Vassar - Wesleyan en Madrid

Adapting to life in Spain

Making friends

Making Spanish friends is a common objective among program participants and one of the most difficult to pull off in the space of a single academic term. The program’s relocation onto a Spanish university campus was motivated largely by the desire to facilitate contact with Spanish students. Those who have been successful emphasize the importance of their own personal initiative in making this happen.

Many students over time have made lasting friendships by either affiliating with organizations, becoming involved in volunteer work (sometimes with non-profit organization or with schools), or participating in dance classes, hiking groups, athletic groups, choirs, theater talleres (workshops), art studios, and so on. The Universidad Carlos III’s Espacio del estudiante and the ERASMUS student group organize a rich program of cultural events and extracurricular activities, and there are numerous other resources throughout Madrid from with to choose.

Students regularly warn against behavior patterns that tend to impede assimilation, such as associating primarily with other foreign students or traveling regularly outside of Madrid. They recognize that this can lead ultimately to a sense of isolation, even on a university campus.

In order to develop ties with your counterparts in Spain we highly recommend that you set as your goal participation in at least ONE EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITY that will bring you into contact with young people whose interests you share. We encourage you to begin planning BEFORE you leave home. This is particularly important for students who study in Spain for one semester only, since the time for making friendships is short. As noted above, students who have been most successful at “making friends” are those who have found a way to pursue a deep interest (or several) in Spain rather than, as is sometimes the temptation, putting most of their U.S. life on freeze for the semester, with the consequent disorientation and drifting. For instance, one recent program participant who is a vegan joined a vegan association in Madrid and created a whole network for herself of friends and activities, many of them eventually unrelated to her veganism. We encourage students to pursue interests in sports, arts, activism, hobbies and so on while abroad: it helps them structure their days (which they are often used to being crammed in the U.S.) and tends more reliably to yield those elusive “friends for a term” than language exchange alone often does (in intercambios, for instance), since intercambio partners may not share interests or hit it off personally.

Confronting the border: making the most of your cross-cultural experience

Residing abroad forces you to confront nearly constantly new, perhaps unfamiliar, patterns and rhythms of daily life and attitudes regarding personal behavior, a new language —verbal and gestural— and, most important in Spain, new eating habits. Expectations regarding what, how, and where we do what we do constitute the real border that separates “us” and “them.” A basic understanding of some of these differences will at least help you to become patient with what may otherwise produce frustration. At best, your knowledge will enable you to cross the border and thereby profit fully from your experience.

What follows is a series of informal observations pieced together from the experiences of program directors who have worked with students over the past several years.


Food is the basis for our survival; it should come as no surprise that food —and everything related to it— is also a major element in the construction of local culture that requires careful consideration on your road to cross-cultural assimilation.

As a general rule, American culture imposes relatively few restrictions on what, where and when we eat. As Europeans tend to see it, Americans have de-sanctified the act of eating. We tend to graft it onto the branches of our daily routine: the sandwich in the car, the pizza at our desk, the snack on the run, the ice cream as we shop. “To go” is redundant when talking about food in such a context. In Spain, conversely, eating is highly ritualized. Spaniards’ daily life pivots around the highly structured pattern of their meals, yielding always to the where and when of consumption. They therefore tend to view eating or drinking on “the go” as desafortunado (unfortunate) or mal visto (impolite). Nevertheless, although eating schedules and protocol are more ritualized in Spain than in the U.S., some kind of eatery will be open at virtually any time of the day or night. As a result, it is not in fact difficult to feed yourself in Spain whenever you prefer: you merely need to learn when a given kind of establishment will be open and what kind of food you are likely to be able to order there given the hour of the day. So, for instance, you will not as a rule be able to eat a full-course meal between 4pm and 8:30 or 9pm (except in such round-the-clock restaurants as the VIPS chain), but you will be able to order bocadillos and sandwiches, savories such as empanadas, tapas, or café fare in bars, tascas and mesones, and cafés. With rapidly shifting family-, work- and immigration-patterns, more and more restaurants remain open through the day and more and more shops open on Saturday evenings, Sundays, holidays, and through the traditional siesta break (on the so-called horario continuo or continuous schedule).

To be sure, for many Americans —often adult professionals— social life does hinge on the ritual of breaking bread together, but for our students this tends to be the exception more than the rule. In Spain it tends to be the rule.

Two cases in point taken from past experience:

  • Upon their arrival at a hotel (11:00am), a group of students learned that their rooms were not quite ready. They moved en masse to the lounge, located near the hotel’s bar, pulled out the bag lunches, their “comida” prepared by their host families, and turned the area into a veritable merendero. They were clearly oblivious to the fact that, in the eyes of the Spaniards nearby, their eating there was considered mal visto, their eating then unconventional.

