Ah, the Little Differences Abroad!!!

In my last blog post, I talked about gratitude. And just to be clear, I’m still grateful to be able to study abroad in a country as beautiful and historically rich as Spain.

But with spending more time in a foreign country, you take notice of the little differences. While many of those little differences are exciting, oftentimes they can be confusing and stressful.

By talking about these little differences, I’m not trying to scare you out of studying abroad. Rather, my intent with this blog is to portray my experiences in the most authentic way possible. Part of that includes talking about the challenges that I face.

So in this blog post, I will be describing some of the little differences I’ve encountered here as a study abroad student, as well as some of the strategies I’ve used to navigate these sometimes challenging situations. I should also note that some of the little differences are enjoyable for me and that even if they aren’t, at least the experience will help me build up character and understand more about our planet.

The author, pictured in a beige stiped polo, doing a silly pose beneath a mushroom statue, which has a ladybug statue on top.
Alicante’s weird mushroom street. Talk about little differences!

Here are some of the little differences I’ve encountered thus far:

1. Spanish Hours: As with many other little differences that I list here, this one maybe isn’t so “little.” Let me explain: Many Spaniards wake up early, go to work, and then around noon take an hours-long break (la siesta). Then they finish work at night, eat dinner, watch TV or socialize, and go to bed late.

How has this impacted me? There have been times where I’ve gone to a store around siesta time only to find out that it’s closed until later. This happened my first week here, so I wasn’t able to buy a SIM card until day four…Which means that I didn’t have any internet on my phone (which is really hard when you’re trying to navigate a new city and can’t use Google Maps!!!).

Thankfully, my host family and classmates helped me navigate the city the first few days. And now I know to go to stores in the morning or late afternoon. Not around siesta time.

The author, pictured in a pink shirt and smiling, eating a vegetarian paella dish, which includes rice, mushrooms, green veggies, and red fruit.
Eating vegetarian paella on a night out in Tarragona with my Japanese flat mate. Most paella has meat, so it was a real treat for me to try the famed Spanish dish. It was rich with mushrooms, rice, veggies, herbs, and fruit.

2. Food: As I just mentioned, Spaniards eat dinner really late (9 or 10 pm). Also, they usually only eat three times a day, which means that you better eat a lot for each meal and hope that you don’t get cravings between meals.


In general, I enjoy the food here. My host family prepares most of my meals, but I also go out with friends to eat. My host family eats dinner at 9pm, so that was definitely an adjustment for me. I had to let my body adjust to the meal gap between lunch and dinner, which took some time. Even now, sometimes a craving will hit and I’ll buy my own snack.



3. Mechanical stuff: In Spain, things work differently than in the US. Some of the mechanical differences I’ve encountered include vending machines, electrical plugs (bring a plug adapter to Europe), keyboards, and so many more! Maybe it’s partly because I’m a mechanical klutz but things are definitely built differently here. Many other international students have described in agony to me their struggles with apartment keys. I encountered this problem the first time I tried entering my apartment and had to ring the doorbell because I couldn’t figure out how to open it. My host mom showed me again how to use the key and I haven’t had any problems since.

A European electrical outlet with two holes. Pictured on a white wall.
Wall outlet. Bring a couple plug adapters and charge adapters to Europe. You won’t be able to charge your precious devices without them!

Ah, but the keyboards! I’m still trying to adjust to the Spanish keyboard, which has a bunch of symbols that I don’t know how to use. I’m used to typing in Spanish on my own computer but I struggle when I have to use a desktop keyboard for my internship. Slowly but surely I’m getting better at using the Spanish keyboard. I only started my internship last week, so the keyboard is still a struggle.

I’m not even going to talk about the vending machines (I know how to use them now). Next little difference!

4. Cultural misunderstandings: Again, maybe not such a little difference but it happens often so I’m putting it on this list. Some of the cultural misunderstandings can be attributed to language. Spaniards talk really quickly, so sometimes it’s hard for me to understand them. Since I’m more used to Latino colloquialisms, some of the Spanish vocab (“alubias” instead of “frijoles” for “beans,” and “aseo” instead of “baño” for “bathroom”) were confusing at first. Visual cues and speaking Spanish constantly are some strategies I’ve used to adapt.

A hilarious language misunderstanding happened on my third day in Spain. I was eating lunch with my extended host family when someone asked me if I wanted some “keh-choop.” I looked at everyone with profound puzzlement as they repeated the word over and over again, trying to clue me in on the word. Then they showed me the bottle of ketchup. Keh-chup! Keh-choop! Same thing, just different pronunciations. How embarrassing!

Another point of cultural misunderstanding: In Spain, people can be quite intense and persistent. You might say no to something and they will continue to press you for approval. A couple of weekends ago, my host sister asked me if I wanted more dessert. I said no, but she kept pressing me. Not wanting more food is seen as a sign that you don’t like the food, so I had to tell her that I enjoyed the dessert but that I was full.

Being firm and direct with your communication is key in Spain, especially when you want or don’t want something. Many times, I’ve confused store clerks with indirect communication, making the transaction more tedious for both of us. So…the direct communication part is something I’m still working on.

5. History: Spain is rich with history! There are so many castles, monuments, and cathedrals to explore. I recently got back from vacation in Tarragona (a city near Barcelona) where I got to visit several Roman ruins. Next weekend, I’ll be going to Granada on a trip sponsored by our Alicante University program. And in Alicante, I’ve visited the Castle of Santa Barbara and two bomb shelters from the Spanish Civil War.

Showing the Castle of Santa Barbara from below. The castle sits atop a hill, with wispy white clouds and blue skies above. The foreground is green with vegetation.
The Castle of Santa Barbara in Alicante, pictured from below. We had a group trip to the castle on the first week of our program. There’s so much history everywhere in Spain!

The details from my trips will be the subject of my next blog post.

Hasta entonces (until then),

David Magnello