A Guide to Spanish Customs (Part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of my guide to Spanish Customs. They may seem strange to anyone not from Spain as they did to me at first.

Read on to find out a little bit more about how it is to live as a local in Spain.

Some of these show how living in Spain isn’t all beaches and sangría but actually a very difficult baptism of fire when new, alone and lacking in local lingo…

(For part 1, click here)

16. Timely rituals

Maybe it was just where I lived in Andalusia but something quite disorienting for a Brit was how ritualistic and scheduled eating and sleeping times are.

The siesta is obviously world-renowned and I quickly adapted to the closed kitchens and shops between 4 and 8pm.

One thing that admittedly would grate on me at times would be when waiting staff would chastise me for ordering certain things at certain times of the day/week/month/year and react as if I was an alien for it. There seems to be much more uniformity in the daily routine, food and drink customs and celebrations than where I’m from in Britain.

I lived for a while in an apartment that was part of a complex. The internal quad had a pool, and at 3pm, like clockwork, all of the children would go indoors for lunch and a siesta, freeing up the pool area for me to go down and read or try to swim in peace (I’m a weak swimmer and only feel confident doing so when a pool is more or less empty).

Of course, the children would come back out again around 6pm then they’d go back in for bed around 10pm.

A Spanish friend explained that this adherence to schedule is possibly a throwback to dictatorial Spain under Franco and old habits die hard, even 40 years after his death and the slow introduction of democracy. I don’t know for sure if this IS the correct explanation but it opens up an interesting conversation around time, schedule and compliance.

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Empty pool area at my former apartment between 3pm and 6pm

17. Sobremesa

Sobremesa translates literally as ‘over table’ which refers to the post-dinner conversation and drinks that Spanish people are so passionate about.

They tend to eat late because of the heat but this habit lasts all year round, even in colder months. You can expect to dine around 10pm and eventually leave the restaurant around 1am. 

The conversation gets animated and decibels reach indecipherable levels which would often leave me a little bit stressed and with ringing ears. I have a recently diagnosed but life-long hearing impairment which went unaided whilst living in Spain and it was hard for me to keep up at times, especially communicating in a newly-acquired second language. I remember going on a city break to Stockholm and being surprised and quite smitten with the quiet manner of dining after a few years of nodding and pretending to know what my friends were saying, such is the volume of a Spanish restaurant when in full sobremesa mode. 

Spanish people are highly sociable people and are very passionate about the sacred ritual of dining in the company of friends and family. You’ll always feel welcome even as a foreigner but you might not always understand or be able to discern what is being said!

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Brits, French and Spanish friends embracing la sobremesa

 

18. Having to show your ID when you’re paying by card

Spanish citizens all have a DNI card which has their photograph, name, address and date of birth on. Foreigners get a NIE card which has all of this without a photo. It puzzled me so much at first when I’d go into a cosmetics store for example , purchase a shampoo using my debit card, and be asked to show ID. I still don’t fully understand it but their tax system is different to the UK so maybe it’s something to do with that…

19. Learning the specific drink customs

Wine is a much loved and abundant drink in Spain but you’ll very rarely encounter any from outside of Spain. Where I lived, your options were rioja or ribera del duero. Luckily for me, I love them both and they’re a bargain at around 2 euros a glass (or 2-5 euros for a decent bottle in a supermarket. 9 euros if you’re celebrating a special occasion!)

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A glass of Ribera del Duero on the Ribera de Córdoba

It’s totally normal to see people sitting out on a terrace around 12pm, slowly drinking a glass of wine or a beer with food. Beer tends to come as a caña (a small measure intended to be drunk before it gets chance to get warm) or a maceta (literally a ‘plant pot’- a larger measure).

Waiting staff don’t ask if you want your wine topping up. You have to ask them to come over to do so. Alcohol is consumed in smaller but more regular quantities in Spain compared to Britain so you can sometimes get a funny look if you order a third wine (even if over a number of hours).

Copas refer to spirits or more literally, the balloon-style glass they are served in. Another name for spirits is cubatas. Gin is extremely popular as it’s refreshing, as are mojitos and rum. Cocktails are much less popular due to their expense compared to how cheap a good beer or good wine is in Spain.

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Wine- cheap even in Marbella

Sherry is massive in Spain, where it is called jerez, which is apparently a Spanish transformation of the word sherry when sailors would hear it but not know exactly how to pronounce it.

