14 things they don’t tell you about Spain

What things come to mind when you hear Spain? Likely sangria, Spanish and old architecture. It’s an absolutely wonderful country to visit. It’s also an amazing place to live. I should know as I do live in Spain. However if you went to Spain for a few weeks, you might end up surprised when life isn’t like it was when you were on vacation.

While Spain is a Westernized European country, there are some big differences between cultures. Like any place, there were things I was not expecting. This is in no way to put Spain or Spaniards down. It’s just to say it like it is. These have all been things that have surprised and even shocked me at times. So here goes …

1. The food

Before moving to Spain, I had been to Spain for about two weeks in June, 2015. We ate super well. On a two week trip, you’re of course going to eat as much of the local food as you can. Spain has very tasty food.

However when you make the transition to living in Spain, you start to see the food a little bit differently. In the United States, I was super accustomed to variety. One day we might eat Mexican, the next Japanese and the next Indian. In fact Indian is my favorite cuisine ever. Indian restaurants are everywhere in the United States. When us Americans move to Spain, lack of food variety is often something we notice right away. In Granada, I do notice it less. We do have a few sushi places, like two Mexican restaurants and two Indian restaurants. In the even bigger cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga, you will find even more variety.

things they don't tell you about Spain

At the end of the day, Spanish people seem to just like Spanish food. I cannot tell you how many Spanish people I’ve met who have never tried Indian food. I remember befriending the sushi guy near my flat last year. He made his sushi “Spanish” by adding jamon and Spanish ingredients. I remember I brought home my menu and my roommate at the time goes “oh I think I would like this kind of sushi” to which I responded “I know … it’s for you all.” Some Spanish people have traveled and lived abroad. They typically have a wider pallet. However the majority view their food as what you should regularly eat.

The other thing we notice is the lack of spice. Spanish food is just not spicy. I have met so many Spanish people who detest anything spicy. It just makes me laugh. Like you’re kind of seen as a wimp in the US if you hate spicy food.

The food is still amazing. You will just miss variety when you move here.

2. You will see racism differently than they do

In the United States, racism is always a topic of conversation. I feel like because we have more of a diverse population, we are forced to really think about issues like racism. Therefore I find that the majority of my friends back home have an actual understanding of what racism is and how to work towards a non-racist society.

Back home in the US, were fed that Europe is super progressive. In a lot of ways, Europe is progressive. Everyone bikes in Amsterdam and everyone recycles in Germany. Europe was ahead of us on gay marriage as well. Perhaps other countries are where we are on racism. However Spain is not. Many Spanish people simply think that racism doesn’t exist in their country. However we often beg to differ. Some things that are seen as SUPER racist back home are okay here.

The first one is how they interact with the Asian community. Many Asian families move to Spain and open up shops. Like literally every corner store and bazar seems to be owned by an Asian family. However to Spaniards, they’re all Chinese. They call all of these people Chinese even though they likely haven’t asked them where they’re from. For all we know, likely some are from South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand or a different Asian country where people look similar to Chinese people. I always find it best to not assume.  Also in the United States, it’s pretty offensive if someone pulls their eyes back to imitate an Asian person. Here, lets just say it’s not widely seen as offensive. A teacher I worked with last year was just like “oh but it’s a joke!” Yeah … to you. Have you asked someone from Asia how they feel about it?

Secondly, black face. It is normal for one of the three Wisemen at Christmas to paint himself black because the story says he was black. They will use the excuse that their town simply has no black people and that they don’t have any bad intentions. While they never had minstrel shows, I can tell you that all my friends of color who live here feel super uncomfortable with it. Like it really bothers them. I remember asking a Spanish friend why does he even have to paint his face to begin with. “Because the story says he’s black!” she insisted several times, almost defensively. I suppose tradition is that important to them.

