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10 things I found shocking as an American when moving to Spain

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10 things I found shocking as an American when moving to Spain
American Jennifer Lutz (left) enjoying some calçots (Catalan green onions) and muscles with a friend in Barcelona. Moving to Spain as an American comes with its initial culture shocks, but many of them are positive. Photo: Jennifer Lutz

42,000 US nationals live in Spain, many of them drawn to a country with a very different lifestyle to what they had back home. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some initial culture shocks, writes Barcelona-based American Jennifer Lutz.


There’s a reason Orwell said he’d “rather be a foreigner in Spain than in most countries”.

It doesn’t matter if you come from a small town or a big city in the United States, Spain offers a certain inviting charm.

Along with that charm, comes a bit of culture shock for many Americans who move to España.

But change is part of the adventure; so here were some of my top shocks when I first made Spain my new home.

Bathing tops are optional (sometimes bottoms are too)

When I first moved to Spain, I was constantly staring at breasts; women were sunbathing, swimming, and playing paddle ball with nothing to push up, hold down, or cover their 'girls'. Surprisingly, I was the only one looking.

In Spain, naked nipples just aren’t a big deal — neither are bare bottoms. Officially, nudity is only allowed on certain beaches, but the delineation between nude and non-nude areas could be a line in the sand (literally).

Certain spots are more nude-friendly than others, but in general, unrobed beachgoers are common; American prudishness isn’t. 

Nudism isn't as big a deal on Spanish beaches as it is in the US. (Photo by RAFA RIVAS / AFP)

Spain knows how to party — and most dress codes are casual

I spent my twenties in New York. I thought I knew what it meant to party, then I moved to Barcelona.

In Spain most dance clubs (discotecas) don’t open before midnight and the house music will keep you going till the sun comes out.

It’s not just the clubs; summer is the season for all night beach parties — just mind the crews coming to rake the sand at dawn.


Most cars are manual 

In the US manual cars are a sort of novelty, but in Spain, they’re the norm.

If you’re renting a car and can’t drive a stick, be sure to reserve an automatic model; my father spent a drive through curvy mountains, remembering how to shift.

Crime is different (and I’d choose it over the American kind)

I nearly never feel threatened or unsafe in Spain, as opposed to that nervous feeling I get walking most American cities. Violent crimes aren’t as common in Spain; stealing somewhat more. In the busy city centres of Barcelona or Madrid, pickpocketing and bag snatching have become an art (for the thieves that is).

If you’re out, keep your bag on you and in sight and loop it through the leg of a chair if you’re on a terrace.

Citizen surveillance is also surprisingly common. I’ve watched a few dates chase down robbers to help an unlucky stranger; one even retrieved the purse without spilling his drink.

Most crime in Spain is non-violent, but you still have to have your wits about you in the big cities. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Be prepared to eat late (and be sure not to miss mealtimes)

My bedtime in the States is my dinner time in Spain; be ready to make reservations for 9 or 10 at night.

It’s not just dinner; lunch is typically from 2 - 4 and you may struggle finding coffee before 8 am. While you can find all-day menus in larger cities, most local restaurants close between meals.

I made the mistake in Spain’s food-famous San Sebastián and survived on pickled peppers.


Induction stoves are in

In the States, we love to cook on gas stoves (something about heat distribution) In Spain, many homes have induction stoves — if you don’t have the pan to match, you’re out of luck.

Avoid my mistake and test out an induction pan, before insisting the kitchen is broken.

You’ll only find medications at the pharmacy

If you want to buy medicine in Spain, you’ll have to head to the pharmacy, even for Ibuprofen and Tums.

If it sounds inconvenient, pharmacies are plentiful and usually well-managed.

As a bonus, pharmacists in Spain often replace doctors for minor ailments. If you tell them your symptoms, they’ll help you find a remedy.

You'll have to head to 'la farmacia' if you're after your run-of-the-mill meds in Spain, as supermarkets don't stock them. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Eggs are not for breakfast, neither is oatmeal, but cava and beer are common additions

In Spain, breakfast happens in the home or at the local bar (which is usually open all day and serves food, coffee, and alcohol).

The best ones are usually small, with old men and women lining the bar, reading papers, and drinking cafés con leches while they eat plain croissants or small sandwiches. 

If you’re craving bacon and eggs, search for menus offering an American breakfast.


Don’t expect much climate control 

Most restaurants and bars in Spain aren’t as air-conditioned or heated as they are in the United States, especially now (due to high energy prices).

Bring a fan in summer and a scarf in winter. Or do it the Spanish way and stick to terraces; in winter restaurants offer blankets to outdoor diners and during summer they often use misting fans that sprinkle water. 

The abanico (fan), the Spanish way of dealing with the heat indoors and outdoors. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

Socializing is a big part of life

The aperitivo is a beautiful thing. You'll see plazas filled with terraces and small children playing football (the European kind) while their parents sip vermouth with friends, with groups of eight or more crowded around a table for two.

You’re in Spain, let go of the American pace, sip your drink, and feel the Spanish rhythm.

Want to read more articles aimed at US nationals living or moving to Spain? Check out The Local's Americans in Spain section

Jennifer Lutz is a writer and journalist. She’s written for the Guardian, The Independent, New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, Thrive Global, and more. You can contact her via or @Jennifer_E_Lutz on Twitter.


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