The ABCs of life in Spain

There are a lot of things that would be helpful to know about the Spanish lifestyle before moving here long-term. I narrowed it down to 26. From everyday colloquialisms to can’t-miss food and drink, here’s what you need to know to enjoy your time in Spain – from Almería to Zaragoza.

A is for ALSA, Spain’s big national bus company. Most Spaniards take ALSA buses rather than the train to get from city to city on the peninsula (and sometimes even internationally). Bonus tip: take the Supra Economy line for a free snack.

“I want to catch the ALSA bus to Sevilla that leaves tomorrow morning.”


B is for bank holidays. Occasionally, the entire country will have a random day off from school/work. These long wekends are a good time to travel – I went to Córdoba during the bank holiday this past weekend, and I’m going to Germany with a friend during the bank holidy the first weekend of December.

¨Where are you going during the bank holiday this weekend?”

Córdoba is possibly my favorite city in Spain so far.
Córdoba is possibly my favorite city in Spain so far.

C is for churros con chocolate, also known as complete confection perfection. Long, thin Spanish donuts dipped in a warm chocolate sauce. What more could you want?

“I’m a little frustrated with the TIE application process, so I think I’ll go drown my sorrows in churros con chocolate.”

D is for dryers and also for dishwashers, two American appliances you’d be hard-pressed to find this side of the Atlantic. Get used to clipping your ropa to a visible clothesline and scrubbing your paella pan by hand.

“I wish I had a dryer – the whole barrio doesn’t need to see my underwear.”

E is for Enrique, as in Iglesias. Arguably Spain’s hottest export, who isn’t losing any love in his home country, either. I hope you like the song “Bailando” because you’re about to hear it everywhere.

“I wish I could get tickets to the Enrique concert tomorrow night!”

F is for flamenco. This traditional Spanish dance style originated in Andalucía (that’s southern Spain if you don’t have your atlas handy). From the Sacromonte cuevas in Granada to Sevilla’s colorful feria, the tradition is still alive and flourishing here in the South.

“Where can I find an authentic flamenco show that’s off the tourist-beaten path?”

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Flamenco performance at Tablao el Cardenal, Córdoba

G is for guiri (pronounced gee-ree). AKA you, if you’re not Spanish. This is a colloquial term for “foreigner” here in Spain, although it’s usually not meant offensively.

“As much as I love it here in Spain, sometimes it’s nice to just speak English with my guiri friends.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 3.05.55 PM
A gaggle of guiris (6 Americans and a Canadian) at Cabaña de Tío Tom, Almería

H is for hills. Get ready to constantly be climbing up and down (but seemingly mostly up) lots of them, at least here in eastern Andalucía. Granada is the Denver of Spain, nestled comfortably in the Sierra Nevada mountains (I always know when we’re getting close to Granada because my ears pop). Almería is located in the Sierra Nevada’s smaller-but-still-mighty foothills. Even Córdoba, which is much further west, gave me quite the workout. The landscape here will whip your butt into shape.

“No wonder all the granadinos and almerienses are in such good shape – they’ve been walking up these hills their whole lives!”

Sunset over the Sierra Nevada. (Picture taken with an iPhone 5S from a moving bus. I never claimed to be a pro.)
Sunset over the Sierra Nevada. (Picture taken with an iPhone 5S from a moving bus. I never claimed to be a pro.)

I is for inglés, or English. A language that all the locals will want to practice with you when they discover you’re a native speaker.

“¿Ofreces clases particulares de inglés?”

J is for jamón. Ham. Sliced paper-thin and cured to perfection. Spain is famous for it and damn proud.

“I was shocked the first time I saw huge legs of jamón for sale in the supermercado, but now it doesn’t faze me.”

Tapa plate of jamón serrano (feat. a piece of pan con tomate).
Tapa plate of jamón serrano (feat. a piece of pan con tomate).

K is for kisses, two of which you will receive (one on each cheek) when meeting someone new. Just return the favor and say “encantado/encantada.”

“The first time I met someone new here in Spain, I wasn’t expecting the kisses and went for a handshake instead – awkward!”

L is for lunch. Usually eaten around 2 or 3 p.m., lunch is the biggest meal of the day (rather than dinner, which is usually the case in the USA). Get ready for multiple courses and good conversation during sobremesa.

“I don’t even think I’ll be hungry for tapas later – I’m still full from lunch!”

M is for Mercadona, which is Spain’s big supermarket chain. Anything you need, you can find there. Except for the time I couldn’t find wine at the Mercadona in Granada on the Acera del Darro (which would be equivalent to a wineless Jewel-Osco on the Chicago Loop). Weird.

