November 1, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Expat, Traditions

Carving pumpkins in Spain couldn’t make me feel more American. There’s just something about the way people look at me when I go to the grocery store and my eyes light up at the sight of a pumpkin – a pumpkin that is sadly small, has black stickers for eyes and a mouth, and includes attached directions on how to carve it. The look of joy on my face says only this: AMERICAN. And also perhaps: I miss pumpkin patches.

Good thing I’ve got my American amigas. Remember them? We’re holding down the Halloween fort here in Madrid. Our get-together last week was pure festive nerdiness (mostly thanks to Michella – teacher, decorator and chef extraordinaire). Somehow our patriotism (mostly related to awesome holidays) manifests itself in carved pumpkins, decorations, pumpkin-flavored cupcakes, pumpkin-shaped rice krispy treats, and multi-seasoned roasted pumpkin seeds. America is good, so so good.

I hope you all had a marvelous Halloween! I celebrated mine by further confusing Spaniards about my nationality (apart from when I’m perusing pumpkins at the local market) and dressed up as a beer wench (a classy one).

Here’s a little taste of America for you all, fresh from Spain.

*If you are an Americana living in Madrid, join our Facebook group here.

July 14, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Expat, Spain, Travel, Trips to the US

Who would have thought that a three-week trip back to the States would have me dreading my departure from Spain? I suppose sometime in the last year I crossed a threshold – one in which I became less American and more Spanish.

Whatever the reason, I officially can’t handle being away from my adopted home country for more than a few days. So, in order to buffer the reverse culture shock, I like to sprinkle as much Spanish-ness on my American life as possible. Perhaps you’d like to join?

In order to embrace my inner Spaniard, I employ the following easy-to-implement tactics:

    1. Excessive consumption of Spanish food is essential to my survival. Fortunately, fine-foods grocers seem to have gotten the memo: Spanish cuisine rocks. From olives, to almendras fritas (fried almonds), picos (bread sticks), membrillo (a jam-like substance that, when combined with manchego cheese and bread, is perfection!), tortas de aceite (salty-sweet crackers), olive oil, wine (duh), and MORE cheese – you can find a pretty impressive spread of Spanish grub here in the USA.
    2. I take naps as often as possible. OK, so taking a siesta is by and large unheard of among modern urban-dwelling Spaniards. That said, I consider it my duty to perpetuate the concept on this side of the pond.
    3. Occasionally, I like to linger around all five smokers that still exist in California – just long enough to catch a whiff of cigarette smoke, think of Spain, and then return for fresh air. It’s the simple things that keep me feeling at home.
    4. I frequent Spanish restaurants as much as possible because, let’s face it, socializing is always more fun tapas-style. While I’ve yet to find a legit Spanish restaurant in SF – you know, one that doesn’t serve spicy dishes, hawk tacos, or San Francisco-fy their food – just a slice of dry and bland tortilla española will hold me over.
    5. I order espresso, but not just any espresso – I like to throw in a request for a cup of ice as well. Nothing makes me feel more Euro than a café solo con hielo.
    6. I like to guard my purse and belongings with extreme and unwarranted caution – after all, you never know when a sneaky Spanish pickpocket might come along.

While it’s all fine and well to express my now ultra-Spanish self when in the States, I must remember not to go overboard. Here, the list of things that I must constantly fight the urge to do:

    1. Bumping into cars while blindly parallel parking – so easy, so effective, so fun, but also apparently so not acceptable in the US. That, along with cutting people off, not using my blinker, and avoiding basic traffic laws.
    2. I’m constantly tempted to throw trash on the ground at bars and restaurants as a part of my continued commitment to Spanish tradition. I guess that’s frowned upon here, however. Darn.
    3. I do my very best not to pronounce WiFi “”wee-fee” – as the Spaniards do. It just rolls off the tongue better, though, don’t you think? Weeeeee-feeeeeeee.
    5. 20% tipping? That’s outrageous! Particularly when I’m used to giving only my spare change. But because I don’t like being blacklisted by waiters and bartenders, I try to leave my small tipping habits in Europe.
    6. More than once I’ve tried to pay people in euros. If they were smart, they would take the money and run – after all it’s worth more – but so far everyone seems pretty adamant about sticking with dollars.
    7. And the number one thing I need to stop doing: greeting people by kissing them on the cheek. Every time I come home, I accidentally try to kiss at least a few folks, always resulting in me awkwardly justifying why I almost planted one on them.

