The Amazing Difference Living Abroad Makes

People eating in a dining room in Madrid and having a good timeI used to be a two-week traveler.

Every year, I would plan two-week-long trips to some locale, board a plane, run around, and return happily exhausted. When my husband and I moved to Madrid three weeks ago, selling all of our belongings and arriving only with two suitcases and our dogs, I expected much of the same.

Instead, I found a city full of people I could call my friends and neighborhoods I don‘t want to leave.

Everything is a learning experience
This morning, I stopped at the local bakery for a baguette. The owner remembered me, and asked, “Pistola?” which was the type of bread I had bought last time. I shook my head no, and pointed to what I wanted, a thick crusty loaf with a dusting of flour. He took a moment to name the different types of bread: colon, integral, baguette, barria, pisolin, chapata, and so on. I was slowly learning the names of these things and said, “colon” with a smile. I paid with a single euro coin and we both said, “Gracias.” My mini lesson in Spanish breads was complete.

If I’d been visiting Madrid, I likely would have never ventured to the neighborhood I now call home, much less become a regular at the bakery, market, or fruit stand. My time would have been filled with sightseeing and restaurants with English translations. Here in the Chamberi area of Madrid, most people don‘t speak English. The waiters nicely correct me, and even getting locked out of my apartment taught me more Spanish than I would have learned in the tourist district.

Blue Vespa on the street in MadridMaking connections
Twice a week, I meet my Spanish language exchange partners in a café. For one hour we speak English, for the other Spanish. I‘ve met a Spaniard from Andalucía who shared his favorite recipe for gazpacho, a pilot from northern Spain who quickly convinced me to pronounce my V as a B and shares his insights into Spanish politics, and a Madrilènes couple that wants to tour Toledo with us.

These relationships have been one of the best things about living abroad. They offer the opportunity to view the world through others’ eyes, whether it‘s the importance of work and life, the way others view Americans, or daily life in Spain. Over café or vino, we laugh, examine our cultural differences, or just enjoy some people-watching.

Going beyond the tourist trail
Since we‘re here for three months, renting an apartment, owning Spanish cell phones, and firmly implanted, it made sense for us to find permanent transportation. We opted to rent a Vespa for our time here and have thus explored much of the city from a different vantage point. There‘s a beautiful sculpture of a hand, nearly six feet tall and made of brass, that I pass every morning as we run errands. We found a Chinese-owned shop that sells everything from ice cube trays to DVD players. During the summer rebajas (sales), we found deals on Spanish clothes and footwear. In the end, we‘ve seen parts of the city that would be too cumbersome to traverse on vacation, and we‘ve enjoyed every minute of it.

Incorporating slow travel into short staysA night scene of a popular shopping street in Madrid
If you can‘t live abroad, you can still delve deeper into your destination. Try choosing a hotel in a neighborhood outside of the main tourist attractions. Frequent local shops and start conversations with the locals. Spend a day wandering a sleepy area of town, and watch the way the locals move throughout the city. Or, best of all, find a local language exchange and meet some new people. You‘ll return with a greater understanding of the culture and might even make a few friends along the way.

Christine Gilbert lives in Madrid with her husband and two very large dogs who can‘t speak a lick of Spanish. More of her writings can be found at her blog: Almost Fearless.

  1. Gillian

    I love slow travel. Learning about the neighborhood…being part of the neighborhood – then you’re really learning.

    BTW….I love the top photo – a real sense of being there!

  2. Christine-

    I totally agree with you. I don’t think I can just swoop into a place anymore and be there for a couple days or even weeks. A month minimum. But even better to live there.

  3. NomadicMatt

    @gillian/julie: you are right! it’s important to take a place slowly. I can’t go to a place anywhere for a few days. I just did a week in London and that was “short.”

  4. Yay it posted!

    Julie, I agree, I have found my short term trips (4 days in Paris for example) barely enough time to get situated.

    Gillian– And you get to peek behind the curtain a bit and see how people really live….

  5. I feel that all my best stories about travel have come from places that I have been in for more than the usual 2 week vacation. I am in Argentina now. I love how there is that level of familiarity that you talk about. I also love the little surprises and learning experiences. I make jokes about the economy and the political administration with coworkers and learn how to bake a cake from my housemates. I wouldn´t trade the experience for anything.

  6. Cris

    I agree that slow travel is always the best option for holidays (when you can… )
    But living is totally different… you find a house, a job (even if temporary), you force yourself to make new friends and learn the local language.. because you need them.. and because you know you’re not leaving that place so soon…
    When slow travelling you are able to “see” how the place is in its essence.. but you can only “feel” and “understand” it, after living there.

  7. Nice perspective. Slow living is a lot like slow cooking. Subtle flavours develop, the ‘edges’ of the ingredients fall away and make a contribution to the greater whole, the end result may be a bit of a hodge-podge to look at but so much fun to experience.

    I can hardly wait to read about how ‘home’ looks and feels as you move back into it a very changed person.

    I spend lots of time in the Algarve. My goal is to be there for 3 months at some point in the future. I’ve been managing 2 6 week trips on average for the past 3 years. I always stay in the same hotel in the same village. What a delight one day when I went to one of my favourite restaurants and the owner greeted me with “I knew you’d be in soon. I saw you walking along the main street the other day.” It is a wonderful feeling to begin to become part of the local landscape.


    Gwen McCauley

  8. Great post. I like that you included advice about how to incorporate this mindset into smaller stays, since that’s what’s most likely for most people. Very nicely done, and congrats on everything!

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