5 Incredibly Sensible Things The United States Should Import From Spain


1a. Reasonable vacation/sick time (along with societal approval of said leave)

In Spain, full-time employees are guaranteed 22 paid vacation days, not including 14 public holidays. This is actually less than many other countries in the Eurozone (UK: 28, France: 25-35 Germany: 20-30) despite the reputation that Spaniards have a penchant for long vacations (the city of Madrid really is dead in August.)

The U.S. has no mandated annual leave days. None. 0. Zilch.

Generally, companies with more than 50 employees provide between 8 and 12 days of vacation a year, adding a day for each year worked. To say that this is inhumane isn’t even cutting it. However, the real problem I’ve found with vacation time in the U.S. is the stigma that surrounds using vacation time (i.e. you’re somehow not a hard worker or as competitive as your colleagues if you take it) or even the nature of the workplace that makes taking multiple days in a row nearly impossible without making life miserable for yourself upon your return. This has resulted in an increasing number of Americans not using the pathetic amount of annual leave they are allotted to start with.

1b. Maternity leave

This one gets a separate section, but falls under a similar idea as the first item. Only four countries in the world have no national law mandating paid time off for new parents. Four. The United States is one of them. The other three are Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. The infant mortality rates in those countries are 7.1%, 4.08% and 5.8% respectively, to give you an idea of where women’s health stands in those countries.

Birth is the most natural process there is. The right to begin a family and have children is universal, and yet the United States has one of the worst maternity leave situations. In an age where most mothers both want to and often need to work, our system has not remotely caught up.

The increasing amount of women who are employed has transformed the home, the workplace and social dynamics in the last 50 years or so, and yet the only law on the book that mandates companies provide maternity leave (the Family and Medical Leave Act, 1993) is for companies with 50+ employees and you must have worked at least 12 months/1,250 hours in the previous year. This leave is not mandatory to be paid however and is only up to 3 months. No reputable daycare in the United States will accept a child over 5 months so parents must scrape together their already limited vacation/sick time (see above) or rely on relatives and friends, which not everyone has. Additionally, prenatal care in the U.S. is ranked among the worst in first-world countries and much of it is not covered by insurance plans or requires large copays, making the U.S. the most expensive place to have a baby.  

Alternatively, in Spain a mother is provided with prenatal care free of charge and is given 16 weeks of 100% paid leave, as well as up to a year of 31% paid leave. A mother can take up to 3 years of unpaid leave with a guarantee of her job when she returns. Imagine that… a mother who gets to be a mother to her own child! A father also gets 15 days of paternity leave with 15 additional days that can be borrowed from the mother’s leave. Since public education in Spain begins at age 3, a family is guaranteed childcare for their children until they are 18 and all children have access to quality, affordable preschool education.

2. The metric system and Celsius 

So there are 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 5,280 feet in a mile… I think… water freezes at 32°F and boils at 212°F. I’m an American and even I don’t fully get our system… I literally had to look some of that up. Of course I get it in theory and I still have to do the conversion in my head for Celsius. I can only gage meters off of how long a boy once told me it was to his house (200 meters takes about 5 minutes to walk if you stop to kiss along the way) but that’s only because I grew up in our system and have 25+ years of training in it, not because it’s actually logical.

The only other countries not using it being Burma and Liberia. A study in 1968 determined that the U.S. would eventually adapt to the rest of the world and hop on the metrification bandwagon. We are still waiting. Attempts in 1975 and again in 1981 failed due to “resistance, apathy, and sometimes ridicule.”

Sure, it would be hard. But the UK and all of their old commonwealths did it. Mexico did it.

Say it with me, America… 100 centimeters in a meter. 1,000 meters in a kilometer. Water freezes at 0°C and boils at 100°C. Perhaps if we got our heads out of our star-spangled asses and realize how easy this is, it wouldn’t be a subject of apparent “ridicule?” Alas, one can hope.

