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Dani Bennett | Scenes From Spain

A case for cat culture

Published: Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 07:01

After only a few weeks in Spain, I was recently informed that a typical person from Madrid is called a “gato,” a simple word meaning “cat,” but that comes with a more complicated explanation and requires some unpacking. There is, first and foremost, the historical aspect, as the name is homage to the Spanish leader who captured Madrid from the Moors in the eleventh century. This man could climb walls and was, for this talent, nicknamed “el gato.” Ever since then, Madrilenians have been referred to as “gatos.” Among other things, this led to the Madrid rugby team being named “Gatos de Madrid.” 

But arguably more important is another origin of the gato nickname — one that derives from the typical Madrilenian schedule and life philosophy. A cat is inherently a nocturnal creature, wanting always to be active at night and possessing a kind of vision that is much more suited to dark spaces. While unfortunately it has not been proven that Madrilenians have better vision than people in other European cities, they are night people through and through. Walking down Calle Mayor, you will spot the many gatos that would never even conceive of a night starting before 2 a.m. But this is also because, in Spain, every other activity starts later, shifting the entire schedule of a typical day: a later wake-up and small breakfast, lunch that doesn’t start before 2 p.m., a crucial afternoon snooze called a “siesta,” dinner that never begins earlier than 9 p.m. and then late-night festivities.

After just a few weeks experiencing this new schedule, I would like to make a case for the so-called Madrid cat culture, as it seems to be a more effective way to live one’s life. If time spent with friends is a priority — and staying up until the wee hours of the night is not only culturally acceptable, but encouraged — then there is more time to do what human beings constantly strive for: socializing. Call me crazy, but this is a fundamental characteristic that, for whatever reason, so many countries lack (listen up, U.S.A.). In Spain, a meal is a social activity that is meant to be eaten together and meant to last long periods of time. In sharing these long expanses of social time, Spaniards form relationships that are more grounded and, to a large extent, lacking in superficiality. It’s easier to get to know someone over a two and a half hour lunch than it is to wave to them while you each eat your prepared sandwiches separately at your desks.

This is not to say that all Spaniards exhibit the same traits, but rather that — on the whole — the culture is more open, full of affection while also engaging in the collective struggle. In the U.S., a daily conversation might consist of:

“Hi, how are you?”

“Good, how are you?”


And that is all. It’s simple and quick, but not at all clear or descriptive. It is, for lack of a better word, a formality. In Spain, this conversation is altered:

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Listen, hombre, I have been dealing with construction right outside my building, and I pulled a muscle yesterday, and I need to visit my grandparents soon, and...

Because most humans thrive off of social interactions, why would we limit ourselves from them? Why not make time to hang out and chat about our problems? Not only is this more fun, but, even more importantly, it’s actually healthier. Understanding that you are not alone is one of the biggest reliefs that anyone can have — and in Spain, it is almost as if the gatos were born with this weight lifted off their shoulders. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had that?


Dani Bennett is a junior who is majoring in English and spending this semester abroad in Spain. She can be reached at

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