5 Things I Don’t Understand About Spain: Then and Now

Saying ‘hasta luego’ to Madrid in May 2010…little did I know that one day I would return again.

The first time I set foot on Spanish soil was on January 21st, 2010. A year before that date, I was preparing to go study abroad in Seville, Spain for an entire semester I took a class called Spanish Culture and Civilization during my sophomore year. It focused entirely on Spanish culture, customs, festivals, food, and society. There were only about a dozen other people taking the course alongside me and a lot of us did not know much about Spain.

Mainly we knew that the Spanish language originated from this country and that the traditional flamenco dance and the idea of the siesta also came from there. Well, not everyone in the class knew where Spain was let alone an important fact about the culture that stood out. We had a lot to learn in that short semester and little did I know that my experience interacting with the culture and the people had only just begun. There were a lot of things I still didn’t know about the culture when I reached the end of that class.

To be honest, there are quite a few things I have learned in just the past two years that I didn’t learn while I was a student here. What I do know is that this country is so diverse and rich in culture. It’s almost impossible to learn all you can about it in just one semester or even one full year abroad.

The important thing is to keep an open mind and see what you can learn about this new culture and what lessons and thought processes you can take back with you to your home country. The norms and customs of a country are meant to make its citizens more comfortable and be able to live their lives a little bit easier and hassle-free. And while I have grown to understand this principle more fully throughout the years, that’s not to say that I agree with everything the Spanish people do or the way the country is set up. There are some things that, if given better circumstances (re: not being in love with the country) would send me fleeing back into the comfortable arms of the USA.

There are honestly some things that I have not understood about the country and its customs for years and I may not ever will. Maybe if I happen to marry into a Spanish family one day and then adopt these customs as part of the family, I will understand and accept them more willingly.

For now, I continue fighting a small battle between these two cultures: the culture I live in now and the culture where I grew up. I talked about the US in my last post but let’s talk about Spain.

A long time ago, I was once a lost little guiri right in the center of Madrid here.

Here are 5 Things I Don’t Understand: Then and Now

1. Closing up shop for siesta time or lunch

Then (2010): I could not for the life of me get used to the siesta or what is also known as the time of day when all the stores close and the shop owners go home for lunch…or to nap. You’re reading the post of someone who hated nap time in kindergarten and thought that laying down on plastic padded mats in a circle with like twenty other kids you barely knew and you were expected to fall fast asleep for 20-30 minutes. Are you kidding?! Why sleep when you could color or play dress-up with Barbies or listen to music or read a book in the reading corner? I would choose more playtime over going to sleep. (I may beg to differ now that I’m an adult -given the day- but I still don’t like to take naps.) Unfortunately, I had to lay there on the mat just like the other kids and wait impatiently for nap time to end. What a stressful and confusing time in my life, haha.

As far as siesta time in Spain went, I didn’t understand the appeal of the siesta but I also didn’t comprehend the need for it. Family is very important to the Spanish as a culture and lunchtime is usually their biggest meal. It’s the biggest one because almost everyone is expected to be at home for lunch which means the cook needs to prepare enough food for 4-6 people or however big the family is. When you add grandparents, aunts or uncles, and cousins in there, the table becomes very full!

It also takes a while to make the meal, clean up the dishes, and have time for the post-lunch coffee or tea or maybe a siesta. All of these things are essential components in a traditional Spanish lunch so prepare yourself for each one if you are ever invited to a Spanish friend’s house one day (or next week – depends on if you live here already or not!).

Strolling down Calle San Fernando in Sevilla this past month.

One thing that hindered me from liking the long lunch was my living situation as a student. I was living with an older couple in the lively barrio of Triana in Sevilla. I went to the local public university (Universidad de Pablo de Olavide) and had to walk to the metro stop and then take the metro all the way to another zone and then walk to my classes. It took me a total of 45 minutes to commute one way so on the days I came home for lunch at my homestay, I admit that I spent half of the metro ride worrying about whether or not I was going to arrive home on time or be late.

