It Only Gets Easier

Ok honesty hour: studying abroad consists of a lot more than roaming the European continent, learning a different language perfectly within two months, hammering out a few math problems to turn in on Monday, and going out every night with exotic new friends.

Let me tell you friends, it rains here. Not eating lunch until 2PM is killer if you’re not used to it. Two hours is a  l o n g  time to sit in the same spot and pay attention. Making friends with Spanish students who already have their own friends is hard. Taking classes in English with professors whose first language is not English is also hard, believe it or not. Relying on the school’s wifi because it’s been a month and you still don’t have wifi in your apartment is annoying. Getting stared at every time you open your mouth to speak because then suddenly the whole world knows you’re a guiri (non-spanish-speaking foreigner) gets pretty old pretty fast.Trying to complete LITERALLY any sort of official paperwork pertaining to immigration, the bank, school, renting an apartment, etc. is THE WORST when you technically live here but don’t live live here and you can’t remember if the address you put is your Florida one, your old New York one, you Spanish host family’s, your real Spain one, or your really old New York one from freshman year.

While these are all definitely first world problems and I am definitely incredibly thankful for every single day I get to be here, there are still moments when I just need to be alone and read a book. In English. Because I just need a brain break. But every time I get frustrated and feel like clamming up in my own American-ness I tell myself

“It only gets easier”

Because it’s true. It’s so true. And even in the 1% case that it’s not true I let myself believe it is because it makes me feel better. And then I go bake brownies with two amazing kids and I go for a walk at sunset and drink Colacao with a friend and bake Quesada for the first time using my host mom’s recipe and I run in a race with hundreds of Santanderinos (Santander natives) and I enjoy the quiet moments that are so few and far between at Cornell.

So in the spirit of finding some “cheer-up” for my pancakes 😉 this week I made a list of the more interesting (and sometimes very positive) differences between things in Spain and the U.S.!

  • Siestas and SundaysWay back when, most warmer-climate countries had a break mid-afternoon when everything closed, people ate lunch, napped, and stayed in the shade because it was the hottest part of the day. Thanks to air conditioning this isn’t as much of a problem anymore, but Spain, the only remaining European country resisting this modernization, never gave it up. That’s why every day from 2-4PM or 1-3PM (or really any arbitrary 2-3 hour span that the shop owner chooses) nearly every single business closes.

    Need to go to the bank between classes? Can’t, it’s closed. Don’t have any food to make lunch? Looks like you have to go to a café (restaurants generally stay open because this is lunch time). Need to go to the post office after class? Out of luck. You get the idea.

    Due to Spain’s traditionalism and nominal Catholicism, all of the above is also applied to Sundays, except it’s for the entire day. In some ways this is really nice because it makes it impossible to spend the whole day running errands and being productive (except maybe homework unfortunately) and forces you to relax a little.


  • No dryers

Yup. There’s a washer in my kitchen and a clothes-line-tree-hanger thingy outside our 8th floor window. This means I have to plan my laundry around the weather, which is fine right now but will be a nightmare in the winter when it rains (a lot).


  • Mostly cash, no credit/debit cards

I don’t actually use my debit card as a debit card, I just use it to get cash from the ATM. If I’m at a larger store/supermarket or making a larger purchase I can probably use a credit or debit card, but when I’m picking up a couple of things from the little grocery store on my street, a bakery, a fruit shop, ice cream shop, small restaurant, etc. I have to use cash because they either don’t accept cards or there’s a minimum transaction amount to do so. It doesn’t really bother me right now, but before I had a local bank account set up I had very limited cash so it was a bit of a struggle in the beginning.

  • Daily schedule

Due to this old-fashioned siesta, this causes Spain’s entire daily schedule to shift. Businesses and schools normally open at 9:00 and morning lasts until 14:00. Between 14-16:00 people eat lunch and relax, and around 16 or 17:00 classes and work resume and businesses reopen. Afternoon lasts from siesta time until between 20-21:00 and dinnertime is normally around 21 or 21:30. That being said, Spanish parties are so late that they’re early. People normally don’t even go out until 3 AM and stay out until 5, 6, or even 7AM. When I told a girl that parties at American Universities normally go until only 3 or 4AM she looked at me like I was crazy.

  • Military time

You probably noticed that in my last bullet I used military (or in Europe it’s called 24 hour) time. However, it’s only used in written language, never spoken. Personally I think this actually makes more sense because there’s absolutely no confusion over AM or PM. Also I think this is a general European thing, not just a Spanish thing but I could be wrong…

  • Smoking

I know that smoking is not uncommon in the U.S. but I don’t even need google in order to know that the percentage of Spaniards (and Europeans in general) who smoke is higher than the percentage of Americans. Outside any given building there will be an average of 5 people smoking and every time I sit outside at a restaurant I swear I’m going to die of lung cancer.

