Spanish Culture – An American Girl's Perspective
As an American girl living in Seville, Spain, I’ve noticed many differences in the Spanish culture compared to the American culture. My list of things that I love about the Spanish culture continues to grow. I’ve complied some of my favorite things about the Spanish culture for you below. I hope this list is helpful to anyone who is planning a future trip to Spain.
The thing that surprised me the most about the Spanish culture when I first moved to Seville was the kissing cheeks greeting upon meeting someone. Our friend Lara met us at the train station to pick us up and take us to our new apartment. I remember greeting her with a hug, but instead of just a hug I got a kiss too. Not just one kiss, but two kisses. One on each cheek. It took me back a little as I realized, “I’m not in America anymore!,” and realizing all the cultural changes that would soon be coming my way.
Our first week in Seville was during their most popular time of year – Semana Santa. It’s a religious festival that happens the week before Easter. It’s a time where family and friends get together for the whole week to eat and talk and watch all the religious parades in the streets. Lara was nice enough to include us in her local friends group and invite us to all of the Semana Santa activities that were happening. We met so many people that week. Each person that we met greeted us with a kiss on each cheek and a big smile. They were all so friendly and welcoming. They were truly happy that we were there to celebrate with them.
Now, I am completely used to the kissing on the cheek greeting. I have grown to love it and really appreciate it. I think that it gets people out of their shell and breaks down any walls between people that might have formed. I love it and wish I could bring it home with me to America. Shaking hands, hugging, or just standing and smiling at each other, seems so cold and foreign to me now.
- Women kiss other women, men kiss women, but men don’t kiss other men. Men greet other men with a hug and back slap in a casual situation and a handshake in a more formal situation.
- If you’ve seen the person already that day, you don't need to kiss them the second time that you've seen them. The first time for the day is enough to cover the remainder of the day.
- When you are first introduced to someone new at work, you can choose to kiss them or you can give them a hand shake. It's your choice. Work is more of a formal setting so a handshake is considered acceptable.
- People that you see everyday like work colleagues, or kids with their schoolteachers, don’t need to kiss everyday. The first day of the school year you would kiss, or the first working day after a long break, but after that, you don’t need to kiss every day that you see them. That would be too repetitive.
- If you’re meeting a friend of a friend for the first time, even if you don’t personally know them at all and have never met them before, you still kiss them.
- In Spain, you always kiss 2 times, one on each cheek. In France, you give 3 or 4 kisses, moving back and forth between each cheek.
- If you don't kiss someone that you are meeting, it is considered very rude. You would even still be required to kiss an ex-lover, unless the relationship ended very very badly.
- Even kids join in on the kissing greeting! Kids kiss other kids on the cheeks. The same gender rules apply for adults – boys kiss girls, girls kiss girls, but boys don't kiss other boys. (For the most part at least) Often times kids don't love the kissing greeting, but their parents encourage (and often force) them to do it to be polite.
- When you kiss, it is best to actually physically touch the cheeks of the person that you are kissing instead of just kissing the air and making the kissing noise.
There are so many things that I love about the Spanish food culture. I could go on and on. Spanish people eat their lunch and dinner tapa style. “Tapas,” means small portions. In America, the closest thing to a tapa would be an appetizer. What I love about the tapas culture is the fact that everyone at your table shares. Everyone collaborates together looking at the menu and decides what tapas to order for the table. You usually order 1 - 2 tapas per person. Tapas in Spain are cheap. They range from €2 - €8 but usually are around €5 per tapa. Tapas can be all sorts of different things, from soup to fried fish to slices of jamón. The point is that you share with your table so everyone gets to taste everything and enjoy it together. When you pay for the meal, you usually divide the bill by how many people were eating.
I love the whole concept of tapas because you aren’t stuck with eating your one large dish. Instead, you get the joy of eating lots of different things and trying lots of different types of foods. In America, sometimes I get “order regret,” where I regret what I ordered after it comes out. The person’s food next to me looks tastier than mine and I wish that I could redo my order, but it’s too late. I am stuck with my food. In Spain, that never happens. Everyone shares and tastes each other’s food. You aren’t stuck with one thing. I also like how you tend to eat less. You end up not eating as much as you normally would if you had your one large plate. You consume a smaller amount of food instead of feeling so full that you need to be rolled out of the restaurant to get home.
