1. Let’s start with the basics: Spain is not Mexico.
This is like assuming the US and the UK are basically the same just because they speak the same language. Sure, you can buy Mexican sombreros in Las Ramblas and some other tourist hubs, but that’s just because the souvenir stores have decided to stop fighting and give certain kind of tourists what they expect to find. Having to explain this makes me feel a bit ridiculous, but here I go: Spain is in Europe! Also, our food is anything but spicy, our music doesn’t sound like rancheras at all, and our traditional clothing does not include Mexican sombreros. We do speak Spanish, but that’s it. And yes, you’ll find tortilla in every restaurant and bar, but you’ll soon find out it’s something completely different from the Mexican version.
2. The ‘right’ stereotypes -bullfighting, flamenco -are also wrong.
“I know Spain is not Mexico! Spain is the land of flamenco, bullfighting and paella!” you thought while reading the first paragraph. Well, yes… and no. Spain is a big and diverse country and those stereotypes only apply to certain regions. While bullfighting is declared Heritage of Cultural Interest in some Comunidades Autónomas (Madrid, both Castiles, etc.) and common in others like Andalusia, it’s far from being popular even in those places. Most people are not exactly proud of it, and it’s forbidden in Catalunya, the Canary Islands, and several towns in Galicia and Baleares. As for flamenco, it’s native to the south of Spain; and paella is only typical in Valencia. The good part? Every region has its own cultural heritage, traditions, and food –lots of things you’ve never heard of and you’ll probably love!
3. We’re not just a party destination.
Our nightlife and party scene are famous, and rightfully so. We meet for dinner at around 10PM, go out for a pre-dancing drink at midnight, and start clubbing at around 2AM. You can stay out until the next morning -it’s common to go and have breakfast before going to bed -and you’ll always have people around you doing exactly the same. If you like partying, you should definitely do it while in Spain, but it would be a shame to limit your activities to that. We have 44 sites inscribed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites all across the country, some of the world’s best museums, beautiful beaches where to lie down and relax. There’s surf, mountains to climb or hike, woods to explore… and who wants to do all that with a hangover?
4. You’ll see many closed businesses and stores with a “for rent” sign.
With all the partying and long hours spent in terraces eating tapas or drinking coffee you might have gotten the idea of a prosperous, carefree Spain. That’s not the case. The financial crisis hit us really hard -we had built our economy around a fictitious construction boom -and even though there are some signs things might be getting better, our unemployment rate is still over 20%, and it gets even worse the younger you are: 46,5% of people under 25 are unemployed.
The political situation is not better –we had elections last December and the political parties were unable to come to an agreement to elect a president, so we will repeat the election in June. Yes, that means we’ve been 6 months without a proper government. But we love to talk about politics, so don’t be afraid to ask. Any local will tell you all that’s wrong with the country and you’ll leave wondering how come we haven’t started a revolution yet.
5. It gets (really) cold…
We have somehow managed to make everyone believe it’s always warm and sunny in Spain, but that’s just not true. Temperatures below 0º are common during the winter in many areas –mostly the center of the country and mountainous regions. The north of the country is green and beautiful, but that’s because it rains a lot, and even those areas where temperatures below 0º are rare should not be trusted. I have a friend from Finland who swears she never felt as cold as the winter she spent in Santiago de Compostela. So before packing all your summer clothes with you do some research about the region you’re visiting. You might want to take your coat and scarf if you’re coming during the winter.
6. …but if it’s sunny or cloudy, you’ll need sunscreen.
If not for you, use it for us, who suffer every summer when we see our beaches and cities taken by guiris (blond tourists) whose red skin hurts just to look at. “So you never get sunburnt?,” a German friend asked me once. We would if we spent hours under the sun without using sunscreen like you do! We always wonder if we are the only country concerned about skin cancer, or if the desire to get tanned makes people forget the sun can hurt you. But here’s a secret: you’ll get a nice suntan even if you use protection, it just takes a bit more time. Of course, if you prefer to become red as a lobster, get blisters from the sun and have your skin peel off like a snake, who are we to stop you?
7. We keep really weird hours.
Except for breakfast, we do everything late. Lunch at 2-3pm, dinner at 9-10pm… Depending on where you are, it might be difficult to find restaurants where to have your meals earlier, so the best you can do is try and adapt. And don’t worry, you’re not expected to spend all those hours in between meals without eating! We actually have 5 meals a day -we have a coffee with something small to eat at noon and merienda, something like a sandwich or some fruit, around 6-7pm.
8. Most stores will close between 2-4pm, but not because we’re sleeping.
Of all those 5 meals, we take lunch most seriously. If we’re lucky enough to live close to where we work, we go back home, cook, enjoy our food with our family, have a coffee, and relax for a bit. That’s why we need long lunch-breaks, not because we’re having siesta. Most people won’t even sleep for the recommended 15 minutes.
9. Spain is like many different countries put together.
Different landscapes, different traditions, even different languages! The diversity across Spain is huge and you can travel from one region to another feeling you’re actually visiting different countries. So do your research before traveling, learn some words in the local language if you come to a bilingual area (everyone understands and speaks Spanish, but you’ll be loved if you can utter some phrase in Catalan, Basque, Galician, etc.), find out the local specialties and everything that’s different about the region you’re visiting. You’ll be less confused when you see people playing bagpipes or speaking something that doesn’t sound like Spanish to you.