If you are anything like me then you probably hate standing out as a tourist when travelling. Somehow the word tourist has a negative connotation whilst traveller conjures up images of knowledgeable worldly individuals. Well, I’m here to help you blend in as a local next time you visit Spain. I grew up in the North of Spain until I turned 17 and have recently returned from a 3 week tour of Spain where despite my English looks and somewhat funny accent I still manage to fool most locals!
Before we get stuck in to living the local life I do need to highlight that Spain is a big country and very regional. Each region has their own culture, cuisine, idiosyncrasies, dialects, accents and in some cases their own language too. Even within the same county you will get differences. In fact, these can change from one town to another. It’s important to be mindful of these and not to generalise. Having said that, it would be impossible for me to write this article without some generalising, and therefore I just want to say that my notes are based on my knowledge of having grown up in the Basque Country and of my experiences whilst travelling around Spain.
Learning some words is the best way to blend in with the locals
I’m sure this will come as no surprise. The better you can speak the local language, the easier you will fit in. Not only will it make it easier to communicate but the locals will really appreciate the effort. Although all kids learn English at school, I can tell you from experience that the teaching is often poor at best and the grasp of the English language is rarely good outside of tourist hotspots. If you are reading this article though you are probably wanting to leave the tourist trail behind.
Before I go to any country I like to learn the basics:
- Hello – Hola
- Good morning – Buenos dias
- Please – por favor
- Thank you – Gracias
- Good bye – Adios / Hasta luego
- Can I have…? – Me pones un…?
- I have a reservation in the name of … – Tengo una reserve a nombre de …
- How much is … ? – Cuanto es…?
- Table for two? – Mesa para dos?
- The bill please – La cuenta por favor
- I don’t speak Spanish – no hablo castellano
- Yes – Si
- No – No
- One – Uno
- Two – Dos
- Three – Tres
- Four – Cuatro
- Five – Cinco
- Six – Seis
- Seven – Siete
- Eight – Ocho
- Nine – Nueve
- Ten – Diez
I then also like to learn the names of my favourite foods and drink so I can basically have most transactional conversations. Even this tiny amount can make a huge difference and will always be appreciated. However, the more you know the richer the experience will be, so if you don’t want to miss out you learn some useful phrases, such as “¡Qué guay!” By the way, that means “cool”.
Language is more than words
I am fluent in Spanish, however I am also very English. Whilst growing up I diligently said please and thank you as it had been drilled into me by my English parents, yet everyone made fun of me for being so polite. It wasn’t until watching Spain Revealed on You Tube that it all made sense. Please and thank you simply aren’t used with the same frequency as in England. The feeling of gratitude is expressed in the tone much more often than in the words.
As soon as I heard Yolanda explain it was like a eureka moment. Of course! How had I not noticed it before? For example, someone might say “Can I have a coffee when you have a moment?” which in Spanish would be “Me pones un café cuando tengas un momento”. The fact that you are acknowledging their time is in essence the replacement of the please. Do watch the video as Yolanda and James do a great job at explaining it.
Now, unless you are fluent, I don’t recommend skipping the please and thank you as you might find getting the tone right quite hard. But to make it a little less formal you can always swap por favor for porfa or porfi. They are just the abbreviation for please but will help you blend in much better.
So back to the coffee example you could say “Me pones un café cuando tengas un momento porfa?”
Don’t confuse friendliness with rudeness
The Spanish communicate in a very friendly manner even if when translated it sounds rather rude. As an example:
“A ver! Que hay que hacer por aqui para tomar un café?” – “Let’s see! What do we have to do around here to have a coffee?” It is all about tone and as English people we come across very dull and boring. So, if you really want to blend in with the locals, even if you don’t have a good grasp of the language, think about being lively and friendly. Big smiles and hand gestures will get you a long way. Before you know it you will be sitting round a table with a load of strangers!
As I mentioned above you will find significant differences between regions. In some the difference might be the dialect or use of different words whilst in other regions it will be completely different language. 3 regions I know of that have different languages are Galicia, where they speak Gallego, the Basque Country, where they speak Euskera and Cataluña, where they speak Catalan. They may be more that I don’t know of. Whatever you do make sure you don’t call them a dialect!
The good news is that everyone speaks Spanish, even if some do it somewhat reluctantly, so you won’t need to learn Euskera, Catalan or Gallego. However, learning a few of their expressions will get you bonus points. I can’t speak for what these might be in Galicia or Cataluña but I can help with the Basque Country.
A very common way of greeting people is to use “Aupa” rather than Hola. It is a much more informal expression so I wouldn’t use it with the elderly but say it convincingly and you might just fool them that you are local!
Two words with 100 meanings
I use both of these words, but I’ve been staring at my screen for the last 5 minutes trying to figure out quite how to explain them. I’m not necessarily suggesting you use them, but since you will no doubt hear them, especially up north, I thought I’d try and explain what they are.
