Living abroad comes with a mass of new impressions, emotions and discoveries. The strongest are often sparked by the differences between how you, as a foreigner who has just left home, view the world and how the people who were born here or lived here a long time see things. Six expats told Your City about the biggest surprises of life in a new place and which Spanish or Catalonian customs they’ve taken up after moving to Barcelona
Markus Kohlmeier, Geman
I live in the Gothic quarter and there are always a lot of tourists. This means the shops are almost always open, but it also means I have to sleep with earplugs because it’s very noisy. In general, my life in Barcelona is quiet and simple: I learn Spanish, give German lessons, do sports… Incidentally, about sport. I went to a Barcelona — Atletico Madrid match and was surprised by the behaviour of the Spanish fans. If they liked what they saw on the pitch, they applauded. They didn’t sing and chant like the Germans do, they behaved a bit as though they were at the theatre. Generally, there are plenty of differences between us. Like the way friends interact. In Germany if someone asks you for coffee, you might say: “Your place or mine?” In Spain it’s the opposite, people spend a lot of time on the street. Sure, the climate has a lot to do with it, and the price of a coffee is significantly cheaper. In Barcelona when we go out in a group, usually it’s one bill for everyone, and each person chips in his share. Or sometimes, today I’m paying, tomorrow it’ll be your turn. In Germany the normal situation is to have separate bills for each person. There’s a difference in the way the day is organised.
“I was sharing a flat with some Spaniards and they always started cooking around ten in the evening, and it was always something a bit complicated — risotto or spaghetti bolognese”
In Germany the working day starts early and it’s considered normal to eat a big breakfast, because lunch won’t be until around 2 during a short break. In Spain there’s the siesta, so the custom is a late breakfast and evening meal. I was sharing a flat with some Spaniards and they always started cooking around ten in the evening, and it was always something a bit complicated — risotto or spaghetti bolognese. The maximum I can do at that time is a sandwich. And they would eat at eleven, which is past bedtime. And people are more relaxed about things than at home. For example, nobody ever rushes to pay at the supermarket checkout. In Germany, if there are people behind you, you have to do everything fast, otherwise people get angry waiting, while here everyone has time. Though sometimes it would be nice if the queue did move a bit quicker.
Ina de Mets, Belgium
The Spanish have a special attitude to time. For example, if you’re waiting for the plumber to come at 9 in the morning, you won’t be surprised if he calls at the very last moment and tells you he has to put it off until the afternoon or tomorrow. That’s unimaginable in Belgium, where you can set your watch by the plumber. Or another example: one day I saw a really nice designer light fitting and decided to find a company which could make it for me cheaper. Finally I found a firm that would do it and they promised to send me a quote. The first time they confused metres and centimetres, the second time they messed up the arms, then they left out some parts, and on the fourth attempt it turned out the price they quoted didn’t include VAT, though till then they’d said it did. All these negotiations, three visits to the shop and dozens of letters took two months and it still came to nothing. But now the light is irrelevant, because the flat I just moved into doesn’t have electricity, the company says that two months are owing. I’d be happy to pay, but I need to know how much. They won’t tell me and keep demanding more and more documents to prove I own the flat. And they take weeks to reply.
“I can’t use the mirror in the bathroom, so I have to put my make-up on out on the balcony. I don’t know what the neighbours think!”
Meanwhile, I’ve had to change my complete way of life. I can’t use the mirror in the bathroom, so I have to put my make-up on out on the balcony. I don’t know what the neighbours think! I recharge my mobile while I have breakfast in a cafe, wash in cold water, dry my hair at the swimming pool, do my washing by hand. And, since I’m without a fridge, I just eat fresh salads, so I have to say thank you to the Spanish for my very healthy life-style! But I do not regret moving to Spain in the slightest: it’s a different quality of life here and there’s a lot to learn. For example, they have a special attitude towards the family. In Northern Europe it’s ok to say, my uncle is in hospital but I don’t have time to visit him, I’m too busy at work. Here it’s the other way round, and this helps people feel less lonely and isolated.
Mixalis Massopoulos, Greece
People here are on the whole very friendly, and I like that wherever I go people will smile, even if it’s not always genuine. The main difference between people here and in Greece is probably the attitude to money. They’ll count the coins very carefully to pay the exact one euro thirty cents for a coffee, while in Greece people will almost fight for the right to pay the bill. And if you go to the supermarket and the milk costs 1.32 euros, the cashier will only take one euro thirty. At home I used to spend money without thinking too much, but here I also began to count it and the relationship between price and quality became important. I will never, for example, eat patatas bravas or tortilla in a cafe or restaurant, because it’s what my mother cooks when she doesn’t have time. Greek food is very healthy, and preparing a dish takes a minimum amount of time. The Spanish spend their free time differently, too. In Barcelona it’s normal at the end of the week to go to a restaurant in the evening, for maximum one hour, or drop into a tapas bar for a quick beer, then go to several different places and finish the night in a club. On Sunday everybody is at home, resting.
“Greeks like to embrace, but we never kiss a woman we don’t know, a handshake is enough”
In Greece nobody is in a hurry, the evening meal takes as long as you want, maybe one hour, maybe three. Then you might go to a club. Unlike the Spanish, though, Greeks will stay in a place as long as they feel like, and not until they get drunk or it closes. I never drink alcohol at home, I usually go to a bar. In Barcelona you often get “botellón” parties, young people get together at somebody’s place, everybody brings a bottle of something, and then they go out to a club or a park. There’s a surprising thing, too, in the way people touch: Greeks like to embrace, but we never kiss a woman we don’t know, a handshake is enough. In Spain it doesn’t matter whether you know somebody or not, everybody kisses everybody else.
