10 tips for adapting to life in Spain


10 handy hints on adapting to a new lifestyle and making friends in Spain, without putting your foot in it.

No. 1.  Stand your ground

Spaniards have a different sense of personal space than Northern Europeans and other English speakers, and they frequently touch as they speak. One can always tell the newcomers apart at parties: moving backwards until up against the wall, quite unable to comprehend the difference between acceptable distance and intimacy in societies other than their own.

Spaniards have a different sense of personal space than Northern Europeans
Spaniards have a different sense of personal space than Northern Europeans

No. 2.  Learn to agree

Perhaps this should be number one, because without communication, all is lost from the start. First learn to agree, which is handy in almost all social circumstances. Show you understand by muttering verdad at regular intervals. It means “it’s true”, and if you find yourself repeating the same word too often, change to estoy de acuerdo (I agree) or the self-explanatory claro que sí.

Hombre is another useful word with a wealth of meaning, depending on tone of voice and accompanying gesture. Muttered softly with a shrug of the shoulders conveys empathy, while spoken louder and with one hand raised can mean the opposite. Practice in front of a mirror before use. The stress is on the first syllable, but if in doubt about appropriate response, stress the second, wave both arms about and hope for the best.

Children are a great way to meet people in Spain
Children are a great way to meet people in Spain

No. 3.   Use your children or grandchildren

Or any children, for that matter. And if you don’t have any, a dog will do. The idea here is to have people open up to you in public places like parks, children’s playgrounds and on the beach, and they will certainly do that as soon as they see your children play with theirs. This curious phenomenon is perhaps explained by a shared sense of anxiety and hopelessness. Works less well with dogs.   

No. 4.   Shop local

Not out of any desire to support the local community or anything so high-minded, but because local shops, especially small ones, are invariably a source of gossip, and you need to be part of it. Those already in the shop may step aside for you to be served first, but don’t fall for it: they are there to chat, and they want you served and out of the way quickly. Stick it to them. Insist on waiting your turn and hang around long enough for you too to complain about the government.

No. 5.  Complain about the government

This is where the going gets rough. You will need to read, and reading about Spanish politics is not always a literary delight. The English version of the national newspaper “El País” is available online at a small cost, but worth it for its varied and well written content. The local newspaper in the Málaga province, “Sur in English”, will also provide plenty of politics to talk about. Ignore all articles praising the government or local administration if you want the locals to talk to you. Otherwise they just laugh at your innocence.

Find a bar you like and go there regularly
Find a bar you like and go there regularly

No. 6.   Frequent the same small bars and restaurants

Find yourself a half-decent bar or restaurant away from the beachfront and stay there. Curiosity does the rest. After a few days of breakfast or lunch at the same table, someone will want to know all about you, and will ask, even if they have to shout above the noise of the fruit machine, television set and the other half dozen people in the bar shouting at each other. This is not bad manners, but a genuine desire to be inclusive.

No. 7.   Don’t ask for doggy bags

It’s simply not the done thing. Helpings are generous, and it may seem a shame to leave food go to waste, but asking for a doggy bag in a Spanish restaurant is doing what no Spanish diner would do, and an important part of adapting to a new lifestyle is to do what the locals do or do not do. Don’t take a half-full wine bottle with you when you leave either, and if the pain of separation becomes unbearable, remember how much cheaper it is than at home.

Churros for sale on the street
Churros for sale on the street

No. 8.   Just eat it

Eat everything, even fish with faces, because Spanish chefs have the common decency not to disentangle them from the rest of the body during the cooking process. Sometimes the face may be difficult to identify, because the Spanish also eat everything that ever crawled the seabed, and there are some weird creatures down there. Eat them all and you’re halfway to acceptance by Spanish society. And while you’re at it, try orange coloured lard on your toast, and snails, and soggy chips, and pigs’ ears, and churros dipped in water, and… and it’s all guaranteed to be delicious.

No. 9.   Party with the locals

Flamenco singing (disturbing silences followed by ear-piercing screams) may not be your cup of tea, but don’t let that put you off going to local festivals. Annual ferias are most enjoyable events, especially in small villages. Arrive late, preferably after midnight, because that is when the real fun starts, and age is no barrier. Quite seriously, there is nothing on earth as much fun as a village feria.

No. 10.   Leave baggage behind

And finally, when moving to Spain, leave the bulk of your baggage behind. Don’t freak over electrical plugs that are missing a third prong. Understand that a popular jury is not the only kind that works and is fair. Don’t look at motorbike cops and think of jackboots: all such cops everywhere wear similar riding boots. Don’t get angry when Spaniards fail to say please and thank you all the time: they have different ways of being polite. In fact, they have different ways of doing lots of things, and the secret to settling into Spanish society successfully is to appreciate these differences.

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