Madrid Guide: 23 Things Not to Miss

Madrid is a city filled with history, art, culture, parks, and great food. The Dreams Abroad team has collectively spent years in Madrid teaching, studying, and getting to know this wonderful metropolis. In this Madrid guide, we collate our recommendations for bars, restaurants, and things to see and do in the Spanish capital. Whatever you choose, we know you’ll love Madrid

Historic Landmarks and Museums

1. Palacio Real de Madrid 

Go inside and walk around to take in the size of this palace. The Royal Palace of Madrid has over 3,000 rooms and is the official residence of reigning monarch Felipe VI, his wife, Queen Letizia, and their two daughters. With 135,000 square meters of space, it’s the largest palace in Europe. Photography is not allowed inside but is permitted outside the building. The Royal Palace was constructed on the site of a ninth-century Moorish fortress that burned down and took 17 years to build. The project started in 1738 and concluded in 1755. The Palacio Real reflects the Franco-Spanish architecture of the Bourbon dynasty and the exterior of the palace has a façade of white limestone and grey granite. The main architects of the palace were Italian: Filippo Juvarra, Giambattista Sacchetti, and Francesco Sabatini.

2. Templo de Debod

Templo de Debod is one of the only Egyptian architectural monuments outside of Egypt. Built sometime between 250-150 BC, the structure was a chapel dedicated to the god Amun and the goddess Isis. Spain assisted the Egyptian government in saving the Abu Simbel temples from flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, and Egypt donated the temple to Spain as a gift of appreciation. The monument is best experienced at sunset.

3. Catedral de la Almudena

The Spanish capital’s cathedral maintains a cool interior even in the heat of a summer day. This beautiful venue hosted a fairytale wedding on May 22, 2004, as King Felipe VI, then Spain’s Crown Prince, married Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano. There is no entrance fee, but you are encouraged to make a voluntary donation to help pay for the cathedral’s upkeep. Tourists are welcome to attend services, and many visitors like to light a candle for a loved one during their tour.

4. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reína Sofía

In January 1937, exiled Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, was commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to create an eye-catching mural. This would be displayed at Paris’ Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life). Upon learning about the April 26 bombing of Guernica, poet Juan Larrea traveled to Picasso’s home to encourage him to make the aerial attack the focus of the mural. Picasso was further inspired by reading George Steer’s on-the-ground account of the Nazi-led onslaught and produced Guernica. Picasso’s mural and several of Salvador Dalí’s works can be found on the second floor of the museum. 

5. Museo Nacional del Prado

The Prado features Spain’s most famous works of art. Make sure to see the Prado Mona Lisa by the artist group, Leonardeschi. This is a painting with the same subject as Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. It has been on display since 1819. Pablo Picasso’s Las Meninas is another piece you shouldn’t miss. The Prado is one of the largest museums in Europe and Goya, Velazquez, and El Greco are some of the other famous names to look for here.

6. Museo Sorolla

This elegant museum was once the highly desirable residence of Valencian portrait and landscape artist Joaquín Sorolla and his family. It was converted into a museo after the death of his widow, Clotilde Garcia del Castillo, in 1929 and opened to the public three years later. Joaquín met his wife while apprenticing with her photographer father. In addition to works of art by Sorolla, there are also sculptures by his daughter, Elena, on display. 

Dining

1. Honest Greens

Take an American business school alumnus, combine with a Danish entrepreneur, and add a French chef with Michelin kitchen experience to guarantee a recipe for success at this Madrid restaurant. This group joined forces to create relaxed eateries across Madrid that feature locally sourced produce with a fast-food philosophy. A retro soundtrack plays as you order from the counter and wait for your seasonal selection to be delivered to your artfully designed stone table.

2. Café Federal

If you are a homesick American craving pancakes, head to this cozy place in Universidad barrio or the second location in Conde de Barajas. Either venue is a perfect post-breakfast, pre-lunch destination. You can even find plant-based options for your vegan companions. Breakfast and brunch are served until 1 PM on weekdays. The schedule extends to 4 PM on Saturdays and 2 PM on Sundays.

3. Francesca’s Clueca 

This great little restaurant in Ibiza features homemade Spanish omelets (tortilla de patata). They are thick and traditionally made with potatoes and onion, but you can order off a long list of specialized omelets. A favorite is the toscana with sun-dried tomatoes, cheddar cheese, and basil.

