Stowarzyszenie Projektów Międzynarodowych „INPRO”

My Experience in Spain – From a Foreign Perspective

written by Simone Bateson

 

 

#1 Food is the Doorway to the Soul

 

Have you ever found your expectations about a culture challenged? That moment when you realize that all the images you have seen on glossy magazines or movies crumble before your eyes and all the ideologies you have based your assumption on disappear? That is what it was like moving to Spain for me. I moved to Murcia in the south of Spain 5 years ago to study languages and I now work at a local University as a language assistant. I decided to study abroad because I believed I could learn a lot by studying languages in another country. Getting to know the people and the culture of my area in the south of Spain was demanding and was also extremely rewarding.
One of the most important aspects of culture is food. I realized that my attitude towards eating was based on two principles: that it should be tasty and it should contain some sort of fat or cheese. Entering the supermarket I realized that most of the ingredients I was looking for were not there. Besides my student flat had nothing more than a gas stove to cook on. These limitations allowed me to find new avenues to explore. I began to cook seafood and make salads with pulses and tomato. What had previously scared me began to thrill me and wake up my senses. Moreover, everything made me adapt and as I adapted I started to feel more invested in the people around me as they did me. Slowly but surely I felt less like an alien and more like the cool foreigner.

Food is culture, the attitude to food is culture. My first run in with a cultural, rather than language, barrier, happened in a supermarket. I wanted porridge oats and in hindsight, it may have been a good idea to have translated the words before arriving at the supermarket and realizing that I didn’t know the Spanish equivalent. Inevitably the shop attendant did not know what I was talking about when I tried to describe porridge. Her face acquired an inquisitive, if not slightly perturbed expression when I described the breakfast options as “cooked in milk”. So I went home and I searched it on google translate. I will never forget the words copas de avena.
I found that as well as for nutrition, food also serves as a door to open your mind. I tried combinations of flavors that I would have never of thought of thanks to being exposed to other cultural influences. Some food that surprised me at first but that are now my favorite dishes include cold tomato soup and lemon-flavored crisps.

Furthermore, not everybody knows that Spanish food relies heavily on its Arabic upbringings. In fact, the custom of sharing food in the center of the table is Arabic. These influences can be most appreciated in Andalucía. If you ever get a chance you must visit the Alhambra castle and that is where you may appreciate this kind of influence. So my experience of another culture starts with the most accepted, basic and fundamental aspect of culture: food. Moving to a new place means transcending some of your expectations of what constitutes a dish and allowing for growth in terms of being open to trying new things. At the same time, people will dig your customs and you will probably be asked to recreate a typical dish for your country. So all that is left for me to say is ¡Que aproveche!

 

#2 Mind over Matter

 

Everybody who has started anything new feels like an outsider to begin with. Even those who are most comfortable in their own skin feel it. Moving to a new country can be accompanied by feeling like an alien at first. This feeling seems to spring from the fact that the cultural norms you were used to no longer apply. Simple, everyday communication becomes a midfield as you realize that you must face communicative challenges, such as working out not just how to say something in your second language but what to say. Ordering a coffee has a whole ritual of exchanges of pleasantries and the coffee itself has unfamiliar names. These can range from a black and white to a coffee with milk; café con leche.

I moved to my current home town in the second year of my university study and I met many people who have become my second family. I really began to feel supported by my own small community which meant I could go out into the world and face the challenging situations regarding cultural differences. A key person that helped me change the way I saw human rights and immigration was a friend from Kazakhstan. Both of us were studying the whole degree in Spain. We bonded over the challenges we faced both inside and outside the classroom. However, unlike me, she suffered through the fear of deportation every year. This made me appreciate my rights as a European citizen.

Cultural differences I encountered included interaction through body contact and volume of voice. These interactions can be more keenly observed in a restaurant or bar.  This is not because every table is in the middle of a heated discussion, as would be the case in the U.K. In fact, in Spain, if people are loud it usually means they are comfortable. The loudness of voice can represent anything from intimacy to interest. Generally, the loader the conversation the more intriguing the participants find it. So I became familiar with these signals of openness.

Surpassing the cultural barriers required observation and empathy. I found new ways to connect with people which opened a whole new world of communicative realms. Many people have asked me why I chose to move away from somewhere where there seems to be more opportunities for young people. However, moving to a new country gave me the chance to become familiar with and appreciate communicative diversity. So, while I encountered challenges at first, these were replaced with rewards once I understood the new forms of interaction within my small social circles.

What culture really is everything rolled into one big mess in your mind until you start to unpick it again and realize that every individual also has their own autonomy and are not compliant with everything.

Perhaps my first assumption about Spanish people was that they would all immediately want to be my friend and do what is known as invitar meaning to buy a drink for me. While in my first year at University I did manage to make friends they were not the crazy tequila shot drinking, siesta sleeping friends I had envisaged. They were rather more calm and collected. I learned a lot from my first year but I still did not feel that I fit in. Later on, I would realize that the parts of me that made me stand out would become my identity.

 

#3 Personal Space

 

The attitude towards foreigners can sometimes be one of self-defense as some people feel that they are being invaded. However, to be a foreign person in a new county is to be invaded; by new ideas, culture and ways of life. When I first moved to Spain I arrived with the idea that it may be like an extended holiday. I soon discovered that living in a country has a way of removing your rose-tinted glasses and challenging your associations based purely on what you may have picked up from T.V. shows or films. Your expectations are replaced by an understanding of what the culture really is.

One of the key pieces of learning I went through was becoming aware of personal space or in this case lack of it! I realized that as well as verbal language each culture has its own nuances related to body language. During my University study, I discovered there was a branch of linguistics associated with the amount of space people generally considered acceptable to keep between one another: Proxemics. This can differ depending on culture and register. Over time what seemed so new and strange to me became the everyday and cultural habits became second nature. For example, over the years I have now become so comfortable with kissing people on both cheeks when greeting them that I do it instinctively and sometimes have to stop myself when in cultures where this is not the norm. So much so that upon visiting my parents and Christmas time in London my friends had to dodge my attempts to grab them and plant two smackers on their faces!

A sculpture in Murcia demonstrates physical contact.

I have had the great fortune of getting to know Erasmus students too.

One of the funniest interactions to observe is introducing somebody from Spain to somebody from Italy. In a movement similar to those of two penguins caressing one another the Spaniard will go to kiss from the left and the Italian form the right. This will lead to either a kiss on the lips or a slightly shocked and delighted reaction from both parties.

So salutations and gestures are as bound up in culture as is music, food or theatre. These habits will soon inform you of how to act in given situations. It is always a good idea to find out something about how to greet new people in a foreign culture so as to avoid a cultural ‘faux pas’ or misunderstanding.