I had been visiting Girona in Spain several times a year since I started going out with my Argentine girlfriend back in 2015. However, it wasn’t until August last year that I eventually took the plunge and moved into the apartment she shares with Catalina, her daft yet adorable Yorkshire Terrier. With the beauty of the Costa Brava only a stone’s throw away and sandwiched between Barcelona on one side and the French border on the other, this proud Catalan city is a truly wonderful place to live. Having said that, for a Brit abroad it does come with its challenges and, after being a regular visitor for numerous years, I knew that living here full-time would take quite a lot of getting used to. In this post I have picked out 25 cultural differences I have been trying to get my head round since swapping my life in Newcastle, in the chilly North East of England, for one in the Spanish sun. I’ve tried to keep my observations as light-hearted as possible but, as the article only covers things I have had more difficulty coming to terms with, the many positive aspects of Spanish lifestyle, which far outweigh the negatives, haven’t been covered.
1. The Spanish heat
There’s no getting away from it, Spain is hot! During the summer months I wear little more than my boxer shorts when I’m sat in the apartment and, even then, I can feel the beads of sweat dripping off me. After getting out the shower and drying myself off I often feel as though I need to go straight back in for another shower as I realise my body has become damp with sweat rather than the excess water. Sleeping can also be a torturous affair. Even when naked with the bedsheets tossed to the bottom of the bed it still feels like I’m sleeping in an oven. An open window and a fan pointed directly at me does little to alleviate the sauna-like conditions.
2. Meal times and eating habits
In the UK I’m used to a sandwich and a cup of tea around midday and a hot meal at 5 or 6pm. I rarely sit down to breakfast as I’m not usually hungry in the morning. Here in Spain I feel as though I’m always eating. Breakfast is popular with a variety of delicious pastries on offer washed down with a strong cup of coffee. Then around 1 or 2pm it is quite normal to eat a decent plateful of food such as pasta or some meat with salad. Later on in the afternoon it is common to have a couple of tapas such as patatas bravas or calamares. Then in the evening anytime between 8 and 10pm it is time to sit down to an evening meal which could consist of fish, meat, pizza, pasta or anything else. In the UK I’ve usually eaten, washed up and watching the TV with my feet up by 6pm. In Spain we might not be sitting down at the dining table until 10pm and it might not be until 11pm that the dishes are done and we can relax. This doesn’t leave much time for my food to digest and I quite regularly go to bed in the furnace that is my bedroom, clutching a painful food baby in my stomach.
3. Drinking alcohol with every meal
In the UK I generally have a nice cup of tea at lunchtime and water with my evening meal. I rarely drink alcoholic beverages when I’m eating a meal unless it is a special occasion or I’m in a restaurant. In Spain it is completely different and it is quite common to have a couple of glasses of wine with every meal. Eating, together with the heat, leaves me quite lethargic and this feeling only magnifies once alcohol is added to the equation.
4. Can’t get a decent cup of tea
I like a nice cup of Yorkshire Tea with milk and sugar. I also like the ritual of having tea at my Mam’s where she freshly brews the tea straight from a teapot. We will eat a nice slice of cake or delicious cream cakes and it will all be served with her finest bone china. Most people in Spain seem to prefer coffee to tea and when they do drink tea it is green tea, mint tea, jasmine tea or some other namby pamby herbal infusion.
5. Cañas instead of pints
In the UK I enjoy a nice pint. Men generally drink pints and women drink half pints. In Spain most people drink cañas which are similar in size to a half pint. The reason why people drink cañas instead of pints is because they are smaller so the beer has less chance of getting warm before it has been finished. Fortunately, there is a larger glass called a jarra which is similar to a pint and, as the heat makes me doubly thirsty, I can polish off a jarra quicker than most people drink their caña.
6. Barbaric food
Although most food, especially the gastronomical choices found on the Mediterranean coastline, is absolutely wonderful, there are a few things that I have found a bit dodgy here in Spain. I once tried pig’s trotters in a restaurant which I was assured by friends was a delicacy. I expected something with a bit of meat on so I was dismayed when it arrived. First of all it actually looked like pig’s trotters with the form of a pig’s hoof clearly visible. Furthermore, rather than meat it was made up of gelatine which is basically some kind of posh fat. I think I took one mouthful but couldn’t continue. Snails are another thing I find hard to eat. Although similar in texture to a mussel, which I love, there is just something very wrong about putting something in your mouth that is essentially a slug in a shell. A visit to the supermarket can also be quite an ‘eye-opener’. Once I was looking at a pack of rabbit meat thinking I might try it when I noticed a couple of eyes amongst the meat. I can only assume people will actually eat the rabbit’s eyeballs.