  • Two guided tours were scheduled recently on another field trip, one from 11:00am to 12:30pm, the other from 1:30pm to 2:30pm. Impressed by the students’ attentiveness, the tour guide extended the first session until 1:30 and rescheduled the second visit from 2:00pm to 3:00pm. She expected that the students would eat according to Spanish conventions: sitting down in a restaurant at 3:00pm. She was unable to understand the impatience of her group, who were losing her thread as they began dreaming hungrily of a sandwich on the go at noon. A classic example of two culture groups at cross-purposes.

In passing from the process (the when and how) to the content (the what) of eating, the source of potential cross-cultural conflict becomes clearer. Americans tend to prefer boiling and broiling, Spaniards frying and stewing. American students tend to condemn all frying as “greasy” (with the exception of French fries); Spaniards view frying as an art and are keen at telling the good freiduría[1] from the bad. (It’s all in the quality of the oil, by the way, and in the degree of heat used in frying.) Various and sundry types of vegetarianism prevails among American students (so many as to baffle Spaniards, who interpret the term strictly as one who eats only vegetables, not eggs, cheese, fish, or poultry); Spain is a meat, pork and fish-eating country. Within Europe, Spaniards are second only to the Danes for the amount of seafood per capita that they consume. Unlike Americans, who tend to prefer their seafood in a flat, white, non-descript format, Spaniards like to see the critter as if it were alive, a guarantee of its freshness. And as for the public display of the animals we eat, a student who recently made disparaging remarks about the preponderance of hams hanging “all over the city” (“my mother would scream!”) was clearly unaware that she was taking on one of the great symbols of Spain’s national identity: right in line with Bigas Luna, the Spanish film director who parodies pork as an emblem of nationality in his extravagant “Jamón, jamón.” At any rate, to speak of jamón ibérico as if it were just any kind of ham is a kind of culinary sacrilege: for foodies the world over, this is like referring to beluga caviar as “fish eggs.”

American students tend to be particularly critical of the Spanish (or continental) breakfast: coffee and a roll (or toast). To be fair, using breakfast to pass judgment on Spanish cuisine is akin to evaluating Canada for its tropical rain forests. This is clearly not where Spaniards stake any claims.

In sum, all cultures attach special importance to certain types of food, to certain modes of preparation, and to certain culinary occasions. (The confusion in the English sense of feast —an occasion and a meal— is richly suggestive in this sense.) Your first goal should be to learn what Spaniards value in this regard. Beyond that, deciding whether to regulate your eating practices accordingly will be tantamount to deciding whether to cross the border.

Time and Space: the patterns & rhythms of everyday life

In Madrid “buenos días” is the greeting used up until just before the “comida”[2] (conventionally at 2:00pm), “buenas tardes” from that point on till about 9pm or just about when it is time to eat the “cena,” from which point it is customary to say “buenas noches.” The concept of “mediodía” is linked to the midday meal, a rather ambiguous indicator for a culture (American) accustomed to measuring time and organizing space with the precision of a clock (12:00 sharp divides the day) and the accuracy of a surveyor.

Greetings such as those mentioned are used almost unfailingly as one enters and exits a space shared by others (elevators, stores, bars, etc.), situations in which, in the US, we tend to feign anonymity. Hiking on a mountain path in Colorado, on the other hand, one tends to greet strangers —even engage them in conversation— a situation that is far less common in the Sierra de Guadarrama. Clearly, the where and when of social patterns change considerably from one culture to the next.

Edward Hall’s The Silent Language (an extremely useful essay for our purposes) begins with a chapter titled “Time talks,” in which the author contrasts the meaning of a telephone call at 11:00pm in different countries. In the US a telephone ringing at this time would probably communicate a sense of urgency or alarm. Such a response would not apply in Spain —or at least in Spanish cities— where calling at 11:00pm is more or less the norm.

