Spain is different
Packing up and moving yourself to another country can be an exciting, rewarding experience. It can also be overwhelming and challenging to adjust to life in a country completely different from your own, as the good folks at Pack to Spain are well aware of. There are so many cultural differences to get used to. Some are expected, while others are a complete surprise.
Katie and I, the founders of goprofe.com, are both expats living in Spain. She’s from Kentucky and I’m from Minnesota, in the frigid north of the US. We’ve had our share of confusing Spanish experiences. Some cultural differences are well-known, such as the famous Spanish siesta. I knew, before my big move, that I’d be dealing with a different daily schedule. But there were many aspects that were a shock to me, as well as to my fellow expats, particularly those from northern countries.
The obvious differences
Even someone who claims not to speak a lick of Spanish probably knows the three most essential words: hola, fiesta, and siesta. In other words, everyone knows that Spain is famous for its afternoon break. However, it’s still strange as a foreigner to see the entire country basically come to a standstill from two to five o’clock every afternoon. It definitely makes you plan your day differently: instead of rushing to get all the errands done before the shops close at five (yes, they close for the day at five pm in many countries — a fact that is difficult for many Spaniards I know to wrap their heads around), you have the prospect of a long, leisurely evening in which to do your shopping.
The siesta translates into a long lunch break at work. I was used to having only 25 minutes for lunch during most of my adult life. The first time I had two hours off, I didn’t know what to do with myself! Of course, this means that the work day can often last long into the evening, with many people frequently staying in the office until an hour which seemed, at least to my sensibility, extremely late.
The Slower Pace of Life
Another change many foreigners are prepared for is the slower pace of life. One the one hand, this is why so many of us come here! We are tired of the frenetic rush of our daily lives in our home country, and we go looking for a way to break out of the competitive rat race. Spain offers a way of living in which going out with friends for a beer is not a privilege, it’s a fundamental human right. Spain’s typical four weeks of annual vacation seemed incredibly excessive to me when I first arrived, as I was used to one or two weeks per year, at most. Now I understand the value of disconnecting completely for such many days in a row. It gives you a sense of peace and relaxation that you can’t get from just a couple days off here and there.
And, of course, Spain is famous , at least in cold, northern climes, for its fabulous weather! When I first moved here, a friend set his phone to display Madrid’s weather alongside that of Minneapolis, where he was still living. One day, a few weeks after I arrived, he asked me glumly, “Is it actually sunny and cloudless every day there, or is my phone broken?” Nope, it’s truly that nice here. This is one difference that many foreigners have an exceptionally easy time adjusting to!
But there are many differences that are not so obvious at first, and you find yourself in situations you could never have expected before leaving your home country. Expats I know here in Spain have grappled with things like these:
The not-so-obvious differences
The Meal Times
I heard someone comment that when you first come to Spain, it only takes a few days to get over the jetlag, but it takes at least a month to get over the food jetlag! By that, the speaker was referring to the fact that Spanish mealtimes are very different than in many other countries. At home, I had lunch generally around noon and dinner around six o’clock. That left plenty of time for seeing friends, going to book clubs, playing sports, or whatever else I wanted to do after dinner.
Here, lunchtime is generally between two and three o’clock in the afternoon — a long time to wait if your stomach is already rumbling before twelve! Dinner is often at the very end of the day, around ten or eleven o’clock at night. This is outrageously late to many of us expats. But then again, our eating habits are probably equally hard for Spaniards abroad to adjust to!
Eating In Courses
The general philosophy of American eating seems to be: the more flavors mixed together, the better. That’s how we eat Thanksgiving dinner, for example. There’s nothing like turkey with cranberry sauce and gravy all together, maybe with some green beans on top.
So it was strange for me, as it was for other expats of my acquaintance, to find that here, eating meals in courses is a common occurrence. I associated meals in courses with only the very fanciest restaurants. But in Spain, a typical lunch consists of a first course, second course, and dessert, served in order. This is a great change for many of us expats. The structure forces you to relax and enjoy what you’re eating. And you get to feel luxurious even on the most ordinary days!
Ahora =/= Now
As I said, most expats to Spain eagerly anticipate the slower pace of life. What they might not expect is the idea that the same words can actually have a different meaning because of this mentality shift. For example, the word “now.” In Spanish, the word is “ahora.” It seems reasonable to expect that the word is used the same way in Spanish as it is in English. After all, now is now, right? This very instant?
Not so. In Spanish, the concept of “now” can mean anything from “right this minute” to “fifteen minutes from now,” and, in fact, generally is closer to the latter meaning. I remember being at a friend’s house, waiting for him to get ready to go out, and I kept saying, “Are you ready to go yet?” to which he would respond, “Ahora.” So there I was, sitting on the couch in my coat, literally ready to walk out the door. I sat there… and sat there… and sat there. Because when he said, “Ahora,” he meant, “In a few minutes.” In other words, not right now!
On the flip side, this friend, as well as other Spaniards, thought our Northern conception of time was too precise and uptight. People here are always telling me to relax. And perhaps they’re right: is it really necessary to stress about walking out the door right now? What’s the harm in getting ready in a leisurely fashion?
Don’t worry, get help
Moving to another country can be really daunting. Cultural differences aside, there are tons of details to work out all at once, things like finding a place to live and getting a cell phone. These tasks can be nearly impossible if you don’t speak the local language well. That’s why it’s a relief to have help from someone like Alejandro at Pack to Spain. He and his company will help you get settled with everything you need for your new life — before you’ve even left your old one! Pack to Spain has packs for whatever level of support you need, from Basic to Like a Sir. Pack to Spain can’t make the cultural adjustment any easier, but it can take care of everything else!
EDIT: 08 February 2017: Here are some more differences, very funny.
Looking for an English teacher? Or are you an English teacher who is looking for Private classes? goprofe.com is the place where English students and teachers connect directly for private in-person classes in Spain.