How to Enjoy Culture Shock in Spain — Spanish Culture & Spain Travel Blog

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Our immersion into Spanish culture (and the resulting culture shock in Spain) has taken some getting used to. Having said that, it was a meaningful and eye-opening thing to experience first-hand.

As you know, there are so many amazing things to do in Spain — with kids or without. There are also a few things you might want to know before you arrive. Culture shock in Spain came in several different forms, and below I try to advise learning to enjoy it like we have.

How to Enjoy Culture Shock in Spain — Spanish Culture & Spain Travel Blog

Our Culture Shock in Spain

Before moving to Valencia, we lived in Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan, all while traveling extensively in other Southeast Asian destinations like Indonesia and Vietnam.

You might not believe it, but out of all these countries, culture shock in Spain has been one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make. Why culture shock in Spain? Well, there are a few reasons, which I try to explain below.

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Spanish Culture Shock

Spain is quite different from most of the Western world. Indeed, many of Spain’s closest cultural cousins in Europe and North America do things differently. If you’re planning to visit Spain with kids, you might want to be aware of some of these differences.

There is an additional dimension to my culture shock in Spain that might seem unusual. I’ve lived in Asia for most of my adult life: 1997 to 2015. What’s more, my wife and kids have called it home since birth. Asia — especially Japan — can be an incredible place to raise a family. However, we discovered just how great it is to live in Valencia with kids, as well.

Japanese parenting and Western parenting have a few distinct differences. Even so, I think that culture shock in Spain would be real whether you’re coming from the East or the West.

I’ve already covered Spanish meal times here, but there’s much more to it.

A Disclaimer

Below is an expansion of our family’s first-year of culture shock in Spain. Keep in mind that our experience is completely through the lens of Valencia. Every region of Spain has its own customs and traditions.

I intentionally speak in broad-brush generalizations but bear with me. I only ask that you recognize that these elements of Spanish culture exist throughout the country in one form or another. Understand this and prepare for it, and it could save you a headache or two down the line.

Late Nights + Early Mornings = Sleep Deprivation

late nights How to Enjoy Culture Shock in Spain — Spanish Culture & Spain Travel Blog

The Takeaway: The Spanish drink a lot of coffee for a reason.

The Details: Before moving to Spain, I thought Spanish culture was all about staying out late and sleeping in the next day. I was half-right. Yes, the Spanish stay up very late. But then they get up early and go to work, school or wherever.

This was quite possibly the most challenging culture shock in Spain for us as parents. Why? Because the kids stay up too! During the warmer months, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a dad and his 5-year-old in the playground across the street at 10 or 11 pm. But when morning rolls around and work and school starts at 8 am? They are up and there on time.

Bedtime Battles

I’m naturally a late-night person, but as a parent, this became an issue with our kids. We want them to get enough sleep. But then at 10:30 or so we’d be pushing our son to go to bed, and his friends would start texting him. “Let’s talk about the homework after I eat dinner…” they’d say. At 10:30!

Many an argument about bedtime happened during those years. Our kids don’t function well on 6 hours of sleep, but that’s exactly what many of their friends were getting. Or less.

That said, we let our boy — then only 14 years old — go hang out with his friends around town on the weekends. We made him come in by midnight, while his friends stayed up much later.

How many major cities would you feel safe to let a teen walk the streets with his buddies that late? Not many. I’d never let him do that in downtown Atlanta. And in Tokyo, the police would probably stop him and ask where he’s supposed to be.

In Valencia, this was pretty normal. And safe. Well, as safe as any group of teens by themselves can possibly be…

There were other times we let him loose like the local kids. For example, during the last Fallas Festival, their schools were out and he didn’t come home until 4 am — with our permission. Then again, during Fallas, the streets are filled until close to dawn.

But on a regular school week? It was really hard to argue for “early to bed” when nearly all of their friends are still up. Ironically, when we moved to Mexico, the boy found a similar situation. In San Miguel de Allende, his group of friends — some local, some not — frequently stay out late. And with the permission of their parents.

So the battle still rages: he thinks it’s “normal” to stay out until 2 am at 15 years old. And we push back. We don’t care what’s common or uncommon wherever we live, our kids will get enough sleep.

