5 Things the Spanish Can Teach Us About Living Well and Having Fun

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” ~Marcel Proust

If you have ever traveled out of the country, think for a moment about what you brought back with you — other than souvenirs or a stomach bug.

What did you learn about yourself and the world by leaving the comforts of home?

International travel definitely provides perspective on our cultural norms and  the way we live our lives.

Most of the time when I’ve traveled abroad, I have found myself returning home thrilled with the adventure and novelty of another country, but profoundly grateful for my life in Atlanta — especially as it relates to toilets, showers and predictable electrical outlets.

This past week, I was on vacation in Marbella (pronounced Mar-bay-uh), a coastal town in southern Spain that is a destination spot for vacationing Europeans (and for Michelle Obama and her daughters who were there a few weeks before me).

I came away from this trip thinking that Spaniards know a few things about living well and having fun that we Americans have yet to embrace.

Marbella is known for it’s beautiful Mediterranean beaches and as the vacation spot for globetrotters and celebrities, including Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith. We chose to stay in a quieter area away from the beach called Old Town. We stayed in a quaint pension, The Townhouse, which was lovely, comfortable, and reasonably priced.

Old Town looks like the movie set of a perfect old European village replete with narrow cobblestone streets, whitewashed buildings, boutiques, and courtyards with fountains and outdoor cafes. Flowers are growing everywhere — on vines climbing walls, in pots on the streets, and draping from window boxes on the apartments and old houses.

The month of August, the entire month, is vacation time for Europeans. The town and beaches were full of Spaniards on holiday, as well as Germans, French, British, and Scandinavians. We encountered only a few other Americans whom we could spot because they were wearing their tops at the beach (women) or not wearing a Speedo (men).

In Spain, daily activity begins late morning with lunch around 2:00. Everything closes around 4:00 for siesta. I’m not kidding. Storefronts close and lock up. Restaurants stop serving. The streets are totally deserted. I found this unbelievable when someone told me and went out anyway thinking it was an urban legend. It’s not. I wandered the streets alone wondering what these Spaniards do during siesta. No one was around to ask.

Around 9:00 p.m., the streets come alive. Stores open up again. Restaurant owners pull tables and chairs back outside, and shops enjoy a brisk business. The small streets in Old Town were packed with people — not just night owl clubbing types but entire families with children in strollers and grandma and grandpa following behind. The children were cleaned and dressed up. Women looked refreshed and elegant. Men were chatting easily with friends and looked relaxed. Everyone seemed happy and full of life.

Dinner generally begins around 10:00 p.m. You see large groups sitting together in courtyard cafes enjoying Sangria or wine followed by lengthy meals that are not rushed along by harried tip-seeking servers. (Tips are not expected.) It’s assumed you will spend the evening at your table, and it is often well after midnight before the meal ends. Children are involved in all of this drawn out dining, and to our amazement, they were incredibly well-behaved, even as dinner lingered into the late hours.

Only occasionally did we see someone talking on a cell phone during dinner. None of the children were texting or playing with electronic games or complaining of boredom. They were eating, talking, and generally enjoying being with other people in a relaxed and vibrant atmosphere. It felt like a huge family celebration.

Granted, this was vacation season, the weather was perfect, and people had a reason to feel upbeat. But the sense of community and joie de vivre were uniquely European — maybe uniquely Spanish. You don’t see too much joyful communing at Applebee’s or TGI Friday’s. It’s mostly “gobble and go” here in the old USA.

So what did I bring back with me from my trip to Marbella? Aside from two beautiful leather purses, a couple of scarves, and some gifts for my family, I brought back an appreciation for some very life-affirming customs embraced by the Spanish people . . .

1. Take enough vacation to really vacate. A week of vacation allows you to begin to de-stress and unwind by about day four. By the time you feel relaxed, it’s time to pack up to go home. A month of vacation would feel like a real sabbatical, but it’s unlikely to ever happen in the U.S.  However, a couple of weeks off a few times a year would be enough to feel like you have a real respite and time to relax and rejuvenate.