7. Stale bread and no butter
In the UK I love a nice soft bread roll with lovely creamy butter especially when I’m eating soup in a restaurant. In Spain fresh bread is delicious but, due to the heat, it is hard to keep fresh and quite often in restaurants it can be quite stale as it has been standing for hours. This makes the need for a lovely knob of butter essential but unfortunately very rarely served. Instead you are provided with olive oil which never fails to disappoint me. It does give it some much needed moisture but it just isn’t the same.
8. Grapes with seeds in
In the UK I am used to eating seedless grapes. I do remember grapes with the seeds in from when I was a child and also recall having to spit the seeds out and sometimes accidentally crunching into a seed as I ate a grape. I was amazed to find that the grapes in many Spanish supermarkets still have the seeds in. Call me spoilt but I have grown so used to the convenience of seedless grapes that I can’t be bothered with the seeded ones over here. However, I am sure that seedless grapes do exist in Spain. For one thing it would be impossible to carry out the Spanish New Year’s Eve tradition of eating a grape every second during the last twelve seconds of the year before the clock strikes midnight. Every second when a grape is eaten a wish must be made. They have to be seedless as it would be impossible trying to spit all those seeds out whilst making twelve wishes eating twelve grapes in twelve seconds!
9. Going out really late and not getting home until really late
If we are going for a proper night out at the weekend in Spain we might not meet until 10 or 11pm at night or even later sometimes. This inevitably means we might not actually get home until 5 or 6 o’clock the following morning. This makes the following day a write-off as the best part of it is spent in bed. In the UK I usually go out for 7 or 8pm and I may get the last bus home at 11.30pm. Sometimes in Spain we might not even be going out until midnight which is absolutely ludicrous. I am crying internally and I usually think to myself that I wish I was tucked up in my nice bed. I remember many years ago I was with a friend in Malaga and it was around 8 or 9 at night. We were drinking in the main square and the place was like a ghost town. It was Saturday night and we couldn’t understand where all the people were. Then, as it approached midnight, all of the bars suddenly started filling up with the locals and the place burst into life. Unfortunately, we had been drinking heavily since 6pm and only lasted for another half an hour before calling it a night!
In the UK I am quite a generous tipper. I look at things like friendly service, the quality of the food and the general ambience of the place and if warranted I will usually tip 10%. However, in Spain it is normal to only tip the bare minimum. Sometimes, after having a wonderful meal with my girlfriend, I try to leave a decent tip but my girlfriend gets annoyed. She tells me to put my note away and tosses a couple of coins on the table. I find it embarrassing but, like everything else, it is something I need to get used to.
11. Greeting everyone with a kiss including men
In the UK most men use a handshake to greet other men. If they are good friends they may give each other a quick hug but that is about it. Women may be greeted with a handshake, a hug or a kiss on the cheek, depending on the situation. In Spain, amongst my girlfriend’s group of friends which includes many couples, everyone is greeted with a kiss on both cheeks and maybe a quick hug. It’s the ideal covid spreader and if you are last to arrive it can take an eternity going round a table dishing out kisses to everyone. Having previously lived in Argentina for two years, where the kissing situation is even more widespread, I was already fairly used to this form of greeting. I always found kissing the girls a pleasant experience but it did take me a while to get comfortable with kissing strange men that I’d only just met. Now I’ve grown used to it and have no problem getting stuck in with everyone!
In Spain the days are warmer, the sun shines brightly and everyone is relaxed. Everything just seems to happen at a much slower pace. ‘Mañana mañana‘ is the common mantra that is used to postpone work-based activities for another day. This ideology feeds into everyday life and is why Spanish people don’t seem to mind if they arrive late. In fact when they arrange a time to meet it is only a rough ballpark figure with many turning up much later. As an Englishman I find this quite annoying as I really hate lateness. I always aim to turn up on time as a mark of respect for the person I’m meeting. I always think how would I like it if I was waiting up to an hour for someone. So in Spain lateness drives me crackers. I remember once I literally dragged my girlfriend out the house so we could get to a restaurant on time to meet some friends. We arrived right on time but nobody else was there. In fact they all turned up late. But instead of being upset with them for being late she was upset with me for making her arrive on time and told me it was the last time she would arrive so early!
13. Everyone interrupting and shouting to be heard
Large gatherings can be quite chaotic in Spain. Conversations tend to be a free for all. One person is talking and then somebody else tries to speak and someone else interrupts to get their point in. Before you know it voices are raised and everyone is shouting louder than everyone else. There have been times when I’ve been sat in the middle of a crowded table in a restaurant and it seems as though everyone is arguing and fighting due to the frenzied crossfire of raised voices. But this is just the way Spanish people are. They are more excitable and use more hand gestures in conversation. In the UK, generally speaking, conversations are calmer. One person speaks whilst everyone else politely listens. Then once that person finishes somebody else jumps in with what they want to say whilst everyone else listens patiently. Interruptions and raised voices do occur but nothing like what goes on in Spain. Perhaps the heat makes Spanish people more passionate and less patient.
