Monthly Archives: May 2015

Madrid or Barcelona? Where to study, live/work or just be an American in Spain.

After just recently spending a weekend in Barcelona I got to thinking once again about the differences between the two cities as I’ve been asked this question by quite a few people. I’ve been in Spain for 9 years, two of which (in the middle) I spent living in Barcelona. So here’s my take on studying, living, working and just being in Spain’s two largest cities.

Madrid and Barcelona, with populations of 3.2 million and 1.6 million respectively, are both exciting, unique and have a lot to offer. A huge amount of tourists pass through each year with Barcelona even making it into Forbes’ list of the 20 most popular cities to visit (7million+ tourists in 2014) ( Both cities are guaranteed to offer you fantastic food, an interesting culture, great weather, beautiful architecture, and in general, a great experience.

So, which one should you pick? This depends a lot on your objective and reason for making the move. Since I’ve lived in both cities (7 years in Madrid and 2 in Barcelona) I think I’ve earned the right to share my opinion, but of course, this is just my opinion, so feel free to challenge it! I didn’t start this blog just to have people agree with me…

Barcelona pictureMadrid Gran Via picture

Studying in Spain

Chances are if you’re an American looking to study abroad in Spain during college (university), most likely you’re considering one of these two cities. For me, even though I liked the idea of Barcelona and the beach, I decided to go to Madrid during college since I figured it would be “a little less touristy”. (Similar thinking used when I spent my second semester abroad in Melbourne, Australia instead of Sydney). Both Madrid and Barcelona are great choices for “studying” abroad as they have many organized university programs and lots of students roaming the city. There are plenty of cultural, touristic offerings in both, and it’s easy to jump on a plane and check out other European cities on the weekend. Having said this, there are a couple big differences:

  • Touristy feeling. Madrid, for me, really feels less touristy than Barcelona. The general sense of the city when you walk around is that a lot of people don’t speak English, and you can easily feel like a foreigner, even in the center. On the other hand, in Barcelona, you can often feel like you’re in the middle of a tourist parade (depending on what part of the city you’re in of course). This past weekend I went back to Barcelona for my 5 year MBA reunion (TBC below). At the airport I asked an employee a quick question about one of the buses. Now I know I have an accent, but I’ve been in Spain 9 years now… He answered me in English. Not cool. So I answered back in Spanish. To which he replied back again in English. Not cool again. [sigh]
  • Sightseeing. In pure aesthetic terms, Barcelona is a prettier, more eye-friendly city than Madrid. Not only does it have the ocean and the mountains with beautiful views, but it also has a lot of fantastic camera-worthy areas like Passeig de Gracia, the Gothic District, Plaza de Catalunya and architecture greats like Gaudi buildings and La Sagrada Familia. Madrid on the other hand has beautiful areas like the Opera Royal Palace Area, central Sol, Gran Vía, Cibeles, etc., but there aren’t as many top destination need-to-sees like in Barcelona. For me, what’s more standout-ish is the nightlife and tapas bar “sightseeing”.
  • Language. If your goal is to try to assimilate into the Spanish culture and practice that Spanish you’ve been studying, then it probably makes more sense to go to Madrid. In Barcelona the main language is Catalan. You can almost understand everything that’s written in Catalan if you understand Castillan spanish, but spoken is a whole other can of worms. And since Catalan is only in Catalunya, if you’re looking to improve your Spanish to use anywhere else in the future, it might make more sense to go to the place where it’s primarily spoken. If you’re just planning to study in a school there and hang out with international students, then this isn’t a key point.

In my case I was lucky enough to study in both cities as 8 years after my undergrad experience (4 month stance in Madrid) I completed my MBA at IESE Business School ( in Barcelona (2 year program). My decision to do the MBA in Barcelona was 100% because of the school itself and the education/reputation, not because of the location (although it being in Barcelona was definitely a pro). By this point if you’re considering a Master/post-grad program I definitely recommend choosing based on the program offerings and school reputation, not the location. During undergrad this really isn’t that important as it just factors into your total undergrad degree. However, during the MBA I was a bit in a school “bubble” constantly with the people in my program, so the idea of assimilating into the culture really wasn’t a factor for me anyway.

