Madrid Was Transformative to My Life Abroad

by Ellen Hietsch

living abroad madrid spain ellen hietsch sunflowers learning

Year one in Madrid was transformative to my life abroad and in ways, I couldn’t have imagined. One of the activities I could do consistently throughout the year was to journal anywhere I could sit down. I’m excited to finally start organizing these thoughts by sharing my insights about living abroad on Dreams Abroad!

Last summer, I viewed my year of teaching in Madrid as a stepping stone toward a career in international education. It is a goal that has only strengthened with time. My expectations for the year were mostly centered around this path. There is, however, so much that I hadn’t considered. It has led to a year that I often describe as “unexpected.” Through a sometimes chaotic, but always rewarding year, I am proud of the person I have become.  

Here are five of the most important lessons I learned during my life abroad:

Don’t Hide From Confrontation

“If there’s one common thread through all of my personal conflicts in Madrid, it is that I avoided confrontation in each one. I have always struggled with directly confronting issues. Unfortunately, being the only American in a foreign environment capitalized this anxiety. Unsure of whether my concerns were genuine or just a result of a cultural difference, I pushed them behind smiles until my conflicts reached breaking points.

what i know now My Life Abroad

After I finally gained the courage to confront a co-worker about a situation I perceived as unfair, I realized that the roots of my anxiety about confrontation could actually be solved by… confrontation. In doing so, the two of us spoke about the situation amicably.

Being open and politely honest about a situation from the beginning prevents dams of pent-up emotions from forming. When confronted early on, miscommunications are more likely to be solved in a level-headed manner that leaves all parties satisfied. Ever since I grew comfortable with honest confrontation, I have had stronger, more trusting friendships. I can more easily see others’ perspectives when I am not blinded by my own strong emotions.”

Everything is a Learning Experience During My Life Abroad

“If you ask my friends and family what the worst thing you can say to me while I believe my entire world is burning is, they will say five words: “everything is a learning experience.” I’m aware of how true it is, hence why I’ve included it — but damn, learning experiences can be exhausting. Sometimes I just want to take a nice, little, self-pity nap for a bit, ya feel? I can reflect after a few hours of listening to Pink Floyd and living off of corner store candy.

Teaching books and supplies

When I say “everything,” I don’t just mean every bad experience, either. No, I mean literally everything — the good, the hysterical, the floating-on-air — everything. While I can identify a few big moments that exemplify my growth, I didn’t become equipped to approach them properly overnight. After difficult days at work, the positive outlooks and coping mechanisms I gained through spending time with my Madrid friends kept me balanced. In turn, having succeeded at work through independence and self-reliance helped me tackle much larger challenges, such as when I was mugged.  

Looking back on my year, I can’t think of a single significant memory that didn’t change my outlook over my time in Madrid. The accumulation of all my friendships and experiences gave me insight. It has allowed me to become someone who can be resilient through challenges big and small.”

Hang On Tight to the Little Things

map learning“There’s a quote from the Netflix series Master of None that I have hanging on my wall in Madrid: “You can’t just expect a big, roaring fire right away, right… you start with the small stuff… kindling.” While it refers to romantic relationships in the series, I have taken to finding kindling in every positive moment of my daily life. Sometimes, I take time to simply write down everything that is bringing me joy at the moment in my journal. I write about specific things that I love about my friends and little Madrid details that stand out to me. My “Kindling Lists” carry me forward when I feel trapped or afraid.  

Small things have the potential to build up into something significant. They can become “a big, roaring fire.” In the fray of chaos and change, while living abroad, the little things that bring happiness are often taken for granted or even overlooked. So much of our experiences are going to waste when we only focus on the large and emotional. Collecting small bits of positivity regularly can be a means of staying grounded when something larger seems out of control. If you take the time to acknowledge them, eventually you won’t even need to make the effort to find them.”

Be Reflective

“During my first few weeks in Madrid, I was met with many of the same challenges I had encountered in college. Determined to not repeat my past mistakes, I found solace in long walks through Retiro Park with my journal. Even as I moved multiple times, the habit stuck, and I now have four full journals.

While I will always rave about writing, it’s not the only way to reflect upon your time abroad. I have friends who used photography and music to document their time in Madrid. There are also one-second video apps that allow you to see how your time has progressed through small snippets of your most important memories. For me, even something like Spotify is vital to my reflection process. Whenever I am having strong feelings, I make a playlist.

sunflowers fields

However you choose to do so, being reflective will help you gain as much as you can from being abroad. In the moment, it can help with processing changes. In the future, you will have something to look back upon that evokes an important period of your life.”