  • Lots of people speak English (sort of)

I’m pretty sure there’s a higher percentage of bilingual people here than in the U.S., but it seems to be pretty hit or miss as to who speaks English and who doesn’t. For example, when another international student asked a lady in the Foreigners Office (an official government office) the lady got really annoyed and rudely said that they all only know Spanish (which of all places you’d think a foreigners office would speak at least one other language), but the other day I was asking for directions from a bus driver and he suddenly started speaking English… !?!? And the two kids whom I teach English attend a bilingual school so they learn some subjects in English and some in Spanish. I’m a little jealous!

  • Kids/moms are so put together

Moms and babies, surprisingly, are the best-dressed in all of Spain

  • Dress codes

Shorts are much more uncommon here and apparently it’s frowned upon to wear shorts to class but on the beach about half of the women are topless and half of the kids are naked. Someone please tell me where the logic is.

  • Lower cost of living

I don’t know if it’s the U.S., New York state, or just Cornell in general, but in comparison everything here seems so much cheaper. Buying an entire tote bag of fruits and vegetables (the majority of my weekly grocery shopping) costs less than €10, the bus (with a bus pass) is 60¢, housing (including utilities) is €200 a month, and the 1.5 hour bus ride to Bilbao costs €6. It’s GREAT.

  • Academic year

Upside: school didn’t start until the end of September so we had a chance to enjoy the last bit of summer. Downside: Exams after Christmas and on my birthday.

  • Discoteca ≠ club

A club in the U.S. is the same thing as a discoteca here. Clubs in Spain are sketchier aren’t where you and your friends go for a drink on a Friday night. I’ll just leave it at that. Did I mention that fiestas are normally 3-6 AM?

  • Food

Such an important category that I had to break it down into subcategories

  • Tapas/pintxos

Pintxos (PIN-chos) are tapas essentially. Spaniards eat them with drinks when out with friends. I’ve heard that they’re not normally eaten as meals because they’re expensive and the opposite, both from Spaniards so who really knows? I think 3-4 pinxtos make a fantastic lunch.

  • Quesada

A “pastry” that’s slightly sweet, has the consistency of flan (except not covered in strange liquid), and is only found in Santander. I think it tastes like dessert but my host mom gave it to me for breakfast all the time so again, who knows…

  • Spanish tortilla

NOT a Mexican tortilla. A Spanish tortilla is basically an omelette but with only egg and fried potato. Chorizo and any type of seafood is often added on too; they’re all delicious.

Spanish tortilla with langostina (prawn)
  • Paella

Essentially Spanish rice with seafood.The secret is the saffron in the rice, fresh seafood, and lots of time for it to stew all together. It’s been pretty hit or miss here on the northern coast; my flatmate said the Paella is much better in the south. It takes a lot of patience to remove all the heads, eyes, limbs, antennae, and shells, but if you can manage that and still feel like eating seafood it’s definitely worth it!

The first ACTUALLY DECENT paella I’ve had since coming to Spain!!
  • Croquettes

I think we have these in the U.S. but they’re very common here. The best are the ones with Iberian ham.

  • Saboas

Little tiny cakes that are commonly eaten as part of breakfast or as a snack. They’re small, light, fluffy, and not too sweet.

  • Non-brownies

I say non-brownies because in bakeries they’ll have things labeled “brownie” but I assure you they are all impostors. They just look like plain chocolate cake to me. Disgraceful.

  • No peanut butter

Excuse my un-americanness but THANK GOODNESS. Unless it’s with chocolate I really don’t like peanut butter and pretty much all the Spaniards agree with me. The kids I teach English told me that one time they made peanut butter cookies with a past Cornell student and they were traumatized. They didn’t like them at all.

Brownie batter is scientifically proven to cure all peanut-butter related traumas. Trust me, I go to Cornell.
  • Hot chocolate

American hot chocolate = Spanish ColaCao

Spanish hot chocolate = literal melted hot chocolate, normally accompanied by churros to dip in it. (I haven’t tried it yet but it sounds  a m a z i n g)

  • Coffee

I don’t even know what it is but the coffee here is just so much better. I’m not really a coffee person but I hardly have to put any sugar in it to make it bearable.

  • Bocadillas

Essentially just subs but for some reason very popular here.

