Whenever I think of what it is that makes my life back home feel special and important to me, there is one image that immediately comes to my mind: that of me with friends and family spending some quality time together. Whether it be pouring as heavily as in the worst day of winter or it be as sunny and hot as in the best day of summer, I know that if I’m with them all else is irrelevant. It may sound slightly corny, and maybe it is, but that’s just the way it feels to me! Thinking about home for me is like a having a sudden blissful smile warming up my heart from the inside; a smile that is but a collage of all the endearing faces rooting me to that particular spot of all possible spots in the world: in the wintry and rainy Northwest of Spain.
In my experience, few countries have such an intense social aspect to their everyday life experience with their families and friends. For although working and going about one’s business is a necessary aspect of our lives and can also sometimes be enjoyable—if you are one of those lucky enough to have a job that you love and have nice colleagues at work—it all seems rather pointless if you cannot enjoy part of your daily time with those who matter the most to you and who, in a way, make your time in the “third planet of the solar system” special. In Spain, I dare say, we do know how to make our time meaningful with family and friends and have a particularly ‘outdoors’ type of culture.
To begin with, in my region we are still lucky enough to get to spend a lot of time with our families on a regular basis. As the Northwest of Spain is not an area of big cities and intense urban rhythms but rather the opposite, most families can still manage to find the time to be together, and so, lunch or else dinner “en familia” is a daily tradition for a large portion of families up there—and also, to a large extent, for many families all across the Spain. Hence, back home, we don’t generally eat out on a daily basis. Most families can find a way to cook lunch and/or dinner at home even when that means calculating their schedules to the minute. Thus, the majority of families in Spain find some time each day to eat lunch together and talk about school, work, the news… For, unlike here in the States, lunch is generally the most important meal of the day.
In my case, for instance, and more often than not, I always have lunch at home with my brother and parents even when all of us work and study at different locations and have different timetables. We also generally find the time to watch some TV together at night, even if it is only a couple of days a week. On a rainy evening, it is not that weird to find us four wrapped comfortably up with a blanket on the sofa to watch a movie together.
As to gathering up with the extended family, we also do so on a regular basis—the best excuse often being either food or else bad weather, and if you live up there in the North, you are sure to be having more than enough of both of these things! In my case, and I know it is so for a number of friends as well, I generally go to dinner at my grandma’s house at least once a month, the routine there being eating and chatting the afternoon away in the company of your relatives. Others have their grandparents and other close-relatives living with them in their house or else in the neighboring area, so that having lunch or dinner with the extended family for them is a matter of their everyday routine. In those occasions where a special celebration takes place—a birthday, Christmas, or other such regional festivity—the custom is to gather up around the kitchen or in the living-room to sit at the table and pass the courses from hand to hand while jokes, talk of politics, and some minor gossip ease each morsel down our throats. Politics, indeed, is one of the preferred topics in my family gatherings and one that provokes more than one agitated family discussion! But, of course, each family has its own rituals. Food is such a family-builder and such an important part to our culture—indeed to any culture.
As to life with friends and ‘la fiesta’, I can’t think of any other place in the world where one spends as much time doing both of these things. Indeed, there must be one reason why Spain is the second country in the EU with the largest ratio of bars per inhabitant: because we are pretty social, but we are even more social when there is a bar and friends close at hand. For instance, back home, I often meet daily for a coffee and some small talk after lunch with my girlfriends, and then again for a drink or a ‘caña’ after work. When the weekend arrives—usually by Thursday already—we don’t need any big excuse to go out for ‘tapas’ or dinner or some drinks keeping up the party for as long as the weather will have it. Pubs and clubs are generally open until very early in the morning, and nightlife can pretty much become whatever you may wish to make of it. Whether you want a relaxed evening with friends dining out and then a cozy pub to chill out, or else prefer a night of wild dancing followed by some loud night street-singing, there’s surely a place out there where you can have your way. In fact, in Galicia, we have a special type of ‘tapas and wine’ places called Furanchos open only for a certain amount of months a year with the purpose of selling the extra stock of wine from the previous year crop. These places are one of our most lively traditions and make a very popular dinner venue on the weekends. They are typically stone houses somewhere into the rural areas that open their doors to visitors/customers who bring their own food from home and have it with the wine there for sale. Whenever someone comes over for a visit, I make sure to take them to one of our numberless Furanchos for they are a truly typical Galician experience and the wine tends to be great.
Another aspect that I consider slightly different or less intense in Spain is our University experience. If I may take Willamette University to stand as a model for the way in which life at university is lived in the States, then, most of you would be somewhat disappointed to find that our ‘community life’ at university is not half as intense as it is here. For, unless one is a foreign student in which case one may find some sort of ‘international community’, universities and students back home go pretty much about their business (education) without thinking much about matters of allegiance to university values or making of the university time much of a life-enhancing experience in any way. There are, of course, certain cities with a name for their superb university life and community—Salamanca first and foremost, but also Granada and Santiago de Compostela to name a few of the best known—but these are more the exception than the rule. Maybe, this has to do with the fact that in Spain, most universities are public and we don’t have to spend really large amounts of money on matriculation and other related fees. I guess that, since obtaining a university degree is less costly in economic terms, universities and students are not as intent on having their time at university be worth each penny!
Likewise, students, to my knowledge, don’t often get scholarships thanks to their ability at sports. Generally, we do practice some sport or another beginning in childhood, as primary schools are aware and try to promote a healthy life early on. But we often play sports at private clubs or else semi-sponsored sport schools and institutions. The way it works is that, you play a sport—in my case basketball—since you’re 8 or 9, sometimes even earlier, and if you’re good enough and can still manage to find the time to play when you start at university or at work. You can then earn some sort of salary or stipend that may range from just a few hundred Euro a month if you are an average player, to larger amounts if you are really good at it.
So, and though what I have written here can only stand for my own personal image of life at home, I do consider that everyday social life in Spain is slightly more intense and dynamic than in many other countries around the world. We are, indeed, a country of fiestas, sun-washed coastlines, tasty dishes and fun!! But every country has its own customs, interesting habits, and values and learning about them is always the best way to understand each others’ differences and broaden our horizons.