The Culture Guide to Life in Spain as an Expat

It’s the lifestyle man. It’s like no other in the world!” 

 

That’s what makes life in Spain so special. A daily schedule marked by a 3 hour mid-day siesta, rigidly set eating hours, non-existent personal boundaries, quirky traditions and a contagiously strong sense of community; living in this country is as weird as it is wonderful.  If you’re going to move to Spain and want to jump right into the local culture, it’s essential to know how to integrate yourself.

Ready to get españolizado?

1. There are 3 hours a day where you can’t buy anything. Plan shopping accordingly.

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The legends are real. The siesta exists! Between 2 – 5 pm, everything is closed. Whatever errands you need to do during those hours…well, you’re just gonna have to wait. Unless you’re in the touristic center of a bustling city like Madrid and are looking to do some shopping at Zara, you’re sh*t outta luck.

2. Sleeping in the middle of the day is acceptable

Preface: the daytime snoozer is a luxury for working people and parents. The “siesta” nap is mostly done on weekends, holidays or extremely hot summer days. However, if your schedule permits on a weekday, SLEEP! It’s totally socially acceptable to take a grownup nap in the middle of a workday.

3. Store and restaurant hours lie.

Oh, Google says that store is open at 10 am on Friday? Well, if they’re on vacation, their cousins are visiting, or merely don’t want to get out of bed yet…come back another day.

4. Sunday is not a productive day. It’s a day “en plan relax”.

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Wanna be productive on Sunday? HAH! Forget any leftover work you might have and don’t even think about running errands (all the stores are closed…). Sunday is a day designated for relaxing, getting lunch with friends, and/or curing your hangover.

5. If you wanna sound like a native, say “vale” as much as possible.

Vale = OK. Throw it in there at the start and end of every question or statement and you’ll be talkin’ like a native in no time. Once you’re comfortable with that, try throwing in a venga or vamos for extra flavor.

6. “Ahora” does not mean now.

Sure, look it up in your Spanish-English dictionary. Ahora = now, right? WRONG. Spanish “ahora” means any time between now and within the next 5 hours. If your friend tells you “he’s leaving ahora”…well don’t hold your breath for him to arrive. You probably still have time to take a shower, run some errands, go to the gym and do some laundry.

7. Don’t be surprised when you hear an 8-year-old child yell “cunt”.

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If I had a penny for every time I heard one of my students yell “coño!” in class, I’d be able to retire at the age of 30.  You’ll hear all ages using this lovely word through the streets. “Coño” or “cunt” is not considered nearly as offensive as it is in English, nor is it usually directed at anyone. Rather, it’s just another expression… so try not to take it personally.

8. The minute you open your mouth, everyone will want to set up an “intercambio” with you.

An “intercambio” is the Spanish word for a “language exchange”. Native English speakers are like gold in Spain, as pretty much everyone under the age of 30 (and many above) wants to improve their English. That makes you intercambio gold.  Aprovéchalo, it’s a good way to improve your Spanish and make friends!

9. You’ll never lose your accent. Own it proudly and represent!

I’ve been here for three years, have mastered local slang and even use my subjunctive forms here and there. But the minute I open my mouth, they ask me “de donde eres?” Yes, I am American and will never pronounce my “r’s” like you guys do. Rrrrrrepresent!

10. If you smile at an old Spanish person the wrong way, be prepared to hear their life story.

Original photo via Flickr (CC) Mat Wiemann, wiemann.name
Original photo via Flickr (CC) Mat Wiemann, wiemann.name

THINK BEFORE YOU SMILE.

11. Personal space isn’t a thing.

If someone rams into you on the street, don’t expect an apology. Oh, and at a bar your butt might be grinding against someone else’s butt. Get used to it.

12. The extranjería will be the death of you.

Anything having to do with bureaucracy and paperwork in this wonderful country is an absolute nightmare and will take about 5 times as long as it should. Going to the extranjería? May the force be with you. Here’s a useful website to help with all that bureaucratic icky stuff.