4. Chocolateria San Ginés and 1902

Chocolateria San Ginés is the first place in Madrid to sell churros con chocolate, crunchy dough fried in olive oil that is served with lukewarm chocolate dip instead of hot. They have been serving these treats since 1894. Chocolateria San Ginés is open from 8 AM to 11:30 PM every day. 1902 is another popular churreria in Madrid that is still family owned and operated. They pioneered the first gluten-free churro and are located centrally around the corner from Plaza Mayor. 

5. Restaurante Botín

This restaurant opened in 1725, earning it a Guinness World Records entry as the world’s oldest restaurant. The interior has not changed since its 18th-century origins and neither has the kitchen’s firewood oven. The house specialties are lamb and suckling pigs imported from Segovia. Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene used the Botín as a dramatic background in their novels. Hemingway favored a corner table on the first floor. The cellar stores wine according to three types of classification based on age: Roble, Crianza, and Reserva. The cellar’s 14 to 18 degree Celsius temperature is ideal for housing these red wines. 

6. Levél Veggie Bistro

Stylish Ibiza is the ideal location for this chill eatery that showcases work from up and coming artists alongside signature dishes, including raw plant-based lasagna with macadamia ricotta and Brazil-nut parmesan. The owners, Fabrizio and Julie, are the guardians of this tranquil spot and its colorful menu. Julie even has a salad named after her with arugula, macadamia cheese, orange wedges, cardamom, and beetroot dressed in a vinaigrette.

7. El Paraguas

Central but tucked-away, Salamanca is the barrio where the celebs feel relaxed enough to eat out. Join the likes of Real Madrid stars (legendary left-back Marcelo was spotted there on a recent visit) and satisfy your hunger with some modern riffs on Asturian classics at this stylish eatery. The amuse-bouches provide a bite-sized intro and conclusion to your meal.

Parks and Sports

1. Parque del Retiro

This is Madrid’s Central Park, and it’s so large you can spend the whole day there and still have more to see. Challenge yourself to find the famous statue of the Fallen Angel, rent a rowboat at the lake, take advantage of “the bars” for outdoor workouts, and check out the Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal).

2. Estadio Santiago Bernabéu

“La Casa Blanca” is the stadium nickname of Spain’s (and possibly the world’s) most famous soccer club: Real Madrid. On non-match days, you can take a stadium tour. The tour grants you access to changing rooms frequented by club legends such as Alfredo Di Stéfano, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Raúl, and Sergio Ramos. When Real Madrid plays at home, you’ll find that it’s easier to buy tickets for a game against one of La Ligas smaller teams rather than El Clásico versus its fierce rival, Barcelona.

3. Metropolitano

This is the home of the Spanish capital’s second most popular soccer club, Atlético de Madrid. Just like their cross-city adversaries, Real Madrid, they offer a stadium tour when the team isn’t playing at home. However, if you want the full Spanish soccer experience, try to visit on a match day. The Atlético fans are passionate, and proudly sing club-related songs and enthusiastically shout out chants.

Sightseeing and Shopping

1. Faro de Moncloa

Just four euros buys you a ticket to the 100 meter high Faro de Moncloa, a former transmission tower with an observation deck in the Princesa neighborhood. It’s open from 9:30 AM to 8 PM, Tuesday through Sunday. On a cloudless day, you can see for miles (up to 100 kilometers away). You can easily make out the campus of the Universidad de Complutense, which opened in the 13th century in nearby Alcalá de Henares. Residence halls are color-coded by the home countries of students. Off in the distance is El Pardo is the royal palace where King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia spend most of their time. The palace originally served as a hunting lodge and is surrounded by a forest.

2. Market Shopping

Mercado de San Miguel is right around the corner from Plaza Mayor. Explore the market and walk past the seafood vendors to see the giant fish they put out daily. Malasaña’s Mercado de San Ildefonso has three floors, three cocktail bars, and plenty of tapa options if you’re on a booze cruise. Mercado de la Paz is a historic market that opened in 1882 in Salamanca. This is a great place to stock up on nibbles such as cold cuts, cheese, and olives, along with seasonal fruits and veggies. 

3. Gran Vía Shopping

All the region’s main stores are located along Gran Vía. As you explore, you’ll stumble across Plaza de Callao where there is an El Corte Inglés store with a top floor full of restaurants that is worth a detour. Also, consider walking down Fuencarral, a shopping street closed to cars that branches off Gran Vía.

