Initial Impressions, Observations & Perceptions


EMILY FRITZSON- When I chose to study abroad in Spain, a Western European nation, I assumed that I was going to be spending four months in a country essentially like my own. As a result, I thought I wouldn’t experience too much culture shock. Yet, like most aspects of this entire abroad experience, I was surprised by what I found. Below I have listed some big and small differences between the U.S. and Spain that I have noticed in my first 4 weeks here.

Eating times are different. I find that breakfast time is dependent on the person and their individual schedule, but lunch is later (around 2 or 3pm) and dinner is served around 9 or 10pm. Breakfast is generally pretty light– coffee and, in my house, cookies. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day while dinner is generally more of a heavy snack. After dinner, a piece of fruit or a yogurt is classified as dessert, which has been great for my health but a letdown for my sweet tooth.

People sit and enjoy their meals. Rarely ever do I see someone carrying a coffee down the street or eating a snack on the metro. When I asked my host mom about the lack of street food, she explained that the idea of take-out is foreign because meals here are meant to be savored and enjoyed in the presence of friends or family. Unlike most metropolitan sites in the U.S., people aren’t so concerned about time efficiency. Correspondingly, they don’t rush through their meals.

The washing machine is in the kitchen next to the dishwasher. Also, Spaniards don’t machine dry their clothes. In my house, the clothes are hung outside the kitchen window or placed on the radiators around the house to dry.

I rarely see any obese people. There are definitely some overweight people but not to the same extent as in the U.S.

Spanish people do not walk around their homes barefoot. It is a widely held and deep-rooted cultural belief that walking around barefoot makes you more susceptible to germs. At the very least, people wear socks around their home if not house shoes or slippers.

ee-peanutbutter-dreamstime_m_8708322Spaniards have a different relationship with space than Americans. Here, people stand very close together regardless of their relationship to one another. When conversing, they stand noticeably closer than would two Americans conversing. Greetings are much more intimate here as well. Usually I am greeted with two kisses on the either cheek. And physical contact, like holding someone’s shoulder or elbow while talking, is perfectly normal.

-Along the same lines, the acceptable amount of time to stare at a stranger is longer than in the U.S. I often catch people looking at me on the metro and yet they don’t look away when I look back at them. Instead, I find that I’m the one that blushes and looks away first.

-Unlike in the U.S., where almost everyone owns an iPhone, they are much more of a rarity here because they are worth so much more. Therefore carrying one makes you a target of pickpocketing.

-From my perspective, Spaniards survive on much less sleep than Americans (or maybe I feel this way because I require 8 hours minimum in order to function properly). During the week, it’s not unusual for people to stay awake until midnight or 1am yet still get up at 7 or 8am in the morning.

Whereas the U.S. highly values individualism and independence, Spain is a pluralistic society, emphasizing not the individual but rather the social circle and family. A Spaniard is more likely to put the needs of the group ahead of those of the individual. They care more about the status of their social groups than their individual capital.

-Along those lines, the TV is like a member of the family. Unless no one is home or everyone is sleeping, the TV is most likely on.

-Moreover, people are much more honest here. There is no concept of political correctness. Instead, it’s rude to not tell the truth. Dancing around a touchy topic like acne or weight does not exist. People tell it as they see it without any intention of offending or hurting others.

-I have only recently noticed that there is very little street noise in comparison to New York or Boston. There is much less car honking here, which is probably attributed to the fact that Spaniards are more relaxed and not always in a hurry.

Peanut butter is to Spain as Vegemite is to the U.S.– it’s simply not understood. This has been an especially hard cultural difference for me to accept as someone who eats peanut butter on a daily basis and whose favorite candy, by far, is Reese’s peanut butter cups (which I have not found anywhere here thus far).

Emily Fritzson, Skidmore in Madrid

Emily Fritzson, Skidmore in Madrid

-Don’t be frightened by the multitude of pig legs proudly hanging in the windows and on the walls of butcher shops, delis and restaurants. Pork and ham are deeply woven into the culture and jamón ibérico is a delicacy.

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