Madrid is a truly wonderful city – it is beautiful, sunny, cultural, vibrant, stylish, cool, edgy, relaxed, compact…and many other adjectives all rolled into one. I moved to Madrid from London in 2010 and have never looked back. It is a city, lifestyle and culture I absolutely adore but which also challenges, inspires and motivates me to do great things and surely that is also what we look for in a new city to call home, right? Living in Madrid has been a great adventure and I have many funny anecdotes and learnings accumulated from the past 6 years. So today I would like to share with you 6 aspects of Madrid and Spanish life I have learnt – 1 for every year I have been here. As you will be able to tell, sometimes the Londoner in me still comes out!
So let’s rewind back to 2010…
*Disclaimer: This is intended to be a light-hearted look at some aspects of Spanish culture, so just bear that in mind!
Year 1 – TIME IS (NOT) OF THE ESSENCE
When it isn’t…
Living in Spain as a Brit is a rather interesting experience when it comes to punctuality and timekeeping…namely it can test your patience on this front. As I’m sure will come as no great surprise, Spanish people are overall more laid-back regarding time, timings and punctuality. This means it isn’t uncommon or rather it is more “tolerable” to show up for things late. On the plus side, I quickly found myself learning to slow down and not stress out as much during the course of an average day. Especially when having to get from A-Z, which was much appreciated given that in London I typically suffered from daily “transport rage”.
Unfortunately this means that sometimes I’ve lost a bit of that good old British Punctuality too…but it’s okay not to be in a rush all the time. Londoners we could do with turning the pace down a bit!
What’s more, I taught English for my first 4 years here and it wasn’t uncommon for a student to show up to class 30 or 40 minutes in and not even seem that fazed. They live life in the slower lane, without as much urgency as in London. Funnily enough though, people from outside of Madrid and the bigger cities consider even Madrid to be “too” fast-paced and hectic.
The downside to this relaxed attitude is that it inevitably affects the service industry where they can take it a bit too literally. Many a time I have felt that “Come on, a bit of London speed wouldn’t go amiss” frustration in shops waiting to pay or even more common, in restaurants waiting to be served. Once a waiter rather bluntly told me something to the effect of “Don’t stress me out” when I politely explained that we were in a little bit of a hurry and so it would be really great if we could get our food a tiny bit quicker…or not.
When it is…
Having said that, sometimes the Spanish can be surprisingly finicky and “just get on with it” regarding time and timings. I would come to learn that in fact, in a work context everything is fairly urgent (though at times without needing to be) and due…yesterday. But given to you today. Yet if you need to push back a deadline that isn’t too important by a little bit, no problem – no stress! I have been working for the past 2 years in a fast-paced, dynamic, cool, hip but relatively chilled Spanish digital agency and have thoroughly enjoyed being in a Spanish-only work environment. But learnt that there is sometimes unnecessary urgency in this area. At work, time is of yesterday’s essence…but relax (“tranki”), no point getting stressed about it!
Year 2 – THE 3 F’S: FUN, FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Spanish people have good and balanced values
After my first year here I began to become more settled and found my little routine. Which did involve going out a lot! You know how it is…for a cheeky wine after teaching, dinner, drinks, cañas, tapas, the whole works. It’s part of the culture here! There is a massive and dominant terrace culture too which is really chilled and pleasant – not just in summer but actually pretty much all year around. A lot of my friends came out to visit me in my first few years and basically everyone also loved the way of life here. I quickly learnt to appreciate and admire how the Spanish always have time to socialise, to be “on the street” (en la calle), i.e. out and about and have time for friends and family. Family lunches are almost sacred at the weekend and they don’t even try to get out of them…they place a lot of importance on finding time to regularly catch up and be with friends and family. Me gusta 🙂
Sleep is for the weak
The Spanish, just like their other Mediterranean counterparts, fully embrace life and live for the moment. These are very positive values I have come to adopt too. However, given that the “timetable” and mealtimes are so late here, my friends started to ask me “But when do people actually sleep”? A fair enough question given that Spanish people like to go out on a school night but most start work already at between 8am to 9am. Let’s turn to a complex equation to try and answer this question:
(roughly okay – no official data)
Dinner starts at say: between 9 – 10 pm
Dinner ends at: between 11 and midnight
Imagine people are up for having another / final drink: midnight – 1am
Get home at: 1.30-2.30am
Start work at: 8.30am
So wait…people sleep = 6 hours?!
They are machines!
