Sunshine and Siestas: Spain's little lessons
Living in a new country is not only unfamiliar, it challenges you to live your life in a new way. American expat Cat reflects on what Spain has taught her.
My first steps in Spain ended with a huge wipe out. As I attempted to lug 100 pounds of my life through the train station, one bad move had me flat on my culo, while my grandma looked on horrified.
I laughed. Hard. I rolled over, caught my breath and stood up again.
This has, in fact, been a metaphor for my time in Spain: I mess up, forget I look like an idiot, and get right back on my feet. Call it the evolution of a species if you like: adapt or die.
Moving to Spain has been a lesson in learning and evolving, as well as making peace that it's impossible to have it all. But, with all of this, I have also learned a thing or two and improved skills I never thought would be necessary:
1. Parallel parking
Recently, a friend and I were attending a blogging conference. The rain was pouring down, so we took her car to a nearby barrio for lunch. I watched as she maneuvered her compact car into an even tinier parking spot in a garage littered with cars, scooters and several concrete columns.
I'm American, from a place with wide open (parking) spaces, often the diagonal type that are simple to pull in and out of. Coming to live in a place like Spain means that I've had to adapt to their bumper kissing, doblefila and maneuvering my boyfriend's enormous vehicle when it's my turn to drive. This, of course, has not been without 'oops' moments, but now I have a European DL and a stick shift car, and it's all become second nature.
2. Eating fish
Nothing says 'Midwesterner' like my love for beef and grain. Since I had never learned names of fish and seafood in English before learning them in Spanish, I often ordered sea creatures – as well as tripe stew, kidneys and coagulated blood – without knowing what I was really eating. Yes – I accidentally consumed fish before realising that I actually liked it.
I've also learned how to clean it properly, from pulling the ink sacs and backbone out of a baby squid to lifting the bones of a white fish. It reminds me of a picture of my sister and I during a fishing trip in Wisconsin when we pinched our noses and stuck out our tongues as my father cleaned and grilled the perch we'd caught – it seems I've come full circle.
Travel has also made me an adventurous eater, in that I'm the first to try whatever is on the menu – even bugs, weird organs and live oysters.
3. Cutting onions without crying
When I met my flatmate, she told me that part of our monthly rent would go towards things we'd need in the house: cleaning supplies, olive oil and onions.
Onions have crept into my diet just as fish have, but the hardest thing was learning to cut them without crying – I used to have to wear sunglasses to stay dry! Now, the secret? Doing it quickly and cutting on a slant.
4. Sticking up for myself
When studying for the DELE exams last November, I had a teacher read all of my writing prompts. His conclusion was that I'm really good at reclamaciones, or complaint letters. I used to be the girl who would gulp down food that should have been sent back, or turn on my heel and not stand up to the funcionarios when they turn me away.
That all changed when a taxi driver took me the wrong way and wanted to charge me for it. I asked him to leave me at a cross street, but he insisted it was a shortcut that would take me where I needed to go. When I asked him to let me walk the rest of the way, he tried to charge me the full amount. I insisted on him stopping the meter, leaving me a receipt and taking down his licence number. With that, he charged me just half and let it go.
I've learned to be proactive and not let people or silly rules walk all over me. Now the Vodafone salesman can turn me away when I start running my mouth about how they never signed me up for the insurance I had paid for on my bills, or to a nurse who was verbally abusive to a friend. I've also told a few little lies to the people in the foreigner's office to help speed up the process of getting paperwork done.
In Spain's current economic situation, people are trying to squeeze as much out of every person as they can, which means that foreigners sometimes bear the brunt of their bad service and overcharging. Being assertive won't cost you a damn thing.
I still think I'm a little lost guiri whose luck just happens to never run out. Living abroad is a test in patience and resilience, yes, but it's a lot about stepping back, taking a deep breath and remembering that it could happen the same way in your country.
What have you learned to do better during your time abroad? What do you want to improve on?
Cat Gaa left the skyscrapers of Chicago for the olive groves of southern Spain. Six years, four jobs and a daily craving for Cruzcampo beer later, Cat runs a small language academy and blogs at Sunshine and Siestas about life for a guiri in Sevilla. She's also adding small business owner to her CV as she sets up a consulting firm.
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