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7 Culture Shocks I had as an American Living in Spain

In 2021 I moved to Madrid to teach English. I spent months leading up to my departure obsessively googling everything I possibly could about Madrid. Spanish history and culture, food, current events, clubs and restaurants to try, travel guides, festivals, stories from others who were doing my same program - you name it, I probably googled it. At one point, I had a document about 10 pages long of everything I had learned. But learning something by reading about it can only go so far to prepare you for real life, and I still had plenty of culture shocks when I moved to Spain. Here is a list of the 7 biggest cultural shocks that I experienced during my first year there.

1. What's Considered "On Time"

It took me a long time to adjust to this. If you’re ever invited anywhere in Spain, it’s typically safe to assume that you don’t actually arrive until an hour after everyone said they would meet somewhere.

Parties and large gatherings are even later. If the party "starts" at 9, you get there at 10:30 or 11:00. It’s just not considered late. Even in the school I worked at, there were often times when it would be 15 minutes after class had technically started only to be the first one there. Even the teachers hadn’t arrived yet! So if you’re running late, take it easy. Everyone else will be too.

2. Walking Speed

One of my biggest pet peeves was getting stuck walking behind slow walkers. That was something that I had to learn how to get over very quickly in Spain because everyone felt like a slow walker to me! Life in Spain is generally more laid back and easygoing, and people usually aren’t in a rush to get anywhere. Just take a deep breath, slow down, and focus on how beautiful Madrid is.

3. Safety

I have never felt as safe in all my life as I did in Madrid. As a Black woman in the United States, I’d never dream of walking around downtown alone at night. But in Madrid, found that I could do this without any issues!

Back at home, my safety is always in the back of my mind when I go out in public. But the longer I was in Madrid, the less I even thought about safety. It’s incredibly freeing to be able to simply enjoy your life without having to constantly watch your back, and I was lucky enough to experience this in Madrid.

4. No Tipping

Waitstaff are all paid normal wages, so tipping doesn’t exist in Spain to the extent that it does in the United States. If you had amazing service, you can leave an extra euro or two on the table, but it’s not expected.

That said, because the staff is not constantly checking up on you to earn a bigger tip, when you are ready to order or get the bill, you usually have to flag down the server. Until you do that, they'll assume that you're still enjoying your time there.

5. Drinking in Public

Drinking in public is socially acceptable here. It’s completely normal for people to be drinking in parks or even on the street. In fact, one of my favorite things to do was to get a group of friends together, grab a couple of pizzas and bottles of tinto de verano and have a picnic in one of Madrid’s public parks. Nearly all socializing in Spain happens outdoors, and drinking is no exception!

6. Healthcare

It was my first hospital visit in Spain. I had cut myself on broken glass and was afraid that I’d need stitches. At the check-in desk, I braced myself for the bill because it was the end of the month and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to afford it. But no bill ever came. Though I knew Spain had universal healthcare, I was still shocked when they never asked for my credit card. Healthcare is free to everyone living, working, or studying in Spain. (That said, if you’re a tourist, you won’t qualify for free healthcare. But it will be considerably less expensive than it would be in the United States.

7. Grocery Prices

Healthy food is very affordable in Spain. I was shocked at how much produce I could buy for less than €5 in Madrid. I could usually buy enough fruits and vegetables for the entire week for less than €15. That’s unheard of back home.

Fresh food is considerably cheaper than processed food. I found that I could get a bag of spinach for less than €1, but a frozen pizza would be about €6.50. The locally owned fruterías always had the best deals, so be sure to stop there wherever you get the chance.

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