Culture Shock When Living Abroad: How to Deal and Overcome
I’ve been in Spain for almost ten months and it’s just dawned on me that I am experiencing severe culture shock. All of a sudden I feel so very foreign. I can say with almost 100% certainty that I am the only non-Spanish person living in my neighbourhood, and I go days without speaking English. And it’s all happened since I moved to Seville.
I was used to living in a safe blanket of coastal and mountain views in Estepona - ‘Andalucia’s Garden’. I was surrounded by people my own age who could speak English. I had a car which I would take for spins to nearby towns like Ronda and Mijas. I was used to bumping into people I knew around town - or unfortunately, an ex that I had dumped over text - or one of his friends. It was great (apart from the ex thing).
I would waft down to the beach on a Saturday and watch teenagers bounce acrobatically off buoys half buried in the sand or attempt slackline tricks in between two palm trees. One time, I even tried it myself. Other times, I peered out into the distance in search of dolphins. Worryingly, I had a habit of mistaking the same rock for one almost every time. But I did eventually see some real ones. After six months of this idyllic lifestyle, I decided to uproot myself and delve into city life once again. And it’s been a tough transition.
I was rudely awakened to the hot temper of the city’s residents the moment I stepped on Sevillian soil. And I have put it down to the scorching summer heat. It’s so hot here that people generally don’t have much patience. They’re just in a constant rush to seek shade of some form - whether that’s at home or within the shadow of a lamp post (when it’s your only option, it’s a good one). Drivers will beep after half a second of waiting ast a green light, and they will tell you to move on when you are frantically packing your bags at the Super Sol or Mercadona counter. I thought it was just me at first, but I’ve spoken to many people who have had similar experiences. Don’t take it personally - it’s just the way people are here. You’ll adapt pretty quickly, and obviously not everyone is like this!
I went for a drink with my boyfriend (a Spaniard) and his friend who is from Madrid the other day. I’m used to speaking to this particular friend in English because she’s bilingual, but since my boyfriend’s English skills are...well, limited, we stuck to Spanish this time. It was all going well. I was contributing to the conversation just fine until she asked me the very strange question: “how’s your Spanish going?” as if I hadn’t been speaking to her for the last 10 minutes in her native language. And the worst part was that she phrased it in an unusual way that I had trouble understanding. And I froze - I was confused - why had she said it like that? Was that what she meant? Well I had to check, so I said: “huh?” The irony of course provoked an eruption of laughter.
After that, there was a shift in the conversation. It was as if she came to the conclusion that because I hadn’t understood that sentence, that any further comprehension was beyond me. I shut myself off a bit out of embarrassment, I have to admit, and then when she spoke to me she would start translating for me, despite the fact it was obvious I could understand every word. It was awkward. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, it’s important to know that people aren’t laughing at you. Just smile through it and let it motivate you to put that work in study wise!
Paying for others on your birthday
I had heard of this strange tradition when a French girl came to work at the office I worked at in London and brought in her own birthday cake and invited everyone out to drinks - paid by her. I just thought she was very generous. But when I came to spain I discovered she was not unique in her hospitality. Turns out this is a very European thing to do - and I mean continental - because it’s definitely not something my friends and I are used to in the UK. I went to a birthday dinner back home a few months ago and everyone split the bill. When the birthday girl realised there was £50 missing she distraughtly coughed up the rest - complaining that she shouldn't have to pay a penny on her special day.
Here, it’s another story - I got invited to my friend’s birthday the other night and she refused to let me pay for a single drink. Turns out I need more Spanish friends and I need these friends to invite me to their birthdays. Embrace the differences.
Spanish insults are some of the harshest I’ve heard. I s*** on your dead is one of the most intense examples that spring to mind. And people dole them out not just when they’re angry- but even when mildly inconvenienced, taking a very insignificant incident to a whole new level of drama at times. That a piece of paper falling to the ground can illicit an extreme response as you son of a b****! - directed at the inanimate object - is something I have had to get used to, and fast. The important thing to remember is that these things are often said without any malice. But coming from a country where politeness is a key characteristic, but I think I’m starting to adjust, and it might even be rubbing off a bit.
You won’t be able to flick through Spanish TV and actually enjoy it unless you speak Spanish or can lip read. Unlike in neighbouring Portugal, where unsurprisingly, people speak better English, EVERYTHING is dubbed in Spain. And is it me or do all Spanish voice actors sound the same? I am going crazy here trying to distinguish between the voices. That being said I do enjoy Spanish cinema, and all the voices are distinct in these, obviously, granted that you can see that the actors are different people. But I can’t help but wonder whether they just have a very short catalogue of voice actors they just keep recalling. It’s strange and confusing. And it’s hard to accept Stewie from Family guy without his characteristic English accent. But look at it as a great opportunity to delve into the language. You’ll pick up so many useful words and phrases that you can then use to badmouth Spanish TV.
Seeing kids out at 1am
It’s something I don’t think I will ever get used to. A very bizarre phenomenon that my boyfriend tells me is a largely Andalucian thing. It’s when you see infants crawling the streets in the early hours of the morning. Until I was about 15, my mum would let me stay up until 10pm as a special treat on weekends. Anything beyond that was almost inconceivable to me. I even remember one time my dad took me to the theatre and I was so terrified of overstepping the 10pm mark that he almost had to take me home early. Things are different here. You’ll see parks full of kids at 1am with their parents sipping tinto de veranos at an adjacent bar. I think people are generally a bit sleep deprived in Spain. They don’t sleep early enough but they make up for it with siestas (yes, people do actually have siestas), which brings me conveniently to my next point.
Shops closing for siestas
I find it weird that I have to get all of my shopping done before 2pm when literally everything closes, even in a big city like Seville. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have had to walk back home after realising that I would not be able to get a pack of cheetos (or sometimes, more important things). It’s strange, but it’s actually forced me to start taking siestas. If the whole world shuts down at 2pm you don’t really have much choice. And hey, that’s when it’s hottest too, so it’s advisable to begin your hunt for shade from around 1.30 in the summer.
Sorting out simple errands is no midnight walk in the park here. And that’s true of any Spanish town. But when you are adjusting to new surroundings it just adds fuel to the culture shock. Seville is littered with health centres and it’s hard to know which to choose. Then you’ve got the padron to do if you want to get into all the palaces and other attractions for free. And of course, there’s the dreaded social security office. It’s all one huge headache which sometimes lasts weeks on end if you don’t have the right documents, because the disaffected employees will send you away without blinking and tell you to make a new appointment. And, of course, the next available appointment won’t be until next month. Save yourself the hassle and bring every single document you could ever need, and photocopies of each one just in case. Don’t even think of substituting the original with a photocopy, they know. They always know.
Now that I’m starting to settle into Seville life, I’ve found the culture shock is affecting me less and less. I’ve started meeting interesting people who may have hot tempers, but are pretty damn cool. I’ve sat out in La Alameda at 12am enjoying a €1.20 beer and almost had an orange lobbed at my head by an over enthusiastic eight year old playing catch with his friend and it was hilarious. The fact that in Spain, balls are sometimes replaced by fruit that casually falls off the trees is one of the many reasons I realised wow, I’m in a completely different world - and this is where I want to be, bureaucracy and all.
Laura is a London-born Andalucian in search of flamenco, ferias and and the perfect churros. A journalist and writer, she is working on a screenplay, freelancing and diving head-first into Sevillan life.