Living like a local: Eating, walking, kissing and (not) tipping in Barcelona

Posted in: Barcelona


Becoming part of the culture in Barcelona. Photos by Regina W Bryan

After eight years in Barcelona, I’ve become accustomed to certain aspects of life here that are quite different from how I lived back in Portland, Oregon. Mostly, I don’t notice these differences anymore. My perspective has become more European, more Spanish, more Catalan…this all happened while I wasn’t looking, while I was eating tapas and swimming in the Mediterranean. No matter where you reside, you take on the expressions, body language and customs of the culture you’re surrounded by. Unless you’re living in a bubble.

When friends came from the United States to visit last fall, I was reminded of many small differences between the USA and Spain. Funny little contrasts that I lost years ago came to light again. Here are a few of them that you may have noticed if you’ve come to Barcelona, or that you might come across on a visit to my adopted city.

Where's the light?

Where’s the light?

Where is the light switch?

You’re in the bathroom at a bar or restaurant feeling around along the walls in the dark. Where the h*ll is the light switch!? You can’t find it. That’s because it’s outside. That is, it’s not in the bathroom, but on the wall outside the bathroom. This means that you could be in the bathroom and someone could, theoretically, come along and turn the light off while you’re in there. That’s not going to happen. In any case, if you can’t find the lights, look outside. This is true in many homes and in some guest houses. In my apartment, for example, the bathroom light switch is in the living room. I have no idea why this is. If anyone knows, I’d love you to enlighten me. My visitors spent a lot of time looking for the lights all over Barcelona.

Tipping is not mandatory

My guests were from the USA, so they felt the need to tip at bars, restaurants and in cabs. Do what you feel comfortable with, but I tell you now what I told them: you don’t need to tip. I know. It’s hard to take in. It took me three years to stop tipping. Sometimes I still tip a little something, but certainly not 15% or 20%. Remember that in Spain we have universal health care, and people are paid a fair wage for their work, so it’s not really the same situation as in other countries.

Let's eat!

Let’s eat! Typical lunch advertisement.

One, two, three….it’s time for lunch

Three course lunches needed some explanation when my friends came to town. When you get a prix fixe lunch you’ll need to choose one starter, one main course and then the dessert. Usually you’ll be able to choose from four starters, four main courses and a series of desserts. This both delighted and overwhelmed my guests. You also get to select wine or some other beverage, and for the most part my friends went with the wine! More than once during their 10 days here they turned to me and said, “Is there more food coming?! I’m already stuffed…” To which I replied, “Yes, that was just the appetizer and first course!”

Eat, walk, eat

By day nine one visitor turned to me and said, “My days in Barcelona are like this: I eat, then I walk around the Gothic Quarter to see something, then I eat some more. Then I nap. Then it’s time for dinner and wine!” It was then that I knew he was on ‘Barcelona-time’.

Two kisses: Spanish greetings explained

I’m used to kissing people, for the most part (though there are certain situations that always throw me off). When you greet a friend in Spain, or meet a potential friend for the first time, you kiss them.

It works like this:

-Women kiss women

-Men kiss women

-Men shake other men’s hands, unless were dealing with family, and then the rules change a little

-Everyone kisses children

-When in doubt, follow the Spaniard’s lead

I forgot to tell my visitors about this kissing rule. I’m sure they knew about it to some extent, but perhaps didn’t expect to get kissed. After a couple of awkward meetings (Oregonians hugging and Spaniards trying to kiss them—Oregonians are known for being huggers), I broke down the two kisses for them. Note that you’re not actually putting your lips on the person’s face, it’s more like cheek to cheek.

These are just a few cultural contrasts my friends made me think of during their stay. Every time someone pops over from the United States, they help me see my surroundings in a new light, giving me a refreshed viewpoint on my day to day life in Barcelona. If you have any more observations from Barcelona living, feel free to add them in the comments.

About the author

Regina W Bryan

About the author: Regina W.Bryan is a Barcelona-based freelance writer and photographer. When not eating tapas and exploring Europe, she is tending her balcony veggie garden and practicing Catalan. For more of her thoughts on Spain, check: and

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2 thoughts on “Living like a local: Eating, walking, kissing and (not) tipping in Barcelona”

  1. I like your comments about the light switch location. It’s the same deal here in Italy. Not all, but many bathrooms have the light switch outside of the room. I have no idea why, but if I find out … I will report back!

  2. Elliot Ephraim

    With reference to the bathroom light switch that is found OUTSIDE the bathroom, there usually is a white porcelain rocker switch which when the upper part is found depressed, it means that the bathroom is in use.

    Every bar/restaurant has a W.C. (water closet) called a “Water” (pronounced VOTTER), but it is customary that only paying clientele may use it.

    During the 30+ visits I have made to Spain since 1957, I have found that by first ordering a can~a (a short beer) and then heading directly to the W.C. (usually in a hurry), my cerveza is on the bar when I am ready. This procedure is what I call “cambiando aguas”.


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