However black face does not end there. I wish it did. Carnaval is a big celebration in the Spring. People dress up as whatever they want and drink a lot. Anything seems to go. One of my roommates last year went as an African tribal person. Like painted her face, wore a grass skirt and some shirt that had bones around the collar. I doubt she could even tell me what tribe she was trying to imitate as she likely couldn’t even name more than 5 countries on the continent. I honestly had a real hard time with that and lost a lot of respect for her. Her painting her face was just half of it. The other half was completely stereotyping an entire continent and making a joke out of whatever she believed their culture to be. I went to Carnaval with a friend of mine and saw a group of guys dressed as Muslims. One had a tiny piece of carpet and pretended to pray. How disrespectful.

The thing is, all of these people likely don’t believe themselves to be racist. They just think that they’re having a good time and it’s no big deal. However I was recently talking with a friend of color who lives over here. On one hand, she wants to go to Carnaval. On the other hand, she doesn’t want to see black face and likely will not go. That’s how this affects people. Also another friend of mine of color stopped following my roommate on Instagram after she posted a picture of herself at Carnaval. “I don’t want to see that sh*t on my newsfeed,” she told me.

Where I land on this issue is that I will never dress in a costume requiring black face. I would literally loose friends. I also just would never want to do it. There are a million other things I can dress up as that don’t offend anyone. But if I do go to Carnaval, I won’t lecture people. I cannot change the entire world. If someone close to me wants to do it, however, I feel like as a friend I should at least start a conversation with them. At the end of the day, it’s ultimately their decision.

3. Heating

Indoor heating is not all created equal here in Spain. In the United States, basically every building and house has central heating. The only time you notice the cold is when you go outside. However Spain is simply not like that.

A lot of older flats have no central heating. Instead they use radiators to heat things up. One classic Spanish custom is putting a radiator under the table with a tablecloth over top of it. You put the table cloth over your lap and are super warm. Others might drape a blanket over the radiator and sort of bake themselves in. People put a radiator in their bedroom and turn it on before they get in bed. They also typically make their beds super warm with lots of blankets.

I will say that at least in my region of Spain, the winters could be colder. It doesn’t really snow. However it still feels cold. I’ve also heard from friends and coworkers that central heating isn’t everywhere up north either. The real reason for the lack of heating, according to my Spanish roommate, is because of the history of Spain. The 1950’s right after WWII was a time of poverty in Spain. People couldn’t really afford new heating systems.

My advice if you’re moving to Spain would be to look for a flat with central heating. Both years I’ve had it and it’s been wonderful. In the cities, a lot do have it. In the pueblos, it’s often less common. Also this blogger who taught in Spain like I do has some good tips for staying warm: 12 Hacks to Survive Spanish Winter Without Heating. She lived in a small town her first year where no one had heating. I will say that thus far in my Spanish journey, I’ve been fortunate to be able to live in a city and have central heating. I honestly sometimes think it’s my mother in heaven’s doing (she passed away about two years ago). She was always super cold-natured. I feel like she’s orchestrated flats with heating for me, especially since my first year it wasn’t at the top of my list when I was looking. Thanks mom!

4. Roommate relationships

“My Bolivian roommate and I are looking for a third flatmate,” I remember my friend Austin telling me this past fall. “However he told me he doesn’t want a Spanish roommate. He says they’re too clingy.”

I laughed when she told me this because I knew EXACTLY what he meant. Spanish people like to get close to their roommates. In general, they seem to really need to form a close relationship with their flatmates. I accredit this to their culture and how important family is to them. So they treat living situations away from their family the same way. They talk to each other, hang out, let each other know everything they’re doing and in general are just close. To them, living with someone who they don’t hang out with is weird. However in the US, it’s no pasa nada if we live someone but don’t hang out. As long as they’re friendly and respectful, I’d say most of us are happy campers.

However this also comes with a huge upside. If your goal in moving to Spain is to improve your Spanish, getting Spanish roommates could be the best thing. They will spend lots of time talking with you and getting to know you. There’s your daily speaking practice. They will likely invite you out with all their friends, which means you’ll have a chance to make more Spanish friends. They might even invite you back to their pueblo for the holidays like my Spanish roommate did this year. Then you can experience Spanish Christmas, see how a Spanish family functions and see a new part of Spain. In the end, you’ll learn so much about Spain from living with them.