2. Rest during the day. The Spanish take their siesta time very seriously. The working world shuts down, and people rest and spend time with their families. What a concept. A short siesta during the day would probably save many professionals from stress-related illnesses and workplace conflict. What if offices had siesta lounges and computer and cell phone use was discouraged for an hour during the day? Wouldn’t that be blissful?

3. Make meals an occasion. I am embarrassed to say how infrequently my family sits down together for a meal. Granted, I have three teenagers who are off in different directions. But even when we do sit down together, the meal is brief — more of a means to an end rather than a relaxed and fun family event. Busy American life does not lend itself to regular lingering meals, but I would like to make it a goal at least once a week to have a sacred family meal that isn’t rushed. Maybe we’d even have a real conversation.

4. Enjoy a sense of community. The environment of Old Town Marbella lends itself to congregating with friends and family. It’s harder to do that in the suburbs or even the urban areas of most American cities. But it’s not impossible. American’s tend to isolate themselves and watch television or surf the net rather than go out and spend time with extended family and friends. When I observed the pleasure that the Spanish had in communing with each other, I understood why many people in the U.S. feel restless and lonely. We need to interact with others to feel whole.

5. Allow children to entertain themselves. The Spanish children we saw in Marbella were uniformly better behaved than children I observe in my community and in the U.S. in general. They are included in social activities with adults, and they don’t need television, computers, ipods or cell phones to keep them entertained. From an early age, they learn social interactions, table manners, and a sense of the inherent value of community. With all of the activity around them, they had much to occupy their senses and imaginations.

In the land of plenty, it is easy to become a bit smug about all of the luxuries and creature comforts that we enjoy as Americans. Not that I want to live elsewhere — I am profoundly grateful for my life in the U.S. and recognize that I am blessed far beyond most people in the world. But it was eye-opening for me to realize that some of our blessings as Americans have pulled us away from valuable cultural traditions that our European cousins still hold dear.

It doesn’t hurt to be reminded that a balance of rest and work, punctuated by regular human interaction and simple fun, is what makes for a full and joyful life. I think I’m going to give it a try.

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25 thoughts on “5 Things the Spanish Can Teach Us About Living Well and Having Fun”

  1. You’re right on the money with this post Barrie. My Italian grandparents taught me the value of a well enjoyed meal that lingers well into the two hour mark. Sundays especially were always a tour de force of eating, drinking, and spending time in conversation with family.

    It is hard to carry on those traditions when you have children with a schedule…I have the same dilemma as you…but I am proud to say we eat dinner together no less than 3-4 times a week.

    We could learn a lot from Europeans and how they spend their time. I’m sure life does not seem as rushed or chaotic as it does here in the States.
    .-= Joe DeGiorgio´s last blog ..My Aim Is True =-.

    • Joe,
      I wish I could have sat at the table with your Italian family and eaten your grandmother’s cooking. Nothing beats great Italian cooking! You have inspired me about getting the family to the table 3-4 times a week. The part that is so hard is our over-scheduled children. It’s hard to rein that back in once you’ve put them on that schedule. Maybe we should just eat at 10:00 like the Spanish!

  2. Barrie,
    I’m just recently back home from a 1/2 month vacation…a vacation that was definitely longer than what I’ve normally taken away. And it was so refreshing to just let everything be for a couple of weeks (and the world didn’t stop!). What was also nice – is that a majority of the trip was also a nice break from the electronics that so easily are consumed by our kids. …and they could just be kids….

    As a matter of fact…I could also just be a kid…

    And it was all good and right…

    The Spanish folks are most definitely onto something!!
    .-= Lance´s last blog ..Sunday Thought For The Day =-.

    • Lance,
      That sounds fabulous! Where did you go? A vacation away from electronics is truly a vacation. They dominate our lives so much, and they are so portable and convenient, that it’s easy to let them creep into our time for relaxation. I had to force myself to leave my laptop at home during this trip. But I’m so glad I did!

