It’s been just over one week since I arrived in Barcelona; however, it’s felt much longer than that already. I feel enchanted by this city; energized, perplexed, amazed, and fascinated. Living in the center of Barcelona within walking distance of the IES Abroad building, and other cultural landmarks such as Arc de Triomf, the Gothic Neighborhood, and La Sagrada Familia, has given me easy access to much of Barcelona’s beauty and chaos.
My week so far has been unforgettable, as I’m sure it has been for many other students who have taken advantage of the ample free time that we have had before the start of classes. That being said, there have been some instances in my first week where I’ve encountered ‘culture shock.’ I feel like the term ‘culture shock’ inadequately describes these moments; it gives too much of a negative connotation in my opinion. As opposed to a ‘shock’, I’d use the phrase ‘insight’. These moments weren’t harmful in any sense of the word, they were certainly confusing, but amounted to nothing more than a small realization; a small insight. After all, I have come to Barcelona to gain an understanding of culture and customs that are unbeknownst to me. These moments of ‘culture insight’ are exactly that. Therefore, as advice for prospective IES Abroad students, I’d like to outline 3 insights that I’ve accumulated in my week here, hopefully sparing you the moments of confusion that I wasn’t spared.
Insight #1: Whatsapp.
I had been told in various orientation sessions and welcome pamphlets to ensure that I had Whatsapp installed on my phone. The organizers at IES Abroad had told us that everyone in Spain uses it to communicate digitally. I thought nothing of it, Whatsapp has been my primary point of communication via text for a while: most people in the UK (as I mentioned in my previous blog post, that is where my family currently lives) use Whatsapp. I realized upon arriving in the US for college that most people didn’t have Whatsapp, and as almost all of the students doing IES Abroad programs are Americans from American colleges, I assumed it was just a precautionary measure that IES Abroad was trying to emphasize. It wasn’t until after I obtained my Spanish SIM card that I realized how necessary it was to have Whatsapp while in Spain. After receiving my SIM card from the local phone store, I went back to my homestay to navigate any changes that my Spanish SIM might make to the functionality of my phone. The mobile data worked perfectly, and I was surprised while making my purchase how cheap the local mobile plans are: I bought 50 gigabytes of data per month at a starting rate of €35 that would change to €20 after the first month of usage. I thought it was a bargain. I also assumed that the package would come with a manageable amount of call minutes and SMS texts; therefore, I tried to text my parents back home notifying them of my number change. The text didn’t go through. I got a notification from my mobile provider informing me that my package didn’t cover ‘that amount of texts’ and that I’d need to buy more in order to send SMS messages. I thought it might’ve been a glitch, so I gave it a day or two, and when the problem didn’t resolve itself, I knew I had to return to the phone store to get some answers. Confused and annoyed I returned to the store and asked the vendor why I couldn’t send texts, or, as I’d also discovered, make a call. The vendor was very friendly and spoke good English, he explained that in Barcelona almost no one has the ability to send SMS texts or make frequent calls. The warnings from IES Abroad became much clearer in that moment. I thought about why my host had insisted on making sure I could reach her via Whatsapp, and then about why the mobile data had been cheaper than anticipated. Everyone here in Barcelona uses Whatsapp to make calls and send texts. Insight #1 confirmed: make sure you have Whatsapp.
Insight #2: The Informality of Daily Interactions in Castellano Spanish.
In the UK, it’s somewhat of a stereotype that people are overly polite. I’d say that this stereotype is mostly true; not always, but mostly. Diction and cultural mannerisms create social normalities surrounding cordiality that people are often conscious of not wanting to stray from. I’ve adopted a lot of those customs during my years living in the UK. Additionally, I’ve had some experience in customer service, so I’m hyper-vigilant of the stresses that come with those kinds of jobs, and the little things that make the job more bearable. Now that I’m in Barcelona, when I need to speak Spanish; in cafes, shops, and restaurants, the Spanish I use is what I can only assume is the politest translation. Usually when I’ve tried to do this, people either look at me in confusion or just respond in English. Their confusion could be a result of my less than perfect Spanish, I have to admit. However also, I’ve noticed that workers in cafes and restaurants sometimes just ask you ‘que quieres’, which literally translates to ‘what do you want’. It sounds a little confrontational when you translate that phrase directly into English, which is why I was a little surprised. But my lack of awareness about social normalities in Castellano Spanish was soon remedied in my first Spanish class at IES Abroad. My professor informed us that in Spain, the language people use is generally quite informal; hence, the ‘usted’ form is also rarely, if ever, used. My professor told us that the way to ask for something in a café or restaurant is simply to say ‘quiero…’ which translates to ‘I want’; or ‘Me pones un… (café, croissant, etc)’ which in the context of ordering something translates to ‘You give to me’. Be warned! If you just say ‘Me pones’ and falter a bit without saying anything after, this phrase becomes something along the lines of ‘You turn me on’—in a romantic sense. So always make sure you know what you’re going to order before you use that phrase! Ordering in this way at first seems a little strange, because as an English speaker you assume it sounds demanding; however, I can assure you that locals will think your Spanish is more natural if you use these phrases in shops.
Insight #3: The Price of Water.
It is hot in Spain. It’s very hot. Especially if you’re walking around exploring the city, you’re going to sweat, and you’re going to become dehydrated fast. Let’s say you’ve just done one of the DiscoverIES tours around a part of the city, and your water bottle is empty, or you just didn’t bring it. You go to a café and order water. Depending on the area (which, if it’s a tour with IES Abroad will almost definitely be in a touristy area) the waiter will bring you a bottle of water and charge you €2 or €2.50. It’s not that unfamiliar to me for places to charge for a single bottle of water, and it makes sense that in touristy areas the shop owners are going to try and squeeze you for money. But at least in the UK, the shop owners will only give you an individual bottle if you ask for it; usually, if you ask for water, it’s from the tap and it’s free. I’ve gathered similar unfamiliarity from other IES Abroad students about the concept of paying for water in restaurants and cafes. Having to pay for an individual bottle of water isn’t weird to me, but one time I remember asking for specifically a glass of water and they charged me €2.50 for it. That was weird. I’ve heard from various people that Spain is currently experiencing a drought, and therefore the price of water has risen. I asked my host about the issue of paying for water, and she told me that usually in the city center that if you ask for water they’ll almost always give it to you in an individual bottle. Therefore, she instructed me to order ‘agua del grife’ which means ‘water from the tap’ in order to avoid having to pay. I’ve also been told that Spain recently passed a law stating that water must be free. Whether or not this has come into effect yet, I don’t know (given that I paid €2.50 for a glass of water, I’d say it hasn’t). However, hopefully during the time that I’m here, and by the time any of you prospective students have arrived, the law will be enforced. Bottom line is: always order ‘agua del grife’.
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I have a passion for storytelling, I like to spin mundane thoughts and pass-times into narrative spectacles on paper or in my mind. I think everything we do is part of a story and there is no such thing as a boring life.