15 Things You Will Encounter in Madrid

I decided to write this post because one of my dear friends from the U.S., S, is coming to visit in a few days. Disclaimer: The post by no means was written to offend anyone , just to illustrate some cultural differences that Americans may encounter when coming to Madrid, Spain.




dos besos

Greeting people with two kisses is very typical in Spain and other parts of Europe. If you are female, prepare to kiss everyone you meet. First you kiss with your right cheek, then with the left. If you are male, you only need to worry about this with females. When a male greets a male, they typically shake hands.



… there is none

The concept of personal space in Spain is much different than in the U.S. In America, we tend to have this impenetrable bubble that surrounds us and we feel very uncomfortable when someone comes too close. In Spain, this concept is different. When you talk to people, you tend to stand a lot closer than in the U.S. On public transport, people will stand much closer and they will also sit next to each other when they find empty seats. It doesn’t matter whether they know the person or not. When I was living in Philadelphia and D.C., it seemed like people would rather stand than sit in an empty seat between two strangers. You may also notice that people may push or shove in crowded areas. This is completely normal and there is no reason to be offended. Uncomfortable at first, this is something that you eventually get used to. It is important that you also stand close to people during conversations because standing too far away may offend them.




One thing you will definitely notice in Spain is that the noise level in conversations tends to be quite loud. Many people who do not know Spanish think that people are shouting or that they are angry. Nope. It is just the typical volume for a conversation here and in many Southern European and Latin American countries. As a calm introvert who prefers one-on-one conversations and tranquility, this has been one of the most difficult things for me to adjust to. Whether I am speaking in English or in Spanish, loud conversations and background noise tend to shut me out. What many people mistake for misunderstanding is actually just me, the introvert, being…overwhelmed! I find that the best way to adjust to this is to focus my attention on one or two people and try to tune out everyone else. I feel bad ignoring other people, but in order to understand anyone, that is what I must do. If you are not accustomed to loud conversations, you will probably be a little overwhelmed by this, too. But do not worry! You will get used to it.




When you come to Spain you may find that, despite having studied Spanish for years in the states, you will have a lot of trouble conversing with the locals in Spanish. In addition to the variety of new Spanish vocabulary you will have to learn, you will also encounter many different accents. Every region has its own words and accent and some of them are easier to understand than others. Depending on where you learned Spanish and the teachers you had, you may find yourself at ease with certain accents and struggling with others. Everyone will have a different experience. When I first came to Spain during college, I felt depressed at the beginning because I had a decent level of Spanish (probably B1 on the European Common Framework of Languages) but struggled to understand basic things that madrileños said to me. After a few weeks of full immersion in the language, I found myself picking up new madrileño words and phrases and starting to understand everyone. It just took some time and patience.

However, just because you understand one accent does not mean you will understand all Spanish accents. Some of the most difficult ones to understand are southern accents, like Spanish from Murcia and certain forms of Andalusian Spanish. For example,when I was traveling in Cádiz, I had to ask a storekeeper for directions. No matter how many times he repeated what he said, I still only picked up about half of it. I depended highly on his gestures to figure out what he was trying to tell me. In southern Spain, many people tend to drop letters and slur things together. It is very difficult to understand-even for many native speakers! If you are not exposed to an accent frequently, it is likely that you will have trouble understanding it. Don’t let this get you down. The more exposure you have, the more you will begin to understand.


Better Be Prompt!


In Spain, unlike in the U.S., being on time is not very important. It is completely normal to show up 15, 20 even 30 minutes late to meet up with friends or even to start work. Having grown up on the saying “being early is on time, being on time is late,” I have had some trouble adjusting to this. I’ve been late to work a few times since coming to Spain (sorry for admitting this, Mom and Dad). Each time I knew I was late, I felt an aching pain in my stomach and couldn’t stop thinking “Omg I’m going to lose my job. This is my second time being late! They are definitely going to can me!” However, when I arrived to school, the teachers seemed unfazed by the fact that I was tremendously late and told me no pasa nada, I could make up the time another day. Although I did feel guilty at the time, it is surprisingly refreshing to be able to be late without being punished. I no longer have to call my boss in tears because I missed my metro or bus connection. Shit happens. People are late. What’s done is done. A lo hecho, pecho. 




it’s everywhere!

In the U.S., it seems that smoking is starting to be frowned upon. Ever since scientists and researchers found out that smoking can lead to cancer, people have been trying to avoid tobacco products like the plague. There are still many smokers in the U.S., but it tends to be a habit that people hide. I would go as far as saying that, nowadays, it is seen as dirty and disgusting. The price of cigarettes has risen drastically in the past 10-20 years and smoking is banned in most public places.

In Europe, smoking is still very common.  Whether you are in England, France, Spain or any other European country, you will encounter more smoke than in the United States. In Madrid, it seems like I can’t walk down a street without smelling tobacco (or other “smokable” substances). It is a completely normal habit here and I would say almost half of my friends are smokers. For Americans, it might be tough to get used to being around tobacco all the time. However, I can assure you that you begin to not notice it anymore after a while.

7. PDA



is acceptable

I think one of the things that shocked me the most when I first came to Spain was how acceptable public displays of affection (PDA) are. My first week, I was riding the metro and saw a couple in the corner doing a little bit more than just holding hands. I could not believe my eyes! In America, you occasionally see people kissing in the streets, but it is not very common and is definitely frowned upon. Here in Spain, PDA is widely accepted. A Spanish professor once explained to me that during Franco’s dictatorship, PDA was considered a violation of public morals. People could get fined for kissing in the streets. After Franco’s death, people felt liberated and PDA gradually became accepted into the culture by the younger generations. Today, it is not uncommon to see young couples making out on metro benches or “getting to know each other better” in the park. If it bothers you, just avert your eyes.



