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A Stranger in a New/Old Land

By Christopher Harkins
Former Adam’s Inn Employee

Travel writer, Bill Bryson, describes in his book, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, the shock he felt upon returning to the United States after 20 years in England. Despite growing up in the U.S., Bryson experienced reverse culture shock after so many years in English culture.

In a similar vein, I encountered my own culture shock when I came back to Washington, D.C. last summer after studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. Here are some things that surprised me anew, and which I share with you as cultural tips if you’re visiting Washington, DC for the first time from another country:

1. Spaniards are calm, Americans are not. Specifically, Washingtonians are pretty high-strung compared to their counterparts in Madrid. In DC, people are all about business, and like things done fast. For example, when I first arrived in Spain, I noticed that Spaniards walked much slower than I did—people did not rush from point A to point B. Gradually, I became accustomed to this slower pace, so much so, that when I got back to DC, I found everyone passing me and giving me strange looks.

2. People are even fast eaters here. Spain fit me perfectly because of the long lunches and the fact that I am a slow eater. Granted, if you are here on vacation, there is no need to eat quickly. Waiters and waitresses may try to rush you along (especially in a busy, popular restaurant), but there is no heed them, especially if you are on vacation.

3. But please do tip. In Europe the tip is included in the check, but here it is not. I’d say 15 – 20 % is a normal tip, and 10% on the low side. But as a recent student and a broke graduate, people understand that if you’re young, you may not have much cash.

4. Happy hours are fun! Monday through Friday from about 4 – 7 pm, the serious, business atmosphere evaporates as workers pile into bars to take a break from working. Drinks and appetizers are reduced in price (usually at least 50%), and great values for beers and wines. Take advantage of this!

5. “The water, my friends.” My Spanish host brother explained to me that in public school, this is one of the first English phrases they learned in Madrid. To an American this is a strange line that, but it is actually quite apt here. There is much water here, my friends. And unlike Spain, it’s free and we drink a lot of it. When you eat in restaurants, enjoy that water and don’t be afraid to gulp it down. The restaurant staff will refill it shortly. Did I mention it’s free?

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