Adjusting to Galicia

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December 7th 2015
Published: December 7th 2015
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Now I’ve been in Galicia for a little over 2 ½ months. The time has really flown, even though generally life has been much more laid-back than my last 2 years in the US. But there still differences that I’ve become accustomed to. Here are some of them.

One of the first adjustments was greetings. When you first meet someone, women meeting women and men meeting women (not men meeting men) give two ‘besos’ (kisses). You touch your right cheeks and then your left cheek (without putting your lips on the other’s cheek). We also often do besos when saying bye. I would much rather not touch anyone, and at the most, shake hands, but I’m slowly getting used to it.

Another adaptation was currency. I’d traveled using euros before, but I was shocked again with my pockets full of change. That’s because with euros, there are coins (and not bills) in denominations up to 2 euros. Therefore, change is more valuable, so I should use up the change I accumulate more than I would in the US. What’s more annoying is that in grocery stores, cashiers generally expect you to pay in a way that would result in them giving you fewer coins back. So, for example if the bill is €7.37 and I don´t have exactly 7 euros and 37 cents, the cashier might expect for me to give €12.37 so s/he could just give me a €5 bill back. They seem to be perfectly happy to wait for me to dig and search and calculate and analyze all the coins to find an appropriate amount, as opposed to me just giving a €10 bill and them giving me the change. This also tends to happen with old women in lines, who not only take a heck of a long time looking for change, but also get into discussions about prices of specific items that they’ve already paid for.

I’m reminded of the (theoretical) contrast we discussed in Compass AmeriCorps between cultures that are more time-oriented (the US, for example), and those that are more relationship-oriented (The Gambia, for example). For Americans, generally, if we have an appointment and we run into someone we know on the way, we’ll say hi, but still prioritize arriving to the appointment on time, whereas in a more ‘relationship-oriented´ culture, they may spend 10 minutes chatting and not care so much about being on time. It helps for me to remember this perceived cultural difference when I’m third in line and the old lady being waited on wants to know about the special on jamón coming up next week.

Related to this ‘relationship’-centric culture is the expectation to say hi and bye to relative strangers with whom you haven’t even shared a conversation. This happens in restaurants, coffee shops, and shops, where you usually greet and say bye to the staff, regardless of if you’ve bought anything. It also happens in my school or apartment building that anytime I pass someone or share an elevator, we usually say hi, bye, or see you later. Whereas in the US, it’s more dependent on personality and the environment, it’s a cultural norm here.

That brings us to food and sayings. Something I’m still struggling to start doing habitually is to say ‘Qué aproveche’ (enjoy your food/bon appetite) anytime I see someone eating. In the US, usually only servers in restaurants, or possibly if someone hosts a dinner party, say ‘enjoy’, but here, whether I have some relation to the food or not, if I’m eating or not, whether the person is just starting to eat or almost done eating, we’re expected to say it. I think of it as an automatic reflex for Spaniards, just like saying ‘Bless you’ after a sneeze is automatic for Americans.

Food—another adjustment. The eating (and in fact schedule of daily life) is much different from the US. Most people eat a small breakfast before they go to work, but they may start work only at 9 or 10. Then around 11am, people eat another small snack, like fruit or a small pastry with coffee. Lunch/siesta time is from 2-4pm. That means that almost all businesses and stores (but not big grocery stores) close during that time. On Fridays, many businesses (even my bank and my school) close for the day at 2pm. On other days of the week, people return to work around 4, and then work until 7 or 8pm. They might have a snack around then, and return home. Most Spaniards then eat dinner sometime after 9pm, possibly as late as 11pm. It’s important to note, though, that the lunch seems to be a bigger meal. Dinner might be just a sandwich or soup.

I’ve adjusted relatively well to the meal times, because I’m a natural snacker. I just tend to eat dinner around 8 or 8:30, which is slightly early for most Spaniards. I was also a bit worried before coming that Spain would be very ham/pork-centric. Galicians do eat a lot of pork and potatoes, but they also love seafood. My school serves fish or seafood at least twice a week.

Speaking of food, I’ve been surprised to see a lot of combo-style restaurants here. These places are generally called ‘cafeterias’, but (different from in English) they’re open in the morning with some light breakfast including the availability of ‘natural’ (freshly squeezed) juice, they continue throughout the day, sometimes stay open for lunch, and are open then into the evening/night with tapas (smaller snack plates) and alcohol. This is in contrast to the American restaurants and bars, none of which tend to be open from morning late into the night. Also, except for late at night/early morning in bars when they’re really crowded, generally patrons can sit at a table and the bartender will come out to take the order.

When I talk about food, I’ve also got to talk about waste. Ourense has a great recycling infrastructure. In fact right outside our building, there are four dumpsters. One is for glass, one is for food waste, one is for paper, and one is for plastic and metal. You may ask, what about other garbage? Well, I don’t know about that. I usually just guess. For example, I put snotty Kleenexes in the paper garbage (although obviously they probably can’t be recycled). A teabag is a similar conundrum—is it paper, plastic, or food waste? So although they have a good start, there’s the clear problem that probably lots of people mess up, and that costs time and energy for the recycling system.

The last adjustment I’m going to cover today is the weather. Galicia is known for being green, due to all of its rain. I was warned that winter in Galicia is supposed to be rainy, cold, and depressing (but most winters are). Ourense has a more moderate climate than some other parts of Galicia, but it’s also been unseasonably/unnaturally/un-typically warm here. This past weekend (the first one of December) it was about 60⁰, and that´s generally how it’s been. Many of the leaves are just now changing and falling. It has been so much better than I expected, but I’m just trying to capitalize on the nice weather, because eventually it’s going to be worse.

In another post I’m going to cover the language stuff. Feel free to comment if you have questions about other adjustments to Galician life!


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