Ella's reflection on her experience living and studying abroad in Barcelona as an American
Read about Ella’s experience living as an American in Barcelona for a few months as a study abroad student – and loving it!
Being American in Barcelona
About Ella - an American in Barcelona
These past few months, from the beginning of September 2023 to mid-December, 2023 I had the fortunate opportunity to study abroad with IAU (Insitute for American Universities) in Barcelona, which was without a doubt one of the best decisions I have ever made; however, being an American in Barcelona is no doubt a sort of culture shock due to the many differences between life in America and life in Spain, but one in which I ultimately enjoyed.
The main obstacle I experienced throughout these few months as an American in Barcelona was, of course, culture shock. I found that adjusting to the many cultural differences was sometimes hard, even embarrassing, though the Spanish people are generally very kind and understanding so I really had no reason to be embarrassed. There were, of course, many cultural differences I experienced, and to name them all would take up an entire other post, so I am just touching on the main ones I noticed, such as a more leisurely way of life, and casual approach to food and drink.
One obvious cultural difference is, of course, being in a country whose main language is completely foreign to me. As a native English speaker who only has intermediate knowledge of a second language, French, I had zero knowledge of Spanish prior to coming to Barcelona; however, one of the classes I took at my university was beginning Spanish, and I’m glad I took this class to pick up some basics, and would encourage anyone to learn some Spanish if possible! Nevertheless, I rarely had any issues with the language barrier, and even picked up some Spanish by the end of the semester!
2. Way of life
The Spanish way of life is so very different than the American one, with perhaps the greatest difference being how laid-back Spain is in comparison to the constant hustle of American life. I felt the leisurely energy of the city at nearly all times, and I found this difference to be a breath of fresh air.
For example, Spanish life doesn’t revolve around work like it often does in America where there is a “live to work” mentality. In other words, it seems like people in Spain actually have more of a life. Their lunch breaks don’t consist of eating at an office desk in a 30-minute break period like it would in America. Instead, walking around the city during the 2 pm lunch hour I would see groups of work friends leisurely enjoying a drink with their extended lunch break.
3. Food and food culture
This brings me into another major cultural difference – the Spanish approach to food and mealtimes. In Barcelona, many restaurants don’t get busy for dinner until around 9 pm, whereas in America the common dinner time ranges from 5 pm being considered early to 8 pm being late.
The dinner itself is also quite different, with Spanish people favoring a “tapas” style dinner where a group of friends or family will share an assortment of various small plates, some of the most infamous being patatas bravas, croquettes, and Iberian ham, to name a few; however, in America sharing food and “family-style” meals are far less common, even sometimes frowned upon like in my family.
My dinners in Barcelona often lasted far longer as well, and I found it interesting, and actually preferable, how waiters will leave you alone during meals unless you ask for them. Finally, there was the matter of tipping. Most of the time, tipping wasn’t a common practice, though if there was the option to tip I chose to leave a small tip, but not the “normal” 20% or so like I would leave in the US.
4. Approach on alcohol
Of course, another big difference between American and Spanish culture is the approach to drinking alcohol. In America, drinking alcohol isn’t legal until 21, causing many people to go a bit more “overboard” with alcohol and party culture in general. In Barcelona, I would see people drinking a casual glass of wine or beer all the time. Furthermore, one of the classes I took with IAU, my abroad university, was a food and wine pairing class. In this class, I learned how alcoholic drinks, such as wine, are seen as sort of an art in Europe, and in Barcelona I know many people are passionate about their Spanish Cava!
Navigating daily life
Surprisingly, my daily life as an American in Barcelona on the weekdays didn’t look too different from my American one. I would go to class in the morning and afternoon, as well as my hybrid internship some afternoons. Then, I would go back to my apartment or to a coffee shop to do work, or maybe shop before finally coming back to my apartment for dinner, if I wasn’t eating out. Nevertheless, some minor aspects of this daily routine had some notable differences, like the ones below, to name a few:
For example, public transportation via bus or metro was by far the most popular way to get around, and I had virtually no prior experience with public transport, so I did get lost on the metro a few times (although it is very user friendly – I should not have messed up!).
