Spain is a country with an incredibly rich diversity of cultures, customs, and traditions between different cities and regions. You need only to travel a short distance to notice significant differences in accent, celebrated holidays, and even different food and traditions. Many have often described Spain as a collection of different countries within a country. This idea makes living and working in Spain such a rewarding and memorable experience. However, something bad can also happen. And this is a culture shock.
Homesickness and Comforts
In spite of embracing the rich Spanish culture, it is common to start comparing it with your own culture and country. This is often largely inspired by individual emotions. Cultural shock can be caused by frustration, such as not being able to undertake an activity as easily as in your own country. Or it could be caused by the complete opposite: attaining it with much greater ease and a more relaxed approach. In any case, therein lies a culture shock. And holy moly is it noticeable!
Who doesn’t love home comforts? Whether they are places or people you are familiar with, or a favourite type of food, drink, or just a routine that forms part of your daily life. As English Language Assistants living in Spain, we are prone to the occasional bout of homesickness. In my experience, it is largely when I have missed being back home that I have noticed the cultural shock more than ever before.
UK and Spain’s Cultural Differences
Spanish television has longer advertisement breaks than the more frequent yet shorter adverts on British TV. In Spain, there are obviously later lunch/evening meal times. And I could not purchase British products that are readily available back home. These are minimal and trivial things, but they do exemplify the most mundane of existing differences between British and Spanish culture.
Going out can be different; staying in can be different too. But you either simply lament at such cultural differences or embrace them fully as part of your time in Spain… and doing the latter has always served me well.
The difference a siesta makes! Two of the most central and iconic areas in Jerez shining in all their glory in the Andalucian summer sun. Can you tell in which photo many were having a mid-afternoon sleep?
More Culture Shock!
Free time away from the classroom offers the opportunity to explore, travel, and broaden your horizons. But when doing so during the middle of the day, expect a much different experience of leaving the house at the same time in the UK. Yes, of course, I am talking about the Spanish siesta. In particular, about its continued modern-day prominence as an integral part of Spanish life.
I have experienced this in Andalucía. During that time, the usually busy and bustling roads become almost ghost-like. Shops, bars, restaurants, and tourist attractions often close to reflect the lull in footfall during the middle of the afternoon. This may not be the case throughout the whole of Spain. But whereas in British cities you can eat and drink out at any time of the day, and expect a busy environment, that certainly does not occur during this time in Spain.
Likewise, when it comes to different times and routines, there are numerous differences between Spain and the UK. This adds to the culture shock. It ranges from the timetabled school day to the early/late start times of sport and music events. And don’t get me started on the lack of supermarkets open on a Sunday… Looks like I’m eating out again then!
Out with the old and in with the new? Not in Spain. The beauty of the Basilica in Zaragoza matched by the sheer grandeur of Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid.
Wonderful Statues and Monuments
Apart from the much warmer climate and weather, one of the biggest culture shocks that I experienced when moving to Spain was the architecture. Each Spanish city holds wonderful buildings, monuments, and statues. You can feel the emblematic times and periods that have passed in their maintenance.
I have grown up seeing pictures of high-rise hotels, illuminated strips of bars and eateries, crammed beaches full of parasols, and sunbathing tourists that adorn the front cover of a travel brochure. Yes, that’s true. But there’s more. Spain is also home to some of the finest architecture in the world.
That is not to say that other countries such as my beloved UK do not have impressive architecture. But Spanish buildings are steeped in history to their core. They are preserved to an extent that leads by example and inspires tourists to visit from far and wide.
Some of these places are the iconic and traditional Sagrada Familia (Barcelona), the Plaza de España (Sevilla), and Mezquita (Córdoba). Also, the much more modern buildings of the City of Arts and Sciences (Valencia), CaixaForum (Zaragoza), and the Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao). I have had the privilege of visiting all six.
These alone alongside many others exemplify huge cultural differences between Spain and the UK. Historic and modern-day architecture living side by side in harmony is a reflection of Spain in the 21st century.
A lack of open shops, plus quiet city streets make for only one thing… exploring! Braving the Spanish autumn (still wearing shorts) on a trip to nearby Cádiz.
The number and manner of public holidays is another culture shock of mine. I am familiar with routine bank holidays celebrated in the UK every few months. But it came as a huge surprise to realize how many different national and local holidays are celebrated in Spain. Such holidays can fall on any day of the week, whether this is mid-week or a weekend. This is in complete contrast to solely ‘bank holiday weekends’ in the UK.
More so than in the UK, puentes or festivos live up to their traditional reputation of allowing the majority of those who work to take a much-deserved break. This is again highlighted by just how quiet the city centre can be and the scarcity of places open (aside from bars or restaurants) during such days.
Today, our world seems to stop much less frequently than in the past. We have all-night opening hours, instant deliveries, and items you can collect within hours after purchasing. In contrast, I thoroughly enjoy the notion that Spain sticks to its values and respects bank holidays in a traditional manner. Spain does not conform to the modern-day tendency of ‘open all hours’ and purchasing items at your convenience, no matter what time it is or location you are in. In Spain, the true meaning behind local and national holidays are not lost and long may this continue.
Embrace The Little Quirks
Above all, I hope that these thoughts on some cultural differences between Spain and England inspire prospective Language Assistants to enjoy the cultural differences that Spain has to offer. Yeah, giving two kisses each time you meet somebody new, not forgetting to say Hola when people enter a lift, or being accustomed to lots of smaller tapas dishes rather than a traditional ‘big meal’ may take time to fully adjust. But they are part and parcel of the Spanish cultural identity.
Without these little quirks, Spain would not be Spain, and nor would I have felt as culturally enriched as I do after spending time learning and living here. There really is much more to Spain than sun, sea, and sangria. Discovering what they are along the way has really given meaning to my time in Spain. You just never know what is going to be around the corner. But holy moly be sure to enjoy it!
By Adam S., 2019-2020