Year 3 – SPANISH PEOPLE CAN BE (AFFECTIONALLY/REFRESHINGLY) BLUNT AND DIRECT
After two years and as my Spanish continued to become more polished I started to fully realise how direct Spanish people can be, even my friends or people very close to me! Sometimes I find it “funny” the things they came out with and sometimes it’s like “Nooo, you can’t say or ask that!” Is it just down to their fiery ways? Or is it just because not holding back is considered better than beating around the bush or even “making the partridge dizzy” as they say in Spanish (marear la perdiz). Mind you, sometimes it is mighty refreshing and nice to have things out in the open. No passive aggresiveness here, which is good. As being passagg is not healthy!
What I like and liked about London is that you see people from so many different backgrounds, ethnicities, all walks of life. Here…I stick out. Even though there are a few Little Chinatowns or Chinese hubs in and around the centre (Calle Leganitos and Plaza España, Tetuan metro station, Usera) a lot of people stop to say hi to me – get this – in either Chinese or Japanese. Yes, I am greetedly bilingually depending on the person. Or they ask me if I am Chinese / Japanese / Korean / Thai / Vietnam / Filipino. Nowadays I’m used to it but at the start I felt a bit like the walking poster girl for United Colours of Asia-ton. Another thing is that in London we are also used to meeting people whose appearance may be different from their nationality. In Spain they are a bit less…diplomatic let’s say. So even though I would typically respond to the question “So, where are you from” with “I’m from London” – not because I wish to deny my Chinese roots but rather because London is where I did most of my growing up and is my identity and “home”, people would then ask “But where are you actually/really from”….Oh so you mean, where I was born? Well why didn’t you just say! They certainly are a curious bunch…
“PC” only means computer here
What’s more, it isn’t rare for them to make comments about the “slit” Asian eyes or even do it in front of me in a joking manner, though of course I’m not laughing! Or turning to other ethnicities, I have been shocked on various occasions when Spanish people have dropped totally un-PC words into conversation, including yes…the N word. Don’t even get me started on the Brexit jokes at work – one of the guys on my team even came up with “Betxit” in case I would have to leave the company. #nocomment. Entertaining, yes.
Aside from race and political correctness, essentially Spanish people are just less worried about filtering what they say. Perhaps this is because their reasoning is that you know they aren’t trying to hurt your feelings, especially if it’s a friend. Spanish people sometimes call each other “gordo” (like literally fat) as a nickname and I’ve heard people say to each other “you look tired” or “you’ve put on weight” – not even toning it down with “a bit”…they just flat out hit you with it! Refreshing? Or too much.
Lastly, sometimes it is just down to the way the Spanish language works:
- Tell me (Dime) – No, what if I don’t want to!
- In a bar for example: Give / put me a beer – Very to the point!
- Okay okay is totally fine in Spanish (Vale vale) – Well sorry to annoy you!
- Yes yes (si si) see above – Are you in a rush? Sorry…
So now you know NOT to be offended if something they say sounds a bit blunt…
Year 4 – BRITISH FOOD IS NOT THEIR CUP OF TEA…LITERALLY
As a massive foodie, I absolutely adore Spanish food and am a big fan of their cooking and food customs. In my first few years I became well-familiarized with all the different examples and facets of Spanish cuisine, even by regions. Now I regularly blog about the latest restaurants “de moda”, fine dining and just in general places with good quality food for my blog La Guiri Y La Gata which I founded back in June 2016. There’s no denying it is very different from the food culture we have in the UK and in my fourth year I started to feel a tad tiny bit annoyed (no passive aggressiveness here though!!) when people would say “But Betsy, the food in the UK is a s**t” (in Spanish the “s” word is countable, just so you know).
Sandwich rant (to avoid not getting started on Fish & Chips!!!)
It also annoys me when they speak badly of our supposed love affair with sandwiches (and Fish and Chips – noooo, let’s not go there!) but 1) there is a popular low-cost budget chain called 100 Montaditos which is everywhere and surprise surprise, it serves 100 little baguette-style sandwiches and 2) they don’t really do sandwiches very well here…not like the options available back home anyway. Just saying. Believe it or not, I do miss UK style sandwiches especially during the work week at lunch – there are still not that many quick yet healthy yet tasty options around and I can’t always stomach (no pun intended) a heavy 3-course meal.
As for the impression that we all love and live off Fish and Chips…NOO wait – let’s not get into this! For a future post!
Variety is the spice of life
The thing is I well and truly get why our food culture may not be as attractive as theirs to them. But nonetheless I found and find it frustrating that they would just assume people don’t eat well in London, in England, in the UK. The truth is that there are so many top restaurants, cuisines, food places, quirky little haunts, Borough Market and street food options in London – admittedly you need to know where you’re going but there is such a wealth of options at our fingertips. Perhaps they value variety a bit less than just straightforward good quality and of course it is so much better value to eat out in Madrid. Nonetheless, I would love to one day set up a good old British gastropub and show them that – at least – we do pub grub well. Let us have that at least!
