things that are a big deal in spain...and things that are not

I started this list well over a year ago, in fact, probably closer to a year and a half ago, but I didn't feel qualified to do anything with it except keep it tucked away, add to it here and there, and if needed, take away from it if the time ever came.  Well, I thought about it again recently and scrolled through it on my phone, looking with fresh eyes at all the things my newly-arrived-in-Spain-self thought was worth placing on this list.  Nothing was ever taken off the list, and only one or two things were added over the past year.  

Before I proceed, before you recoil at my judgments of this country and culture I get to live in and call home for a time (and it's been a little while now!), let me give a few caveats.  I'm not stating any of these as facts.  They're just observations, opinions, and ideas from one person, who has lived in two neighborhoods of one city, taught at one school, and has plenty of biases and generally has a negative outlook on life (and this "one person" is myself).  So do what you want with all this - believe some of it, none of it, or better yet, come to Spain and experience it for yourself.  Isn't that what travel is really kind of about?  Meeting real people in the place where they're from, tasting food in the place where it comes from, and realizing that you're one really small person who actually knows very little about everything?  Come and prove me wrong! ;)

So, in my limited experience, a few things that are a big deal in Spain...

  • Dressing nicely.  In general, people dress much nicer, whether it's for work, for play, for going out to eat, or for anything in between than I'm used to.  Maybe it's Europeans or maybe it's city life, but I definitely think twice about wearing my bright pink athletic-style rain coat out here (even if it's raining).  Things are just one step up, I think.  Or two or three, if you're elderly.  
  • Villages.  This is a concept that I think is hard to explain to people in the U.S. and I'm still having a hard time understanding it completely.  I don't know if it's unique to Spain or if other Europeans do this as well, but I'm really fascinated by it.  Okay, so almost everyone I've talked to in Madrid (that is Spanish) has a village, or a town that they go to on a regular basis.  For some people that looks like every weekend, or once a month, or something in between, and for others that looks more like 2-3 times a year (usually, Christmas, Easter, and a few weeks in the summer).  Often, this is where one or both of their parents grew up and their grandparents still live, and in a few cases, they stay with their grandparents whenever they spend time in their village.  In most cases, however, it seems that people have a second house (or flat) in the village.  I think that's primarily why this concept is so hard for me to grasp - there's all these city folks with flats that cost a very pretty penny here in Madrid, and then they also have another place in the village that they visit a few times a year.  I talk to students about their villages a lot when we do conversation in pairs not just because it intrigues me but because they love to talk about it, which is why I can confirm that I haven't talked to a student from my school yet (and I've talked to about 200) who doesn't have a place they escape to outside the city, even if it's just in neighboring Segovia, Toledo, or Ávila.  I've asked teachers for insight on this, and even students with really high levels of English and who've studied abroad and they all seem to act like I'm the weird one, so, I don't know.  Does everyone do this in America except my family?  Haha.
  • Special K.  I never really thought of Special K as one of the most popular types of cereal in the U.S., but here in Spain you can find it (and store brand imitations) pretty much everywhere you go.  Special K with strawberries, Special K with chocolate bits, Special K with berries, and just straight up Special K, it's a big deal here.  (There's other U.S. cereal brands too, but Special K seems to have the most variations.)
  • Smoking.  Don't even get me started.  It feels like it's everywhere...sometimes I really think 100% of the population smokes except for us, even though supposedly legit internet data says only 22.2% of Spaniards smoke daily.  Whatever the statistics claim, I honestly cannot walk the three minutes it takes to get to the metro every morning without inhaling someone else's smoke and most days we close one of our three windows to keep out some of our neighbors' smoke.  Most of the other things on this list are like, "Oh, that's interesting/a little strange/cool/different,"  but this one, since it directly affects me daily, just frustrates me.  Sorry Spain.
  • The lottery.  Spain boasts the world's largest lottery, El Gordo, which has been around every Christmas since 1812 and is usually worth billions.  You can start buying your tickets for El Gordo in the fall in metro stations, on street corners, from tobacco shops, basically anywhere that's convenient for you as it seems like almost everyone plays.  Throughout the rest of the year, too, it seems like the lottery is still prevalent, popular, and accessible (there's probably ten of those little booths pictures below within a five minutes walk of our apartment), but I don't have as much intel on this.  Short article (with hilarious photos) here.
  • English music.  I think I was a little surprised when we first arrived and went into grocery stores, restaurants, shops, you name it, and heard the same Top 40 hits we'd hear in grocery stores, restaurants, shops, and on the radio in the U.S.  English music, and we're especially talking about pop here, is massively popular among young people (and when I say young people, I mean young primary students through people older than us - not saying all the music is necessarily age-appropriate or this is how it should be but this is what I see/hear).  I've seen entire classes of 2nd graders singing along to songs that when I heard the lyrics, I was taken aback, so...American, Britain, English-speaking artists everywhere, this is what you've given the world!
  • The UK and all things British.  British flag covered pencil cases, little Big Ben key chains, and Harrod's bags on the metro (every. single. day.), there's no mistaking that if there's one country Spaniards love outside of Spain, it's the UK and the Brits.  There's honestly not a day that goes by that I don't see some sort of visual reminder (or 15) that we're close to the UK and, in particular, London.  
