If three years ago someone had told me that right now I’d be living in the most romantic city in Spain, sheltering from the daily 40 degree heat with a fan and two-hour siesta, and sharing an apartment with a Spanish boyfriend to boot, I would have called them completely loco.
But a chance encounter one night during my study exchange year in Granada, and a trip to the magical spring fair in Seville a week later, quickly set my life on a course I never expected. Suddenly, I’d become that girl I’d always thought was insane—I finished my five-year double degree in Sydney, packed my bags, and headed off to be with my Spanish novio on the opposite side of the world.
Being in a bilingual, cross-cultural relationship is far from the mundane; I’ve had a baptism-of-fire immersion into Iberian culture, learnt a great deal about patience, and picked up strong Southern Spanish accent on top.
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learnt along the way:
Strange foods must be introduced slowly
I lived in my novio’s family home, in a small town 30 kilometres outside of Seville, for about six weeks while we searched for an apartment in the city, fed mostly with bread, ham and chickpeas cured in salt and oil. Upon moving into our new place, I’d never been more excited to eat fresh vegetables in my life. On the first night I rustled up a chicken salad, iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes, balsamic vinegar on top. My novio looked down at his plate, horrified.
“What is this green stuff?” he questioned, picking up a piece of cucumber.
Since then, I’ve learnt that “eat your greens” isn’t a commonly used family phrase. Vegetables—especially raw vegetables—aren’t a huge feature in Spanish cooking. I feel a bit like a frustrated mother whose kid refuses to eat anything but chicken nuggets, chopping up vegetables into tiny little pieces in an effort to disguise any semblance of nutritional value. The list of approved organic foods includes: potatoes, onion,and mushrooms. I’m slowly weening him onto carrot, but cucumber is strictly prohibited.
Independence doesn’t come quickly
While back home in Australia most people I know move out of home in their early 20s, Spanish men hold off until a little bit later. Read: much, much later.
Mine took the plunge at the ripe old age of 28—which, I’m sure you’re thinking is at the far end of the scale—but, in fact, he was the first among his friends to do so.
I refused to speak to my novio for an hour the first time he called me gorda ("fatty").
In that first week of solo living we received daily visitors from his little town, curious to see what life was like on the other side. After a carefree 28 years of having everything paid for, the reality of "bills, bills, bills," started to hit the novio. In a display of budgeting that would make even the ultimate tight arse (aka my Dad) proud, he now methodically unplugs all the appliances before going to bed at night, uses candles instead of lamps and has even taken to showering with a bucket.
The late nest-leaving age is a result of the recent financial crisis and high unemployment amongst young people, mixed in with the omnipresence of the Spanish madre (mother). She does all the cooking, all the cleaning, washes all your clothes and darns all your socks—why on earth would you want to leave? Unfortunately, this means that a strong knowledge of domestic duties does not come built-in—so far my novio has learnt how to cook sausages and use the dishwasher. We’re moving on to the washing machine next.
La madre rules
While his fascist dictatorship ended 40 years ago, there are still a few remnants of the Franco era left in Spanish society today—from fierce nationalism to widespread discrimination of gypsies, right down to old bureaucrats who still think that women need their husbands’ written permission to leave the house. Strict limitations placed on women from the end of the civil war in 1939, right up until the beginning of the ‘80s, means that there is a whole generation of mostly uneducated, unemployed females who still conform to traditional gender roles.
While in the 1970s women in the English-speaking world were breaking glass ceilings, virginal 17-year-old Spanish girls were getting married. I learnt a lot about the importance of the Spanish mother during my six-week stint in the novio’s family home. She spends her day cooking, cleaning, carrying heavy groceries home from the supermarket (she never learnt to drive) and caring for elderly relatives. But God forbid that you offer to help—the kitchen is la madre’s domain, and offering to cook dinner or wash dishes implies that she can’t do it adequately herself.
Back from his first trip home since moving out, my novio walked through the door weighed down by shopping bags filled with hot dog frankfurts, tins of tuna and drinking chocolate. Apparently, his mum had given him 50 Euros and set him loose in the supermarket. It doesn’t matter where you are—in Spain, parental independence is never actually independence and the madre will ply you with Tupperware containers filled with frozen meatballs at every opportunity she gets.
You get really good at Spanish—but there are many odd misunderstandings
They say that the best way to become fluent in another language is to shack up with a native—and they couldn’t be more right.
Communication in my house is about 80 per cent Spanish, 10 per cent English and 10 per cent Spanglish—meaning I’ve even inherited my novio’s most unsophisticated small-town accent. I refused to speak to my novio for an hour the first time he called me gorda ("fatty"). A lot of reassurance and a Google search later, I found out that gorda is also an endearing pet name. Other so-called endearing Spanish nicknames include: mi loca ("my crazy"), mi media naranja ("my half orange") and mi chochito ("my vagina"...yes, really).
Living with a Spanish partner is often a bizarre experience (see: that last pet name), fraught with cultural confusion, unusual social expectations and a whole lot of homesickness. But hey, it’s far from boring. I live in one of Europe’s most enchanting cities, amongst one of it’s most fascinating cultures, and I have a local guide in-residence. I wouldn’t change it (or him!) for the world.Add this article to your reading list