Siesta is Real, But Not What You Think It Is

 Siesta: How to Enjoy Culture Shock in Spain — Spanish Culture & Spain Travel Blog

The Takeaway: If you have an errand to run or need anything from the shops, plan it before or after siesta time.

The Details: A lot of my culture shock in Spain deals with timing and the pace of life. I am told that each region of Spain has their own customs regarding how they spend the afternoon. But in general, siesta time is still one of the most revered Spanish customs. Thousands of shops, stores, and companies across the country close their doors for a few hours every weekday afternoon.

Why? So people can eat a big leisurely lunch with family and friends. This is the biggest meal of the day for most people.

Eat, Sleep, but Don’t Shop

Restaurants and cafes are open during Spanish siesta time, of course. However, places like the pharmacy, the hardware store, real estate agencies, the dentist, and the local bodega (corner store) all lock up and leave for up to three hours.

This kind of culture shock in Spain has everything to do with convenience. There are no 7-11s or other chain stores around. Well, certainly not as many as you’d see in most East Asian cities. So if you need something particular during that time, it can be hard to find. You may have to just wait or ride out to some massive shopping center that stays open — if that’s even an option in your part of Spain.

 spain lunch siesta. How to Enjoy Culture Shock in Spain — Spanish Culture & Spain Travel Blog

“Take Three”

Here in Valencia, almost everyone takes around two to three hours off in the middle of the day. Our kids are in different schools and on different grade schedules, but both come home from around one o’clock and return to school around three o’clock.

Do people sleep during this time? Not really. I had always associated siesta time with a long nap, but no. For the most part, people just relax with friends or family until they stroll back to work, which brings me to the next point:

Tranquila: Learn to Take Your Time

Spain ham market. How to Enjoy Culture Shock in Spain — Spanish Culture & Spain Travel Blog

The Takeaway: If you try to rush through your day in Spain, you may end up frustrated. Take your time. Or get started much earlier than you planned.

The Details: No one seems to be in a hurry here in Valencia. Apparently, that’s the case for most of the country. People meander down sidewalks deep in conversation, seemingly oblivious to the people behind them. Cashiers, bank tellers, and deli owners chat with whoever’s at the front of the line for a minute or two, and no one else in line complains. People take their time here, and it seems to me like they want you to take it easy, as well.

For example, if you have lunch in a restaurant, it’s usually a three-course affair, with a starter, the main dish and then dessert. Coffee comes after dessert. You can ask for your coffee to come with the dessert, but the waiter may shake his head in disapproval and then tell you to “just wait.”

Fashionably Late

People show up late, too. A lot. And by the looks of it, it’s not really a big deal to the people waiting. For example, we attended a glass jewelry making workshop one weekend in a hip neighborhood nearby. We stood in front of the shop’s door for so long that we started to wonder if we went to the wrong place.

Ten minutes later, others started showing up and standing around. Another ten minutes pass, and then the instructor and owner of the jewelry shop walked up and unlocked the front door. No apology. No rushing to get started. Just a smile and a “Come on in!”

And you know what? No one was angry, so we weren’t either.

Another example: our daughter went on a 4-day trip with her school. The morning she was to leave, we were all rushing around so that we would be standing at the bus pick-up spot for a departure at 8 am. That is what her class was told to do, anyway. Told by her teacher and school staff.

We arrived at 7:55 am, and — you guessed it — no one was there. No bus, either. Again, we questioned if we were at the right place. After all, our Spanish was still pretty poor. But we waited another ten minutes and then another family showed up. By 8:15, several families arrived, and then the teachers started showing up at around 8:20.

From 24-7 to “Now and Then”

Tokyo culture is so different. Everyone rushes to be on time and people worry about you if you’re 5 minutes late. Everything is available 24-7, and some shops seem to never close.

Not in Spain. This aspect of Spanish culture was especially hard to adjust to. I get it, I respect it, and I kinda like it. But I never got used to it.

Indulge Yourself a Bit

night churros. How to Enjoy Culture Shock in Spain — Spanish Culture & Spain Travel Blog

The Takeaway: Act like a local and treat yourself on occasion.