I got yelled at by my seemingly innocent host mother a couple times for arriving late for dinner but I was never late for lunch thank goodness. She wasn’t a mean person but in fact, she was the most caring sevillana host mom that I’d ever met. She just treated the act of hosting American students in her home as a job and tried everything in her power to be the best host mom she could be. That meant that she always outdid herself when it came to meals, bought and cooked all the nicest and freshest foods and only expected us to arrive for the meals on time or let her know in advance that we would be eating elsewhere.

As much as I loved enjoying her cooking and drowning myself in the most calories I’ve ever eaten in my life at every meal, some days I preferred to eat the sandwich and fruit that she would prepare for me to eat at the university when I had to stay for late afternoon classes. It was less stressful for me (and her in reality) and a lot of times I would be able to eat my lunch outside with other students and soak up the Andalusian sun. Those were the days!

Now (2015): I now work at a colegio (elementary or primary school) four days a week and twice a week I stay almost the entire day helping with the English or art classes. School is in session from 9 o’clock in the morning to 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Most stores and businesses close at 2 o’clock to go have lunch or take a break. Almost all of the stores that close mid-day close by 3 pm at the very latest. They will re-open around 4:30 pm or 5 pm or remain closed for the rest of the day if it is a Saturday and not open on Sunday (subject to exceptions of course).

Now that I am working here, albeit not as many hours as most, I see the culture from a slightly different perspective. I realize that while the stores are closing and causing an “inconvenience” for me as the potential shopper, they need to go have lunch. In fact, I am almost always hungry right after school lets out and need to get home to prepare lunch for myself. (And think about what exactly I want to make on my walk back home.) The Spaniards realize that it is important to take a break for lunch and to go home and be able to eat your meal in peace or be surrounded by all your closest friends and family members. It still pains me to walk by all the pretty window displays along the shopping street I live on and not be able to go inside right then and there but that’s a small price to pay in the long run.

I do feel that we in the US could allow more time in the day for a break and really take that time to eat with close friends, a significant other or a family member if they are close by. I think oftentimes we Americans are too rushed during the day and don’t have a lot of time to focus on just eating lunch and taking a break. We have so many things to think about: whether it’s due to the small allotment of time we’re given for a lunch break or the commute to and from work or school and the amount of traffic. Not to mention deciding where to go for lunch and then waiting to order and eat said lunch. All of the time you have can quickly slip away and before you know it, it’s time to return to work or head to your afternoon class. I’m already feeling a little stressed out as I recount my own short lunch break experiences and may need to go take a siesta stat to relieve the stress!

The bottom line is that other countries (especially the ones that are more in a hurry to do everything) can learn from the Spanish way of life. Maybe more people in my own country would enjoy their lunch break if they met at someone’s house or took turns cooking a meal. Or maybe if they went on a picnic with their co-workers near the office itself or in a nearby park. Too much rest and relaxation can make a person (or an entire culture) lazy sure, but I think the Spanish have found a good balance between work and relaxation. Though this is all subject to my own personal opinion. (The amount of break time that andaluces in the South of Spain take tends to be a lot more I’ve noticed…but that’s another story.)

Well, maybe if they could shorten the average lunch to one or one and a half hours (instead of 2+), then I’d fully be on board with this culture of long lunches…. 😛

2. Running on “Spain” time (o la hora española)

I am a morning person. I have been one ever since I can remember -which was around the time of kindergarten- and twenty years later, I continue to be one. Nothing has changed really…except that I now live in a culture of late-to-bed, late-to-rise people and it has frustrated me to no end over the years. Well, that is if I myself miraculously go to bed late (re: 7 o’clock in the morning like I did on New Year’s Day) and thus need the extra sleep. That doesn’t happen often for me, though, now that I work here and have to adhere to a fairly normal schedule…at least during the week. Also, mornings just genuinely make me happy and the more time I can be awake during any given morning, the better my day is likely to become.

Spanish people and I are the exact opposites when it comes to sleep patterns. They live for the movida or nightlife and tend to eat dinner late (sometimes as late as 12:30 am) and stay out even later. Can you start to see why this culture needs as long of a lunch break as they do? Well, while their culture and lifestyles sort of demand a mid-day break or nap, I have noticed that the people as a whole are about 2 hours behind the schedules of almost all English speaking countries (at least the US, Canada and the UK I mean, which are the countries I know the most about).