14. Not showing appreciation with the use of please and thank you
In the UK I am very much a please and thank you man. I will literally thank people for every little thing they do for me and if I ask for something I will always use the word ‘please’. It is the way British people are brought up and if someone doesn’t use a ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’, people, especially mothers, are quick to say ‘And what’s the magic word?’ In Spain, although people do show their appreciation, they don’t thank people as regularly. I quite often pay for something in a shop and thank the person with a ‘muchas gracias‘ only for them to completely blank me. Although it may be seen as bad manners I accept that it is only a cultural thing. If anything, it helps me to learn that I should try reducing the ridiculous number of times I say thank you during the day.
15. Not waving at zebra crossings when someone stops to let you cross
In the UK if someone is waiting to cross the road at a zebra crossing the motorist will always stop. It is also customary for the pedestrian to acknowledge the person in the car with a wave of thanks or a thumbs up. The attitude of both motorists and pedestrians at zebra crossings is completely different in Spain. You might be waiting at a crossing and five or six cars might go by until one of them will actually stop for you. Then the pedestrian will step out and cross the road and carry on walking without the slightest gesture of appreciation to the driver. Although this is simply how it is in Spain I always find myself giving a friendly wave to the driver who has stopped for me. In return they always give me a confused look back as if to say ‘Who the hell is this weirdo giving me the thumbs up!’
16. Rubbish driving
Ask any British person what they think of Spanish drivers and you will be told that most of them were probably taught at the Stevie Wonder school of motoring. I regularly observe cars parked in the street and cannot believe the amount that have sustained damage. I’d say 7 out of 10 have some degree of damage from scratches and scrapes to full-on dunches and bits hanging off. Whilst reverse parking they actually carry on reversing until they touch the car behind and I’ve even seen cars being nudged backwards as the force of another car reverses into a space like a sardine. They rarely indicate when going round roundabouts which causes confusion and rage for other drivers. This often leads to other cars pulling out when they shouldn’t, forcing oncoming traffic to brake. On motorways people hog the middle lane instead of getting in the slow lane. Furthermore, they don’t indicate when changing lanes and quite often pull out in front of you giving no warning. In traffic jams they honk their horns even though nobody can move. Basic courtesy is often ignored and nobody acknowledges anyone for letting someone out. Granted there are many good drivers in Spain but they also have more than their fair share of absolute mentalists.
17. Drinking and driving
In the UK there is a great deal of stigma attached to drink driving. It is looked down on and people are seen in a bad light who do it. If someone was with a group of friends who had been drinking and then tried to get into his car to drive home, the others wouldn’t allow it. It is perceived as something very bad that can put the lives of others at risk. In Spain there isn’t the same level of stigma attached. There have been many times I have been out drinking with Spanish friends. Everyone will have had a few but nobody mentions anything about how much the driver has had who takes us home. I have noticed a positive change in this behaviour over the last couple of years, largely due to an increase in police checks, but the problem does still exist.
18. Speaking Catalan
Naturally this can only be attributed to the region of Catalonia rather than the whole of Spain. I fully appreciate that Catalans are bilingual and prefer to speak Catalan when in their own company, much the same as Welsh people who communicate with themselves in Welsh. However, what I find frustrating is when they are with me, a Spanish speaker, and talk amongst themselves in Catalan. Of course, this may be done subconsciously as it is the language they speak on a regular basis. It’s understandable that they may slip into Catalan without thinking about it, but when it is spoken for a sustained period of time, knowing that I’m sat there like a spare part, that’s when it can become annoying. Furthermore, signage can be really difficult to understand as more often than not it doesn’t come accompanied with the Spanish version. This can be dangerous with road signs such as warnings about oncoming hazards ahead whilst driving. It can also be really confusing in supermarkets. On the plus side I now know that pollastre means chicken in Catalan.
19. Buying cigarettes
In the UK cigarettes can be bought in newsagents, tobacconists, corner shops, supermarkets, pubs and petrol stations. In Spain they have special tobacconists that sell them which are quite often closed. The only other places to buy them are the bars and restaurants that have cigarette machines. When I used to smoke I would often have an awful job trying to find somewhere that would sell them. Nowadays, I sometimes vape which is not something that has taken hold in Spain and can lead to some strange looks from people.
