By Emma Mitchell • 15 September 2023 • 17:26
Culture shock. Credit: Image by stockking on Freepik
Moving to a different country means learning the language and immersing yourself in the culture. Naturally, you expect things to be done differently but sometimes it’s the small differences that are the biggest surprise.
In a UK or US supermarket a multipack is sold as a single unit. It doesn’t matter if you only want one tin of tomatoes, if there’s four in the pack you are buying four. In fact many multipacks carry the warning, ‘Not to be sold individually.’
I was surprised the first time I saw someone in Mercadona ripping open a plastic multipack of beer to take a few tins out. In Spain, multipacks generally have the same price as buying the same number of items individually and it’s perfectly acceptable to split a pack up.
Some newcomers to Spain can be completely unprepared for the concept of putting used toilet paper into a rubbish bin when going to the bathroom.
If you visit the toilets in most bars and restaurants in rural Spain, the walls will carry a polite sign not to dispose of loo paper down the toilet.
Take a perfectly good espresso coffee and then pour it over a load of condensed milk and that’s a Café Bombón. It’s so sweet it makes your pancreas shrivel in expectation.
Why is this even a ‘thing’? It’s a mystery.
Spanish audiences prefer foreign language TV and film to be dubbed rather than shown in the original language with subtitles. It’s only when you hear a guttural Spanish voice issuing out of the mouth of Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise that it hits home how utterly bizarre the practice is.
The roots of dubbing go back to the Franco era. The Law of Defence of the Language in 1941 made it mandatory to dub all foreign films in order to preserve the Spanish identity. It also meant the Franco government could censor anything they didn’t like at the same time.
If you’re from the UK or US you subconsciously switch greetings based on the time.
We use “Good morning” until midday and then we switch to “Good afternoon” until 6pm when “Good evening” comes into play. Not so in Spain.
In Spain it’s customary to use the “Buenos dias” up until you’ve eaten your lunch, so around 2pm to 3pm, at which point the “Buenas tardes” afternoon greeting kicks in. “Buenas noches” is reserved for after the sun goes down.
As a British couple, when we go to the beach the packing is light: beach towel, phone, sunglasses, suncream, wallet and book. If we’re really pushing the boat out we may have a cool box with a couple of tinnies in it.
Not so the Spanish. A family outing to the beach is not unlike the Normandy beach landings, except better equipped. The focal point is the gazebo, which needs to fit at least a dozen people beneath. Failing a gazebo, erecting eight beach umbrellas in a Viking style shield wall against the sun is a good compromise.
Then there’s the fold-out trestle tables, deck chairs, half a dozen cold boxes, dinner set and cutlery, inflatables, towels, Granny (head of table), pushchairs and dog.
In some cultures, sensitive subjects are approached delicately in order to avoid causing offence. Being asked “Does this suit me?” can be terrifying because it requires a highwire balancing act of not lying, but also not hurting the person’s feelings.
The Spanish don’t tend to waste words and can be a little direct. As an example; a friend asked for potatoes with his meal in a restaurant. His request was met with a moment of silence whilst the manager’s eyes travelled down to his stomach before he was told, “I don’t think you need potatoes.”
If you’re from the US in particular, you are used to tipping waiters and bar-staff, taxi drivers, valets and just about anyone who provides you with a service.
In Spain, tipping is not standard operating procedure. They are, of course, appreciative if you do tip them but it’s certainly not expected. If you do go for a tip then ten per cent of the bill is fairly standard.
If you go out for dinner in the UK or US it’s often the case that everyone chooses their own starters, main courses and desserts.
In Spain it’s more about food ‘para compartir’, or ‘for sharing’. Watch a Spanish family in a restaurant and you’ll see a selection of dishes being ordered for the centre of the table and everyone tucking in to a little bit of everything.
Although the law states that dogs must be on a leash in public places, the reality in Spain is that they’re often not. In rural areas it’s common for owners to allow their dogs to wander around the street unaccompanied. Some even carry their own leashes.
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Emma landed in journalism after nearly 30 years as an executive in the Internet industry. She lives in Bédar and her interests include raising one eyebrow, reckless thinking and talking to people randomly. If you have a great human interest story you can contact her on email@example.com
Only parts of this are true and Spain is a big country and attitudes and customs vary in each community.
I lived in southern Spain for ten years and for instance tipping was essential and expected.
Dogs yes, in my area many were free to roam across busy roads.
Never seen Cafe Bombon use condensed milk. Always from a long life pack. Dubbed TV is a pain and I hate it. Not only is the talking invariably amateurish but the acting leave a lot to be desired. Probably have to switch to IPTV to get Netflix from the UK.
Four dubbing, worse is leaving the original voice volumnn and then talking over it. Then you can’t understand either.
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