Culture shock in Spain – 6 things that drive foreigners crazy

September 26, 2017

Have you felt culture shock in Spain?

I sure have… though it’s been a while.

Once you’ve been around for several years, you might still be annoyed by some “typical Spanish” customs, but you’d hardly call it “culture shock”.

In any case, it’s good to be prepared.

If you’re coming to stay for a few months (or a few years) here’s a guest post from Kimberly, a Canadian blogger, about some things you should know about the Spanish lifestyle.

More about Kimberly at the end.

For now, here’s the article…

Culture shock in Spain – things that drive me crazy

I thought I had prepared myself for what I would find in Spain before I came, but I was hit smack in the face with culture shock on many levels when I moved here.

I have now been here for almost 15 years and have adapted to most of the changes rather well.

Even so, there are a few things however that I still shake my head at or ignore completely. And anytime I have a visitor seeing Spain for the first time it takes me back to my first days, weeks and months here.

Here are some of the culture shocks in Spain I felt the most:

When to go shopping

I still clearly remember my first few days in Spain looking for a place to buy groceries. I was in a little town in the south that is still very traditional.

I came to Spain to teach English and worked mornings and evenings but had some time off during the afternoon.

So I thought I’d run out between classes and buy some much-needed groceries before I starved to death. I went armed with my Spanish / English dictionary to look for the supermercado. I stopped a woman on the street and frantically pointed to the word in my book, she nodded that yes there was a supermarket close by but she tried to tell me something else.

It was later that I realized she was trying to tell me that yes, it exists, but it is closed from 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 (or 5:30 depending on when someone gets around to opening it back up again) for siesta.

And it’s not just grocery stores — it’s every store. Don’t try shopping in the afternoon unless you are in a mall. Any mom and pop shop closes down for at least three hours in the middle of the day for a long leisurely lunch and, hopefully for the owner, a bit of a siesta.

And speaking of shopping…

A few tips if you want to buy produce.

Go to the local markets as there are products from around the country that are fresh and often from local farmers. However, do not touch the fruit or vegetables with your hands.

Never.

You can’t just walk in and pick the fruit you want, throw it in a bag and take it to the checkout counter. You have to wait patiently in line behind the 20 ladies who shop every day and use it as much as a gossip session as a shopping experience.

When it is your turn you tell the attendant what you want and he personally selects the fruit—more times than not with bare hands, it seems to be ok of the food server doesn’t wear gloves and touches the food but the customer should never do this.

culture shock in Spain while buying food
Your typical Spanish “frutería” – photo by Kimberly.

I have always found this funny in a country that eats the salad as a community dish in which everyone dips in with their forks and eats the salad out of the same bowl.

But don’t touch fruit that you are going to buy in a store to see if it is ripe or firm or if it smells good, food that you will take home and wash before you serve to your family.

More culture shock in Spain – eating times

I have never managed to completely adapt the culture shock of the eating times in Spain.

Mealtimes in Spain are not even similar to American meal times, or meal times of anywhere else in the world for that matter.

In my own home I can control the eating times and have come up with a happy medium between the North American and the Spanish schedule, but when we go out with friends or eat in a restaurant I have to convert to the Spanish times.

If you are visiting here you will have to bend a bit on the eating times as you won’t find anything open when you are used to eating.

Restaurants and cafes don’t open for breakfast until 9:00 at the earliest, and often closer to 9:30 or 10:00. Restaurants don’t open for lunch until 1:00 at the very earliest—and that is in tourist areas—but if you are in rural Spain don’t expect to find a restaurant to serve anything before 2:00 p.m.

Now this may very well be the same little restaurant where you had breakfast and it may, in fact, have been open all morning, but don’t expect to be able to order lunch before 2:00 p.m.

Lunch is the big meal of the day. If you grab just a quick sandwich you will again be starving long before supper is served. Go with the flow and eat a big lunch, take your time and enjoy the experience. Your meal will probably be served with wine as well as coffee and dessert.

Lunch should be a drawn out two-hour experience.

And why not?

All the stores, museums and touristy activities will be closed until 5 p.m. anyway, so sit back, eat and enjoy.

plaza mayor horse statue
Equestrian statue of Felipe III here in Plaza Mayor, Madrid. Photo by Daniel Welsch.

At around 8:00 p.m. you will notice that the bars are starting to fill up again, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this means you will get supper. This is simply the pre-supper drink and tapa. The tapa, in this case, is something small that gets served with your beer—often just potato chips or olives.

Normally if you try to order something that could resemble supper or even tapas that need to be cooked you will be told that the kitchen isn’t open until much later. The cook is probably sitting at the bar alongside the waiters enjoying his own tapa and beer at the moment but doesn’t fire up the stove until it officially is supper time.

