Tales from abroad: Barcelona

Spain features many interesting and beautiful tourist locations within its various cities like the Placa Espanya in Barcelona. (credit: Courtesy of Vijay Swamy ) Spain features many interesting and beautiful tourist locations within its various cities like the Placa Espanya in Barcelona. (credit: Courtesy of Vijay Swamy ) There are many breathtaking views in Spain. Leaving the city to glimpse the country scenery can be a great weekend activity. (credit: Courtesy of Vijay Swamy ) There are many breathtaking views in Spain. Leaving the city to glimpse the country scenery can be a great weekend activity. (credit: Courtesy of Vijay Swamy )

Last semester, I was fortunate enough to live in Barcelona, Spain. Not only did I get a break from Carnegie Mellon, but I also got to experience a different culture firsthand. I learned about the Spanish way of life and also further developed my understanding of what it means to be an American and how we perceive the world. When living abroad, it’s important to realize that American tourists have many misconceptions and can behave in ways that are unintentionally culturally insensitive to non-Americans. During my time in Barcelona, I discovered quite a few of these American misconceptions, and I am going to list them here so that if you happen to travel to Spain, you can avoid these mistakes.

Misconceptions about Spain

1. Spaniards love watching bullfights
While this may be true in Andalucía and Madrid, many Spaniards in other parts of the country find bullfighting to be distasteful and unnecessarily cruel to animals. If there is a sport that unites Spain, it is fútbol. If you go to a fútbol match, do not be surprised to see lots of drunken people yelling and cussing at the referees in Spanish, Catalan, or any other language.

2. The words “Spain” and “Mexico” are synonymous
This could not be further from the truth. Although both Spanish and Mexican people speak Spanish, and the majority of people in both countries are Roman Catholics and share similar cultures, let us not forget that there are numerous differences between the two countries.

3. Spaniards wear sombreros
Spanish people do not wear sombreros — end of discussion. If you want to see sombreros, go to Mexico. Many of the Barcelona natives I befriended in Spain were amused to see Americans go to the popular street of La Rambla and purchase sombreros.

4. Spaniards love tacos, enchiladas, and burritos

While it is true that metropolitan areas such as Barcelona and Madrid have some Mexican restaurants because of the large Mexican immigrant population, do not mistake these place for Spanish restaurants. Spanish food is most comparable to Mediterranean or Southern European cuisine since Spain is, after all, located in the region. Spanish food does not contain anywhere close to as many spices as Mexican food does, so, not surprisingly, many Spaniards are not accustomed to spicy food.

5. Everyone in Spain speaks or knows Spanish
Now this may be true for the majority of Spaniards, but there is a minority of Spaniards who do not speak Spanish, and in certain circumstances they would be offended if you spoke to them in Spanish. If you visit Barcelona, you will notice that the signs are not only in Spanish but in another language known as Catalan. There are two common misconceptions that Catalan is a “slang dialect” of Spanish, or a mix of French and Spanish, but that is far from true. While I admit that Catalan does have similarities to French, Catalan is another language that was not derived from either Spanish or French but rather from Latin. Some other Spaniards speak Galician and Basque. Please heed this advice: Try to speak the language that is spoken in the region of Spain you are in. If you are in Barcelona or in Catalonia, try to learn a few phrases in Catalan. Most of the people there will not hate you for speaking Spanish since you are a tourist, but they would be friendlier if you spoke the region’s native language.

6. Spaniards take siestas
It used to be that, in Spain, people took mid-day siestas and cities would shut down during the mid-afternoon. In Barcelona, most shops, restaurants, and other stores would remain open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. from Monday to Saturday without any mid-day siestas. The same happened when I visited Madrid for a weekend. It is true that, in many parts of southern Spain, siestas are still the precedent and part of the norm, but don’t visit the major cities and expect a nap time.

Mistakes that many tourists make while in Spain

1. Being very loud
Many of us may not realize this, but we Americans can be a loud bunch. We tend to raise our voices, even when the person we are talking to is close by, and we tend to laugh really loudly. The Spaniards, on the other hand, speak more quietly with one another, although they are not by any means soft-spoken people. Many Spaniards I spoke with repeatedly complained about how loud and obnoxious many American tourists were. If you visit Spain and make an effort not to be the stereotypical American tourist, you will be well received.

2. Wearing inappropriately casual clothes
In Pittsburgh — and in most of the United States — it is perfectly normal for a guy to wear a T-shirt, shorts, and a pair of white sneakers, and for a girl to wear Ugg boots and a North Face jacket. In Barcelona, however, you would stand out in these clothes and be the subject of many funny looks. If you are a guy and visiting Spain, my recommendation is to wear jeans or pants, a collared shirt, and dress shoes. In Spain, it is perfectly normal to wear clothes that would be considered a bit flamboyant in the United States. If you are a girl, don’t wear Ugg boots or a North Face jacket. Instead, try finding yourself a classier everyday outfit.

3. Not making any effort to speak Spanish
I know it is difficult to speak a foreign language, but, when in Spain, you should at least make an effort to speak Spanish or Catalan. Contrary to popular belief, you actually will need to know how to speak Spanish, as most Spaniards do not know much English. Pick up a Spanish for Dummies book from Borders and learn a few phrases during your long flight. A few good phrases to know would be “Donde estas el bano?”(“Where is the bathroom?”) or “yo quiero una paella por favor”( “I want a paella, please”). Even if you have terrible grammar, the Spaniards will appreciate it when tourists make an effort. During my numerous encounters with the locals, Spaniards would frequently complain about how cocky Americans were because many of the American tourists made no effort to speak Spanish, Catalan, or one of Spain’s other languages when visiting Spain.

I had the time of my life in Spain and was happy to correct these misconceptions and truly become immersed in Spanish culture. Spain is a wonderful country to visit, and no matter what your interests are, you should really enjoy time there.