Bottom line for undergrad study abroad: both cities are great options. It just depends on the kind of atmosphere you’re looking for and what interests you more (more authentic “madrileño” lifestyle or a prettier, more international setting with the beach). And for Post-grad: pick based on the program, not the location since you won’t be lounging on the beach or in tapas bars as much as in undergrad (maybe)…

Living/Working in Spain

I’ve only actually worked in Madrid, so it’s a bit tough for me to compare the two, but I do have some ideas from what people have told me about the different working cultures. In Madrid it’s quite common to have extended relationships with coworkers outside of the office, often getting cañas together and developing closer friendships. As far as I’ve heard, the Barcelona working atmosphere and Catalan culture is more closed and usually the work and work relationships end at the office. Grabbing a caña with coworkers is not as much of a norm.

Another thing to consider is the language. I’ve been told that in general it’s not necessary to speak catalan to work in Barcelona (unless you want to work in anything government-related where it would be a must). However, a lot or most people from Cataluña speak Catalan, so it would help. If you’re interested in picking up Catalan then it’s a good option, but if that doesn’t interest you, it’s something to consider. For me I think it would just be more confusing. I actually had an interesting experience at one of my jobs where a coworker moved from Barcelona to work in the Madrid office and had a hard time adapting with the language. Even I was catching his grammatical mistakes! As for “living”, obviously this can be done very well in either place! If you’re more of a beach person and like the international feel, Barcelona is better. For me, even though I think Barcelona is a fantastic city and beautiful with the beach and the mountains right there at your fingertips, I have to say that in general Madrid is friendlier and more “acogedora” (warm/inviting/friendly) than Barcelona to live/work as a foreigner.

Just Being an American in Spain

This is easy, and it is pretty much a reflection/summary of the entire post: it completely depends on what you’re looking for and your goals! Do you want to hang out with other Americans and foreigners or do you really want to speak only Spanish and try to fit in with the local culture? Do you love the idea of a city with beautiful, top tourist destinations and the beach at your fingertips or do you like the idea of a less touristy, smaller-feel city? The real answer is that you can do both of these things in either Madrid or Barcelona; it just completely depends on the choices you make and how you decide to go about your daily life.

As for me? Well, I chose Madrid. Of course I was influenced by the fact that my (now) husband was living and working in Madrid, but I have to say that I love it here. Maybe if I had fallen in love with a Catalan my story would be different, but you can only relate what you know… I may be from Boston and have a pretty decent American accent, but most of my friends here in Madrid are Spanish, and you usually don’t catch me speaking English out on the street.

Until someone stops me on the street and asks me for directions (which happens more often than you would think), I’m just being an undercover American in Spain…


Apparently New England isn’t the only place with crazy weather

Last week here in Madrid, in the middle of May, the temperatures soared to the mid-90’s (35 degrees celsius) topping the charts at 98 degrees one day. Now this week it’s down to the 50s in the morning and low 70s during the day — phew! I have to admit, I was a little nervous last week thinking that the August heat blast was already upon us. (In August it’s usually in the mid 90s every day).

I’m used to this sort of crazy up and down weather change back home in New England, but usually not here in Spain. Perhaps this hot weather is why it’s taken me awhile to write a post; the hot weather makes it hard to do anything! I guess like a lot of things here in Spain, the crazy weather is just another example of American traditions that are being adopted here!