If you go by the schedules for restaurants and cafes, that is. Take a look at the timetable below and see what I mean:

Breakfast (Desayuno)

Depending upon where in Spain you live or which cafe you frequent, breakfast is normally served between 9 o’clock in the morning to 12:30 pm or 1 pm. If you didn’t know about Spain’s breakfast schedule before, I am not even kidding about the lateness of breakfast. I have found that my Spanish friends, both North and South alike, prefer to have breakfast around 10 am. That tends to be the ideal time for them. That is 2 or 2.5 hours too late for my taste. I try to have breakfast between 8:00-8:30 am (at home) every day and I prefer this time.

If you do happen to eat breakfast what is to be considered early here, that time would fall somewhere around 9 o’clock in the morning. There are a few rare cafes here in Galicia that open around 6 o’clock or 7 o’clock in the morning. Older people tend to frequent these cafes or cafeterias so I’m sure if my young self walked into one of these I wouldn’t hear the end of why I should be in bed and fast asleep. Maybe I’ll try it just for fun and see what happens?

A fairly typical Spanish breakfast: tea, cereal and toast spread with tomato pureé and olive oil.

Morning Snack (Almuerzo)

There are two accepted snack times all around Spain. Some of the times differ based on preference and/or local culture but it’s generally the same everywhere you go here. Public schools across Spain all have recess around the same time (11:30 am) and not only do they get to play outside, but they also have a snack break. My school has a comedor (or lunchroom) where the children can buy and eat lunch there but not all of the children do this. Each one of them is required to bring something to eat for the break (or recreo) or else they will feel left out. This could be where social eating is first introduced to the Spanish children but I’m not 100% sure on that. More on that later.

Another thing that I have noticed is that adults like snack time round one or second breakfast, too. And they don’t mind sharing their snack with you as I have found to be true among the teachers at my school. I sometimes have to turn down taking part of a snack or pastry because I had too much for breakfast (or I just don’t want to eat). I feel that 12 o’clock is a good round number for snack time across the country but as I said, it could depend on what region you live in.

Lunch (Comida)

I touched on the topic of lunch above but I didn’t exactly specify the time of day that the Spanish normally eat it. In general, lunchtime falls between 1 o’clock to 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The snack is meant to hold you over until lunchtime as you can see that Spain eats lunch much later in the day.

As a student living with my host family, I virtually had no trouble waiting for lunch and struggled more with being able to wait for dinnertime to arrive. (Unless it was Pizza Tuesday then that was a whole ‘nother animal as my history teacher liked to say). In reality, you only had to wait 5-6 hours between breakfast and lunch whereas with dinner you could be waiting as long as 7 or 8 hours between meals. Lunch is typically the biggest meal of the day but even the biggest of meals can only hold your stomach over for so long. Does anyone else agree? 🙂

Afternoon Snack (Merienda)

I’ve experienced afternoon snack time in a number of different ways but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I realized that this snack time has a particular time of day when it’s observed (at least according to most cafes and restaurants). I saw a sign on a cafe here that explicitly stated that the merienda for the evening would be served between 5:30 pm-8:30 pm. After that time, however, that establishment would begin to serve dinner.

Dinner (Cena)

The mood in the house changed, the other girls in the house barely spoke to me until the next day for fear of getting in Manoli’s way and stressing out even more. I understood the importance of being on time after that but I had another instance -that was out of my control- that caused me to arrive late and receive yet another lecture on the importance of being on time.

My fellow study abroad classmates and I did not understand the conundrum I was in during the last half of our semester. The Spanish tend to arrive late and start things late almost all of the time but for this one part of my life as a study abroad student, being late was considered disrespectful and…downright weird. It’s okay, though, I tend to be the odd one in the group in general and as an auxiliar here in Galicia, I am nothing different. (Or am I?) Well, little did my host mom know that I was enjoying the sevilliano culture to the max and had the time of my life there with a great group of local friends to boot. If only she knew the true reasons behind my tardiness…

If you eat out for dinner in Spain, expect to go looking for open restaurants starting around 8-9pm. Some restaurants are only open for two time periods a day (lunch and dinner) or for only one (dinner) and therefore will only open during the culture’s normal dinnertime. You can eat as late as 11 pm or 12 am but if it’s a holiday or holiday week (like Christmas, Carnaval, Semana Santa or Feria -in Andalucía-), expect more restaurants to run out of food faster than normal. So, if you are craving something. The plus side to dinner here is that almost all of the international restaurants will run on a different schedule and will most likely be open and serving dinner or lunch earlier in case you find yourself feeling hungry while none of your friends and family are.

