Monday, February 18, 2013

Cultural Differences, Part 1: Time

     Before arriving in Spain, I imagined it would be for the most part very similar to the United States. And it is, for the most part. It is a first world, western democratic-ish country. But as I began to settle in, I noticed more and more quirks that really make life here different than life in America. For my first installment of "Cultural Differences," I will focus on the peculiarities of Spain's perception of Time, at least from an American's viewpoint.

Eating: Spaniards eat nothing or very little for breakfast. They do this at the normal time of day, 7 or 8 o'clock on weekdays. Then they have a snack around 11:30, 12, or later, which they sometimes pass off as breakfast, but they aren't fooling me. But they don't get around to eating lunch until 2 or 3pm. This was a rude awakening for me, since I was accustomed to eating lunch before noon. I still haven't become accustomed to it. While I'm in the school cafeteria chowing down at 1:30, everyone else is sipping coffee or tea. Not only that, but if I want to have lunch in this city before 2pm, I have to eat at my house. The restaurants really don't open until then, and they close at 5pm. It really makes you conform, or starve, or buy groceries. Once closed at 5pm, they don't open up again until (at the very, very earliest) 8pm. And even then, the chef isn't there yet or the place is completely deserted. That's right, Spaniards don't mosey into a restaurant until at least 9pm, but mostly later, 11pm on weekends.
     But it isn't only the eating times that are different, it is the time spent eating as well. These people sit around for hours. I mean, three or four hours. The other week, my friends and I went to a restaurant at 2pm. Good job, a Spanish time to eat lunch. We stayed for over two hours. From the time we arrived there until the time we left, no one left the restaurant. And when we came in, there were people already eating their main courses. It was a valiant attempt on our part, but we just couldn't hang with the Spaniards. We left, too full to walk, and the table next to us (which had been there before our arrival) was still ordering food.
     Another thing, the waiter will not bring you your check until you ask for it. I mean, you can stay there for five hours and have finished eating four hours ago, but until you ask for the check, it will not be given to you.
     And are you used to being able to go to the grocery store whenever you want? Well, don't do it on a Sunday, because you'll be hard pressed to find one open (even the biggest ones are closed). And don't go on any sort of holiday (of which there are just way too many), because they'll be closed then too. And don't go after 9pm or before 9am, no way they'll be open, and unless you're going to the really big ones (of which there are few), don't go between 2pm and 5pm, because, well, they're closed then too.

Walking: Are you in a hurry? Good luck walking on the sidewalk, because not only will you be stuck behind slow walkers or people just standing in the middle of it, but it will actually seem like these people are trying to block you from passing them. Swerve to the right, they do too. Quick to the left, spin move, blocked. The only time they run is when they are trying to catch the subway or a train. Then it is an all out sprint to the finish line, they will knock you down without remorse. It's amazing to see these 75 year old women in fur coats, who you have been torturously stuck behind for two blocks and three flights of steps, break into a run when they see their train is about to pull away. Sure, they can take 10 minutes to walk a block, but they sure as heck can't wait 3 minutes for the next train.

Businesses: If you want to get anything done between the hours of 2 and 5pm, you are in the wrong country. It's not just the grocery closes that are closed. It's the phone companies, the clothing stores, the pharmacy, the everything. And then some places don't open back up after that, they just call it the quits for the day. Do you work and have to go to the bank— ever? Well, if you can't get there before 2pm Monday through Friday, good luck. I swear, with weekends and holidays, the banks are open like 5 days a month.

School: The school hours here are a little weird. Different classes and grades get out at different times on different days. Students also take nine classes and don't have the same schedule every day. But what is interesting is that there is no break in between classes. Well, at least not on paper. When one class ends, the other is supposed to start, and teachers change rooms while students stay in one room all day. There are a couple of fifteen minute breaks throughout the day, but otherwise the classes are supposed to be fluid. This doesn't work well, to say the least. Teachers dawdle in the teacher's lounge after the bell rings, and when they get to class, the students are all up out of their desks or in the hall, screaming, pushing, writing on the board...and when you get them settled down, you have to call the role (every hour) and then try to start class. On average, I'd say the first eight minutes of every class are wasted,
more when it's the class after a break.

Bureaucracy: I think I said most everything I needed to say about this in a previous post about Katie's  Odyssean adventure through the static sea that is Spanish bureaucracy.

Phone Calls: Okay, this is an isolated incident, but I'm sure it happens often. I called a guy (about the eighth attempt to reach him) and he answered. Then he said, 'Oh wait, can I call you back in two minutes?' Sure. After forty-five minutes, I gave him a call back. He answered, angrily, and said, 'I told you I would call you back in a minute!' Yes, you did. 'So, I'll call you back.' Okay. Half an hour later, he called me back. Yay.
     Oh, and everyone here, really, everyone, has one of two ring tones, and they're both annoying.

Punctuality: Now, this one defied my expectations. I think we've all heard the stereotype that hispanics are late to everything, by a lot. But really, I haven't found that to be true for social events. It's not that they're late, it's that everything just starts so late at night. If I'm meeting a Spaniard at 9pm, he will be there then, even a few minutes early. So maybe that's just for Spain, or just for Madrid, but it hasn't been a problem at all.

