Many study abroad students often have a goal to fit in to their host country. Knowing that I will be living in Madrid for one year, being recognized as a local is an important goal of mine. Study abroad students are often picked out in a crowd, but with time we can learn to adjust to the local culture, and even be mistaken for a local. After my two short months in Madrid I have already picked up on a few Spanish habits that I have attempted to demonstrate in my daily life.
One of the easiest ways to be spotted as a foreigner is when using the metro. The Metro is not only the most common mode of transportation in Madrid, but also a prime location for pickpockets. It is extremely important to fit in during your daily commute. First, do not speak in English on the metro. Spaniards are much like New Yorkers when using public transportation: They sit quietly and rarely strike up conversation. That being said, speaking with friends in English will definitely draw attention. Also, it is very common for Spaniards to stare when using the metro. As much as I love people watching, staring at complete strangers on the metro can be extremely awkward, especially when you accidentally make eye contact. Being the friendly Midwesterner that I am I often find it polite to exchange a smile when I accidentally make eye contact on the metro; however, much to my disappoint Spaniards rarely smile back.
Believe it or not, one of the most important aspects of studying abroad in Europe is how you dress. Europeans take their appearance very seriously and put thought into how they look. Wearing college logos or Sperry’s around Madrid is the easiest way to be spotted as a foreigner. I have also learned from personal experience that wearing yoga pants to class will result in people asking if you plan to go on a jog or do yoga in the hallway. My point is, invest in a new wardrobe when studying in a different country.
Personal space (or lack of)
One of the hardest aspects of Spanish culture for many American students is the closeness and touchiness of the Spanish people. The “dos besos” for example, or kisses on the check you exchange with friends often creates issues for Americans. Spaniards are also extremely close talkers. I often find my face just inches from a Spaniards when have having a conversation, something that will definitely take some getting used to. In addition, Spaniards are very touchy people who seem to constantly be hugging, putting their arm around you, or simply placing their hand on your shoulder when talking. I have tried my best to start being touchy around my friends in order to assimilate into Spanish culture, but this too has just resulted in many awkward moments.
Spaniards are also very up front people. You will never find a Spaniard beating around the bush; they always speak their mind and get right to the point. When eating in a restaurant, for example, you will never hear a Spaniards say “can I please have” or “thank you.” It is most common to blatantly state what you want without sugarcoating. Spaniards are also very honest with friends. As an American girl I am used to telling my friends they look good even though I may not like their new outfit and I absolutely would never comment on someone’s weight. However, for Spaniards, this is different. If you look bad, a Spaniard will tell you. Also, Spaniards love to give nicknames based on physical appearance. While I would absolutely never call someone “el gordito” or “the fat one,” Spaniards love giving these types of nicknames to their friends and it can even be understood as a sign of friendship or love.
The way Spaniards act in the classroom is also extremely different from what I am used to at IU. Professors, for example, never show up to class on time. I have learned that most students to not even arrive to class until fifteen minutes after the official start time. Drinking and eating in the classroom is also completely forbidden in Spain. I will admit that not being allowed to sip on Starbucks during and 8 a.m. class has been difficult. In addition, it is extremely rude to get up and leave class to use the bathroom, which has caused several issues for me in my three-hour-long class.
While adjusting to the different way of life in Spain will in no way be easy, it does make for plenty of laughs and good stories. I do enjoy trying to adapt, however difficult and sometimes embarrassing it can be.