3 Unforgettable Things I've Learned From Spanish Culture About Food, Life and Love

La Tomatina: an annual tomato fight/festival held in Buñol, Valencia.
La Tomatina: an annual tomato fight/festival held in Buñol, Valencia.

You Need To Have A Work/Life Balance

Time is sacred in the United States. Time is sacred because time is money.

In Spain, time is not sacred, life is sacred. Time is not sacred to the Spanish because they believe there is time for everything. There is enough time for family, time for friends of course, time for work.

Their priorities are different, though; there’s much more of an emphasis on being social and enjoying life.

On any given Tuesday night, you can stroll through the center of Madrid and find the streets alive and bustling with people. The bars and restaurants will be full of families and friends who are staying out until two in the morning and still have to work the next day.

Life is slower here.

People walk slower, they eat slower. (Unfortunately, they don’t talk slower, which is very much to my detriment, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The common saying in Spain is “Work to live, don’t live to work.” Yes, work is important, but why do we work? We work so that we can live, so that we can enjoy life.

Besides, what’s the point of being the richest person in the graveyard?

According to most of the Spaniards I’ve spoken to, there isn’t much of a point at all.

Food Is Definitely Sacred

In Spanish culture, food is also sacred. Taking the time to prepare a meal is sacred. Taking the time to relax, enjoy and share food with your friends and family is sacred.

It’s not just food for food’s sake, but for the sake of sharing and celebrating.

This integral part of food in Spanish culture is referred to as "Sobremesas" which literally means “above the table.” Sobremesas is the art of taking your time while eating and engaging in conversation during and after the meal, often for hours at a time.

I recently went to my Spanish friend’s house for lunch in the north of Madrid. We started eating and got lost in conversation. When I checked my phone I realized we had been sitting, eating and talking for five hours straight.

In the United States, we're anxious to get to the restaurant. Once we sit down at our table we're anxious for the food. Once we're done eating we're anxious for the check.

In Spain, I have yet to have the waitstaff bring me a check without having to ask for it. Why? Because they wouldn't dare intrude on you. It's just not a part of the culture.

In Spain, when you ask for a coffee in a café, you're going to be given a proper cup with a saucer. You’re expected to sit down and enjoy it. You have to specifically ask for it in a to-go cup.

A Spaniard named Paco once told me that when he goes to the United States and he sees people running down the street with coffee in a to-go cup, he pities them. He pities them because that person is so busy that he or she doesn't have the time to sit down and enjoy it.

It’s safe to say that food is a lifestyle here, but it goes much deeper than that. They say the national religion of Spain is Catholicism, but from what I’ve seen, that can’t possibly be true.

—Other than fútbol, food is the religion here.

The Power Of Affection

The culture of the United States teaches you a lot of things, but it doesn’t teach you how to love.

The Spanish know how to love—and I don’t mean just romantically. I’m talking specifically about platonic love; a friendly love.

When you meet a Spaniard of the opposite sex, even for the first time, you’ll typically greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks (granted it’s usually not an actual kiss). This type of forthright gesture tends to catch most Americans completely off guard, as if to evoke the response “how dare you violate my bubble of personal safety.”

Admittedly, at first it caught me off guard as well.

You’ll also often see groups of friends, both boys and girls alike, holding hands or putting their arms around each other. All without the homophobic subtext that you tend to find in the United States.

There are, of course, the egregious public displays of affection which, once in a while, can verge on public displays of fornication. When two young Spaniards love one other and are out in public, you’re going to know about it. But even that has an innocence and sense of defiance about it.

They’re comfortable with who they are and how they feel. They love without reservation. We’re just not used to seeing that in the United States, but then again, our country was first settled by Puritans.

The Spanish are touchy—literally. You’ll often find them touching you on the arm, shoulder or back while talking to you, even if they don’t know you personally.

The other day I was riding on the metro, and the train made an abrupt stop and I accidentally bumped into a man standing to my right. “Perdon” I said as I readjusted myself. He looked at me, smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said “No pasa nada tío.”

But if not to express sexual undertones, then why? Because it’s an act of affection. It’s an expression of tenderness, trust and intimacy. It’s because human touch is essential.

As an American, it’s taken me awhile to acclimate, but I’ve come to appreciate the closeness; even love it.

And while I by no means plan on kissing strangers on both cheeks or encroaching on anyone’s personal space when I return stateside, I’ll never be able to forget the power of human touch.

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