The Bittersweet Differences

I will never forget what my program director told me my first day arriving in Madrid. He stood in front of our group of half-delirious and completely overtired kids and told us to remove the words “weird” and “strange” from our vocabulary. Instead, he wanted us to replace these words with the word “different”. I’ll admit I consciously had to correct myself on numerous occasions as I experienced and witnessed the culture shock that comes with living in a foreign country. As time passed, I became more accustomed and comfortable with these differences in culture, and even began to pick up on some Spanish habits myself. After returning home, I feel like I need to be taught this lesson again. It’s not “weird.” It’s just “different.”

Study Abroad Gap Year Programs Programs in Madrid, Spain - Metropolis Building


Different isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Going home has been the true definition of “bittersweet” for me. I missed the familiarity of my room and house, and seeing my family and friends. When people return home from studying abroad they usually talk about the things they missed in the U.S; maybe a good hamburger, or being able to watch your favorite sports team at it’s live hour, or perhaps the accessibility of using your cellphone or the internet. However, I have found that though I missed all of those things, I am already longing for certain Spanish customs, and experiencing reverse culture shocks on some American customs.

Study Abroad Gap Year Programs Programs in Madrid, Spain - Street Musician

1.     Dinner Time: One of the first days I arrived home from Madrid, I met up with some of my friends for dinner. In Spain, dinner is usually not served until at least 9:30, sometimes later. When my friends suggested we meet at the restaurant around six I almost instinctively responded: “will the restaurant be open then?” I then realized how silly the question I was asking must have seemed. Of course the restaurant would be open. Six o’clock was considered dinnertime. And it would not be an affair that lasted several hours like it Spain. We got our meals quickly, and the check immediately after our plates were cleared. I left the restaurant feeling utterly confused and missing my two-hour leisurely meals in Spain.

2.     The invisible wall: I remember going to Spain and initially feeling uncomfortable at the small amount of space people leave between each other while talking. However as time passed, I’ve noticed that I have picked up on some of these Spanish habits of closeness. While talking in Spain it is normal for someone to touch you, or put their hand on your arm while talking closely. Despite my initial beliefs, it actually doesn’t mean that that person is trying to flirt with you (usually). Nor does giving “dos besos” (two kisses on each cheek) when you meet someone. This custom of closeness and openness is normal in Spain. Coming back to the US, I begin to question this invisible wall we put in between each other. I even became accustomed to the increase in affection Spanish couples show each other in public, or as we call it in the states “PDA”. When maybe this would have repulsed me before, now I find myself looking at the 80 yr-old couple walking down the street and wondering why those two lovebirds aren’t giving each other a smooch!

3.    The language: When returning home I thought I would be relieved to be speaking in my native tongue. In Spain, most host mom didn’t speak a word of English, so at times articulating myself proved difficult. Sometimes to get a point across we found ourselves half signing and half speaking in Spanish, which usually led to her erupting in laughter at some mispronunciation or made-up Spanish word on my part. However, I miss that. I miss the fumbling, struggling, and finally finding that breakthrough moment. I find myself emailing my host mom often to keep up with my Spanish, watching Spanish television to maintain my comprehension, and even doing things as embarrassing as accidentally talking to my waitress at a Mexican restaurant in Spanish. Also, thanks to Spain when someone says: football, I will forever think they mean “futbol”.

4.    Tipping: As a former waitress, I consider myself very conscious of the tip I leave for my server. I remember not tipping my server in Spain was one of the hardest things for me to remember to do (Spanish waiters are on a salary). When I returned to the US I found the opposite occurred. I actually went as far as writing myself a note and slipping it in my wallet that said: “DO NOT FORGET TO TIP.” This has just been another one of the small differences that I have had to re-adjust to.

5.    Siesta (a.k.a. nap time): Before going to Spain I had always wondered: is the “siesta” a myth or fact? I had heard rumors about stores and schools closing to cater to the Spanish 3-5 naptime. Well, folks, good news. Siesta is real, and it is splendid. The stores in my area of Madrid would shut down for a few hours, and the streets were quiet. Of course not everyone is Spain really has time for a nap every day, but I usually did. Being home I’ve had to get used to working, or being productive during my normal Spanish downtime.

6.    Pop-culture shock: Being home for a couple of weeks I feel like my friends have had to explain who new artists and movies are to me, as I would explain to my grandmother how Google works. They have been kind enough to answer some of my pop-culture questions while returning home. Some of these questions include: Who is Kendrick Lamar? Is he the one that dates a Kardashian? Is “Django Unchained” an animated film? What is this song that chants about being in a “clique”? And many more. 

Study Abroad Gap Year Programs Programs in Madrid, Spain - Plaza de Toros

As each day passes, I notice more differences. Studying abroad helped me appreciate how different cultures can be, but how similar the people are. I’m still adjusting to being home, and I know it will take time. I think about the person I was when I left; compared to the person I am now. I came back with a new member of my family; my host mom. I came back with friends from all over the world. But most importantly I came back with a new outlook on life. No matter how weird or strange something might seem, once you open yourself up to that change, you realize you can learn so much from the changes in life. It’s not weird, it’s just different.


This post was written by Kirsten K., who studied with us in Madrid, Spain in Fall 2012.

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