It has officially been one week since my arrival in Pamplona. In just a short time, many things have stood out to me. Various people told me about several big differences between life in Spain and the US, but actually experiencing these differences has been so exciting. Here are my impressions on a few big areas after seven full days.
Everyone that had visited Spain told me the food is amazing. I can confirm. However, not many people were able to specify foods or dishes. The only specific food I heard of was jamón, or ham. It certainly seems to be a staple in the Spanish diet, but allow me to talk a bit more about the food, perhaps my favorite topic of discussion.
Let’s start with the aforementioned jamón. When someone talks about Spanish ham, they are referring to jamón serrano. This ham is salted, air-cured, thinly sliced then served alone or in a dish. Don’t be thinking about the ham sandwiches your mom used to make, Spanish ham is so different and so much better than what we have in the US.
Another staple is bread. I associated baguettes with France, but they seem to be equally popular in Spain. On a normal day in the city, you will see many people walking with a baguette in hand or under their arm, with just a small piece of waxed paper to hold it. There is about one panadería, or bakery, each block throughout Pamplona and there are three within a couple hundred yards of my apartment.
Another food that appears everywhere is olive oil. It has been in nearly every dish I have had in Spain. They love it here. One of my roommates prepared a meal for me which consisted of rice, onion, sausage and fried eggs, his variation of Arroz a la Cubana. When he cooked the eggs, he probably poured an inch of olive oil in the frying pan. No joke. That’s just how they do it. The excess oil from the fried eggs soaked into the rice and the dish was delicious.
That brings me to the last common food I will mention: eggs. They are used in many dishes for both breakfast and dinner but the most popular egg dish is Tortilla Española. Tortilla is a potato and egg pie that is prepared like an omelette in a skillet but served by the slice like quiche. My roommates have prepared this themselves and I have also seen it on many menus in the city. How can you dislike eggs, potatoes and cheese all in one? It may be one of my favorite Spanish dishes thus far.
I spoke with many people about Spain prior to my exchange. After talking about food, most would then tell me of the late dining hours. I thought it might be a generalization that people exaggerate. Nope. Two nights ago I was getting ready for bed around 10:45 and my roommate was just starting to make dinner with his girlfriend. It wasn’t a late night snack, it was their dinner.
In addition to having late meal times, the entire Spanish day runs slower, later and more lax than a typical day in the US. People generally go out to a bar for a drink around midnight and go to dance at the club at two, staying out until five or six in the morning most weekends. I have not made it the entire night yet and I would be surprised if I did.
Some people may have heard of siesta, a midday nap after lunch. It is a real thing in Spain. While the university I attend does not operate around it, most businesses do. It varies between businesses, but from about 1:30 to 5 in the afternoon, shops and stores will likely be closed while employees enjoy a long lunch and nap. The stores then reopen from 5 to 8. This is something else I had heard about but did not fully believe until I tried getting a SIM card for my phone at two in the afternoon only to find the phone store, and every other shop, was closed until five. Tough adjustment as an American, but I like it.
Another major area that has stood out to me is the urban design. I knew that European cities tend to be more dense and well-connected than US cities, but I mainly thought that applied to big cities: Madrid and Barcelona or Paris and Rome for example. However, even Pamplona, a city of less than 200,000, is characterized by dense, mixed use development and easy transportation for the non-driver.
A perfect example of dense, mixed use development is the plaza I live in. The ground level contains restaurants, pubs, bakeries, a grocery store, a movie theater and a pharmacy among several other shops. Everything above the first floor is residential. The restaurants each have large outdoor seating areas with awnings and umbrellas for hot days and gas heaters for the cold nights. Kids can usually be seen playing soccer or scootering in the larger open area and, just across the street from this plaza, is a park. Essentially, I have everything I may need within a few minutes of walking, and I am in just one of many typical plazas throughout the city.
Venturing beyond the plaza by foot is also easy. Wide sidewalks and well-marked crosswalks provide plenty of room for pedestrians and many intersections have lights for both cars and pedestrians indicating the seconds remaining to either wait or walk. Here is the craziest part for me: drivers actually yield to pedestrians. At the intersections which do not have lights, I have never felt remotely unsafe or endangered by a car. Drivers always notice me and stop if I am anywhere close to the street. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but on the UNC campus, you really need to make sure a car sees you before you cross. And, usually, I find that cars will continue driving even if they see you standing at the crosswalk. This is the exact opposite of driver behavior in Spain. I believe that is because the design and culture of the city truly evolve around the person, not the car.
During the past week, I have experienced an entirely different life through food, cultural norms and urban design. I have also been challenged in my Spanish speaking skills, introduced to interesting courses and made many friends from all around the world. I am so grateful and want to acknowledge that this opportunity is the result of lots of privilege. I also must thank my parents for putting me in the financial situation to be able to attend school and take this semester abroad. I’m feeling super blessed!
Thanks for reading and please contact me if you have questions about my life in Spain or recommendations for travel experiences.