I have lived in Madrid, Salamanca, Zamora and now Valladolid. I came here in my early 20s on a whim to learn Spanish and to try to conquer some personal fears, namely, like being in a new place surrounded by people I didn’t know. With a single backpack and zero knowledge of Spanish, I raced along trying to get ahead of the learning curve. Eight years later, I am still afraid of everything, but now I feel brave, like I have the tools to deal with any situation. And I’ve learned that you can’t control curiosity and that’s not a bad thing.
After much back and forth, I’ve compiled an essential list of things that you should know before leaving to live like a local in Spain. Some of the below are Spanish-specific, like their quizzical nature; and, some are universal like respecting those differences which you can’t explain.
1. Spaniards stroll about at the same time of day for indeterminate amounts of time with absolutely no destination in mind. My parents came to visit me once in Zamora. On Saturdays and Sundays at 7 o’clock the streets were flooded with people. My dad asked where everyone was going as the stores were closed. “This is their thing. They might walk to the park or down to the cathedral and back stopping every 50 feet to chat with friends”, I told him. Its meant to aid in digestion after the long sobremesa. What you should do: Avoid this high-traffic time at all costs!
2. You’ll have to take a stance on bullfighting. And since we don’t live in an Ernest Hemingway novel, you are probably already against it. Or at least you will be after you go to a bullfight. It’s brutal and inhumane, and I keep those thoughts to myself when people ask what I think. It has already been banned in Catalunya, but in Castile and Leon, where I live, it is a national pastime. What you should do: It is always a balancing act respecting a cultural tradition while being firmly against it. You can say you understand the history and then go home and donate to the Humane Society.
3. The food and wine is out-of-control good and cheap. The big cities are more expensive, sure. But you can get an excellent pressed cappuccino, butter croissant with ham and cheese and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice for €2.70 (£2, $3) in my town. At the market, try spending more than €20 at a time for a week’s worth of beautiful, seasonal pesticide-free fruit and vegetables. You can’t. And you can drink world-class wine for €3 per glass. What you should do: I think this one is obvious. Get your hands on as much cured ham, lechazo, and revuelto de boletus as possible and invite a friend to share a bottle.
4. People will be talking about you all the time. The Spanish are a super-curious bunch. As soon as you get established in a new apartment, your neighbors will know who you are in no time. That circle will get bigger the smaller the town is in which you live. In villages, someone you have never seen before will approach you and ask you how the [insert event] was the other day even though you are sure you have never seen them before in your life. Even if they don’t engage you in conversation, believe me, they know you and that’s why they are whispering and looking your way. What you should do: Get out there and socialize! Your jarring friendliness will be received as arrogance or superficiality, but don’t take it personally. And, once you’re in, you’re in for life, so keep plugging away at it.
5. They have one of the most efficient metro systems in the world, but you can only pay certain bills on certain days of the week at certain hours. The European Union funded Spanish freeways and modernized the infrastructure, but other parts of Spanish society are still very old-school. In the case of paying bills, most only accept payment at the bank (at specific banks, by the way) on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Also, your residency is assigned according to the province or municipality where you live. You have to register with the local city hall when you move to a new province or potentially be fined. What you should do: Register yourself at the local city hall and sign up for automatic bill pay, obviously. Do people still go to their local branch?!
6. Corruption is alive and well. And people are angry about it. You can’t believe how brash the corruptors are, from the rampant creation of slush funds to stealing from public accounts. There’s no bribing of the civil guard when they go to give you a speeding ticket, but you do get a sense of the system when you walk into any government building to do business and over half the staff is out having a leisurely coffee hour, or shopping, or what are they doing? There is plenty of corruption in America and other parts of the world, but there the perpetrators generally go cowering into the shadows when they are discovered. Generally, but certainly not always. What you should do: Expect to wait when it comes to bureaucracy. On the plus side, most civil servants are helpful, despite the bad press.
7. Spaniards will party until late and will still able to get to work. I’ve always managed to surround myself here with people who have a strong work ethic even if it takes time to separate the wheat from the chaff. The younger generations coming up now are smarter and better prepared than ever before and in the cities long lunches are frowned upon or are being eliminated altogether. It is true that Spanish productivity is lower than other European nations, but that could be improved with a more flexible labour market…and less partying until late. What you should do: Recognize that a lot of deals get done over long meals and cocktail hours, which are essential in Spanish business. But don’t be fooled, you might not be used to this rhythm and you can wiggle out early if need be.
8. If you are cold they’ll say you have the flu, if you are hungry they’ll say you are malnourished and if you don’t clutch your bag tight, it will surely get knicked right out from under your nose, they’ll say. The Spanish are classic fatalists. Someone’s future somewhere may have a silver lining, but it is not anyone they know. This attitude of impending doom haunts them in little ways like learning a foreign language (They claim to be terrible linguists, when they speak fluently), or bigger things like foreign diplomacy (Rajoy vs. Merkel). Most of Spain suffered greatly during the Spanish Civl War and beyond. The modern-day worries are rooted in grave moments in their history. What you should do: If someone suggests you have the flu, go ahead and eat that delicious homemade chicken soup they just brought over.
9. You will say “see you later” to everyone and “enjoy” to complete strangers in restaurants. In Spain you will quickly learn to say “hasta luego” to everyone from the bank teller (see #5) to your fishmonger. It’ll start to sound more like “atalogo” the thousandth and one time you say it. If you embellish the parting phrase with a good dose of “vale” (okay) and “venga” (that’s great), they’ll mistake you for a local for sure. And nothing beats the lunch-hour camaraderie like walking into a dining room, smiling, and saying, “qué aproveche” as you walk by each table. I can’t imagine walking into a restaurant in San Francisco and announcing, “May your meal be delightful!” But again, that’s Spain. What you should do: Learn those two phrases and embrace them immediately.
10. Spain will be in your heart long after you leave it. In fact, I’ve tried to leave it at least twice and I keep getting pulled back. The most remarkable thing is the way that family plays such a central role in society. The aunts and uncles of my significant other will always call to ask me how I am feeling if they get word I am ill, and his immediate family will text me to congratulate me on a successful exam. The whole family is incredibly respectful, and ultimately, very curious about where I am from and what I am about. The economic crisis in Spain has been an upheaval, but thankfully Spain still has its greatest resource: its people,…and all those delicious little tapas from around the country. What you should do: Take a trip to this country of contrasts, if you can. Visit regions as disparate as Galicia and Andalucía and Castile and Leon and the Basque Country to really get a sense of it. And, “Buen provecho!”