The first is “venga”. The literal translation for this is “come” yet it means 100 other things and none at the same time! It is one of those words that is all about context. Here are some scenarios you might use it in: to pacify a situation, to agree with someone, to encourage someone, to show disbelief, to say “come on”, or simply when saying goodbye. I use it most to say “Venga, adios” or “venga, vamos”. Respectively they translate to goodbye and let’s go.
The other word you will no doubt use a lot is “vale” which means OK. Only, it is used much more often than we would use OK in English. In fact, I will often interchange it with yes to denote agreement.
Cuisine is at the heart of Spanish culture, this is true for every region. However, each region has their own cuisine. For example paella is not a national dish, it originated in the Valencia region, and although available all over the country it will differ by region and you will only be eating the authentic one when in Valencia.
If you think all Spanish nights out involve flamenco, think twice. Despite living in Spain for 17 years I have only actually seen flamenco once in my life, and that wasn’t until a return visit when I was in my late twenties.
I think the most mistaken belief surrounding Spanish cuisine is that of tapas. In the UK we have created a culture of tapas where we head out for lunch or dinner specifically to eat tapas. We order a number of little plates of delicious goodness and have a really enjoyable evening sampling and sharing. A habit that by the way I love.
The word “tapa” means cover and it is a tradition that originated in Andalucia when the King Alfonso XIII ordered a glass of wine. It was very windy and the waiter decided to put a piece of jamón on the glass to avoid any sand getting in. The king loved this idea so much that he ordered that he always be served his wine with a slice of jamón or cheese on top, and thus that is how tapas was born.
In some regions of Spain you will be given a free snack with every drink, although this isn’t the case everywhere. This snack or tapa can vary from some nuts or crisps, to some jamón on bread, a croqueta or even something a little more elaborate.
So what would normally happen is that before sitting down for lunch you would head round a couple of the local bars to have a drink. In some areas of Spain you would get a tapa for free, in others you would buy one to go with the drink. That’s really how the tapas culture works in Spain, therefore, if you go to a bar or restaurant and order yourself half a dozen tapas you will definitely stand out as a tourist!
It is worth noting that in the Basque Country they are called pintxos and not tapas. I think one of the only places where you are allowed to just eat pintxos is San Sebastian. San Sebastian is the mecca of pintxos and renowned worldwide for its culinary excellence. In fact, aside from Kyoto, San Sebastian has the largest concentration of michellin star restaurants in the world. You can read more about San Sebastian on my 7 Day Basque Country Itinerary blog post.
If you do decide to just eat tapas in San Sebastian I recommend doing it the Spanish way (or Basque way) and moving from bar to bar, enjoying that bars best one with a drink before moving on to the next.
Leave your bread on the table!
If you don’t want to stand out as a tourist, make sure you leave your bread on the table, don’t rest it on your plate.
Expect to eat bread for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack (merienda) and dinner. In fact, if you manage a meal without bread I will be surprised. One of my fondest memories from my childhood was walking to my childminder’s from school at lunchtime via the bakery where we would buy a couple of baguettes for the day. They were always fresh out the oven and we would munch our way through half of one before getting to the house, something we always got told off for but never stopped doing!
An important thing to understand when it comes to bread is that it is as much a part of the meal as it is a utensil! You use it to mop, absorb, push and even clean the plate! For this reason you should always leave your bread on the table rather than putting it on your plate.
You probably spotted above that I alluded to an afternoon snack. This is called merienda and was something we always had when we finished school in the afternoon. This isn’t something you need to do to blend in, but I did want to tell you about my favourite merienda. A chocolate baguette. I’m not talking of chocolate spread. I mean, an actual bar of chocolate inside a baguette. If you are pulling a face right now don’t. Or at least not until you have tried it!
Tip like a local
Although tipping is appreciated, there isn’t the same culture as in the UK or USA where a certain % is expected. Spain isn’t a particularly well off country so if you watch locals they will often not tip, or simply just leave whatever small denomination is left. This is particularly true in rural and non-touristy places. For example, if you have a drink and a tapa that comes to €2.80 you would simply leave the 20 cents and it will be appreciated.
My rule of thumb is that if someone has offered table service then I will tip by rounding up to the most obvious amount. If it is exceptional then of course I will give accordingly, however the tipping culture here is as it is intended. To show appreciation for a good service, not because it is expected.
In more touristy areas where they are used to receiving 10-20% tips on a regular basis this might be different, but then I’d just argue that if that is the case you have gone to the wrong bar or restaurant!
Don’t make boring small talk
I’m not sure I should ever be the one to give tips on making small talk in social situations as I am incredibly shy and by no means a natural. However, because of this I have always got a few questions up my sleeve, to try and get a conversation going until we reach a topic that I then feel comfortable with.