The drink or drinks are supposed to tide you over until you are ready for supper sometime around 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. If you do go in at 9:30 or 10:00 you will be the only person in the restaurant for at least an hour as the Spaniards don’t start eating supper until well after 10:00 p.m.

Service at restaurants

As we are on the topic of restaurants I will tell you another cultural difference you will notice immediately in the service industry.

In Spain, a good waiter is not chatty.

You will never get a smiling waiter to come to your table and announce, “Hi I’m Chuck, I’ll be your waiter tonight” and then continue to tell jokes and check on you throughout the evening.

Your waiter will never tell you his name as an introduction, he probably will not crack a smile, he will simply slap a few menus on the table and leave. When he returns, still unsmiling, he will efficiently take your order with minimal conversation and fuss. The waiters are efficient but not chatty or friendly.

It is very rare that you will be hurried through a meal. In all my years here I have never been asked to free up my table and move on when I have finished my meal. When we got out with a group we will stay and chat, laugh and tell stories long after the last sip of coffee. If you have a table you are welcome to stick around as long as you want even if the restaurant is full to the rafters.

And a few final quirky cultural mini-shocks…

Cleanliness contrasts and culture shock in Spain

If you ever visit a private home in Spain you will find they are fastidious housekeepers.  Most homes could be viewed as show homes any time of the day or night. They are minimalists and keep everything organized and extremely clean.

Knowing this about Spanish homes and the personalities of housekeepers always leaves me in more of a shock when I see how they treat public areas. Littering is common and completely acceptable. You will see a parent unwrap a candy for their child and then without a thought toss the paper on the street even though there is a garbage bin 5 feet away.

In traditional bars and restaurants, people throw their napkins, toothpicks, shrimp shells and whatever on the floor without a thought. It seems to be encouraged.

In the cities, you will have to avoid a lot of general litter and dog bombs in the street, but in the small towns in the south you will see ladies out washing the sidewalk in front of their homes every day.  

Even with the ladies washing their section of the street every day, you will still see litter and dog bombs along the street, although not as much as in Madrid or Barcelona.

Another place that you can never expect to be clean is public washrooms. I have noticed a steady improvement in the past 15 years, but you still can’t be sure if you will find soap, toilet paper and something to dry your hands on in a public bathroom.

Nowadays you will probably find at least one of the three (soap, toilet paper or paper towel) but rarely all three.

The further south you go the worse the bathrooms get.

Nightlife in Madrid and Spain

Another thing that might cause you some culture shock in Spain… the nightlife!

You will see parents out with their children until the wee morning hours, and often the grannies and grandpas are along as well. Nightlife is for everyone, not just the partiers. The serious partying starts well after midnight. Nightclubs don’t even open until after 1:00 a.m.

If you walk through the pedestrian streets between Sol and Plaza Mayor in Madrid in the middle of the afternoon (between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m.) you will most likely have the street to yourself. If you return between midnight and 2:00 a.m. you will be pushing through crowds of people.

Culture shocks aside, or perhaps because of them, Spain tends to quickly work its way into the hearts of most visitors.

Are there any cultural shocks that you have had in Spain that I haven’t mentioned?  Let me know, right here in the comments!

About the author…

kimberly writes about culture shock in spain
Kimberly of the blog Travelling Around Spain.

Kimberly is a Canadian who has been living in Spain for over 15 years. She spends her free weekends and vacations with her family getting to know her adopted country.

Her blog, travellingaroundspain.com is all about helping you discover the best of what Spain has to offer.

Along with many of the top tourist attractions, she also includes some of the smaller, but equally as interesting off-the-beaten-path villages, side streets or attractions.

And a final note from Mr Chorizo about culture shock in Spain

Ok, I’m back.

Did you miss me?

Probably not much.

Anyway, I agree with nearly everything that Kimberly says about the culture shock in Spain.

The service is something I’ve written about in multiple articles. And don’t even get me started on trying to buy fish.

My best advice is to figure out a time when nobody else is at the market. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck behind all the grannies talking about their husband’s arthritis while the fishmonger scrapes the guts out of 44 sardines, one at a time.

In other words, it takes a while.

Anyway, have you experienced culture shock in Spain? Let us know in the comments.

Yours,

Mr Chorizo.

P.S. If you want to guest post here on the blog, just send me a quick idea or two. Here’s the contact form. Thanks!

P.P.S. More useful articles that I didn’t manage to link to above: cost of living in Madrid, and famous Madrid Musts. And how about this one, about Spanish Stereotypes? Have fun…

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. By the way you write you must be an alien coming from other planet.