If you eat dinner at home with a Spanish family or friend (or by yourself), you will find that you will be eating lighter foods. Dinner is not a very heavy meal as it tends to be in the US and I actually like that. My stomach does too so maybe it’s a win-win for everyone? haha While I don’t necessarily like to eat so late at night as the Spanish do, I do like their practice of eating a small breakfast, big lunch and then a small dinner. Combine that with walking to work or school and it’s no wonder why most of the people here are thinner and healthier! Well, overall they are…

Ice Cream/Dessert (HeladoPostre)

Getting ice cream or frozen yogurt is also something very inexpensive (depending upon where you go, of course) that you can do with your friends. Frozen yogurt shops here are growing in popularity and more people are being drawn to them, both locals and foreigners alike. Dessert is eaten after dinner but again, it’s also light as well. The bizcochos (cupcakes) and tartas (cakes) are usually eaten during merienda times but yogurt, ice cream or frozen yogurt (or warm milk with cookies) is a nice light dessert to have after dinner.

I usually skip dessert and have fruit after (or during) dinner. I still brush my teeth after dinner but something about having fresh fruit instead of something artificially sweetened makes me (and my teeth) feel a lot better. The one thing I definitely loved about my host family situation a few years ago was how Manoli encouraged us to eat a lot of fruit with or after our meals. I was eating an orange a day at that time and I didn’t even do that when I lived in Florida! Imagine that.

So, the bottom line:

Then (2010): Because I lived in a very isolated yet culturally rich housing situation, I wasn’t aware of all of the cultural connections that existed between food, the actual meal times and the Spanish people themselves. I was also only exposed to small gatherings outside of my homestay and those mostly consisted of going out for tapas or going for a picnic. I chose to eat at home with my host family more because I was paying to live there and wanted to save money that way. I still experienced a few very intimate dining situations in the form of being invited out to dinner with a friend and her family and then being invited to have a Sunday afternoon meal with a friend and her whole family (even her grandfather was there!) after church. All I could do was learn firsthand from the people and friends around me what was acceptable and what wasn’t. I left after the end of the semester feeling grateful for all of the experiences but still not won over on the whole timetable of eating. I missed the long and filling lunches when I returned to the States but I didn’t miss the late dinners.

Now (2015): I’ve been able to participate in a number of different cultural dining situations thanks to friends that I’ve met here. I’ve stayed with another Spanish family where the mother also cooked but also let her kids cook if they wanted to. I’ve eaten Sunday afternoon meals prepared by me and my friends, both international and local. I’ve gone to potlucks and gone out to eat at other restaurants with diverse groups of friends. I’ve done tapas the Andalucian way and I’ve also done tapas the Galician way. I’ve now had the experience of living on my own and cooking for myself, something I have never been able to do on a regular basis here until I arrived last fall. I’ve been learning and cooking for almost 6 years now and while I think I have found what foods I like and how to cook them to my taste…but I am still learning on how to prepare foods and when it’s time to throw something out. I’ve had two instances of food poisoning now and they’ve both been my fault. Live and learn as they say?

While I still don’t prefer the standard schedule, I now have the freedom to run on my own personal time (events and excursions not included) and I love that. I don’t think a lot of things in this country are done efficiently (ie: Correos, any government or regional office, work schedules, store hours), but I deal with it and enjoy what Spain is good at: relaxing and living life.

As my international friends and I have noticed, the Spanish people don’t live to work, they work to live. After all, what’s a life full of luxuries with no time to enjoy it? Not a very fulfilling life if you ask me.

3. Why it’s okay to be late or arrive late

I think I actually touched on this topic in the above two points but I’ll add a couple of new things to it here in the sections below.