Where in the UK, sherry is often viewed as a drink for pensioners or reserved only for Christmas time, in Spain it is big business. Córdoba has its annual Cata del Vino which I naively thought would stock all sorts of red, white and rosé wine but it is dominated by jerez and fino (another type of sherry/fortified wine).

It’s an acquired taste and I’ve never become a lover. I would love to visit Jerez de la Frontera in the Cádiz province to see the horses and sherry making cellars though!

In the spring festivals known as ferias, the popular drinks are often a type of wine or fino mixed with a refresco (soft drink), usually something like Sprite or Coca-Cola.

Rebujito is fino sherry mixed with 7Up and of course there are classic holiday favourites such as sangría and tinto con limón (red wine mixed with lemonade and fruit).

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A pic from back in 2015 (!) with a tinto con limón in the Plaza de la Corredera, Córdoba

Coffee is a whole other ball game. I wasn’t a coffee drinker before living in Spain so I had a lot to learn. Menus don’t read like pseudo-Italian ones in the UK or USA etc.. cappuccinos, flat whites, espressos etc…

In Spain, usual choices include:

  • Café con leche (coffee with milk)
  • Café solo (black coffee)
  • Cortado (coffee with only a bit of milk)
  • Americano (coffee with plenty of hot water)
  • Café con hielo (coffee with ice, not iced coffee)
  • Café bombón (half coffee with half condensed milk)

I’ll never forget the January day when I ordered a coffee with a glass of ice on the side and the waiter was in utter disbelief. I wanted something cool that wasn’t water or a fizzy drink; Januarys are considerably warmer in Andalusia than the North of England…

As for té (tea) with milk, you won’t find that easily unless in a British or Irish café on the coast in somewhere tourist friendly like Málaga.

More commonly and more healthily, you will come across infusiones. These are herbal or fruit teas to you and me. I have never been a tea or coffee drinker but Spain got me into the occasional coffee with ice or fruit tea.

Oh, and manzanilla tea (chamomile) is viewed as a medicinal tea that cures all common ailments. In the school where I worked, whenever the children complained of feeling unwell, we would send them to a lady who would always offer them a cup of manzanilla and they’d always return feeling much better…

It’s so nice that even when you leave a place where you lived abroad, certain tastes and habits leave an indelible mark on you that you bring forward into your new life elsewhere.

To read about the best plazas in Córdoba for a wine, beer, copa or coffee, click here.

[Read also about other great places to have a drink in Córdoba at Clandestino and Jugo Vinos Vivos.]

20. ‘Two birthdays’

Many Spanish people have two special days a year: their birthdays and their santos (saints’ days).

For example, if your name is José you will celebrate your own birthday and San José on the 19th March.

It’s more of a big deal for kids; I remember a few occasions when I was teaching children in the first year of secondary school (10-11 year olds) and parents would stroll into my classroom without warning or announcement with a cake they had bought for all the kids in the class to share for their child’s santo. It is a lovely tradition and I didn’t mind!

It also explains why a lot of Spanish people have the same names. So many Anas, Marías, Antonios, Pablos, Victorias, Sofias and Pedros. It’s because each day of the year is assigned as a saint’s day therefore traditonally, many Roman Catholic families would choose one of these names for their child.

 

21. Braseros and Bombonas

These two were the BANE of my life in my first apartment in Spain.

You cannot even guess how cold it gets in winter inside a Spanish apartment despite the moderate street temperatures… a building of marble floors, white painted walls inside and out, single-glazed windows, absence of radiators or fireplaces and only the brasero to keep you “warm”.

Braseros are a now archaic form of communal heating which is gradually falling out of favour due to its fire hazard risk and I always suspected it must be bad for inducing Deep Vein Thrombosis…

It is a small heater integrated within the dining table, which is dressed in a floor-reaching cloth which the whole family (or just you) will sit at, with the cloth draped over your legs for warmth. It is effective… until you get up from the table and you’re instantly freezing again as it doesn’t warm up the room you’re in.

I am not exaggerating when I say that a friend and I would often Whatsapp each other from our respective apart-igloos asking how we were keeping warm which would involve no less than: fleecy pyjamas, two pairs of fluffy socks, sometimes a scarf indoors, a blanket draped over our shoulders and the brasero plugged in.

We would still be shivering and able to see the condensation of our breath it was truly that cold. It would sink into your bones and clothes would take five days to dry.

 

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The brasero found under tables… pic credit: Nolotiro

I hated the bombona more though.