At the end of the day, just make sure you like and could see yourself being friends with the person before you move in. With my roommate Esther, she’s absolutely wonderful. I feel very lucky to have her in my life.

5. Spanish really is everywhere and English is not

English is widely spoken throughout Europe. If you go to a country like Germany, the Netherlands or the Czech Republic, all the young people will speak English as a second language. This past summer I worked as an aupair in the Czech Republic. My host family told me that if I ever needed directions to just look for someone who looked to be a college student as all the young people in their country spoke fluent English. Great advice. However you cannot say the same for Spain.

The push to learn English is just a bit slower in Spain. While almost all young Spaniards learn English in school, many do not feel confident to speak it. You will hear the phrase “me da verguenza” a lot from them which just means “I’m embarrassed to speak.” A lot of European countries show movies and TV in original version with subtitles in their language. Those people often end up speaking better English (the Netherlands is an excellent example and surprisingly so is Portugal). Also Spanish people are just very proud of their language.

If you stick to the tourist areas, you’ll be able to find tours in English, waiters that speak English, etc. Furthermore, most hotels and hostels have people who can speak English on staff. Also I’ve heard that English is more widely spoken in Madrid and Barcelona. However if you plan to move to Spain, I would suggest you learn as much Spanish as you can now. If you’re American, you likely could find lots of native speakers from South America to tutor you as well (and no, the differences between the two types of Spanish aren’t as big as you think. You will still feel SUPER prepared). Living your life in Spain requires Spanish. And Spanish people always seem to respect you more when you make an effort in their language.

There is a huge upside to this as well. I’ve heard that native English speakers trying to learn Dutch in the Netherlands can have a hard time trying to practice. Everyone there speaks English and will likely switch to English for you because they think they’re helping you. This simply just happens less in Spain. If you live in a smaller city or pueblo, it will likley never happen to you. You will be forced to speak it a lot more, which will only improve your Spanish in the long run. I have made so much progress in my Spanish from living here and it makes me so happy when I reflect upon it.

6. Walking barefoot is a big no-no

First of all, carpet is very rare. Most flats have a marble or tile flooring. They might at most put down a big area rug. However I have yet to see an entire room with carpeting over here. So for this reason, people never walk around their home without shoes on.

In the summer, they often switch to flip flops when inside. In the winters, they always have slippers on. I teach private English classes in the homes of different children. On several occasions, I have witnessed my students get scolded for not having their slippers on. It always makes me chuckle slightly as in many other cultures, it would be no big deal.

When I first moved here, I didn’t get the memo. I remember wearing flats to one of my private lessons where I would sit on the floor with my students. Naturally, my shoes would kind of slip off. Then one of the students had to use the toilet, so we go up and walked to the toilet. I’m standing outside of the bathroom barefoot. The mom or grandma said something to me like “oh your feet will get cold.” I could tell that it was a faux pas and never did it again. I also used to walk around my flat barefoot and my old roommate would often go “que frio!” (how cold).

This year, I never do the barefoot thing. First of all, I really like my slippers. It is cold to walk around barefoot in these flats. Secondly, I kind of just want to blend in and adapt.

7. The general lack of self-awareness in public

In the US, I can remember my mom telling me to stand out of the way of other people in the grocery store. I can also remember her telling us to behave and speak quietly. In general in public, many of us just try to be aware of our actions. And if we do happen to bump into someone, we apologize. After all, we did invade their personal space.

That general self-awareness doesn’t seem to exist here in the same way. I cannot tell you how many times someone has bumped into me and not said a word. Some people do but a lot don’t. People walk down the street and will either almost run you over or get completely in your way. However shops can be the worst. I remember going to Primark the first day it opened here and thinking “the only thing worse than a crowded store is a crowded store in Spain.”

