Tag Archives: American in Spain

Too Spanishized?

This year I forgot about the 4th of July, breezed past memorial and labor day, and ate fish on Thanksgiving. There was no typical red, white and blue attire on the 4th and no turkey and stuffing on Turkey Day. Have I become too spanishized? This year has made me take a step back and wonder: To what point is it a good thing to be so immersed and assimilated into a different culture that you forget the basics of your own?

In a few months down the road I’ll be pledging my allegiance to a new flag to officially become Spanish (not that I’ll stop pledging to the other – unless Trump wins…). While this may seem like 100% Spanishized, that pesky American-themed accent will also be there to remind me and others that, at the end of the day, I am still, and will always be, American. But, this isn’t a bad thing after all.

Ten years ago when I first moved to Spain I made a concentrated effort to not connect with the large American community in Madrid in order to try to assimilate myself into the Spanish culture. I managed to find a job at a small Spanish company which threw me right into the Spanish paella mix, and I met my future husband who’s Spanish and hung out with him and his Spanish friends. Basically, my plan worked.

Now, ten years later and with a 2 1/2 year old son, I’ve started to wonder if maybe it’s time to get back to my American roots and find some fellow right, white and blue-ers over here in Madrid. As much as I like being assimilated, I now sometimes miss being able to have that natural easy connection with a fellow American, especially with kids. I want my son to experience both cultures’ customs, and it’s not that easy to show him some American traditions alone (especially when now I’m seeming to forget them unless I put it on the calendar). I guess I’ll say mission accomplished for a decade of being Spanishized and fitting in (until I open my mouth to speak), but maybe now it’s time for more of a Spanglish style over here.

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) (http://www.forbes.com/sites/deborahljacobs/2014/07/31/the-20-most-popular-cities-in-the-world-to-visit-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 (www.iese.edu) 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…

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 (http://www.empleo.gob.es/es/portada/serviciohogar/modelos/Mod-PE-172.pdf) and the document for the person’s “alta” in the social security system (http://www.seg-social.es/prdi00/groups/public/documents/binario/160061.pdf). 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: http://www.empleo.gob.es/es/portada/serviciohogar/masinformacion/ServicioHogar2015.pdf

– 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…

Mixed Spanishized flag

Spanishized: how to tell if it’s happened to you

Urban Dictionary definition: Spanishize: “the process by which one becomes spanish.” In my opinion this word isn’t so much about the process, but more about the final product. Getting used to the lifestyle and culture is one thing; starting to think and dream in Spanish and mixing up your English is another. That’s when you really understand the definition.

The other day I stumbled upon an article in thelocal.es called “Ten signs you’ve been spanishized”. http://www.thelocal.es/galleries/4/ten-signs-youve-been-spanishized

Mixed Spanishized flag

As an American in Spain, reading this really made me laugh, and at the same time I realized once again that this definitely has happened to me. A few years ago, if I had looked at this article I probably would have just chuckled. But reading this now, it all just seems to make SO much sense (another sign). Since it fits in with the “Who Am I?” section of this blog, I thought I would share these signs and add a few of my own commentaries:

1. You’ve gone all touchy feely. I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing by any means, but it is true that the culture here tends to be more physical. I’ve noticed this particularly in the workplace where it’s completely normal to be touchy feeling with coworkers  while telling a story or give someone a kiss/hug before and after vacation periods. Coming from the US where personal space is more coveted than a parking space, this can be a bit uncomfortable at first. Over time though you just find yourself reaching out to everyone.

2. You’ve started yelling at waiters. You have to get their attention somehow, right? Of course now back in the US I feel the need after the 10th time my waiter/waitress comes up to me to see how I’m doing and if I need anything else to just say “I’m going to give you your 20% tip; please just give me a little space!” (and to think I used to be a waitress)

3. You have breakfast in a bar. The word “bar” itself has a different meaning in Spain. You can sometimes get the best fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee and morning breakfast pincho (little appetizer) at a bar. Or if you feel like adding a caña (small beer) in too, that’s quite alright. Bars are pretty universal for breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, you name it and can be similar to a restaurant. I wouldn’t think twice about taking my baby in his stroller into a bar with me here; and I don’t think anyone would look twice either.

