Tag Archives: Working in Spain

Living in Spain vs. the US: 12 years later, do I see myself moving back?

If I had a nickel (or euro) for every time I’ve been asked this question I could buy myself quite a few cases of my beloved pumpkin-flavored beer (worth an image. See below).

Screenshot 2018-10-22 at 11.52.02

The short answer is no, at least not in the short-term.

Here are my thoughts on four topics that make an impact in this decision: commercial culture (aka shopping), weather, salary/working conditions, being a parent.

Do I miss the US? (that’s another question I get a lot). Of course. I miss my family first and foremost, friends, the ease of communicating in my native language, my hometown of Boston (not during the winter), some specific food items (lobsters are not the same over here), etc. So of course there are a lot of things that I miss about living in the United States of America. Typically when I’m back in the US for a trip I come back to Spain with my suitcase filled with the result of serious shopping expeditions.

The commercial culture is something I miss – there’s so much variety and just so much to choose from. And generally at lower prices than here in Spain. Having said that though, sometimes I wonder how much is too much.

The last time I was in the supermarket in the US I found it a bit overwhelming just looking at the endless lineup of salad dressing options. And don’t get me wrong, I love going to the malls. In fact during my last trip to the US last week I dragged my mom to the mall on the way home from the airport. However, I think that would get a bit old after some time. The US is a huge mall culture. Spain has started copying this over the years, but it hasn’t reached the same intensity yet (surely the weather helps).

Speaking of weather… this is always one of my main points. I love Boston, but I “strongly dislike” the Northeastern climate. I have some nice memories of being little and making snow angels in the snow with my big, puffy snowsuit on. But I also have many memories later on of being so cold that my fingers turned white and lost all sensation. I was back in the US for 9 days last week (between Boston and New York), and I would venture to guess that I saw the sun for about 10-15% of that time. Here in Madrid I really am used to having the sun shine every day, and even on cloudy or rainy days (that are few and far between) there’s always some point when the sun jumps out to say “hola”. It definitely puts me in a better mood to have this climate and be able to do things outside, which I love.

From a work perspective I have some mixed feelings: during probably the first half of my time in Spain I often complained that I would earn a much higher salary in the US. Even after completing my MBA at IESE Business School and earning significantly more than pre-MBA days, I’m still sure that I would make double or more back in the US. But…at what cost? I’ve done a lot of weighing of pros and cons thinking about this topic, and my conclusion has been that I prefer Spain, at least for now. One reason is the vacation time. At my current job I have the whole month of August off plus two weeks at Christmas, plus Easter week off, plus a number of other national and local holidays. In the US maybe I’d have three weeks, but never taken at the same time. I can’t see that working to visit family. My plan this year is to be in Boston with the kids for the whole month of August.

Speaking of the kids… since becoming a mother of two young children, I’ve thought a lot about the differences between bringing up children in the US vs. Spain. I’ve had both of my kids while living in Spain, so, to be honest, I can’t fully compare the experience. What I can share, however, is what I’ve seen raising my kids so far here in Madrid vs. what I remember when I was younger or hear from friends back home. I’m planning to write another post about this, but just a tidbit to highlight: we live in an apartment-complex with its own park, common play areas, pool, etc. where the kids can be out playing easily until 8 or 9pm+ (in summer). And it never really gets so cold that you can’t go outside. That for me, is a huge point in favor of being here (at least vs. the east coast of the US as a comparison). TBC…

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This isn’t the park at our house, but it’s an example of one closeby that we frequent. Notice the sun…

To summarize, for now I couldn’t really imagine myself back in the US, but we’ll see what happens in the future. Right now my children are both still below five years old, but I would love them to have the experience of studying in the US when they’re older (assuming they get a massive college scholarship). For now I’ll stick with the sun and take it day by day.

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The job hunt is over! How I found a new job in Madrid and why it’s time to to cut back on coffee.

Wait a minute…cut back on the coffee? Shouldn’t I be needing more coffee now that I’m back to the full-time grind?

If there are two important things I’ve learned about the job hunting process here in Spain it’s that (1) you better be prepared to drink a lot of coffee. And (2) you better have a LOT of patience. It’s all about networking and “meeting up for a coffee” to talk to all of the people you know (or contacts of people you know) who can maybe point you in the right direction or give you some advice. But don’t expect things to happen overnight or in a couple months (unless you happen to be lucky or have a really specialized job). If you’re trying to switch sectors and functions like me it can definitely be done and you can get the job you want, but…  Muchaaaa paciencia as we say here…

Networking. During one of my first sessions at the Outplacement company paid for by my ex-company to help those that had been let go with the mass layoffs I remember some talk about the importance of building your network of contacts and the importance of using and maintaining that network. “Blah” I thought! Why can’t I just look for a job posted online, apply, and that’s all there is to it? Wouldn’t this work in the US? Wrong. You’re not in Kansas anymore. 

