As with anything difficult enough to be worth doing, there has been a learning curve to my time in Madrid. Some of the required adjustments were relatively easy to make, while others took more time and others still have been more of a constant process than a finite change. Personally, I have had the most difficulty assimilating to the broad strokes of the Spanish schedule and becoming accustomed to the minutiae of conversational and social differences. Adjusting my personal routine and social demeanor to fit in with local practices has been both the most difficult and most rewarding part of my time abroad, as learning about and adapting to local culture has been an incredibly useful learning experience.
While it might be obvious to say that a day for me in Madrid is much different than a day back home at Pitt, it bears noting because the differences have manifested themselves in unexpected ways. For instance, I anticipated eating different food, interacting with different people and partaking in different activities on a daily basis. However, I did not anticipate changing my sleep schedule, social schedule and meal schedule enough to constitute a complete overhaul. At school I was used to being able to go to bed as early as 10, if necessary. Here, dinner doesn’t usually start until around 9:30 and the members of my host family are seldom all home until closer to 11 or midnight. This difference of scheduling is even more pronounced on weekends when nightlife comes further into play.
In the US it’s not unreasonable to expect chastisement for sleeping past noon, regardless of the day and weekend social experiences seldom last beyond 2 or 3 in the morning. Here, especially on the weekends its not unheard of to stay out socializing into the early hours of the morning on Saturday or Sunday and wake up well into the day. Finally, I mentioned before that dinner doesn’t start until much later here, but that doesn’t even begin to explain the meal-based adjustments I’ve had to make here. Meals in Spain are more frequent and smaller in size, with the typical diet consisting of five meals. As a college student accustomed to two large meals, adapting to this initially proved difficult, but has gotten easier thanks to growing familiarity with local food and time dedicated to altering my eating habits.
Adapting my personal routine didn’t take much effort outside of a willingness to adjust, patience and time. Repeating similar daily tasks, from eating breakfast, to working, to socializing to sleeping and back again, has made these tasks easier and easier. While the genesis of these changes was the local culture and schedule here in Madrid, at their core my personal adjustments have been identical to any other schedule or location-based change (classes to summer, high school to college, etc.). Therefore, these adjustments were relatively straight forward to make and, while difficult at times, didn’t require an abundance of effort. The same cannot be said, however, for the other major type of adjustment I’ve had to make here in Madrid: changing my social habits.
How I interact with people on a daily basis is fundamentally different in Madrid. The expected behaviors are different in subtle, yet ever present ways even with things as simple as ordering food or just carrying out small talk. In terms of the former, brusqueness with waiters in Spain is not only tolerated, but socially expected. “Pon me la cuenta” which is a command that directly translates to “Give me the check” is the most common way to close a tab. Similarly, food is usually ordered with the same “give me” command rather than a more indirect “would you bring me” (or other alternative) in the US. This heightened level of directness also applies to small talk and casual conversation.
My first few days on the job I would listen to my colleagues talk at length, both on the job and on breaks, and listen intently but not say much, as there were seldom any gaps. My lone contributions to conversations came when someone would intermittently ask if I was following along. I eventually realized that the repeated asking of this question was because my lack of participation wasn’t perceived as respectfully waiting for my turn, but rather as voluntary lack of involvement. In Spain, I’ve learned, it’s socially acceptable to interrupt people rather than wait to speak. Having gained this information, I am now able to contribute more actively to conversations at work.
The directness of social interaction here has proven to be the most difficult adjustment for me. Like the schedule adjustments, this social adjustment stems from unfamiliarity and therefore inherently an uphill battle. However, in this case the solution isn’t a matter of time as with the scheduling, but a matter of confidence. Therefore, as a very passive, asocial person, changing my social habits has been even more difficult. Nevertheless, as I have gotten more familiar with my surroundings, my coworkers, my host family, and Spanish culture in general, I have been able to increase my confidence in socializing the Spanish way.