Another interesting difference was that I had never air-dried my clothes before, but in Spain many apartments don’t have dryers which leaves no other option.
Additionally, social interactions were different as an American in Barcelona, as I came to Barcelona knowing no one, which was something I was super concerned about. Although I ended up being friends with people from class and my roommates, the Barcelona culture is so laid-back that I even sometimes met new people / locals from interactions in coffee shops.
Unexpected (or expected!) challenges
One major challenge I did experience (although I did anticipate it) as an American in Barcelona was homesickness. I am a very family-oriented person who does get homesick rather easily, so being abroad for nearly four months was no small feat.
I not only was homesick for my family and friends, but even sometimes for certain aspects of America! For example, I missed certain American foods, like Chik-fil-a, and the shopping convenience via stores like Target (if you know, you know!). That being said, the pros of Barcelona, and my experience in European countries in general, outweighs the pros of the US. I much prefer the way of life in Spain to that of the US, and I think that is the number one thing I will miss.
Finally, I would be oblivious if I wasn’t aware of some of the stereotypes the Spanish people might have of Americans. I wanted to be sure I didn’t fall into some of the negative stereotypes of an American in Barcelona, but keeping some of these in mind can be difficult!
One stereotype I would have to agree with is the idea that Americans are very loud and sometimes obnoxious. Occasionally, my friends and I found ourselves talking too loudly and would alert each other of this in an attempt to be more conscious of those around us.
Another stereotype some might have is this idea that Americans dress extremely casual, even “sloppy,” on a daily basis. This was one major thing I kept in mind before coming to Barcelona because as I was packing, I tried to keep in mind more casual nice outfits, rather than my usual leggings, sweatshirt, sweatpants, etc. Although I sometimes got annoyed by having to look more put-together every day, I ended up really liking this about Barcelona. Walking around the city and seeing everyone looking put-together gives this sense of neatness and motivation to the energy of the city that I just can’t quite describe.
Highlights and memorable moments
One of my main highlights as an American in Barcelona was undoubtedly the food – I ate so many patatas bravas and croquettes that I couldn’t possibly count! I loved the tapas style food, and the many different coffee shops, and found myself frequenting certain spots, like Txapela for tapas, and Saga for coffee!
Another one of my favorite things to do was simply walking the streets of Barcelona. From the Passeig de Gracia to the Gothic Quarter, nearly every area and street is uniquely beautiful or amazing in some way, and I was constantly in awe of the architecture. Because the US is a “newer” country, we simply cannot find the architectural detail like that of Barcelona really anywhere in the US! I also thoroughly enjoyed getting to know my teachers from my classes, all of whom were Barcelona locals, and therefore kind and fun.
Finally, attending an FC Barcelona “fútbol” match (or “soccer” to us Americans!) was 100% something I would recommend anyone attend. It was such a fun experience and the fan / crowd energy was truly unmatched.
Personal growth and reflection
After spending so much time as an American in Barcelona, I really got a new perspective on American culture. While there are many things I do like and appreciate and the US, I can honestly say I prefer Spanish culture for many reasons.
Perhaps the main reason would be Barcelona’s more leisurely, less stressful way of life that encompasses more of a “living” rather than a “working” mentality. It honestly has made me sad to see how obsessed American culture is with this constant desire to do better, achieve higher, etc – there is often no idea of “settling. Of course, I say this as a general statement, as I know not everyone is like that, but I can say with confidence that this mentality is nowhere near as prevalent in Barcelona, which was a breath of fresh air for me.
Personally, I am forever grateful for my time as an American in Barcelona, not just because of the fun experiences, but also because I learned a lot about myself and truly think I grew from this experience. I would, without a doubt, encourage anyone to embrace cultural exploration because I believe doing so can benefit literally anyone.
As for any American reading this who might be considering a move to Barcelona, I say absolutely do it, even if it is a short-term experience, because I feel that my months in Barcelona were some of the best times of my life, as well as providing me with valuable experiences to learn and grow from. And to any college students interesting in studying abroad, all I have to say are two words: do it.