4. Puerta del Sol

You’ll find Madrid’s city emblem at Puerta del Sol: a statue of a bear with a strawberry tree. Kilometer Zero is also located here at the exact center of Madrid, which is the point which all distances in the city are measured from. Without reservation, the best chocolate pastries in Madrid are located in nearby La Mallorquina. Order the napolitana de chocolate

Nightlife

1. Círculo de Bellas Artes and Azotea del Círculo

For a nocturnal vista, Círculo de Bellas Artes has the best rooftop bar. A line usually forms before the bar opens, so arrive early to get the best seat. Dress up to feel like a star in one of Madrid’s most exclusive venues. The Círculo de Bellas Artes is a cultural center and it costs five euro to reach the rooftop with access to the La Pecera cafe. However, the place to be seen is the Azotea del Círculo. Order the signature Azotea cocktail with Chivas Mizunara blended Scotch whisky, lemon, cranberry, and ginger ale, and take in the view. 

2. La Máquina Jorge Juan

When the DJ pumps up the volume, you may think you’re dining in a club. This restaurant is in a converted stately home in Salamanca, but it has the relaxed feeling of a local favorite. To start, order their neat twist on patatas bravas, which are tempura potato sticks accompanied with smoky paprika flavored salsa.

3. Pictura

Los Jerónimos is where it’s at if you’re craving exclusivity. This upscale neighborhood is where you’ll find the Mandarin Oriental Ritz, one of Madrid’s most luxurious hotels. Their Pictura is a dress-to-impress cocktail bar with complimentary nuts and bijou tapas, such as mini Korean burgers. 

Keep This Madrid Guide Handy

Whether you’ve already planned your trip to Madrid or are considering it as your next destination, keep this Madrid guide close by as you map your itinerary. 

 

What I Know Now About Teaching Primary School

Serenity on top of a mountain during her off time when not teaching primary school.

What I Know Now About Teaching Primary School in Madrid

So, do you think teaching primary school abroad is easy? Think again. Between the constant questions of “teacher, teacher, do you speak Spanish?” and the requests for a last-minute change to your lesson plan, being a foreign language assistant and teaching primary school can be exhausting. 

I spent two years working in a concertado school in Alcalá de Henares. Concertados are basically the same thing as charter schools. They are partially funded by the Spanish government and partially funded by parents’ payments. 

These schools require much more from the average language assistant, as your function in the school is essentially that of a teacher. They pay a higher stipend per month, but the hours are longer. If you are looking to have a professional position within a school, however, this is definitely the way to go. 

My experience in my concertado was difficult but rewarding. Here are some lessons that I learned teaching primary school in Madrid.

1) Always Expect the Unexpected

Here in Spain, everything is done last minute. From the granting of your visa to the server giving you that ketchup you asked for when your burger was still on your plate, the country consistently runs on a timer set 10 minutes slow. School is no exception. 

When I first began teaching primary school, I had absolutely no teaching experience. I was thrown in front of a class of wide-eyed Spanish children screaming my name with no classroom management skills. Boy, did I learn quickly. 

Not only did I learn how to be a teacher in a week, but I also quickly learned that teachers have a tendency to request the moon when you’ve prepared the sun. What I mean is that I would, at times, prepare an entire lesson on the opposite topic of what the teacher wanted that day. 

What I learned was to always be prepared with simple games that could be easily adapted to any topic. One of my favorites was a game where I would have the kids make paper planes. We would have a competition where the students would say a grammatical structure. If they were correct, they could throw the plane to attempt to get a point for their team. 

Kids never behave like you think they will. Sometimes, a class will be so quiet and perfect that you have 10 extra minutes at the end of your lesson, and other times you won’t even get halfway through by the time the bell rings. It’s important to always roll with the punches, and keep your cool. 

2) Teaching Primary School Can Be Fun!

Teaching primary school, despite how taxing it can be at times, is an absolute delight. Younger primary kids love to sing, whilst older primary students love a good old-fashioned competition. Basically, your multiple personalities get to shine depending on what class you’re teaching. 

With the little ones, I used to love to find songs related to our lesson plans and do a live performance. I would force all my students to stand up, sing, and dance with me. I also used the program GoNoodle, which is a fantastic educational website that offers various activities like dances and brain breaks. 

It is important with younger kids to provide a daily routine. Mine always began with a song or dance in English. For them, it subconsciously signified that it was time to start English class and that we would not be conversing in Spanish. I also learned that younger kids don’t have an attention span of more than 15 minutes. Activities that are longer than 15-20 minutes will inevitably cause classroom disturbances.  

