The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Culture Gap Too Far to Bridge

3 min read


There’s one thing you just have to accept before you go to live in a foreign country: you will experience culture shock. For some people it is more pronounced than for others, but it will affect everyone in some way.

When I came to Spain, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had done some research and had heard from people who had gone before, but I really wasn’t prepared for all the minor differences that no one would think to mention.

After all, Spain is a modern, westernized country. It’s not like I was moving to a Third World country in Africa. How different could it be?

First off, the language. I’m not stupid; I know that they speak Spanish, and not English here. In fact, that’s the main reason I came. As a Spanish major, I figured it might help my language proficiency to actually live in a place where they speak Spanish.

Let me just say, coming here was a very humbling experience. I had considered my Spanish to be proficient. I could easily discuss the literary figures used in Pablo Neruda’s poetry and analyze the subtexts in Miguel de Cervante’s Don Quijote de la Mancha, but, amazingly enough, these things aren’t very useful when you’re trying to buy a cell phone plan.

Secondly, I didn’t realize how much I had come to rely on instant gratification. In Fredericksburg, if I suddenly get the urge to bake chocolate chip cookies at 2 a.m., I can just get in my car, drive to Walmart and get everything I need.

There is no Walmart in Bilbao, Spain. There are no 24-hour stores. In fact, most stores don’t even open on Sundays. Did I mention they don’t have a Starbucks here, either?

Thirdly, water. I had no idea how much I took it for granted in the U.S.. Since Spain is basically always in a drought, although it rains almost everyday here in Bilbao, they are constantly conserving water.

That means that the water in the shower is hot for five minutes at the most, and there are only two temperatures: freezing and scalding hot. Needless to say, I have learned to shower very quickly.

Also, they do not have clothes dryers here. I have to hang my clean clothes in all sorts of creative places and hope they dry before I run out of clean, dry clothes altogether.

While many of the cultural and practical differences between Spain and the U.S. left me longing for the U.S., other aspects of the culture made me realize that the beauty of this experience is in the differences.

For example, the Spanish people are extremely affectionate. Whenever you greet someone, whether they are a close friend or a new acquaintance, you kiss the person on both cheeks.

Everyone seems to act as if they are friends. They hardly ever say “good-bye,” but always “see you later.” Even store clerks will tell their costumers “hasta luego.”

For the Spanish, going out and talking with friends is an important part of everyday life. Almost everyone takes a two-hour break for lunch to meet with friends or family and chat over some wine. And yes, they do drink wine or beer pretty much all hours of the day.

I’ve found that, although I stick out as obviously not a local (if my broken Spanish didn’t say it, my blonde hair and blue eyes would), most people are very kind and patient with me. They take the time to help me and understand what I’m saying.

Most of all, what I’ve found is that, underneath all the language barriers, cultural customs and practices, people are just people. Once you realize this, the differences don’t seem to matter all that much and the experiences and relationships are what become important, and I intend to make the most of these on my trip. Or as the Spanish say, aproveche.