Adjusting to Madrid’s culture

Whenever you study or live in another area, there are bound to some differences in the culture and lifestyle of your new country compared to your old country. Our study abroad program tries to prepare us for this and remind us to expect some amount of culture shock when dealing with these changes. At the same time though, there are some things that are surprisingly similar or only have small differences. Here are some of the major aspects that have drawn my attention while studying abroad in Madrid. It’s a long, disorganized list, but it’s been a long and crazy semester.

  • Madrileños and Spaniards are notoriously afraid of the cold. Though the weather often gets so hot in the summer that many people leave Madrid for their summer homes, the temperature in the spring fluctuates a lot, with ranges of 10°C (18°F) in one day. Because of this, madrileños always seem to wear long pants and shirts and there’s a popular saying that says hasta el 40 de mayo no te quites el sayo, which means until the 40th of May, don’t remove your jacket. Anyone who wears shorts before then usually looks like a guiri, which is Spain’s version of a gringo.
  • Spaniards are pretty social people, but they don’t typically say hi to or smile at random people on the street. Inside buildings, however, they usually always greet people because then there’s an assumption that they know each other.
  • People bring ladders to parades so that their kids can sit on them and see. This was one of the first things we figured out when everyone was carrying really large ladders to the Three Kings Day parade on one of our first night’s here.
  • Most non-Americans don’t celebrate Mardi Gras, but Carnaval is basically the same thing, though with a lot more masks.
  • Dryers are very uncommon, so almost everyone air dries their clothing outside on the clothesline. As a result, clothes don’t usually shrink much like we’re used to.
  • Many apartments are very small, so people very rarely meet in each others’ houses except on formal occasions, in small groups, or when invited over for a planned meal. People usually meet in cafés, bars, or in the city’s many green spaces. This, combined with the post-Franco movida madrileña, probably helps explains why there’s so much PDA in Spain — they don’t usually hang out in their houses, so they do it in parks and on the metro. All of this also leads to the long meals in restaurants, student tradition of botellón, and chill café culture that we’ve got to know well while in Spain.
  • Along the same lines, personal space is totally different here. Hugging and giving besos, or kisses, when meeting or seeing someone you know is the norm. It’s not at all strange to sit very close or talk very close together, even if you don’t know each other that well, aren’t romantically involved, or are of the same sex.
  • Siestas are a real thing. Though not as many people go home for a nap nowadays, almost everywhere has a long break from 2:00pm to 4:00pm where people have a long lunch break and relax. Many stores, especially smaller ones, are closed during this time too, which has occasionally caused us problems.
  • Pharmacies are everywhere and are indicated by the typical European green plus sign. However, they’re very different from ours and are nothing like your neighborhood CVS. They only have pharmaceutical drugs and you don’t really need a prescription, even for antibiotics. If you explain your symptoms the licensed pharmacist, they’ll decide what to give it to you and you don’t really need to go to a doctor. These antibiotics are also very cheap, even without insurance, presumably because of socialized medicine.
  • Speaking of shopping, the way stores are structured is very different here. While we have a lot of one-stop shops that carry a huge variety of products like Wal-Mart and even things like CVS, most of Spain’s stores specialize in a small set of product lines, like a clothing store, a drug store, a bakery, etc., which makes it hard for us to figure out where to buy certain items like school supplies. This is beginning to change with the arrival of some hypermarkets like Carrefour, Alcampo, and El Corte Inglés, much to the amazement of the older generations of Spaniards.
  • Living in a very Catholic country, a common question was always is today a holiday? Everything shuts down on major holidays like Christmas, New Year’s, Three Kings Day, Labor Day, etc., causing many problems if you don’t realize it and plan ahead of time.
  • There is a huge exportation of American culture like in many places around the world. Even though they have their own movies, TV stations, and other elements of popular culture, they still dub tons of our media and show it on their channels. My host family watches tons of our reality TV shoes like Pawn Shop and Grease Monkey and watches movies on the Paramount Channel, and one of our professors loves Netflix’s House of Cards. It was crazy to see all of the same stuff when we first got here.