Inevitably, just when I get used to all of these silly adjustments, it will be time for me to return to Spain and adapt to the reverse, reverse culture shock. For weeks to come, I’ll be paying people in dollars, dodging kisses, and picking up trash on restaurant floors. Ahh, the life of an expat.

June 16, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Expat, Madrid, Spain

I made the big move to Madrid over three years ago, and boy was I a mess. I missed family, I missed my dog, I missed sushi and frozen yogurt. I flew home (to SF!) at least once every three months only to return to Spain and miss home some more. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spain and always have (so much so that I never want to leave), but adapting to daily challenges overwhelmed me in the beginning. A big part of this had to do with finding my own identity here – leaving behind my job and friends made me feel like I left ME behind too.

Fitting in and finding my way didn’t prove so easy that first year. The Spaniards have always been incredibly welcoming, although sometimes we run out of common ground beyond a shared passion for jamón and Spanish wine (certainly enough to form the basis for a solid friendship, however). I’ve also made other amazing foreign buddies – Italian, Georgian (the country, although the state is rather foreign to me too), Argentinian, Columbian. We’re all expats and we all get each other.

But at the end of the day, you sometimes kind of just need an American girlfriend. Right, chicas?

After a year of living here, I found her – one of my best friends. Both hailing from California, we discovered we shared a love for cheese and festive socks (seriously), and from then on we were inseparable. Last summer she was in my wedding, and a year from now I will be in hers. LOVE her.

But then she moved to Valencia to be with her hombre. Tear!

Fortunately, over the years I’ve met other irreplaceable American friends here (like the awesome wedding and mullet photographer), but that didn’t happen overnight. I’m reminded of this as one American expat in Madrid after another contacts me via my blog, new to the city and eager to make familiar connections. One by one I’ve met many of these girls in person and discovered that they’re all pretty spectacular people (apparently my readers are awesome – but you already knew that!).

So, at this point, what would any proper American do? Arrange a Cinco de Mayo get-together of course! And then a Flag Day one too! Yep, now a group of us ladies meets monthly to get all patriotic by celebrating quasi-American holidays. We love our Spanish lifestyles, but every once and awhile some good ol’ USA fun is just what the doctor ordered.

If you are an Americana in Madrid, you can join our Facebook group here.

May 17, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Expat, Spain, Travel

I’ve come to the realization that learning a language is like going on a diet (profound, right?). You try a million different tricks, and while some might work for a select few, in the end, seeing results can be difficult.

Since I get a lot of expats and prospective expats asking what has worked for me, I thought I’d share my potentially ridiculous POV. It’s entirely unscientific, but after trying every approach in the book, and watching others do the same, I suppose I know a thing or two about the whole process.

But first a big fat gigante disclaimer: Sombreros off to anyone even attempting to learn another language – you rock! Everyone obviously learns differently and any attempt at it is impressive! So if you’re happy with what you’re doing, close your eyes and don’t listen to a thing I say.

OK, language learning as diets – here goes:

CDs, books, podcasts, etc.

They’re like diet pills. They make you feel really good, especially right when you buy them. You feel like you have the magic cure right there in your very hands. You start taking them and it seems like any day now the effects are going to kick in. But after weeks of popping pills with very little result, you forget about them and don’t touch them anymore. Sound familiar? CDs, books, etc. promising to teach another language surely have benefits – yes, you can learn how to say basic phrases, and yes, you will learn some vocabulary. But if you’re looking for conversation and fluency, you better double (triple, quadruple) up with some other approaches.

