Recently, my sister-in-law posted the article “11 Things Americans Could Learn from the Spanish” to my Facebook page. While the article made me chuckle and say, “yes yes, that’s so true!” or, “I wish we all could take life slower,” the wording of the title sounded a bit condescending, so I set the article aside.
It did get me thinking, however, of how Spanish culture has influenced how I live, and most recently, how I parent.
Here are 11 Habits this American mamá is learning from the Spanish.
1. Life “en la calle” –
Most Spaniards live in apartments; that includes Spanish families of four, five, and even six people. Apartments are small, consisting of two or three bedrooms, one to two bathrooms, plus a kitchen and one common living area. The size of apartments, together with the fact that Spaniards don’t have yards or decks, contributes to their living life outside (“en la calle”). Spaniards love to be in and near the hustle and bustle of city life, and social life is conducted at the park, on a restaurant patio, at a bar, on the sidewalk, or walking around the neighborhood.
While I understand that urban apartment dwelling is not a feasible option for many American families, it is one that D. and I have chosen for our family now (eleven years and counting). We may not have a front or back yard, but we have a park with swings across the street. We don’t have a deck or patio, but we have the water two blocks down the hill. And, while our windows face the other side of the fourth floor, there is an infinite array of sights and sounds just around the corner. So, like most Spaniards, we spend our days outside, and we love it.
2. Don’t over plan –
One characteristic of American life that immediately schocked my husband when he arrived to the US was how far in advance Americans plan social activities. In order to catch a movie or go out to eat with friends, we have to “get them on the calendar” on average two weeks in advance.
Not so with Spaniards! You take life one day at a time, and that includes weekend plans, which are generally spontaneous and last minute. While this goes against every fiber in my American body, I find it freeing at the same time because it allows me and my family to live in the moment and to make time for unplanned activities like running an errand for a neighbor or caring for a friend’s two-year old while she and three-week old baby number two get out of the house.
3. No “end times” to get-togethers –
When a Spaniard invites you to a party or dinner, or even a playdate, there is never an end time. You will never receive an invitation that reads, “Join us for So-and-So’s birthday party from 12 – 2 pm.” For a Spaniard, the start time to any event is a general estimate; and a lunch that starts at twelve o’clock might morph into a cup of coffee at 3 pm, followed by a walk at 4 pm, ending with a beer at 5:30 and who knows, dinner after that.
Spaniards are professionals at lingering. It reflects a culture guided by relationships, not dictated by time slots and calendars. This habit of lingering, of soaking up the moment, is one that I hope defines nuestra familia.
4. Daily (or twice, or even thrice daily!) walks –
You may remember these two earlier posts in which I contemplated the art of el paseo (taking walks) in Spain. Rain or shine, hot or cold, Spaniards walk. And, they walk every single day. It’s not about the utility of walking, like walking to the grocery store or to the office, but rather a walk for a walk’s sake. (#4 is a closely related to #1.) A walk to soak up the sun and feel the air on your cheeks. A walk to converse, to deepen relationships. A walk to see your neighbors. A walk to clear your head.
Little E. and I love our daily – and sometimes twice daily – walks around nuestro barrio. Since we live in the center of the city, there are endless sights to see and sounds to hear. There are perritos to point at and strangers to wave at and other children to giggle at. In fact, E. is a native walker: she’s been going on walks with mamá and papá since she was three days old.
5. Physical contact –
You meet someone for the first time in Spain, you introduce yourself with two kisses on the cheek. You run into a friend at the grocery store, two kisses. You’re reacquainted with your long-lost-uncle at a Christmas dinner, two kisses. Spanish culture is a physically affectionate culture. And, that influences how Spaniards relate to everyone, including pregnant mothers and little children. During my “baby moon” to Spain, my emerging belly was regularly greeted with unsolicited pats. And, the Spanish friends we have here in the States are quick to swoop little E. into their arms, to hold her and rock her, to pass her around at meals. I love this uninhibited cariño. In a way, it’s as if your child is your neighbor’s or your friend’s child, too.
I have noticed this physicality of Spanish culture rubbing off on my more reserved personality, in the endless abrazos y besos y achuchones I give my nephews or in my “Here-let-me-hold-him” as I grab my neighbor’s eight-month old into my arms. In a way, they are my children, too.
6. Family naps –
The siesta (or, nap) is an integral part of traditional Spanish culture. Yes, it’s true that over the past twenty years it’s been in decline, but the siesta continues to live and breathe among both rural and urban dwellers alike. It’s not just reserved for babies and children. It’s for adults, too. (Hooray!)
I never took naps as an adult until I lived in Madrid, and thanks to D., they have become a a defining habit of our family culture. Schedule permitting, D. and I, after putting E. down in her crib for her nap, put on our pajamas (yes, that’s right, it’s not a siesta unless there’s some removal of your regular clothes), close the curtains and slip under the covers. As a family, we wake up an hour or two later refreshed and ready to face the next half of the day.
7. Cook, eat, and talk about food together –
There’s no doubt: Spaniards are proud of their food. (Rightfully so!) You can criticize their king or any politician, but don’t you dare compare their olive oil to Greece’s or their jamón serrano to Italy’s prosciutto. And, the only thing Spaniards love as much as eating is talking about what they’re eating, or what they last ate, or what they’re going to eat.
How has this habit made its way into my family’s home? Well, D. and I might not always cook traditional Spanish food, but we do give priority to spending time together as a family at the dinner table. We take turns cooking, sometimes together, with E. strapped to her high chair, munching on whatever we’re preparing and listening to us chat about noodles and radishes and sauce and wine.
8. Work to live-
Instead of living to work.
While I am a by-product of the Anglo-Saxon work ethic of giving your 110% to work, I am learning, thanks to D., to work with excellence, not to perfection.
This philosophy was one of the reasons why I quit my full-time job last June to stay at home with my daughter: we didn’t need my salary to live. Sure, I loved my job, but not enough to endure the added-on frustrations of taking E. back and forth to day care or of watching D. commute three hours a day. No, instead, we budget and cut corners while enjoying breakfast together each morning.
9. Include extended family in major life decisions –
Spain is a relational culture. No decision is made without considering how it affects your family, be it where to study, who to marry, where to buy an apartment, everything. D. could have looked for work in sunny California or super hip Manhattan, but we have chosen to live where we do in part because extended family is nearby. We’re so glad we have.
10. Take life “sobre la marcha” –
Sobre la Marcha, or, on the fly/as you go. It’s the mantra of this blog. And, it’s the mantra of Spanish culture. (See #2 and #3.) Spaniards don’t make five-year plans. And, a detailed itinerary for your summer vacation? Nope. You take things as they come. Ya veremos, they say (“We’ll see.”). So, every time I catch myself worrying about where E. will attend school, or if I’ll ever return to work, I say, sobre la marcha, we’ll see. All I have is now.
11. Take life slow –
This is the other mantra of the Spanish way of life. As a family, D. and I, together with E., left fast-paced Washington, DC for life in a smaller, and slower, city. As a parent, I am learning more each day what it means to live slowly. So far, it means not over planning activities for E. (see #2), and stopping myself when I tell her ¡Corre! Venga, ¡corre! (“Come on, hurry!”), and letting her sit for an extra five minutes on the sidewalk to stare at a rock.
How are you and your family learning from the ways and customs of another culture? I’d love to hear from you!