“I need to make a Mercadona run to pick up some things for dinner.”

N is for “no pasa nada.” Loosely translated as “it’s okay, it doesn’t matter.” Does Spain have a national motto? Either way, this should be it – no pasa nada is España’s super chill, laid-back lifestyle summed up in three words.

“The bus is 10 minutes late? No pasa nada – we’ll get there when we get there!”

O is for olive oil. You may have used it before, but never like this. Dip your bread in it. Drizzle it over your salad. Pour it on top of literally everything. Pick up a five-liter bottle from the aforementioned Mercadona, you’ll be needing it.

“After using nothing but olive oil on my leafy greens, I hardly miss American salad dressing.”

P is for piso, or “apartment.” Most guiris still use the Spanish word even when conversing amonst themselves in English.

“I have an extra bed, so you’re welcome to crash at my piso if you need a place to stay.”

Q is for queso. Glorious, glorious cheese. Who knew Spain did it so well? Try manchego, a local specialty made with sheep’s milk (the first time I had it, I was unaware of this until after I had already started eating). Don’t knock it til you try it!

“All I want in life is a bocadillo piled high with jamón y queso.”

Tapa plate of manchego with almonds.
Tapa plate of manchego with almonds.

R is for red wine. From the ubiquitous Rioja to everyone’s favorite tinto de verano (you’ll never drink sangría again), you’ll learn to love it if you don’t already. And it’s totally not frowned upon to have a glass with lunch in the middle of the afternoon! Treat yo’self.

“There’s nothing like a refreshing glass of red wine on a hot day under the andaluz sun.”

Tinto. de. verano. Insert heart-eyed emoji here.
Tinto. de. verano. Insert heart-eyed emoji here.

S is for siesta. Yes, it exists. Even if people don’t actually go to sleep, everything still shuts down from about 2-5 p.m. Want to get anything done in the middle afternoon? Tough.

“The only time I have to go to the store is during siesta – ¡qué va!”

T is for tapas. The best kind of food you will ever eat. Small plates that make it easy to share a meal and try new things. They  sometimes come free if you order a drink – this is the case at almost every bar in Granada, though it’s also relatively common in Almería and also at a few places we went to in Córdoba – it’s definitely an andaluz thing, though. I had no idea what 3/4 of the things were on every tapas menu when I first got here, so here’s a list of some of the most common tapas:

  • jamón (duh)
  • tortilla española (a potato omelet so good that even I like it, and I don’t like eggs)
  • patatas bravas (potatoes in a spicy red sauce)
  • migas (fried bread crumbs)
  • ensaladilla rusa (“little Russian salad” – mayonnaise-based, basically egg salad with tuna and olives added)
  • bacalao (salted cod)
  • pinchos (kebab-type thing – meat on a small skewer)

“I’ve never met a tapa I didn’t like.”

U is for United Kingdom. Where some of my students think I’m from. To be fair, I think they realize that the UK and the US are two completely different countries on opposite sides of the ocean, but they get the English names mixed up.

“Lindsey, what’s the weather like in the United Kingdom?” (I don’t know, I’ve never been there. I’ve heard it rains a lot?)

V is for vale (pronounced vah-lay). If “no pasa nada” would be Spain’s national motto, then “vale” would be Spain’s national word. Basically equivalent to “okay” and used constantly. Just this morning I heard a coworker talking on the phone, and her end of the conversation was literally just “Vale. Vale. Vale. Pues vale. Vale. Venga. Hasta luego.”

“I’ll come pick you up at 10, vale?”

W is for WhatsApp. How Spain (and the rest of the world outside the US) texts. Text messaging plans are expensive here, so this is a more cost-efficient option – it doesn’t cost anything more than whatever you’re already paying for data. Download the app and join the rest of modern Spanish society.

“I’ll send a WhatsApp later with more info.”

X is for Ximenez, as in Pedro Ximenez. It’s a famous type of sherry produced here in Spain. I haven’t actually tried it, but come on. X is hard.

“Go ahead and pour me a glass of Ximenez, porfa.”

Y is for y. Literally just “y.” Pronounced like “eeee” and means “and.” Okay, so the entire end of the alphabet is hard.

“Tapas y bebidas toda la noche – qué bien!”

Z is for Zumba. I’m just glad I still have the opportunity to go here.

“Needless to say, the first Zumba class I attended en español was interesting, but I still had fun.”

What are some other helpful things that guiris should know before coming to Spain? I’d love to know what you think.

Author: lindseyzimmerman

I'm a marketing pro, writer and cat person from Columbus, Ohio living in southern Spain since 2015. Usually drinking manzanilla, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once).

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