The older kids don’t need as much structure, as your presence in the classroom will be enough to get them in the mood for English. Upper primary students love games and competition, although rules of respect must be set far in advance. Sometimes, they are a little too competitive. 

Teaching will be as fun as you make it, so it’s important to get your creative thinking cap on when you’re lesson planning. If you do it right, the kids will literally chant your name when you come into class. That’s because they know that you are a break from the monotony of other teachers. 

3) Your Kiddos Will Need Lots of Love

If you are from the United States like me, the physicality of countries like Spain will shock you. Pre-COVID, I would have at least five children come up to me and hug me before the class started, and normally at least two after class had ended. Here in Spain, teachers believe that children need a lot of love. It is okay to show them appropriate affection like hugs, or kisses for the babies. 

It is important to remember that children are often products of their environment. Unfortunately, this means that many kids who act out or are disrespectful, are often taught to do so at home. No child is actually “bad,” rather they are modeling behaviors that they have learned at home or from something they’ve been exposed to on TV.

One of the most important lessons that I took away from teaching primary school in Madrid is to always try and meet kids where they’re at. That doesn’t mean that you have to cave for them if they are being disrespectful, but you should always try and see the child as a person. 

No child is stupid, annoying, or hard to work with when you are in the classroom. Save your complaints for closed doors. You just might be the reason that a child, who all of the other teachers openly hate on, believes in themself and tries to be better. 

4) The Power of the Justificante

After moving to Spain, I discovered that this country is a mix of two really frustrating things; disorganization and bureaucracy. Justificantes are a Spain-specific type of paperwork. Essentially, a justificante is a piece of paper stating that you were at a doctor’s appointment, visa appointment, etc. They are the only way that you can be excused from school if you have either a medical problem or some sort of issue with paperwork. 

Without a justificante, a school can deduct your pay for a day that you skipped, even if you actually were at a doctor’s appointment. They are incredibly important to the school system. However, there are some ways around the justificante if your school coordinator (aka your boss) is nice enough to offer. At my school, if we ever had to miss a day without a justified reason, such as cheaper flights a day after the school holiday ended, we were allowed to stay an extra day at the end of the year to make up for our lost time. 

When working and traveling in a new country, it is incredibly important to be aware of the specific guidelines of that country, particularly when it comes to paperwork. The justificante was a concept that I was unaware of until I got to Spain. However, it is incredibly important to your job when you fall ill or need to get some paperwork sorted. Always do your research when you travel, particularly when it comes to paperwork or visa guidelines. You never want to get caught on the wrong side of bureaucracy. 

5) Don’t Forget to Explore a Little

If you go to another country to teach, it is super important to explore. Ask your colleagues about interesting places to go in the area. Do some research. 

While I was in Madrid for two years, I made it a point to get out every weekend, even if it was just for a simple walk or a tapa. I researched the best places to go in the community and asked around. I learned a great deal more about exploring my city and the community of Madrid by simply reaching out to people and asking. 

Even though I was a teacher, I learned a lot by forcing myself to meet people and experience things that I was not necessarily comfortable with. I never thought that I would eat an octopus, but now I can say I have tried it (although I was not the biggest fan). By learning about the area that you are living in, you will have the most authentic experience possible abroad. You will find the places that people actually go to eat, rather than the tourist hotspots. You will find a quiet corner that you never knew existed, and now feel that belongs to you. 

Teaching primary school in Madrid has been one of the most rewarding and interesting experiences that I can boast of in my professional career. Teaching abroad and working with children is rewarding, and one of the easiest ways to have an authentic cultural experience. You will be exposed to a country in a way that only comes from living there.

by Serenity Dzubay

How to Cope With Where You Are Not

“The grass is always greener on the other side” is a proverb I have always firmly disagreed with. It gives the misguided impression that fulfillment in life is inherently tied to your physical location. If you are not fulfilled, it’s because of where you are (or where you’re not). It suggests that you could be living somewhere else that’s better than where you’re currently living. It leaves you with a feeling of helplessness and scrambling to figure out coping mechanisms.

In the several stages of my life during which I was living somewhere that I didn’t want to be, when I knew the place I would have rather been in, this proverb haunted me and fueled my various episodes of depression. In this article, I will share some of the lessons I learned, mistakes I made, and adjustments I implemented which all aided in coping with the challenges of being where I was whilst knowing I’d rather be elsewhere.

Some Context

I am from Los Angeles, CA, and I first moved away from home at age 18 to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. At the end of my first year there, I studied for a semester abroad at the Berklee Valencia campus in Spain. By the end of my second week there, I had discovered that Spain was where I belonged. It is simply the perfect place for me to be. 

