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There may well be people better qualified than me to write about this topic, but since getting engaged to my Spanish novio this summer, I’ve found myself absorbed into the heart of a large extended Spanish family. Not having many relations of my own (although I’m the eldest of 5 kids, both of my parents and all of my grandparents were only children), it’s been a novel experience. This month, my suegra and I happened to coincide with several days off work, and I was invited to go and spend some time in the family pueblo. While I got a few raised eyebrows when I told my workmates that I was going to visit my in-laws in Spain, who don’t speak any English, on my own, I was up for the challenge- and it was definitely worth it. I’ve been able to get to know my familia política a little better, and my language skills have definitely benefitted too. And the quirks of Spanish culture never fail to surprise me. Here’s some of what I’ve learned:

In Spain, it’s OK to swear.


Spanish swearing culture is definitely very different to British swearing culture. Everybody does it. It’s very imaginative and it often involves whores, the Virgin, mothers, poo, God, food, anatomy, animals, or some combination of these things. My cuñada‘s favourite curse, which I also quite like for its expressiveness, is puta madre (whore mother). On this most recent trip, I was in a local supermarket, which had a large display of Spanish Christmas treats even though Halloween hadn’t even happened yet. While I was gazing at the display and weighing up just exactly how much turrón it might be feasible to squeeze into my suitcase, an older man sidled up and exclaimed: “¿Hay turrónes? ¡Me cago en Dios!” – literally: there’s already turrón here? I shit on God!

It’s also possible to shit on communion wafers, in the sea, in the (breast)milk, on dead relatives, and on your enemy’s whore mother. Metaphorically speaking.

If you’re interested is Spanish swearing, there’s a very good book called Con dos huevos by Héloïse Guerrier and David Sánchez. It’s written in English, Spanish, and French, and comes with some excellent (rather explicit) illustrations. There’s a link to the Goodreads page for it here.

Come lunchtime, all the shops are shut.

I’ve been caught out by this one too many times already. You want to buy something between the hours of, say, 1-3pm? Or on a Sunday? Too bad. Spanish businesses close – with the exception of bars, supermarkets, and larger stores such as the Corte Inglés. In the north of Spain, where my novio is from, it’s less about having a siesta (which may be a necessity down south when temperatures soar into the high 30s or even 40s during summer) and more about having a proper meal. While habits are slowly changing, Spanish people typically work a split day, with a good couple of hours off for lunch. Growing up, my novio‘s school didn’t even have a canteen, as everybody went home for their midday meal. While it’s definitely a bonus that there isn’t a sandwich-at-your-desk culture, there are also obvious downsides to this kind of schedule, which Spanish people will be the first to tell you about.

People are chatty and want to talk to you…which can border into nosiness

I’m not typically a chatty person, and I definitely don’t seek out conversations with people I don’t know. But in Spain, it seems that I get into conversations with strangers all the time. Perhaps it’s because I’m more open to it myself – I generally take every chance I can to practice the language – but it’s quite common to walk down the street in smaller places and to be greeted by people passing by. People tell you about their jobs, their kids, even their medical problems. And get ready for the questions! I’ve been asked about my plans for starting a family and other intimate details which actually made me kind of uncomfortable. It’s not ill-intentioned, but if you’re feeling sensitive about a topic, sometimes these kind of questions are the last thing you need.

I actually got lucky this time talking to a lady in the train station – it turns out that I’d been waiting on the wrong platform for my train, and if she hadn’t started talking to me, I wouldn’t have known about my mistake until I ended up miles away from where I was actually headed. So there are definite plusses to the chatty culture.

There are rules around alcohol consumption.

I think in general, the Spanish attitude to drinking is much more healthy than the British (but then, whose isn’t?). A glass of red wine with a meal is pretty much expected, while if you go out before lunch or dinner to tomar algo, a beer or a shandy is often the drink of choice. But certain drinks are only for specific times of day. For example, my suegra told me that Vermouth is only acceptable as a pre-lunch drink. And it’s not as socially acceptable to order hard stuff before eating – I vividly remember ordering a gin & tonic in a bar at about 7pm and being teased by the people I was with. That’s for after dinner, silly.

Equally, public drunkenness is seen as shameful, especially if you’re any older than about 23. Apparently there’s also a stigma against women drinking spirits, which I’m less inclined to pay heed to. I still remember as a young woman in the UK being told that men don’t like to see a girl “with a pint in her hand”- which is just sexist nonsense, obviously – and I happen to be partial to the local orujo, especially the honey-flavoured type (it’s a kind of liqueur made from fermented grape skins).  I’ll just make sure I don’t have it until after dinner.