To them, again they will likely say that they have no bad intentions. The culture of being polite in this sort of way doesn’t really exist, so it would be foreign to do. I remember telling a Spanish friend about this last year. She told me that she felt like people apologize too much in the UK. She also goes “well don’t they always move?” when I complained about Spanish people walking down the streets. I mean yes they do. However it would be nice if they could just be aware of where they are walking in the first place.

8. They can sometimes get snobby about “their” Spanish

So I learned my Spanish in the United States with people from South America. I worked at a non-profit in my city that works with the Hispanic community (which also was one of the reasons I spoke decent Spanish upon arrival here). Just like how the English between the United States and Australia differs a bit, so does the Spanish from country to country. However generally a Mexican and a Spaniard can have a conversation just like a Brit and an American can have a conversation.

I personally find differences in English fascinating and not offensive. I love learning phrases from England, New Zealand, Canada and any other English-speaking country. I think their accents are beautiful. It’s natural that differences will arise. In general, most native English speakers seem to feel the same way. However a lot of Spaniards (of course not all), do not seem to feel the same about Spanish. While I’ve never had a Spaniard outright tell me that they hate Latino Spanish, I’ve noticed it in lots of subtle ways.

For example, Spanish people make a lisping sound for the c. No one in South America does that. One of my friends insisted that that was the only correct way. Here, yes. There no. Or another time I told a Spanish coworker that a lot of South Americans sing this song called Mañanitas on birthdays. I’ll never forget spending my birthday in Nicaragua and everyone singing that to me. Fond memories. However in Spain, they sing this Cumpleaños Feliz song. So when I told this coworker about Mañanitas, he got offended. “Oh they are just so out of fashion! I would sing that as a lullaby to my son!” I responded “well there are more of them that you all. Perhaps you’re the out of fashion ones. What are you going to fly down there and tell them to stop? Even if you did, they likely wouldn’t.” I’ll admit that I was trolling him just a tad.

Everything that gets dubbed gets dubbed into South American Spanish and European Spanish. How extra are they? I mean that means the good people in Hollywood are having to spend extra time making two versions of the same sinkin language. Also Argentina doesn’t get their own and neither does Mexico. However I would imagine that many differences exist between South American countries as well.

In general between various comments and people telling me it’s better to learn Spanish in Spain, I’ve just sensed a pride about their language. They feel as though since Spanish came from Spain, their Spanish is the correct Spanish. And while it did come from they’re country, they will never change how people in South America speak. I really wish more people would just accept that and respect the differences. Our cultural and linguistic differences makes the world a beautiful place.

9. Vamos a comer means only the middle of the day

Now this might be just an Andalucia thing. I really don’t know. However when people say “vamos a comer” or “comida,” it means lunch. They will use the verb cenar and the noun cena for dinner. While the verb almorzar exists and means to eat lunch, Spaniards find it to be too formal. It seems to be used more in South America.

I learned this one the hard way. Last year, a Spanish friend of mine really wanted to make myself and other American friends “cena Española.” The word for dinner was literally in it. Then she sends me an audio recording over whatsapp (sometimes those can be challenging for us non-native speakers. I’ve had to listen to my fair share of whatsapp audios several times) where apparently she told me it was going to be “comida.” I likely barely paid any attention to it as in my head at that time I just thought it meant food. Food to us is anything you eat. So her last message to me was “okay I’ll see you tomorrow at 1:30!” …. “WHAT?! When did it become lunch?” She then told me that comida meant lunch. I had told all my American friends it was dinner, so we had to change it back to dinner.

So now I know and you do too.

10. People are very direct

In general, Spaniards are very direct with their words. Like there’s no beating around the bush. It’s normal in a restaurant to just say “mas agua” (more water) to your waiter. You might also just say “la cuenta” (the check) instead of like “could you please bring the check?” Apparently they think that Americans and British people are too polite.