On a recent trip on Spain’s high speed AVE (Alta Velocidad Española), with five minutes left before departure, one of the students called a friend who had not yet arrived to tell him to hurry up, exclaiming loudly that: “This is not a typical Spanish train; it is punctual.” Besides the obvious fact that such a remark is offensive and should not have been made publicly, the speaker was clearly unaware that Spain does in fact have its own standards of punctuality and its own sense of organization. Being “late” or “on time” is itself a cultural construction. The fact that an invitation to meet at 8:00pm may in fact signify a much later time for social engagements does not by any means imply that trains do not run on time —or that it is appropriate to be late for a formal meeting in a workplace—. Indeed, standards of public service in Spain (whether in government offices, banks, stores, utility companies, hotels, or transportation) are as high or higher now than they are in the U.S. Banks and utility companies, for instance, offer 24-hour, 7-day a week customer service by telephone (unheard of in the U.S.). Another example: the high-speed AVE train in Spain offers to refund 100% of the ticket if the train arrives more than 15 minutes late (punctuality is running at 99%). Public transportation in Madrid is so efficient, comfortable, and extensive, Americans used to city subway and bus sytems at home merely shake their heads and weep at the comparison. In social encounters, however, Spaniards will tend to be more informal than Americans about punctuality. Much the same kind of difference obtains where public hygiene is concerned: Americans can sometimes be taken aback by the casual way in which Spaniards in traditional bars sometimes drop olive pits or paper napkins on the floor; Spaniards are equally taken aback by the paper cups and popcorn, coke, and chewing gum often strewn about, spilled, or stuck to seats in American movie theaters (since Spanish movie theaters by contrast tend to be spotless). Where, when and how each society insists on order, cleanliness, and efficiency in time management is culturally determined, and mastering the unspoken rules of another society requires careful attention and sensitivity.

A prime battle ground in this area corresponds to the organization and transmission of academic information. A student recently complained, while in Santiago, that “it is August and I still don’t know what courses I will be taking in September.” Web technology has certainly facilitated access to such information. To be sure, Spanish universities have web sites where students can browse course offerings (asignaturas) within different majors (carreras) and colleges (facultades). The course catalog as our students know it is a very American thing, containing as it does the exact time and location of classes for the upcoming academic year. In Spain as in many parts of Europe, this information is provided to students at the beginning of the academic year. Spaniards (Europeans) do not expect it any earlier. They busy themselves with the activities of the day and deal with making those choices when classes begin partly, of course, because they have less freedom of choice in their coursework. Americans in such cases like to plan ahead.

In short, expectations vary in relation to the patterns and rhythms that prevail in each culture. Your success in assimilating culturally in Spain will depend on your ability to understand these patterns in their Spanishness and to adjust your expectations accordingly.


When Spanish students travel or eat together they often contribute to a “bote” or “fondo común,” so that one person manages the finances for the group. They therefore tend to divide expenses equally. American students often split expenses in a way that might suggest a lack of “compañerismo” to a Spaniard. As a rule, in the US Americans leave a 15% tip when eating out and they calculate it exactly; Spaniards leave some indefinite amount that is often determined by the change brought on a small plate. In better restaurants, the custom is to leave between 5 and 10% of the bill as a tip.

Further underlying attitudes concerning money may be at work here. A few years back a program director accompanied a visitor from the US to the Museo del Prado. Overwhelmed by the beauty of Fra Angélico’s “Annunciation,” the visitor was moved to inquire into the material value of the painting. Such an inquiry would unquestionably be inappropriate in many circles in the United States. Comments like these do add fuel to the reputation for materialism that, justly or unjustly, people in the Spanish-speaking world often attribute to the America of skyscrapers and Wall Street. The fact that change is commonly returned to customers in bars and restaurants on a small dish or tray and NOT from hand to hand may suggest a certain discomfort in Spain with dealing with the materiality of money directly. Notice that the way customers tip ushers in theaters and cinemas suggests a desire to detract attention from an act -the passage of money- that could otherwise be demeaning for the recipient (the usher, in this case).

One final anecdote in this regard. The anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers takes up the topic of honor and money in his celebrated essay The People of the Sierra. In this section, which deals with relations between the peasantry and the upper (land holding) classes in rural Spain,[3] he reveals how important it is for everyone’s honor to be respected within the labyrinth of Spanish social codes. He concludes emphatically that honor is not linked to how much money one has in Spain, but rather how one uses it. Fortune magazine’s impressive lists of the world’s top millionaires would clearly provoke a different response in the Spanish context.

In offering these observations we hope to focus your attention on a pivotal space —the public treatment of money— where personal and cultural values are communicated implicitly. You may want to keep in mind expectations that prevail in Spain in this regard as you decide how to perform in this moment.


Language, as the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno succinctly put it, is the “receptáculo de la cultura.” The many points at which one language’s terminology contrasts, for its precision, with the ambivalences or ambiguities of another, suggest fascinating stories about the cultural values deeply rooted in the collective mindset of linguistic communities. The term “educación” (from the Latin, ‘educare,’ to lead forth, by implication toward enlightenment) is a case in point. Whereas Americans tend to use this term in speaking about one’s formal (academic) formation, Spanish speakers usually convey such meaning by the terms instrucción or formación, preferring educación in treating questions of personal conduct or behavior (e.g.: a rude or polite person would be mal educado or bien educado).

