Hello! My name is Olivia Chadwell and I’m a student at the University of Washington. I’ve been studying here in Barcelona for three months now. You may be wondering, what are some big differences between the U.S. and Spain I’ll encounter when I go to study abroad? Well, here are the Top 10 Culture Shocks I experienced while studying abroad!
1. Getting Around
When I first arrived in Spain, I was not fully prepared to become a walking expert. I have never walked so much in my life. If I could change one thing in my preparation for studying abroad, it would have been packing more comfortable shoes. Everything is so much closer here, it’s so easy getting around Barcelona, and unlike in the U.S. they’ve actually designed cities to be mixed-use and walkable. For example, in my apartment, we are right on top of a dentist, doctor’s office, cafe, and across the street there is a grocery store. I think that all of the bases are covered.
On returning home, I believe that I will step on that scale and be 5 pounds lighter. I truly appreciate the amount of walkability this city offers. At home, I’m used to driving my car everywhere. After all, the nearest grocery store is at least a 10-minute drive away from my suburban home. But here, if I’m feeling like it’s a Ben & Jerry’s night, all I have to do is walk down to the nearest corner store, which is usually a block away, and go grab some!
2. Meal Times
I never knew I could be so hungry. I mean, here’s a culture shock, people in Spain don’t eat lunch until 2 pm! To me, that was crazy, I could not figure out how they did it, until I decided that lunch here is like its own Thanksgiving. It will last two hours, easily. I learned that lunch is not just about eating, but also socializing and slowly enjoying the meal with your friends. Also, don’t expect to go out to dinner here until it is at least 8:00 pm. The few times I have tried to go out to dinner at 6:00 the restaurants have either been empty or closed.
Let me preface by saying this, I do speak Spanish, but I was still shocked by the language barrier while living in Barcelona. If you didn’t already know, they speak two official languages here: Catalan and Spanish. For some reason, I thought because I knew Spanish and English that I would be perfectly fine. Of course, I was wrong.
Let me tell you about my first experience going to a class at my local gym. My gym here in Barcelona, called AltaFit, offers many classes. I usually go to the yoga class once a week. The first time I went with my roommate, I thought that because I knew Spanish I would be able to follow along easily. Well, 5 minutes into the class and I was thinking to myself “Am I really this bad at Spanish, or does this lady just have a strong Portuguese accent?” I was only getting bits and pieces of what she was saying and I couldn’t figure out why. It was only until she told us to take a deep breath and count to five, that I realized she was definitely NOT saying uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco… and that’s when it clicked, it was a totally different language.
So, although Catalan is similar to Spanish, it’s really quite different. You will notice in Barcelona that almost all the signs are in both languages. But, if you’re wanting to practice your Spanish, Catalans are very willing to speak in Spanish with you. And yes, you will be very proud of yourself if you go get food or coffee, and order in Spanish. It’s very easy. Just say, “Me pones un insert menu item here, por favor!”. Ta daa!
4. Ordering Coffee
I will not forget the first time my roommates and I went out to order coffee. Let me say, Spain has the best coffee. It’s so good and usually, it only costs me 1.50 € for a cafe con leche and a croissant to go with it. I’m so happy I’ve been able to maintain my caffeine addiction while studying abroad. But, when my roommate decided to stick to her regular coffee order, it didn’t go as planned. She said “can I please have an iced coffee?” The barista looked at her and said “yes.” Three seconds later, she turns around presenting us with a hot coffee and it has a fat ice cube dropped in the middle. This was a big culture shock, coming from Seattle, the land of Starbucks where iced coffee is so prevalent. You can still find good iced coffee but it’s not as normal around these parts. I now prefer my rich, aromatic, and un-watered down… Spanish, café con leche.
5. Doing Laundry
Here is a big one, it took me at least two weeks to get over my fear of doing laundry. Not because I didn’t know how to use the washing machine (I figured that out in a few days), but because I would stand on my terrace and look down at the neighbor’s patio five floors down, the place that would surely be the graveyard to my fallen socks and underwear. And if a gust of wind decided to take out my clothes that day, I couldn’t imagine how I would get them back, walking down, figuring out which neighbor’s place it was, and traversing across their apartment in search of my fallen clothing.
Now, I have to tell you, my roommates and I finally discovered something in our apartment, something crucial. It may have taken us way too long, but we found a folding clothing rack, which we were able to put on our terrace and hang our clothes safely. I’m now able to hang-dry my clothes with peace of mind, but we still reserve the big items like sheets and towels for the clothing lines. I will not, however, be hanging my daily clothes on there, because, yes, one of my socks disappeared. But who knows if that was from the sock monster in the washing machine or a gust of wind.
