10 things I’ve learned in 12 years living in Spain
Dress code is important, lunches are long, and everyone is very, very late
JJ Keaney with his son in Madrid, where he has lived since 2007.
It wasn’t easy at first, but once I accepted that things are just different to home, I began to settle and see the great things my new country could offer. The birth of my son in 2011 meant there was no returning home, and that made things even clearer.
When I arrived, I had just three weeks of Spanish lessons in Buenos Aires behind me, and since few people in Madrid have English, I knew I could never settle in properly until I was able to converse in Spanish. Also, I was not used to apartment living, and hanging the washing out through a back bedroom window! I learned the hard way that when your girlfriend calls you to tell you take the washing off the line because there’s going to be a shower, you had better do it. The rain in Madrid is filthy, especially after a dry spell, and clothes have to be washed again if they get wet.
I started off teaching English which was great, because even though there was an economic crisis kicking in at that time, there was plenty of work in this area and it was a great way to experience how the Spanish worked. I now design and deliver training for companies.
Here is my list of the 10 things I’ve learned since moving to Spain that I would pass on to anyone thinking of moving here. You will see that the concept of time and social occasions are a big part of the differences you need to understand the Spanish.
1. Ahora does not mean now, as defined in any dictionary: It took me three years to figure this out. Culturally, ahora really means within the hour, or maybe even later depending on the situation. If a Spanish person says to you that they will send that email to you now, it wouldn’t be wise to wait staring at your screen expecting it. What they really mean is that they may have lunch first, and do a few other things, and then get to that email.
2. In Spain they do not distinguish between afternoon and evening. In Ireland we have the morning (mañana), afternoon (tarde), evening (tarde) and night (noche) but in Spain they do not distinguish between afternoon and evening. So, if someone tells you they will call you por la tarde it really means any time between 3pm and 9pm, or maybe not at all! The afternoon does not start at 12pm. It all depends on when you have lunch. Since most Spanish don’t have lunch until 2pm or 3pm they will only use tarde after this time. So if a Spanish friend says good morning in English to you at 1pm, don’t assume they are just out of bed. They just don’t understand the cultural translation either.
3 . The Spanish will always be late. We Irish think we are quite tardy and by Northern European standards, that is probably an accurate generalisation. But in Spain it’s on a different level, especially around social occasions. Being invited to someone’s apartment for a party at 9pm really means please do not come before 10pm and if you arrive from somewhere else at 1am that will be absolutely fine also. Ironically, the Spanish think the same of Latin Americans for this very same issue as they are even more extreme.
If you are in Spain for a business meeting, I strongly suggest you have a big breakfast
4 . Nothing starts on time. In professional situations, there is a large degree of latitude allowed. A morning meeting, or training course, may be scheduled for 9am. I have noticed that the longer it is due to last, the later people will arrive. So being 10 or 15 minutes late for a two-hour course will be the norm. It will never ever start on time. If the course is for a full day then I know not to expect to start before 9.30am. Even the definition “on time” is not what we define it to be because they will consider themselves “on time” at 09.15. Training courses and meetings may have no scheduled end time or if one has been scheduled, then it shouldn’t be taken as being inflexible. If you are in Spain for a business meeting, I strongly suggest you have a big breakfast. You may be used to having lunch at 1pm but the Spanish eat later and if they are in a meeting they may not stop for lunch at all. It would be a good idea to make plans for lunch before or at the start of a meeting.
5. Lunches last until nighttime: Weekend lunch is one of the great Spanish social occasions. Expect it to last into the evening. It may start with an aperitivo around midday and finish as late as 7pm after a very slow walk, dar un paseo, and a drink in another location. As with other social occasions, be prepared for the long goodbye because it involves several stages. Grabbing your jacket and walking out the door with a big wave to everyone is simply not an option. The first stage can last several minutes and will involve someone who is anxious to get home or meet someone else later, signalling that it might be time to end this marathon. There will be a general consensus that the group has made the most of this gathering, but it may still be a few minutes before enough people stand up to bring some clarity that the end is nigh.