Vacation Time: They say Americans (and Northern Europeans) live to work, while Spaniards (and in general, Mediterranean countries) work to live. I have found that to be accurate. Spaniards spend no more time at their jobs that necessary, and (a lot of the time) do no more than necessary at their jobs (that is only a bad thing when it negatively affects me, and of course is a generalization and slightly hyperbolic). As I have mentioned, there are a lot of holidays here, and many are on, say, Thursdays. So there are these things called 'puentes,' or bridges, in which a day off on Thursday leads to a day taken off on Friday. This is good for recreation, and might be bad for productivity. Being on a school schedule, I think I experience even more of these holidays. For example, the day of the 'patron saint of teachers' (Thomas Aquinas), is cause for a day off from school. Sweet.
     Also, though I have yet to experience this, I have been assured that everyone takes at least a month off from work in the summer (July or August) and goes to his or her pueblo, or to the beach, or to anywhere but work. Not bad, and this attitude toward work is both appealing to the individual and (probably) debilitating to the national economy.

     Well, while there are certainly more differences between Spanish time and American time, I think an acceptable outline has been formed and you can now begin to envision how life here is a bit different from life in the States. But could you blame me if I wanted to stay for another year?

Sunday, February 17, 2013


     A couple of weeks ago Katie and I visited Salamanca, home of the third oldest European university (founded in the 13th century). The city, northwest of Madrid, has a renowned Plaza Mayor and Cathedral, along with a monastery and nunnery, which makes famous sweets.

(Wall of the San Esteban Monastery) 

     Salamanca's plaza mayor is similar to Madrid's and is a popular meeting place for local residents and the city's many university students. Since university students usually go home or at least on vacation for New Year's, students have a tradition of gathering in the plaza a couple of weeks before the new year to have an early celebration. 

(Salamanca's Plaza Mayor)

     The University of Salamanca, founded in 1218, has had many distinguished professors (such as philosopher and poet Miguel de Unamuno) and people such as Cervantes and Columbus visited the campus. 

(University of Salamanca Doors)

It also has a famous portico with a frog hidden among the ornate carvings, and incoming freshman search to find it for good luck. Unfortunately, the frog doesn't really look like a frog, but instead a bump on the top of a skull, which doesn't really look like a skull. 

     The Cathedral dominates the skyline of Salamanca, and is composed of a "new" and old cathedral, and was constructed from the 12th through the 18th century. 

(Salamanca's Cathedral)

     The vaulting in this cathedral is intricate and impressive. 

(Cathedral vaulting)

     Salamanca is full of great architecture— there is a building built in the 15th century called the Casa de las Conchas (House of Shells), the facade of which is decorated with hundreds of stone scallop shells. The scallop shell is the symbol of St. James (Santiago in Spanish), and is something each pilgrim wears when he walks the Way of St. James, a thousand year old pilgrimage through northern Spain which ends in the city of Santiago de Compostela. 

(Casa de las Conchas)

      Just like Toledo, Salamanca has a trademark sweet made by its nuns. They're called amarguillos, and are dense, almond-based sweets that are soft and chewy. Very good. 

     And of course, the best part of the trip was enjoying it with Katie!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

New Year, Old Friends, Toledo

     This year started off right in Sol, the Times Square of Spain. Spaniards have a tradition of eating twelve grapes for good luck at the stroke of midnight. So I took part, though chewing twelve (unfortunately seed-filled) grapes at once was not the most pleasant thing to do.
     Alex (friend since third grade) and Derek (friend from college) flew in from their respective residences (Italy and Germany) to join me for five days in Madrid. Katie arrived the morning of the first, so we all were able to enjoy the beginning of the year here. The week was filled with good food, good art, and good sites. We ate at all of my favorite restaurants (Spanish, Chinese, Mexican, Italian) and I was able to cook a pretty good Spanish tortilla.
     One night we bought last minute tickets to see the Mark Morris Dance Group dance to Mozart pieces at the Teatro Royal. It was one of the only times I've been to a dance performance, and we all really enjoyed it. We had nose-bleed seats but that gave us a bird's eye view of the elaborate choreography.
     Then, we took a day trip to Toledo, the former capital of Spain (until 1561), situated less than an hour south of Madrid. In the past it was famous as a melting pot of cultures, with Christians, Jews, and Muslims living side by side in peace. There are still a couple of old synagogues standing, and we saw one of them.

(Synagogue in Toledo)

     We saw many things there, including an El Greco museum (famous Greek painter who moved to Toledo in the late 1500s) and the famous cathedral, and it was generally pleasing to walk through the narrow streets. We also sampled marzipan (almond-based sweet), which is famously made in Toledo, and is very tasty. 

(Can you see Katie?)

     We all had a great time, and the best part might have been the feeling of being in a new country with
old friends. It's pretty crazy to think that last summer we were all still in Nashville. So, what's next? A trip to Italy at the end of March to see Alex, of course.