“Please, keep in mind that Spaniards have a “go with the flow” mentality, things will get done when they get done. So if you have to wait awhile, for whatever it may be, do not think it is because you are a foreigner. Just take it easy. Relax.”
The 200 of us waiting to start our lives in Barcelona all kind of laughed and pretended to understand what the director of our program was talking about in her last few words of orientation.
It was 6 p.m. when we were released from the program center to explore the city and naturally, we were all pretty hungry. All over the city, there are bars and small restaurants that serve tapas, which are small quantities of food typically displayed behind glass on the bar top.
Excited to embrace the Spanish culture, a small group of us entered the first bar we saw. I sensed something was off when there was no food behind the glass. In my “I’ve only been here one day” Spanish, I asked the bartender if they were serving food. This question elicited a laugh, an “are you crazy” look and finally a “no.” I was not sure if he was laughing at my Spanish or my question, but after repeating this at the next four restaurants, I realized that they are not kidding when they say that “early birds” do not sit down to dinner before 9 p.m. We cried a little and then half of the party ran to Hard Rock Caf‚.
You better believe that those of us who waited had our faces pressed up against the doors at 9 p.m. sharp.
Here is a brief summary of what sitting down to a meal in Spain is like: If you are seated at 9 p.m., you will receive your menus at 9:15 p.m.; you may locate your waiter 15 minutes later to order, and receive drinks by 9:45 p.m. Dinner, not necessarily everything you ordered, is served around 10:30 p.m.; and if you ask for your check by midnight, it’s possible to be out the door the following morning (which usually works out, considering many clubs do not even open until 3 a.m.).
One of my professors is constantly trying to help us American students understand the cultural differences between Spain and the United States. He particularly likes to emphasize that Americans are money-hungry and live to work as opposed to Spaniards who work to live.
As an outsider attempting to integrate, I can vouch for the latter. To begin with, everything is closed on Sundays and bank holidays. Between September and December, Barcelona has six of those. Furthermore, we have this amazing thing called “siesta” every day from 2 to 4 p.m. Among natives, this time is spent eating lunch and resting for about 10 to 15 minutes. Also, all stores outside of the high tourist areas are closed. Some stores like to shut down as early as 1 p.m., and in my neighborhood, never open back up.
We Americans joke that Spaniards do not like money and we make fun of their laid-back lifestyle, but there’s something about it that makes me never want to leave. Everything is done here for the purpose of enjoyment. There is more focus on the process rather than the finish line – the process of eating, drinking coffee, drinking alcohol. As an American, I feel as though I am always running – to class, to the museums, to dinner, to the bars, to clubs – even when I do not have a specific destination.
My very first day here, I met Alicia (pronounced Alithia), a Barcelona native. She was so excited to meet an American who she could speak English with, and proceeded to spend the rest of the day showing me around the neighborhood and taking me out to lunch. I later asked her if she had things to do, and she said, “Nothing that can’t wait. What’s two hours?” What a concept, I thought to myself.
It turns out that she spent the last three summers working in San Francisco, so she is familiar with the American culture.
At one point, she made fun of college students’ drinking habits and the process of taking shot after shot after shot. She explained that in Spain, when you go out to bars, you go to socialize, and maybe by the end of the night – four or five hours later – you may have had three or four drinks.
“We take it easy, relax, have fun,” she said.
As always, inconveniences creep into this lovely lifestyle. Customer service, along with the concept of “to-go,” do not exist here. And as much as I am an advocate of sitting down to a cup of coffee, sometimes I just want the paper cup.
This morning, I walked to my favorite coffee shop and asked for a cappuccino “para llevar,” a term I think the waitress learned shortly before I did. I left the shop and started on my way to class, I kept my head up and reminded myself where I was.
I have the privilege to walk to class on decorated streets, among historical buildings and through the ancient Roman quarter. So why am I in a hurry?
I realized that time may equal money in our capitalistic society, but all the money in the world will never buy me this time again.