Are you thinking about diving into Spanish culture by living, working or studying in Spain?
Spain is a diverse country with many subcultures, so you can’t always generalize about the culture. You’ll also find marked differences between people of different social classes, and of course not all individuals fit into any mold (best to think in terms of Bell Curves). However, there are a cultural values, traits and tendencies that you will find across the country.
Here are the first five, fantastic things that you will discover when you settle down in Spain:
Spanish Cuisine Rules
Cuisine does vary across Spain from region to region and even within regions, to a degree. But one thing is sure everywhere you go in this country: Spaniards are very proud of their cuisine. They like to eat it, and they love to talk about it. And they truly believe it’s the best food on the planet. So don’t be surprised when the people you meet want you to try their favorite foods; they’ll be very insistent about it. Be adventurous and try new things. They may not tickle your tastebuds at first, but keep eating and you may be surprised.
Over twenty years ago I ordered my first bowl of tangy, cold gazpacho soup, struggled with the first spoonful and politely ordered a plate of spaghetti instead. Today I crave that same refreshing blend of raw tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, garlic and olive oil on a hot summer day. And even though a faint whiff of cooked spinach used to make my stomach turn, I couldn’t resist my Seville host mother’s Spinach with Chickpeas.
In my (humble) opinion, Spanish cuisine is not always a “love at first bite” affair. This is very surprising – even shocking – to most Spaniards I meet, but true of many foreigners I meet. Just take the time to train your tastebuds to appreciate the new flavors you find here. You won’t be disappointed.
Spanish History is Everywhere
Modern Spain is built right on top of the ruins of the Roman Empire. It mingles with the remains of a dazzling Muslim civilisation and the Christian constructions that came with the “Reconquest”. To live in Spain is to live right, smack in the middle of it all. All cities and many towns and villages are packed with archeological remains that are often carefully preserved in the middle of traffic, pedestrian streets, busy squares and even buildings.
I love walking along a medieval wall on the way to wherever I’m going. I used to duck into the Cathedral in Seville on the way to my university classes (back when entrance was free) to contemplate the stained glass, vaulted ceilings and massive stone columns. Nowadays, my favorite parking garage in Málaga city center includes well preserved Roman ruins. There’s nothing quite like living in the middle of history’s leftovers…
Spanish Culture is Surprisingly Gregarious
Why go to the supermarket alone when you can go as a family? That was one of the first questions I pondered when I moved to Spain permanently. At first glance it seemed that the supermarket was simply a very popular place to go on a Saturday afternoon. Then I realized it was packed because no one was shopping alone. At the very least we had mamá, papá and the children, but grandma could certainly lead the procession. However they might all be related – or not – they were not alone.
Spain is a socialite’s paradise because people like to get together, eat together, walk around together, and – of course – shop together. This is a place for people lovers. So, get ready by brushing up your social skills and preparing for a lot of togetherness, especially if you marry into a Spanish family, like I did.
It’s true that temperament seems to vary as you move from north to south and east to west in Spain, but everywhere – even in the feisty Basque Country and the far reaches of Galicia, you find groups gathered in bars, restaurants, cafes – and even supermarkets.
The Spanish Siesta is a Myth (but it still affects you)
The vast majority of Spaniards do not take a siesta at midday. They’re too busy. However, you must plan your day around the long midday break when most shops and many businesses close for two or three hours, a tradition that is especially pronounced in small cities and towns. Some people go home to eat and relax during that time. Many others go to a nearby restaurant to enjoy the “Menu of the Day” with their coworkers (in a group, of course).
It took me a long time to get used to this part of Spanish culture because it meant reorganizing my whole life. I was used to compressing my business into the eight-hour workday and my leisure into the evening. After about 10 years I started relaxing into a longer lunch and a later dinner – and a much later bedtime. Old habits die hard, especially when they’re part of your basic cultural programming.
Spain Is a Noisy Country…?
Well, relatively speaking Spain is classified as one of the noisier countries in the world. In reality there are much noisier places to live (or to try to study or work). But there are also quieter places than Spain. Noise is a top complaint among British, Scandinavians, Germans and North Americans living in Spain. The good news is: you can get used to it. And, as my Spanish brother-in-law says, “Babies cry and dogs bark, so what’s the big deal?” In other words, noise is a natural phenomenon however it occurs. So, no big deal. Right?
In case it makes you feel better, it only took me about 15 years to get used to this one. I dare you to do it in less.
Leap into Spanish Culture… Leap into Culture Spanish Shock
That’s right. Leaping into Spain is equivalent to leaping into culture shock, Spanish style:
- As much as they love their food, you probably won’t love everything – at first.
- As much as they love to move in groups, you may go crazy when you’re trying to move in a hurry.
- As much as they enjoy their long lunches, you may get frustrated when the shops are closed and you really need to shop.
- As much as they enjoy the noisy bustle, you may wish for peace and quiet now and then.
However, on the bright side, if you love history you’ll probably never get tired of the ruins, the cathedrals, the mosques, the white villages, the narrow, winding streets or the balconies full of red geraniums in ceramic pots!
You’ll adapt to the other four factors more quickly if you take this advice:
- Start educating your tastebuds the day you arrive. It only takes about 20 exposures to a new flavour to learn to love it.
- Form your own group as soon as possible: at work, by signing up for classes, by chatting up new neighbours…
- Switch to the Spanish schedule immediately: wake, eat, sleep, work and play when they do.
- Sleep with earplugs! And make other adaptations, but never, ever ask your fellow Spaniards to be quiet!
And that should do it – until your next five factors pop up!