My Favorite Tapas
Mushroom Risotto, Jamón Croquettes, Espinacas con Garbanzos (a spinach and chick pea dish), Patatas Bravas (potatoes with a spicy red sauce on top and a creamy white sauce), and Solomillo al Whisky (pork with fried potatoes in a yummy sauce). Ok, now my mouth is watering.
In Spain, a waiter or waitress will NEVER bring you your check. That is considered rude. It’s as if they are kicking you out of the restaurant. In Spain, they expect you to stay for a while, eat your food slowly, catch up with family and friends, and enjoy yourself. They don’t want you to rush out. If you want your check, you need to ask for it. It’s common for people to dine for 3+ hours. In America, people are always rushed, with a “Go, Go Go!,” type of attitude. They eat quickly and move on. They think it’s rude if they have to ask their waiter for the check. It’s as if the waiter isn’t responsible enough to bring it to you without being told. They want to hurry and get out of there so they can move on to the next activity without waiting around.
Spanish people don’t rely on fast food chains to feed their families like many American families do. In Seville, they have McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell, but they are there for the tourists. Very few locals eat there. The one Spanish fast food that the locals actually dine at is a Spanish company called, “100 Montaditos.” They serve small sandwiches with many different types of fillings. Nothing is fried like American fast food. Spanish people typically eat pretty healthy. They eat a lot of fresh fish, tomatoes, potatoes, pork, and eggplant.
Spanish food isn't based around sugar while Americans love their sugar. Americans put sugar in their already very sweet sugared cereal. They drink their coffee with tons of syrups and chocolate powder. They chug a 32 oz. soda in one sitting like it’s nothing. Spanish people have less of a sweet tooth. They don’t focus on dessert. I love my sweets, but sometimes I wish that I didn’t love it as much as I do, and that I could be more like the Spanish people and focus on the savory food.
I remember the second day that our Spanish friend Nicolas was with us, visiting in America, and we had just eaten a very sweet breakfast of buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup. (He visited us for 2 weeks to experience the American culture and practice his English.) For lunch, my mother-in-law made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for her kids and offered Nicolas one. He ate a little bit of one but then politely said, "Can I just please have a banana?" The poor kid was already sugar overloaded for the day and just wanted to eat something healthy and non-sugary. I didn't blame him. Americans consume way too much sugar in their regular meals!
Bread, Crackers, and Olives
When you eat out in Seville, you are guaranteed three things to nibble on while you wait for your food – bread, crackers, and olives. The bread is most often a rustic white bread, some better than others. The crackers are my favorite thing now. They are so unique and different than any other crackers in America. They are an olive oil based cracker that is hard and crunchy, in a Tootsie Roll type of shape, but not as perfect looking. Most restaurants have their own bakery that makes their certain crackers and packages them in the restaurant's own personalized plastic bag with the name of the restaurant printed on the front. And the olives are delicious. They are mostly always green. I didn’t even like olives before coming to Spain, but now I crave them. Every restaurant serves different kinds and different sizes. I had never eaten so many olives in my life as I had while living in Spain! Often times the bread and crackers aren’t free but you don’t know that until your bill comes. But no worries, it isn’t expensive. Maybe €1 or €2. The olives are always free.
More times than not, when you are out and about, you will be serenaded by some type of live music. When you’re eating a restaurant, they will play something for you at your table. When you’re walking down the street, you’ll hear live music playing on the side of the road. The picture above is from a live band that started playing at a popular plaza. Jimmy was playing at the park and when the music started, he ran over and took a seat to listen in. Sometimes it’s one single person and other times it’s several people. Sometimes it’s Flamenco music, including some Spanish dancing. Whatever it is, I love it. I think it really enhances what I am doing at that moment and makes my day a little sweeter. It also helps me feel the Spanish passion and culture!
When we moved to Seville, Jimmy’s (age 2) daily schedule totally changed. He went from having a regular bedtime of 8 PM to going to bed around 10:30 or 11 PM, sometimes even later. He switched over to the Spanish lifestyle pretty well. See, in Spain, it’s typical for kids to take longer naps during the day and then to stay up later in the evening. We would be out and about around the town at 10 PM and you would see young children everywhere, eating at restaurants with their families and playing at the parks. No one blinked an eye. In America they might call the police on you if your toddler is out that late, but in Spain, it’s completely normal.
