Adjusting to Life in Madrid – Three ‘expat’ stories

In the May edition of “Madridmetropolitan”, Chris Neil wrote about the process of cultural adjustment when moving to a new country for the first time. He mentions that newcomers can often help themselves by comparing experiences with other members of the expat community.

As a newcomer, you might find one question always seems to be on the lips of others – “Why did you move to Madrid?” This can be awkward to answer – the reasons can be too varied, vague, or simply involve aspects you would rather not talk about. It is, however, one of the questions I put to three relative newcomers, in an effort to find out how they are adjusting to life here.

All have come different backgrounds and they have all lived in Madrid for varying lengths of time, so their experiences are, unsurprisingly, different. Equally, they have all had quite different reasons for coming and this, perhaps, is what has informed their experience the most.

‘To travel, but in a controlled way”

Deborah, a Canadian visual artist in her early 50s, has lived in Madrid for just under a year, after several trips back and forth between Canada, the capital, and coastal regions of Spain. She explains to me how she came to Spain primarily to experience a different culture and improve her Spanish. However, for her the move wasn’t simply about ‘hitting the road’, as she feels she might have done in her twenties. “I have a family, and I never came with the intention of cutting ties with my old life”, she says.

As well as being a painter and recently training as an EFL teacher, she ran a business in Canada, specialising in holistic treatments. When asked if there is something she wishes she had done before coming to live in Spain, she says she regrets not bringing a bigger supply of vitamins and other similar products that, so far at least, she has been unable to find in Madrid.

Upon arriving here, Deborah recalls feeling “excited about being here and motivated to set myself up and get on with my life”. Nearly 12 months on, she feels “more relaxed”, having “found comfort in my barrio with businesses I frequent and places I like to go.”

One adjustment Deborah has had to make is in terms of space, “…sometimes the difference in personal space between my culture and this culture has been challenging for me, such as when walking down the street.” Although she has also learnt that she can be comfortable with living “simpler and with less space than I have been used to”, including “living without a bathtub”.

In terms of the personal qualities that have helped her adjust, she states, “I am naturally very adaptable, curious and love a challenge…qualities that help on a daily basis in a foreign country.” She admits, however, that her Spanish is not “where I would like it to be” and attributes this partly to having to use English whilst working as an English teacher.

Deborah has made good use of the various expat community groups and organisations in Madrid, although acknowledges that some events can become repetitive, saying that, “as a result I have limited my participation to specific interests from time to time.” However, she is generally very supportive of their concept:

“I think it’s really important and normal when you are new to a country to be want to immediately connect with others that speak the same language so that you can express yourself, get help with things and have an ear that understands what you are experiencing…. it’s normal as humans to look for comfort in familiar places while you are learning about a different culture and its language.”

Although some of the groups Deborah mentions also have Spanish members, her experiences of integrating into the Spanish community “have been slow”:

“I haven’t found it an easy process and…there are probably many reasons why I personally feel that way. I am naturally more reserved and quiet…I personally feel that being accepted by (my) generation of Spanish (people) has been a bit of a struggle, as I am an outsider and always will be. Even if I learned the language well, I will never be Spanish and think I will always be treated as such.”

However, keeping an open mind is also important to her, at least at this stage. In her opinion it is “too early to tell” whether Spain has met her expectations or not. “I think I would require more time (years) to answer that question fairly.”


“To start a 7 month theatre tour”

Adrian, a British actor now in his early thirties, originally arrived in Madrid nearly 6 years ago for the sole purpose of doing the theatre-related work for which he had trained. Before that, he had “never had an interest in or intention of coming to Spain for anything longer than a holiday.”

Adrian still talks passionately of his main emotion when arriving in Madrid:

“I was excited. I was 26 years old, I’d just moved from wet, cold, rainy Manchester where I’d been doing work that really I didn’t enjoy and wasn’t related to my career, to Madrid, to start a 7-month theatre tour. It was hot and sunny, I was meeting the new people I’d be working with and I had a beautiful city to explore.”

Although he attributes some of the changes he has experienced since moving to Madrid as a typical part of growing up – “I imagine everyone changes a lot from their mid-20s to early-30s” – he has also experienced changes that are “more related to being in Spain”:

“I’m a lot more relaxed about my timekeeping – for better or worse – I’d rather enjoy an afternoon on a terraza or at a friend’s house than a night in a club…more importantly, though, I’ve made friends from all over the world here and that has broadened my view and knowledge of other countries and cultures. I’m far more open to hear and accept opinions that are different and question things that I thought I knew.”

Adrian has also discovered the value of leaving his “comfort zone”:

“I’ve discovered that if I leave my comfort zone, whether it’s work related or something socially…that I’ve enjoyed it, whether or not I feel I’ve been successful or comfortable in that new situation. I’ve learnt to push myself, because coming here was a push and a jump out of my comfort zone and I know it was completely worth it.”

