20 curiosities of Spanish life I have finally come to terms with

Beautiful Valencia.

The promised land for any expat is finding that sweet spot, where you can be your true self while enjoying the best that a new culture has to offer.

Some never get there; the challenge of letting go of old habits combined with the thoughts of embracing radical changes proves too much.

Five years ago the idea of ordering coffee in a glass in my local bar and having dinner at home while watching Masterchef Spain at 22:30 would have seemed unfathomable at best. But here we are.

Open-minded expats are able to embrace the best of new cultures and tolerate the rest.

When it comes to Spain, you reap what you sow. Make an effort to learn the language, to integrate and put yourself out there, and there are few better places in the world to live.

While it has been easy to become accustomed to blue skies in winter, eating out 2–3 times a week, other aspects of Spanish life have required more of an effort.

Many I will never accept — be it views on race or littering borne out of sheer ignorance — but I have made my peace with the following cultural curiosities of my adopted homeland:

  • How virtually an entire country shuts down in August. It still blows my mind that Madrid, the “economic motor” of the country, comes to a halt for a whole month. Global pandemic or not, the vacaciones in Spain are sacred.
  • Being more direct, and resisting the urge to say “please” and “thank you” all the time. This took me a while. Many Spanish say that being so polite comes across as fake. Maybe orders such as “Give me a glass of wine” will probably always feel a bit rude to me.
  • The noise. Life in Spain is loud, especially in bars. The shouting of orders, the clattering of plates, the hammering of the coffee portafilter, the SSSSSHHHH as the steam rises. I have adapted to this to such an extent that any bar where the decibel levels aren’t at earache levels immediately sparks suspicion.
  • Speak up! Spain really is no country for timidness. You quickly learn to speak up in cafés and bars. Otherwise, ten people will be served before you.
I take it all back if there does turn out to be someone by the name of Bed.
  • The unnecessary use of English in shop names combined with bad grammar or spelling. Yes, I’m talking about you “Bed’s” and “Kumon English School”!!!
  • Rubbish collection trucks at 1am. The shuddering crash of the glass recycling bin when you have finally managed to drift off. Now it’s: rewind podcast and roll over back to sleep.
  • The organization of football games: Accepting that the time and date for football games will often be finalized at the last minute – as in the week before! It’s obviously easier for us La Liga fans here in Spain than those in the UK and beyond who have to plan in advance.
  • A lack of live music in bars. Something I miss from home; having a couple of drinks and listening to some guy plough through covers of The Eagles, Crowded House and David Gray. Apart from Irish & British bars, live music is very rare in bars here. Having said that, I can’t complain about €1.50 glasses of wine with free tapas now can I?
Irene, Renfe’s cold-blooded virtual assistant
  • The Renfe website. Ohhh the Renfe website!! If you didn’t laugh…you’d cry. You arrive at the confirm credit card details screen only to be told that the train is actually fully booked? Pour yourself another drink.
  • Repair or installation men who NEVER arrive anywhere near on time. I’ve stopped running like a lunatic to make sure I arrive home before the agreed time. Also, you can’t beat the old “your service technician will arrive tomorrow between 09:00–18:30” message. Thanks a lot!
  • Bank opening hours and Spanish banks in general. Just not very efficient. It is what it is.
Prime time TV in Spain.
  • Prime time TV at 22:30, football games beginning at 22:00…if you don’t want to miss out on what will be the talk of the office the next day, you’re going to have to miss out on a bit of sleep.
  • Accepting that social arrangements will be organized at the last minute and will always start late. Spain forces you to stop fretting about time. As Coolio said: “I’ll see you when you get there.”
  • During my first year in Spain, I often wondered why mattresses, washing machines, fridges would appear in the most random of locations. It quickly became one of my favourite curiosities of Spanish daily life.
  • Bar staff. They’re not as gruff as they appear. Befriend a camarero and you will have gained a powerful ally — nobody knows the local area better than them. They like to come across as some sort of broody bad ass, but beneath that oversized white shirt is usually a good heart. No, really!
Do you think Isco is fat?
  • If debating was Spain’s national sport it would have far more than one World Cup in the Federation museum. EVERYTHING in Spain is a debate. Left v right; the performance of the current government; who’s to blame for the latest celebrity marriage crisis; Real Madrid’s latest penalty decision. Deportes Cuatro even took to the streets to take the pulse of the Spanish Capital on a very important issue: ‘Do you think Isco (Real Madrid footballer) is fat?’. It fills hours upon hours of daily TV and radio space. However, once you get over the incessant shouting it can generally be very entertaining.
  • Knowing that now, “ahora,” doesn’t necessarily mean now.
  • Not tipping. Tipping in Spain is virtually non-existent, bar a couple of leftover coins (and that was before COVID-19). Now I almost feel a sense of awkwardness or embarrassment when family members who come to visit leave a €5–10 tip and I see the look of bamboozlement in the eyes of the waiter/waitress.
  • Bringing food to work when it’s your birthday. This still strikes me as a bit curious. Back home most people would rather not draw attention to their birthday in front of the entire office. But, hey, when people bring tortilla, jamón and tartas, I think it´s something I can get behind!
  • Man hugs. Lots of hugs. Spanish men hug their male counterparts all the time. This again took a few awkward embraces to get used to. In Ireland same sex hugs are generally reserved for weddings and funerals, and awkward moments between fathers and sons. But here abrazos are as natural as a wave or a handshake.

In a foreign land, there will always be things that jar a little but that’s the beauty of it. You are forced to become more tolerant and more open, more accepting to cultures different to your own. To become a more rounded person.

There will always be things that you just cannot accept but, on the bright side, there’ll always be sunsets.

Spanish sunsets — hard to beat.

Irish - living in Madrid. Write about Spain, its cities and culture; real people and places; current affairs. Supporter of real journalism.

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