Spain is a Mediterranean country, which, in common with Portugal, Italy, Greece and southern France, offers an outdoor life for most of the year and a climate very different from that of Northern Europe and the UK. The climate influences lifestyle, and with that, many cultures and customs. You may be surprised at the differences.
The most noticeable difference between Britain and Spain are meal times. Since the day in Spain starts later, meal times are also later – much later. Lunch is a variable feast, between 2.00pm and 4.00pm, and the evening meal will rarely be eaten before 9.00pm in Northern Spain and 11.00pm in the South. Spanish people have two breakfasts – a quick one before leaving home and another between 11.00am and 11.30am in a café near to their work. This tides them over until they go for lunch. Around 6.00pm is the merienda, or afternoon snack, particularly for children, who come home from school at 5.00pm and have a long time to wait until supper.
Late is the culture in Spain; concerts, events and fiestas will start between 10.00pm and 11.00pm at night, sometimes even later. The best way to live in this culture is to do what many Spanish people do: have a siesta after lunch. Doctors say this is beneficial to everyone but you shouldn’t fall into a deep sleep, just close your eyes and snooze for 20-30 minutes. In one town in Spain, siestas are compulsory.
Queuing is a daily event. Here you will queue for most things while the person or people in front of you have a chat with the shopkeeper about their family, the latest football results or like the British, the weather. You have to understand that, annoying though it can be at times, people have time for each other here – and it is actually a similar culture to that of the old British corner shop. My advice is to always have a book or crossword, tablet or mobile with you to help pass the time, especially in the correos (post office).
Part of having time for each other is the way Spanish people say “buenos días” when they enter an office or shop. This is addressed to everyone already in the room. If there is that inevitable queue, they will ask “quién es la última?” (who is the last person?). Nowadays, many government agencies and supermarkets have a ticketing system, but the greeting on arrival is still required.
Noise is extremely important in Spanish culture. No fiesta or local event would take place without a lot of noise. Fireworks, bangers and loudspeakers at full volume are required until the early hours. In some areas, the start of the main local festival is announced at 7.30am or 8.00am using blunderbusses! I have been woken out of a comfortable sleep by the echoing of this noise around the narrow streets of my town. Once awake though, if you look out, you will see people in regional costume proudly parading to invite everyone to the fun that evening.
Closing for lunch is very important. All but the big international stores and Spanish supermarkets will close for lunch. Not for just an hour, but usually for 3 to 4 hours. At 1.00pm or 1.30pm, the clatter of closing shutters fills the streets as people go home or to a local restaurant for lunch. This is also a time to be used for the siesta and perhaps some housework, or preparing the evening meal. Despite the invention of air conditioning, the afternoon closure that was originally due to the heat after midday is now very much part of Spanish culture.
The menú del día is a very important part of Spanish culture. This is a lunchtime meal of three courses and usually including bread, water and a local wine for 9€ to 12€ in a local bar or restaurant. Its origin lies in the need for workers to eat a healthy inexpensive meal in the middle of the day. The wine may not be great, but generally the food is good, including salads, vegetables, meat or fish, rice in one form or another and a dessert.
If we are talking about Spanish culture and customs, I have to mention bullfighting and in fact the culture generally of the bull. There is a powerful animal rights movement actively working towards banning bullfights and indeed they are banned in Catalonia and the Canary Islands. However, they are very much part of Spanish culture and tradition and it will be difficult to do away with them in some areas of the country. It is not perhaps for most non-Spaniards, but hunting with hounds has been banned in the UK, so maybe it will one day be part of Spanish history?
Finally, I should mention tipping. Tipping is not expected. If you have a few cents in your change in a bar, it is polite to leave them, but not required. For cheap meals of the menú del día variety, you are not expected to leave a tip, though I usually do add 50c or 1€ to the bill. In expensive restaurants, the norm is a 5% tip if the service was good. It really isn’t normal to leave large tips.