The upside of this is that you will always know where you stand with a Spaniard. They will always be 100% straight-up with you, which I really appreciate it. There’s no guessing.

11. There really isn’t a tipping culture

In the US, it’s basically obligatory to leave your server a tip. However in Spain, it’s totally up to you. If you do leave one, it might be a euro at the most. I typically do not tip. The servers here more or less make a living wage. So if you come, tip if you want. However it’s not customary.

12. Everything closes during the siesta and on Sundays

US comforts you'll miss in Spain

Everyday from 2-5 p.m., banks and shops close down. The big supermarket Mercadona does stay open. Well at least the one closest to me in Granada does. All shops (including Mercadona) are completely closed on Sundays. The only places open are restaurants, hotels and hospitals.

This simply means a little bit more planning on your part. You just have to do the things when the offices are open. Make your copies before the copy place closes and run to the bank before it shuts down for the siesta. Or you can wait until after the siesta. It takes a bit of getting used to at first of course.

13. Spain is super Catholic

I really had no idea how much the Catholic church affects life here until I moved here. Most Spaniards are Catholic in name, meaning they had a communion and occasionally go to church. However at least 80% of the country is like this. So while other religions do exist, Catholicism is the majority religion. As an American, it just feels odd to have a majority religion to begin with.

It’s interesting to see how this plays out. Every child has a first communion. In fact their department store El Corte Ingles has a whole section just for communion dresses. That would never happen in the US since only 22% of us or something are Catholic. I remember the teachers asking me if we had them in the US. I did grow up Catholic, so I had one. That blew their mind as they assumed no one had them in the US.

They also teach religion (Catholicism) in the public schools. This is incredibly weird to me as we have a big separation of church and state in the US. Everyone says that students can opt out of taking it, which is good. I’m still just don’t think it’s the government’s role to teach it.

14. The men might be more well-groomed than you

This one always gives me a little chuckle. When I go out to the club here, the men are always really put together. Their hair is perfect and their facial hair is perfect as well. Sometimes I feel like they spent more time grooming than I did. Oh and the always wear a button-down and tight jeans. Some grooming is nice.

Well there you have it. Those are the things I can think of … for now. Who knows …if can come up with at least 5 more in these next few months, I’ll write a part 2.

Have you been to Spain? Did you notice any of these things?

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26 Comments

    1. Well I would actually say quite the opposite. I love Spain. It’s just that you really often don’t fully experience a culture when on vacation. It’s only when you live there, learn the language and live with the people that you really learn about a country. I could easily write a list about the good and bad of the United States as well. At the end of the day, no place is perfect.

  1. I loved visiting Spain, and the coffee was definitely my favorite part!I also really loved the Sunday siestas, I found it nice just to have a relaxing day in our hotel/ apartment even tho we were traveling. It was a stay-cation on vacation 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing such an informative post. 😊 You have focused on every small details of Spain and the Spanish culture including the general prospects and thoughts of Spaniards. I must say, it is going to be super handy for the people who are looking for shifting their base to this country..

  3. Oh wow, I live not super close to Spain, but not super far either because in Poland but I learnt so many new things about Spain from your article. I am even surprised by many of them. firstly – the food – oh I love to have the variety of choices, like mexican or Indian food. Having to eat only or mostly Spanish food can be a bit boring. Secondly, I can imagine Spanidors being in love with their Spanish. We just travelled around South America, and there are so many different accents, all equally pretty. We shouldn’t really say “our accent” is the best! Painting faces black? Wow, Staying super close with your roomates? Not in Poland, haha! So nice you used to live and work in Czech republic. I believe Poland is similar…:)

    1. Yeah there are just so many things I’ve learned and experienced because I live here. These are things I would have never learned just on vacation. Some can be positives like the roommates. My roommate this year is really wonderful. And yeah I was only in the Czech Republic for a few months but enjoyed it.