What follows, then, is a pot pourri (or olla podrida) of suggestions regarding the standards Spaniards might use in judging the level of your educación.

– When ‘yes’ means ‘no’

To take ‘yes’ and ‘no’ uniformly at face value would be naïve in any cultural context. This is certainly the case in Spain, perhaps more so than in the English-speaking world, as the following example suggests.

A young Spanish woman residing in England some years ago was invited to dinner by a family living in a suburban neighborhood somewhat remote from public transport. When it was time for the Spanish woman to leave, the English hosts offered to take her in their car to the nearest train station. Following her instincts, the woman said “ay no, no se molesten” (“No, please don’t bother”), expecting that they would insist. To her chagrin, her hosts, in fact, “no se molestaron” (they “did not bother”). Her long nocturnal walk to the train taught her an important lesson about communication.

Expectations regarding matter-of-factness differ in striking ways between the Spanish- and English-speaking contexts. To be sure, you may experience occasional discomfort with examples of Spanish “candor” (or “bluntness,” as you might call it), as did the young woman who was informed of the unfortunate quality of her skin by the lady selling cosmetics at the Corte Inglés (“esta crema es para ti, con la piel porosa y seca que tienes”). Staring, which is not taboo in Spain to the extent that it is in the United States, is, in a sense, a gestural form of directness that may also challenge you. We should state, parenthetically, that it also turns our previously discussed notions of the “private” versus the “public” on their head, since staring, like forthrightness, is a mode of entering into one’s private zone, and entrance —in these cases— that is tolerated in Spain more than in the US.

What bears emphasizing here are the misunderstandings that the (perhaps) characteristically Spanish brand of reserve produces between our students and their host families. The host families are paid to provide breakfast (a light meal in Europe) and one meal (usually the “cena,” as it fits better with the schedules of both the student and the family). If the student is present when the family gathers for its “comida,” social norms pressure to include the student. (Eating in the presence of others without sharing is generally considered mal educado.) Families viewed by students as extraordinarily open and warm have at times complained privately to the program housing coordinator about the student’s abusive conduct. A reaction that may strike the American student as hypocritical —offering food begrudgingly; saying ‘yes’ when you really mean ‘no’— clearly signifies something else in the Spanish context. The practice of refusing at least the first offer will help you come to understand when ‘yes’ means ‘yes’; the game is about how much they insist. Your avoiding situations that force invitations will be read as a sign of a persona bien educada.

– Expressing desires

Compliments when taken to imply a hidden request may lead to misunderstandings similar to those just described. A statement like “¡me encanta este mantel; es precioso!” can lead to the potentially embarrassing situation of the host family giving the tablecloth to the student as a gift.

Expressing requests, directly or indirectly, puts your interlocutor in something of a bind. I fail you by not complying, and no one likes to fail in this way. The desire to please guests, which is traditionally strong in Spain, may collide with other realities (an unwillingness or inability to comply) and thereby lead to a ‘yes’ that is really ‘no;’ it may also lead to an impatient or angry ‘no’ (again: no one likes to have to say no). This situation arose when a student asked the Director to request special dispensation from the Carlos III administration for a withdrawal from a course well after the official deadline, a dispensation that would NOT be granted to Spanish students. Perceptively noting the Director’s discomfort with this request, the student came to realize that different cultural values come into play in such situations and he promptly withdrew his request. This was really a triumph on his part, since it demonstrated that he had learned through observation that the quality of seeming “pedigüeño” (demanding) is commonly frowned upon in Spain.

Within Spanish social codes, the art of indirect or subtle persuasion is often the preferred mode for conveying a request. Students should keep this in mind in all of their dealings with faculty and administrators; they should also try to grasp what virtue may be gained in the way they accept defeat.

– Reciprocation, gratitude and the shades of ‘gracias’

On occasions in which Americans might expect a verbal or written expression of gratitude, Spaniards might refrain for saying “gracias” or they might use a subtle comment or gesture to acknowledge their obligation to reciprocate. Such gestures represent an indirect expression of gratitude, often the preferred mode in Spain. They also showcase the importance of obligation within the Spanish social labyrinth.