13. Know the difference: “tomar unas cañas” is very different than “salir”.

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In English, going out is going out. It could mean until 12 am or 4 am. In Spain, “tomar unas cañas” means to casually get a few beers, “en plan tranquilo“. “Salir” means going out and staying out until the sun rises. And don’t even think about going back before 5 am. Read about Madrid vs. NYC nightlife here.

14. Eating hours are at 2:30 and 9:30 pm. Punto pelota.

Think of the Spanish body like an alarm clock: the lunch alarm goes off at 2:30 and dinner alarm dings at 9:30. You say you’re hungry at 1? HAH! Good luck finding lunch outside of your kitchen.

15. It’s not lunch. It’s “the food”.

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In Spain, the 2:30 PM meal is formerly called “la hora de comer” or more commonly, “la comida”. That’s right…that literally means “the food”. It’s the biggest, most important meal of the day, aka time to GRUB. If you learned in Spanish class that lunch is “almuerzo”, learn again: almuerzo actually refers to the mid-morning 12pm snack!

16. The merienda

Remember when mom always said you have to wait for dessert until after dinner? Well, not in Spain! Around 7 PM, it’s national snacking hour. This is your set time to grab a cafelito and a slice of cake, cookies, ice cream…let your inner kid-in-a-candyshop come out.

17. Coffee is NOT for after dinner. It’s for after lunch.

You order coffee after dinner and you’re immediately labeling yourself as “GUIRI” (foreigner).  In fact, many places even turn off their coffee machine off during dinner hours!

18. And never offend Spanish food in front of a Spanish person.

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You might as well call their mother ugly.

19. Beer is like water. And often, it’s even cheaper.

So, uh, order beer.

20. Waiters will serve you at their convenience

If you want a waiter’s attention, prepare to send smoke signals. Oh, and if they’re outside smoking a cig…well, you’re just gonna have to sit tight until they’re done.

21. Bread is your best friend! Utensils, what?

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A meal without bread is like a day without sunshine.

22. When eating tapas, it’s slow and steady that wins the race

Tapas is not about the eating as much as it’s about the socializing! Read this post on “How to Tapear.”

23. Paciencia, hijo.

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Patience is a virtue you must learn to incorporate into your day-to-day life. From trying to walk down the street but being blocked by a traffic jam of slow moving old ladies linking arms, to attempting to buy fruit at the frutería but the person in front of you gets into a 15-minute conversation with the fruit lady, these scenarios will happen to you on a daily basis. When it does, take a deep breath and remember: you’re on the same time schedule as everyone else. Sin prisa. the tranquilo lifestyle is one of the reasons why you love this country!

24. Cities are very different than villages. Be sure to explore both!

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If you’ve followed me throughout my journey in Spain, you’ll know I’m totally an advocate of small villages. Where Spanish cities are bustling and modern metropolises with people from all over the world, the smaller villages are home to centuries old traditions that are still eminent in their culture today. Spain as a whole is a country of tradition but to get a well-rounded understanding of both sides of local life here in Spain, make a point of visiting both big and small! If you can’t decide where in the country to go, take this quiz and find out where your Spanish soul city is.

25. Open yourself up to people around you and you’ll have the experience of a lifetime.

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Spark a conversation with your neighbor, talk to the person you always see on the bus, suggest getting a drink with a co-worker…Spanish people are incredibly open to making new friends, especially when it comes to foreigners living in their land. Once you make a Spanish friend, it’s likely that they will quickly start inviting you to events with their friends, add you to their WhatsApp groups, take you to weekends out in el campo, tell you about dope concerts, etc. Spain is a special place and it’s the people who make it that way. Open up, immerse yourself in the community-driven Spanish way of living, and you’ll have one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

 Have you ever experienced life in Spain? What else about Spanish culture do you find unique?!

*Disclaimer: These cultural observations are based on my experiences living in Madrid, Extremadura and Andalucia. They don’t all apply to the north, which has its own unique culture!

34 thoughts on “The Culture Guide to Life in Spain as an Expat

  1. As a Northern Spaniard I’m quite surprised (and a bit worried) by how stereotypical we look to other cultures. Have you visited the north of Spain (the Basque Country in particular)? Are these points also valid for us?

