Navigating Culture Shock: An American Girl’s Guide to Madrid

I’ve never considered myself “super American.” In fact, I even left the States to go to university in Canada. Also, I call “college” “university,” see?

Still, I was struck by many aspects of Spanish culture that made me feel like a true foreigner. Though a large city like Madrid is inherently international, I’ve noticed some many culture discrepancies between Spain, New York and Montréal. It’s been a blessing that most people I’ve spoken to in Madrid have been kind and welcoming, making the transition more bearable.

Exploring the streets of Chueca in Madrid
Exploring the streets of Chueca in Madrid

In moving to a new country, there’s an obvious expectation that it will take time to adjust to the new and foreign culture, but it’s really the subtle differences in culture that add up to be overwhelming. I’ve created the following guide to record my initial experiences of “culture shock” in this incredible country:

  • PB&J is not a thing

Classic American giveaway: a fridge stocked with peanut butter and jelly. Apparently (I learned this early on when there was only one brand of peanut butter in the entire supermarket and it’s label had stars and stripes with a cartoon peanut playing baseball) PB&J is a super stereotypical American food, and it’s definitely not something you’ll find on the streets of Madrid.

  • Group drinking in the street is

A common practice, and my initiation into residence life, called botellón, is where people gather in the streets to drink and chat before going out. This pre-party usually takes place between 10pm-12am, at which point people will head for the clubs. It’s common not to get home until 6 in the morning, especially since the trains shut down from 12:30-5am. Thank goodness for siesta which offers a rest during the day anywhere between 1-5pm.

Tourists at the horse statue in Plaza Mayor, Madrid
  • Kissing is less intimate than hugging

Everyone’s heard of the classic-European-double-kiss-greeting right? It’s a welcome, a send off, and used with strangers and old friends, alike. I’ve had one too many awkward handshake-hugs on account of not knowing this, so I’ve resigned to dive in for the kiss in any moment of doubt–it’s the polite thing to do!

Travelers en route to the beach in Valencia
Travelers en route to the beach in Valencia
  • Meal times are later

Spaniards do not seem to sleep at night. Evidenced by the later nights out and the existence of a nap time during the day, things here happen at different times, usually delayed a couple hours from classic meal times in the States. Dinner will take place between 8-11pm and if you try to go to a restaurant earlier, it’s a dead giveaway that you’re not from around here (one of the many reasons I’m thriving off of boxed gazpacho).

  • Toilets have buttons instead of handles and light switches are located on the outside of bathroom stalls

It’s the small stuff that gets you.

  • You can order your groceries online! Also, Milk and eggs are not refrigerated

Admittedly, I once heard a rumor that IGA delivers groceries in Montréal, but in Spain, online grocery shopping is very much a common practice. The only problem is that the Mercadona website is completely in Spanish and doesn’t offer one of those helpful Google Chrome “translate” buttons, so you’ve really got to be down with doing some guesswork. For me, this concluded in an accidental purchase of baby yogurt, “Mi Primer Danone.” When it was delivered to my door, I was both confused and proud. I debated on whether or not I should eat it and decided that babies are also human so it was probably okay.

Enjoying a day at the beach in Valencia
Us foreigners enjoying a day at the beach in Valencia
  • What’s App is more popular than texting

A weird one, because aren’t data fees just horrific? (Maybe because I have a prepaid SIM card and no unlimited internet–more on this in a future post.) Either way, it’s super helpful to be able to contact people via wifi, and it’s an important app if you want to keep in touch with international friends.

  • Metro tickets are small stubs & are required both to enter AND exit certain stations

Careful not to lose that ticket!

  • People here don’t pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for college and think it’s weird that we do

It’s unbelievably validating to look at my tuition bill and remember what a great decision it was to attend university in Europe (I am paying international tuition close to $4,000 a year whereas NYU would be $64,000). Just sayin’.

Getting ready for a night out
Getting ready for a night out in front of a Spanish supermercado
  • You really need to know a little Spanish

Even if you’re not fluent, people seriously appreciate that you try, as many I’ve met feel embarrassed to practice their English. Sometimes, though (this usually happens when you walk into a store feeling very confident and order something in Español, accidentally mispronouncing everything), people will respond do you in English, to which I say:

Learn Spanish: Por favor, no me hables en Inglés. Seriamente. Estoy tratando de practicar. Esto no es justo. – Please don’t speak to me in English. Seriously. I’m trying to practice. This just isn’t fair.

Pride in Chueca area of Madrid
Pride in Chueca area of Madrid

What I’ve learned so far*:

*or, to quote Lena Dunham, “learned,” because I don’t claim to actually be qualified to give anyone life advice, really just to help you avoid making my worst mistakes.

You can never fully prepare yourself for cultural immersion until you get to your new destination and dive in. I have certainly dealt with moments of self-doubt and culture shock, but ultimately I have no regrets about stepping outside my culture-comfort-zone.

A wise friend once told me that it’s 100% about your attitude: being in a new country can be strange and terrifying. You can stay in your room afraid of experiencing something difficult, or you can embrace the experience in full, opening your arms to whatever the world has to throw at you, all the while knowing that you have the skills and self-sufficiency to take it on. At the end of each day you’ll look back and say “yeah I totally did that!”

Annie Rubin

Annie proudly knows all the lyrics to Joni Mitchell's album Blue. When she's not writing, you can find her reading about intersectionality, drinking Lorelai-Gilmore-levels of coffee, and exploring the world.

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