Let me preface this list by saying that I am no stranger to humiliation – I’m clumsy, awkward, and sometimes downright clueless. Anyone that knows me at all knows this, even my new friends here in Madrid (who keep count of how many times I trip on any given day). Couple a predisposition for embarrassment with unfamiliar customs of a foreign country and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. After living in Madrid for a little over a month, I’ve been able to pinpoint some of the specific sources of my embarrassment and have compiled a list with explanations on how to avoid Spain-specific mortification. Below are the top ways to experience shame in Spain:
Going Barefoot (like, ever)
Out of the whole list, this one is the hardest to get used to. For a coastal chica who is used to going barefoot a majority of the time, having to wear shoes inside the house is a huge bummer. It differs from piso to piso, but generally the rule of thumb is to wear shoes anytime you are walking around the house. Most buildings in Madrid have tile or wooden floors that collect dust and dirt over time, making the act of going barefoot somewhat of a gross habit.
Wearing Exercise Clothes Outside of the Gym
Another bummer rule if you’re lazy like me. If you are wearing exercise clothes and you are not at the gym, people will always assume that you are either a) going to the gym or b) just coming back from the gym. The day that I moved into my new piso, I was wearing running shorts and tennis shoes and the first thing that my new Spanish roommate asked me was, “Vas a corer?” Unless you are [actually] going to work out, it’s best to leave your sweatpants at home. *sheds tear*
Eating Dinner Before 9 p.m.
When you are living by yourself, you can decide what time you want to eat dinner. But if you decide to grab a bite to eat elsewhere, it’s embarrassing to show up to a restaurant and try to get dinner before 9 or 10 p.m. If the restaurant is even open, it will likely be empty or full of people throwing back a few drinks after work. This one is a little hard to get used to because as Americans, we are used to eating anywhere between 5 and 9 p.m. (heck, I’m usually ready for bed at 11 p.m., not dinner). But trust me on this, or you’ll feel awkward.
Going Out Before 1 or 2 a.m.
When I first heard about how late people leave to go out, I admit that I was a bit surprised. At home, most places are closed by 2 a.m. at the latest. But when you don’t even eat dinner until 10 p.m., it makes sense that you wouldn’t go out until much later as well. So just as you shouldn’t show up to a restaurant before 9 p.m., you shouldn’t show up to a club before 1 a.m. Nobody will be there it will just make you look feel a big ol’ nerd.
In the States, tipping 15-20% is the norm. In Spain, it’s considered odd to drop more than a few Euros at your table when you leave. Here, employees of the food industry are compensated fairly for their work (imagine that!), so tips aren’t expected. While it is always polite to leave a little bit of change as a tip (15-20% is VERY generous), a big tip will probably leave your waiter confused and thinking that you left your change behind.
Not Finishing Your Food
When you’re eating out at a restaurant or at someone’s house, you are expected to finish your food. If you don’t, the host will assume that you didn’t like it and will usually ask you what was wrong with it. Trust me when I say that it’s not easy trying to convince your waiter that you did, in fact, like the mystery dish that you mistakenly ordered because your Spanish needs some work and that you’re too full to eat one more bite. Also, taking food home from a restaurant is not very common unless the place specifies that it offers “take away.” Some touristy eateries will wrap leftovers in foil for you, but generally, requesting a “doggy-bag” is a bit weird. My advice is to just try to finish your food if you can, it will save you the trouble.
Eating on the Go
Another rule about eating in Spain – don’t do it on the go. Spaniards like to take their time when eating and make every meal a sit-down meal. You certainly will never see them eating while walking, and DEFINITELY not on the metro (the horror!). If you see anyone walking around with their food, they’re most likely tourists. If you’re comfortable with judgmental stares and being the walking stereotype of a “fat American,” then you can ignore this one.
Okay, this is important. Trying to give someone a hug or a handshake upon meeting them is like having a big flashing neon sign above your head that reads “AMERICAN.” Spaniards are passionate and loving people, and it’s custom to greet your friends with a kiss on each cheek. Handshakes are considered super formal here, and are generally saved for the boardroom. DON’T DO IT. The double-kiss greeting will seem a bit uncomfortable at first (I barely know these people! I have to kiss their face? Which side do I do first?!), but after a while, you’ll get used to it.
Stocking Up at the Supermercado
In America, we’re used to doing our grocery shopping only once or twice a week. We drive to our supersized stores in our SUVs, fill up our carts with more than we need, and haul all of our value-sized goodies home, where we need multiple trips to the car to unload, slinging multiple bags in each hand. In Madrid, attempting to buy more than a handful of things at the store will earn you weird looks from the cashiers and fellow shoppers alike. Spaniards visit the supermercado much more frequently than Americans, picking up whatever fresh food they need for that night’s dinner or the next day. After moving into my new piso (with a kitchen!), I decided to head to the grocery store down the street to stock up on some essentials – juices, oils, sauces, spices, etc. Once I had placed all of my items on the conveyor belt, the lady in line behind me asked (in Spanish) if I was going to take all of this food to my casa. I thought it was a strange thing to be asked – of course I’m taking it to my house. When it came down to it, I only had two bags worth of groceries to carry a block home (an easy load for the heavy-lifting champion of grocery bags) but when I looked around at the store, everyone else essentially had 10 items or less. Now, this isn’t the most embarrassing thing you can find yourself doing in Madrid, but if you want to blend in with the locals, take it easy on the groceries.
*In the grand scheme of things, doing any of these things is certainly not the end of the world. Experiencing embarrassment is almost inevitable when living in a foreign country with unfamiliar customs and traditions. While the Spanish are very passionate people, they are also known for their forgiving nature, and awkward situations are almost always followed by “No pasanada!” or “No te preocupes!”