To be sure, the practice of the thank you card is far less common in Spain than in the US. Wedding gifts may never garner a written response; this is certainly true for dinner invitations. Moreover, in some situations in which “thank you” (in English) is appropriate, “gracias” would be clearly inappropriate. Thanking someone for a compliment on your new suit is a sign of graciousness in English, a degree of arrogance or self-centeredness in Spanish. (In Spanish you jokingly brush the compliment off (le quitas la importancia): “what, this rag? I bought it at the flea market” / “¿qué, este trapo? ¡lo compré en el rastrillo!”) To be sure, Americans are known in Spain for their overuse of the term “gracias.” This does not mean that you should eschew it from your vocabulary; learn when and where to use it through observation.

On the other hand, Spaniards place great value on reciprocating as the preferred mode of expressing gratitude. A Spanish university professor recently commented to a program director that, as he sees it, when American students fail to make friends is it usually because they do not return invitations. Whether or not this is true, the observation may serve as a useful guide.

Students are clearly not in the position to reciprocate on the same level as professional adults; no one in Spain would expect this. But the simple gesture of inviting a fellow student to a coffee or taking flowers or pastries home on Sunday (or on your “señora’s” Saint Day) goes a long way toward garnering affection.

– Negotiating ‘public’ and ‘private’ where the home is sacrosanct

Students usually come to Spain hoping (expecting) to make Spanish friends. The process of developing friendships -indeed, the very meaning of the term- like everything else varies considerably from culture to culture. Understanding this requires time and open-mindedness and results only from patient observation. In hopes of giving you a head start, we shall address here one aspect of this topic only, that of the spaces in which friendships evolve, in Spain and in the US.

Although the home has a sacrosanct dimension in all cultures, the privacy associated with the Spanish home makes this, in some ways, to be especially true. Americans readily invite acquaintances into their home as a means of initiating a new friendship. In Spain, childhood friends often reach adulthood without entering each other’s home. They meet in cafés, plazas, parks, or on streets: “a la hora del café o del paseo” (the stroll is a long-standing tradition that has not only not lost its importance in Spain, it has now acquired forward-looking, ecologically with-it credentials).

Relative to the US, the patterns of Spanish social life suggest a much clearer delineation of the public and the private domains. The power of Spanish kinship patterns is probably the source of this difference. As in other parts of Europe, on holidays or important occasions Spaniards tend to retreat to the seclusion of their home, to celebrate the rituals of communal life as a family. This highly simplified profile of the home and Spanish family life should help Americans accustomed to an “open” or “revolving door policy” understand and therefore accept restrictions placed on receiving visitors. It should also help them to avoid the feeling of failure that they might otherwise experience at not being invited into the homes of their counterparts. Instead, you should learn to quedar, like Spaniards, in the land of the mesones and the culture of the tapeo.[4]

The key to success in the cross-cultural context

Observation and patience are your true passports to cross-cultural understanding. The patient person remembers that something would be difficult to comprehend or accept at home may be perfectly logical abroad. Avoid being judgmental. Foster a self-critical sense of humor, which is one of the great, unsung therapies of all time. Most importantly, observe carefully and learn from what you see.

P.S.: A word about “anti-Americanism” or other potential sources of conflict

In traveling abroad it would be foolish for us not to reflect on the results of the political, economic and military dominance of the United States in the contemporary world. Especially in times of war or when tensions are otherwise acute in the international context, the images of individuals or mobs inveighing against American foreign policy is not uncommon. Students are often tempted to take personally epithets or formulas hurled, usually, against the US government’s foreign policy, that is, against ideas or institutions or representative officials, not ordinary persons or citizens. Needless to say, this can produce considerable discomfort.

The program emphatically encourages you to take the following measures if you find yourself in any such an environment:

  • Resist the temptation at all times to take such comments personally, unless it is clear that they are meant to be personal.

  • Do not be pulled into an altercation.

  • If you experience discomfort or if you begin to feel angry, show dignity in your ability to simply stand up quietly and leave without a glance or a word.

Any other behavior is ill-advised and could result in unfortunate consequences.

[1] A restaurant or bar specializing in fried fish.

[2] We refrain from defining “comida” as lunch since they are really different concepts. Lunch, in the English-speaking cultural context, implies a lighter and less formal meal. The “comida” is the important meal of the day and consists of two main courses, desert, wine often and coffee.

[3] During your time in Spain you will have ample opportunity to study the public performance of members of Spain’s royal family in this regard, at least as they appear on television and in the press.

[4] ‘Quedar’ means to make a date or to meet. ‘Quedemos en la Plaza Mayor a las 20h00’ would mean, then: ‘Let’s meet in the Plaza Mayor at 8pm’. ‘El tapeo’ is the practice of going out and around for tapas, a word that betrays definition.