Five Fun Differences Between The US And Spain (from A Minnesotan Millenial)

This week’s reader-contributed story comes in the form of a “Top Five.”

Last summer, student Olivia Iverson visited Spain, and she came home with a list of what makes our cultures unique. 

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Spain (dark green), European Union (light green); source: Wikimedia


Five Fun Differences Between the US and Spain

Last June I had the opportunity to travel abroad to Spain in an exchange program with my high school. In my mind, I only imagined they spoke a different language and possibly dressed a little different. Little did I know, they do things a lot different over there.

Although I noticed an array of differences, I found that most fell into five different categories: food, traveling, living situations, social behaviors and etiquette, and style. By observing these five categories combined, I was able to get an accurate glimpse of Spain’s unique culture. 

#1  Beaches: clothing optional

Many beaches in Europe are often labeled “nude beaches.” However, I was unaware that nudity is not frowned upon on regular beaches.

Olivia and friends sailing along the beach
Olivia and friends sailing along the beach

We stayed in a city called Foz on the northern coast. Almost daily throughout my trip we spent the afternoon hanging out on the large beach. Here, my friends and I were caught by surprise during multiple instances. The first was while lounging on our towels, we glanced toward the beach entrances where the shower heads are located. We saw what seemed like a preteen boy bent over with pants on his ankles as his mom cleaning his rear end. Like any teenage reaction, we gawked, giggled to ourselves, and ridiculed at how weird it was that the boy stripped and bent over right there on the beach.  

In another instance, looking up from my beach towel yet again, a woman laid on a towel just like I did but under an umbrella, and as I was surprised to notice, lacked any sort of covering on her top. On a beach filled with little children and teenagers, this women sat there carelessly completely topless.

Also, on a daily basis, little girls (from infants to about 4 years old) wandered the beach only wearing bathing suit bottoms. For little children in general, running around completely naked seemed quite normal.

Lastly, all women, stick skinny or overweight, wore two-piece bikinis as if insecurity was nonexistent.

#2 “Just give me one second!”

As I was warned, Spaniards eat dinner very late, usually between 9 and 11, sometimes even later. On one of the first nights we went out to dinner before we went to the club, I was starving. Just my luck, we didn’t sit down and receive our food until midnight.

When it comes to lunch, they don’t eat until around 2pm or 3pm at the earliest. For one of our field trips, we traveled to one of Europe’s largest malls in a city called A Coruña. Since we had eaten breakfast early in the morning, most of us Americans naturally got hungry around noon. When bringing up lunch at that time to our Spanish students, they felt weird going to lunch so early, but eventually caved in. And just our luck, the restaurants were hardly busy, and some weren’t even open yet.

However, it isn’t just meals that make their schedule different. It is their sense of time and even distance. Most days I would ask what time we would need to leave, whether it be for a field trip in the morning or going out at night. Time and time again, we left nowhere close to that time. For Spaniards, it seemed that event times were just a suggestion, and everyone showed up once they felt like it.

They also aren’t the best at estimating distances. For one of our field trips to a waterpark, we asked our students how long of a bus ride it would be. The responses given were 45 minutes, one hour, and two hours. Considering they all had been to the water park before, we had no idea what to expect. After two hours, we finally arrived.

At the end of the day, my experience forced me to live spontaneously and unplanned. Oftentimes I wouldn’t know what I would be doing or when I would be doing it, but that is what made it so much fun.

#3 Teenage culture

Here in the United States we are faced with the responsibilities of adulthood once we reach high school – balancing school sports, academics, and a job to save for college. With these new responsibilities, we are forced to learn how to manage our time, meanwhile procrastinating on very important tests like the ACT. However, overseas they do things a little bit differently.

Hanging out with a mule in Foz
Hanging out with a mule in Foz

Walking  into any restaurant or small shop, I expected to see the workforce dominated by teenagers. Surprisingly enough, teenagers don’t typically have a job and focus all of their time on academics, family, and being social. In fact, even the adults that do work close down their shops from 2-5 every afternoon. It is simple things like this that show where Spain’s values lie.

For a long period in Spain’s history, they were held under the control of their dictator Franco. When he died, children and adults alike celebrated their freedoms by going out and partying. To this day, it is obvious that this has held a lasting impact. When my student and I returned from the club on the weekends anywhere from 3 to 5 in the morning, her parents would still be awake. Not because they were waiting for us, but because they share that same youthful culture of going out and spending time with friends. We often forget all of the countries that don’t have the power to practice those freedoms, and how amazing it is to be happy, express ourselves, and share that feeling with friends and family.

(Side note: they also have a drinking and smoking age of 18, but hardly anyone cards or asks for age when buying those products.)

#4 Environmentally Friendly

Around Foz, Spain
Around Foz, Spain

In my host home in Spain, laundry was washed and then hung on a clothesline outside – not finished in 30 minutes in a power dryer. Also, all of their toilets have two buttons, for which a different amount of water is used depending on the amount of power needed to flush whatever is in the toilet. If less water pressure is needed, that much water is saved every time you don’t need it. Lastly, everything is smaller. Roads are smaller, cars are smaller, and overall emissions are smaller. There is also lots of land that isn’t being turned into developments and windmills that cover the countryside. During my trip we walked, rode on a motorbike, or traveled in a small car.

In American, we are so often restricted by time, and claim that we don’t have the 10 minutes it would take to hang our clothes instead of placing them in the dryer and pressing a button. Throughout my trip I was grateful enough to enjoy this simplicity.

#5 Fun And Random Facts

-They use a fork and knife for everything… even fries!

-They often indulge in fresh-squeezed orange juice every morning. Yum!

-They are MASTERS at navigating their cars through small spaces and parallel parking.

The narrow streets of Foz, Spain.
The narrow streets of Foz, Spain.

-They ALWAYS wear shoes in the house, even when lounging or getting out of the shower.

-Reflective ribbon on the roofs of their houses keeps birds from pooping on it.

-Hate light coming through your windows in the mornings? No worries. They use industrial window shades to keep it dark out all of the time!

-Don’t get too used to public bathroom luxuries, because they rarely provide toilet paper.

-Every greeting begins with a kiss on each cheek 🙂

-Their decks of cards lack an 8 or 9.

-Their stores are DOMINATED by American culture. English t-shirts everywhere!

-Teenagers saying they are “going to the bar” does not insinuate drinking alcohol! Just hanging out.

-Public water facilities are rare, so you always have to buy bottled water.

-Want to hang out at someone’s house? Don’t, because they think that is extremely odd.

And last but not least…

-Men often shave their legs and rock jorts!

Here are a few final shots:

Spain capital Madrid's famous Buen Retiro Park
Spain capital Madrid’s famous Buen Retiro Park
Toledo, Spain
Toledo, Spain

And a few more around Foz:

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Olivia is currently a freshman at the University of Minnesota. Next spring she hopes to study abroad in a country in South America to further her Spanish skills and gain more cultural experiences similar to the one she experienced in Spain. For any questions, you can reach her at

If you’d like to share a travel story on The Periphery, please email me at  We’d love to hear all about your adventure.

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