Originally written in Summer 2016 when Young American Expat had a blog and Colleen was officially part of the team
When my friend and fellow expat Richie asked me to contribute to his awesome blog, I puzzled a bit over what to say at first. I have sometimes silently ridiculed expat forums (Americans –like myself-- complaining about a lack of peanut butter) but still secretly used them to get out of a jam (not to look for jam, most of Europe does have that). I started out an expat in London for about 3 years before moving to Madrid, where I have been for another 3 years and counting!
What I realized about expat resources is that they are essential, even if we are grown adults sometimes endlessly complaining about the (obvious) drawbacks of expat life that we brought upon ourselves. It’s like moving from one city to another in the US; we don’t have the same experience in the new city so we need to rely on other resources and a little extra support to keep up with the pack. And, just as anybody who moves has discovered, that little extra support sometimes comes in the form of relating to our past, more familiar experience.
When I struggled to land a job after finishing grad school in London, Richie was there as my sounding board. It just wasn’t a formalized and literal sounding board. And as I am currently changing jobs while finishing my last year of a doctorate program in Madrid, expat job forums are my lifeline. But I guess I shouldn’t spend the whole post confessing to my previous suspicion of expat culture; clearly I have finally realized it is an organic and necessary thing! Instead, I’ll go into why the expat life is for me, and what the expat life in Madrid is like.
I am lucky because I moved to Madrid with a best friend and Madrid native already lined up; I met Teresa at grad school in London. Sadly, I had never studied Spanish, so I was off to a rough start with my only friend speaking perfect English and a job conducted entirely in English. Since then, I’ve slowly progressed, with my doctoral program requiring Spanish and gradually expanding my friend group.
Which is the advantage of my situation—most of my friends are Spanish and not expat. Again, I have less of a need for expat support because my (newlywed!) husband Dani is an (involuntarily) captive audience if I need to rant about his city or culture (it helps that he is a Madrileño that studied high school in the US and can speak to me in an accent that is more American than my own, and understands my culture almost too perfectly). Basically, I’ve been warmly invited into the Spanish culture since day one, which (from reading expat forums), I have heard isn’t the norm. I owe a lot to Teresa. Most Spaniards I know have friends since diapers or at least high school (well Teresa does too, but has allowed me to join the diaper circle anyway), unlike my American friendships, most of which I have formed at the earliest in high school and usually later in college. It’s hard to break in not so much because of an unfriendliness thing, or because of the perpetual expat language barrier, but more because you’ve been missing out on inside jokes for 25 years.
And the Spanish culture that I sometimes huff and puff about? Well I can’t speak for all of Spain, because like the States it is vastly diverse (arguably more so given the longer history and different languages), but I can (conditionally) rave about young professional life in Madrid. Myth one busted: I haven’t witnessed Spanish laziness--they DO work hard—at least all the people I know do. Myth two confirmed: They party hard (and relax hard, if that’s a thing??), and I am still up for it even as I approach 30!
We work from 9 to 10 in the morning until 8 or later, Monday through Friday (some places Friday is half day), and if you live in the center that means you can sleep in until 8:30 am or so, unlike in early-morning America. Also unlike early morning-America, there’s not so much room at the end of the day to have a second life (club sports, extra-curricular CV enhancers), though for football games once or twice a week, we just bolt out of work as soon as possible to drink and snack until 11 or 12 anyway. I hit the gym in the morning, but others do it during lunch (which is longer here, at least an hour, sometimes two) or after work (yes, that means getting to dinner around 10 or 11).
Weekends are worth the work. Tapas and drinks with friends can start around midday and go on all day, lunches last for hours. You can always eat outside and in the sun for a steal compared to other countries (though our salaries are indeed much lower); beers can be as low as a buck and my beloved, and quite decent, glass of wine, around $1.50. And they always arrive with a delicious free snack (cured meats, cheese, olives, nuts), which I now feel so entitled to, becoming irate when I don’t receive it in other parts of Spain or when I visit home in the US. And same for dinner, that too lasts forever, alongside the summer sun.
The vacation also is a plus. We get about three weeks off in August (so yeah, backpack through Asia or adjoining Europe, you got time), one off at Christmas, and several three day weekends. Those three day weekends are like mini vacations every three to four weeks throughout the year. It means that partying hard can be taken to the coast, or if you want to stop drinking (for like a second) you can go hiking in the North, or explore the beautiful cities, histories and cuisines all throughout Spain.
It’s impossible to get into detail here; I’ll save it for the next post. But just a little teaser: Saturday, take a-less-than-one-hour drive out to the countryside with your friends and enjoy barbecue while “bullfighting” on a ranch in a small ring with an angry cow (i.e., just run from it and let the more experienced farmhand snuggle up to it afterwards) while the sun sets at a perfect non-humid, bug-free 75 degrees and you can laze by the pool with legendary Enrique Iglesias singing in the background and a mixed drink (or several) in hand, before taking your chartered bus back to Madrid. All for less than a night out in DC. Cheers to the expat life, I’ll try to remind myself, and you, of the drawbacks later.