4 Things America Can Learn From Spain

I’ve been living and working in Spain for almost two years now, and in this time, I’ve been lucky to have such a unique opportunity to learn, first-hand, the everyday culture that surrounds the Spanish language. I’ve had to come to terms with the culture of Spain and the way Spaniards do things; most things aren’t wrong, they’re just…different.

While I’ve learned a lot about this country since moving here in September 2012, one thing in particular I’ve gained is a new perspective on America; sometimes you need a fresh pair of eyes to see both your homeland’s faults and what places, foods, and times of the year are really special.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to take what I’ve learned in my experience living here in Spain and talk about what I think American culture and society could stand to learn from Spain (this post) and vice versa.

Now, before the haters come out of the woodwork, let me just say that living in Spain has made me love America more than before I came here. It’s hard to fully appreciate what you love most about your country until you’ve spent a stretch of time away and realize what you really miss most of all. But blind patriotism—the idea that the U.S. can do no wrong, the inability to think critically about the place you call home—is not for me. For us Americans out there, let’s have a grown-up discussion about what areas America could grow in, using our neighbor across the ocean as an example.

1) How to eat and drink

bocadillo spain
Institutionalized snacktime in Spain

Although generalizations are rarely helpful when comparing cultures, Spaniards are on the whole generally fitter than Americans are. Why this is so is an extremely controversial and debated topic, but safe to say, it’s probably the result of a combination of various factors, including:
  • in America, we drink sugary soda, and lots of it, from gigantic cups and bottles to endless refills at restaurants. In Spain, you have to pay for each can or bottle you drink, and said bottle is rarely more than 330 mL.
  • in America, we scarf down our meals as fast as possible (often fast food, in the car), whereas in Spain, people take time to sit down and have dinner with friends or family. It also helps that restaurants in Spain aren’t about pushing you to leave in order to flip the table but are about serving food and creating a warm environment.
  • in America, we are all about our massive, complex, to-go Starbucks orders, which are usually more milk, sugar, and syrup than actual coffee, but in Spain, most people drink a simple shot of espresso at a café’s bar, usually adding some steamed milk and a packet of sugar.
  • in American restaurants, the portion sizes are out of control: either you eat the entire platter set before you or you take half of it home for leftovers. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve doggy-bagged things here in Spain, though; plates are sized appropriately.
  • in America, a significant number of people drink alcohol purely to get drunk; drinking “culture” in the States often centers around getting inebriated as fast as possible. In Spain, people have a glass or two of wine with their hours-long meals, get tapas for free to munch on with their short beers, and even receive little bowls of nuts or gummy bears with mixed drinks. A teacher last year told me “los españoles saben beber”: Spaniards know how to hold their drink.
  • in America, we snack whenever we want on whatever we like, be it donuts or leftovers or chocolate lying around the house. In Spain, people have the standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but they also have two approved Snack Times or meriendas: in the mid-morning around 11am, people might have some coffee and fruit or a pastry (second breakfast, anyone?), and in the afternoon around 5 or 6pm, a sandwich or toast to hold them over until their famously late dinners at 9pm (sometimes midnight!).

2) The value of public transit

tram sevilla
Tram in Sevilla

So much of American society is centered around the car, from the interstate highway system to strip malls, three-car garages, parking lots, and drive-through everything. Urban sprawl in postwar America created communities dependent on cars simply to get groceries at the corner market, and countless Americans spend hours on the road every day commuting to and from work. The nation’s passenger rail network is a skeleton of what it once was a century ago, and Mitt Romney even proposed eliminating it altogether. Only in the biggest cities can you find subway systems or bus routes. But as the effects of climate change become more and more noticeable, it will behoove us to build and maintain electric-powered mass transit systems.

In Spain, even cities with populations as small as 35,000 will have bus lines, as Úbeda did, and it’s completely possible to go from one corner of the country to the other in a day via some combination of bus, train, and metro. For many Americans, the car is synonymous with freedom, but public transportation can actually be freeing to those who can’t afford to drive or would rather be unhindered by the financial burden of owning a car.

3) Socialism is not a bad word

The PSOE—the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party—is the main center-left party in Spanish politics

Socialism gets a really bad rap in the United States, probably as a result of the half-century-long Cold War in which America defined herself as the leader of the “free world” against the Evil Empire of Communist Russia. (It could also be due to the social Darwinist, every-man-for-himself, independent mindset all too common in our culture, but I digress.)

Attempts to ensure everyone has healthcare coverage are attacked by the right wing of the political spectrum as “socialist!!!” even though socialism simply means the public/society (represented by the government) provides services rather than private companies—think education, the military, roads, and the postal service.

While the Soviet Union, mid-century China, and North Korea show that socialism taken to its totalitarian extreme is bound to fail, the postwar social democracies of western Europe—Spain being one of them—show that a mixture of capitalism and socialism results in better, healthier, and more equal societies.

America would be wise to throw off her ’50s-era phobias and consider the costs and benefits of, for example, ensuring that all citizens have access to medical care via socialized health insurance (through simple proposals like Medicare For All). Sometimes it seems like we’re still stuck in the Red Scare and can’t clearly judge the costs and benefits of proposals that would benefit all citizens, save money, and make us healthier…even if the dirty word “socialism” technically applies.

4) Working to live, not living to work

paella spain
The Sunday paella

This is perhaps the most important lesson America could stand to learn from Spain. So much of American society is all about work. Pursuing Your Passion is often thrown to the side in favor of What Makes the Most Money. Our culture glamorizes billionaire presidents, sportsmen with outrageous contracts, and movie stars with six houses. You’re expected to find your Dream Job after graduating college which you work endless hours a week at so the company can increase profits and you’ll get paid a little more. And people obsess over bigger and more luxurious cars, houses, clothes, vacations—and the jobs that can provide all of them.

But while some Spaniards engage in the rat race (most are just trying to get by, thankful for any job during the economic crisis), life isn’t all about work here. Instead, it’s more about family, friends, and festivals. Spaniards probaby identify more strongly with where they are from (and the people and culture those places represent) than with what pays the bills. It’s pretty common for extended families to go over to Grandma and Grandpa’s house every week for a Sunday cookout and spend the whole day together catching up. Many Spaniards have their cuadrilla or gang of friends they’ve grown up with who they go out for coffee or tapas with on a frequent basis. And month-long vacations, while cutting into business profits, make for happier and more refreshed workers than the brief American system does.

What else could America learn from Spain or other countries? Tell me what you think in the comments below!

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