Whoever said patience is a virtue must have studied abroad. Before leaving for Bilbao, Spain, my home for the next six months, I spoke with various friends who had already experienced life in Spain. I was told that Spaniards work the least amount possible. Not surprisingly, these pieces of “advice” were given to me by Americans. People said things like, “They’ll close their stores whenever they feel like it” and “Most of the time they don’t even show up for work.” So, despite my attempt to have a completely open mind, I left for Spain with unavoidable assumptions. The facts are true; businesses are open for roughly three hours in the morning, close for two or more hours for siesta, and may re-open for a few hours in the late afternoon. The motives behind these facts, however, are contrary to what many Americans believe. It isn’t a matter of not wanting to work the day away, but a matter of not needing to. So many Americans live to work, with excessively long work weeks and minimal vacation time. A Spaniard’s occupation does not define who they are.
Just as there isn’t a need for people to work 50 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, there is no evidence of get-slim-quick plans or quick-drying detergent pens. Caf‚s with “to-go” cups are hard to come by, and I have yet to see a drive-thru. I have had to flag down waiters to request the bill, whereas in America, most busboys are clearing my plate the second that last bite enters my mouth. Dinner is a multi-course leisurely event, not a value meal wolfed down in the car on the way home from the office. Here, rushing is simply not an option.
But Spain’s different concept of labor and time should not be confused with apathy; their desire to learn and expand their realm of knowledge is greater than that of most Americans. I am living with a woman and her daughter, who on top of speaking fluent Spanish, is learning English, French, Chinese and Basque, an incredibly obscure language spoken in northern Spain. When she asked me which languages I spoke, I was barely able to communicate to her that I only knew English. Pretty humbling considering she’s 12. And although most Spaniards have no desire to associate with Americans, they are eager to improve English speaking skills, and thus will engage in conversation, no matter how ridiculous your questions are.
Not only is the culture slow-paced; being a foreigner causes seemingly simple tasks to take hours instead of minutes. Let’s say, hypothetically of course, that you needed to arrange a prepaid cell phone plan, in a foreign language. One may have no idea where to begin. OK, I had no idea where to begin. Luckily the saleswoman at the mobile phone store was very patient. The whole situation started out as a mess, and may have ended up a mess, since I still don’t know what plan I actually signed up for. Regardless, I kept calm, and left three hours later with a new phone and new appreciation for the kindness of strangers. With each humbling encounter I can feel myself grasping the Spanish language and letting go of need to get everything done exactly when I want it done.
I haven’t yet abandoned my American ways and often get frustrated with this country’s different way of life. The other day, for example, I finally had to give up after repeated attempts to withdraw money from a foreign ATM. I couldn’t go into the bank because it was some Spanish holiday nor could I go to an internet caf‚ to check my online bank statement, as it was siesta. I couldn’t even call my home bank since the store where I add minutes onto my cell phone was also closed for siesta. Everywhere I turned Spain’s leisurely concept of time was against me. So I had to suck it up and, gasp, wait.
There are so many things about studying abroad I consider to be a breeze; touring grandiose cathedrals and palaces, viewing epic works of art, sampling mouth-watering tapas. Pretty nice life if you ask me. But then comes using foreign ATMs and buying cell phones and I realize the futility of the constant sense of urgency and hurry that defines most Americans.