It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written anything, but I’ve been compiling a list of things to talk about. Some of the most noticeable differences between the lifestyles at home and the lifestyles here are the things you’ll notice while walking down the main streets. The behaviors that we’re used to are probably not quite so normal when you’re abroad, and it can be a little jarring. My host dad told me that he can identify an American within the first three seconds of seeing them walking down the street, because we act so differently from them. On that note, here are some things you might see walking down the Spanish streets…
Okay so this is a big difference from at home. In America, it’s not like PDA (public displays of affection) doesn’t exist, but it has limits. If you’re in a crowded place with lots of people, hand holding or maybe a couple pecks of kisses would be considered normal. If you’re full on making out with your SO on the bus, it’s not cool. Because we’re taught that those things are meant to be private. In Seville, children are raised to live with their parents until they marry and move out to start their own families. That means they live at home through their college years, until they’re literally walking down the aisle, and even sometimes after that. Once you reach a certain age where play-dates are considered too little-kid-ish, you really don’t have people over to the house. It’s considered a familial place, and it’s not abnormal to have three generations living under the same roof. Friends usually don’t have a place in the home, and this is even more true for friends with benefits, or a significant other. For that reason, they take to the streets. So, where it’s considered crude to see in America, you’ll easily find couples necking in a cafe. Because where else are they going to go? Even more extreme, if you go for an evening walk, there’s a decent chance you’ll find couples going at it. Like… full on. In the street. Or in the park. By the swing set. No biggie. It’s a little uncomfortable if you come from a place where PDA is frowned upon… so just a heads up. If you see a couple at night doing something weird on the playground, you probably don’t want to go investigate.
No Smiling (at least not as much)
This was explained to me within the first few weeks of arriving, when my classmates were complaining about how angry everyone seemed all the time. You’ll be strolling down the street, and you’ll see a dad playing soccer with his toddler, and you smile at them to acknowledge them and their cute little game. And the dad will stare back at you, unsmiling, until you pass. Huh. The explanation was this, that in Spain, people tend to focus more on themselves than others in their surroundings, so when you acknowledge someone else, and you’re not friends, it can be uncomfortable, even taken as an unwelcome sign of aggression. My director told us that Spaniards might roll their eyes when we smile and wave, because they think that Americans are all on happy medicine (such as anxiety or depression medicines), so we’re obviously just doped up smiley little things. I mean, I’m from the Midwest, where it’s good to be friendly to your neighbor, so this was a little hard to believe. And I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule. For example, if you see a family in a cafe, and there’s a baby cooing at you, and you coo back, it’s about 50/50 for a negative reaction. I’ve had people smile and wave back, and I’ve had people stare at me as if I was a bomb about to go off. If we relate it back to the top paragraph, they pretty quickly know who’s an American, so they have mixed reactions anyway. Don’t take it personally, and keep in mind that lots of them are super friendly. It just might not look like it right away.
As mentioned, they know you’re American. And they stare. Because even though you think you’re doing everything right to blend in, there’s something you’re doing/not doing that sets you apart. It’s cool, don’t worry about it. They depend on tourism as a valuable source of income for their economy. But they stare at you, because they know you’re different. People in general tend to be a little more aggressive, especially men in pursuit of women, but in general the staring can feel very aggressive. A friend of mine is a beautiful, amazonian African American woman, and when we walk down the street people definitely stare. Some will even walk around us an exaggerated distance away, or some will walk up to us, pause, walk back, and walk past us again. It’s weird. But I think it’s just them being curious, and not having the same cultural norms that say hey dude staring isn’t cool. It’s right up there with pointing, which children are taught in kindergarten to not do. But when in Spain…
Random Stray Cats
This is one way to immediately identify Americans. There are stray cats pretty much everywhere, and where most people ignore them, Americans are the first to demand to know where the family is so they can return the cat to their owner. Or to try to play with them (not a good idea). They’re strays, and should be left alone. Just like squirrels. Or if you’re in the Keys, chickens. Except here, it’s cats. Just leave them be. It does make the walk to the university a little more fun, though, when you can count the kittens on your way.
Dogs Not on Leashes
When people walk their dogs here, they rarely use leashes. It’s much more common to see them strolling ahead of the owner, or trailing behind. This can be a little confusing if you don’t know, because again you assume there must not be an owner. They’re just a little more free to roam.
Dogs in general are a little different too. Most people live in flats, not houses, which means that if they want to have a dog, it must be small. Lots of people also keep their dogs on the balconies. Like, all the time. So small dogs are typically preferred, because it’s easier to care for them in a small environment. For this reason, any big dogs you see are usually imported. I met a yellow lab named Terra, and she was originally Canadian, for example. It’s also worth noting that expectations for how to take care of your dog are different, as well. One example is keeping it on the balcony/patio, another is the use of muzzles. It’s not uncommon to see dogs muzzled while being walked. And while it’s sad for us to see, it’s important to keep an open mind about how they are simply differing in the cultural expectation. It’s not considered animal cruelty, and the dogs are still plenty loved.
