighborhood are closed, but since Madrid is such a major city, it is still easy to find shops that are open.  If you go to a small town, however, good luck trying to do anything during those few hours, as it seems the entire town is shut down.  Also, the nightlife is at very strange hours as well.  Most people are still pregaming until 2 or 3 AM and THEN it’s time to hit the clubs.  They’ll stay at the clubs until daylight.  The clubs tend to close around 7:30 AM.  INSANE.

8.  Bread is its Own Food Group:  Ok, not really.  But Spaniards eat bread with EVERYTHING.  Actually, they just eat a ton of carbs and starches in general.  If the meal itself doesn’t come on top of bread, then there is a basket of bread that is served on the side.

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Bread. Bread. Bread.

9.  Restaurants are Very Generous:  Whenever you order a drink like beer or sangria, the waiter will bring out something like olives, chips, or nuts.  But there are also the gems like my 2 favorite restaurants here:  El Tigre and Mesón y Oro.  For 6 euros at El Tigre, you get a monstrous drink, and TONS of food.  I’m talking like 4 or 5 large plates of typical Spanish food.  It’s delicious and perfect for those of us on a budget!  Mesón y Oro is another favorite.  For 6 euros, you get a tapa which comes with bread and a salad, as well as a bottle of wine!  And it’s delicious wine too!  Straight from the wineries in La Rioja, Spain.  American restaurants need to learn about generosity from the Spaniards!

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El Tigre: All of this for 6 Euros a person.

10.  America is Everywhere:  So this isn’t really a cultural difference, but it is something that is apparent about Spain, and western culture in general.  America has taken over.  There are tons of McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Burger Kings.  There are also KFCs, Taco Bells, shopping malls, Dunkin “Coffee” (not Donuts, even though they sell donuts), and there is even a CLAIRE’S.  But each of these places are a little different than the American versions.  The Taco Bell’s serve beer and the McDonald’s allow you to put sauces in the McFlurry’s.  Also, English is written everywhere and American music is played in most places.  It’s nice to see familiar things to have a little taste of home every now and then.  Also, fun fact:  the only reason people here have heard of Philadelphia is because of the cream cheese.  So yes, there is even Philadelphia cream cheese 🙂

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A Claire’s in a Spanish shopping mall.

Overall, these past 6 weeks have definitely been an adjustment getting used to the Spanish way of life again.  In many cases, the Spaniards have an addicting perspective on life, so it’s no wonder why people fall in love with this country time after time.  Although there are some differences I don’t think I will ever enjoy (such as unrefrigerated milk–ICK!), I think there are many differences that I will greatly miss once I return to the US.  Also, whenever I need a reminder of home, it is still very easy to find a little Taste of America (which also conveniently happens to be the name of a convenience store here that sells over-priced American goods.  But depending on your level of homesickness, it might be worth it to splurge on those Reeses’ Cups).

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