Embrace Yourself and Everyone Around You

“I struggled with self-confidence throughout most of college. Actually, part of what drew me to pursue a career in international education was that my confidence was finally beginning to grow when I left the U.S. for the first time to study abroad in Denmark. For the first time since I was young, I felt at ease. This allowed me to be my authentic self around my friends and my host family. It’s no coincidence that I still count my Denmark circle among my closest friends.

In Madrid, this confidence not only continued to grow but overtook me. I no longer recognize the shy, scared girl I was in college. Putting up a front for everyone you meet is exhausting, and prevents authentic friendships from developing. I’ve found that allowing my whole personality to shine makes it easier to connect with a wider variety of people, instead of a small set I might be trying to fit in with. In the real world, the little boxes of college cease to exist. Madrid was the best place to learn this: the majority of the people I met, both expats and locals, were open-minded and friendly. I met interesting people everywhere I went. This built a mindset in which everyone that I met was a potential friend. After I had set this goal and succeeded many times, my fear of being myself all but disappeared.

I still have bursts of self-doubt sometimes, but having this year to look back upon calms them more quickly than any tactic I’ve used in the past. Madrid has shown me that authenticity is the best path to happiness. My life abroad has just begun and I cannot wait to where it takes me.”

The Little Things

Hey there. It’s me again. Your local, friendly Spanish wanna-be (according to another quiz/blog thing. I need help, I know. Do you think they have AA’s for people who take too many personality quizzes??). Today is a short blog, as I’m taking a break from the short novels that I seem to have a habit of writing. My entry today consists of some small differences that I’ve noticed between Oklahoma and Spain. Some of the differences may make some of my compatriots say, ¨Wait, but we have that here.¨ That may be true, but I can’t speak for New York or California, as I have never been there – or at least, I haven’t spent enough time in either state to notice everyday living differences. So, here it is:

Número Uno: Utilities and Miscellaneous

  • Back home during the winter, I always turn the heat at night when it’s the most cold (i.e. freezing depths of hell. Sorry, I mean winter.) and the most needed (duhh), and leave it off during the day.  Do that in Spain, and your heating bill will be freaking outrageous. I’m talking like 400 a month, as opposed to the $80 to $100 that I was/am used to.  ? Why do I have that specific figure in my head? Guess.
  • Almost no one has or ever uses dryers here.
  • Even the window blinds are different here. What would be a special order and a very expensive purchase back home, are the norm here. They are great blinds, though, because they’re truly efficient at keeping out the heat/cold.
  • Back home in the ol’ OK, I have always lived three ways to make sure that I didn’t die from exposure: Central heat and air (a true and masterful godsend, in my opinion), gas/electric furnaces (get thee away from me, Satan!!!), and wood stoves (?). Here, they have ceramic radiator contraptions. You can put clothes or blankets on them to dry, without worrying about burning your house down! And that is pretty damn cool.  
  • You know how we have Velveeta, and how it doesn’t need to be refrigerated? Well, here there is milk, MILK, I say, that does not have to refrigerated. Crazy, I know.

Número Dos: Indoor Living Habits/Things Learned While Being an Au Pair

  • If you want to try your hand at being an au pair, DO NOT GO BAREFOOT. Most Spanish families don’t do it and might be super judgey about it.
  • DO NOT GRAB A BLANKET FROM THE SOFA AND WEAR IT AROUND YOUR SHOULDERS. Again, Judgey McJudgersons. Side note: If you want to be an au pair, be aware that not only could there be a cultural differences, but that there might also be a class difference.
  • The Spanish are very structured when it comes to eating times. They eat at specific times and have literal courses. For example, the 1st dish might be a soup, and the 2nd dish, which is eaten separately and only after the first, could be chicken empanada or a la plancha. Also, they like to have a small dessert after their meal, which is usually a coffee, a yogurt, or a piece of fruit.  
  • Everyone knows about Spanish siestas. But did you know that wearing PJ’s in the middle of the day for said siestas is a normal thing? Preposterous!!!
  • Air conditioning: a lot of Spanish people think it is the devil and will barely use it, even when they have access to it. Most places don’t have it, but the ones that do are a higher class type of place, such as hotels, shopping centers or restaurants like Corte Inglès, or McDonald’s. Wait…McDonald’s?