He admits, however, that there can be some down sides to living in Spain, talking about what he sees as “the relaxed nature of the culture” and the frustrations that involves:

“It’s wonderful when you can enjoy it, but when you are trying to work or deal with people who are so “mañana, mañana”, it can be infuriating. I’ve seen fellow Brits come to Spain (who have) just never accepted the laid back approach that exists here. They get so angry at the lack of urgency and they can’t accept that things move at a slower pace than in the UK. I’ve seen it make a few people feel that they couldn’t cope and leave to return home. If you don’t embrace the culture, you won’t be able to survive here for long.”

Adrian’s only regret, however, is “not learning more Spanish before coming here” and he readily acknowledges that he has relied far more on the “Expat community” for advice than the Spanish community. He also expresses his desire to “integrate myself further into the local community”.

In general, he says he “never imagined that I would love a place as much as I love Madrid”:

“I feel more relaxed in general. Not everything is as shiny and new to me…but I’m still in love with Madrid and the thought of leaving is just as far, if not further, from my heart than it was the first time I strolled through Plaza Mayor”.


“Unfinished business”

Hazel, an English teacher from Wales who now works for the British Council, first moved to Madrid seven years ago, whilst in her early 20s. It was her first foray into a foreign culture, and during that time, she met another Brit who she later married. Since then, the couple have taken teaching positions in both Eqypt and Sri Lanka before moving back to Madrid about three years ago.

She explains how their current stay in Madrid was initially meant to be short-term, but they have ended up staying longer:

“It’s just such an easy city to live in”, she says. “I mean you talk about culture shock – it’s just the opposite of that for me, you know? I just thought ‘I love Spain, I love the culture, I love the people’. I know that sounds lazy and we both suffer from itchy feet – but here we are three years later. We’ve no plans to leave – we’re definitely staying another year. We’re really keen to go to South Korea, but a job came up about 3 days after we signed the contract to our flat, so it was like – oh well, never mind. But, it’s not, like, a ‘plan B’. Wherever we go, I think we’ll come back here”.

Hazel describes herself when she first arrived as being “completely on my own, no Spanish”. She attributes a lot of her survival in those early months to the director of the language school she worked for – “a really, really nice lady…she was really good to new teachers”. A fellow Brit from the same town as her mother, “she took everyone under her wing and was just a really nice woman.”

It was this woman Hazel turned to when she experienced her first, and probably most disturbing shock to the system:

“The third day I was here, my ipod got stolen from the hostel I was staying in, which was just gutting. They could have taken 100 quid off me and it wouldn’t have bothered me as much…whenever I went home I would think ‘oh no, I’m on my own’. I would put on the TV and there would be bullfighting and I would think, ‘oh god, I don’t want to watch this’, you know? So I would just put on some music – and then all of a sudden, I just lost all my music…it was a real punch in the stomach. I felt really lonely. It was such a weird trigger for loneliness, but well, after that things were on the up.”

Needless to say, one of the first things her director did for her was help her find somewhere more permanent to live – but Hazel also notes how important English language music was in those early days:

“After that I found a radio station that played all British music, English popular music and, oh, it was such a relief finding that, you know…because I didn’t speak Spanish.”

Hazel talks about the other ways in which a lack of Spanish impacted on her early experience of living in Madrid. At first, even ordering food was a struggle:

“I would just go into these salad places that are like, self-serve because I just didn’t have that much confidence.” A short time later, during her parents’ only visit to the city (“I’m begging them to come back and visit again”), she was still struggling – and she feels this made their visit more uncomfortable for everyone:

“I would go out for coffee and I’d end up ordering the wrong type of coffee, and (my mum’s) really particular, or I’d order meat and she would say ‘what meat?’ and I would be like, ‘I don’t know’…”

She estimates it probably took “about 6 months” before she felt she had enough Spanish to cope with everyday social situations. However, it is clear that language was a significant barrier in the early days:

“I was outgoing socially, but not really when I came here – but that was because I didn’t really speak Spanish”.

Thanks to the help she received from her director of studies, Hazel was able to find a flat in the El Carmen neighbourhood, “near the Ventas bullring and just the other side of the M30”. This choice of neighbourhood also helped her adjust in those early days:

“El Carmen’s a really residential area…it’s almost like I’ve gone the other way…I should have lived in Lavapies (her current neighbourhood). But I liked it. It made me feel comfortable and adapt to Spanish life quite quickly, whereas my husband lived in Malasaña and it was a crazy, party town every single night. I don’t know if that would have been a great influence very early on. I don’t think I could have coped with it. Whereas now I’ve got all these great, multicultural bars and restaurants on my doorstep and I can just choose when to enjoy it.”

Although she has since worked to improve her Spanish, Hazel puts most of her successful adjustment down to “being open-minded”. She describes this as, “a kind of willingness to realise that you’re not going to fit in straight away, and just to be okay with it.” Summarising, she says, “Madrid’s not that big a culture shock but it has an everyday drip, drip, drip effect, that makes you think ‘my god, this is a different place’…if you’ve been here for three months and think ‘I haven’t really found my place yet’, don’t panic…for me, I’d found enough of my way after about 5 months to think ‘okay, I can do this’”. Like Adrian, it sounds like Madrid has never been very far from her heart:

“I just loved Madrid when I first came here, and I kind of felt like I had unfinished business with it. ”

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