  • Things as simple as the folders and paper we use for school are also very different. Besides the fact that they use a longer and skinnier paper size (A4, the international standard), they don’t really use our version of folders with pockets, but instead use plastic little sac things that close. Notebook paper is also different. We couldn’t find any lined paper, other than wide-ruled paper like from preschool; all their notebooks have paper that resembles graph paper.
  • The economic crisis continues to affect daily life all around Spain. As one of the areas hit pretty hard by the worldwide recession and Eurozone problems, all Spaniards feel the effects of la crisis and talk about it often. We’ve gotten used to it know, which is a little scary to admit, but it’s not uncommon to see homeless people begging on many street corners, outside grocery stores, or on Metro cars with handwritten and spoken appeals for money. It’s not too bad but sometimes they can be pretty forceful as well. You also occasionally see homeless pets and older people living on the streets because of foreclosures. The economic troubles are probably some of the major reasons that gold buying businesses and lotteries seem so popular here.
  • On a happier note: little dogs are huge here. Many of them also do not wear leashes, but do wear jackets when it’s cold out. I’m not sure if the jackets are to make them warmer or to make it harder for them to run away, but either way the dogs are adorable and trot along happily. I think one of the reasons they don’t need leashes is because their legs are so small that they couldn’t outrun their owners even if they tried.
  • The Metro here is amazingly awesome and so much better than the DC metro, with huge ridership, very short times between trains, very close Metro stations, and tons of lines with many transfer points that make using it and getting around the city so easy. One of the best parts is that we pay 35 € a month for unlimited rides on the Metro and buses, something that we really need to get back in Washington, DC. I also like that they seem to have a similar hatred for escalefting as we do in DC. They’re not quite as angry about it though, probably because with some lines 5 escalators deep into the ground, they don’t mind the occasional break from walking. The Metro, and its pretty long hours, is one of the things I’m going to miss the most when going back to the DC, even if Ben and I did get lost for 40 minutes on one of our first nights in Madrid because we got out the wrong exit.
  • As a huge tourist city, we’re very used to protecting ourselves from pickpockets. Some of our friends have had their belongings stolen, but we’ve gotten pretty good at separating money and valuables, as well as never leaving our phones or bags unattended, especially not in touristy areas or on the Metro. We’re also very mindful of where everything is on our bodies and only walk around with our backpacks on our backs when we know nothing important is in there. Madrid’s a very safe city free from most violent crime, but the skillful pickpockets are pretty common.
  • Something small that never ceases to annoy us is that the city’s crosswalks are also weird in that there is not one on every side of the intersection. Sometimes you have to walk around the intersection to get to the corner you want because there’s not a sidewalk where you want it.
  • Similarly, street signs outside the United States are very hard to come by or find. Madrid is one of the better cities for this, but it’s still often hard for us to see the street signs because they’re on the buildings and not on the actual street.
  • Finally, soccer really is huge, which you’ve already learned by now if you’ve read my blog. Our university offers a class on the subject, everyone talks about the games, people are often judged by their team affiliation, and the city supports two daily sports newspapers devoted almost exclusively to soccer. As we gear up for Madrid’s two teams to fight it out in Champion’s League final, which for the first time is being contested by two clubs from the same city, I’m reminded of the fact that things won’t be like this when we go back to the United States!

Despite all of these differences or surprises, and the many more I didn’t think to list here or just seem obvious by now, we all adjusted pretty well thanks to our local support system of friends, program coordinators, and homestay families. There are tons of articles about how Spanish culture will need to change in the future and that the economic crisis shows how the laid back culture full of siestas is unsustainable and might hurt their productivity. However, the Spaniards are very proud of their traditions and way of life, and we certainly loved our time here and could all learn a thing or five from them; we’re hopeful we’ll be able to take some of what we’ve experienced here back home with us, especially their fun-loving culture full of life that still considers the little things.

About Casey Brown

Student at American University in Washington, DC, studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. News addict. Traveler. Linguaphile. Volunteer. Techie. Movie lover. Networker. Learner. Casey.
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