    Great post!

    1. Yes, I have visited the north! In fact, I’ve been to the Basque Country twice- to Vitoria and San Sebastian, and loved both places! However, you are right, the north is COMPLETELY different. I am speaking from my experience living in the south of the country and Madrid. I did not have these same “stereotypical” experiences when I was in the north, but then again, I need to spend way more time there to talk about it from a well informed perspective. Culturally, the north and south are very different, but I did notice in my short visits to the north that both still maintain that wonderful sense of community :) Thanks for your sharing your thoughts! -AWC/ Casie

      1. Hey Jessica, that’s really interesting! Many Spanish people from the north make a point of distinguishing these cultural differences from the south. Interesting to hear it from your perspective as a foreigner :)

        Cheers!
        Casie

      2. Great post, Yes, I am from Bilbao, although I now live in the US. Most of the points apply to Bilbao as well. Once I was jet-lagged and went to a restaurant in Bilbao around 1:00 PM to have lunch since I was starving. As the owner said: “Tu eres de fuera, no? (lit. You are an outsider right?). Granted, maybe there is no “siesta” as in other (sunnier areas), but let’s say that from 2:00 to 5:00 PM streets are lightly packed as in other places like Madrid or Seville. Around 5:00 PM when “la tarde” starts, the floodgates open and people storm the streets to do errands, “tomar potes” or just “salir a dar una vuelta” until 9:00 or so. In the meantime, around 7:00 PM kids have their merienda (“afternoon” snack); and it is not until 9:00 PM (at the end of the “afternoon”) when people start thinking on maybe having /or preparing dinner

  2. That was a really nice and easy read, thanks! These are the reasons why I’d love to be able to live there at least for a while one day. I think I could use some tempering of my (lack of) patience and scheduling 😀

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Marta! Yes- I think we all good use a bit of that “tranquilo” lifestyle :) I hope you get to live here and experience the Spanish lifestyle one day!

      Happy wandering,
      Casie

  3. As a Spaniard, I enjoy reading about a foreigner’ reactions to our traditions and general lifestyle. The only thing I haven’t understood in this article was the “cariño joven” bit. One of the two would make sense, but the two together don’t work in Spanish.

    Yes, lots of people loove to chat, even to strangers. Haven’t you had this experience with taxi drivers?

  4. What a stereotypical piece of writing. Most of it only applies to people above 50. Please, don’t misguide potential tourists.

      1. I find the article interesting and I think the same can be applied to other countries, cultures. We will often find differences compared to our country. I also have some observations

  5. Hi! I ended up in your blog as a saw an article in a Spanish newspaper about your blog.
    I’ve been living in London for 7 years and I’ve always complained when my work mates used to take the mickey by using all these Spanish stereotypes, siesta, flamenco etc. but If I’m honest with you…what you say is true…of course not everyone behaves the same way, I hate naps for example and if I try to sing or dance flamenco it would be a disaster.
    On the other hand you just made me remember why I am coming back and you made me feel proud of my country even if the whole world thinks we spend 3 hours sleeping every day haha but they will also think that if you go to Spain we are going to make you feel like a true Spaniard.
    :)

    1. Hi Sara! I’m happy I could help you appreciate your country and make you excited to come back! Good luck on your return! And adjusting back to the siesta schedule, even if you’re not sleeping 😉 -Casie

  6. An 8-years-old kid saying “coño”??? Saying “coño” in Spain is like saying “f*ck!” in the USA (actually “coño” and “joder” are pretty much interchangeable). I am a 44-years-old Spaniard, and I can tell you that if I had said “coño” when I was 8 my parents would have slapped my mouth! And my school teacher would have punished me for sure! “Coño” is very rude, it is usually said in a very informal/familiar context, never said in front of your girlfriend’s parents, for example. It is definitely not a word for a kid! Maybe your students yelled it so often because you were a “guiri”, I seriously doubt they would say it with their Math/Language teacher. Kids use to yell a softer version such as “leñe”, as well as they say “jolín” or “jolines” instead of “joder”.