Bar in SpainBar break with baby Spain

4. You’ve lost your political correctness. Being P.C. goes out the window with a little time over here. You can try to maintain your P.C. righteousness, but trust me; it will just fade over time as you realize it’s not conscious prejudice, but really just a cultural way of being in a country that’s still new to having a large foreigner population.

5. You’ve stopped being so polite. As Americans we tend to be overly polite and apologize for everything, especially within work environments. You’ll soon realize no one else is going out of their way to be polite, so maybe you need to think about it as well. The first time I realized that I had changed with this was at work (I was the only American in the office) during a phone call with international colleagues. The Americans were being way more polite than us, and they were really getting on my nerves! Also, when your boss tells you during an evaluation that if people are yelling at you in a meeting that you should yell back, well…you can see how being polite goes out the window.

6. You keep mixing your wine and beer with stuff. How would it work if you didn’t mix it?

7. Dead animal bits hanging up seem normal. It’s clear that the sign of a good tapas bar are a number of ham legs hanging up when you walk in. After a while you don’t even notice them anymore; trust me. You’ll only notice them when you’re with someone who’s visiting.

Museo de Jamon

8. You tackle Spanish bureaucracy with confidence. After getting my NIE (national foreigner ID card), getting married, renewing working papers, switching a work residency card to a non-working residency card, getting a marriage residency card, having a baby, getting an EU license, signing up for unemployment…let’s just say that you get used to the lengthy document collection processes. By the time the third one rolls around you’ll already have the fingerprint process down pat. You’ll be prepared with 3 photocopies of everything in hand and and a stern face to deal with the disgruntled government worker.

9. You can’t stop kissing everyone. Kissing a person who interviews you for a job just seems normal. Kissing your coworkers just seems normal. Just be careful when you go home and are introduced to a friend’s boy/girlfriend and go in for a kiss.

10. 8pm seems way too early for dinner. 9pm just seems normal. With working hours generally on the longer side here, it would be hard to try to have dinner US-style at 6pm. Plus, I can’t imagine now going to bed hungry.

And a few others I’d like to add:

  • You mix up Spanish and English, even talking to your mother in the wrong language without realizing it. You also use “bueno” and “pues” in the the middle of sentences instead of “ummm” when talking in English.
  • People talk about those “foreigners”, “guidis”, or “Americans” in front of you without realizing you’re “one of them”. And you take it as a compliment.
  • You don’t feel like you completely fit in in either country but are proud to call both your home.
  • You get asked back “home” in the US in your hometown where you’re from because you have an accent! (not a joke)

If you read all of these without a blink and they just seem normal, that may be a sign of being spanishized. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; just don’t forget to think twice before applying some of these in the US. Take this as a little piece of advice from an American in Spain who perhaps (only perhaps) may have had a few embarrassing moments while back in the US…

Welcome to my American in Spain blog and what it’s all about.

Welcome to my blog…almost a decade later

When I first moved to Spain from Boston almost nine years ago with a full suitcase and a lot of determination (that was pretty much the extent of what I had), I never imagined that my “aventura” would turn into a life-changing decision. Back in 2006 I started a simple blog about my adventures as an American in Spain to keep in touch with my family and friends and to let everyone know that I was alive and well over here. I decided to share the curiosities of living and working in Madrid: the good, the bad, the interesting and the confusing. The blog kept me entertained for a while, but then I started getting a bit lazy and just stopped writing completely. And the years passed by…

That’s not to say that nothing has happened since I stopped writing. To name a few things: I went through the 9-month process of getting my working papers without a lawyer, became a 17 year old student driver again, had a baby, got married, got laid off to add to the 24% unemployment rate, got robbed (a few times), completed a two-year bilingual MBA, got in a car accident, taught a few English classes (that didn’t last long) … and not at all necessarily in that order.

