Culture Shock: Spain

Spanish timetables by V. Molina

This article was written by Rachel German, published on 9th September 2010 and has been read 42958 times.

Rachel German gives an account of what you should look out for when you land in the Iberian Peninsula. Beware of meatballs, siestas and dodgy haircuts...Culture shock - a sense of alienation towards a host cultural environment on the part of a foreign visitor; the difficulty people have adjusting to a new culture that differs markedly from their own. 
Every person will have a different experience of culture shock; rarely will people not have any at all.

When you arrive in your destination country, you may be overwhelmed with the feeling of “why did I commit myself to this for a whole year/semester?” Some people don’t get overwhelmed straight away and this is often referred to as the “honeymoon period”. Everything is new and exciting, it’s hot, there are palm trees; yup, everything is marvellous. But sooner or later it will hit. Maybe when you’re trying and failing to sort out registration at the university, or when you can’t get served in a pharmacy due to geriatric queue jumping, or when you find yourself nearly homeless as flats are darned hard to come by. This is sometimes called the “negotiation phase” where excitement fades away, replaced by anxiety, frustration and sometimes depression. Adjustment can sometimes take up to 6 months as you develop routines and what once seemed peculiar or odd becomes reassuringly familiar in its own way.

These points affected me in my first few months in Seville:

1. Por favor, I don’t think so.
The first thing that struck me was differences in terms of politeness. If you literally translate a sentence from English into Spanish you won’t get anywhere- there’s no point saying “me gustaría tomar un café por favor” (I would like a coffee please) - you’ll be mocked - as the Spanish prefer something shorter and snappier – you may even hear “dame un café” (give me a coffee). Indeed, pleases and thank you are often optional. Service can be with or without a smile, as customer service isn’t really drummed into employees like it is elsewhere. However, I found that once you become a regular you may be able to bring out a small grimace in people. Also, staring is the norm in Spain - just stare back amiably and see who drops their gaze first, fun times.

I also realised that the Spanish have a different views on queuing - English people love a good line and usually docilely go to the back of one (even if they’re not sure what they’re queuing for). In Spain, if you’re not careful, maybe distracted by an interesting display, obviously talking a foreign language or not quite within the parameters of the regimented line, you may find a cunning biddy neatly sidesteps you and voilà! You’ve been overtaken. Once she’s put her shopping down on the till that’s it, you’ve had it, even if she totters off to collect more items. (Little old ladies are the ones to watch out for in Spain - devious and crafty they can be).

2. The concept of time in Spain
It felt at first like Seville was in its own time zone. You need a new debit card sent to you as you’ve no money until it comes? Sure, we’ll sort it mañana. You have no idea how to finish registering at uni? Try mañana. The office is open 10AM to 2PM but it’s 11AM and the door is locked? Maybe mañana. You get the idea. Nothing will happen quickly, and all your urgency will fall on deaf, slightly irritated, Spanish ears. This was all incredibly frustrating at first but eventually you learn to let it lie.

3. Bureaucracy hell
The Spanish bank account episode was particularly painful. The woman at the information desk got to know me quite well with all my trips there, what with the paperwork to sign and passports to photocopy. The university processing wasn’t the most enjoyable either. There was a long queue at the Erasmus information desk where you were sent away with nothing but a generic welcome pack. A huge amount of passport photos were needed (very cheap to do there compared to the UK). The scary part was meeting the representative for my department - she was brusque, unfriendly and didn’t explain things well at all. She went hugely out of her way for me by photocopying a few bits of paper but that’s about it. The Erasmus helpers were far more sympathetic, probably because they’d lived through the experience somewhere too. I had to bring more paperwork, get things signed off and God knows what else (my mind seems to have voluntarily cast the whole episode in a foggy light).

4. Uni à la carte
What seemed slightly strange to us was being allowed to choose whatever courses you wanted. We all emailed our home institution representative just to make sure it was ok (she wasn’t too keen on us taking Drama or Art if our degree was Law and Spanish for instance) but otherwise, we were free to do whatever - I chose North African literature and Andalucian sociolinguistics alongside a couple of Anthropology courses (my degree being in Anthropology and Spanish). I deliberately chose courses that didn’t have classes on a Friday, handy for when you want to travel at weekends. For each course there were usually two different classes, at different times and with different teachers so it was possible, although making sure your timetable didn’t clash was hard work! It did seem odd that you were putting together your own timetable, picking and choosing on a very random basis but there we go.

As for the studying itself, yet again, it was really up to you. Classes were quite reminiscent of school in that a teacher stood and spoke, expecting you to jot down their every thought. There was some discussion and questions, but not on the same level as you may be used to in seminars. Spanish students often didn’t turn up to any classes until the exam, when you’d discover there were in fact 35 people in your class, not 17 like you thought. Often you’d have a piece of work to hand in (the quota being pages and not words!) and an exam, so self tutoring was an option in a way.

5. Food
When you think of Spanish food you’ll think of picture perfect tapas, beautifully presented on dainty crockery, and jugs of fruity sangria. When you arrive, totally disorientated, you may plump for one of the first tapas bars you see (or try and find one recommended in your guide book only to find it is closed, or full to bursting), and be very disappointed. Not every eatery you chance across will provide you with gourmet or home cooked food. Your first taste of Spanish cuisine may end up being greasy meatballs in a puddle of oil. And maybe your boyfriend will get terrible food poisoning from the second meal you have, but that’s another story. Eventually you’ll suss out the places that locals go to and not be disappointed, but the first few days may be a bit shaky.

As for doing your own food shopping, be prepared for fresh meat to often not look too appetising in its cellophane wraps, and for a lot of produce to be long-life (milk, bread etc). Apparently having food issues is a classic symptom of culture shock so be warned...

6. Crime wave?
Practically everyone I knew had had some experience of crime, or knew someone who’d had something stolen. I myself was walking through the streets of Granada when an opportunist grabbed my small shoulder bag which stupidly held my camera, my debit card and keys for my flat in Seville and my home in the UK! Lesson learned - don’t carry that sort of stuff around in an easy to steal bag - my strap broke, which made the thief’s getaway very easy indeed. Other people had stuff nicked in bars, in the park or in crowds, so beware.

You may feel more insecure and wonder about how safe Spain is, adding to the anxiety and culture shock. It’s sometimes easy to forget that pick-pocketing happens every day in the UK too so don’t be overly worried, simply use a bit of common sense and you should be ok. Having insurance always helps should something go amiss...

7. Mullet watch
There are some positives to the culture shock though, and the funniest shock to the system has to be mullets. Maybe you won’t see one for a few days, or imagine your eyes are playing tricks on you because surely no one in their right mind would be sporting such a haircut in the 21st century. But sooner or later you’ll realise - the mullet is here to stay, in Spain at least. It may be gelled, dreadlocked or dyed, the mullet takes on many shapes, sizes and colours, and afflicts young and old alike. My housemate and I even created a mullet watch group on Facebook for people to upload their best photographed specimens. It can add an interesting dimension to a night out or a sightseeing trip that’s for sure. However, don’t break the cardinal sin - getting one yourself.

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