In the past year and a half, I have learned a lot of things about Spain. Some didn’t surprise me at all (jamón is delicious) and others I really didn’t expect (people are Catholic, but not really that conservative). One of the main reasons I moved abroad was to learn about other cultures. And luckily for me, my job as an English teacher allows me to ask questions and go into people’s homes to see what life is actually like on the other side of the door.
The longer I’ve been in Spain, the more my lifestyle have changed to match. I never eat dinner before 8 o’clock. I’ve waited until midnight to go out for a drink. I eat big midday meals. I call people ‘hombre.’
As I look toward returning to the United States, I’m considering what parts of this lifestyle I want to pack up and take home with me. I’m evaluating what ideas and cultural habits I find very enviable; what ideas we might think about stealing. And I wanted to share those things with people who might also be curious about what life is like somewhere else.
These are the things I want to export from Spain (besides the wine, and chorizo, and olives, etc.):
1. Last names
Compared to the U.S., people in Spain have a lot of names. When you look at a people’s mailboxes, you’ll see that they have four names. A first name, a second name, and two last names. At first, I thought this might be like the hyphen system that some ‘forward-thinking’ Americans use. But this year, I learned I was mistaken. It’s actually a lot cooler than anything we have going on, and I want to steal it for myself.
In Spain, when you are born, you are given – not one – but two last names. One from your dad, one from your mom. My name would be Lauren Kaye Ekstrand, or Lauren Ekstrand Kaye. You can choose the order. That part’s new. Back in the old days, it was required by law that the paternal name went first, but now it’s up to the couple.
And that’s your name. For life. It doesn’t change when you get married. It doesn’t change if you get divorced. And if you have a kid, you pass down the first of your last names. So if my name were Lauren Kaye Ekstrand, I would pass down Kaye. If it were Lauren Ekstrand Kaye, I would pass down Ekstrand. Then that’s part of your kid’s name for life. They will always have a genealogical link to you and your family. They will always retain their identity.
Learning this really made me step back and wonder how *modern* we are in the U.S., where it’s customary for women to lose their family identities. And where women who decide to hyphenate or keep their own names are seen as ‘unconventional’ or ‘going against the grain.’
2. The healthcare
Ok, I’m going to be that guy. I spent two years in Spain and got all European. I now know a thing or two about wine and architecture, and I think it’s pretty cool that people don’t have to worry about healthcare. Getting sick isn’t as scary because there isn’t a big, fat bill waiting for you at the end of your treatment.
Case in point: Some family came to visit at Christmastime. One person was fighting a cold, but rallied during the afternoon to do some sightseeing. Everything seemed fine until he fainted on the bus and was unresponsive. Like – out cold; we thought he might be dying. (Spoiler: The diagnosis was only low blood sugar and dehydration related to the cold). But we were obviously really panicked. What do you do? Do we call for help? How can we explain the situation?
Fortunately for us, some bilingual locals jumped off the bus and came to our rescue. They asked if we wanted an ambulance, and we agreed that it was the best idea, knowing full well it might come with an enormous charge. Because that’s how it works in the U.S. The ambulance arrived a few minutes later with an English-speaking EMT to help us. They didn’t ask for our passports. They didn’t want to see an insurance card. They just administered care.
This is what life is like for people who live in a country that provides healthcare to its citizens. I’ve always been fortunate to have coverage, but I imagine the U.S. health care system is a scary place for people who don’t. Politics aside – after seeing that it is possible – I think everyone should be able to get treatment when something goes wrong, or when they have an emergency. And to do so without worrying that it’s going to put them in debt.
3. Simple food
There’s a restaurant in Logroño called Bar Ángel that’s usually so full, patrons are spilling out the door onto the street while other hopeful diners shoulder their way into the crowd toward the bar. They serve one dish: Champis. These are mushrooms caps grilled in butter and garlic, served on a slice of French bread and topped with a tiny shrimp. That’s it. Mushrooms cooked in butter and garlic.
When I took my mom and her cousin Lori there last summer, they were surprised, perhaps even on the verge of disappointed, to receive something so … plain. Just mushrooms on bread? Spain is supposed to be a great culinary destination. And being from the United States, that means something extravagant. Something complicated. Parmesan-truffle fries. Brussel sprout salad with candied bacon and herbed goat cheese. A mac and cheese topped burger with donuts for buns. Something BIG with lots of spices and special ingredients that you could never make at home.
But the foods that Spain is most famous for are actually really simple: The Spanish tortilla, chorizo, patatas bravas, jamón, gazpacho, croquettes.
They have a few high-quality ingredients that are treated right, prepared well, and ultimately – taste delicious.
It’s an approach I want to bring back when I go home. Things don’t have to be super complicated to be good. Or expensive. Or time-consuming. You can keep it simple and still have something delicious.
4. Family life
As someone who is currently living several thousand miles away from my family – and who has for the past 10 years – I am not in the best position to talk about valuing family life. And yet, I am.
I’ve been really impressed at how much Spaniards value family life. Most students see their grandparents weekly. Some grandparents see the kids daily, walk them to school, and pick them up at the end of the day. Families actually meet up to eat lunch together during the siesta. Can you imagine? Popping over to your grandma’s house during your lunch break to have a home-cooked meal with the rest of your family. The idea is absurd to Americans. Yet, it’s so normal to a lot of people here.
You run the risk of being stifled, it’s true. And when it comes down to it, it’s luck of the draw. You could have an awesome family that you love to spend time with, or one that’s wrought in conflict and bitter feelings.
But that’s the thing about families. You can’t pick ’em. And I like that people here seem to have embraced that concept. They form tight-knit groups who appear to have one another’s backs – even for the not-so-fun things. You have to work late? Grandma will make dinner. You can’t get home on-time tonight? Dad will stop by and take your dog out. Need a babysitter Friday nights so you can go out and get sauced? Covered.
From an outsiders’ perspective, it seems like having that safety net would eliminate a lot of the stress people face these days. (P.S. mom, I hope you understand that the tradeoff of me moving close to home is that you will have to dogsit so I can travel. 😉 It’s the Spanish way!)
The prospect of heading back the U.S. is both exciting and daunting. There are things I will be so happy to return to (family, friends, drip coffee), but a lot of things I will be sad to leave behind (worklife balance, cheap drinks, easy travel). Here’s to hoping I can truly incorporate these ideas into my post-expat life, and that they don’t fall to the wayside as I return to homeostasis.