Then (2010):

Now (2010):

4. Why food is so sacred and why eating outside or on the street is taboo

Eating out in style in Sevilla

I’ve now been in Spain for almost 7 months straight and living in the same area I have been basically from the beginning. And yet I am still getting stares and looks that imply, “Who are YOU?” (And maybe this sentence followed after it: “And why are YOU still here?” haha)

Actually, to be honest, I think the reason why I’m still getting stared at is based on what I do while I’m on the go or about to be late for something (which is all the time). I’m either walking fast or hurrying along the street (and passing everyone who gets in my way like a car, haha) or something walking fast AND eating at the same time. I’ve eaten whole sandwiches while walking down the street and it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “buen provecho” or “enjoy your food” as they pass me. And even if you’re sitting in a park or open plaza, it’s socially acceptable for someone (in this particular case an old man) to come up to you and ask if you’re hungry and then encourage you to keep eating.

Yes, it happened to me while I was finishing off the rest of a Pringles canister (with barely 7-10 chips left in it).

I’ve also eaten apples, bananas, almonds, chips, candy, pastries and today I ate part of a sandwich made of tortilla de patatas. So, I guess I am keeping the Americans-always-eat-on-the-go stereotype alive and well over here, aren’t I? Well, it’s really only because I don’t give myself enough time to commute to school (or walk) and I feel like I’m always running behind. I also want to eat a lot at breakfast but can’t always find the time to cook up a big meal before I have to go.

My host mom always said that above all things, food is the most sacred. I think this largely had to do with how her hosting me was a job and she didn’t want to get fired from her job for performing poorly at it. She (like many other Spanish mothers) also poured a lot of love into her food so to not take the time to enjoy it is rejecting her love and not appreciating all the hard work she put into making it (from scratch usually).

I’ve also had other people over the course of my visits and stays here see me eating an apple or an orange or a full meal and then proceed to leave me alone with it. It’s kind of like they’re saying, “Oh, you’re with the food. I’ll leave you two alone.” What?! haha

Then (2010): It’s okay to eat outside but under these conditions: you’re going out for ice cream, you’re sunbathing by a river and with friends, you’re eating lunch picnic-style with friends in a giant park or you’re eating in the outdoor seating of a restaurant. It seemed like people were always eating outside in Andalucia but no one walked and ate at the time. But by the time spring rolled around and the calorcito started to invade the territory, people flocked outside and were seen eating and drinking anywhere they pleased. It was actually really fun to participate in that kind of lively and spontaneous food culture, to be honest.

Now (2015): It seems like here in Galicia where the rain and cooler temps tend to linger that you only eat outside when it’s sunny or it’s summertime. It’s April and I’ve yet to see people going on a picnic or eating at the beach. It’s also still a rainy time here so you never know when a storm will hit! I will have to update this once summer rolls around as I don’t know too much about the etiquette here in the North yet.

5. The Castillian Spanish accent

Reality? I could barely understand a word of the Spanish that was suddenly swirling around me the moment I stepped off the plane and walked away from the gate. The people were speaking so fast. Their accents sounded muffled and jumbled to my ears. There were more ‘th’ sounds floating around than I could have ever imagined (my book had told me to expect it but experiencing it for myself was another story). There was more activity in one single airport than I had seen in my life. To be honest, it was my first time ever in a metro station so that was primarily why I was having so much trouble in the first place!

I could’ve picked an easier one to start off with but I found myself sleepy, dazed and confused and embarrassed, and in the middle of the station in Madrid’s busy Barajas airport. I didn’t know how to buy a metro ticket so that I could go catch my train to Sevilla in the well-known Atocha-Renfe train station. I tried three times: once by changing the machine into English, once by having someone explain it to me in Spanish, and the last time by watching someone else do it. The Spanish person’s explanation whizzed right through one ear and went out the other. It was so hard to focus and their accent was so strange to me that I didn’t have a clue as to what to do.

I did, however, make it to the train station after watching someone buy their ticket so I eventually got on my way. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I wanted to call my mom and ask for help. A few months down the road, though, I realized that the main problem that I had (besides encountering an unfamiliar accent in Spanish right off the bat) was that I didn’t know where you put the coins in to buy the actual ticket. There was no sign or arrow, just a clear circle positioned away from the screen that made a clicking sound and then flashed green. I mean honestly, how was I supposed to notice that right away having never been in that airport before?

