Living abroad, living in Spain: Dealing with culture lag

Dancing in the Fountain: Culture lag between two homes

Comments1 comment

American author Karen McCann talks about mentally unpacking her bags to deal with the culture lag she feels when travelling between her two homes in Spain and the US.

Living abroad, the first thing you give up is the ability to go on automatic pilot. Even the simplest daily activities, such as buying basic household tools, require ingenuity and fortitude.

One day, when we were first in Seville, Rich wanted to make a small repair in our apartment. After a quick trip to the dictionary, we set out for the hardware store muttering, "Destornillador, destornillador, destornillador," (screwdriver, screwdriver, screwdriver) to ourselves. Unfortunately, when we arrived, my mind went blank and Rich blurted out a similar word, ordenador (computer), causing such mutual confusion that we were forced to abandon the attempt and flee the scene without buying either a screwdriver or a computer. At the time, we were pretty annoyed with ourselves. We felt distinctly foolish, frustrated that a simple errand was thwarted by lack of basic vocabulary and too embarrassed to go back to that particular hardware store anytime soon. But we also got a lot out of the incident: a good laugh, a story we've been telling for years, and – once we ran home and double-checked the dictionary – the word destornillador forever etched in our memories.

Unlike those of our friends whose retirement goal is a life of untrammelled ease, I like facing up to the challenges of life in a new country. It adds a lot of zest to the daily round. When a simple visit to the hardware store becomes a test of skill and wit, I know that even if I walk away without a screwdriver, at least I am acquiring the tools I need to keep my brain – and my sense of humour – ever more finely honed.

"There are good days, and there are bad days, and this is one of them," Lawrence Welk is said to have remarked, and that is the essence of expat life. Travelling back and forth between two countries twice a year, I have lots of Lawrence Welk days. Not only do I cross nine time zones each way, I step off the plane into very different versions of reality. Returning to my native land after just four months of living in a foreign country is surprisingly disorienting. While it's easy to slip back into my mother tongue, it's tougher to let go of my Sevillano lifestyle and pick up all the threads of my American life.

I always discover a bewildering array of unexpected changes in the social, political, economic, and cultural scene – to say nothing of whatever family dramas are going on. Even things that have stayed more or less the same seem different when I see them with the fresh eyes of a new arrival. What's taken for granted – what defines words like 'normal' and 'home' – changes so abruptly, I get culture lag.

Whenever we head back to America, Rich and I usually wind up our ‘reentry' with a trip to the grocery store for supplies. That's where the culture lag really hits me: right in the cereal aisle. I'm used to Seville's 'supermarkets', which offer maybe a dozen cold cereals, eight of them chocolate, which considerably streamlines the decision-making process. If I want something as outlandish as oatmeal, I have to go to a health food or department store. But when I arrive in a California supermarket, I'm confronted with an aisle as long as a cathedral's displaying hundreds of kinds of cold cereal and a dozen types of oatmeal alone: instant, quick, old-fashioned, organic, steelcut, rolled, Scottish, Irish, spice-maple, apple-cinnamon, boxed, bagged... At about this point the room begins to swoop and spin around me, and I grab the simplest thing I can find and flee.

Living abroad, living in Spain: Dealing with culture lag

Not to mention the differences in mealtimes. The Sevillano dines leisurely at two, and many business people and blue-collar workers alike enjoy a hot three-course meal with beer or wine. When in Seville, Rich and I often have a half pint of beer with lunch; we're not driving, operating heavy equipment, or doing anything more hazardous than walking home through busy streets to take a siesta.

In California, however, we quickly dropped the habit, since we became rather self-conscious about people staring at us throughout the meal, clearly trying to figure out whether they should give us a card for the local chapter of AA or contact our families about organising an intervention. When we go out in the evenings, I have to remind myself not to gasp over the prices. I'm staggered to see wine at fourteen dollars a glass when I'm used to paying eight for a bottle at a good restaurant. With Seville's recession-conscious bars reducing the cost of small bottles of beer to about a dollar apiece, I sometimes forget myself enough to blurt out, upon reading a California menu, "Five-fifty for a beer?" Only to have our friends reply, "Yes, aren't the prices here great?"

Of course, one of the biggest differences in the two cultures is the attitude toward siestas. While they are still standard in Seville, with nearly all shops and businesses closing from two to five every afternoon, in the US sleeping after lunch is regarded as a sign of eccentricity and/or weakness. Americans often refer to our siestas as 'naps', as if we were four, or ninety, or just hopeless slackers.

