Editors’ note: The “Life in” series provides readers a window into daily life in different places around the world by sharing the stories of women living abroad.
After graduating from college with a degree in Spanish language and literature, Therese Trinko moved to Madrid, Spain in order to polish her Spanish before returning to the United States to become a Spanish teacher. Today, Therese lives in Madrid where she works as an English and religion teacher.
We all have COVID-19 on the brain these days. So let’s start there. What has that experience been like in Madrid? What kind of restrictions have been put in place, and how are people generally responding to them?
Everyone here, like the rest of the world, has been worried about it since it broke out in China.
Initially, many of us, myself included, thought that this would be like Ebola or other recent epidemics that are tragic, but don’t personally affect us. However, this one very quickly affected us here in Spain. We are currently under quarantine, which means we need to stay at home unless it’s something important such as going to the grocery store, the pharmacy, or work if you cannot work from home.
The general response of Spaniards and other Americans I know living here is solidarity. Many of us young people know that even if we get infected, we would only have very mild symptoms. However, we know that we could unintentionally infect older and more vulnerable people, so I see very little resentment about this quarantine.
When did you move to Spain in the first place, and what precipitated the move? Had you lived abroad or spent extended time abroad before this move?
I moved to Spain four and a half years ago after doing my student teaching to be a Spanish teacher and realizing I had to improve my Spanish before I had my own classroom. It’s been a complete blessing because I love Spain, and I’ve stayed much longer than my original plan of one or two years.
Before moving here, I had spent a semester in Rome and a summer in Costa Rica and Argentina. Those experiences really helped me get used to the unique challenges of living abroad; they also gave me a serious case of the travel bug, which I still haven’t lost.
What were some of your first impressions of Spain? Did anything surprise you?
My first impression of Spain was how social it is. People are constantly out with their friends and family at all hours of the day, including families with babies at the bars until midnight. Also, Spaniards daily schedules are crazy different from Americans. My family back home often had dinner at five or six in the afternoon. Here, that’s when you have “merienda” or afternoon snack, and dinner isn’t until nine or ten.
But because of my experience studying Spanish, including Spanish culture, and spending a semester in Rome, I was familiar with most of the big cultural differences before I arrived.
What were some of the harder things for you to get used to in Spanish culture?
There are two main differences that are more difficult for me, because of my personality and because of my own American culture. First, the daily schedule: most people are up and with their families or friends until midnight. I ideally will be in bed by 10 p.m., so a daily schedule that ends so late is, honestly and embarrassingly, physically challenging for me.
Furthermore, Spaniards are extremely direct. Sometimes it’s refreshing, because instead of people sugar-coating something that needs to be said, they just tell you what the problem is, which keeps things open and honest. However, I am super sensitive, and so sometimes I would prefer more sugar-coating than a Spaniard would feel is necessary.
What are some of the aspects of Spanish life that you like most?
Well, obviously my favorite part of Spanish culture is cured ham. Many Spanish families around Christmas and other important times will buy a leg of cured ham and keep it in the kitchen and cut off thin slices whenever they’re hungry, and it’s genuinely one of my favorite things about Spain.
I also love that everyday after work is not a time to go home and recover so you can do it again the next day, but rather a time to spend with your friends and family. Almost everyone I know goes out almost every day of the week, even just for tapas, run clubs, or a church group. As a teacher, it helps keep me sane and focused on the more important parts of life, instead of just worrying about work.
What are some of the biggest differences you observed between American and Spanish culture?
As I mentioned, from my personal experience I’ve found that a lot of Americans find themselves in a situation where they live to work, while in Spain it seems to be a bit more of working to live. Of course, these are broad strokes, but in general I’ve had that impression.
Families are extremely important here, oftentimes people will run even very mundane errands like going to the grocery store with their parents or other family members, even as adults. Related to this, if you work or study in the same city as your parents, until you are thirty or married, almost everyone lives with their parents. In the United States, there is often a sense of shame about this, but in Spain it’s expected. The general idea is, why would you pay rent, make all your own meals, and be far from your family when you could just stay with them?
Before coming here, I had heard from Spanish and non-Spanish sources that there was a strong “machista” (or sexism against women) culture in Spain. However, my experience has been the opposite. While the term “feminism” is often looked down upon by extreme conservatives, Spain seems to me to be a matriarchal society, and the roles of women and mothers are really valued.
Another difference: leisure here is almost considered a human right. Everyone legally gets two and a half days of vacation for every month spent working, which adds up to about a month off every year. Most Spaniards get this month off in August, and it seems that Madrid and other large cities basically shut down as everyone goes to the beach or the country to enjoy this time.
Are there any aspects of life in Spain that have made you rethink the way you traditionally did something or thought about something?
I’ve learned so much while I’ve been here. For example, when I first came to Spain, I supported the death penalty. I told this to my students, who looked horrified and asked how a good Catholic could support the death penalty. I was surprised that even conservatives here were against it, so I started doing research and eventually changed my position.
And while I didn’t have a strong opinion on the topic before moving to Spain, I’ve been struck by Spain’s phenomenal maternity and paternity leave policy. All mothers get sixteen weeks of maternity leave, and the government pays for a substitute worker for their time off. And not only that, but fathers get eight weeks as well so they can help support their wives and take care of the newborn. I find this system so important to support families. It also supports the community: society needs children, and children need to be taken care of.
I’ve also learned the very crucial skill of eating fish with all the bones still in it. It’s a skill I never needed in America, and I need all the time here in Spain.
If someone had a weekend in Madrid, what are three things you would recommend they do while there?
Fiesta, siesta, y tapas (Party, nap, and tapa). But actually, the Prado Museum has one of the best art collections in the world, and everyone should do a day trip to either Segovia or Toledo, two very charming and very old towns nearby. So basically: eat and drink well; go to the Prado; and go to Segovia or Toledo.
Also, before you come, learn a little bit of Spanish. Just “Hola,” “Muchas gracias,” and “Por favor” would be good, and it shows Spaniards you care about their culture.