The Details: Spain consistently maintains one of the highest life expectancy rates in Europe, and at the time of writing, Spanish citizens live on average four years longer than Americans. You would think that their diet would starkly reflect this longer life, right?

Wrong.

Walk around Valencia or other Spanish cities and you might think that most of the Spanish population lives off of bread, booze, ham, sugar, and caffeine. It’s not unusual for me to see someone having a beer with breakfast (and any other meal). Sweet, frosted pastries seem to be consumed all day.

Moderation is the Key

Yet despite this, it looks to us like moderation is practiced — I’ve never seen binge drinking while out on the town, and all-you-can-eat buffets are rare. But the Spanish diet has plenty of indulgences, and perhaps you should have a few, too.

Some research suggests that all the walking and Spanish culture’s penchant for taking it easy helps keep them healthy, and I think that there’s something to that.

Some Cities are Ghost Towns in August

graffiti street. How to Enjoy Culture Shock in Spain — Spanish Culture & Spain Travel Blog

The Takeaway: Many cool neighborhoods in Spanish cities empty out in August because everyone who lives there goes on holiday.

The Details: August is the traditional holiday month for Spanish locals. There may be no one on the streets in some areas.

No, the entire country doesn’t shut down. However, many of the most interesting and vibrant districts and neighborhoods may seem as abandoned as the set of an apocalypse movie. That’s because almost everyone in the area has closed up their shops and apartment windows and gone on vacation for the entire month. Businesses are shuttered up. You may see a piece of paper taped to the front door saying “See you in September.” That’s because they’ve all left for the beach.

beach. How to Enjoy Culture Shock in Spain — Spanish Culture & Spain Travel Blog

Life is a Beach (in August)

The opposite is true in many places along the coast. Once-sleepy little beach towns become mobbed by tourists. Why? It seems that Spanish culture dictates that everyone from the cities must stake out their spot in the sand for three to four weeks.

This urban exodus was a special challenge for us. We arrived in Spain in August and needed to find an apartment as soon as possible. Many real estate agencies closed for the entire month. Even worse, it was hard to judge where to live because so many neighborhoods looked like a deserted cityscape straight out of Robocop.

Even the most beautiful fruit stands, coffee shops and boutiques have the same dusty, graffiti-covered gates. They roll down over the shops like cruddy garage doors. Roll the shutters up and put out some tables. Presto! Now you have a charming old-world lane with cafes and al fresco dining. But roll all of these grimy shutters down simultaneously, and you can really get a false impression of a beautiful area.

Get Comfortable with Affection

Cuenca affection. How to Enjoy Culture Shock in Spain — Spanish Culture & Spain Travel Blog

The Takeaway: Get used to physical contact if you aren’t already.

The Details: One big culture shock in Spain for many people from Japan and North America is the physicality of it: people kiss cheeks in greeting. Men hug. Not a problem for me. However, many seem surprised at how hands-on Spanish culture can be when it comes to parenting and affection.

People in Spain hug kids. They squeeze them. They grab them and hold their hands, muss their hair, and kiss their heads and cheeks. This affection is done publicly, brazenly, and often. Even when it isn’t your child. If you arrive with babies, old ladies will squeeze their cheeks. Local kids will grab their hands or kiss their fingers.

Let’s Get Physical

This kind of affection isn’t just for parents or other blood relatives. I’ve seen coaches and teachers paw on kids in ways that you’d never consider doing in the United States now. Personally? I don’t have a problem with it. That is, at least with what I’ve seen. It’s just part of Spanish culture. These are adults showing a child that they care for them, but it can be jarring for people with physical space issues. Perhaps especially jarring for anyone who thinks that a pervert is lurking around every corner.

I’m not saying that abuse doesn’t happen here. Or that it happens more or less than it does anywhere else. And I’m not saying that everyone in the United States thinks this way either. On the other hand, I am a former (male) school teacher in the USA. I know from experience that many adults in the States are terrified of being falsely accused of some sort of sexual misconduct. So scared, in fact, that they end up not giving some children the physical sense of connection they may need.

