AFTER marrying a Spaniard, I moved from the US to Spain and have lived here for the past 4 years. There is a lot I’ve learned to love about Spanish culture, and I believe the rest of the world can learn from Spain as well. Here are 10 of the most obvious lessons:
I grew up in New England, which I believe is one of the most rushed places on earth. Even eating is a rushed event, with most restaurants practically pushing you out the door at busy times. Spanish sobremesa is the opposite. Once you finish eating, you’re expected to sit and talk for a while with your fellow diners. This could last anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. During sobremesa, you really get to know people, whether you’re with family, friends, or new acquaintances. These conversations often linger late into the night, with topics wandering from politics to world news or personal stories.
Whether you’re at work, at home, or doing pretty much anything else, two or three o’ clock in the afternoon is the time when most people feel like they could just sleep. That’s what most Spanish do. Almost everyone will get a quick shut-eye after lunch — especially in the heat of summer. Your whole body feels rejuvenated with just a nap of 20 minutes or so.
I was resistant when my husband first convinced me to try an afternoon siesta. But I’ve learned that shutting our eyes for just 20 minutes on the couch gives us to energy to finish out the day, and even makes us more productive. Even if you don’t take a siesta, most businesses are closed between the hours of 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM. So, you can take this time to have a long lunch, practice sobremesa, nap, and spend time with your family.
The word ‘tapa’ literally means ‘cover’, and came from an old custom of putting a slice of bread on top of a wine or beer glass at restaurants to protect the drink from flies. This custom developed into modern-day ‘tapas,’ which are small portions of food available when you order wine or beer at a restaurant. When ordering tapas, you can pick and choose between different delicious items without getting too full. It’s typical to order one tapa, eat it, and then if you feel hungry, order more. This prevents you from eating too quickly and allows you to try multiple dishes.
4. Asuntos personales
When you work for a company in Spain, you’ll probably get at least three weeks of vacation during the year. Whether you spread these days throughout the year or take them all together, it gives you plenty of time to rest, spend time with your family, and get your mind off work.
Spanish workers also get days off for ‘asuntos personales,’ (personal matters) such as taking your kid to the doctor or something unexpected with your parents. It doesn’t have to be an emergency, but anything that counts as a personal matter can be used as an excuse to take off these days during the year.
5. Less importance on punctuality
Some people may incorrectly label Spaniards as lazy, because Spaniard may often be late compared to people from the US or other cultures. This lateness is not due to laziness at all. The Spaniards I know are hard workers. Punctuality is simply not such a big deal in Spain.
When I first moved here, people not being on time frustrated me. However, the more time I spent in this relaxed country, the more I realized that being five or even ten minutes late isn’t a big deal, and a lot of stress is relieved from daily life. If you hit traffic or leave a bit later than you were expecting from home, you don’t feel the need to speed in order to arrive on time — or come up with excuses for why you were late. Also, growing accustomed to people arriving a few minutes after they said they would makes you a more patient person in general.
6. Sacred Sunday family time
Sundays are truly sacred in Spain, for more than one reason. While many people will go to church on Sundays, what really matters for many people comes later. On Sunday afternoons, families will gather en masse to share a meal hosted by the patriarch and/or matriarch of each family with the whole family invited. As in many Mediterranean cultures, Spanish families tend to be large. So, you may have a gathering of over 20 people, including three or even four generations of a family. This weekly get-together brings the family closer together.
7. Nightly neighborhood gatherings
When I was young, I knew my next-door neighbors on either side, but I didn’t know anyone else on the street. The opposite is true in Spain, where neighbors typically all know one another. This familiarity is helped by the summer tradition of families bringing chairs from the kitchen out to the street after dinner. Often the whole neighborhood will sit outside as the sun goes down and enjoy the cool evening air together. This custom, especially strong in the south, brings people together in a special way, as though your next-door neighbors are an extension of your family.
In the US and in other countries, if you’re sick or injured, you’ll most likely go to your family doctor or local clinic. They might give you a prescription, after which you’ll need to the pharmacy and get it. In Spain, for smaller ailments, you can skip the step of going to the doctor or clinic, and go directly to la farmacia (the pharmacy). There, you’ll find people who have nearly as much medical training as doctors. You simply go up to the pharmacist and explain your problem. They’ll listen to you patiently (usually with an endearing amount of sympathy), before giving you the medication and the advice you need to fix the problem. And typically, it’s manageably inexpensive.
In Spain, if you have two legs, you use them. While younger generations will have cars, many of the older generation rely on their own feet to get them where they need to go. I live about a 10-minute walk away from the local grocery store, and I’ve picked up the habit of walking there after seeing my elderly neighbor doing so. It gets me out of the house just long enough to refresh my mind and breathe in fresh air. When I get home, I feel much more productive going back to work.
Especially in the white villages scattered through the mountains of Andalusia, you will see elderly men and women climbing steep, winding streets to get where they need to go. Walking every day makes these older mountaineers extra fit.
Descanso del personal
Many small businesses, such as restaurants and cafes, will close one day during the week, usually a Monday. They put a sign on the door: ‘cerrado por descanso del personal’ (closed for the rest of the personnel). With one day completely closed, this gives everyone a chance to relax, get away from work, and focus on their family. In Spain, family comes before anything else. This really is something that we could benefit from implementing in our lives.