    • Barrie,
      We were primarily in Maine, although also traveled a bit through the whole NE United States, too. And the thing about Maine is that we really stayed at a place that limited out electronics ability (in a very, very good way). And in that – there was just a whole lot more connecting with each other…pretty awesome!!

      Ummm….and I didn’t leave my laptop at home. (but I used it very, very sparingly!!!)
      .-= Lance´s last blog ..Sunday Thought For The Day =-.

  3. Barrie, your post brings back pleasant childhood memories that I recall of times spent at family picnics during the late sixties, early seventies. No nostalgia here; just some happy memories. I’d be curious to know what life is like in Marbella at other times of the year, outside of the month of August. I would hope that the points you made still apply.

    By the way, my favorite quote is a Spanish proverb: how beautiful it is to do nothing and then rest afterward.

    Thanks for a refreshing travel post.

    .-= Christopher Lovejoy´s last blog ..Personal Ascendance =-.

    • Christopher,
      We actually visited some other small towns near Marbella that were inland and not vacation destinations. It was just the same. The residents were out on the streets at 10:00 at night, eating and socializing. Kids were kicking soccer balls and running around having fun while the adults ate and drank. It wasn’t as crowded, but still a sense of community and fun. I don’t know what they do when it’s winter and really cold. But they clearly love to be outside and socializing when the weather is nice.

  4. Barrie,
    What a lovely pension you stayed in! It sounds like you had a great time in Spain. I’ve been to Spain twice (Barcellona, and Andalucia) and I remember well the custom of eating so late. I’m Italian, and some of the points you made could apply to the Italian way of life, too – like shops closing for siesta, and large family meals.

    It’s great to live like that – siesta, dining late, everything closed down until 4 pm – when you’re on holiday, but when you live there, and work… things are different. There’s also a big difference between small towns – where people possibly live close to their workplace -and large cities, where people have long commutes ahead of them.

    I think that we should try to integrate some of the positive habits of our holidays in our daily lives, too, and I believe that, in the end, those can be summed up in two words: Slow down.
    .-= Cristina´s last blog ..A calming retreat by the sea =-.

    • Hi Cristina,
      Yes, I’m sure the cities aren’t so laid back — but they still get that 1 month vacation!! I agree with your summation of “slow down” and I’d add to that, “enjoy life.” What’s the point of all the hard work we do if we can’t slow down long enough to enjoy our friends and family.

  5. Hi Barry,

    Your title certainly caught my eye tonight! Reading it was like revisiting our trip to Spain last November. We stayed with our dear friend, Ana, in Seville.

    We wandered out for a hot chocolate and churros in the late morning, strolled about the city, and returned to her flat in the early afternoon for a delicious lunch and an afternoon siesta.

    In the evening, we’d refresh our clothes and stroll again, seeing the sunset or the city lights. I, too, was enchanted watching the grandparents, parents, and little children (all dressed beautifully and well behaved) walking, talking, and enjoying each other’s company. Some nights we’d prepare dinner around 9 or 10, and then sit around the table telling stories until midnight.

    I just wanted you to rest-assured that the siesta, the late, relaxed family dinners, and the pleasant family atmosphere are alive and well in Spain throughout the year…not just during holiday at Marbella. We do have much to learn.

    Take good care ~
    .-= Jane Rochelle´s last blog ..Need To Reconnect Try A Playful Love-Letter! =-.

    • We were thinking about going to Seville for a day, but we were having too much fun in Marbella! It sounds like you had an equally lovely and relaxed time. Churros and chocolate for breakfast — sounds delightful!

  6. Great post Barrie! I am fully in agreement, I now live in Mendoza, Argentina and the manner in which they really know how to enjoy life and the sense of community were the things that made me fall in love with this place. I love the fact that everything shuts down in the afternoon and you have time to go and eat with your family and rest. Sundays are family day and everyone gathers together. The parks are full almost all year round with people having asados (bbqs) and picnics. It is a beautiful thing to incorporate into one’s life and teach to your children.

