7 Things NOT to Expect When Visiting Spain

June 24, 2014 • Featured, Madrid, Spanish Traditions

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.

Cañas on a Terrace in Sevilla

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. Ordering Gin Tonics in Plaza Paja 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

My Tiny Spanish Apartment ElevatorThere 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

Las Ventas Bullfighting Ring in Madrid 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

Spanish Lunch 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

Tapas Bar in Spain 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.

Anything I missed? What else would you add to the list of things not to expect when visiting Spain?

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18 Responses to 7 Things NOT to Expect When Visiting Spain

  1. Nadette says:

    Ha, the stand up and eat and talk in white wasn’t even a goal of mine..until now. Seriously, how do they do it?! you may be eating breakfast too early and skipping the all necessary mirienda/desayuno segundo around 1030/11. (I would DIE without it) I saw my bank teller digging into his segundo this am. I was amused. *head’s up* Cataluña banned bullfighting in 2010. the law became effective in 2012, but they basically called halt a halt to all of it in 2010. I was here when right after they voted for it.

    • Sonia says:

      The Canary Islands was the first community in the nation that banned bullfighting in 1991. By the way, not every Spaniard loves bullfights.

  2. Koch says:

    love it all. I want to try the juggling act.
    Viva espana!

  3. Along the lines with food safety and hygiene – don’t expect much. Don’t expect toilet paper, don’t expect soap, and sometimes don’t expect even a toilet seat. These are the bathrooms that the people serving you your food are using as well! If there is soap, don’t expect very many people to wash there hands. Don’t expect public shame in nose picking.

  4. Such truth! What about every woman being able to dance flamenco? That made me disappointed when I got here. I really wanted break out flamenco battles in the street.

    By the way, love that photo of you and the waiter. It’s perfect for this post! haha


  5. […] Race meets Spanish-English summer camp. Then add in a significant language barrier, a hefty dose of cultural differences, a dozen strong personalities and a couple thousand missing (read: never ordered) breakfast cakes. […]

  6. Pedro1312 says:

    the issue of flamenco and bullfighting is something that upsets many of us who do not care about it, and i am from Murcia so let alone people from the North who literally do not care.

    to say or suggest that Spaniards love flamenco and bullfighting is like saying that Americans are cowboys and love rodeo…..i have been to Philadelphia and New York city and have not seen any cowboy, haha

    it really surprises me that Americans think of flamenco and bullfighting when Spain is brought up…..well perhaps it is our own fault because we have failed and still we fail to show the world the reality of this country, a country with dramatic divergences from region to region.

    the stereotype of flamenco and bullfighting applied to Spain in general is untrue, a total lie that makes me fume everytime i see it.

    as for having less personal space…well this is something that depends on the person, and Spain have more than 40 millions of people….perhaps in Andalucia and because they are more open, more friendly, more funny, they may treat you closer…..but such a thing does not apply to me, amd i am sure it does not to many more.

    great blog post by the way 🙂

    • Amy says:

      Being from Texas I’m asked way too often if I ride horses and wear a cowboy hat so I understand exactly where you are coming from! I think one of the most phenomenal parts of Spain is its diversity. It makes it a country where there is always more to see and explore! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. castaljuan says:

    Can you recommend any good places for food/drinks in the Retiro area? I’ll be visiting for a little over a week for work, and don’t want to guess wrong on places to go.

    Any tips would be awesome.


    • Amy says:

      Hi John! You’re going to love Madrid! Retiro is pretty huge so it depends on what part of the park you’re in. If you are near Atocha I’d recommend Casa Gonzalez in Barrio de las Letras. It’s on Calle Leon and has an awesome wine by the glass menu (try their Toro!) and fantastic tostas (best Sobresada I’ve tasted!). For lunch try the menu del dia at Terra Mundi. It’s also in that barrio and is fantastic!

      Have a great trip!!

