Having never been out of the country, I had very little idea of what to expect when spending a month in a foreign city where few people speak my native language. In preparation for my study abroad trip, I think I may have braced myself a little too much for the culture shock of Spain, assuming there would be such dramatic differences between Spanish and American cultures. While there are notable differences between the two nations, the more I speak and spend time around native Spaniards, the more I’m convinced that people are not all that different from one another. While our customs and preferences may be different, people are people, no matter where they were born and raised. All that being said, here are 3 cultural differences I’ve observed after 3 weeks in Spain:
1. My Observation of Observing
One interesting cultural difference I’ve observed is the Spanish tendency to stare at others. I love people watching for sure, but like many Americans, I will quickly look away if I’m caught staring at someone. The Spanish do not share this sense of embarrassment; when walking the streets, sitting at a café, or a park, they tend to boldly observe one another. On numerous occasions, I’ve caught someone staring at me, and when I meet their eye, they do not turn away. At first I thought I had something on my face or stood out completely as a tourist, but I’ve come to understand that it’s just a strong sense of curiosity. Stare on, Spain. Stare on.
2. Pace of Life
In Spain, the pace of life is very different from that of the U.S. Unlike a morning commute in Philly, characterized by beeping cars and aggressive SEPTA crowds, the people of Oviedo appear to be in no rush getting from one place to another. During the day, people can be seen slowly strolling the streets, window-shopping, or relaxing on park benches. During the afternoons, not all, but many people head home for a siesta, a short nap or break, and then return to work for a bit in the evenings. When it comes to eating, a meal in Spain can take up to 3 hours, and no one immediately rushes off when given the check. The Spanish have a unique word, “sobremesa,” which refers to conversation that occurs after dinner, and restaurants are in no rush to turn over tables, allowing people to stay as long as they please. This is definitely a refreshing change of pace from the U.S. where productivity and efficiency are often valued over leisure.
3. Differences in Provinces
Before deciding to study abroad in Spain, I admittedly knew very little about the geographic and political makeup of the nation. I later learned that Spain is divided into fifty autonomous provinces, each with their own unique identity. Oviedo, located in the northern province of Asturias, is very different from the extremely warm and sunny southern provinces or the eastern provinces, many of which speak a unique Catalan dialect. Even within a single province, different cities have their own character. On our last excursion we visited the city of Santillana del Mar. Located in the province of Cantabria, the historic town is surrounded by lush fields and houses the Museum of Torture. We then headed to the Asturian region of Llanes, a coastal beach town, before heading home to Oviedo. All of these cities were within a few hours of one another, but they each had distinct identities, architecture, natural landscapes, and customs. Many people who live outside of the U.S. are unaware of the differences in culture and landscape among the 50 states, and I am guilty of not being fully aware of the large differences between the 50 Spanish provinces. Nonetheless, the more I learn about the different regions of the country, the more eager I am to explore them.