  • Primark.  For all you uninitiated, Primark is an Irish clothing store that specializes in fast fashion, like Zara and H&M.  Its second-largest store worldwide opened in Madrid in October 2015 (we first arrived here at the end of September 2015) and at the suggestion of some friends, its where we bought our towels, sheets, pillows, and a few other things to help outfit our first apartment.  It was easier for us to get to than Ikea for items we needed immediately, and the price was right, but the crowds!!!  The line to get in wrapped all the way around the block and continued similarly for weeks, and on the weekends, for months.  It's still a madhouse sometimes and I try to avoid visiting at all costs, or at least park myself on one of their couches while Danny browses (I still haven't really caught the Primark bug).
  • WhatsApp.  Because of the way Spanish phone plans are set up, people don't text and call using the preinstalled texting and calling apps on their phones, they ALL use WhatsApp.  Phone plans come with data and then you pay by the minute and by the call, which is why everyone uses WhatsApp and Wifi as much as possible.  We don't even ask people if they have it, it's just assumed, and now it's my preferred method of communication with everyone - it's just more comprehensive and calls seem to be much clearer as well, even when calling from Spain to the U.S.
  • Dogs.  This has to be my favorite thing on the list given my love for cute dogs.  Spaniards love dogs and I love just going about our business and seeing so many dogs.  I guess that's just how it goes when you walk everywhere...which reminds me, dogs are now allowed on the metro, which I obviously think is great (but they have to be muzzled to ride and it makes them look so sad and forlorn!).  And dogs are welcome most other places too - restaurants, stores, you name it.  Dogs rule here, although kids are king...
  • Kids.  When we first came to Spain one of our TEFL teachers had us a read an essay entitled "Ghosts of Spain," which talked about the Spanish children of this generation and how they're being raised.  Essentially, it purported that children are being spoiled, catered to, and disciplined very little.  Now, I obviously don't know loads of Spanish children (just about ~250, give or take 10 or 20), and have had some very good experiences, but...I think that there are some very important points here.  Basically, during Franco's reign, families were encouraged to be as big as possible, and growing up in families with seven or more kids were not uncommon.  Now, it's not uncommon for families to have only one child, and so naturally, those children get more attention then they would if they had six or more siblings.  Also, parents who were raised during a fascist dictatorship and who now live in a free market, democratic society want to give their kids the very best, thus resulting in the situation we're experiencing now - a generation of pampered children whose wishes are their parents' commands.
  • Spanish food.  Most big cities in Europe, or perhaps big cities, period, are good places to find food from all over the world.  I would venture to say that Madrid is perhaps not one of those places and Spain is not really a country where you can find quality, varied food from around the globe.  I think the best cuisine to eat in Spain is indeed Spanish, which OBVIOUSLY makes sense, but it is a really big deal here.  I can't really underscore this point enough.  We have finally come to terms with the fact that, well, we actually don't really like Spanish food, which is completely incomprehensible and doesn't really jive well with most Spaniards, and when eating out it can be hard to find good alternatives.  Jamón, paella, tortilla, cocido, tapas - it's not cliché - it's what this country lives on.
  • Semana Santa/Easter.  This year we had 11 days off of school for Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Easter.  Some might say, "Oh, it's really just for Spring Break and it's nice that it coincides with Easter," but I would venture to say that it's really for Easter and Semana Santa and it's convenient that everybody is pining for a break midway between Christmas and when school lets out in June.  I talked to the vast majority of my students after break and asked what they did and almost 100% of them said they attended at least one procession, and many of them were involved (or had family that was involved) in one.  We were in Madrid last year for Semana Santa and many places closed up shop all week long, and others were just closed Wednesday through Monday, when things really get going (processions generally take place Thursday - Saturday), if people travel or have family visit, that's often when it happens, and I knew that if it was at all possible, I didn't want to spend our time off in Spain this year.  We're not into processions (see a photo we took of one last year - it shows just a tiny bit of the pulsing crowds we pushed our way through and captures nothing of the noise, the hooded group of men following, the marching band leading the way, and the general sense of bewilderment we felt.  
  • Football.  Perhaps this is everywhere in the world outside of the U.S., but football (aka soccer for Americans) is a massive deal in Spain.  In Madrid, you like Atlético de Madrid or Real Madrid (or if you really want to be controversial, Barcelona) from the time you're a young child, you play on the playground during recess, you may have a backpack or pencil case with your favorite team's logo on it, or at the very least you know who wins the big matches and you can play better than me by the time you're six or seven.  It is what it is.
  • Making sure we speak Spanish.  As our (okay, Danny's) Spanish has improved (and mine has stayed fairly stagnant), I've felt (and heard) this one a little bit less, but it has seemed to be a big deal to some people that we speak Spanish.  From random neighbors to people in customer service to students' parents, I've had people question us, "You've been here...how long?  Four months?  Six months?  And you don't speak more Spanish?  Why not?"  Or something to that effect because they're saying it in Spanish, and, well, you already know why I don't understand perfectly.  I tend to think that if we're not bothering anyone with our lack of the language, people should mind their own business and we'll do the same, but...what do I know?