Jimmy’s Daily Schedule in Spain
Wake up at 10 AM
Breakfast at 10:30 AM
Lunch at 1:30
Nap from 2:30 PM- 5:00 PM
Dinner at 8:30 PM
Bedtime at 11 PM
It seemed crazy to me at first but after a little while it seemed totally normal. “Normal” really is what you are used to doing and what you see others doing, so this schedule became our “new normal.” It gets so hot during mid-day in Spain that people don’t want to be out and about. Most of the shops close down from 2 PM - 5 PM and a lot of restaurants open for lunch at 1 PM, close at 5 PM, and then open again at 8 PM for dinner. People try to avoid the heat and enjoy staying out late when its cooler.
Overall, living in Spain has put things into perspective for me and helped me to chill out a bit as a mom. I’ve learned that specific times aren’t essentially the end-all-be-all, but instead it’s more important to make sure your child is getting enough hours of sleep overall in the day. It’s a nice stress free time schedule that I have grown to love and appreciate.
The Spanish eating schedule was hard to get adjusted to in the beginning, but I really adapted to it quickly and it became my new normal. Spanish people eat breakfast around 10 - 10:30 AM. They take their breakfast very seriously. If you are working, it is very normal to take a breakfast break for about 30 minutes. It is usually a smaller portion size than a typical American breakfast, often times just toast and coffee. (Check out my post here and here for more info on the typical Spanish breakfast.) They need to save up an appetite for lunch. Lunch is the biggest and most important meal of the day. It is so important in fact that they call it, "La Comida," which means, "The Food." The Spanish lunch is similar in importance to the American dinner, where the Spanish dinner is similar to the American lunch. They are switched. Lunch starts around 1 - 1:30 PM and can last up to 3 hours, depending upon how much time you have that day. It is normal to have a long meal, relaxing and visiting with friends. They eat the majority of their daily calories during this meal. They often times have something sweet at the end of the meal, and then top it off with an espresso. Then comes, "La Merienda," which would be equivalent to the American, "Afternoon Snack." The Spanish people take a quick break and grab something fast with a friend around 5 PM. It might be a pastry and a café con leche, or maybe some churros and chocolate. Dinner is around 9 PM and it is a smaller meal than the typical American dinner. It usually consists of something small and on the healthy side.
I actually prefer the biggest meal to be at lunchtime rather than at dinnertime. It is so much healthier to eat your large meal during the day when your metabolism is working hard and you are still physically active. That's usually when I am the most hungry as well. Americans eat a large dinner and then go to bed a couple of hours later so their food is sitting in their stomach all night. I hate ending the day feeling so full and heavy. I guess you could say I am turning into a Spanish person, and I am perfectly fine with that!
Tight Knit Families
There are so many good people in Seville. I know there are good people everywhere in the world, but Seville has some especially great ones. These people make and raise great strong families, which makes the community fantastic to live in.
Family is really important to the people of Seville. It is a very family oriented place. There are so many parks and plazas for kids to run around in and play. Every restaurant welcomes kids with open arms to eat there with their parents without even a second thought. They expect the kids to dine with their parents because families are important to them. And, Spanish kids are polite at restaurants and know how to sit quietly with the adults and visit. (Yes, without electronics!) You’ll often see kids dressed up in matching clothes even if they aren’t twins. Spanish parents typically dress up their kids in all matching attire, the girls and the boys. Something in some way is usually coordinating. I love it. (In the picture above, the two girls are in matching pink striped dresses.)
The life of a Spanish child today reminds me of my childhood from 20 years ago. Everything is simpler than in America. The kids in Spain have imaginations and are able to entertain themselves easily. They play outside and very few own their own IPAD, iPhone, and IPOD. They aren’t focused on electronics. They play outside. The parks in Seville aren’t grand and complicated. Quite the contrary. They are very simple – one small slide, one teeter-totter, and maybe two swings. That’s it.
