Year Abroad: Do’s and Don’ts in Spain

Having just finished a great 8 months in Navarra, Spain, working for the British Council, I’ve compiled a list of top tips harvested from my own year abroad experience.

Alice loving life on the top the 'El Corazón de Jesús' statue, Tudela.
Alice loving life on the top the ‘El Corazón de Jesús’ statue, Tudela.

Do:

1. Try and live with other Spaniards; it will help you make a transition into the culture, especially if you can find people your own age who’ll teach you the kind of Spanish you won’t get from text books.

2. Take advantage of the Puentes. A Puente is essentially the translation of a good old fashioned ‘bank  holiday’ in English, but it always seemed to me to be far more of an affair than in the UK. These are rare and definitely unevenly spaced occasions, so especially if you spend your YA working hard, take advantage of the time off and go get cultural. The Feria de Mayo in Sevilla is a big deal involving lots of flamenco dancing and singing, as well as the Carnavales fancy dress street parade in February, to be found in practically any Spanish town with a plaza big enough. You’ll also find that each region has its own bank holiday throughout the year, with celebrations varying.

3. Travel often and intelligently. BlaBlaCar and Air BnB are your best travel companions, and I truly believe that if you do your research properly with a bit of common sense about you it’s a stress-free, pleasant experience; you can save money on the most expensive essentials to spend on the things you really want to do once you arrive. I’ve never had a bad experience with either.

'Eat, drink and be merry.'
‘Eat, drink and be merry.’

4. Eat, drink and be merry. Let’s not lie, Spanish wine is far better than what you find in England, and a lot cheaper too. While you’re never too far from a street-drinking botellón on a Saturday night, the relaxed drinking culture also has a lively scene. Visiting a vineyard or a sala de catas will offer up free samples and an ample opportunity to practise a niche field of Spanish vocabulary. My favourite night of the week in Navarre was Thursday night, for the Juevintxo offer (a mixture of the words Jueves meaning Thursday and Pintxo meaning tiny tapas food on a stick). When it’s 2€ for a decent glass of rioja and a Navarran/Basque bite to eat, it wasn’t a bad way to end the working week.

5. Say yes. Try new things, go new places, meet new people. Let your adventurous side take the reins, and do the things you normally wouldn’t get a chance to.

A vineyard in La Rioja province. Spanish wine is far better and cheaper than what you find in England.
A vineyard in La Rioja province. Spanish wine is far better and cheaper than what you find in England.

Don’t:

1. Underestimate the cultural differences. I came abroad with the impression that the culture couldn’t be that different; after all, I had friends going to far flung corners of Latin American countries, while I was in Europe, a 2 hour flight away from London. But there are many little things which do add up, the Spanish timetable a prime example of this. Don’t ever expect to get anything done between 2 and 5 in the afternoon as the siesta time is still quite sacred, and bear in mind that it’s normal for evening meals to begin at 10.30pm. Being in quite a rural area, having been accustomed to a liberal student environment, I was shocked by some of the opinions I heard. It’ll make you realise how progressive the UK can be at times.

2. Feel bad if you’re missing home. It’s not surprising that if you’re taken out of your usual culture that it will take some getting used to. Don’t feel bad for chatting to friends in English and making a few trips home during the year. If it’s what you need to recharge your batteries, it’ll help you keep your sanity to be able to fight through the linguistic battles coming out the other side.

'Travel often and intelligently' - you might end up visiting the pictured Alhambra palace in Granada.
‘Travel often and intelligently’ – you might end up visiting the pictured Alhambra palace in Granada.

3. Expect to survive without a smart phone. Who knows why, but the Spaniards are obsessed with Whatsapp, and love to wasapear as they put it. Even phone calls will mostly be done through this app, so prepare to steal wifi wherever and whenever you can.

4. Be offended by honesty. In the UK we tend to beat around the bush, but much like most European cultures, Spaniards don’t mince their words. In the north, many customers address bar staff using the informal version of you, and use either please or thank you but not both. Prepare for some direct opinions on you and your culture, usually made with the best intentions.

5. Let yourself be scared. Things will be different, and maybe at times difficult, but it’s by taking chances and moving outside of your comfort zone that you’ll have the best year abroad memories to reflect on. Even if these are stories when things didn’t entirely go to plan…

'Don't let yourself be scared.' View from top of a cable car climb in San Sebastián, Basque Country.
‘Don’t let yourself be scared.’ View from top of a cable car climb in San Sebastián, Basque Country.

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