    1. Well I am aware that not all of these apply to every single person in Spain. For example, I have met Spaniards that aren’t snobby about South America and are more racially aware. Also I do want to say that many of these are things I actually like. I actually love that English is not everywhere because I love speaking Spanish, for example. I also love the close relationship I have with my roommate this year. It meant I didn’t spend Christmas alone.

  4. This are quite useful information for anybody wanting to move to Spain. I actually love Spain because of it’s old architecture but I guess like every other country it has it’s good, bad and ugly. The most important is to stay away from those unsavory ones and try to enjoy.

    1. I love the old architecture as well. I really wish I had the time to see every little town. At the end of the day, no place is perfect. But I am still very much enjoying my time here.

  5. I’ve visited many places in Spain, from Barcelona to tiny villages that had a population of 10. We loved the cultural differences. Thanks for bringing back good memories.

    1. I’m glad my post brought back good memories! While I did get very honest in this post, Spain really does have a lot of wonderful things as well.

  6. Wow sounds like you really disliked your Spain experience…. My sis in law lived there for 2 years teaching and adored every moment. I truly hope to visit one day as well…

    1. Well first, I’m still living my Spain experience. Currently under a blanket in my Granada apartment (remember the part about the heating thing?). I actually hope to live here for many years. I could write a post doubly as long about why I love it here. However this list is more just what there is. Some of them I actually find to be super positive. For example, the roommate relationship thing is super cool if you really want to dive into Spanish culture. But it’s different than how say Americans view roommate relationships and is something I think should be noted for people wanting to move to Spain. Some people just want to come home and hang out in their room. A lot of Spanish people would find that very odd.

      I’m glad your sister had an amazing time. I’m sure she had her tough moments and found things she didn’t like because no place is perfect. It’s interesting that when you share some less-glamorous thing, people assume you just are unhappy. That’s not true at all.

  7. What a great post for this year. I am planning to go to Spain this February and good to know about Spain it will help me a lot.

  8. I love Spanish good so I probably would be okay with that as the cuisine though I am a person who enjoys variety. Wow on the blackface experience. Didn’t know that. Interesting!

  9. Wow, that’s a lot of information which most people wouldn’t address in their travel blogs. I like this information as it’s pretty handy when travelling in Spain!

  10. Yes, been in summer 2013, 2014, and 2015. Absolutely love it. I agree with you that men are always groomed, especially their facial hair and their eyebrows were always perfect! 😄😆

  11. This really resonated with me! I’m currently leaving and teaching in France and so many of tese things are similar there. The lack of variety in food beside French specialties and kebab and burgers. The slippers indoors. And the racism!! I’ve heard of incidents where students use black face to portray Nelson Mandela’s and other people of color. Thankfully, I haven’t witnessed it yet. I love living here but sometimes I’m like woah…. chill. Loved reading this!

  12. Love this post – highlights some points that are a bit different to lots of articles I’ve read on other destinations! love how you mention the men’s perfect grooming and hair! I want to pop over to Spain now I’ve read this article!

  13. Almost totally agree with these (being a Californian raised in a super ethnically diverse area as well as eatnig every food from around the world-especially! particularly the missing of variety and spicy food and being shocked at the things racially that are considered normal here that would be super racist in CA) except the everything closed during siestas (that’s only in small towns or andalucia-not in cities like Barcelona or Madrid at all for past 10 years-but I do love this in small towns!)

    & the super catholic thing is true of the older generation but not of the 30’s and under generations in cities. They are the opposite of religious and the drastically decreased birthrates and marriage rates show this (but again obviously more common in big cities than in small or regional places 🙂 -I don’t know one single Spaniard in Madrid who goes to Church (everyone I know is 30s and 40’s) but sure they were taken to church as kids -just like I was 🙂

    But culturally-the Saints days and celebrations are such a huge part of Spanish culture-that whether you actually practice religion or not it’s hard to escape for sure. It’ shard to separate the religious festivities from the religion itself-those most Spaniards I know aren’t religious but sure they appreciate a day off and a feast or parade 🙁

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