5 Surprises About Studying Abroad in Salamanca

Daniel Dawson is a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and an ISA Featured Blogger. Daniel is studying abroad with ISA in Salamanca, Spain.

I don’t like surprises. Do not give me a surprise present for my birthday. Do not plan a surprise vacation for me. Instead, let me research and plan everything myself. Let me scour the Internet for every nugget of information I can find so I know exactly what to expect—or at least that’s what I did the weeks before I arrived in Salamanca. What will my residencia look like? What building will my classes be in? Where are the closest supermarkets? Maybe you’re like me (hopefully not), and you don’t like surprises either. However, one thing I must tell you is that when you study abroad even the subtlest things will, inevitably, surprise you. Needless to say, my research would never have been comparable to my actual experience, and even armed with an arsenal of facts and research, I’m welcoming these daily surprises with an open mind.

1. Infrequency of English

I realize that this one shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, but it’s especially pertinent for the destination I chose, Salamanca. Many of my friends who had studied in larger Spanish cities like Barcelona or Madrid have told me they were surprised—or even a bit disillusioned—by the amount of people who could speak English there. I opted for smaller city because my primary goal while studying abroad was to perfect my Spanish and to try not to speak much English.

Whether you choose a homestay or residencia, you will be spoken to in Spanish and only Spanish (classes are contingent on your level of placement in Spanish, though). Professors teaching classes in Spanish may only know minimal amounts of English. Also, Salamanca is a popular Erasmus destination (the European equivalent of student exchanges), so the lingua franca will naturally be Spanish as well. Of course it’s possible to study here with a basic knowledge of the language beforehand, but it’s a factor that should be kept in mind.

2. Tons and tons of coins

A typical bill paid with dinero suelto
A typical bill paid with dinero suelto.

Get used to carrying change in your pocket because incessant jangling will be your new anthem. This isn’t unique to Salamanca, of course, but to the European Union. Here they use coins for cents, as well as 1 and 2 euros. Spain also utilizes the tiny 1 euro cent coin. It’s completely normal to pay a bill completely with exact change—thanks to the fact that tipping isn’t necessary! Don’t be surprised if you pay with a 10 euro bill and receive 7 euros in all coins.

While this is a minimal surprise, something to keep in mind is that in Spain it isn’t customary to ask the waiter to split the check individually for whatever each person ordered. The waiter might reply with a flat-out “no” when asked. Also, debit or credit cards aren’t usually accepted in smaller restaurants and bars. This is where the power of dinero suelto, or small change, comes in.

3. Light Breakfasts

The filters and careful positioning may make bread and jam more alluring, but it truly isn’t bad at all.
The filters and careful positioning may make bread and jam more alluring, but it truly isn’t bad at all.

This is something that I’ve learned is very typical in Spain– all that extensive research beforehand helped, too. Despite my research, it was surprising to learn how light the breakfast really is in Spain. A piece of toast and coffee is a sufficient breakfast for many Spaniards. In the United States we are so accustomed to large breakfasts with eggs, bacon, bagels, fruit, cereals and more, and what’s funny is that Spaniards grimace at the thought of consuming so much food at the beginning of their day. How do they make it through the day on such seemingly little food? Read on for the Spaniard’s secret…

4. Spanish Schedule

I miss lunch every Monday to Thursday because I have class, so the cooks in my residencia deliver la comida to my room.
I miss lunch every Monday to Thursday because I have class, so the cooks in my residencia deliver la comida to my room.

Okay, so this is something that anyone who has even the slightest notion of Spanish culture knows. Spain has a drastically different schedule than most other countries in the world and it revolves around the three primary meals of the day.

Spaniards wake up depending on when they have to go to work or school and have their light breakfast. The next meal isn´t until about 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and coincides with the famous Spanish siesta. In Salamanca the siesta is still prevalent, meaning that most stores close between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. while the owners are eating lunch and sleeping. Now, Spaniards don´t eat dinner until at the very earliest 8 p.m. For instance, the dining hall in my residencia doesn´t start serving dinner until 9 p.m. How do these Spaniards last from, say, 2 to 9—seven hours between major meals? No, they don´t have superhuman genetics. While breakfast and dinner are lighter meals, lunch, or la comida, is the biggest meal. But, between breakfast and lunch as well as between lunch and dinner there exist two semi-meals, or meriendas. La merienda translates to snack, which can be a piece of fruit or a cheesy slice of Spanish tortilla depending on your appetite.

After dinner it´s normal for some Spaniards to go to bed within the next few hours, especially if they have to get up early for work. However, Spain is primarily a nocturnal country. The earliest time your average Spaniard would go to bed is around midnight on a weekday. If it´s the weekend, Spaniards who like to go out could leave the house until around 2 a.m. and then return home at 9 a.m. with no questions asked. For reference, in Salamanca bigger discotecas don´t open until 3 a.m. and your run-of-the-mill bar won´t fill up until at least 1 a.m. Learning to accommodate this type of schedule is an art, but can be attained with some practice and patience.

5. The Incredible Beauty of Salamanca

Need I say more?
Need I say more?

Salamanca is gorgeous. Every street in the old town has a story to tell and exudes history and prestige. Salamanca was a very prosperous and important town in Spanish history and maintains its decorated demeanor today through its architectural charm.

Want to read more about Salamanca? Check out “A Few Things You Can Unquestionably Expect When Visiting Salamanca.”