The longer I live in Spain, the more I love this country, this culture and (of course) this cuisine. But more than anything, I’m learning how different it is from what I’m used to in the States.
For one, there is the food safety system (or lack thereof) in which refrigeration and anti-contamination tends to be more of a suggestions than a hard and fast rule. While California is passing laws making bartenders wear gloves, mayonnaise-covered potato salad is sitting out on bars across Madrid for days on end.
And then there’s the check-out system at the grocery store, which just may be the single most stressful place in all of Spain. Somehow I am expected to bag my food, pay the clerk and not get bowled over by the other twenty customers attempting to the same thing simultaneously in a space about the size of a public bathroom stall and in the span of about 17 seconds.
But despite how maddening some aspects of this culture can be, as my Spain Time meter ticks closer to two years I’m beginning to understand where some of the seeming insanity is coming from. Yes, I’ve been sitting at this café table for twenty minutes without so much as a peep from the waiter. And no, it doesn’t bother me one bit.
Spain can be spectacular, if you come at it with a reasonable set of expectations. Expectation #1: This is not America. They do just about everything differently here than we do in the U.S. But hey, that’s why I live here, that’s why I try to convince everyone I know to come visit here and that’s why so many of us foreigners are staying here. That being said, when in Spain please, please do NOT expect that:
1. Everyone will speak English
Spain may spend huge amounts of money for native English speakers such as myself to teach English in its public schools, but that does not mean every Spaniard speaks English. In fact, while the majority of the country knows the basics, there are few better ways to make someone (particularly bartenders) grumpy than to assume they speak English.
The first phrase I always learn when traveling to a country in which people speak a language I don’t know is “Excuse me, do you speak English?” In Spanish the simplest way to say it is “Perdon, hablas ingles?” To which nearly every person will unfailingly respond with “umm, a little,” and likely proceed to give you directions in perfect English. They may even take you by the arm and walk you to you destination. Spaniards never cease to amaze me at how willing they are to help and how kind they can be to strangers if you give them the chance.
2. That waiters will attend to you immediately or bring your check without asking
Both of those very American things are considered massively rude here in Spain. In a culture where people post up in a bar/restaurant for literally hours nursing one beer, super attentive waitstaff are considered pushy and uninviting. Sometimes that means you have to work for your food/drinks. If a waiter doesn’t come by your table within 10 minutes, try going to the bar and ordering there. They will almost always then take your food/drinks to your table even if you order at the bar. In small, packed places (which are often the best kind!) expect to hop up and grab your food or drinks when the bartender rings a bell/shouts at you/asks another patron to get your attention. When it comes time to pay, don’t worry about pleasantries like “Could you please bring us the check when you get a moment?” Catch the waiter’s or barman’s attention from across the room, throw your hand in the air and make a writing motion while mouthing the words “la cuenta, por favor.”
If that doesn’t work (which it usually does), and you’re not at a tablecloth covered table (aka a nicer sit-down restaurant), head up to the bar on your way out and pay there. Again, this isn’t considered bad service in Spain. Usually there are only two people plus the kitchen staff working in a bar/restaurant which could have upwards of 50 people clamoring to get cañas of beer and raciones of food.
Waiters here do not get tips and instead are paid on salary and working in a restaurant is considered a career, not a summer job for students. In order to make this pay scale sustainable, restaurants and bars hire very few waiters. But trust me, the ones they do hire are some of the hardest workers I’ve seen. Imagine serving upwards of a dozen tables simultaneously.
3. That people won’t encroach on your personal bubble
There are no personal bubbles in Spain. Talking to a Spaniard? They will probably be inches from your face, touching your arm, patting your shoulder or grasping your knee to emphasize the important points of their story. Don’t worry. They aren’t being forward or pushy or awkward. Spaniards as a rule are just used to having less personal space.
Things here are people-sized, not elephant-sized like they tend to be in the States. Case-in-point: elevators. You’d be lucky to squeeze five rail-thin runway models in the typical apartment-building elevator.