      • coastaljuan says:

        I’ll be on Paseo del Prado right across from the train station, so Atocha I guess. Thanks for the tips. Also, is La Victoria closed down? The building didn’t look very promising on Google’s street view.

        • Amy says:

          As of a few weeks ago La Victoria was closed for the August vacations (like just about every one of my favorite places in Madrid!) During the day they sometimes have the window shutters closed which would make it look like it’s been shut down. But as far as I know it should be open again by now! Definitely worth checking out. There is a great Cadiz-style restaurant next door with spectacular fried calamari. And a few blocks away is a newly reopened bar called El Sur which has AMAZING tortilla Española! Hope you have a great trip!

  8. […] came an even greater surprise: something green! By and large Madrid’s typical old-time bars are havens of meat and potatoes. And although that cured ham is heavenly and those fresh-cut, […]

  9. Luis Alfredo says:

    1 or every one that speak english, have your same mother tongue skills. So speak estándar english, this gonna be good for your experience
    2 labor cost in restaurant business was reduced beyond what is reasonable. So labor by server have increased exponentially. Then pro server low their level and owner hire servers with any training; without speaking of entrepreneurs that represents almost 80% of small restaurant business that has just his experienced as restaurant worker in any place as restaurant business foundations. That thing you call way of life. In restaurant business is the case that servers with any training, replace skills and proficiency with “LOL” , fake kindness; waiters picking up customers; free chupitos ….so on
    3. Depends, you can´t most of people are like this. I think you talk about places for going out or centre neighbors, or at gym,
    4. ok. Good manners at retail store are not a highligth. About waiters in usually busy spot, they usually work an average of 50 hours per week, many of them dont get paid for extra time, their contracts are for few hours. And this not a way of life or style. 5. And local food are fresh made, and cheap tapas are fresh, or homemade; or all paellas are paellas.
    6. You now can in some places. This actually change a lot
    7 Tables in a past time were remove so businnes can have more space for customers despite the limits they have by law ( a thing here in restaurant business is a joke)
    And don´t expect servers are machines and can work 24 hours for you; or can wait 2 hours for you drink a glass of wine after we already closet he business. Find and ask for a place that match you expectation in experience, product and hours you want spend in particular at nigth.

  10. Kati Shea says:

    I know I am super late on this post, but I just stumbled accorss and wanted to comment. I too studies abroad in Spain, and noticed all of the same things! Not having personal space, and adjusting to a slower lifestyle are just a few of the things that aloowed my personal perspective to transform while abroad. It has now been three years since my life changing adventure, and I am attempting to move back to Spain to teach English. Do you have any advice?

    • Amy says:

      Hi Kati! Thanks for the comment! I definitely understand how Spain gets under your skin and pulls you back. I have taught through two different programs: UCETAM and the Auxiliar de Conversación program through the Ministry of Education. I much preferred by experience in UCETAM but there are MANY more job opportunities through the ministry. There is tons of demand for English teachers in Spain, so there is never a shortage of work! Good luck!!

  11. Bradavon says:

    Fun blog thanks.

    Number 1: Spain is oddly one of the worst European countries for knowing English. Probably because it’s a world language too. Not that we can complain English speakers are the worst at languages period.

    Number 2 seems to be quintessentially American, maybe Canadian too.

    I’ve never been to another country where tips are so expected, for bad service too! (pay your staff a decent wage perhaps?) or waiters hang around like bad breath. Maybe I wasn’t ready to leave, why are you bringing me the bill? Are the usual British thoughts to American waiting service :-).

    * Number 3 is strange to Brits too though. No doubt something to do with our shared heritage.
    * Number 5 all nationalities seems to think all Brits like tea and love football. We don’t.
    * Number 6 is gradually changing. It’s bad for the economy.

    “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.”

    This seems to be quintessentially American, maybe Canadian too. It works just the same in here in the UK.

    I’ve been annoyed when in an American grocery store and a clerk is trying to bag my goods. I’m an adult go away.

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