I’ve been living in Spain on and off for about four years now, and I feel like that’s enough time get into the culture and society of a new country. Having said that, moving to a new country is definitely not easy, and as they say, hindsight is 20/20. So here are some things I wish I knew before moving to Spain, that would have without a doubt lessened my culture shock and sometimes saved me a lot of headache! I have spent my time in the south of Spain, and my observations are based accordingly.
1. The bureaucracy really is as bad as they say it is.
I thought I knew what dealing with bureaucracy was, but let’s be real, I had no idea. Luckily when I first moved to Spain, I had a job lined up waiting for me which meant that my employer pretty much gave me a list of which documents I needed to take to which offices in order to get things like my residency permit sorted out. I am fortunate enough to be an EU passport holder, which means that getting a residency permit was relatively straight forward.
The bureaucracy doesn’t stop at the residency permit, though. Setting up a bank account, for example, was a whole other adventure that required me to spend several days going from branch to branch, waiting in line for what seemed like hours and finally ending up with a debit card that had my last name printed on it twice because “the system required two surnames”. In a city I previously lived in I had a monthly bus card that was only valid per calendar month and that could only be topped up during the last week of each month. The card could only be topped up at one particular kiosk and you can imagine the outcome of an entire city of people topping up their bus cards during the same 5-day period at one single kiosk. The wait time was never less than an hour and I literally dreaded going there.
2. The fruits and vegetables are amazing.
When I moved to Spain and had my first go at a local market or mercado I seriously thought I had died and gone to heaven. The fruits and vegetables here are absolutely divine! During my first year in Spain, I was living in a region with huge produce production which meant that all of the products at my mercado were indeed locally sourced. And so incredibly cheap! 20€ used to fill up my entire backpack and several huge tote bags with fresh fruits and vegetables that would last through an entire week of daily smoothies, fruits bowls, veggie lunches and dinners. Although the situation here in Cádiz isn’t as amazing as before, I still cannot complain. I never even knew what fruits and vegetables really tasted like until I moved to Spain.
Spaniards will tell you that the quality of produce plummeted with the introduction of huge supermarkets. “Fruits and vegetables just don’t taste like they used to when I was a child.” For someone who comes from a country where the vast majority of produce is imported, often from other continents, Spanish produce still tastes absolutely phenomenal to me. Having said that, it’s true that there is a huge difference in quality when comparing produce bought at a farmer’s market or fruit shop (frutería) rather than a supermarket, and whenever possible I always opt for the former.
3. Winters are cold.
The coldest winters I’ve ever spent have hands down been the ones I’ve spent in southern Spain. It’s not the outside temperature that’s left my bones chilled, that I can handle. It’s the cold indoors that is absolutely horrendous. Most buildings don’t have proper isolation and heaters are often electric which makes heating an apartment expensive and sometimes pointless, as the generated heat is easily lost. In addition the Spanish government jacks up electricity prices during the winter months and your bill can easily triple or quadruple.
Especially living by the sea, the cold feels even colder due to humidity. As you can never really properly heat your house, there’s always a constant lingering humidity that you never really get used to. I would have never expected to use wooly socks in Spain but now there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wear them at home. Investing in super warm bed linen and a proper blanket is also a must, otherwise you’ll spend several months miserably listening to your teeth chatter and wondering what you did wrong in life when you’re actually colder in Spain than in Finland.
4. Time is a relative concept.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned living in Spain, it’s to never go to a government office, doctor’s appointment, the hair salon or any other scheduled meeting thinking that it’ll “just be a quick visit”. Because it won’t. Arriving 15 min. late is still considered to be on time. When someone says “estoy llegando” (“I’m just about to arrive”) it really means that they’re still at home, potentially about to hop in the shower and that they’ll actually be there in half an hour, at the earliest.
I’ve waited an hour an half to be seen by a dentist I had made an appointment for and been told by my hairstylist to come back in two hours because they were so backed up when I had made an appointment. I even found out that my GP schedules all of his appointments for 9am and then attends his clients on a first-come-first-served basis. The first time I went I was there at 8.55 and got in at 10am. Afterwards I learned to just directly show up around 10.30-11 and I wouldn’t have to wait at all. Spaniards, of course, are already well aware of this system and as a result, they often just directly arrive late to avoid excessive waiting times. This, in turn, results in appointments always running late and thus the vicious circle is complete.
5. Double parking is totally acceptable.
I used to think that using your car’s hazard lights was only to be done in case of emergency. That was, until I moved to Spain. Traffic and parking are often a source of serious headaches, particularly in bigger towns and cities. Spaniards are very well aware of the fact that sometimes you can literally spend an hour looking for parking (been there, done that). The solution is simple: Just double park wherever you want and leave your hazards lights on. Voilà!
Once at a university campus with literally no parking anywhere I saw various cars not only double parked but triple parked! That’s right, three rows of cars parked so that the two most inner ones had no way of getting out. The solution was ingenious: The drivers of each car had left their phone numbers on a piece of paper on the dashboard and whenever someone had to leave, they’d just call the car owner who’d come move his/her car and everybody would be on their merry way. It was probably one of the weirder things I’ve seen in this country and that’s saying a lot. I could never, ever imagine something like that working in the Nordic countries.
+1. Spain isn’t Andalusia.
When people think about Spain, we often think about sangría, beach weather 365 days a year. But there is so much more to Spain as a country than just Andalusia. There are significant regional differences when it comes to dialects, traditions, food, people’s personalities and ways of life, and so much more. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a lot of southern Spain, but the northern part of the country and communities such as Galicia, Asturias and Basque Country are still a total mystery to me. I’ve only heard great things about these areas, and above all how different they are to the southern part of the country and I am very keen on getting to know them.
Spain is indeed not Andalusia, and the pictures in this post are from Zaragoza and Belchite, which are located in Aragón in northeastern Spain.