An American Expat in Spain

Truth be told, I agreed to move to Spain and become an American expat having never been here before. No pressure at all, right!?  It was during a time when we were done having kids but weren’t ready to completely settle down for the next 30 years.

So after some research and lots of late night discussions over wine or coffee – or sometimes both – we decided to stop questioning and start packing!

Call it an enormous leap of faith, but also one of the most exciting parts of our move. The unknown waiting to be discovered.  What would we find? Who would we meet? And what sorts of experiences would we have as a family?

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Anyone that’s visited a major European city, even just to vacation, knows they do NOT disappoint… Rich culture, amazing architecture, incredible food and centuries-old traditions are the essence of this part of the world. Coming from America, a country that is less than 250 years old, makes Europe feel like a walk back in time.

But those things aren’t the only differences I’ve noticed coming from the Western world and living in Spain. Here are a few of the other things I’ve observed about this culture since moving abroad. Hopefully this will prepare anyone else moving to Spain and enlighten those that plan to vacation here.

An American Expat in Spain – Cultural Awareness

1. The Attitude is Relaxed and Stress-Free

The first time I took the kids to a local park, I was amazed. Catalan parents were completely unphased by their toddler having a complete tantrum. Waiting on a long line at the grocery store? No one was yelling and screaming. Even when the city busses took a sharp turn causing passengers to fall on top of each other, they pick themselves up laughing with each other instead of frustrated and annoyed.

There’s a popular Spanish word here, tranquila, meaning relaxed. And it’s the truth! People here are so laid back and as someone that comes from the Northeast of the U.S., I do find it refreshing. Back home, things tend to move much faster and people tend to have shorter fuses. The stress level is certainly on a different barometer than in Spain.

Maybe it’s the sunshine or the inexpensive beer! But something about life in Spain suggest a more light-hearted and carefree type of attitude.

2. Less is More When it Comes to Food

I have a love-hate relationship with the grocery stores here. On one hand, it’s easy to get tired of the same three types ice cream and flavors of potato chips. The condiment aisle is about 1/4 the size of that in the U.S. In terms of cooking at home, I find that I stick to the same dozen recipes and just hit repeat!

On the other hand, less options (I’m talking a total of nine cereals choices and six types of crackers) means spending less money and also choosing healthier options, since the choices rarely include things like High Fructose Corn Syrup or food coloring.

The Spanish government has much tighter regulations on food quality and ingredients – no Captain Crunch cereal or rainbow stuffed Oreos. So what we do choose to purchase is usually healthy and of a good quality. In addition, markets like La Boqueria and Galvany Market make shopping for fresh high-quality produce/meats/cheeses a breeze.

3. People Work to Live – Not Live to Work

The first year we lived in Spain I was amazed at how many holidays the children had off from school! It seemed every two weeks there was some sort of commemoration for this reason or that. And while I still don’t totally understand what all of them represent, one thing is for sure – time off is a major priority in this culture.

Why else would there be a two hour siesta each week day or most businesses closed on Sundays and the entire month of August? Because the people here work to live, not the other way around. And while some foreigners here find it frustrating, I have to admit I sort of envy the mentality that time should be spent enjoying life with the ones you love.

Not working so hard to create a living that you forget to create a LIFE!

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4. They Expect Nothing in Return

One thing I noticed early on was that the Spanish have no problem going out of their way for others – even an American expat like myself. While not overly smiley or outgoing at first, if someone needs help they won’t think twice.

One night, my son fell asleep on the bus ride home from basketball practice. Seeing I had my hands full with two other children, a nice woman picked all 50 pounds of him up in her arms as if he were her own child and carried him off the bus for me. I was astonished and grateful!

In the following weeks I saw tons of examples of people giving up their seats on the bus for an elderly person, helping folks with canes or on crutches cross a busy street. Strangers bending down to play with my kids if they were fussing, passers-by alerting me when the baby dropped her toy from outside her stroller.

The first few months of being an expat can feel lonely.  No family, no friends yet.  But because of these complete strangers, I felt as if there were others looking out for me.  It’s the little things in life, isn’t it?

And what to give in return? A simple “gracias” is all. If you attempt to do more, they refuse the gesture as if to suggest, “don’t dare give anything in return – it was my responsibility as a descent human being.”

5. Social Status Doesn’t Come From Materials Items

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s not that the people here don’t appreciate the finer things in life. But it seems their priorities and social status come more from experiences, traveling and languages spoken rather than the handbag one carries.

The Spanish aren’t sitting around talking about what type of cars they own or the last Michelin Star restaurant they’ve dined at. No one is trying to compete with the other person – they simply don’t care one way or the other. What they do chat about are their travels, their life experiences – and the perspective they’ve gained along the way.

2 Comments

  • Lauren Covino-Smith

    Hi Jenny, thanks so much for your comment and YES you are half right! The siesta that most people think of is a midday nap – but actually this is just a nice long break in the middle of the work day when stores and restaurants close down for three hours. This is a time to eat lunch and spend time with family/friends. Some families even pull their children out of the public/semi-private school to bring the children home for lunch, and then head back to school from 3-5! Crazy right?! Still, it’s such a gorgeous city and culture to experience!

  • Jenny

    What a beautiful way of life. And I also heard they close up shop in the afternoon and take a nap. We were there in late summer one year and most everything was closed…for the entire month. It was a fantastic and relaxing trip anyways. I will get back one day.

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