Back to what I said before – it’s all about networking here in Spain. We were told in these sessions that 80% of jobs here in Spain are found through contacts. That means only 20% are found through other means like online job searches, for example. I remember thinking this seemed crazy when they first told us this fact and drew an iceberg image on the board. “Blah!” I said again. Well, guess what? 10 months later when I had two job offers on my plate, both of them were found through contacts and networking. It can be a daunting and sometimes painful process, but if you want to find a job you have to work on your networking and getting in touch with all your contacts – friends, past colleagues, school colleagues, etc. And make sure you showcase your USP – like being a native English speaker in my case.

I could go on, but if you’re really interested I’d rather chat personally. What I am curious about though is whether the job hunt at this stage of the game is similar in the US or in other markets to what I’ve experienced here. At this point after living here for almost 10 years my Spanishized world and POV is the only reality I know…

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…

Insider Report: Working in Spain (not as an English teacher)

If I had more time I could probably write a book about the peculiarities of working here in Spain and the differences versus the US. However, to avoid boredom, I’ll try to keep it short and sweet and just share some interesting thoughts.

Why do I think my insight might be interesting and different to other expat blogs? Well, to start, I’ve never had the typical “American in Spain English teacher” job. I tried giving some classes at one point when I was studying here and learned that I definitely lack patience for that profession. Also, I’ve worked in a variety of types of companies over here in Madrid: small Spanish consulting firm, non-profit educational organization, multinational American company. What do all of these have in common? At the end of the day, regardless of the international nature/origen of the business, if the company’s here in Spain, it is way more Spanish than anything else.

Let me just preface the following list of Working in Spain commentaries by saying that the degree to which this happens definitely depends on the company. Rather than specifically saying which company it happened at I’ll just leave it general (if you want more dirt you can contact me separately :)) Also, don’t take this all as criticism! A number of these points have positive aspects, in my opinion, compared to working in the US (see #1,2, 9, 10). Everything is a balance…

1. Lunch is not to be eaten at one’s desk or skipped and should be a full hour (at least). Back in the US I could probably count on my fingers the amount of times I went out for lunch with coworkers. Instead it was normal to go to the gym or just eat at your desk. In Spain, it’s definitely weird to eat at your desk, and if you skip lunch, there’s no correlation with leaving earlier. In other words, go out for lunch, take a break, and socialize (see #3).

2. A coffee break is essential, at least a few times a day. Taking a coffee break, whether it’s in the company kitchen or in a bar outside is key to getting up to speed with any news in the company or gossip. It’s also a good way to take a break from your work (kind of like if you’re a smoker…). And coffee is definitely not just for the morning here. An after-lunch coffee is right behind the morning dosage.

3. Getting along with people and going out for “cañas” after work is important. Social relationships are definitely more important in the Spanish workplace than in the US. You might be a great worker and deliver results but if you don’t get along well with your coworkers and the sales force forget about any sort of upward move. Also, when there’s a company dinner, coworker farewell party or christmas dinner, expect the festivities to easily last until 5 or 6 in the morning (for those who can last that long).

4. Complaining all the time is generally accepted and part of employee bonding, but it’s not that often that those complaints will actually be turned into constructive criticism and shared with management. The longer you’re here, the more you’ll find yourself complaining during your morning or lunch coffee break or during your lunch out of the office…

5. Political correctness does not exist. If something happens that you would consider sexual harassment back in the US, you have to think about it two or three times over here in Spain. Without getting into more detail let’s just say that male to female comments that would totally not be accepted in the straight-edge US are more often than not just normal comments over here. Now, I have to admit that sometimes it can be a bit over the top in the US where a male coworker can’t even compliment a female coworker on a nice outfit, for example, but having to listen to male coworkers’ comments about other females can be uncomfortable, at least for an American.

6. Yelling in meetings is not only common, it’s sometimes encouraged. Take it from someone who got told by her boss in an evaluation that if someone yells at her in a meeting that she should yell back. Really? How to Succeed in Business Rule #1: Yelling doesn’t get you anywhere or make you any more professional.

7. Expect meetings to start late, not end on time, and involve a number of confusing circular discussions without really getting anywhere or making any decisions. Also, don’t always expect the meeting organizer to be on time either.

8. Work doesn’t start at 8 or 9am (and sometimes not even at 9:30) and it definitely doesn’t end at 5. Does the song “Working 9 to 5. What a way to make a living…” ring a bell? Well, that’s one of those songs that’s definitely not known here. Unfortunately, in many companies it’s frowned upon if someone leaves at their official time and can be commented on by other coworkers. However, no one is watching to see who comes in early in the morning and commenting on that.

9. Vacation is for taking time off. I’ve heard a lot of cases in the US where people just don’t use their vacation days. Given that there are usually so few days back home, I can’t really understand this. In Spain, people generally have almost a month off a year in vacation. It’s quite common to take 2-3 weeks at a time during the summer. In my nine years working in Spain I’ve never known of someone to not use their vacation days, a slight postponement due to work perhaps, but never to not use them at all.

10. Fridays afternoons are like a “get out of jail for free” card. In all three companies where I’ve worked Friday afternoons around 2:30/3pm is when the weekend starts. A lot of Spanish people have lunch with their families after work these days or just relax, but in general it’s not the same intense work day as the rest of the week.  

Again, the three companies I’ve worked at have all been very different experiences with the most recent job definitely being more demanding than the first two. However, to one degree or another, they all share some Spanish similarities.