At this point, four weeks into my time here in Madrid, I feel as though I have thoroughly passed through the initial stages of this experience. I have long-since adjusted to the time difference, learned how to use the metro, and learned the names of my host family members and my coworkers. Now that the initial period of adjustment is over, I find myself noticing more and more of the smaller, idiosyncratic differences between American and Spanish culture, which weren’t apparent right off the bat, due to the overwhelming experience of learning how to navigate a foreign country.
The first cultural difference that I encounter, and one which I continue to find difficult every day, is the time of day at which meals are typically eaten in Madrid. In the United States, I like to eat a big breakfast early in the morning, lunch at around eleven, and dinner around five or six in the evening. This is incredibly different from the typical Madrid schedule, or at least the schedule kept by those who work at the hospital, which entails a small breakfast before coming to work, followed by no work until after the patients have left for the day, which is usually around three in the afternoon. That has been challenging for me, to adapt to not really eating anything at all before well past noon. Additionally, the typical Spanish dinner takes place around ten at night. I really enjoy having dinner with my host family; it gives me a chance to practice my Spanish in a low-stress setting, and it is honestly one of my favorite parts of the day. However, waiting until ten to eat has been very difficult for me, as I am an early sleeper and early riser, and ten is generally when I like to be in bed back in the United States.
This brings me to the second part of Spanish culture that I find difficult to assimilate into: the late nights and long days. The sun rises early and sets late on this part of the world, and the long days filled with sunshine have affected and influenced Spanish culture in a noticeable way. Even during the work week, it is completely normal to be out late at night, until two or three in the morning. For example, I know some of the other EUSA students have been taking a salsa class which is offered weekly, but which occurs at ten in the evening on Wednesday nights. However, the work day begins just like it does in the United States: bright and early, with breakfast around seven thirty in the morning before heading off to catch the eight o’clock metro. The Spanish strategy for combatting the long nights and early mornings is to take a siesta, or small rest, in the afternoon. This has been difficult for me, as somebody who has never been good at taking naps or even just taking a break in the middle of my work day.
The above two topics – the typical Spanish eating and sleeping schedules – have been the most challenging parts of my experience here in Madrid. However, I have learned to deal with them by adapting a more go-with-the flow mindset. This mindset change is another large difference between Spanish and American culture. In the United States, we live sun-up to sun-down by tight schedules and strict deadlines. Through my internship at the children’s hospital, I have gotten the chance to observe another way of working. The psychologists at the hospital do not cut their patients’ sessions short to ensure that they don’t go over the allotted time they have scheduled for that individual patient, as I have seen done by doctors of all kinds in the United States. Rather, with a more laid-back mindset, they approach the work day with the attitude of “it will get done,” rather than “it must get done exactly this way.” I admire the flexibility that this mindset brings, and am trying to adopt it myself. For example, instead of being stressed and thinking “I need to eat dinner by ten so that I can be asleep by midnight,” I am trying to force myself to relax, and think “I will eat dinner, and I will sleep eventually. All the details will sort themselves into place.” This way of thinking has proven to reduce my stress and difficulty in adjusting to Spanish culture. Adaptability and flexibility are critical skills in all parts of life. Adjusting to a new culture has forced me to develop a more flexible and adaptable mindset that I hope to bring with me back to the United States.