Teaching Abroad (Part 7) – Cultural Differences

I planned the hell out of this move. I also did a ton of research. In doing so, I thought I’d anticipated every single thing that could possibly come up. The one area that I completely overlooked–besides the reality of being alone in another country–was differences in culture. I’d told myself that I would accept Spain–and its people–on its own terms and dial down the natural inclination to make comparisons. Being from New York, that’s a hard thing to do.

The differences hit me almost immediately, starting with the entire city of Madrid shutting down in August. I’d worked in offices before and knew full well the lulls in productivity that occur during the summer and around the holidays. This, however, was on another level completely. Trying to get anything done was like trying to accurately predict the end of the world. I couldn’t submit the paperwork for my visa because no one was around to point me in the right direction. I couldn’t find a place to live because all the property owners were away on vacation. I couldn’t apply for a checking account at one bank because the specialist was out until the first week of September. How could any of this happen in New York? Sure, one or two–maybe even three–employees out at the same time is understandable. But everyone?! Mind-boggling.

The next thing I noticed was the litany of bars that populate every block. There are more “cervecerias” per square mile than in Manhattan, and they’re always full! I couldn’t understand why this was, until I mentioned it to a couple of my students. See, Spaniards are by nature social creatures, and the warm weather allows them to stay in the street through the early morning. We had a very mild winter this year, with the temperature dropping to no lower than the upper-30s. That lasted about six weeks, and then it slowly crept up into the 50s by the beginning of March. It’s now in the low-80s, which means folks here are out and about, filling up these bars and restaurants. “Mediodia,” from 2:00 – 5:00–when offices, stores, and shops are closed–brings everyone to the sidewalk cafes to celebrate, well, just about anything. This is done over “lunch.”

Back home, it’s not uncommon for people to work through lunch, enjoying a sandwich or leftovers from last night’s dinner at their desk. Here, that’s unheard of. A standard lunch break is two hours long, just enough time to go home and eat with loved ones or hit a restaurant with co-workers. To say that they take this lunch thing seriously is an understatement. I’ve had students plan their sessions around this meal and get upset when I’ve had to cut the event short. We Americans put business before everything. Spaniards put lunch before everything. Make of this what you will.

Another thing that I noticed was the way they stared at each other–and me. I’ll be honest, I still haven’t gotten used to it, because it’s to the point where you actually become uncomfortable. How this ever became culturally acceptable is a mystery to me. What’s funny is that folks will look at you like you’re truly crazy when you stare back. Riding the metro is the worst. To have some fun with the weirdness, I’ve started giving the offenders the “fish lips”. You know what I mean–suck in your cheeks and flap your lips. Can’t tell you the reactions I’ve gotten.

“Please” and “thank you” aren’t used much here in Madrid, which can be quite unnerving, particularly when someone bumps into you when trying to get from point A to point B. They will push you, step on your foot, and go through a door and let it slam in your face, for example, without so much as a word of apology. Hold the door open for someone and expect no gratitude in return; they will walk right through and keep going. I’ve started yelling “De nada!” just to make a point.

Religion doesn’t play as big a role in Madrid as I’d assumed. I thought that with Spain being a Catholic country, the Vatican’s influence would be way more powerful. No such luck. Going to church isn’t a popular activity among the 50 and under crowd, as an increasing number of Madrid’s citizenry identify as atheist and agnostic. They still celebrate Christmas (actually, Reyes, or Three Kings, is more common) and Easter with gusto. They just don’t do it in church.

These are a few cultural differences that I’ve encountered since I’ve been here. I’m not religious, so the lack of a religious tradition doesn’t really bother me. The other stuff, though, has been a little hard to adjust to, especially what I consider plain old good manners. For me, being stared at is such a threatening gesture, and not saying “thank you” when I hold the door for you is down right rude. Will I ever get used to these things? Not sure. We’ll see.