It’s no secret that the United States (Estados Unidos) and España are very different places. Most things are different, but many are similar. I’ve settled in nicely and had a few days to explore, so I think I’m an expert now ;). First I’ll talk about what I’ve observed to be different, then the same.
First, is the way people get around here. Sevilla is about the same size in terms of population as Seattle, although it’s far more concentrated. 140 km2 versus 217 km2, but still with upwards of 700,000 residents. However, the city was built differently. Whereas Seattle and most all US cities were built or at least rebuilt after the Model T, Sevilla and the cites here in Europe haven’t seen a renovation since long before the steam engine. The streets are just wide enough for horse and carriage or foot traffic. SUV’s need not try. Despite a fairly efficient, easy and cheap public transit system, most folks here walk. I have been no exception. Home to school and back home for lunch, then out to shop or hang out then for dinner and nightlife and back home, I’ve only seen the inside of a Taxi once – from the airport. My phone/watch keep track of the steps I take and it keeps informing me that I’m breaking and resetting all-time records. Where at home, I get in my car to go across the street, here, I’ve walked between 20 and 30 thousand steps a day. I’ve also signed up for the local bike-sharing program, Sevici (for a year plus small incremental fees for hour+ rides), and have been subsequently biking 5-10 miles a day.
Which brings me to my next point: the attitudes. While I’ve noticed that many people here are incredibly nice and generous, especially if you attempt Spanish, there’s very little culture of ‘the customer is always right’ and generally people neglect to account for the least common denominator. For example, in the states, if someone wants to J-walk, they’re going to do it and they will likely get honked at and cursed out, but all the cars will stop. You’d have to really try to get hit. Here, there is no parallel. Riding my bike, I quickly learned to stop before every intersection; especially the tiny obstructed ones that are barely wide enough for a horse and carriage. People don’t slow down, they don’t yield and red lights often seem to be merely a suggestion. To top it off, the price of gas has led to a strong preference for (silent) electric and hybrid cars. Aside from the drivers, no one works for tips. I’ve met one or two waiters who seem to hope for a big 15% – 20% Yankee-sized tip, but for the most part, they don’t. In fact, I tried to tip a great waiter a couple nights ago 2 Euros (~$2.20). He really worked hard, getting things across in Spanglish, and giving me all kinds of advice on the city, but he wouldn’t take it! He refused the tip, saying he was just doing his job! Can you believe that?
Another big difference here is the timing. Although you should get off the street when they’re driving, Spanish people are in no rush. Classes (and work) start at 9:15, lunch is at 2 or 3 and dinner starts anywhere from 8 to midnight. (8 on the very early side). They eat a small breakfast, a big lunch, and a little dinner, although my host family is vegetarian and a bit older, so we stay away from meat and have dinner closer to 8:30. Many of the other folks in the program can’t get a bite at home until 11 or later. The Siesta certainly exists, and it is a time to relax, but no one actually sleeps. They use it to watch TV or catch up on work, and really it just feels like an extended lunch. But it is taken seriously. I doubt it will ever go away. The thing to do when you eat out is “tapas.” Lots of small plates for very cheap. Paraphrased and translated in the words of a tour guide from a few days ago: “When eating tapas, the goal is to spend as much time as possible whilst simultaneously spending as little money as possible!” The attitude is even reflected in prices. Most things on the menu, food and drink alike, have a price at the table and another price, usually about 25% lower at the bar. However, the prices merit their own paragraph.
Right now, Spain is going through a financial crisis. The unemployment rate in Sevilla is 31.23% and as of 2014 according to the Financial Times, the youth age demographic, defined as 18 to 25 in the region is currently at 55%. Between the unemployment at home and troubles in the European Union, smaller cities like Sevilla have taken a hit. While I can’t complain about the prices, it is apparent. Rampant unemployment and petty thief are the norm and the youth has adopted a tradition, La Botellón, in which they buy liquor at a grocery store (2-5 euros for a liter of vodka) and instead of paying bar/club prices, they go to various parks and riverbanks and play music and drink. They get loud and rowdy and often people get hurt and the police have to break it up. It’s become so much of a problem that the president has created programs to try and curtail it. The simple fact is, that there is a massive segment of the population that is unemployed and bored, which is not a good combination.
As for how it affects me. Things in Sevilla tend to be dirt cheap, although there is little to no loss of quality. Clothing, food & drinks, accommodations, flights, everything! With the exception of gasoline, you can half the price you would pay back home, in Houston, then take off another 10%-50% for good measure, and that’s about the price. Americans do get overcharged, but not often in my experience. (“The price for locals and the special price for you!”) Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of upscale places that are happy to charge you like you’re looking at central park, and it’s very easy to hit volume to balance things out, but overall, if you’re being reasonable, it’s easy to get very far for not too much.
Now, for the things that are the same. Surprisingly, many aspects of Sevilla have become very Americanized. You can find an American fast food joint (Burger King, Dominos, Starbucks, etc.) within 10 minutes of any point, and I’d say about 50% of restaurants have English menus. I’ve also found that around 1 in 3 people in service are totally fluent in English and the other 2 generally know enough to communicate. Surprisingly, credit cards are accepted most places. Cash is still king, but most places will accept plastic, and even better, in my experience, many places will take Amex. I’ve used mine at a couple restaurants, a phone company and a small clothing shop with no problems. In addition, the people here are just as connected, if not more compared to us. Once I got a local sim card, my phone connected just as fast as it does in the states, and most places have Wi-Fi (pronounced wee-fee). Although, nearly everyone uses WhatsApp to communicate. Texting is used, but not too popular. WhatsApp is preferred, or the way they say it: “Wasap mi!” My guess is that texting was paid by the message until recently, so WhatsApp became the standard to avoid the charge.
Overall, and only after a week, my assessment is that Sevilla is a good city for Americans given they are willing to walk a lot, stay up late and learn a little bit of Spanish. Meet those three criteria, and Sevilla may be the place for you!
* There’s also a thriving community of Americans, particularly students, although the locals are more interesting and more fun!