Intensive courses

They are the Atkins diet of language learning. You eat, drink and sleep Spanish for a relatively short period of time and should finish being fluent, right? Not so much. The thing about this approach is that it is pretty much humanly impossible for a person to apply the things learned in an intensive course to real life at such a fast rate. These courses can of course be helpful, just be sure to set your expectations appropriately (particularly because they cost an eye from your face – Spanish saying!). You will make improvements, but probably won’t be able to retain or use a big chunk of what you are taught.

Occasional classes or intercambios (language exchanges)

Kind of like replacing those sodas with big glasses of water. Hey – it’s definitely a great start! Basic conversation, grammar and vocabulary are all at your fingertips. But if you’re looking for more than the basics, then I hope you’re super patient…it may take awhile.


It’s kind of like being a vegetarian – one that doesn’t get enough protein or other key nutrients to have a balanced diet. Immersion is fabulous – you speak, you listen, and you speak and listen some more, and before you know it you’re chatting it up with every Tomás, Ricardo and Enrique! Sweet! When it’s time for pen to hit paper, however, grammar and writing might be a whole other story. But hey, if conversation is your objective, then immersion alone is fantástica!

Ongoing, frequent well-rounded classes

The square meal, three times a day of language-learning. If my classes in the States were a Slimfast milkshake swallowed in one gulp, then my classes here in Spain are the perfect meal with four basic food groups (and maybe a glass or two of wine!). They serve up listening, reading, speaking and writing several days a week and over the long haul. To read more about the classes I’ve taken here in Spain, pop over to Guiri Guide where I’ve written a guest post about my beloved Escuela Oficial de Idiomas.

Ongoing classes, immersion, intercambios, reading, listening…

A square meal, three times a day, with regular exercise, meditation and no smoking. Duh, right!? You basically need to do all of them – exhausting, I know. In my experience, a good diet – ehem – effective language learning involves a little of everything: watching movies in another language, going to class, putting yourself in situations where you have no choice but to speak the language, reading books, listening to the radio, marrying a Spaniard…OK, that last one might be a little unreasonable, but not altogether a bad idea ;).

Surprise, surprise. Just like diets, there’s no miracle method – in the end, it’s all about time and dedication. And also like diets, there are exceptions – you know, those who have abnormally high metabolism or an incredible knack for running hours on end. The language exceptions? Those under the age of 20 (man, kids soak things up so quickly!!!), those that already speak at least two languages (they pick up another language like it’s their job – simply not fair!), and phenoms who perhaps spoke Spanish in their past lives (but hey, that could be you!). I’m severely jealous of you all (the runners and metabolizers included).

Ok, folks who learned a second language as an adult – what worked for you? Have I missed any other methods?

March 2, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Recently, I’ve met a slew of new American expats, both firmly and not so firmly planting their feet in Spain’s red soil. Like myself, many move here hoping for adventure, others arrive following romance, and, almost always, everyone dreams of speaking the Spanish language overnight. But then, reality hits, and suddenly you’re in a foreign country, adapting to an odd food schedule, bizarrely inefficient processes, and smoky bars (wait, no, NOT smoky bars as of January 2nd of this year! Just had to rejoice in declaring that news again). The first months and even years are full of growing pains. You often don’t feel you belong, you feel like you will quite simply never speak the language, and you begin to miss good sushi with every ounce of your being.

And then, you remember that you are in SPAIN. Every day, for the last three years, I kid you not, I remain grateful that I’m here. Through the blunders, kleenex and curses, I try to remind myself of my favorite things (and we’re not just talking raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens here). And, sure enough, with time my favorite things have begun to heavily outweigh my “unfavorite” things.