More interesting post soon to follow…

Random tidbits from an American “trapped” in Spain

As I was thinking about what to write for my next post, a lot of random thoughts came to my mind along with some things that I thought could be of interest/useful. At least some of these things are doubts that I had before contacting people, asking, googling, etc. If you’re interested enough to be reading this blog you might be interested to read these:

– Exchange rates: I am the first to admit that I am not a numbers person, and finances are not my forte. However, when you take out a large sum of loans for an MBA in one country and you’re not sure where you’re going to end up afterwards you learn that you have to do some sort of hedging. But don’t do what I did! During the middle of the program I had to take out a large chunk of loans with the exchange rate of 1EUR=1,50 USD. I ended up taking out a larger portion of my loans with the US government and Sallie Mae (anyone who’s American will know what I’m talking about) since I figured it would be easier to pay these off later and I could consolidate all my loans. I also took out loans in euros with BancSabadell, but less. Little did I know, a few years later the euro would fall to equal a dollar. Oops. Now when I went to pay back my loans in the US with euros earned here in Spain it was like a double whammy. Note to self: if you need to take out a large chunk of loans try to balance between the two countries. And don’t assume that because it’s the government that interest rates will be much better. Some of my Sallie Mae “government subsidized” loans had 8.5% interest rates!

– International transfers. For many years I was making necessary transfers to pay off loans in the US from my account here in Spain and doing this through my bank. Every time I made a transfer (generally every other month) I had to pay about 20€ or more. Then I discovered TransferWise. It’s a great, easy-to-use international transfer service and SO MUCH cheaper than going through a bank. And I’m not getting paid to promote this (I wish I were); I just want to share so other people can avoid giving banks more money that they don’t need or that goes to corrupted hands.

– Private health insurance. While it’s nice to have one of the big private health insurances like Sanitas and Adeslas, you don’t really have to have it. As long as you’re officially “empadronado” (registered) as residing in Spain you have access to the public health center. I actually didn’t use any of the public health services until after my son was born, but then I discovered that the system works pretty well. The big pro with the private services is the speed: if you want to see a specialist you can go directly to one without having to go to a general doctor, get sent to a specialist and wait a month for an appointment. On the other hand some of the best doctors are in the public system, and prescriptions are extremely inexpensive or even free.

– School system. Nine years ago when I moved to Spain the last thing on my mind was the school system. Now, with a 15-month-old son I’m realizing just how confusing it is . Back in the US you live in the neighborhood where you want your child to go to school. Period. Here in Spain everything goes by a “points” system. You get assigned “points” depending on a variety of factors like income, if you have other children that go to a school, location, etc. etc. With these points you’re then assigned to a school, but it might not be your first, second or third choice, or very close by to your house. To make it more confusing there are public, private and “concertados” (kind of like charter schools) that you can choose from. If you live in a good neighborhood and get the school of your choice a public or concertado school might just be fine. And did I mention that the schools are expensive here? From what I’m hearing, in a concertado you could easily pay around 500€ or more a month per child. It’s overwhelming me, and my son’s not even walking yet…

– In-house help. Back in the US I would refer to this as a luxury. Here in Spain it’s much more common to have someone come to your house to clean once a week or have someone help with the cleaning and take care of your children. After my son was born we hired someone to work at our house and had to figure out the whole legal paperwork (a lot of people don’t have legal contracts). Here’s some helpful info: basically you need two documents, an official contract ( and the document for the person’s “alta” in the social security system ( Both of these need to be presented in the Tesorería de la Seguridad Social. In Madrid it’s near the Chamartin metro stop.

I found this guide helpful to understand the details about having in-house help and the legal requirements:

– Post office. It’s not cheap to send things back to the US. And when you get packages sent to you here you’ll realize it’s not at all cheap the other way around either. Here’s a helpful tip if you don’t want your packages from home to stuck in customs, forcing you to go to a random customs office near the airport and pay more than the gift itself is worth in taxes for them to release it to you (obviously this is written from experience…): take all tags off of things being shipped and lower the declared value. The only thing you can guarantee by writing a high declared value is problems on the receiving end.

Random tidbits from an American in Spain TBC…