I moved into my flat and was taking hot water for granted then after maybe two weeks, it stopped. I couldn’t work out why until I found the boiler with an orange gas bottle (bombona) attached. How did I get a new one? Where from? How much? (I was ultra skint at the time) How do you fit them? They’re so heavy- how do I get them up my four flights of stairs with no lift?

Cue my friend Matt and I driving out to a petrol station on the motorway, wheeling in a suitcase with my old obsolete bombona and exchanging it for a new one at a cost of 12 euros, zipping it back up in the wheeled suitcase and driving back to my flat… hoisting it up those flights of stairs in 40 degrees celcius heat and googling tutorials on how to fit it.

I eventually found out how to order them over the phone for a delivery service where you’d leave your old one in the hallway with the 12 euros tucked under it and you’d come home to find a new one and this was a godsend. Until my boiler broke. In November, when I developed feverish tonsilitis. It wasn’t repaired by my dodgy landlady until the February and I had guests who had to endure the igloo accommodation and cold water in Feb…

When I moved into a newer apartment with modern boiler sin bombona , I came very close to crying tears of joy (again, no exaggeration).

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Bombona- pic credit: Shutterstock

22. Things being a bit ‘under the table’…

Maybe this is the case in most countries but it made me laugh quite often how many dealings in Spain were ‘under the table’. I paid my first landlady in cash every month and she refused to give me my deposit back. I threatened her with legal action, she threatened me with both the police and her dodgy sons.

I wasn’t able to sign up with a doctor for around the first 6 months in Spain because I was waiting to receive the elusive but door-opening Certificado de Empadronamiento which you need in order to have a doctor.

I developed the aforementioned feverish tonsilitis and was hallucinating and alone, it was really quite frightening. I cried tears of frustration knowing I have a nurse for a mother and the NHS back home and a doctor I’d had since I was 5 but here I was helpless. 

In the end, I was directed to go and wait in A&E for 3 hours who took a 3 second look down my throat and told me I needed antibiotics. But I had no doctor to prescribe me antibiotics. Next thing I knew, I was being directed to a pharmacist who was willing to sell me them under the counter without a prescription from a doctor. I was incredibly grateful to finally get medication but it was a very unorthodox way of acquiring it…

23. La Renta

La Renta has to be the most infuriating thing about being a foreigner in Spain. I still don’t understand it, 1 year after leaving the country. I still have 34 euros sitting in my Spanish bank account waiting to be collected by their tax people for the last tax year. Whether or not it WILL be taken, I have no idea.

Tax is processed differently in Spain to how I was used to in the UK. By the end of June every year, you have to make a declaration of your income and taxes paid for the year and calculate if you owe the state money or vice-versa.

You would begin with asking your HR dept for a financial breakdown document, then complete an online form not dissimilar from a code-breaking challenge with every obstacle imaginable along the way THEN go to the local tax office and sit in a sweaty office waiting for your name to be called when you’d then have an appointment with a clerk who would try and explain what and why you owed the state…

24. Being referred to as rubia or rubio (blond/e) even when you’re not

 I was born very dark haired. In recent years, I have added blonde to the lower lengths of my hair known as balayage. I was often referred to as a blonde girl, or a rubia and it always puzzled me when most of my hair is still only a few shades lighter than black… (the photo above from 2015 is muchhhh lighter than the usual shade I had in Spain)

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Even when my hair was this dark, I’d be referred to as a rubia

25. Having to bag up your bag in supermarkets

I found this out when I innocently tried to enter Carrefour with my handbag slung over my shoulder and a couple of shopping bags from H&M and Parfois.

I’ve never robbed anything in my life so it rarely occurs to me that going shopping could put you under suspicion. Stealing is quite a problem in Spain so they are equipped in measures to prevent it.

I tried to enter the supermarket with my bags and a security pounced on me with the most hostile and accusatory look…. alarmed and with limited Spanish at the time, I wondered what the hell I was being pulled over for. The guard then realised I was a guiri (“foreigner”- eye roll x 1,000,000 at this word) and sympathetically guided me to the bagging and sealing area. I knew from that moment on that one has to place all shopping bags into cellophane bags and seal them with a clunky old machine every time. I didn’t forget again!

These are just some of the Spanish customs I became immersed within and had to quickly learn. I’m not suggesting they’re wrong but they were just different for me as a Brit. For every time I wanted to burst out crying in frustration, I knew they were strengthening me all the more for future experiences.

Have you experienced any of these things or do you have any perspectives to offer? Leave your comments below!

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