Me? I’m a pretty physical guy. My whole family is, actually. I’ve always hugged my parents, siblings, and friends, and I snuggle and kiss on my kids whenever they’ll let me. Puberty has arrived for both of them, and this changes the rules of how we interact. But for now, I like being in countries where people aren’t afraid to physically show that they love someone.

People Smoke Everywhere

 smoking. How to Enjoy Culture Shock in Spain — Spanish Culture & Spain Travel Blog

The Takeaway: Hold your breath.

The Details: People seem to be lighting up all over Spain, all the time. Actually, that’s not true. In truth, it’s now illegal to smoke indoors in Spain. But what that means is that there’s someone puffing away at a majority of outdoor tables in Spain’s countless al fresco dining and cafe options. Tobacco shops are everywhere, and they seem to always be busy.

Take it Outside

I guess if there’s a positive, it’s that interiors are smoke-free now. That’s a is a good thing: you’ll always have a place to sit with kids. And if you are a smoker, no judgment. Go for it. You’ll find much camaraderie here. But for non-smokers like Keiko (and ex-smokers like me), it’s a drag to be sequestered inside when the weather’s nice. We tolerate our share of smoking in Japan and Southeast Asia. Believe me. But where Japan seems to be becoming more restrictive, I don’t see that change happening on the street here. This was a surprising and significant culture shock in Spain.

Conclusion: Have You Experienced Culture Shock in Spain or Elsewhere?

These are just a few cultural differences and experiences we’ve noticed so far. Would you agree with these? What would you add to this list of things to know about Spanish culture? What are your culture shock experiences? Tell us in the comments below, or contact me directly.

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Comments

  1. This reminds me alot of Italy – restaurant meals are LONG, no one is on time, AND you cant get into a shop mid-day (or on Monday morning either!). The staying up and out late would be hard for me!

    • Yes, I think there are cultural comparisons around the Mediterranean (Greece, too). I’m naturally a late-night person but have had to adjust my schedule (and my LIFE) to a much earlier schedule

  2. As a spaniard I always wonder why this country is constantly among those with highest life expectancy (usually first, second or third, changing positions with Japan, maybe Italy), despite not having a strong economy, political and deep structural issues, coming from a dictatorship 45 years ago… And I usually conclude that maybe our shcedules and way of living is not the most accurate to improve productivity, but maybe it is to just enjoy life.
    Don’t get me wrong, Spain has a lot of work to do to become a perfect country for everyone. But I constantly say that with a little adjustments, Spain could be a great place to live.

    • Hi David. Thanks for your comment. I love to hear from readers — especially when they are from the places I write about. I think you’re right: many of the things that gave me culture shock are probably factors in the long life expectancy in Spain. And “productivity” may not contribute to a better (or longer) life. My only disagreement is when you say: ” But I constantly say that with a little adjustments, Spain could be a great place to live.” My disagreement? You say “could.” Spain *IS* a great place to live. We all miss it in our own ways, the kids missing life in Valencia the most. We had to adapt to life in Spain, but in the end, it was worth it!

  3. Thanks for the tips! Our family suddenly finds ourselves considering Spain for our winter travels as I have found great flights!

  4. I like your article! I am agree with you athough I am Spanish 🙂 But I lived in Germany for many years and as I came back I had some kind of intercultural shock (or perspective).
    I want to add that not whole Spain is like Valencia!! I come from Madrid and I had also some cultural shock in Alicante (where I live now), because of the amount of party, the amount of “petardos” (firecracker) and the slowness of life, delays and so on.
    I also see that things like smoking are better than some years ago. As mi oldest son (7) was born it was allowed to smoke inside all bars and restaurants!! :-S
    Nice to read you!
    Isabel

    • Great to hear your perspective, Isabel. I know that Valencia — and every region of Spain — has its own culture, customs and personality, so I can’t wait to see more of the country soon! Know what you mean re: smoking too. When my son was born in Tokyo in 2002, even “Family” restaurants had ashtrays on half the tables! It’s much much better now, and I think that this trend will continue worldwide…at least I hope! Get in touch next time you are in Valencia!

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