Shoko Unagami, Japan
In Japan people live to work. Looking for a job after university is obligatory, otherwise people will look down on you. Everybody is worried about money. The Spanish are more relaxed, they have time to enjoy life. I remember how surprised I was at the number of children in the streets late in the evening. In Japan they’re all at home by seven. On the other hand, I don’t feel so safe here. For example, if I fall asleep in the metro, then I’ll probably lose my bag and my phone, while back home it’s normal to sleep in public transport, because nobody steals. It’s also not usual to share accommodation with other people, and the bathroom is an important place, a “relaxation zone”. So here it was an unpleasant surprise that in a big flat there may be only one bathroom, and no separate toilet. If somebody wants to wash, and somebody else needs the toilet, what happens then? And if I like reading in the bath? It’s also shameful for us to show emotion in public — to kiss, embrace.
“Japanese men are unemotional, they won’t say to you every day “you look pretty” or “I love you”. Usually they hide their feelings, say nothing”
It’s considered bad form, bad behaviour. Japanese are very concerned what other people think, and so we are very closed. If a couple goes somewhere, the man usually pays. Here everything is shared. Japanese men are unemotional, they won’t say to you every day “you look pretty” or “I love you”. Usually they hide their feelings, say nothing. The Spanish are not afraid to show their emotions, to pay compliments. Yes, and they generally treat women nicely, “ladies first”, I feel like a princess here. Japanese women are more reserved than the Spanish, not so direct. First we listen to what the man says, then act on the basis of that. The idea of friendship is completely different here. In Japan when a man and a woman go out somewhere, it’s always seen as a date. In Spain it’s normal to say: “He’s my friend/she’s my friend, nothing more”, but still I’m always a little bit tense when my young man meets a lady friend. Though now a lot of people tell me I’m more Spanish than Japanese. I get up and go to bed late, I’m often late. My friends also say I like to talk now and have become more open, which is not typical for Japanese.
Floriane Gloriane Xiberras, France
For the French, Barcelona is an ideal city. They know how to organise a party here, everything’s much cheaper, you can meet people from all over the world and you have complete freedom, you can drink and party all night and nobody thinks any the worse. Nobody obeys the law in Spain, and so what? As they say: “no pasa nada”. Most flats are rented without a contract — no pasa nada. In winter the Pakistanis sell a beer on the beach for 50 cents and in summer they charge 2 euros for the same beer — no pasa nada. When a taxi driver hears your accent and thinks you’re a tourist, he takes you round in circles and then wants 15 euros instead of the usual 3 — no pasa nada. Why am I still here? It’s much easier to find work in Barcelona than in France, though you have to work harder. Most of the contracts are temporary, which means you can be fired at any moment. And what you really cannot do here is get sick. In France there are a lot of laws protecting workers’ rights. I get the feeling that Catalonians don’t like foreigners. On one hand, you can understand, seeing the way tourists behave. On the other, it’s not nice going into a shop and asking for something in Spanish and they reply in Catalan.
“If you dress badly, people in France give you dirty looks, while here you can walk down the street in your pyjamas and nobody says anything”
On the whole it’s easier to make friends with someone from another part of Spain than with a Catalonian. They’re closed and very tactile at the same time. They need to kiss you all the time, touch various parts of your body. I don’t like it. There’s an element of hypocrisy. When you meet they keep hugging you and showing how much they like you, but as soon as you’re gone, as a rule they just forget about you. But I’m impressed by the way there’s less social pressure than there is in France. We’re very categorical. Things are either black or white. You’re 24 years old, you haven’t got a steady boyfriend or a permanent job, it means there’s something wrong with you, but here people can stay with their parents until they’re forty. If you dress badly or weirdly, people in France give you dirty looks, while here you can walk down the street in your pyjamas and nobody says anything, except maybe “how are you doing, lovely?” Nobody will think badly of you.
Josander Liz, Dominican Republic
In the Dominican Republic, if you go out into the street and sit on a bench you’ll immediately find new friends. In Barcelona this is unthinkable. People here keep their distance. It can take years before your neighbour says hello to you in the lift. In my country everything’s different: neighbours go to each other for sugar or salt, and if anything happens, they’ll always help you get to the hospital. Here, by the way, public healthcare is terrible, in hospital you’re just a number on the waiting list, but as soon as you begin to pay insurance everything changes. In the metro I used to offer my seat to elderly people, then I stopped because most refused. But what was surprising, as soon as I got out of the carriage, they’d take my seat. I don’t know, but maybe they didn’t want to accept because I’m black… Once I helped an old lady, an acquaintance of a relative of mine. Her neighbour saw me and said: “Oh look, the queen has a coloured worker”. I thought in the 21st century people didn’t say things like that any more. In my opinion, it’s a form of passive racism. Sometimes I feel it’s much easier for the locals to accept a gay than a Latin American. On the other hand, in Barcelona you can walk to the beach at three in the morning knowing nothing will happen. Yes, there are muggers, like in Latin America, but the difference is they don’t stick a gun in your face and back home they’ll shoot first and then go through your pockets.
Once I helped an old lady, an acquaintance of a relative of mine. Her neighbour saw me and said: “Oh look, the queen has a coloured worker”. I thought in the 21st century people didn’t say things like that any more”
Barcelona only seems chaotic, because in fact it’s surprisingly well-ordered. It’s a beautiful city where you can live life to the full; the main thing is to have a job. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a good job or a bad one. As long as they pay you, you have every chance of living well. Public transport, the traffic are incredibly well organised. What I also like is how difficult it is to get a driver’s licence. Anywhere else you just give a bribe and problem solved. Also, in Barcelona I learned how to control myself. Before I was very explosive and could blow up if I didn’t like something.