  7. You sure know it now: EL PAIS publishes today your thoughts sbout Spain. I’ve found them very entertaining and accurate … special thanks for your advice of mixing small villages and Big Cities when visiting Spain: I’m from Madrid and I live in Asturias because I needed a break from so much Mouse and action

  8. Heyy I am from Spain, Canary Islands! Living in Miami. Its too fun to read you because I feel so identificated but in the oposite way! Still getting used to American culture. Still learning how is that of dealing with guys that you just think as friends and they think that if you talk to them or pay attention to what they say you are looking for a date. Its me? Talkint to people just for enjoying the chat wothout having extra interest. It is me the inly that think that in Spain we are more easy going respecting that? Missing ir de cañas en plan tranquilitos a las 12 en casa. Esting and drinking bears with €15 or less!! Not knowing if people think that you are too friendly and that can be odd. ~~

    1. So true Ami!! The guys and culture of dating is SO different here in the US. In Spain, it’s much easier to make “guy friends” without expectations of anything else. I totally agree with you, you’re not alone! And ahhhh, yes, the good life de tapeo. I hope you can look past those cultural difference and find happiness in Miami! And hope you keep following along :) – Casie

  9. Further advice on #19: if you dare to order water while tapeando in the south, you are un rata (rat), meaning cheap, so you don’t deserve tapa.

  10. I understand this is all written through your personal experience, but I ‘m afraid that saying “A daily schedule marked by a 3 hour mid-day siesta” is just a way to attract reader’s attraction rather than to reflect your experience. Actually, acording to what you describe latter, you do know that people hardly ever do siesta, not to mention that a siesta would never take 3-hours (neither in the north or in the south)

    These 3 hours you mention is a break to have lunch, which some people may (or may not) improve to have a short nap too.

    Actually for many people this is just a problem rather than an advantage,since it means they will have to be working until later.Most of the people who work in shops would prefer not having such a long break and, instead, being able to finish their working day earlier. That’s why you can find all those shops opened at 8:00 pm.

    We have a big problem with schedules.

    Anyway, as you say, everything depends on the part of Spain you are visiting. Actually, I’m from Catalonia and I have the same feelings you describe when I visit the south of Spain.

    Concerning the word “cunt”, I like you mention it since, as you explain later, this missunderstood is provoked by a bad translation. We usually say that “cunt” means “coño” but does not. Even though in both cases they can be a vulgar way to refer to “vagina”, “cunt ” is so offensive that it shouldn t be considered a translation of “coño”. Anyway, you SHOULD be surprised to listen to an 8-year-old Spanish boy say “coño”, the same way you should with an American when saying “fuck”.
    Most people wouldn t let their kids speak like that.

    I’m glad not to have seen the words “paella” and “sangria” 😉

  11. I’ve lived 18 years in total if I add up Barcelone, Zaragoza and mostly Madrid. I agree with all you mention. But you forgot a few things.
    1) Ego-centrism, but not only for the food. Spaniards will bitch about what they consider unbearable about their country. But just don’t dare do the same thing in front of them!
    2) Racism. Sure enough, this is not France with an openly-declared racist Front National. But with now more than 10% of the population being foreigners, Spaniards start to say what they think about them and it is certainly not nice!
    3) Food on the floors in bars. You came to Spain when this phenomenon started to disappear. However, you can still find some of those quaint little bars when people throw the olive stones on the floor where they all get mixed up with gambas skins, chorizo peel, napkins and so on and so forth…
    The dirtier the floor, the better the place, I’ve been told. And the waiter would come every hour to clean the mess with a broom and then throw some sawdust again on the floor so as to suck up the liquids…
    4) Respecting the queues is also a new thing in Spain. And then not always. Be aware of the Bastard family who will always try to overtake you on the left/right while you’re talking with your friends.
    More?

    1. The food on the floor of bars…how can I FORGET! “The dirtier the floor, the better the place.” Yep, that sums it up perfectly. It’s something that foreigners will just never understand! All of your other points are so valid too. Thanks for adding to the list! -Casie 😀

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