I once heard that the Queen often uses “Have you travelled far” as a way to start a conversation and that is generally the first one I resort to before moving on to my fail proof “What do you do for a living?” and more importantly “How did you get into that?”, a tip that has worked wonders for me ever since I heard it at a networking event. That second question is great as you generally get enough information to be able to find common ground.
There is one problem with this technique though, Spaniards on the whole don’t like talking about work in social situations! It is thought of as a heavy topic that only really gets discussed if there is a specific anecdote or once you get to know each other more. This does pose a big problem for me as it means it leaves me with nothing to discuss!
I don’t have any good tips here, other than avoid boring work talk!
Be prepared to shout!
I have always been amazed at how loud Spaniards in general are. When you go out for a meal in the UK you can generally hear the chit chat of others, but everyone keeps they voices relatively low. It’s like a murmuring sound. If you are eating alone and in silence you can just about hear the conversations but it’s rarely overwhelming (unless the football is on). In Spain, the noise level is always on max. This is generally because as a culture they are much more expressive, they laugh louder, joke more, pull each others legs and all seem to want to talk at once. So if one group does that then the next needs to do it louder to be heard, and then the third louder again.
But this volume and passion doesn’t just happen when out and about. Quite often you can see what looks like a heated discussion going on with swearing and arm waving and raised voices that can appear to be an argument, yet really it is just two friends greeting each other!
Don’t be easily offended
I recently met up with a childhood friend and she said something very true “swearing is so much more fun in Spanish”. I try my best not to swear in English, I always feel it is quite crude. Yet in Spain you will see two elderly ladies passing in the street and one will say to the other “No me vas a saludar?” “Coño que no te he visto”. “Aren’t you going to say hello?” “C#~T, I didn’t see you!”. Completely normal from two nannas!
As in any language I suppose, much of the meaning of a swear word depends on the tone and the intention behind it, and certainly all swear words can be horrible when used with that intention. But most of the time they are used jovially and not literally, and nobody ever takes them as anything but fun. Here are some examples that I have heard throughout my most recent 3 weeks Spain:
“Me cago en to puta madre, mira quien ha entrado” – I defecate on your prostitute mother, look who has arrived”
“Que hijoputa que eres, me has liado eh!” – You are such a son of a whore, you had me there!” (one was pulling the other ones leg).
Don’t get upset when they skip the queue
If there is one thing that we Brits love to do is queue. In fact, there is nothing that makes us more angry than someone jumping the queue. Make sure you are prepared to leave those feelings behind as queuing is not really a thing over here.
If you are at a bar don’t wait quietly or you will never get served. Even if the barman asks who’s next, it will be rare for someone to be honest and say it isn’t them. It’s easy to feel offended when this happens, but don’t be, it is completely normal and they aren’t being rude! It is just a cultural difference.
When you want to be served speak up, don’t wait or you will be waiting a long time. An “Oye, me pones una cañita porfi” – “Listen, can I have a small beer please” will generally get you a “Si, ahora” – “Yes, now” as they continue to serve others but will come back to you.
If you want to blend in with the locals in Spain, Don’t eat too early!
One sure way to stand out as a foreigner is to show up for dinner too early! Generally, people have lunch at around 2pm (although often later) and will therefore have dinner at around 10pm with restaurants starting to serve food from 9 onwards.
I hate eating late as I like going to bed early and definitely don’t want to try and sleep on a full stomach, however, when I show up for dinner at 9pm I can guarantee to be one of the only ones sitting in the restaurant.
Lunch is generally the big meal of the day where you would eat 3 courses. In fact, many places offer a menu del dia for somewhere between €10 and €20. This includes Primer Plato which will often be something like a salad, bean stew, spaghetti, soup or other similar grain, legume or vegetable dish. This is then followed by Segundo Plato which is generally your meat and potatoes or fish and potatoes. It is worth noting that both of these dishes will normally be the size of a single helping back in the UK! You will then finish off with a pudding and a coffee. The menu del dia also generally includes wine, water and bread within the price.
Dinner therefore is generally lighter. By lighter I’m not speaking just a salad or a soup. I suppose I mean it is generally a single course.
Are you ready to blend in with the locals?
I hope you have found these tips useful. As I mentioned above, I have had to generalise which is always a very dangerous game to play, however, the above have served me well to blend in unnoticed despite my overly English appearance! I do have the advantage of speaking the language of course, but I have found that by embracing the customs everywhere I have been the locals have embraced me, enriching my experience way beyond just seeing the beautiful sights of Spain.
So get out there, leave the tourist hotspots behind and be prepared to be enchanted by this vast diverse country.
If you plan on driving around Spain then don’t miss out this other two blogs:
Make sure to leave a comment if you have any additional tips to avoid standing out as a tourist and blending in as a local in Spain!