An Expat’s View of the Spanish Culture

When I first applied to the Language and Culture Assistant program, I thought I knew all about the Spanish culture because I studied Spanish in school and read a few books that took place in Spain. I didn’t prepare much for a culture shock because I wasn’t expecting much of one. How different could such a similar country be? I learned the hard way about how different life is in Spain from what I expected it to be. What should you expect if you’re preparing to make the big move for the first time?

The Language and Accent

If you want to learn about the Spanish culture, learn the ins and outs of the language.
If you want to learn about the Spanish culture, learn the ins and outs of the language.

There is a unique accent in Spain; even more so in Andalucía. The Andalucían accent is more “Andaluz” in some places than others. Be ready to discover you don’t understand Spanish as well as you thought you did!

In my small town of Olvera, they speak “Andaluz” with such an accent that it almost isn’t Spanish anymore. For example, you will get strange looks if you say, “Hasta luego!” Cut the first part off and just say, “‘Ta luego!” and you will fit right in.

When thanking someone, be sure to change the “c” sound in “gracias” to a “th” – this goes for all “c’s” and “z’s” (while you may be reading Andaluz as Andalus, it’s really pronounced Andaluth, and gracias is pronounced grathias, or grathia if you really want to speak Andaluz).

Finally, cut out all the “d’s” in the past form of verbs. For example, “he estado” (I have been) becomes “he estao”. If you want to say, “I cooked chicken,” you could say it by the book, “He cocinado pollo,” or you could say it in Andaluz: “He cocinao pollo” (and don’t forget to change that soft c to a th!)

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While I’m still learning all the rules of Andaluz, I hope to one day speak with this accent to label me as an Andaluz expat.

Small Villages are Different from Tourist Cities

Andalucía is famous for its mild temperatures and sunny days. Rumor has it that it’s sunny 360 days a year in the Costa del Sol, only raining for 5 days a year. Because of this reputation, Spanish beaches are very famous for Northern European tourists in summer. I’ve met many English expats here in Spain, and after visiting rainy, cold London, I understand why.

Nothing like a glass of sangria on a sunny beach in Spain
Nothing like a glass of sangria on a sunny beach in Spain

The beach towns are very touristy with higher prices, but just about everyone does speak English and some other languages. In the tourist towns, businesses usually don’t close for the normal siesta hours between 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. so you can shop for gifts and souvenirs at your convenience. You also can eat a meal at almost any time of day, although most likely it will be something fried or an easy ham sandwich with french fries if you try to eat at abnormal times for the Spanish culture. In the restaurants, you can also get a typical American full course meal as opposed to tapas. Tourist Spain won’t give you a culture shock.

In "tourist Spain," you can get big portions of touristy paella any time of day
In “tourist Spain,” you can get big portions of touristy paella any time of day

Siestas

What about non-tourist Spain? I sure got a culture shock. I read about siestas in textbooks in school, but I didn’t realize the Spanish people actually practice them everywhere in Spain. Yes, everything – EVERYTHING – closes down between 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. for a siesta. You may be able to find a restaurant open until 3:00 p.m. for lunch but they will usually only stay open if you make a reservation for a large enough group. Banks, stores, and markets all close, and schools finish by 2:00 or 3:00.

Snuggling with the kitty is a great siesta pasttime
Snuggling with the kitty is a great siesta pastime

There is nothing to do during siesta hours except eat lunch at home, nap, or hang out with friends or neighbors. The Spanish love sitting outside their houses chit-chatting with neighbors. It took me a few weeks to figure out this schedule, but now that I understand it, it isn’t all that bad. It’s like they give us two days in one! Just make sure to get your shopping done before or after siesta during the week: everything except restaurants also close on weekends.

Different Markets

In the U.S., it’s common to go to one local grocery store to grab food for the week. Well, get ready for another change.