The knowledge of these truths was also the cause of several depressive episodes in my life, ​​despite all the clarity and gratitude which it gave me. Whether it was because of visa issues or other logistics, the simple fact of not being in Spain was a tough pill for me to swallow. It was like I was a small child who had been given the sweetest candy they had ever tried every day for four months and then told they could not have it anymore.

Expat at Heart

Besides my love for Spain, I have never felt a connection to LA or the US. I’m only the third generation in my family to have been born in the US. I have always carried a strong sense of criticism towards my environment from as young as I can remember. Whether it be towards the underfunded public school system in LA, the frustration of spending what felt like half my childhood sitting in traffic, or the laundry list of large-scale societal issues such as gun violence and income inequality plaguing the country as a whole.

My dad and older brother are both political science majors. There was always an emphasis on what was happening in the world in family conversations as I grew up. These conversations combined with my empathetic nature led me to feel very dissatisfied with “my” country. In the aftermath of my mom’s traumatic brain injury and severe depression when I was 16, you could say that dissatisfaction hit its maximum.

The First Arrival

I had already suffered from depression earlier in my life (before attending Berklee). The first “grass is always greener on the other side” depression hit me the moment I walked onto the street from Arrivals at the Los Angeles International Airport. This was my first return from Spain in 2017. 

The sound of constant cars honking, the smell of trash and smog, and the greyness of the concrete jungle which is LAX, all made me want to turn around and get on the first plane back to Spain. It wasn’t only the literal sensory overload/reverse culture shock that affected me. The weight of personal, emotional baggage which being in LA and the US brought to the surface hit me like a tidal wave. My parents brought me to their house and I sat on their couch crying hysterically for more than two hours until I fell asleep from exhaustion and jet lag.

The First Lessons of Coping

The intensity of the depression was unlike anything I had ever felt. It became my mission to return to Spain by any means possible. Studying abroad a second time at Berklee Valencia was a possibility. However, it meant I had to work twice as hard to complete all the courses for my major. Unfortunately, the school only offered them in Boston in a year less than it typically required. This was the first lesson. If you want something, especially something which is difficult to obtain, it requires some serious hard work and dedication. However, the learning of this lesson was only the first of several hurdles to be cleared. 

My unwavering focus on getting back to Spain, combined with my work ethic, was by no means a cure to my depression nor even a passing coping mechanism. If anything, it only fueled the fire. The “grass is always greener on the other side” has the often overlooked, terrible side effect of “the grass is always worse where you are.” This meant I had to learn how to cope with being where I was not.

While I was completing my major courses, waking up every day at 7 am and working nonstop until 1 am, I did my best to appreciate Boston for what it was. I thought I had understood then how to fully live in the moment, be grateful for what I had, and make the most of every situation. In reality, there was still a huge part of me whose voice kept telling me, “But this isn’t Spain. This isn’t good enough.” 

The Next Lessons of Coping

I nearly worked myself to the point of mental breakdown. Nonetheless, I made it back to Berklee Valencia in Spring 2019 for my final semester of university. I had (thought that I had) made it. I had another wonderful four months, just like I had experienced the first time I studied abroad. My Spanish had improved to a fluent level, so it was even more fulfilling than the first time.

I was also in a relationship with a woman who I deeply loved. We shared a mutual desire to spend the rest of our lives together. However, due to mutually undesirable circumstances, the relationship ended two weeks before my flight to Boston (the city we met) for my graduation from Berklee. 

After graduation, I immediately turned around and ended up in Madrid for a summer internship working with a Spanish composer. I was in an extremely emotionally fragile state. It felt like I was barely clinging to relative stability based upon the pure knowledge that I was in Spain. That fragility shattered when the internship ended, and with it, my visa.

In August 2019, I found myself hysterically crying on the same couch in my parents’ home which I had been hysterically crying on just two years before. Only this time, there was no option of studying abroad again. I had graduated. This depression lasted a solid two months, during which I was practically incapable of doing anything. I wasn’t coping with my reality at all.

The Power of a Present Mind

Sometimes, with depression, especially when it’s severe, there’s not really much to actively be done to reverse it. The healing process can, at times, be extremely slow and gradual, which was my case that summer. Once the initial shock of returning to the US wore off, I finally learned how to live in the moment and feel grateful. 