4. That the waiters/store clerks will be smiley and friendly
It’s (probably) not you. People who work in the hospitality industry in Spain are not overly happy, sunshiney people who smile and greet every customer as if he or she were a long-lost friend. Some may say that makes them rude. Others would say that makes them honest. Americans have the stereotype abroad of being smiley, often without reason.
If a Spanish waiter smiles at you, more often that not it’s because he or she is actually happy or amused, not that they are painting on positive emotions to earn tips. Here the service industry is possibly the most efficient industry in the country. There is no time for pleasantries and small talk. Six other tables are trying to order another drink and at least one of them is an old friend of the waiter and will have to recount the major events of every family member before the waiter can bring over your vino tinto.
5. Every flamenco bar is authentic and every Spaniard loves bullfights
Before I lived in Spain, I pictured a sun-soaked country where feisty women in red polka-dot dresses stomped their feet to flamenco music in every bar and bullfighting stadiums were packed like U.S. football stadiums with adoring Spaniards cheering on their favorite matadors. This, I quickly learned, was the Spain of the movies.
The romanticized (and highly simplified) antique version of a Spain gone by. Yes, you can still find good flamenco in Madrid, but there will almost never be a placard outside advertising the shows in English. If you’re looking for the real thing, not the tourist productions, check out this post at Madrid Chow. Every one of these places is on my Must Do Immediately list.
Rather than the national sport, bullfighting is a highly controversial spectacle in Spain. In Galicia the people I lived and worked with did not identify at all with the “Spanish” bullfighting culture. That was something they did down south in Andalucia, my Galician friends told me.
In Madrid, it seems to be more of a mixed bag. While some people still like and appreciate the sport, it is becoming less and less popular. Between 2007 and 2012, for example, attendance at major bull fights fell 40 percent countrywide. And last year in Cataluña (the province where Barcelona is located) bullfighting was outlawed altogether. That being said, you can still see a bullfight in Madrid at Las Ventas during bullfighting season which runs March through October.
6. That you can eat lunch at noon and dinner at 5:00
I’ll never forget my first few months on the Spanish eating schedule. It was during my study abroad in college and I was living with a Spanish woman, who happened to be a phenomenal cook but didn’t get home from work until nearly 3 p.m. By noon my stomach was grumbling. By 1:00 it was protesting with growls loud enough for half of my Spanish Politics class to hear. By 2:00 I was running to the libreria on campus to buy a pre-packaged chocolate-filled croissant as long as my forearm.
Needless to say it took some serious adjustment to accustom myself to having toast and tomatoes for breakfast at 8 a.m. and then waiting seven hours until the huge three-course lunch at 2:30 or 3 p.m. Dinner finally rolls around at about 10 p.m. and is often light, a piece of fruit and yogurt at home or a couple tapas at a restaurant.
Noon in Spain is still morning coffee time, which means few if any restaurants that do not specifically cater to tourists will be serving lunch. And the multi-course, multi-hour awesomeness that is a true Spanish lunch is absolutely worth waiting for. At the typical American dinner time (between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.) Spaniards have just finished lunch and opened back up their shops for the evening shopping rush.
Most bars’ kitchens will be closed between about 4:30 and 8:30 p.m. You might be able to scrounge up a side of olives or a serving of that potato salad I mentioned earlier, but the glory of Spanish tapas won’t kick into motion until at least 9 p.m.
7. That you will sit at a table every time you eat a meal
Why place a huge hunk of wood between friends trying to chat, catch up, make jokes and tell stories? In a culture as social as Spain’s tables can be a more of a burden than a blessing. Remove them from bars or squish them up against one wall and suddenly there is much more room for socializing! Years of table-free eating have turned Spaniards into impressive jugglers. Life goal: be able to drink red wine, eat a runny tortilla española and carry on a full Spanish conversation while standing in a packed bar wearing white.