3 Things Spain Does Better Than Us

A few months before I met Tree, as a pre-30th birthday present to myself, I backpacked solo around Europe–8 countries in 5 weeks. While I managed to see countless museums, historical sites, and architectural wonders, I missed the little things–the quirky, quotidian things–that you only learn when you live in a country for a while. Having now slow-lived abroad for over 7 years, I’ve found these nuances reveal more about the culture of a country than any Lonely Planet “top pick.”

So here’s my own  3 “top picks” for Spain… so far.

1 . Shopping Cart Etiquette

Not too long ago, my friend Corrin in Oregon vented about all the a-holes who leave their shopping carts in grocery store parking lots rather than return them to their stall. It only takes a couple of minutes to show an ounce of courtesy! she groaned. Well, we’ve all done it, and deep down we know why: 1) we’re busy goddammit and those two minutes of our time are better spent elsewhere (read: anywhere). Plus we’re lazy and don’t want to walk those extra 5o feet. Indeed we feel entitled to leave the cart half-cocked up on a planter or between two parking spaces because 2) other people do it, and doesn’t someone get paid to collect those carts? It’s like job creation, good for the economy, right? And, of course, when we do take that minute to return the cart, we secretly hope someone we know is watching. We want a witness to eulogize our good citizenship.

It’s hard to believe but that whole shopping cart drama doesn’t play out in Spain because they’ve implemented a solution that it is so simple it really challenges the entire concept of American exceptionalism.

Here’s how it works:

You stick in a coin–either a 50 centavo, 1 euro, or 2 euro coin–and it pushes the key out the back, releasing your cart from the chain of carts. When you’re done shopping, you put your cart back in the stall, push they key back in and out pops your coin.

Voila. Problem solved. 

But here’s the most interesting part. Many Spaniards have had a special coin-melded-on-a-key thing made so they can unlock a cart without depositing a real coin. Rebels! They just stick in their key-coin which pushes out the key in back, and then they pull out their key-coin and take the cart. This, of course, means they don’t have to return the cart to get back their euro–but they still do! What does this mean? Has this coin-cart invention created a culture of conscientious shoppers, or were they never a-holes to begin with? Perhaps a combination of the two.

My analysis:

Spaniards are certainly never in a rush, at least not by American standards, so that eliminates excuse #1. And then maybe since most people are returning the cart to get their coin back, that eliminates the entitlement of excuse #2? Not sure, but either way, they return shopping carts better than we do. Which makes me wonder….

How many other elegant solutions could we find by looking abroad if only we didn’t think we were so exceptional? Maybe we could figure out universal health care and paid maternity leave! Spaniards, who enjoy both of those rights (not privileges), live an average 4 years longer than Americans even though they eat cured pork morning noon and night, drink (even at breakfast and lunch!), and smoke cigarettes.

Now isn’t that exceptional? 

2. Public Fitness Parks

So, we have these public fitness parks in the States too, but no one uses them. They’re like exercise equipment graveyards, where everything pre-Stairmaster goes to die. I remember investigating one back when I lived in LA and couldn’t figure out how anything worked. There was a big wheel, another thing with levers–nothing plugs in or has lights or buttons. WTF is that shit? But not here in Spain. Everyone of all ages knows exactly what to do. This park is by our house (we live in one of those ugly yellow buildings) and it’s always bustling with people in silly poses. They are out there pumping, spinning, and squatting away. Young couples, old people, middle-aged moms–one happy community getting fit together between pork, booze, and cigarette breaks. 

3. Lunch 

Lunch is an extreme sport in Spain. It doesn’t start until around 2pm, and it goes on for hours. On the weekends, you need a reservation because every restaurant will be “completo” by 1:30. Friends and families gather to eat and drink, as if they have nothing else to do the rest of the day. Several courses are consumed–a salad or soup, a fish or meat dish, dessert–and then comes la sobremesa: The whole point of eating. The whole point of working. The whole point of living. 

Sobremesa literally means “over the table.” It’s what happens when the plates are cleared, long before the check arrives. No one is reaching for their phone or anxiously stirring in their seats. Rather they’re settling into deep conversation, taking time to digest, joke around, enjoy each other’s company. Maybe they’ll order a cafe con leche. Maybe they’ll smoke. Maybe they’ll just sit there like stuffed chorizos as you fix a harried American eyeball on them, willing them to leave so you can have their damn table. They won’t notice or care. That day, you will be very hangry and complain about how oblivious these people are, but the next weekend you will make a reservation. You will clear your schedule. You will enjoy a little slice of Spanish life. 





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  1. They do the shopping cart thing in Taiwan too. 😉

  2. Shopping cart thing in France as well. They’ve also done the bring your own bags thing since before I lived there and that was in 1997. We are so far behind in so many respects. It seems like it’s more “Work to live” and not “Live to work”. Life appreciation. I need to slow the hell down.

    • Exactly! That’s so funny. I actually wrote those lines “We live to work whereas Spaniards work to live,” but then decided I might save them for a whole post on the Spanish workday.

  3. 1) The check doesn’t arrive on its own–you have to ask for it. The table is yours until you leave it (if you leave it).
    2) No smoking except in terraces with less than 3 walls.
    3) Coffee *with* desert is considered weird (so is saving a piece of your bread to munch on with desert)
    4) Desert is eaten with a spoon. Cake? with a SPOON, Pie? (What’s that?)
    5) Potatoes with everything
    6) 1€ is considered a good tip

  4. great read!

  5. I can confirm UK and Belgium have sensible shopping trolley policies too.

    • Karin-Marijke sent me an email saying the coin-cart system has been around longer than the euro itself…20 yrs she estimates. So let’s see…Universal healthcare. Paid Maternity Leave. Less violent crime. Lower incarceration rates. More vacation time. Longer life expectancy. What other crafty solutions have you less exceptional people been hiding from us? 😉

    • Ah Stevie, this is not ‘us’ hiding anything at all, it’s ‘Americans’ not watching across their own borders (because America is the greatest nation on earth so why would you?)… 🙂

  6. You know how much I love this. Preach it shopping (goodness) cart warrior.

  7. Sent you the explaination of the ‘fake’ shopping coins in an email.

    • I need one of those fake key-coins because, I failed to mention in the post, you’re right, when you don’t have a coin, which by murphy’s law happens all the time, it’s super frustrating. I’ve sunk so low as to make Soleil push a plastic basket around, surely it weighing more than she does, and then realized after our stuff was bagged that I couldn’t carry all the bags to the car. That’s another thing, rarely (almost never) do I see someone doing a huge shopping mission like I do (like we do in the States). People go to the store and only buy a small basket of food–not an entirely filled metal cart. I can just feel the scorn of the person behind me at Carrefour….damn American! 😉

    • It might be worth asking at customer service when you’re stuck without one. In our local supermarket they have a not-so-secret stash of plastic ‘coins’ for that very purpose. Now they just live in my purse.

    • Stevie Trujillo Don’t worry; no scorn from the natives for buying a cartful. Most people just don’t have decent kitchen storage space to store it (and some don’t have elevators to cart it upstairs).

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