During my spring semester in Sevilla, I noticed several cultural differences between the U.S. and Spain!
Besos are the standard greeting – In the United States, personal space is very valued. When meeting someone for the first time, you most often shake the person’s hand out of respect. However, in Spain, whether it is your host family, your employer and even professor, “besos” (a kiss given on each cheek) is the standard. It was uncomfortable at first because I did not know the recipients well, but eventually it became second nature. I’d usually just let my cheeks touch the other person rather than kissing them.
Food and Meal times – Meal times are later in Spain that the United States. Lunch is usually at 2:00 p.m. and dinner is at 9:00 p.m. Though there are many staples such as rice, each country’s cuisine is different. For instance, a “tortilla” in Spain is an egg and potato omelet eaten at dinner; very different than the Texas staple that you eat with tacos and burritos. Also, you have bread every single meal, much to the delight of an avid bread lover like myself!
Siesta is your best friend – Siesta is a break in the middle of the day where the city basically shuts down because locals go home, take a nap, or just relax in the middle of the day. Most stores such as banks, restaurants, clothing stores, will close. It was great to have time specifically carved out for naps, something most college students do on a regular basis.
Transportation is ridiculously convenient – I was very nervous about having to use public transportation abroad. I had never taken the bus or subway by myself, never walked to school or the grocery store, or even rode my bicycle off campus. Having to navigate European cities seemed challenging as a result of not having someone to give me a ride; however, I quickly learned that getting around is incredibly easy. The public transportation is very reliable and now I have a new level of independence that I’ve never experienced!
Shopping – Shopping in Spain is not significantly different than in the United States except for size conversions and the language barrier. One of the very pleasant surprises I found was “rebajas” or end of season sales. The government mandates that stores sell their items at discounted prices in order to make room for the next season’s products. Exercise restraint though because shipping things back to the States gets expensive!
Semana Santa (Holy Week) – Many Christians in the United States celebrate Holy Week by attending a church service or several during the week. In Spain, especially Sevilla, Semana Santa is a week-long gathering of street processions by Catholic “brotherhoods”. The participants (“Nazarenos”) wear long cloaks and cone hoods. Though commonly mistaken for the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazarenos wore this apparel first and are unrelated. The significance is that they are covered because they are mourning and repenting their sins. Additional participants carry an extremely heavy statue depicting Jesus or his mother Mary from their Church to the Catedral in Sevilla, then back to their church. It is seen as a high honor to carry these massive structures. Seeing the entry processions is really moving, as you experience the somber of Holy Week with thousands.
Streets – In the United States, it is considered polite to look and smile as you walk past someone to acknowledge their presence. In Spain, looking and smiling at someone as you walk past them is not only uncommon but can also mean you are attracted to that person. There are So. Many. Dogs. I was very tempted to ask the owners if I could pet them, but when you stare in admiration at the dogs, many times the owner will look at me strangely so I never asked. I believe the Spaniards feel very particular about their pets. Also, smoking in Spain is very common and socially acceptable rather than in the States where it is generally discouraged.
Dress to impress – Spanish residents are very fashion forward. Even on an average “casual” day, as I walked to class, it seemed like everyone was walking on a runway with perfectly matched and put-together outfits. T-shirts and Nike shorts to class are a definite no as you would truly stand out as an American.
Restaurant dining is slow – Meals are seen as a time to socialize in Spain. Customers are not rushed like they would be in the United States. There is not an incentive for you to finish your meal quickly so the waiter can “flip” the table to the next customer. As a result, you often have to get your waiter’s attention when you are ready to order and need the check. “Tapas”, which are bite-sized appetizers may come complimentary when you order something to drink. Sadly, there is no such thing as free refills and you often have to pay for water.
Conserving Energy – Spaniards really try to conserve energy because it can be quite expensive. When staying in a host family home, you are expected to be more conservative with electricity. Many homes do not have dryers, but rather hang clothes on a line. Don’t leave the light on in a room you are not in. It is also considered slightly rude to take long showers that use lots of hot water.