So, when the Spanish dog bites, and the madrileña bee stings, here is the list of fantastically Iberian things that keep me singing the country’s praises.

The food. Period.

Duh. Really, do we even need to go over this? If I weren’t married, and could marry a physical object, it would be the tortilla española. And not just any tortilla, but rather my mother-in-law’s tortilla. Yes, it’s that darn good. It transports me to food heaven – furniture starts to look like bars of chocolate, people look like gingerbread men, and my beloved tortilla is the center of my universe. Joining this food love affair, as I’m sure you all know, is manchego cheese, jamón, croquetas and even pulpo (octopus). Spain, dear Spain, my life wouldn’t be complete without these delicacies.

The people

While waiters may not be the warmest of folks (they don’t really get paid tips – you’d be bitter too, right?), rest assured that most any given stranger will go above and beyond to help you. Three years of living here and I’m still blown away by the fact that when I ask for directions, people often either walk with me to my destination or even drive me there (remember the fellow with the mystery zucchini?). I remain in awe of the over the top hospitality I receive when visiting an acquaintance’s home. And then I’m just plain comforted by the simple way a group of people I hardly know always makes me feel like I’m part of the club. In fact, when my father visited Spain for the first time last summer (for that trivial little event of ours), he felt so welcomed and embraced by the culture that it has literally taken him months to stop marveling over Spanish hospitality.

Rhythm of life

What rhythm? You don’t hear it? I hardly do either, and that’s because the rhythm is ever so faint. If the US were a fire hydrant, Spain would be a rusty faucet slowlllyyyy dripping water. At first, this drove me mad, MAD I tell you. Why doesn’t the line go faster? Why is EVERYTHING closed on Sunday? And why isn’t anything open between 2:00pm and 5:00pm!??? But then, my rhythm slowed too, and gradually, with the surprise of frustrating idiosyncrasies having worn off, I now no longer get fussy. Here, people live in the moment, and that’s OK – they take time (LOTS of time) to have the most basic of lunches, they walk slowly through the city streets, they always pick up their phones to chat with a friend. Sometimes it can be positively aggravating, but now, more than anything, it makes me a better person because I’m able to enjoy life more fully (that’s what I tell myself anyway).

Car lifestyle

Yes, I’m following the heartfelt bit about me being a better person, with my perspective on car lifestyle. Sounds shallow, but hear me out. In Spain, people pretty much don’t car about their cars. Bump, ding, scratch, scrape, dent – no pasa nada. Double-park for an hour? Sure, why not. Park over a crosswalk? Meh, go for it. This probably sounds like the makings of chaos, but for me, not so! For every time I’ve been blocked in a parking spot by a double-parked car, I’ve probably conveniently gotten 50 things done by being able to do the same myself. Meanwhile, when I get a scratch on my own car, I laugh and chalk it up as another fabulous battle scar. I guess I just never realized how liberating driving could be until experiencing the stress-free disorder of the Spanish roads. Again, it’s all about living in the moment. Who gives a flying tortilla about my silly car?

The Metro

Seriously, the Metro is Dios‘s gift to Madrid (just as the tortilla is to my food universe). What a magnificent system it is – and I can say this too as I’ve seen a metro/subway or two in my day. New York, London, Tokyo – all just child’s play, really. The Metro, in all its glorious efficiency, can take you virtually anywhere in Madrid for a euro (sometimes more if you leave the city limits). Everything is immaculate, clearly marked in Spanish and English, and bedecked in colors and numbers so that you never get confused. I love my car (to the extent that I don’t care at all what happens to it), but my life could easily go on without it given this city’s spectacular transportation.

There you have it. My favorite things about Spain. I would advise that you keep this list handy in case you too get blue, but I realize that might be counterproductive if you don’t actually live here. Instead, I prescribe a trip to the España ASAP! I’ll treat ya to some tortilla while driving you around wildly on the Spanish streets and talking on my cell phone with a friend. You’ll feel right at home, I promise.