Well, a lot has changed since that first interaction with Castillian Spanish and my skills have improved by leaps and bounds. Thanks to having traveled to several different regions around the country and now living in the northwest corner of it, I can easily tell the accents apart. From the fast and sometimes broken andalú to the very proper and clear madrileño accent to the sing-song Galician accent, Spain is once again so diverse even with the way they speak the language. And there are several regions that have their own language (such as: gallego, catalan, valenciano, asturiano, euskadi, and more) and that also has a rather large influence on their spoken Spanish.

I actually do understand and love the Castillian Spanish accent but the reason why I put this item on my list is that there was one point in my life when I did not like it. I was even tired of it. Let me explain.

Then (2010): I arrived in January and was going to spend a whole semester in the beautiful city of Sevilla. I had read and researched many things about the city and the historic landmarks but no book or pre-departure travel packet could have ever prepared me for the way the people spoke there. It was a miracle that I could understand my host mom so well (mainly because she spoke relatively clear Spanish after having hosted so many girls like me before) but the rest of the people and their accents took some time to get used to. I had a couple professors that semester who had the thickest of accents and wouldn’t slow down for anyone. Granted these classes were 300 and 400 regular level courses taught in Spanish (History of the European Union, Sociology and Women in Literature respectively) but the people who were taking these classes were foreigners and not native-born Spaniards. The only reason I could come up with was that they wanted to give us the most authentic experience as possible. And they sure did!

Towards the end of the semester, however, I had a few final papers to turn in. I also had to give whole 10-15 minute presentations in Spanish in front of the class. I knew that my classmates could understand me for the most part but I was most concerned about the professors. I guess I wanted to also earn some brownie points because I remember that I gave one presentation speaking in sort of an andalú accent (or the best that I could do) pronouncing all the z’s and c’s with the ‘th’ sound. I quit that accent halfway through the presentation (with the thought that I sounded ridiculous) and returned to my more prepared Latin American sounding accent. I thought, okay, I tried to speak Castillian Spanish but it didn’t work for me. I felt out of place when I spoke it. It didn’t fit. But hey, at least I tried to speak it, right?

Now (2015): Well, cut to the end of my semester and when I had to say ‘see you later’ to all of the local sevillanos that I made friends with. It wasn’t until the last few weeks when I was in Sevilla that I realized that the accent had gotten under my skin and I actually liked it. I think what I loved more was the people who spoke it and shared their time and their stories with me rather than the accent itself. And once I left, my friends and I began using Skype, sending postcards and writing letters and communicating every chance we got. I felt that in order for them to understand me when we spoke in Spanish was to speak it how they did. My practice and knowledge of the language didn’t end when I stepped off the plane in Ohio and greeted my family. It just took a new form and continued across the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

And while I love the clearer sounding and sometimes musical Spanish up here in the North, nothing sounds sweeter to my ears than the andalú accent. I know that it can annoy me at times but it’s the kind of annoying thing that you find adorable…I’m not sure how to explain it. What I can explain is that I may not ever speak Spanish the same. It’s not like I can’t understand Latin Americans and their accents -which I know very well too-. It’s just that that’s no longer the accent that I prefer.

When you have experiences on a very deep, emotional, and sometimes spiritual level in a language, those experiences change you and firmly bond you to that language. It’s no longer something that you read in a book or hear in a class. When you live here, the language becomes alive to you because it’s all around you, at every glance, on every street sign. And once you start meeting local people, you begin to incorporate the language into your life. You share stories. You share dreams and fears. You sometimes share tears and frustrations. That is what Castillian Spanish has become for me. I no longer see the language as something separate from my life. It is my whole life in a way and I see it through different eyes now. Next month or next year, I’ll see it in a slightly different way. One thing is for sure, though, this accent will always be dear to my heart and that’s because of the people I know who speak it. You know who you are and I want to thank you for changing my mind about your beautiful accent.

Well, now that I’ve gotten all this down on paper, I realize that I could write more on this topic and I will!

Are you currently an ex-pat who is living here in Spain? Have you lived here in the past? What things do you not understand about the people or the culture here? Tell me about your observations in the comments below!

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