6. Grocery Shopping
The first time I went grocery shopping in Spain, I went to the little frutería near my house. I was amazed at how cheap it was to get fresh fruit. I could easily buy a bag of oranges (they are amazing in Spain) and plums for 4 € and that was incredible. Eventually, I figured out where the bigger grocery stores were. I usually go to the Mercadona because they are everywhere and have good prices, but I encountered some reality checks. Since I no longer had a car, and it’s more normal to walk here with your groceries, I realized I could no longer do my two-week grocery hauls. People in Spain shop more frequently, especially since I’ve found they sell less packaged foods here and more fresh items so they need to be replenished quicker.
I have tried some of the most interesting foods during my time here in Spain. For example: cuttlefish, grilled rabbit, fish soup, lamb, and every kind of ham imaginable. I didn’t know there were so many possibilities in the ways of preparing jamón. There is a lot of variety in the food they eat here, a lot of it revolves around a Mediterranean diet. They eat lots of fresh fish, olives, and vegetables like artichokes.
I also really enjoy traditional Spanish food as it has lots of flavor, and I really like the idea that it often incorporates the idea of sharing. One of my favorite things to do here in Spain is to go out for Tapas, which is a small-plate style way of eating. My friends and I will all order some and share it together, so we can easily try a bit of everything. Some of my favorite tapas here in Barcelona are patatas bravas, pan con tomate, tortilla española, and jamón ibérico.
My all-time favorite Spanish dish is Paella. If you haven’t heard of Paella before, it usually comes out in a HUGE pan, and is a mixture of flavorful rice, vegetables, and your choice of seafood or meat on top. It’s so delicious and fun to share!
8. Going Out
I think everything in Spain makes sense, if you just push it all back a little. In the USA, I will go out to dinner at 5:30 and restaurants close by 8:00. In Spain, they OPEN at 8:00. The same thing applies to bars or clubs. Here in Spain, nightlife is totally different. People will party until the break of dawn, and not because they are that loco, but because clubs will not be opening here until 1:00 in the morning… So, if you want to get your full night’s worth of partying in, you can dance until the sunrise. Woohoo!
9. What to Wear
People in Spain dress for the season, and in my opinion, not for the temperature. According to my Seattle standards, 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) is T-shirt weather. When I was back in the states, I’d be walking to class in the winter while it was 35 degrees out, wearing little more than leggings and a light sweater. Here, it’s much different. I will be on the metro, appreciating the warm weather, and there will be people sitting across from me in parkas! With fur on them… yes. I never came to that level while living here in Spain, but I decided that 60 degrees is not T-shirt weather. Here, I’ve decided to go out in layers: a sweatshirt with a coat on top so people don’t stare at me like I’m a weird foreigner…Oh, wait.
On another note, I discovered that my normal leggings and raggedy old sweatshirt attire don’t cut it for me here. Everyone in Spain dresses like they are ready for the runway, even though they are just going to work, school, etc. I have to say, the fashion standards here are much higher. I can no longer wear my pajamas to the grocery store. I have reluctantly developed a sense of fashion.
While I’ve been studying here winter quarter, I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of festivities that occur during the winter season. One of the best parts about living in Spain is that you don’t have to stay inside all day to escape the winter cold. It’s pretty comfortable weather year-round. To me, it seemed like every weekend there was some type of holiday or festival happening. I never ran out of fun things to do in the city. For example, on my first day here in Barcelona, I arrived on January 5th and it was Three Kings Day. In Spain, they celebrate Christmas a bit differently. It was a bit of a culture shock when I was told that they open presents on the 6th of January. It was so cool being welcomed into the city by the Three Kings Day parade filling the streets.
My other favorite festival (which was one of many) I experienced while living here was the Sant Antoni Fire Festival which was held in the Gracia neighborhood near to my place. It was filled with people in costumes which were covered in fireworks. They also did many Catalan traditions such as the Giants, which are people walking around dressed up as huge people or figures. They also lit a huge bonfire in the center of the plaza, it was really a sight to see.
There you have it, my top 10 culture shocks while studying abroad! I’ve learned so much and I know you will too! Different isn’t always bad, it can be amazingly good to get out of your comfort zone and see what you never knew could be. And I’ll surely be bringing some of these traditions back with me to the U.S. Like the simple, yet delicious, pan con tomate and a greater appreciation for food in general!
I hope you enjoyed the article and leave a comment down below if you’ve ever experienced a culture shock or anything like this!