Watching an Italian greet or say goodbye to a Spaniard is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see
The standing stage will last several minutes and may involve a few double cheeked kisses of goodbye. Everyone will start to make their way towards the door either as one group or several breakaway groups. If it’s the latter, then you should allow for extra time because it’ll be harder to achieve a general consensus to break it all up and part ways. Expect this stage to last 20 minutes and be thankful if it doesn’t. It may also involve several locations, depending on the group’s direction of travel. Before it finally ends you absolutely must say goodbye individually to everyone with a double cheek kiss or handshake. Unlike in Italy, the Spanish double cheek kiss starts on the right cheek (watching an Italian greet or say goodbye to a Spaniard is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see). After 10 years, this whole ritual has not get any easier for me but I have managed a few tricks to speed it up.
6. The “round” system is unheard of here: This suits me absolutely fine. Unless you are in a late-night bar or an Irish pub, you pay at the end. The bill is split evenly unless it is obvious that someone owes a lot less or more. Also, running straight to the bar when you enter is not the way it’s done. You take a seat (never ask a stranger to share a table even if they are alone) and if the waiter doesn’t come within 10 minutes or so, then it’s okay to start seeking them out with a very loud and clear “perdone” call. Appear too anxious and you may seem as though you have a drink problem but it is okay to reorder even if nobody else wants one.
Food is almost always part of the equation and is shared. You must be polite, so under no circumstances should you dig in as soon as it lands. If there is one sausage or whatever left on the plate and you really want it then you must wait a few minutes (it’ll still be there if you are the only Irish person there) and ask politely if anyone else wants it. Even if it’s tiny, cut it in half and offer it to someone else just to show how civilised you are. It’s common not to order all the dishes at once so don’t panic if you think that’s all there is. The Spanish are never in a hurry when it comes to food.
Getting the bill can be very frustrating at times. They never seem to be in a rush to give it to you. If you are in a hurry, then you should order it as soon as possible. The good news is that if you have to ask for it three times and it still hasn’t come then you can do a runner, hacer un sinpa, and nobody will complain. This is more common in Andalucia than Madrid though.
7. Social occasions are impromptu: The Spanish do nights out better than anyone, but don’t expect it to be planned days or weeks in advance. A message on a Saturday morning would be perfectly acceptable for informal dinner and drinks that evening, even for birthday parties and every birthday has to be celebrated in Spain even if the actual date was weeks ago or not for another month. If you are planning an event for the weekend don’t make the fatal mistake of inviting people on a Monday as you just won’t get an affirmative response.
8. Parents organise their social life around their children: Hiring a babysitter while parents go out for the night is very rare. If there was no way of avoiding it, they would normally rely on grandparents who involve themselves in their grandchildren’s lives much more than Irish grandparents do. During holidays, it is very common to see children, including babies, with their parents in outdoor bars or terrazas after midnight. This may seem shocking to Irish people but you have to bear in mind that in the summer in much of Spain, parents use the night to take to the streets after being indoors in the extreme heat. Children are very welcome in bars and restaurants so if you are holidaying in Spain away from the main tourist locations, bring them out with you.
9. Don’t mention the war: It’s not strictly true because you can talk about it a little but for the Spanish of my generation, Spanish history stopped around 1936. They actually don’t teach post-1936 history widely in school because along with the subsequent dictatorship, it is still divisive in Spain, or at least that’s my opinion as nobody has ever given me an explanation. But it really depends on what region in Spain you are in, as local government has almost total control over the curriculum. You would be very foolish to think that General Franco is universally seen as having been a negative influence in Spain, so don’t delve too deep into the subject unless you are in very comfortable surroundings. In fact, this is very much a current topic since there are plans to remove his remains from their current resting place in the basilica at the Valley of the Fallen just outside Madrid. It’s causing problems for the current socialist government because, after passing a law to allow it happen, they can’t find a suitable place to move them to.
10. Dress code is very important in Spain: It would be difficult to overdress for business dealings and if you have a job interview, make sure to wear a suit and tie if you are male, even in the middle of the hot summer, and high heels for women. Same goes for a Spanish wedding, if you are lucky enough to be invited to one. Traditions vary by region but they are all fantastic occasions even if very formal, and go on into the madrugada (dawn). There will be an abundance of food, wine and beer all paid for by the couple, so make sure that your wedding gift (cash is good) reflects this. Don’t make the mistake I made at the first wedding I was invited to. I tucked into the plentiful finger-food early on thinking as Irish people do, that this might be it, only to discover that there was still a five-course meal to come. There will be food available right through to the moment you are ready to call it a night, which may end with breakfast, so don’t panic.