Ah yes. Dog poop. You’d think it’d be universal, and it pretty much is. You’re supposed to pick up after your own dog. But that doesn’t mean everyone does. Just like in any big city, if you’re not paying attention, you might step in something, and it will probably ruin your day. The difference here is that there’s a real effort in trying to prevent this. If someone gets caught not picking up after their dog, it’s a 150 Euro fine. Which is a big deal considering a barista job pays about 5 Euro/hour.
Despite this, people will do what people do, and they’ll leave it for you to step in anyway. So keep your eyes focused on what’s in front of you, and maybe take extra care when wearing white shoes.
Reckless Driving (biking, walking…)
It’s not that Spain doesn’t have traffic laws. They do. They’re just somewhat less enforced. From my experience, it feels like they operate more as guidelines, or suggestions, than laws. Because of this, the Spanish can be crazy drivers. Combine the cultural expectation of aggression with flexible driving laws and crazy small streets, and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster. You’d think. Except motor vehicle accidents seem to be pretty rare here. My host dad talks endlessly about how he misses having a motorcycle. They weave in and out of traffic, take up less gas and parking, and people generally have a good eye for motorcycles when they drive, so it’s usually pretty safe. It can be a bit nerve wracking though to sit in a taxi and have the driver run every red and swerve in and out of lanes with the motorcycles. If you get motion sick, you’ll probably want to pop something before getting in a Spanish taxi.
Their aggression in vehicles is not just limited to cars or motorcycles. Biking, and even walking, have similar aggressive rules of the road. Bike lanes tend to be small, and sometimes fall in the middle of the street, so you need to be aware of where the bike lane is because bikers will rarely go around you…. you go around them. And if you’re in their way, they’ll let you know; usually with angry bell ringing and maybe some choice words.
The same attitude is expressed even when walking. People walk arm in arm, and they like to walk slowly. I walk quickly, even by American standards, so it’s absolutely aggravating when you’re trying to get somewhere. Just be sure you plan enough time ahead of schedule so as to not be late, since you might get stuck. The best idea when walking though is to just be assertive. They’ll bump you if you don’t move, so you can do the same right back. If a pack of people are walking your way and the sidewalk is only so big, just square your shoulders and walk straight ahead. It’s not weird to them. It’s weird to us, but hey, it’s also important to make it to class on time.
Pick-pocketing Scams and Street Performers
Finally, talking about Pickpockets, Street Scams, and Street Performers. I know lots of people who were excited to talk about these in their own blogs, but I really just have a few things to say.
Firstly, be aware of your surroundings. Pickpockets usually train from childhood to be sneaky and quick, but they really only go for people who seem to be easy targets. Seville’s number one crime is petty theft, and they’re good at it. I’ve taken to locking my purse shut with a luggage lock when not in use, so that I don’t have to worry about it.
People will try to trick you, too. Most commonly here are the gypsies who want to give you a strand of some flower, claiming it brings peace and love, and then demanding money from you. The same can be said for palm-readings, or other tactics. They’ll approach you, offer you something, and essentially force you to take it. When you do, they’ll demand money, even getting physical if they have to. The important thing to do in this case is if you see someone coming towards you and talking to you, just say no and walk away. I even had a woman grab my shoulder, saying “chica, chica, ven, es un regalo para ti,” and I just shook her off, yelling “NO, GRACIAS,” until she finally found another tourist.
Similarly, there are people on the street, who claim to work for a company, and will offer you things you don’t need. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The common one here is the “company” that hands out free SIM cards for your phone. A) you don’t need it. B) it’s not real. C) it’s a scam, and D) they’re probably going through your pockets while you stand there talking to the person offering you the gift.
I had another friend who was studying in Madrid, and he mentioned that he’d seen gypsies using another popular scam, which is the baby-toss. Gypsies will wrap a baby doll in clothes, pretend like it’s real, and then throw it at you. While you’re caught off-guard, some other gypsy will be there, going through your pockets. Some will use real babies, but that’s muuuuch less common. Still, keep your wits about you when sightseeing, because these gypsies have been doing their jobs for a while.
Street performers are different, but still something to be wary of. Many are lighthearted and mean well, and maybe are performing as a means of making some secondary income, or possibly a primary income. There are dancers, there are singers, there are skaters, illusionists, magicians, all of it. The common rule of thumb is that if an act is good enough for you to stop and watch, you pay a coin. Usually if you don’t, nothing will happen since the performer likely doesn’t want to break character, but it’s considered rude and you risk possibly getting some angry street performers coming after you.
Basically, if you want to get to where you’re going with all your money, lock your purse shut and say no to anyone who offers you anything on the street, and just walk without paying attention to anyone on the side of the street.
Although it’s possible that you’ve experienced some of these at home, it’s still a good idea to keep an open mind when going abroad. It’s similar to home, but also entirely different.