When we're in California we make every effort to keep taking siestas, but the culture conspires against us: maintenance workers arrive at one and settle in for hours, delivery people keep ringing the doorbell, appointments have to be scheduled in the early afternoon to accommodate the doctor's availability, and so on. And there's not much point in taking a late siesta after all these interruptions cease, because by five o'clock, it's nearly dinnertime. And we're not talking about grabbing the early-bird special at a greasy spoon, but meeting friends at an upmarket restaurant, where it's normal to book a table for five thirty.

Living abroad, living in Spain: Dealing with culture lag

We often go out for a night on the town and arrive back home by eight thirty, enabling our American friends, who have been up working hard since five in the morning, to get to bed at a "reasonable" hour. Fresh from Seville, where we go out for the evening at nine, Rich and I find the idea of such an early bedtime disorienting. Apparently we are alone in this, because if we're out 'late' – say, coming back from a movie in the next town at nine thirty – we find San Anselmo's main street dark, with the few restaurants that are still open ushering out the last customers and turning off the lights. Is it any wonder I suffer from culture lag?

Rich moves back and forth between our two lives with the ease of a man strolling from one room to another in his own house. I find the transitions much more difficult. Spending the majority of my time in Seville, I get deeply attached to my circle of friends and the rhythm of my life there. Arriving in California, I often feel unsettled and off balance, as if the sturdy floor beneath my feet is shifting like a ship's deck in a high sea. Some of the very cornerstones of the American lifestyle seemed alien to me, and none more so than driving.

Back in San Anselmo I often felt distinctly alienated from my home culture. There was too much driving, too few siestas, too many people rushing around at dawn trying to squeeze in more time for work. It made my nerves jangle. I missed the easy spontaneity of friends ringing my doorbell to invite me out for coffee, leisurely evenings in a tapas bar, or wandering around some obscure Andalucían town. I missed lunches that lasted five hours and breakfasts with old men lingering over their sweet wine in the corner. Finally, during my third summer in San Anselmo, it occurred to me that I was fixated on viewing California not as it was, but through the lens of my life in Spain. While the rest of me was arriving in San Anselmo, I'd left my head and heart back in Seville. I was not mentally unpacking my bags.

Today, I am relearning the lost art of being engaged in California culture. When I'm there, I drive more, siesta less and try not to complain about the restaurants in San Anselmo closing their kitchens at eight-thirty. I realise that even friends who live an hour away and require two weeks advance notice for lunch are part of my social circle, the network of people who give my life substance, make me laugh and let me know that I am loved. My reentries in both directions are much smoother now, although I don't know if I'll ever achieve Rich's sublime insouciance about them.

Living abroad, living in Spain: Culture lag

I make sure I have sufficient projects, such as writing my book, working on my blog, and painting, to keep me happily occupied wherever I am. And I make sure that every stay in California includes plenty of time with the people I care about, even if it means hours of solo driving on the freeways.

Our time in California starts with a round of welcome-home gatherings, and before I know it, we're meeting for farewell dinners on the eve of another departure for Seville. It is really hard to say so many goodbyes, especially to those who are so old or ill that I fear I may not see them again. Emails and phone calls, even with Skype video, simply aren't the same as being there, although they help me keep tabs on the news and gossip so I will be up to speed when I see my stateside friends and family again in four months. Or sooner. One of the great things about living in a destination city like Seville is that people make every effort to come to you. 


Karen McCann / Expatica

Karen McCannKaren McCann moved to Seville in 2004 and writes about her expat experiences in her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. "I loved this book,” wrote Lonely Planet. “I must have laughed aloud at least once in every chapter . . . The advice in the book is terrific." Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and traveling the world.



Photo credit: Karen McCaan (photo 1, 5, 6), D.H. Parks (photo 2, 3), Tom Raftery (photo 4), Lauren Mitchell (photo 7), jetheriot (hot).

Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.

If you believe any of the information on this page is incorrect or out-of-date, please let us know. Expatica makes every effort to ensure its articles are as comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date as possible, but we're also grateful for any help! (If you want to contact Expatica for any other reason, please follow the instructions on this website's contact page.)

Captcha Note: Characters are case sensitive
The details you provide on this page will not be used to send any unsolicited e-mail, and will not be sold to a third party. Privacy policy .

1 Comment To This Article

  • S.Hayworth posted:

    on 16th July 2013, 13:34:14 - Reply

    I'm not American but did live there for many years. I could never live the anglo life again, life's too short. I'm off to the bar for a Pescador and some gambas, 2€, ole!