3. Bilingual public schools

In 2004, Spain began an initiative to introduce a bilingual curriculum to public schools across the nation. Now, there are over 400 bilingual primary schools in Madrid alone. Most are English/Spanish, but some focus on French, German or Italian. These schools are still working out the kinks, but their mission is clear: producing an educated, bilingual group of students who are equipped for a globalizing market and populace.

Despite an ever-increasing Latino population, the U.S. is hardly close to being bilingual or even speaking multiple languages at a proficient level. There is a joke (at our expense) that I heard abroad:

If you call a person who speaks 2 languages “bilingual” and a person who speaks 3 languages “trilingual,” what do you call a person who only speaks 1 language? An American.

Only about 10% of native-born Americans speak a language other than English, putting us at a huge disadvantage when it comes to issues of education, tourism, economics and national security.

4. Staying an individual after becoming married/having children

I understand that I could get a lot of flack for this, but it is my perception that a lot of Americans take on things like “wife,” “husband,” “mother,” and “father,” not just as additional roles, but almost as their entire identities when they get married and have children. It seems that as soon as many Americans become parents, they give up their social lives, their hobbies and a big part of their sense of social self. They turn inwards while making their children the only thing in their lives without looking elsewhere to gain sustenance and support. This means they often grow unhappy because they’ve forcibly forgotten their sexuality and their sociality, having sacrificed it for a dull, brown burlap suit fit for spit-up and crayon markings, but not for play time at a café. Spaniards, along with maintaining a better work/life balance in general, remain social even as they marry and have children and not just with other families from their children’s schools.

Though Spain is often known as historically being a more machismo culture, I actually found that women in Spain retained their sense of self more than Americans did as they aged. Part of this could be due to the cultural differences in taking or not taking a husband’s name after marriage. Women in Spain keep their names after marriage and children are given two last names: that of their father’s and their mother’s.

Like most American children, I grew up doodling “Allison insert-name-of-current-crush-here” on my notebooks. These days, I don’t recognize 1/4 my Facebook friends because they’ve gotten married and have a new last name. I just assumed that I would marry and change my name until I moved to Spain and realized it’s not universal to all cultures. While I understand the idea of having a family united under one name, the paternalistic nature of the wife and children adopting just the husband’s name doesn’t sit quite right with me. 

Writing Christmas cards to Spanish families can be exhausting (everyone has two last names and the parents each differ from the children in two of them), but this small price to pay seems worth it as it also seems to have cultural ramifications in terms of how one identifies after marriage and children. I’m not saying one ceases to be themselves after getting married if they take your husband’s name, and it’s certainly a personal choice, but before doing so “because that’s how it’s always been done” in the Anglo-Saxon world, take a moment to consider the historical implications. 

5. Sunday lunches and paseos with family/friends 

While sometimes it can be a bit much (children often live with their parents through their late-20s and beyond and even when they move out will live in the same neighborhood or even in the same building), Spaniards prioritize family time and spending quality time with family members.

One tradition I love is the Sunday lunch. Other than a Norman Rockwell painting, this seems to have largely disappeared from the American landscape. Spaniards still gather with their families or close friends on Sundays for a big spread that includes the aperitivo (tapas or the like before lunch, usually out at a local restaurant), the main meal (often paella or another large traditional dish) and the sobremesa, which is conversation and coffee with fruit and cheese afterwards. This is often followed by a paseo (stroll) around the neighborhood where they socialize with each other and other people from their neighborhood.

Most stores aren’t even open on Sundays in Spain. Sometimes this is inconvenient, but it means that family and friend time gets prioritized and it’s not so easy to make excuses for things you “need to do.” After all, we all need at least one day a week where we don’t feel like we “need” to do anything other than spend quality time with the ones we love.

Runners-up included: free appetizers with drinks, wine that isn’t marked up 700% in restaurants, reliable and on-time public transportation, putting the comma outside the parenthesis and pedestrian friendly streets.

Bonus: Jamón. Because it’s like Spanish crack.