Common Ground Travel

The Top Spanish Cultural Quirks

Spain is one of the countries we at CGT are most familiar with, so let’s take a trip through five of Spain’s greatest cultural quirks. And no, we’re not just talking siesta and sangria, but customs that you’ll only discover if you immerse yourself in authentic Spanish life.

Spanish Cultural Quirks: La Comida

When I say comida, I mean the meal (lunch), not the more general meaning (food). Yes, the Spanish lunch is pretty unique. Here’s the deal. Lunch, or la comida, is the biggest meal of the day in Spain.

In other European countries, dinner is the biggest. You come home from the 9 to 5, the kids arrive from school, and everyone sits down to have dinner. Not so in Spain. There is a long heritage of having the big meal at 2 or 3 o’clock, and it’s pretty confusing for foreigners. Personally, I think it’s a terrible idea if you’re a working professional because it means the lunch break lasts around two hours, and you’re out of the house for longer.

However, during holidays it’s a dream. Once you’ve had lunch, you’re free to do what you want for the rest of the day. Add that to the Spanish summer heat, and the days can feel unending, eternal.

It also explains why the Spanish have dinner so late. The Spanish dinner or la cena is a snack or supper, not a full-on meal.

Spanish Cultural Quirks: La Siesta

We’ve all heard of this Spanish cultural curiosity, though we might not understand what it really means and why it exists. Though naps are a huge part of the culture, there’s a logic and structure to it. The Spanish don’t just nap whenever they fancy.

You can’t talk about the siesta without mentioning that the biggest meal is at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The two or three hours following lunch is la hora de la siesta: siesta time. It all fits together.

In summer, businesses like shops and bars tend to close between 2 and 5pm. It’s the hottest time of the day and being outside can be unbearable, especially in the south. Employees go home to have lunch and recharge the batteries. Children are the same, because their timetable is divided. This custom is carried into holidays, especially in summer time, when people will lie down for a while before enjoying the rest of the day.

Los Treintañeros

Then there’s the curious phenomena of treintañeros (thirty year-olds) who still live at home well past their 30th birthday. This isn’t a cause for ridicule but a totally normal and accepted social reality. The parents tend not to pressure children into buying or renting, even when they’ve been working for several years and have found a partner. From my experience, they allow them to stay at home for as long as they want.

Of all the Spanish thirty-year-olds I know, I can only think of a few who have permanently left home. Poor parents, and poor children, I say. That said, the cycle tends to be broken when the son or daughter marries.

I’ve tried to pin this strange reality down to a cause, and my best guess is that it’s a vestige of the time when women stayed at home to look after the children while they helped dad out on the farm. Women play a slightly more traditional role in Spanish society than in other European countries, and perhaps they want to prolong their career as a mother and housewife as long as possible.

Spanish Cultural Quirks: Los Funcionarios

Then there’s the curious phenomenon of los funcionarios or Spanish civil servants, who have the most enviable job in the world, apparently. By and large, it seems that the civil servants get the best deal: they work few hours, have few responsibilities, receive a good salary, and are guaranteed a handsome pension. Sometimes people even boast about the severity of the imbalance between their output and their pay.

For many parents, this is the ideal job for their sons and daughters. It’s surprising. I’ve never heard of another country where run-of-the-mill public service jobs are so revered. That said, future funcionarios spend much of their twenties at home studying for their exams. I guess freedom is the price they pay for laziness.

La Iglesia

Finally, I’m struck by the continuing influence of the iglesia (church) in Spanish life, particularly in rural Spain. In this sense, you can feel the influence of the insular, agriculture way of life as it lives on in the 21st century.

Most families still go to church at Christmas time. The church is often the centre of cultural activities. Turn on the TV at Easter, and you’ll see the Easter parades. That said, this tendency is fading with the continuing emergence of younger generations, who are finally able to see the blatant contradictions in traditional religion.

Itching to learn more about Spain? Check out our article on the Basque Country.