Tortilla brava y café con leche, Las Bravas, Calle de Espoz y Mina, 13

Breakfast is the first meal, and it is usually very small. It is eaten first thing in the morning. Most people eat muffins, cookies, or maybe a little cereal. Another popular breakfast food is pan con tomate, which is toast with crushed raw tomato mixed with olive oil and salt.

Snack around 10am-11am. This really depends on where you work or what you do. Some people use this time to have a cup of coffee and others will eat bocadillos, or sandwiches. Fruit is another popular snack.

Lunch… HUGE  at 2pm, 3pm or later! Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. People tend to eat it after they get out of work. However, since work schedules are getting longer nowadays, many people bring their lunch to work. A Spanish lunch usually consists of so much food that you get really tired and cannot imagine eating dinner. Hence, the siesta tradition (which is, sadly, dying out). If you go to a restaurant, you will be amazed at the menú del día, which is a three-course lunch that usually costs around 7,00€-15,00 € in a normal restaurant, and can be around 20,00€-25,00€ in a more expensive one. The menú usually allows you to have either water or wine to drink, one appetizer, one entree and coffee or dessert.

Dinner… very late. Usually 9:30pm-11pm… not as big as lunch. At home, Spanish people usually have dinner late at night. It is much smaller than lunch and usually consists of one dish plus dessert. Some common desserts are fruit, flan and yogurt. (Yogurt is not seen as a breakfast food here and if you eat it for breakfast, you may get some strange looks.) When you go out for dinner, usually, you will have tapas or pintxos, which are small dishes of food that are usually accompanied by beer or wine.



Fruit selection in La Boqueria, Barcelona. 

Just let someone else cut it for you. Trust me.

Spanish people use knives to peel all kinds of fruit. Even ones with peels. Like oranges and mandarins. When I lived in Madrid during college, my host mother tried to teach me how to cut the peel off of an orange with a knife. However, I almost injured myself in the process which resulted in her just doing it for me. I often get strange looks when I eat citrus fruits because, like many Americans, I use my nails to peel the rinds off. I have learned to just deal with this because me +a knife + a citrus fruit= bad decision.



Tupperware, Malasaña (Madrid)

Madrid is well-known for its wild nightlife. While Americans tend to call it a night around midnight or 1 AM, most madrileños are just getting started. Normally, people go out very late and stay out until 5:30AM or later. Many people will just wait until 6AM or 7AM until the metro opens again. When you go out in Madrid, you never get bored.  According to Lonely Planet: “Madrid has more bars than any other city in the world, six, in fact, for every 100 inhabitants.” In a city of about 3.2 million people, that’s a lot of bars!

11. COATS 


It could be one of those strange winter heatwaves and people will still be all bundled up… and fashionable!

In the U.S., when we see that the weather is going to be warm-no matter what the season- we tend to throw on our shorts and tee-shirts. We do not care if it’s still winter. Here in Spain, it can be 70 degrees Fahrenheit but if it is still winter, people will wear coats and hats and scarves. They even tend to leave their winter gear on in the metro, which tends to be very hot. You can tell who the locals are and the foreigners by riding the metro in the winter. Locals will leave everything on and foreigners will take off their coats.



There is literally one for EVERYTHING. However, if you want a store that has everything, just go to El Corte Inglés or Carrefour.

I was amazed when I first came to Europe by the amount of little stores for different things. In the U.S., we tend to sell a lot of things in one big store. Our small stores are usually only for clothing, electronics and food. When I lived in my first apartment in Madrid, near Atocha, I came across this store that only sells toilet seat covers! I could not believe it. In addition to toilet seat cover stores, there are shops that only sell specific foods, and ones that only sell household appliances, ones that sell mattresses-there is really a store for everything!



Many Spanish businesses and restaurants close in the middle of the day for siesta. You will notice that most shops will close from 2pm-5pm and many restaurants close around 4pm-4:30pm and open again at 8pm or later. If you are walking through the streets at this time of day, it might seem like a ghost town. However, many parts of Madrid cater to tourists from all over the world and it is very easy to find stores and restaurants open during this time if you go to the city center.



It’s… everywhere!

Along with olive oil and El Corte Inglés, Spanish cured ham can be found everywhere in the country. It is one of the staple foods. You will probably see ceilings like this in some restaurants and, if you go to a grocery store, you will see many different varieties of ham. If you, unlike me, are a carnivore, you should probably try ham. All of my Spanish friends call me a sinner for not trying ham. What do you mean you have never tried ham? Can´t you just have a little bite? Someday… maybe someday.



In San Sebastián (País Vasco) in 2012 with two friends, E and L, from Logroño 

One of my favorite things about living in Madrid, and Spain in general, is Spanish hospitality. People are very kind and open and will go out of their way to help you. It doesn’t matter how well they know you, either. If you are visiting a Spanish friend or going to a new city in Spain, either your friend will invite you to stay in their home or they will find someone you can stay with.  I’ve made a few really great friends here who are from other parts of Spain. They’ve invited out to do things with their madrileño friends and a few people have even shown me around their cities or nearby cities that I wanted to visit. I find that in the U.S., people tend to trust people less and aren’t always as open and willing to go out of their way for new people. After living in Spain for four months in 2012, I came back to the U.S. and made it a point to be more open to newcomers and international students at my university. I wanted them to feel just as welcome in the U.S. After all, going out of your way to invite people to do things is the best way to learn more about foreign cultures.


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