Número tres: Hanging out in the city

  • Burger King, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Taco Bell: These are all places that are in really, really nice buildings, which is usually not the case in the States. I’m talking about winding staircases, marble walls and granite floors, etc.  
  • Public spaces in Oklahoma that are perfectly manicured with perfect bushes and gorgeous flowers tend to fall into two categories: golf courses and universities. Not so in Spain. Gardeners and gardening is still a viable trade, and even small towns are beautiful and perfect. There are many community spaces with fountains and an abundance of colors.
  • The variety of meat available is also much wider. You can order/buy rabbit or duck in a restaurant/store at (usually) the same price as chicken or beef. Also, you can buy a thousand types of seafood, like squid or octopus or whatever. I may miss American food a lot (Oh, generic Chile’s how surprised am I that I miss thee so) but I think having so many options is pretty cool. I’m not even going to talk about the stupid amount of varieties of jamón they have. I mean, they are obsessed.  
  • They still have public phone booths here. I’m not sure if they work, though.
  • Speaking of marble and granite, the stuff is everywhere. I designed kitchens for a little while in the ol’ OK, and granite countertops were always the dream, and an expensive one at that. Here, I notice that even walking around in the metro stations, that the stairs are sometimes made of unfinished granite. I suppose that it’s just that widely available here.
  • Cleanliness: In the city, about every 10 feet there are little trash cans that are hung everywhere down the streets. It makes it easy to not litter. People still do, but it makes it way nicer to live in.
  • China Stores. Madrid doesn’t have Dollar General or Walgreens, but it does have China stores on every corner. They are nicknamed as such, because they are almost always owned by people who are/appear to be of Chinese descent. China stores are AMAZING. They have everything, and for a much cheaper price than any other place. Need teaching supplies? China store. Need cute clothes? China store. Need tools or gadgets? China store! Sometimes the things you find there are actually decent quality. Sometimes they fall apart. Either way, I love them.

Numero cuatro: Social Interactions

  • This isn’t really a difference, but more like a contrast to how I thought things would be.  Firstly, I thought the men would all be tall, and have dark, wavy hair. Basically, I was imagining a country full of Antonio Banderases. BAHAHAHAHAHA. No. Actually, a lot of people look like people from Oklahoma. People who look like they should be out in a wheat field, smoking a tobacco pipe and in overalls, open their mouths and out comes Spanish. Now THAT was surprising.
  • Contradictorily, a lot of people are extremely well-groomed here. There are a lot of beards out and about, without a hair out of place. During the winter, a lot of slender, stylish men wear scarves and nice coats. Their hair is perfectly coiffed and gelled, some of them even wear hose (hose!) under their pants, and their shoes are polished and shiny.
    Years of not-so-subtle social conditioning caused me to be repulsed by these men when I first arrived to Spain. Words like ‘pricks’ and ‘pansies’ came unbidden into my mind. I’ve gotten used to it now, and I even bought my boyfriend a new scarf. :)
  • In Oklahoma, I never worry about getting pickpocketed. I can walk around a mall with my purse wide open and my phone in my back pocket without any problems. But if I find myself out at sundown walking, my neck hairs will stand up on end and I just might worry about getting raped or murdered. In Madrid, Spain, pickpocketing will probably happen to you eventually, one way or another. However, I have rarely felt unsafe here even while out alone at night at 3am. It is a strange contradiction.  
  • Earlier in the au pair section, I mentioned siestas. A lot of people back home imagine the Spanish lifestyle to be super relaxed. This is mainly because of what comes to mind when Spain is mentioned: bulls, sangria, sexy people and afternoon snoozes. Don’t be fooled, though. They take these afternoon breaks because they (small business owners mainly) have been working since before sun up until long after the sun goes down. That’s also why a lot of stores close down from 3pm. to 5pm.
  • I don’t go clubbing very much, partly for the following reason: I went to one of the most famous clubs once, called Kapital, and was surrounded by babies. Sorry, I mean 18-year-olds. The drinking age here is 18, rather than the States’ 21, and so club entry is not limited to those that are 21 and older. I don’t think that they check the ID’s very thoroughly, though, because some of the whippersnappers looked younger than 16.  Balderdash, I say!!!
  • Back home, most older folks are in bed by 9pm, or at least, that is the case with my family. In Madrid, nightlife is not just for the young, but also for the young at heart!  Spaniards love to socialize! I have been out at 5:00am after clubbing or doing whatever, and it is not unusual to see little old ladies with their walking canes and fur coats, looking fabulous, out and about. Forget bulls and sangria, the Spanish symbol should be one of these feisty little old ladies.

As time goes on, I’m sure that I will notice a million more things that should be added. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. Spending time in any new place can be a challenge, but it can also be pretty cool. Recently I went to explore Lanzarote, an island off the coast of Morocco known to have a landscape unlike any other  on Earth. Tune in again to see an update to know more about what my latest adventure has in store. ?

Yours truly,

Amanda AKA Squirrel