How is this blog different from the other American in Spain expat blogs out there? 

Obviously there are going to be similarities with other Americans who have moved over here to Spain, but there are some big differences:

This blog is NOT about:

– Spanish food and wine. Yes, it’s great, but there are other gastronomy blogs dedicated to this.

– An attempt at gaining money. There are some other blogs that offer “consultancy” services about moving from America and living in Spain and charge for Skype calls. Sorry, but I find that humorous. The only real way to see if things can work for you are to do a lot of research (thanks internet), ask questions (there are plenty of places and people (like me) that don’t charge, and give it a go.

– Teaching English. When I left Boston I left behind a successful career path. I knew that I was taking a risk moving over here, but I decided to give it one year max, and if things didn’t work out (aka finding a legal job) I’d move back. I’m not a good teacher and probably never will be. I taught some English classes when I studied abroad here in 2000 and decided it definitely wasn’t the thing for me.

This blog IS:

 A mix of interesting stories from my experiences over the past 9 years living here. A lot has gone on during this time. My idea is to write entries about any and all interesting tidbits that come to mind and that could be interesting and/or useful to people reading this blog.

-A place to share my customer experience anecdotes. I am passionate about this topic and will be sharing both good and bad experiences. (See Customer Experience or click on the Customer Experience category).

-A mental sketchpad. I love writing. This blog will be my paper and pen.

So why start writing again now?

Over the years I’ve been contacted by people who have been interested to know more about my experiences, or just a part here or there, to help them with their own lives or just out of plain curiosity. Not too long ago an American college student contacted me through LinkedIn saying he had found my profile intriguing because he studied abroad in Madrid and wants to move over here to live. He wanted to get my advice on how I had made the move and made everything seemingly work out so well. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the recent layoff…). He was going to be interning here and would be in touch to meet up. Apparently the Madrid nightlife has gotten the best of him, since I haven’t heard any more since that last message right after moving here…

In another case, not too long ago, a friend of a friend contacted me to find out more about how the whole getting married in Spain thing works. And I was more than happy to try to help her out.

So here are my five reasons why I’m taking out the pen again (aka typing on my computer) and going back to the blogging world:

  1. I love to talk and write. One of the things I most like to do is meet new people, talk to people, and share stories. What better place to share my experiences over here that could be interesting or useful to others than in an inoffensive blog?
  1. Customer experience. I’m passionate about customer experience and believe it is fundamental for any business to succeed. Unfortunately over here in Spain that concept is probably close to #15 on companies’ top 10 lists of important items. Customers do not deserve to be treated poorly! Unfortunately, after being here for so long I’ve started to get used to the customer service….but this shouldn’t happen. I think it’s important to share these stories so companies realize the impact of the direct contact they have with customers. More valuable than any marketing plan investment is what the person next to you has to say. On the other hand, it’s important to share the positive experiences as well and to promote these actions that actually leave customers happy! I’ve had quite a few of these as well, although the bad ones tend to stand out more.
  1. Helpful info I remember when I was thinking about moving over here that I was looking everywhere I could for any sort of information that might be helpful to me. I’ve gone through a lot in almost 9 years and can definitely share some of those experiences and insights.
  1. Interesting stories. Spain is definitely different than the US, in more ways than one. Sometimes when I’m talking to my family and say something that seems totally normal to me, I realize that it’s not at all normal to them. Of course it makes sense that in the local parade for Three Kings Day on January 6th, the black king is usually a Spanish person with black paint on his face.
  1. Unemployment leaves you with time on your hands.

So, here it goes. My idea is to write entries about different topics from my experience here, mixed in with customer experience stories, mixed in with any interesting daily occurence. Enjoy!