Monday, May 19, 2014

Culture Shock in a Spanish Home

Back in November, I wrote a little blog post about some significant differences between American and Spanish supermarkets—culture shock at the supermercado is a frequent occurrence for foreigners living in Spain. But there’s an even more important place you might experience culture shock after setting foot in the country: the home.

Doors

Spanish doors
(Source: Javier Corbo)
Let’s start outside. One major difference that can be a little disorienting is the fact that the handle on the main door to an apartment or house is often centered; i.e., it’s in the middle rather than on the right-hand side where the keyholes are. This is because most locks in Spain completely open the door rather than leaving another lock in the handle for you to turn: when you unlock the door, the door swings open, so the handle is there for you to push or pull, not turn.

Even though intercoms might seem like a fancy feature for American residences, they’re standard on virtually all Spanish ones, from homes to apartments. To one side of the door there’s a little speaker with a button to the side of it that you can push to talk with whoever lives in 4º Dcha. or 1º B. On the other side of the intercom, when you pick up the little phone you can push a button to unlock the door and buzz your friend or mechanic in—all without having to go down the stairs and physically open the door for them. How convenient.

Windows

Spanish windows
(Source: Josu Mendicute)
Spanish windows have three main differences that set them apart from American ones. First, it’s really easy to open them. I don’t know if I’m just blinded by my own experience, but the windows in my childhood home are extremely difficult to open. There’s a physical lock you have to pinch and turn, the windows themselves are really heavy, and the tracks the windows slide on always seem to be needing a good dousing of WD-40. Spanish windows seemed to be designed for ease of use: you either push down on a latch and let the windows smoothly glide left-to-right or you turn a comfortable handle and let the windows swoop open.

Windows in Spain, while easy to open, lack screens, so flies, gnats, and other unwanted flying critters can (and do) come in uninvited. In the summer, you’re basically stuck between a rock and a hard place: do you keep the windows closed and suffer in your hot, stuffy, A/C-less bedroom or do you open the windows to let the fresh air in…along with a colony of flies?

Finally, no Spanish window is complete without persianas or adjustable shutters. It’s super easy to raise or lower these interlocking plastic slats with the fabric belt to the side of the window, or if there’s no belt, then a handle you crank around. A 100% typical, everyday Spanish sound is the loud, spitfire clackety-clack of someone opening the blinds in the morning. Look up, and you might be able to catch a groggy grandma squinting in the sunlight from her balcony.

Floors

Spanish mop
(Source: srgpicker)
Something that really struck me when I came back home last summer was seeing carpet everywhere on the floor. I mean, what is this but a wall-to-wall rug you can’t roll up for cleaning? Eek! The vast majority of flooring in Spain is some kind of tile or wood that can be easily swept clean with a broom and then washed with a mop (apparently a Spanish invention).

Because most floors are flat and cool, it’s taboo to go around barefoot, lest you “catch a cold.” Pop on some cheapo slippers you got for pennies on the, uh, euro at the local chino store and roam worry-free around the house!

Hallways

And by “hallways,” I mean “light switches.” In even the newest buildings in America you turn the lights on and off with these little knobs that toggle up and down; in Spain, though (and much of the rest of the world), you have these large angled plates about half the size of the palm of your hand that you press up or down.

Something I will never, ever understand about Spain is how light switches for bathrooms are put outside the room itself. I’ve had the lights turned off on me while doing my business too many times to remember, and I frequently forget to turn the lights off because after I close the door, I can’t see that I left them on!

Appliances

Spanish bombona gas tank
(Source: Francisco González)
Although my apartment last year had the washing machine in the porch out back (convenient for hanging the laundry outside the window), many Spaniards keep la lavadora in the kitchen. Yep, no laundry room. I’ve heard this is actually quite normal across the rest of Europe, too; I guess the idea is to just keep all the huge domestic appliances (oven, fridge, dishwasher, etc.) in the same room. On this note, it’s not uncommon for apartment kitchens to be designed sans ovens or dishwashers.

Unless your home has a direct gas line, if you’re going to have hot water or use your gas-powered cooking range, you’ll need to have on hand a small army of butane gas tanks called bombonas. These fat, bright-orange cylinders hook up to the system via a tube that hooks on to the valve on top, releasing gas for the hot water heater and/or the stovetop. What happens when they run out? You have to either go to or call the Repsol office and pay for some to be delivered, and then the next day set the empty bombonas outside. When the big rickety truck rolls by, the delivery guy will exchange the empty ones for fresh, full bombonas.

Spanish tendedero drying rack
Spotted: tendedero, spare bombona tank, and broken brasero baseboard
I think I’ve only ever seen a single dryer in all my time in Spain, and that was in a pilgrim hostel in humid, rainy Galicia. In compact, crowded Europe, they simply take up too much space—and use up a lot of energy—so the vast majority of people either hang-dry their wet laundry outside on clotheslines to let the sun dry them or hang them up on a drying rack called a tendedero indoors. The sun usually dries stuff in under 24 hours, but if it’s raining you’ll have to bring things inside and hope your dehumidifier (if you have one) will do its job.

And don’t forget, in Andalucía they use a brasero, an electric-coil heater (traditionally a bowl of coals) that goes underneath a table with a heavy blanket draped on top of it. In the winter, families or housemates gather around the warm table and put their legs under the blanket that keeps the heat from escaping.

Construction

In American neighborhoods, at least, most homes are built with a traditional wood frame around which the insulation, siding, and walls are put up. Because of this, house fires are often particularly destructive and tornadoes easily plow through towns. In Spain it seems pretty standard to construct houses and apartments with a reinforced concrete frame and then build up all the walls with bricks; the outside is covered in plaster and paint and the inside with drywall.

Fun fact: the Spanish word albañil literally means “bricklayer” but because the act of laying bricks is so central to construction here, by metonymy albañil effectively means “construction worker.”

Have you ever experienced culture shock in a Spanish home? Add your stories and observations in the thread below!
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