My First Key Experience with Spanish Culture

Truth be told, I agreed to move to Barcelona having never even been here before. No pressure at all, right!?  Call it an enormous leap of faith, but also one of the most exciting parts of our move. The unknown waiting to be discovered.  And anyone that’s visited a major European city before knows, they do NOT disappoint…  Our expectations were HIGH!

But actually, there was something I was a little disappointed about….at first.  It was one of those “first impression” things that kind of sticks with you.

People here didn’t seem to smile much!

Not what you were expecting me to say? 

Well, it bothered me!  I know it seems silly, but a major city is an overwhelming place at first, especially when you are bringing your entire family across the world there…to live!  Plus, there’s something comforting about a friendly exchange of smiles between strangers, like, “Hey, we’re both walking around on this Earth together…and I don’t bite!”

When passing by folks on the street here, no smile. When standing at a checkout line, no grin.  At the bus stop, nope!  People just seemed to looked straight-ahead, almost through you, so as not to be bothered.   Especially when climbing onto an crowded but otherwise completely quiet bus (that is, of course until our Jersey family crew piles on: stroller, screaming toddlers, musical toys and generally loud presence – sorry, not sorry!)  But otherwise…blank stares.

What was up with people here and why did they look so pissed all the time?

That stoic look – maybe this was a Spanish thing?  Maybe this was just city life, which neither Tony or I had been exposed to living in until now.  Hell, maybe we were just spoiled with our Italian American northeast culture of upbeat greetings, chit-chat and long-winded “HIIIIII’s”.

What the heck was I expecting anyway, a red carpet welcome reception to be rolled out for the Smith Family with glasses of cava (a most delicious Spanish champagne) and double-cheek smooches?!

I decided I would smile anyway.  Be polite!  Bring some cheer wherever I went.  I remember reading somewhere that a smile, even when you have to force it, releases endorphins in the brain and actually makes a person feel happier and less stressed.  So you can imagine what a difference a smile from a stranger during those first few crazy days of settling in would have made.

Then one day, thankfully, I started seeing things differently.  I was riding the bus (yup, we rely completely on mass transit here) and had the baby in her stroller.  As we approached our stop, I began rolling towards the double doors to exit.  Suddenly a man bent down and grabbed the front of my stroller!

Was he trying to kidnap London?!  “Yo ayuda, ayuda!” he said to me.

To that I thought, “Ay-WHO-da?!”  My protective mama bear instinct was flaring up fast…

Then I realized he was actually helping me (ayuda!) off the bus. Sigh*

You idiot!  I made an embarrassing mental note. Must learn Spanish, must learn Spanish.

It took me by surprise, but I welcomed his help and quickly replied “Muchas gracias!”  Few days later, I was carrying a heavy bag of groceries while pushing the baby and a woman sharply dressed for work (in heels might I add), grabbed the bag from my hand and insisted on helping me to my building…three blocks away!

Another “Seriously?!” moment for me – but also a heart-warming one.

I started studying the people of Barcelona more.  Looking beyond the surface of a smile exchange between two people.  I realized my first real cultural lesson in our new city was unfolding.  The kindness of strangers.

Did either one of those people flash their pearly whites in the process of helping me?  Not necessarily…but their insistent gestures suggested more than a polite smile would.  It seemed to be their duty, an obligation almost, to help one another (Spanish or not) because it’s what……

We. Should. Do.  People going out of their way for one another, for no special reason or recognition.

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, passer-bys alerting me when the baby dropped her shoe (or blanket or pacifier or countless other things!) on the sidewalk.

That first stroller incident that stunned me?  It now takes place all the time. And of course I now welcome it ha!

One night, Anthony 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 for me. I was astonished and grateful!


Because 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?

During the second week of school, a girl I had only met once before approached me on the play yard. Her son was in Anthony’s class.  She explained that she drives her children to school every morning and passes me and my three little ones waiting at the bus stop.

“I see you each morning. I need to take your kids to school for you,” she insisted. I thought she was joking so I politely laughed it off.  Again, she said “No, I need to do this for you. I have a car and you don’t!”  I couldn’t believe it – this girl barely knew me.  But winter was approaching and I knew what a huge help this would be to us.  So I gladly accepted and that mom has become a great friend.  That simple offer has turned into a wonderful friendship here in Barcelona and now my son’s closest friend from class.  She didn’t have to, but she did – and didn’t think twice about it.

I started to really build trust in the people here and so did my kids.

Something very rewarding happens in the moment when you go from “tourist” status to “local resident” in a foreign city, something I would only be exposed to as an expat living here.  The city even feels less overwhelming when I walk around knowing that if I ever needed help, someone would be there to jump right in. It helped me to appreciate and even love the Spanish/Catalan culture – rich and deeply rooted, genuine and not forced.

It starts to feel a bit more like…a place we can call home.

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