My first day in Seville, we found a park close by our house that we spent the afternoon at. (For a list of my favorite playgrounds in Seville, click here.) I remember going there and feeling so much “mom guilt” over Jimmy living in Spain and taking him away from the giant and elaborate playgrounds in Michigan that he loved so much. Anyone else suffer form mom guilt??? After I had my little pity party on that bench and shed a few tears, I realized something, and it hit me hard. The Spanish kids playing on that playground were HAPPY. VERY HAPPY. They were playing tag. They were making up games with their friends. They were sitting in a circle and whispering in each other’s ears playing, “Telephone.” They were kicking a soccer ball around on the dirt. They weren’t deprived at all, and they definitely weren’t sad. I realized that you don't need grand and expensive playgrounds to have a great childhood. What you need is an imagination. Spanish kids have imaginations and they use them constantly. They don’t express the well known phrase that American kids say much too often, “I’m bored!” They find joy in the little things.
Sometimes I long for the simpler life. I love my iPhone, don’t get me wrong, but some days I long to be left alone and just enjoy life and the people that are physically around me. Spanish people have smart phones as well, but they don’t seem to be as obsessed with them as much as Americans are, especially the children. It’s a simpler life in Spain and it’s a life that I have grown to enjoy.
Spanish people in general have a high quality of life. Typically they don't overwork themselves, killing themselves from stress like Americans do. They work fewer hours each day, allowing for more time with family and friends. Of course they don't make as much money as Americans do, but their quality of life I would argue is higher. They get to spend more time each day enjoying a tapa and a drink with a friend, or relaxing with their children at the park. It's a trade off, but it's one that I think leads to overall better physical and mental health.
Spanish people are the type of people that I want to be friends with. They are full of passion, emotion, and a zest for life and the people that they love. I know I am stereotyping here, but the majority of Spanish people that I have met are warm and bubbly and so welcoming. They are loud and speak their mind. They are honest. They are loyal friends. They have opinions and beliefs that they are passionate about. They aren’t afraid to let others know what they think and feel. They give their whole hearts to something that they care about and they have an energy that is contagious. I have grown to love and respect the people of Spain.
In Seville I walk all day long and before I know it, I have conquered my exercise goal for the day on my Apple watch. I love how people who live in Seville have exercise built into their day without even trying or planning for it. You don't realize it, but you walk 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there, 30 minutes here, etc., and WOW! You’ve actually put in a good amount of exercise towards your daily goal.
Living in a city, you get the benefits of natural exercise. Because you don't have a car you are forced to walk everywhere, and I love it. I love that I didn’t “exercise” that day but really I did because I actually walked 6 miles without realizing. What a healthy and easy way to live and stay active naturally.
Bi or Tri-Lingual
I remember going out to dinner with a couple that we met in law school from Albania. We were talking about their country and the culture there. I asked them what other languages they speak besides English and Albanian. They looked at each other and started listing off the languages that they speak, almost like they couldn’t remember them all. They said, “Well, of course Albanian and English, and German, French, Spanish, Portuguese…… (Then they stopped to think) OH! And Italian too!” Nate and I laughed so hard at this. They forgot about Italian and that they speak Italian as well as the others. They speak so many languages that they can’t even recall all of them.
I know this isn’t specific to the Spanish culture, and that it’s more of an overall European thing, but Europeans in general speak a lot of languages. Growing up in America in a small town in Idaho, speaking English was it for me. I took my required two years of French in high school (I got an A but barley learned anything) and then moved on and never thought about it again. What a shame. I wish someone would of made me realize how valuable learning a language is and how many doors it can open up for you in your life. I love the fact that the kids in Spain know two or three languages, and often times more. They learn English in school and also learn the languages of their parents, as well as learning Spanish from TV and by living in a Spanish speaking country. The kids in Spain get so many opportunities to learn different languages and the parents really value that knowledge. What an incredible thing to give to your children. I wish America would follow suit. They say native English speakers are blessed and cursed at the same time – blessed because they can travel anywhere and get around speaking English and cursed because they aren't motivated to learn another language.
When we found out there wasn’t a dryer in our apartment in Seville I was disappointed. The “dryer” was the sun and the clothesline that hung outside in our terrace. I finally truly realized the use and value of clothespins – that they are used for more than just crafts and elementary teaching supplies. It took a while to get used to drying my clothes outside all the time but in the end, I grew to love it. I love getting outside and feeling the sun on my back. I love using a natural resource to do a machine's job. I loved saving energy and money. Imagine if everyone in America dried their clothes outside how much energy that would save.
So talk to me. What differences have you noticed between Spanish culture and American culture? I’d love to know in the comments below.