    I’m sure that your country culture (whatever is and i don’t really care about where you come from) is very weird comparing with all sort of lies you expose in your ¿article?

    Cariño si no te gusta España, los españoles estamos encantados de que te largues de nuestras fronteras, la gente hipocrita como tú jactandose de una cultura tan rica sobra.

    De nada

    1. Omg , typical Spanish rhetoric, instead of having a sane debate it’s all about “pues vete a casa tio”. Quite sad.

      Good article !

    2. Pero hija mía, a cuento de qué tanta amargura? Que a esta gente le gusta España y cuentan su experiencia, poco más. No hay que tomárselo tan a pecho.

  2. Can foreigners in Spain (especially North Americans) start writing about something else? All this mundane hyperbole-ed to hell stuff has been done by every 20-something Becky and their grandma already. Like literally every blog about living in Spain covers the same 5 topics and exaggerates the hell out of them. Also was this put together in like 5 minutes? “supermarcado” “from 2.00 and 5.00”?

    Weak and boring.

    1. You should see what Spaniards living in the UK write about their experiences. You think they don’t complain about the weather, the food, or the dry social interaction? They don’t care that the UK has better work opportunities, bureaucracy and banking that works quickly and efficiently, or that English people are not prejudiced against foreign cuisine. Spanish people in the UK miss good food and a more relaxed approach to life.

      Have you ever lived in another country? Sometimes you love it, sometimes you hate it, and you’re constantly trying to make sense of it. It’s as true for a Montrealer in Valencia as it is for a Malagueño in London.

      Spain is a great country. It’s also a frustrating place to get things accomplished. Like every other place it has its idiosyncrasies that make no sense to immigrants, along with its charms that attracted them to the country.

      If you’re bored by reading these posts pues te pongo solución: lee otra cosa.

  3. YES! I mean, I grew to love it and returning to Canada felt super strange but my few couple weeks left me and my friend hungry at 4:30 when nothing was open and we had skipped the Spanish lunch or panicking because we didn’t leave home to go party until 11 only to be the first ones in a club 😛 If you go to the german store lidl they are more Canadian (well, I suppose German actually) in the sense that you don’t have to weigh your own fruits and I’ve yet to run into the grannies there.

    Let’s add “every other man is peeing in the street” to this list too! LOL

    Great article 😀 Makes me miss Spain so much, I can’t wait to get back :3

  4. I was living with am Irish family in Dublin to improve my English. It was funny because some Irish used to tell me that spaniards are dirty because our pubs are so. Then some spaniards told me “joder macho que guarros son estos irlandeses, tienen la casa llena de mierda”.
    Then I realized that every one is dirty in their very own way

    1. Yeah I’m fascinated by the fact that everyone in Europe seems to think that every country except their own is lazy. Possibly they all just have different definitions of what lazy looks like. Thanks for commenting!

  5. One small point about the littering part–in bars, someone told me it’s because it’s actually easier and more sanitary for the workers to just sweep the waste of the floor rather than constantly be having to pick it up off the bar as they would in America

  6. The are some of the interesting points, but a few deserve a little more detailed explanation… for instance the situation with the waiter’s attitudes; while I believe Spanish waiters do need a crash-course in good service, one of the reasons for how they are is that there’s no tipping requirement or culture… so there’s no financial incentive to smlie.

    What you say about the supermarkets is true, but only for the smaller chains (Dia, Ahorramás, etc.)… larger companies, like Carrefour and Mercadona open all day (at least the ones near me, in Madrid). It is frustrating when one wants/needs to shop at your local hardware store and it’s closed at lunch, but boutique clothing stores do open all day.

    Eating time takes some adjustment, I’ve happened to live in three countries, with this exact meal schedule: Spain, Greece and Mexico. Although your average café/restaurant does keep strict openning hours, I’ve never experienced not being able to have dinner at 8pm, and chain restaurants (Vips, Nebraska, Lizarran, etc), open all day.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents.

  7. Hi, I’m really enjoying my summer in Spain and Portugal. I’m a single woman, here for work. Often when I eat out, in cafes or bars, people, usually tourists from other European countries, interrupt my eating to ask me to move, to make room for them to sit, or so they can be closer to an outlet etc. It’s happen half a dozen times now, and it doesn’t matter if I’m in the middle of eating or not. Where I’m from, in San Francisco, no one would dream of interrupting your meal experience, to ask you to move and be less comfortable, to make room for them. They would just wait until another table opens up. Has anyone else experienced this? It’s one of the biggest culture shocks for me. And shockingly rude.

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