Living in Spain

Travelin' with the TMax: 10 things to get used to in Spain

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Tim Maxwell writes about the unique differences found in Spain, as experienced by an American integrating into the Spanish lifestyle.

I've only been living in Spain for a little while, but I have still found new things in my environment to which I've had to assimilate. It's been a great experience and I am learning so much. There are some things that I was expecting, from living in Germany and Belgium, which are specific to Europe, but there are also a bunch of new things that I have only ever encountered in Spain, specifically, the Navarra region. Here are 10 things that I had to get used to after I moved here.

1. Five meals a day, all with names

I like to eat just as much as the next American, but we only have names for three meals, and the rest are just snacks. The interesting part is not that the Spanish eat five meals a day, but that each meal has a name.

8:00am – desayuno (breakfast): magdalenas and coffee, tostada con tomate, cereal, or yogurt and fruit.
11:00am – almuerzo: a snack of a small sandwich or some fruit.
2:00pm – comida (lunch): typically a large meal, and of course, followed by a siesta.
6:00pm – merienda: an afternoon snack similar to almuerzo, possibly some tapas.
9:00pm – cena (dinnertime): a large meal (same or smaller than comida) before relaxing and then going to bed.

2. Punctuality (or lack thereof)

Any meeting or planned time for an event needs to have a 35-minute buffer at either end. It won't start on time and it certainly won't end on time. Of course, in the professional world this is different, but in the social world, don't expect punctuality. There is a very tranquilo attitude about timing, which doesn't seem to bother anyone. The only thing I've seen end on time is the closing of our local pool – at exactly 9pm, they turn off the jacuzzis and kick us out.

You can tell when Spanish people are late because they run – and everyone is running. Now I know why the Spanish are so thin. Corre (run/hurry) is one of the most common words I hear.

3. Kids in bars

When a 10-year-old was telling me about the time he ate his merienda (the afternoon snack) at a bar, I had to stop him to make sure  I understood him correctly. You have to be 21 in the US, and 16ish in Belgium, to get into a bar. In Spain a bar, or cerverceria, is not just a place to meet and drink with your buddies, but also where the family can go to get some food and sit down to eat.

 4. Interesting food

I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderfully interesting, and mostly delicious food of Spain. Most of the ingredients are not new, but the preparation and combinations are what make the food new and exciting. Also, in the US we don't just have an octopus sitting on the counter waiting to be eaten. I talk more in depth about the most interesting Spanish food I've tried.

5. The language(s) 

When you learn a new language, you notice all the weird translations of sayings in your own language and the rules and the exceptions. Castellano has been no different. Read here, where I go into more detail about the particulars of the language. But living in Navarra, I get a bonus on languages, as Euskara, the langue of Basque country, is also spoken here and you can see it on the signs. I feel like I'm in Brussels all over again with the dual languages on every street sign.

6. Talking to friends

Maybe because it's a close community and everyone knows everyone – we can't go anywhere without seeing someone we know and stopping to talk to them for at least a few minutes. Imagine bumping into three different sets of friends when you have an appointment in 10 minutes. But it's ok, because being late is not a problem (see #2 above).

7. Crosswalk timers

I guess the Pamplonians need 90 seconds to cross the super (un)busy two-lane roads in town. The good thing is, the time remaining for passage or waiting is displayed for everyone to see. So, when I pull up at a light and I see the pedestrians have 70 seconds to pass, I know I have time to catch up on writing my memoirs.

8. Jug handles

No, I'm not referring to the ones that you use to hold a pitcher of sangria, but those you encounter while driving. To make a left turn, instead of just turning left, you have to turn right onto a special road that allows you to cross back over and turn left. It is super irritating, especially since there isn't much traffic here. I have not seen this anywhere else in Europe. The jug handles make me feel like I'm in New Jersey, where it is equally irritating. 

9. Different popular sports

I've lived in Europe awhile, so I am used to futból (soccer) being the number one sport. However, handball is really huge here in Navarra, in addition to other sports that I've never seen or heard of. Padel is like tennis in a smaller arena and it's always two-on-two. Fronton is the name of a type of court, and the all-compassing name for a variety of styles of a racquetball-like sport and with more players. Pelota is the most popular form in this area. Bull fighting is also a popular sport in Spain, though Barcelona has recently outlawed it.

10. Commercials

On the channels that we watch, every commercial is either for cold medicine or perfume. There are often five to seven perfume commercials in a row! I'm not sure if the Spanish are worried about smelling bad, or if they are so clogged up that they can't smell and need really strong perfume and/or nasal decongestant to smell each other. I miss the locally (and often cheekily) made commercials in parts of the US.

Bonus: Slowness in restaurants

In the rest of Europe, the wait staff are fairly slow compared to the US., but in Spain, they are muy slow. Of course, not everywhere is super slow, but I have now experienced the longest wait of my life in a Spanish restaurant. And I'm used to the slowness, but this particular slowness was after the waitress was flagged down and confirmed that she was bringing the bill, only to have her tell us 15 minutes later that we had to pay downstairs.

What do you think?

This list is based on my experiences and I'm curious to know if you agree of disagree. For the non-Spanish who have visited Spain and/or Navarra, what are your experiences? For the Spanish, how do you feel about these observations, or the alternatives, from other cultures?

 with permission from Travelin' with the TMax

Travelin' with the TMax Tim Maxwell, aka the TMax, is an avid traveler and new-experience seeker. He has no idea where he is going, but he enjoys the journey as it unfolds. His interests include learning languages, health, sports, and meeting new people. Join him on his adventures at Travelin' with the TMax. He's also on Twitter.
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2 Comments To This Article

  • TMax posted:

    on 25th September 2017, 21:40:41 - Reply

    Sam, that is quite insightful, and I think I just learned something! Thanks!

    Though I agree with you, many Americans no longer use the term "supper", they definitely don't use "tea", and for us lunch and dinner are equally gigantic meals. Haha.
  • Sam posted:

    on 27th May 2015, 13:19:13 - Reply

    Interesting post Tmax. I've thought about the meals too. I translate them differently, though, to help conceptualize them more accurately in our frame of reference:

    8:00am desayuno (breakfast--definitely, "breaking the fast")
    11:00am  almuerzo: a snack of a small sandwich or some fruit. (this is lunch--"a light meal to tide you over till dinner.)
    2:00pm comida (dinner--the main meal of the day, regardless of the time at which it is taken): typically a large meal, and of course, followed by a siesta.
    6:00pm  merienda: an afternoon snack similar to almuerzo (I would call this "tea", borrowing from the English.
    9:00pm  cena (supper--a lighter evening meal): a large meal (same or smaller than comida) before relaxing and then going to bed.

    You can actually see corroboration of this nomenclature in catalan: comida = "dinar" and cena = "sopar" in that language.

    What do you think? all the best...