Culture Shocks and Wonderful Surprises

cul·ture shock  noun

  1. the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

It’s 1am on a regular Wednesday in June in Granada. The neighbourhood dogs are barking in the usual incessant cacophony, the bars are bursting with people and the rooftop parties are in full swing. No-one complains about the din that splinters the wee hours, in fact it is just a regular part of life here. In contrast, should you make noise during the afternoon siesta when Andalusians attempt to counter their sleep deficit, you will be told.

Deserted streets during the afternoon siesta in Granada

I could never imagine bumping into a single person at 1am on a Wednesday on the street where I live in Australia, meanwhile at 6am the local beach is full of joggers, walkers and swimmers when the streets of Granada would be completely deserted.  This is just one of many cultural adjustments my family and I made when we were living in Spain or when we travel between Sydney and our other ‘home’ in Granada.

This past summer we had the opportunity to return to Spain, two years after our sabbatical year, and with the distance of time and geography between visits, new insights about life, values, culture, beauty, differences, similarities and frustrations came flooding back.

Part of the reason for our return to Granada this year was for our son to attend his Spanish primary school graduation trip with his former class. Students remain together in the same class for the entire 6 years of primary school in Spain so a significant bond is formed over that period. Our son adored his class and teacher in Granada so it seemed fitting to reunite for one last time before everyone moved on to different high schools.

Back in the Granada hood – June 2016

As we watched the graduation ceremony of our son’s class at his Spanish public school, each student tightly hugged their teacher and was handed a gift she had made for them. Some shed a tear and you could see the intimate bond between teacher and child. In that moment, it dawned on me that for all the wonderful opportunities provided by Australian schools, there is an intentional distance created between teacher and student.

Year 6 school graduation ceremony
Year 6 school graduation ceremony
My daughter’s teacher in Spain ready for the end of year water fight

The first thing you notice about student-teacher dynamics in Spain is the casual, relaxed relationships and physical care exchanged. Students freely hug their teachers, call them by their first name and teachers exchange the two kisses greeting with parents. I recall a parents and teacher class gathering one time, when one of the 10-year-old students from the class sat on the teacher’s lap for the entire presentation and no-one thought this was unusual. We came to value and appreciate that sense of connection and belonging to a community while living in Spain and it was wonderful to be part of it again for a couple of weeks.

The intensity and warmth of the interactions in Spain are however equally endearing and confronting for me.  The collective wisdom of the community seems to be shared freely and generously to the benefit of all but gosh, it can take three times as long to get anything done and can be incredibly chaotic.

Spanish interactions to me sometimes feel like a community of well-meaning grandparents who proffer unsolicited advice at every turn. I love it and I also must admit to my discomfort at times when I wonder: “Why do you care so much about what I do?” To give you an example of what I am talking about…

This past summer my husband and I went on a 2-day hiking trip to Mulhacen, the highest peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with my friend who is a guide (at Sierra y Sol) and a group of hikers. We found the group of local people around us to be generous to a fault in sharing their food, advice and medical supplies for blisters (of which I was the grateful recipient having borrowed boots too small – big mistake) and heavily invested in the wellbeing of the group and its affairs.

Some of the group stretching at the overnight stop on the side of the mountain
The ‘refugio’ where we slept the night on the way up to Mulhacen

It made for a warm and convivial atmosphere where the constant banter contrasted against the tranquility of the alpine scenery around us.  What made my husband and I chuckle was the hilarious commentary about such a wide variety of subjects as politics, nature, food etc… but the hottest topic was: other people.

Comments on what other groups of people on the hiking trails had chosen to wear as they trekked up the mountain – a woman in a fashionable mini dress received quite a bit of air time as did the hippies in sandals and loose jerseys, comments on how people were faring up the mountain, what they should eat etc….

One classic moment of the trip was upon our descent, when we encountered a group of young mountain bikers carrying their bikes on their shoulders up the 3,478 metre mountain (no mean feat!). A good ten minutes was spent by our group asking questions and dolling out advice to these poor lads who were suffering at the hands of the mountain. They politely listened to the well-meaning and unsolicited advice of our entire group…. “Leave your bikes here under some rocks and come back get them later!” or “Surely there is another route you can take?” “How about one of you stays here with the bikes while the others ascend the summit?” and when none of the advice hit their mark, a myriad of “What I would do’s” ensued.

My husband and I watched with amusement (it reminded me of my European family!) and as the suggestions became more impassioned, but always well-meaning of course, we instinctively found ourselves backing away from the intensity; our Australian and Finnish sensibilities having reached their comfort threshold.

Happy smiles on the way up before the blisters took hold
Alpine flowers in the Sierra Nevada
Alpine flowers everywhere

Perhaps our experience of Spanish cultural behaviour is accentuated by the fact that we usually travel to Spain via a stopover in the Netherlands to recover from jetlag and visit friends. The famous Dutch Calvinist tolerance that allows people to be who they are and do what they like (within reason) without asking or meddling in each other’s affairs, is the antithesis of Spanish community life. And while our visits to the Netherlands are smooth, peaceful and fun, being left to your own devices and whims can sometimes feel a bit lonely and cold compared to the intense meddling and warm embrace of Spain.

Something else I observed while living in Spain, is the singular focus on the people in your immediate vicinity of conversation.  High velocity conversations and people standing in the most inconvenient places are just part and parcel of life in Spain where you are focused on the here and now and not aware of the person who might be approaching and need to get past.

On several flights in and out of Spain, I witnessed people congregating in the aisles to talk and joke around with each other without much thought for the flight attendants or passengers attempting to use the toilets. None of this, I have observed, is done with malice or disdain, just  passion for conviviality and conversation. After all, how many cultures have an actual term for the activity of spending time at the table after a meal, hanging out with family or friends, chatting and enjoying each other’s company? It’s called Sobremesa!

Enjoying the sobremesa with our old neighbours in Granada
Enjoying the sobremesa with our old neighbours in Granada

These observations are not intended to be belittling or judgmental in any way. I am fascinated by the behavioural drivers and influences of people from various cultures and countries and how different it is to my own mixed heritage. In fact, I love people visiting me in Australia to shine the light on the all our crazy eccentricities. Just this weekend, our French friends who are spending a sabbatical year here in Australia observed how we love to sit on the ground rather than a table to eat and drink or how we like to find a scenic place in nature to share a bottle of wine or champagne. This is in contrast to the cafes, bars and dining tables where the French typically enjoy their food and drink.

This fascination we have with different ways of seeing and being is why travel has become a priority for our family. It is the everyday visceral experiences that provide new and different perspectives beyond our daily bubble. I’ve written quite a bit about the vagaries of living between two places and two completely different cultures and yet each time we travel between Spain and Australia, new and different observations are uncovered.

I welcome others to observe and share their moments of culture shocks and wonderful surprises as now that I am back in my daily bubble, I live these moments through books, blogs, films and others’ stories.

Until the next voyage of discovery……


Definition of Culture shock:  an experience a person may have when one moves to a cultural environment which is different from one’s own; it is also the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply transition to another type of life.[1] One of the most common causes of culture shock involves individuals in a foreign environment. Culture shock can be described as consisting of at least one of four distinct phases: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and adaptation.



8 thoughts on “Culture Shocks and Wonderful Surprises

  1. Bianca has observed us very well, even for more madness, there is differences between an areas from Spain and others, in this difference perhaps also it is our enchatment and perhpas it is related with our mixture of cultures. There is a Spanish saying “Consejos doy (vendo), que para mi no tengo” “Advice I give (sell), that for me, I don’t have”, We love to advice and we are expert in all and nothing.

    I apologize by my English (I don’t speak English)

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