As a Mediterranean nation blessed with an idyllic climate for most of the year, it should come as no surprise that the Spanish people spend much of their time outdoors. A great deal of Spanish cultural life takes place outside, something that can come as quite a shock to the system for visitors or migrants from the chillier Northern European climes. It can take a little getting used to, but it’s thanks to this benign climate that the Spanish lifestyle is colourful, vibrant and seductive.
One of the first things that British people notice when they begin to learn the Spanish lifestyle is that eating times and patterns are rather different to what they will be used to. The typical Spanish day starts generally a couple of hours later than it might in the UK, and instead of ‘three square meals’ the Spanish follow a rather different system.
To begin the day they have two breakfasts – a very small quick bite to kick-start the day first thing, followed by a slightly more leisurely mid-morning breakfast around 11 am, usually taken in a cafe or cantina close to where they work. Lunch is a grand affair taken mid afternoon between 2-4pm, topped up with a small snack (merienda) upon returning home from work or school around 6pm. Dinner is famously taken very late by British norms – usually around 9 pm in the cooler north and often as late as 11 pm in the south.
Thanks to the warmth of the evenings everything happens late in Spain, be it town meetings, fiestas or events of any cultural importance (of which there are lots!). This is also why the siesta is considered so important that it’s even legally enforced in some communities, the idea being not to fall into a long deep slumber but to take a nap – much like the British ’40 winks’ – for a half hour or so just to relax and recharge for the evening ahead.
Another very noticeable difference compared to British life is the Spanish interpretation of queuing. Like much of
daily life waiting in line is seen as an opportunity to chat and socialize – for many people it’s an integral feature of their daily routine – and often these conversations will take place at the counter and carry on long after the formalities of the transaction have been concluded. Be aware that any effort to gain attention for speedier service is considered very rude, there’s absolutely no polite alternative but to be patient and take the opportunity to practice your Spanish. This isn’t just in local shops either – it’s literally everywhere, even government buildings!
A good rule of thumb is to take your phone, tablet, book or newspaper everywhere you go – and allow plenty of time for everything. For Brits who often tend to be rather brisk about their daily business this may seem at best inefficient and at worst incredibly irritating – but try not to be dismissive of this rather idiosyncratic expression of Spanish culture.
People have these conversations because they really do care about the others who they share their community with, and in a fashion it’s a kind of mutual support network that was largely lost to Britain many decades ago. Enjoy it, and even better try to take part in it too. You’ll notice when someone walks into a shop that they will address everyonein the room with a single ‘buenos dias’ rather than single out a particular individual – this is regardless of whether they know anyone, it’s simply an expression of polite courtesy. This is then followed by a polite inquiry as to who they are queuing behind, and then most likely conversations will be struck up while everyone waits.
There’s not really any such thing as ‘noise pollution’ in Spain – any event (or excuse) of any significance is deemed worthy of a fiesta, and these will often incorporate fireworks at – to Brits – bizarre times of morning, day or night, alongside horns, music, dancing and even the occasional spell of cannon fire around the clock. Once more the best thing to do is wipe the sleep from your eyes and head down to join in.
As mentioned earlier lunch is very important, so much so that almost everything besides the occasional vast supermarket will close for at couple of hours, and sometimes even double that. In fact to term it ‘lunch’ doesn’t really serve this part of the day justice, as it’s also the time of day for people to catch their siesta, do some housework, prepare their supper and generally just potter about doing as they please. So important is this part of the day that it has even defied the rise of air conditioning – quite simply it’s not that the Spanish can’t work during these hours, it’s simply because they’d much rather do something else.
Lunch itself is steeped in cultural legacy and almost everyone away from their homes will opt for a Menu del Dia, incorporating a mix of healthy and wholesome foods washed down with a glass or two of local wine. Very rarely will this anywhere cost more than 8-12€ – simply because it’s supposed to be cheap, always has been cheap and so it shall remain cheap. It’s difficult to argue with that logic!
Lastly but worthy of mention is that great burden of the British abroad – tipping; or more accurately how much ought you leave as a tip. As eating out is so frequent in Spain tipping isn’t really expected for casual meals, although it’s polite to leave some small change as a gesture of thanks rather than necessarily a cold, hard financial gift. Even in high quality establishments anything over 5% is considered unusual – so leave a little, but not a lot.