Here in Olvera, there are different markets for everything. It also is so fresh that they don’t sell meat or eggs refrigerated – and they don’t need to be. I head out to the local butcher to get my meats, which was a shock the first time. The chickens sometimes still have feathers! You order a chicken breast and they ask if you want it filleted. If yes, the butcher, who is more often than not a woman, opens up the chicken that was probably alive earlier that morning. Going to the butcher is not for the faint of heart in Spanish culture.

Our meal consisted of going to a bread shop for bread, a vegetable shop for asparagus, a butcher for chicken, and a general store for rice, wine, salt, olive oil, and vinegar.
Our meal consisted of going to a bread shop for bread, a vegetable shop for asparagus, a butcher for chicken, and a general store for rice, wine, salt, olive oil, and vinegar.

We were nervous to eat the room temperature eggs at first, but the Spanish thought it was strange that we do refrigerate our eggs. That really made me wonder how old the eggs are that we buy in the States. No refrigerated eggs or prepackaged meat here, everything is fresh daily. Vegetables are picked right from farms and delivered daily to vegetable shops, which are different from the butcher shops. You may be able to get vegetables where you get your meat, but it’s a safe bet they will be fresher and there will be more options if you go to a vegetable specialty shop, usually nearby to a butcher shop.

The bakery, a tiny downstairs in someone's home, smells so good we can't walk by without stopping in and supporting her baking.
The pastry shop, a tiny downstairs room in someone’s home, smells so good we can’t walk by without stopping in and supporting her baking.

Don’t walk by a Spanish pastry shop if you have a sweet tooth: it will suck you in! If you need food for your pets, try out a pet specialty store. You can buy things like spices, canned goods, non-food like shampoo, etc. at a general store market, the “chinos” (which is what they call the “et-cetera” stores), or you can walk a little farther to a supermarket. The supermarkets are a little bigger, but still not what we would call a supermarket at home.

If you need some jamon iberico, go to a local butcher
If you need some jamón ibérico, go to a local butcher

We have one super-super market in Olvera which is similar to what our supermarkets at home look like, called Mercadona. Not all towns in Spain are lucky enough to have a Mercadona yet. It’s a chain spreading across Spain that has everything from food to paper products to toiletries to cat and dog food. There’s a butcher, fish market, bakery, and even frozen foods here. But why buy frozen when you can buy fresh for cheaper every day? I have never felt so good after a meal as I do in Spain.

The Mercadona's big selection makes James a happy boy
The Mercadona’s big selection makes James a happy boy

Meal Times

I still can’t get my body to eat on Spanish times. The Spanish have a healthier way of eating, but it doesn’t feel normal to my American body.

They eat a small breakfast, for example, a piece of fruit, early in the morning. Then around 10:15 a.m., they have another small breakfast of toast and coffee. They put a variety of toppings on their toast, from pork pâté to olive oil and tomato paste to plain butter. My favorite is the tomato paste! They never have breakfasts like we’re used to in America.

Orange juice and toast breakfast in Cadiz
Orange juice and toast breakfast in Cadiz

Around 12:30 p.m., they have a small meal usually consisting of a ham sandwich. Not deluxe sandwiches like I make, with lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, etc. Just a few slices of Iberian ham on a roll. This keeps them going until their big lunch around 2:00 – 3:00 p.m. Lunch is their biggest meal of the day, then they rest for a few hours before returning to work at 5:00 p.m.

Around 5:00 p.m., all Spanish gather together with friends or family to have a tea or coffee, called a merienda, or snack. Restaurants don’t serve food yet but bars will be open for tea or coffee (or alcohol if desired) and they will usually give patrons a tapa to share with their drinks. I was surprised to hear afternoon tea/coffee was something every Spanish family does!

Tea and coffee for 5:00 merienda at El Frenazo
Tea and coffee for 5:00 merienda at El Frenazo

Restaurants don’t open until 8:00 p.m. at the earliest, and that’s only for drinks. The kitchens don’t open until 9:00 p.m., and you will be the first one there if you go that early. The Spanish don’t come out for dinner until about 9:30 – 10:00 p.m. They don’t eat big dinners and most bars/cafes don’t even serve big meals, only tapas. The Spanish will order one tapa each, maybe a second if they are extra hungry. At 10:00 p.m., you really can’t eat a big meal anyway! After 3 months in Spain, my stomach still refuses to accept this schedule change and I end up cooking food at my normal American times.