    • Chrissie,
      You are very fortunate to have found a place like that to live. I am wondering if it is more a part of Spanish-speaking culture than any other. We have a large Hispanic population in Atlanta, and they are the people I see at the parks on weekends enjoying asados and spending time with family. Many of these people are struggling financially, but they seem so happy and enjoy socializing so much.

  7. Barrie,
    Your post brings back the wonderful memories I have of visiting my relatives in Greece over the years. They have the same customs of afternoon siesta and late evening dining. When my cousins have traveled to visit us here in the USA they’ve all had the same reaction – in the US we live to work – in Greece they work to live. I do feel their way of life is much saner in many ways than ours. My cousins laughed and shook their heads sorrowfully at our big houses and all the money we need to make to maintain them, while shutting ourselves off after dinner, as you pointed out in your post, to watch television. I’m grateful for all I have, but I do think slowing down and interacting more with friends and family, and unplugging from electronics is important and necessary for not only our physical health, but our mental health.
    .-= Angela Artemis´s last blog ..How To Be Your Best – Surround Yourself with Inspiring People! =-.

    • But how do we do that Angela? It’s frustrating because it just doesn’t seem to be part of our culture much anymore. With every new gadget that comes out, we are further isolating ourselves from those around us. I spend more time with my blog friends than my real ones!

  8. The “sense of community” is what I miss most from American society. Fortunately there are ways to include this in our lives. There are plenty of groups that we can participate in from book clubs to dining clubs. People just need to reach out and get involved. It is a good feeling to be a part of a group, especially if you don’t have the extended family.
    .-= mliav´s last blog ..How to make decisions =-.

    • Yes, I think you are right. We have to extend ourselves and make it happen. I live on a cul de sac, and when the weather is nice, our neighbors come outside and spend some time together. It is so much fun when it happens — I wish it were more of a regular occurrence.

  9. Barrie,
    I love the photos and the thoughts you’ve shared with us. I watch my grandchildren with their electronics and smile instead of judge. I used to judge and it made me crazy. I won’t allow them to have their cell phones or game stuff at the table while eating. Can’t even believe I have to say that but they’re teens now I hate to say it but I think it’s the norm.

    I was in Chicago last week with two grandsons, a duaghter and friend and I have to say my cell phone camera came in handy.

    It’s sad the way we eat in America. I do believe all the changes happening in the world seem crazy but I thing many are going to turn out for the better. Less work and more meaningful experiences with family and friends.

    I do know I can only change my own behavior and I have to say it’s difficult to stay off my computer when visiting with my daughters and their families 5-7 days at a time. I’m taking penquin steps forward! I love your first quote.
    .-= Tess The Bold Life´s last blog ..Mind Adventures- Rob White =-.

    • Hi Tess,
      I know — it’s a real dilemma. I love that I have met so many great people through blogging and that I have this outlet. I’ve been the champion for less computer time in my family, but since I’ve started blogging, I’ve noticed how hard it is to pull away. Knowledge is power, so at least we are aware of the pitfalls and can strive for more human interaction.

  10. Thank you for sharing your trip with us. I have been talking to some colleagues about taking the month of August off. My business referrals slows down while the busyness of school starts. I know many who take 2 weeks off but not a month. I cheristh weekends, downtime, and vacations! Maybe I will work up to half the month!

    We have rest time at our house each day in the afternoon, even after the kids have stopped napping. I have to admit it may be more for me than the kids, but maybe I’m sharing how to “balance rest and work.”
    .-= Marci´s last blog ..Overcoming Walls that Build Between Married Couples =-.

    • From Spain near Marbella. Thanks for your article. I think is a perfect portrait about our way to live in spite of these times. As well, it’s a reflection about having “new eyes” and to learn things from other countries and to take it in our daily life.

  11. A good summary of how the Spanish live. In terms of taking off the month of August, when I was working as an English teacher and doing company lessons, the entire company except for two members of staff didn’t come into to work for the entirety of the month.

    Spanish children certainly know how to interact, and as you mentioned, they form a social group at an early age. It’s all about the group right from the start.


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