  • Sooooo many ice cream places

If you walk along the street that has the center of town on one side and the bay on the other, there’s an ice cream place every few hundred feat, I am not exaggerating.

  • No buttermilk

They don’t have buttermilk. Not that this is terribly devastating in my everyday life, but it made baking Irish bread a bit difficult.

  • Scarce chocolate chips

I’m so used to being able to buy huge bags of chocolate chips for a couple dollars but here you get a tiny bag (maybe a cup or less) for about €3.

  • No applesauce

Again, not terribly devastating except I always replace the oil in brownie box mixes with applesauce because I think it tastes much better and my mom brought me two boxes of brownie mix to combat the lack of real brownies here. You see my dilemma?

  • No 8×8 (or of equivalent area) baking pans

Also a great impedence to my desire to bake real brownies. Life is hard people.

  • Candy vending machines in the street

Just thought this was interesting…

  • McDonald’s

The McDonald’s here is almost…fancy. It looks more like a coffee shop with cakes, pastries, coffees, and then there’s a separate counter for the fast food. But even the décor is much more tasteful than in the U.S.

  • Medical system

You can go to a pharmacy and buy medicine but it’ll be really expensive. You’re supposed to go to the doctor, get a prescription (if you actially need it) and then the cost for medicine will be lower. The downside is vitamins. I didn’t want to go to the doctor and have to have more blood tests done just to get a prescription for vitamins I already know I need to take, so I just had my mom bring them to me.

  • Paper

The paper here (as in all of Europe I believe) is A4 so it’s longer than U.S. paper, and all their notebooks only have graph paper…???

  • University buildings close

The buildings are only open from 8AM to 9PM. And by 9PM they actually mean 8:40 because that’s when someone goes around and tells people to leave.

  • Wifi

My flatmates and I have been trying to get wifi for a month to no avail. It’s incredibly frustrating. And when the wifi at the university randomly stops working for an hour and I’m trying to get things done, it’s even more frustrating. Even trying to post this from a university library was a struggle…

  • Tupperware

Apparently it’s never assumed that plastic containers are watertight. Even if I have a sandwich with tomato in it I have to wrap the container in a plastic bag because it WILL leak all over my backpack.

  • Pillow sizes

I couldn’t find an actual pillow that matched the size of the pillowcase that came with my bedding. Long pillows (like as long as the width of the bed) are common in addition to your normal sleeping pillow. And the long pillowcase is open on both ends.

  • Glue

If you can tell me which is super glue and which is glue remover, please, enlighten me.


  • Water bottles

One thing I still have zero understanding of is why Spaniards find it so strange to have a water bottle with you in class, or to even own one at all. I guess they just don’t drink very much water…?

  • They understand what’s really important

This is one of my absolute FAVORITE parts of Spain. The American mentality that work, school, good grades, making a lot of money, and being “successful” are most important in life, hence the workaholic society we’re raised in (and it very much perpetuated at Cornell I’m sad to say). One of my Spanish professors explained to us that here in Spain yes, people work, kids go to school, and students study hard, but at the end of the day everyone goes home. They go have a drink and pintxos with friends, then go home to their families, they eat dinner together, and sometimes they’ll stay out late at a bar or a discoteca. I love to go for runs through the huge park behind the university because every playground is packed with kids playing outside and parents enjoying the company of other parents. I see so many people on the beach, surfing, riding bikes, running, strolling through plazas, getting ice cream and going for a walk in the park, and playing pick-up football at a neighborhood field every afternoon, evening, and/or weekend. Maybe I haven’t been exposed to the same city-like environment in the U.S., but in all the places I’ve been over there I never see anything like this. In America there are so few playgrounds, everyone drives straight home after work, kids watch TV and play videogames, students have tons and tons and TONS of homework, and parents are too tired from a long day at work to take the family outside. If there were a single reason that would make me want to move to Spain for the rest of my life, it would be this.



2 thoughts on “It Only Gets Easier

Add yours

  1. Rik and I have visited Spain twice and lived in Belgium for 3 years so I can relate to several of your items. I think that the Spanish tortilla is very similar to an Italian frittata. Here in the states you see it on menus as frittata. When you figure out a bit more about the post office and customs, we would be happy to send you 8×8 pans and chocolate chips. The chips will surely arrive as a solid block but you can chop them up! Do you prefer milk chocolate or dark chocolate?


    1. Aww thank you Martha! I’ve actually managed pretty well with the brownies haha. I made them twice with the kids I teach English and we just used pans that are 9×13-ish size so they just ended up a bit thinner than usual. I have no idea about post office customs though, I’d have to look into it.


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