There are 3 size plates in Spain: tapa, medio, and racion. A tapa is for one person, a medio is a half plate, and racion is a full portion, usually for splitting by lots of people. This is a racion of solomillo wiskey, which James finished himself.
There are 3 size plates in Spain: tapa, medio, and ración. A tapa is for one person, a medio is a half plate, and ración is a full portion, usually for splitting by lots of people. This is a ración of solomillo whisky, which James finished himself.

Prices

When is it ever more expensive to drink a soda than a beer? In the U.S., never. In Spain, always. Bottled water and soda will rack up your bill faster than beer, wine, or food. Sometimes I just don’t want a beer, but I can’t wrap my mind around paying double for a can of Coke than for a bottle of beer.

In Olvera, beers run anywhere from 1 euro to 1.50 euro, and sodas will be 2.20 to 2.50 euros. Tapas will usually cost 1-3 euros each but like I said above, most Spanish only order 1 tapa each. Also, when ordering a beer, make sure to specify whether you want a caña (small), jarra (large), or doble (double). A caña is normally the size of a bottle of beer.

Beer is 1.30 euro and the soda is 2.20. Yikes! Oh yeah, and they charge for bread at the tourist restaurants (keep in mind prices are higher in the picture below because this was a tourist restaurant in Sevilla - 3 euros for a tapa is a little steep).
Beer is 1.30 euro and the soda is 2.20. Yikes! Oh yeah, and they charge for bread at the tourist restaurants (keep in mind prices are higher in the picture below because this was a tourist restaurant in Sevilla – 3 euros for a tapa is a little steep).

Andalucían Houses

Spain is a very old country, and Andalucía has a lot of Moorish influence. Andalucía is well-known for its tiled walls and floors. The Andaluz tiles are very intricate and beautiful and almost every old house has them.

Beautiful Andalucian tiles
Beautiful Andalucian tiles

Most of the ancient houses are made of stone and tile to keep cool in the hot summers, however this leads to very cold winters. Yes, even in southern Spain, the winters can get cold! Unless the houses have been renovated – which is unlikely – there is no heating system in place from its medieval days. Be prepared to buy a heater, but remember an electric heater will be very expensive. Gas heaters are available and estufas can be placed under tables with thick tablecloths as a typical Spanish method of staying warm at the table.

Tiled floors and concrete walls are great in summer but chilly in winter.
Tiled floors and concrete walls are great in summer but chilly in winter.

Another option is a chimenea, or wood burner. I pay 75 euros for a very large load of cut olive trees to be delivered to my house which lasts me months and I burn them nightly to stay warm. It usually burns out around 3:00 a.m. and I wake up cold, but it’s cheap, cozy, and a nice touch to a cold Spanish house. Rugs, carpet, and insulation are very uncommon in Andaluz houses.

Even Fred needs to stay warm in front of the chimenea on the cold nights
Even Fred needs to stay warm in front of the chimenea on the cold nights

Final Thoughts

While there are many Spanish culture differences and different ways of living in Spain, it’s never too much to handle. We’re built to adapt and learning new ways of life and trying them out is half the fun! When I talk to friends from home and they are doing the same thing they did last year, going to the same places they went last year and the year before and the year before, I wonder how they’re not bored of the same old thing.

It’s important to live in new worlds to understand other people and open your mind. You will be the most interesting person anyone knows and you’ll always have a different story. You will be more cultured than someone who has never left their hometown, and be a better person for it. But be prepared to make drastic lifestyle changes. If it doesn’t scare you away, you will live the dream of a lifetime.

Have you lived abroad and adapted to another culture? A Spanish culture? Tell me about it in the comments below!

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P.S. You might also enjoy The Truth About Quitting Your Job to Travel the World or 11 Things in Spain that Aren’t Common in the U.S.

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