20. Public holidays and religious festivals
No sooner has Christmas and New Year ended the Spanish start preparing for Reyes Magos, a public holiday on the 6th January, to celebrate the Three Kings or the Three Wise Men. This holiday is then dragged out for days through their expert use of puentes or bridges. In other words if Reyes falls on a Thursday as it did this year they will book the Friday off as a ‘bridge’ to the weekend and have holidays from the Thursday to the Sunday. They seem to have public holidays every time it is a saint’s birthday and, being a catholic country, Spain does have a lot of saints. Catalonia also has additional holidays to celebrate National Catalan Day and their own saints such as St George which they share with England. This together with Christmas and Easter means they are never short on public holidays.
21. Lots of small dogs with coats on and bows in their hair
In Spain many people seem to have little dogs and many of them are adorned with silly doggy coats and daft bows in their hair by their owners. Walking along the street can sometimes feel like some sort of canine fashion show. Yorkshire Terriers compete with poodles and shih tzus to be the queen of the catwalk as they strut their stuff with the latest in doggy fashion.
22. The world comes to a standstill if it’s raining
In the UK if it starts raining the show must go on. People still go out even though the heavens have opened. It’s annoying and it’s rubbish but life continues. If we cancelled our plans every time it rained we’d never get anything done. But in Spain as soon as it starts to rain people cancel everything and stay indoors. They just don’t like the rain. I suppose it is because they aren’t as used to it as we are in the UK. Even the dogs won’t go out in it. Well I can’t really speak for every dog but Catalina, my girlfriend’s dog, refuses to leave the entrance to our apartment block if it is raining.
23. Dubbed films and TV programmes
When I watch Spanish films or series on Netflix I always watch them in the original language with English subtitles selected. Not only do I get to hear the genuine voices of the actors but it also means that their mouth is in sync with the words coming out. It just seems a far more authentic way to watch films compared to dubbing. When I was a child I remember watching the cult Japanese TV programme ‘Monkey Magic’. The dubbing was hopeless but, as a little lad, I wasn’t bothered as I was more interested in when Monkey would summon his flying cloud. Unfortunately on Spanish TV dubbing is always used for British and North American films and TV programmes. As far as I’m concerned, a dubbed film loses its magic as the actor’s voice, a vital ingredient, is lost. It is such a shame as Spanish people will never hear the unique way actors such as Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins or Jodie Foster speak. British TV programmes can also be ruined by dubbing. I remember watching an episode of Geordie Shore dubbed into Spanish and thought it was ridiculous listening to these drunken Geordie idiots babbling away in Spanish rather than in their original thick Geordie accents.
24. Prostitutes and puticlubs
One of the strangest things I see in Catalonia is the sight of young scantily-dressed females sat provocatively at the side of roads under a large parasol to protect them from the hot afternoon sun. Although a fairly common sight, I find it hard to get used to as it is something I never come across in the UK. I also remember walking on the Gran Via in Madrid once. I must have been propositioned at least five times by young ladies who would try to link arms with me and ask me if I would like to do unrepeatable things with them. Las Ramblas in Barcelona is another area where prostitution is rife. You can see them lurking on street corners at night. As you get closer they all come up to you and ask if you are looking for a bit of action. Something else that is common in Spain are the brothels, otherwise known as puticlubs. In these out of town knocking shops you can go in and enjoy a few drinks before spending time with the lady of your choice. When I first witnessed the blatant prostitution in Spain it was quite a culture shock and I suppose I still find it quite disturbing.
25. Public consumption of marijuana
In the UK it is rare to come across the smell of a joint in public. Most people who smoke marijuana tend to do it in the privacy of their own homes away from other people. In Spain, however, things are a little different and it isn’t uncommon to get a whiff of a spliff in public. I’ve regularly smelled cannabis walking along the street, in parks, at the beach and countless other public spaces. It seems to be everywhere. People do also smoke it in the comfort of their own home or, more specifically, the couple who live one apartment below mine. Quite often I’ll be sat on the balcony with my girlfriend enjoying the warm evening air whilst quaffing a delicious glass of Rioja. Then my nostrils will suddenly detect the unmistakeable scent of hash coming from the doobie our bohemian neighbours below have started to smoke. Whatever floats your boat!
Spain and the UK are completely different on so many levels and I think it would be fair to say that the weather plays a huge role in dictating many of these cultural contrasts. The food is different, the lifestyle is different and the people behave differently. There is a passion for life and a desire to live for the moment. I love my new life living in Spain and I am fascinated by how the cultures here differ from my own. Seeing things more clearly through the prism of another culture gives you the ability to think about your own culture in different ways. It hasn’t all been plain sailing since I moved here but, by recognising the differences that do exist between the two countries, I am learning to make the cultural adaptions necessary to embrace the Spanish way of life.