So you’re thinking about going to Spain, and you’re trying to find out as much information as possible. It’s a little nerve-wracking, for sure. That’s why I’m here to tell you all the things no one told me before I went to Spain, so maybe you’ll be a little more prepared than I was.
First things first. When I traveled to Spain for the first time in 2015, I had been studying Spanish since 2007. So I had a good eight years under my belt. Believe me when I tell you, when I got to Spain I swear I felt like I didn´t know any Spanish at all. It is normal to feel overwhelmed. You will adjust to the accent, the speed, the slang, etc. Just give yourself some time. Before you know it, you´ll be laughing at some joke a stranger told their friend as they walked by you. Allow yourself to get immersed into the culture. Don’t default to Facebook messaging your English speaking friends. Be present, and challenge yourself. It takes a little bit of confidence and a willingness to embarrass yourself a little for the sake of improving your language skills! There are a ton of places that host exchange nights where you can speak Spanish with a native speaker and they can practice their English with you! You’re both trying to learn so the pressure is gone. It’s a great way to meet friends and learn how a true Spaniard enjoys their city. Also, don’t panic about the language too much. Yes, I think you should immerse yourself in it, but in an emergency, so many people in Spain have been learning English since they were babies. You’ll be fine.
I’m sure you’ve heard of kissing on the cheek as a greeting. Spaniards kiss on BOTH cheeks to say hello. Left first, then right. This is important to remember, or you’ll accidentally end up kissing them on the lips (been there). Yes, you have to do this every time you see or meet someone.
Siesta is very real. Especially in smaller cities. In Madrid or Barcelona you´ll have a little more luck, but my host mom’s little pueblo, La Garrovilla, completely shuts down between the hours of two and four. Same thing goes for Sundays, they take “day of rest” pretty seriously. So don’t plan to do any serious errands those days. And take advantage of it! Because the Spanish stay up really late! Most don’t even eat dinner until 9-10pm.
Another thing you should get prepared for are the road signs in Spain. They’re basically invisible. Usually, they’re a small piece of tile with the name written on it, seen once the entire length of the road hidden behind a bush or something. You’ll get used to spotting them, but at first it’s kinda tricky. Speaking of roads, cars will literally run you over, I am almost run over several times a week. And no one seems to care. I’ve witnessed so many people simply walk within centimeters of a moving car because they can’t be bothered to wait. Driving and parking in general in Spain is kind of crazy. If a Spaniard is parallel parking, I promise they’re going to squeeze into the tiniest spot possible, hitting both cars in front and behind them in the process. So just keep an eye out.
The first time I went to Spain I said, “salud” every time someone sneezed. That’s what I learned in school. No one says that in Spain. Not for sneezing, anyway. If you’re toasting a glass of wine, sure! I actually got laughed at the first time I said it to a random lady on the metro. In Spain they technically say, “Jesus” when someone sneezes, but to be honest, they really don’t say anything at all.
Another interesting thing is they take pleasantries pretty seriously. I can’t tell you how many times my host kids got in trouble for speaking to their parents on the phone or someone in person without first asking them how they are and all that good stuff. It is important to greet or say goodbye to every person in the room. This does not mean you wave and say, “hola.” You have to approach each person, kiss both cheeks, and ask how they are.
Now on to eating in restaurants in Spain. Still kind of tricky for me, even after visiting Spain three times. Patio seating is self-seating. A lot of restaurants are also self-seating. It is more normal to order many tapas to share than for everyone at the table to order their own meal. Spanish dining is not like American dining. No one is in a rush, the whole point of the outing is to drink and socialize for hours. Water is not free. It’s actually cheaper to have an alcoholic beverage most times than to have water. You’ll have to ask for the check, normally they don’t bring it unless requested. A wonderful thing you’ll discover during lunch time at restaurants is “Menu del dia” which is a set menu and price for a starter, main entree, dessert, and a beer or glass of wine. If you’re really feeling homesick and you’re on a budget, Taco Bell in Spain celebrates Taco Tuesdays where you can get a beer and a taco for 1 €. It is actually bad manners NOT to have your elbows on the table and your hands above the table. Taking leftover food home is not normal, Spanish people eat all their food. It is considered rude not to. The way food is coursed is pretty interesting as well. When my host family and I had family meals we were served the first course, everyone had to finish, then we cleared the table of all plates and items pertaining to the first course, and then reset the table for the second course. Desert is usually fruit. Breakfast is usually a pastry or something chocolate-y. There really is no such thing as eggs and pancakes for breakfast. I taught my host kids what french toast was. Peanut butter really doesn’t exist in Spain. Be prepared to eat bread with everything and anything. Not sliced bread…good bread, the kind that is made fresh daily and costs €.60.
You will feel awkward at first staying with a host family. Chances are they’ve had host kids before and they know how to accommodate you. Be open, be friendly, be grateful, and be present. No one likes to feel like you don’t care about their hospitality. And don’t take long, hot showers. Spain is very eco-friendly, they have to import all their energy sources. Turn off lights you’re not using. Don’t run the air conditioner, etc.
Spanish door nobs are kind of strange. Most of them don’t even turn. You have to get the key to open them. To flush the toilet you press a button, not a handle, and they fill with way less water than the US. The personal bubble in Spain is basically non existent and what’s appropriate to talk about is way different. Be prepared to talk about money, weight, and politics.
All of these things make Spain the incredible country that it is. Although they may seem different or daunting, keep an open mind. You’ll fall in love with every little detail just like I did. Honestly, I just hope these random, out of nowhere observations I have about Spain help you feel more prepared for your upcoming travels! And maybe I’ll do a part 2 with the 1000s of other quirks Spain possesses.
Come discover all that Spain has to offer through one of our study abroad programs! Here’s our website!
Need some convincing? Check out How to Change Your Life in Just 14 Days! to get a nudge in the right direction.