Trendencias (the English and Spanish words for trend mixed together)
Even though always a bit behind the UK, over the past few years Madrid has adopted many (fashionable) food trends or fads that have perhaps long been around, or even come and gone already in the UK. Sometimes it’s come as a surprise to see what has caught on here. A few examples of these are:
- The sushi boom really took off a few years back and put Japanese restaurants on the map
- Ramen and Ramen bars. But not really Pho. Poor Pho.
- Burritos. To date no Chipotle here, but that’s okay
- Gourmet burgers and just burgers in general. Five Guys opened their first restaurant in Spain – in Madrid on the 31st of October of this year
- Juice bars are becoming more popular
- …as are top quality Cocktail bars. Salmon Guru on Calle Echegaray by renowned Argentinian bartender Diego Cabrera is a MUST!
- The bao invasion. What’s funny here is that many different cuisines have their own take on this. For a while it was like the ultimate “fusionable” food.
These days, there are even examples of “funkier” hipster-esque trends that you would expect from the likes of London or NYC. Go Madrid! Über cool.
- Quinoa is catching on
- KALE has started to pop up on menus such as at Mama Campo and there is a Flax & Kale in Barcelona! Impressive.
- Two cereal cafes now – Cereal Lovers and Cereal Hunters
- Bao bars
- Madrid’s only Tiramisú café – Medri
- La Hummusería – a hummus haven
So Madrid’s food scene is definitely becoming cooler and more in line with a buzzing cosmopolitan city (like London)…but there is probably still no convincing them that actually people in the UK can enjoy tasty food in many places as well!
Year 5 – GENEROSITY IS PART OF THE CULTURE HERE
To think that in the UK we don’t even get free peanuts with a drink (!)
I think like many other Brits living in Spain, I first realised how generous they were through their food culture – the whole ordering a caña or glass of wine and getting a free “tapa” or plate of food to accompany it, for free. FREE! Sometimes the food itself is enough to sate your appetite and there is no need to have dinner. So does that justify going out every evening? Discuss.
There then is also the generous free pouring of spirits, for example, for a “gin tonic” that is sometimes the equivalent of 2.5 measures. In other words, bars and restaurants are incredibly generous to their punters and customers, even more so if you develop a good rapport with the staff. They are generous AND friendly, many places have that kind of “Cheers” vibe going on. Their genorosity on this front makes their eating out and restaurant culture even more attractive and enjoyable.
It’s not just the thought that counts?
In recent years I started celebrating my birthday with more and more Spanish friends attending, as eventually I started being less part of the “Expat” bubble, especially after leaving the teaching sector. Actually, I already realised the extent of Spanish people’s sheer generosity and big hearts as a Teacher when students would treat me to lovely end-of-course presents or even invite me round their houses or to cultural events (the bullfighting..ahem). But when it came to my birthday in recent years, I have received such generous presents (in terms of the thought AND cost) but that are also high-quality and practical: dresses, handbags, leather goods, hotel stays, and champagne, to handpick a few. Champagne is practical too…
At times I was almost taken back and other times I felt a bit bad for buying some of my Spanish friends “jokey” presents that are worth less money, but back in the UK we were always taught that “it’s the thought that counts”, right? In the end, money doesn’t have to play a role. It’s the same when it comes to joint presents – here it’s not uncommon to contribute and cough up a far higher amount for a birthday / leaving / baby shower present.
In other words, on top of being a fun-loving, passionate, laid-back foodie nation, they are also really really generous to boot. The Spanish rock!
Year 6 – SPAIN IS DIFFERENT
To bring this post to a close, I guess my final reflection and learning is simply that Sunny Spain is different. It is different in a good sense and it is different in a negative sense. At times there are things that really grind my gears and other times I find myself just in a state of euphoria and so happy to be here in Madrid, immersed in this fascinating and enjoyable culture, pretty much fully integrated but of course still maintaining some of my British values (being diplomatic, polite at all times…for example!) At the end of the day, I am proud to feel settled and comfortable in another country and another culture but my story is that I was born in China and grew up in London so I have other perspectives as well. Madrid rocks…but being a (Chinese) Brit in Madrid is really cool too.
What will the next 6 years bring?
Watch this space…
Thank you very much for reading!
Check out my blog La Guiri Y La Gata over on laguiriylagata.com
Please feel free to share your observations or any reflections with me and with the AngloInfo community below.