...and things that are not

  • Black beans.  Not available in any chain grocery store that I am aware of.  We have found them in various corner stores around the city as they are popular with certain populations, I think (right now our neighborhood is comprised largely of people from the Dominican Republic and I think they also appreciate having a source of black beans nearby).  We found them in our last neighborhood too, although in a less convenient location, but regardless, we're thankful to find them almost no matter the price as we cook with them often.
  • Peanut butter.  I'm sure Spain isn't the only country where peanut butter is expensive and hard to find, but boy, do our vegetarian selves miss the variety and availability of it in the U.S.  At our local supermarket, there's one type (when it's in stock...), on an end cap next to a host of hazelnut spreads (Nutella knock-offs) and what I think are almond butters (which we don't buy because the first ingredient is sugar...).  Now I'll be the first to admit that the Capitan Mani peanut butter we buy isn't all that wholesome either but it's what we've got, and we don't go through jars with as much speed as we once did (i.e. we now eat PB & banana sandwiches about once a month on our way to the airport, down from about every day when we first got here and were pinching pennies).  
  • Tap water.  Tap water here is actually great, in fact, it's known for being some of the best in the country...but ask for a glass of it at a restaurant and be prepared to get confused or suspicious looks and/or feel like you need to order heartily off the menu to make up for how cheap you are.  We've made the rookie mistake of just asking for water and having the waiter come back with bottles of (rather pricey) water more than once.  We know how to ask for tap water in Spanish now and can usually get it, except for those rare times when a waiter claims they don't have it, which causes us to exchange a glance and me to ask Danny frustratedly, "Do they wash the dishes with bottled water?!"
  • Customer service.  Sometimes it's great, really great, but oftentimes it's just not.  Bottom line, it's just not a big deal here.  Waiters and waitresses don't refill glasses (ESPECIALLY not water glasses), may or may not ask about how the food is, and even just general "How's everything going?"-type questions are few and far between.  Aside from restaurant-related service, pretty much all customer service is just not that important in Spain.
  • Carpet.  In a house?  Or...anywhere?  Aside from the odd rug, you won't find it.  It's just not a thing (and this is another one that I think might be true everywhere but America, but don't quote me on it).
  • Banks being open past 2pm.  Sometimes this particular one makes me want to scream, "WHY?!?!" because I just don't get it.  All the others, okay, they're just cultural, different, not that big of a deal.  But every bank that I am aware of is open from 8ish to 2ish everyday.  Except for in the winter, then on Thursdays they're also open from 5-7:30pm or something generous like that.  There is a branch of our bank a few minutes' walk from Danny's school, so it's easy for him to pop over during breaks or lunch or whatnot, but if there wasn't, I honestly don't know what we would do.  We have a friend who has taken a day off of work to go to the bank.  I mean...sometimes you just cannot accomplish everything you need to through an ATM, especially when the ATM only dispenses 50's...
  • "Normal" length school days.  Both the students at my school and Danny's attend from 9am - 5pm, every day (I mean, not counting the NUMEROUS holidays, but aside from those).  We both work at concertados, which are schools that are privately owned but get government grants and parents pay relatively small monthly fees for their children to attend them (for example, I've heard that at my school it's roughly €200 a month per child).  They often have religious connections, as both of ours do, and could be termed as "semi-private."  Most public school days are from 9am - 2pm, much shorter than those of a concertado, but students don't have a 1.5 - 2 hour long lunch break at those schools (as ours do).  Regardless of the school type, both are pretty different from what I was accustomed to as a student growing up in the U.S. and what seems normal to me.