How to Embrace Culture Shock

(aka How I Learned to Love Spain in Spite of Nothing Ever Being Open When You Needed it to Be)

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View of the Albaicin’s pueblos blancos

Granada, Spain is a quintessential Andalucian town with its pueblos blancos, those quaint, white-washed houses climbing up the hillsides, and the obligatory castle. Granada’s just happens to be Spain’s biggest tourist attraction, the legendary and breath-taking old palace of the Moors, the Alhambra.  When I decided to quit my steady job at a mortgage company for adventure, excitement and teaching English in Europe, I unquestionably chose Granada.

I had had just a taste of Granada the previous year while on a whirlwind tour of Spain. Determined to see as much of the south as possible, we had rushed through Malaga, Benalmadena, Seville, and Granada in five days. We had only enough time in Granada for a quick tour of the Alhambra and whatever we could see out the window on the bus ride between the Alhambra and the bus station. Apart from the palace and gardens, which was forever burned in my memory (and in 200 + pictures on my digital camera) as a spectacularly beautiful place, I only remember a sense of loss at everything else I was missing through the bus window.  It was obvious that I would have to return to the city one day.

I arrived for my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course in February and was taken to my apartment for the next four weeks.  After trudging up a seemingly endless hill, I arrived at a small white house that was only a few hundred feet from one of the gates of the Alhambra. From my balcony, I could see one of its towers as well as a stunning view of the Cathedral. Although I was a little apprehensive at living alone with my Spanish landlady (most of the other students had shared apartments), the location was certainly a consolation. Every morning while brushing my teeth, I could look out of the bathroom’s little window at one of the wonders of the world. It was definitely an improvement over the old 9 to 5 grind.

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One of the Alhambra’s many beautiful courtyards

Before leaving Connecticut, I often spoke to my co-workers about my plans in Spain. They were stories filled with Mediterranean beaches, tapas bars and siestas. I showed them pictures of my time there – views of the pueblos blancos from the tower of the Alhambra, the peaceful courtyards filled with intricate Islamic tiles and fountains, and the sunsets over the Mediterranean. Every day on the job, we experienced the “3 o’clock slump” when we would need a coffee break or quick walk outside to wake up.  After years of struggling through this time of the day, I was looking forward to siesta the most. The idea of a country that institutionalized the mid-afternoon nap couldn’t be any more appealing.

Of course, the novelty can only last so long before reality (and culture shock) sets in.  My time on the TEFL course was stressful and I had limited amounts of time for beaches and siestas. Lesson planning was usually three hours a day, in addition to daily classes on various teaching methodologies. My apartment was a ten-minute walk from the school, so with only an hour-long break during the day, it seemed pointless to walk home, sleep for thirty minutes and run back. So siestas were few and far between. Granada, although certainly warmer than Connecticut is in February, was rainy and didn’t inspire much desire to take an hour long bus ride to the coast. Spanish homes also aren’t equipped with the kind of heating that we are used to in the States. Because it doesn’t get very cold, most Spaniards in the south will have limited, if any, heat at all. The heat in my apartment was regulated by my landlady. Every couple of days, she would come into my room and ask kindly, “Tienes frio?” When I responded with a yes, hoping she would turn on the as-yet-unseen-and-unfelt heating system, she would open a large trunk and hand me an extra blanket.

As someone who has lived in the Northeast United States for all of her life, the cold wasn’t unbearable as much as a nuisance.  I had expected temperatures in the 60s but in reality, it never made it much higher than the 50s. But of course, 50 degree weather in February in Connecticut is considered a heat wave! No, the hardest thing with the weather was washing clothes. Although I had been to Europe several times, I was entirely unprepared for this reality. In contrast to the United States, almost every Spanish house or apartment is equipped with its own washing machine. However, from what I could see, there were no more than two dryers in all of southern Spain. In the hot, sunny summers of Andalucia, it is easy to see why they are unneeded. But in the damp cold of the winter months, it becomes much more problematic.  I had socks that hung up in my room for days without ever getting really dry. And there is nothing worse than waking up cold, putting on a not-entirely-dry pair of underwear and venturing outside into the rain.  My American classmates and I would commiserate and talk longingly of putting on a nice warm pair of socks, fresh out of the dryer.

