Expat Voices: Chris Pesto on living in Madrid
American expat Chris finds it refreshing to be among Spaniards who have a relaxed attitude about life although he admits that can be a little frustrating at times.
Name: Chris Pesto
City of residence: Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Date of birth: 2 January 1987
Civil status: Single
Occupation: Computer Programmer
Reason for moving to Spain: I originally came to Spain in the summer of 2008 for what was meant to be a one-time, two-month internship. The company I was working for offered me a full-time position. I enjoyed my time here so much that I decided to come back this summer after finishing my university education.
Lived in Spain since: June 2009
What was your first impression of Spain?
When I first moved to Madrid last year, I realised it has a far different atmosphere than any of the other major European capitals. It's less cosmopolitan than London, Paris or Rome, and you'll find fewer tourists here from outside the country than in those cities. Walking around the streets, listening to the languages being spoken, and visiting the restaurants and shops, that quickly becomes apparent.
But though it may not have the world-city vibe of somewhere like London, the city does have its own distinct, very endearing feel. It's a bit rougher around the edges, and it’s more personal.
Madrid is a large city, but it's not a place I'd ever feel totally lost in the crowd. I regularly see people I know, and even when I'm in a new part of the city it still seems familiar. It's that personality that makes Madrid an easy place to feel comfortable and really at-home.
What do you think of Spanish food?
Traditional Spanish food is filling and delicious, and tends to be immediately identifiable as Spanish. It's a shame to me that the trendy, expensive, tourist-oriented restaurants around Plaza Santa Ana, Plaza Mayor, the Prado and similar places probably tend to be what many visitors to Madrid see.
In authentically-Spanish restaurants, food is plentiful and comes in multiple courses when one is having a meal. And it's cheap or, in the case of tapas, often even free if you go in a group and order a few drinks. It's a marked contrast to the US where “Spanish-style tapas” have become an excuse for posh restaurants to offer tiny amounts of food for outrageous prices.
Delicious and cheap as the food might be, however, Spain is no place for vegetarians or those who wish to eat light. A meal is practically regarded as incomplete without some kind of meat, and the local jamon is used in more dishes than might seem possible. And meat or not, the cuisine tends to incorporate a lot of fried and fat-heavy ingredients.
Typical dishes to be found in traditional-style restaurants around Madrid include huevos duros, eggs covered in a thick layer of mayonnaise, bocadillos de tortilla española, a submarine sandwich on thick, crusty bread with a big slab of fried potatoes, and plates of steak with French fries on the side. Some restaurants offer a menu of different platos combinados, basically an entire plateful of fried items and meat.
What do you think of the shopping in Spain?
For me, shopping in Spain has felt dramatically different. Shopping is cantered much more around small, independent, specialised stores than in the US, where chains of large department stores are much more common.
Spain has only a few such chains, El Corte Ingles and Zara probably being the most significant, and they are not the norm. In contrast to the US, where shopping at a big chain like Wal-Mart tends to be the cheapest available option, El Corte Ingles is seen as one of the most upscale and expensive places to shop in the city.
For most common household supplies and basic foods, people in Madrid will frequent the numerous immigrant-run convenience shops, and for every other type of good there tends to be a dedicated shop somewhere.
It has taken some getting used to. As I've discussed with an American co-worker of mine, for someone coming from the US it can feel like a hunt, figuring out where to go to get a particular item. At times I've found myself going to El Corte Ingles just because I wouldn't know which of the myriad small stores I would need.
What do you appreciate most about living in Spain?
Outside of work, where the sometimes indifferent view toward deadlines can be bothersome and has hindered us in dealing with other businesses, I generally love the relaxed atmosphere that seems completely universal in Spain.
At times it can seem almost surreal, sitting around at midnight still deciding where to go for the evening, or going out for a few drinks after work and ending up coming home at 4AM. But nobody feels anxious if it's midnight and we still haven't figured out what to do, and after coming back at 4AM we might joke about it the next morning with the boss at work (or maybe he or she was there too). And though it's more pronounced with respect to time and deadlines, in general there is very little worrying about anything in Spain. For an American obsessed with productivity and rules, it can be disorienting, but it's also refreshingly different.
What do you find most frustrating about living in Spain?
I tend to be frustrated at times by the hours most Spanish businesses keep. Apart from the handful of big department stores in the city centre, most businesses will close for the entire afternoon and all day on Sundays. Coming from the US, where stores are expected to be open all day and on weekends, it can be extremely annoying.
A couple of months ago on a weekend, I went our fairly far from my apartment to look at a particular pet shop. When I arrived, I realised with disappointment that it had already closed at 1:30pm, and would not re-open until 6pm. On weekends especially, stores seem to be closed at precisely the times it would be most convenient to shop.
What puzzles you about Spanish culture and what do you miss since you’ve moved here?
As fun as it might be to go out and party in Spain, sometimes I wonder how people sustain it for so long. Trying to keep up in Spain can be exhausting, going out from early in the evening until 6am. It seems, however, like many people here keep it up from their teenage years through to their mid-twenties.
In terms of what I miss, I think sometimes I wish there were more of an emphasis on productivity. As I've stated, I enjoy the anxiety- and worry-free atmosphere. In fact I value it greatly. Anxiety is rarely helpful, and I believe the culture is healthier for its attitude in that respect. At the same time, I sometimes miss the motivation that comes from, if not anxiety about accomplishment, at least the emphasis on it, which is so heavy in the US.
How does the quality of life in Spain compare to the quality of life in other countries that you’ve lived in?
Well, I've only spent significant time (more than a vacation) in the USA, Hong Kong and Spain, but in comparison with both of them the quality of life is very good. People here are friendly, and much more gregarious than in Hong Kong. They also seem content with their lives, more so than in the US, and generally optimistic about the future.
In terms of material goods, clothing and high-tech gadgets are often much more expensive than in the US, so it's necessary to learn to live with less of both. As a professional geek, the former is not so much of a problem, though the latter has often been a nuisance for me.
If you could change anything about Spain, what would it be?
I would get rid of the notorious governmental bureaucracy in Spain. Getting a work permit is a nightmare.
What advice would you give to a newcomer?
As with moving to any country, perseverance is essential, especially if you have to learn the local language as I've had to. Cultural differences and linguistic problems can lead to embarrassment and frustration in what might seem like even the simplest situations, but they have to be expected. It's worth it in the end.
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