The entrance to the Alhambra was just a few steps outside my apartment...AWESOME

The entrance to the Alhambra was just a few steps outside my apartment…AWESOME

If you needed to buy laundry detergent or anything else, the siesta made this very difficult. On my walk to and from the school every day, I passed stores that were just never open. I don’t know if they went out of business and no one had bothered to take down the signs, or if it was just that I was never there at the right time of day. Siesta could last from anytime between 1:00 and 5:30. With our busy class and teaching schedules, the simple act of buying groceries became almost impossible.  We had a break between 1:30 and 3:00 but we couldn’t go during that time since the stores were closed. We finished teaching at 10:00 most nights, which was after the stores had closed for the day. As for the weekends, you could get lucky on a Saturday but it became impossible on a Sunday. Everything in the city was closed, except for the McDonalds and kebab stands. I had never fully appreciated American capitalism and convenience as much as I did on those days.

These are small inconveniences that one can deal with and make allowances for. As I brushed my teeth and washed my face every morning while gazing at the Alhambra, the damp socks I was wearing bothered me just a little less.  I missed home but was still generally happy until about halfway through the course. One Friday, while in the beautiful Plaza Nueva, just a five minute walk from my apartment, my wallet was stolen. I didn’t even know it had happened until I went for a coffee and noticed that my purse seemed awfully light. I was very close with the other students on the course and they did everything they could to help. A few offered to go back to Plaza Nueva to see if they could find it, while others stayed with me and tried to calm me down. When it became apparent that it was pick pocketed, we immediately went to the police office. My classmate, proficient in Spanish, began speaking to an officer just outside of the building. My Spanish was shaky in the best circumstances and in my panicked state, I couldn’t understand a word that was said. When I asked what he had said, she said, “Well, um, actually he said he can’t do anything because the station is closed for siesta.”

I was distraught. Having gone to college just outside New York City and being so accustomed to 24-hour services, this was completely shocking. I began ranting to everyone that if they felt the urge to commit a crime, now was the time to do it since the police were closed. It was a terrible day, one of the worst I’ve ever experienced. Yet, despite the culture shock, I still consider this month in Granada as one of the best times of my life. The people I met on the course (including my future husband) and in the English classes, the teaching experience I gained and the travels in and around Granada were simply unforgettable. My decision to go abroad was undoubtedly one of the best choices I had ever made. However, I had arranged to go home for a few weeks before I began working as a teacher in Madrid to visit family and friends.  I couldn’t wait to do a load of laundry and then put my clothes in an actual dryer. I had dreams about walking through the 24-hour Super Wal-Mart on a Sunday afternoon, which filled me with happiness.

When I finally did make it home, one of my first orders of business was reclaiming my identity after the stolen wallet. I needed to hit the Social Security office for a replacement card, the CCSU campus for a new student ID card and most importantly, the DMV to reissue my driver’s license. As I drove in my car, elated at being back home in the land of conveniences and home of normal opening hours, I pulled up to the DMV office in New Britain. The parking lot was strangely empty. I got out of the car and went up to the door and remembered what day it was and for a moment, felt that culture shock just like I was back in Spain.  The sign in the window said “Closed on Mondays.”

Tell me about your own culture shock experiences in the comments below.

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5 responses to “How to Embrace Culture Shock

  1. There’s always something, and usually the worst is getting caught off-guard by things you didn’t expect. One of the biggest adjustments for me is always the local concept of time.

    Recently arrived in Singapore, I rung a tradesperson to book a job and they apologised because they weren’t available until the following morning. When I explained I wanted them around in a week, there was a very long pause on the phone, before the guy said, “Well, why don’t you ring back next week?” Then of course when I got to Australia, for a while I was frustrated at having to book everyone a week or more in advance.

    • Great story! The concept of time is certainly different from country to country. Funny how we are so shocked by these differences, then learn to adapt in no time at all.

    • Wow, I am so sorry! Damp clothes + cold climates do not mix! I also lived in Prague, so I sympathize with you there. We used to hang our clothes on the heating elements in Prague, which probably was a fire hazard, but somehow that seemed better than going outside in wet undies.

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