I started working at a nonprofit for music education. I moved into an apartment with former classmates from Berklee. Finally, I discovered a social life in LA that was enough for me to feel satisfied with my life. The voice in the back of my head saying, “But this isn’t Spain. This isn’t good enough” was drowned out by my actively present mind. The voice was still there and still motivated me to work towards my goal of moving to Spain. However, it no longer had the power to control my mood.

Eli living in Valencia in spring of 2019.

Key Takeaways

The lesson of taming my internal voice has been the most consequential of my life. I realized that ignoring the voice was not an option. I simultaneously loved Spain and disliked the US so strongly that it was simply impossible to ignore. Listening to it actively also was not an option as a true coping mechanism.

In the year which I spent completing my major courses in Boston, the word “Spain” went through my conscious mind at least once a day. It prevented me from enjoying Boston as much as I could have. It was only upon returning to LA in August 2019 and experiencing the worst depression I had ever had that I learned how to balance that voice. 

Finding Balance

Balancing that voice meant many things to me. Above all, it meant using only the required amount of effort needed to get me back to Spain. If there were programs to be researched, people to be contacted, or any other practical tasks that would benefit my potential return to Spain, I would use my energy for those.

As soon as my mind started to wander into “My life isn’t as good in LA as it used to be in Spain” land, I would actively do something to make myself more present. It didn’t matter whether that meant going for a drive, calling a friend, or playing a video game. This coping strategy was so much better than the unending dissatisfaction I felt before.

Anything that it took to change my mind from a state of “the grass is always greener on the other side” to “let’s enjoy the grass that I’m standing on” was sufficient. Even if, deep down, I knew that the grass I was standing on wasn’t the grass I most enjoyed standing on, the most important lesson of my journey (so far) has been that the grass is never greener on the other side. It is simply different. The color of the grass is all based on how I choose to look at it. That’s a coping technique I can live with.

by Eli Slavkin

Reflections on Moving to Europe

One of my favourite things to do while browsing Facebook is answering the weekly question in the Girl Gone International Facebook groups. However, I didn’t answer the question last week, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The question read When you are asked, “Why did you leave your country of birth?”, what is your reply? The question wasn’t difficult, but every time I tried to write an answer, I wasn’t sure what to say. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question. However, as I try to settle into my new home in my second European country, I’ve been thinking a lot about it. This, inevitably, leads me to think about how moving to Europe 11 years ago completely changed my life.

A True Canadian  

If you know anything about me, you probably know that I got the travel bug young. My mom always said she knew that I would be a traveller and live abroad. She also knew that I’d go as far away from home as possible. It’s not that I don’t love Canada — I do! I’m very patriotic: I always wear red and white on Canada day, eat poutine whenever I can, put maple syrup on everything, and say sorry for the smallest of things.  However, despite all of this, I never felt truly connected to Canada. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend my life in my tiny hometown.

Excitement Abound 

The first time I stepped off a plane in Berlin, I felt a rush. The atmosphere was so different from where I grew up. I could feel the history everywhere, and the architecture surrounding me was so old and beautiful. At that moment, something clicked in me, and I knew I needed to move to Europe after university. That opportunity came to me in the form of a Teach English Abroad program in Madrid.

  

Arriving in Madrid was thrilling! The rush of traffic, the sights and sounds of Huertas and Puerta del Sol, seeing whole ham legs hanging from the ceilings in bars, eating mounds of free tapas with each beer, partying until 6 am, and staying up to watch the sunrise all felt like a natural fit for me. As the months passed, I experienced more of Madrid, improved my Spanish, and observed the Spanish way of life. All of these experiences helped to build and cement my love for my new home.

Home Is Who You’re With 

I was lucky to make some really great friends early on. Most of them were other Canadians and Americans who felt the same as I did — like they didn’t belong in their home country. Although some of these friends have since left, I still have a tight circle of people who have made lives for themselves in Madrid. 

Meeting my now-husband is probably what solidified my reasons for staying in Spain. With his help, I was able to get real working papers and transition into a full-time teaching job at a private school in Spain. I’ve met some amazing friends there (both Spanish and expat) and made a name for myself at the school. I’ve also been lucky enough to take advantage of cheap flights and travel to other amazing European cities. This has allowed me to try their food, learn their history, and experience their way of life.

New Beginnings in Strasbourg, France

My most recent European adventure has taken me to Strasbourg, France, for a two-year sabbatical while my husband fulfills one of his professional goals. Although I’m in a different time in my life than I was 11 years ago when I moved to Madrid (I now have a four-month-old baby girl), I still feel the same excitement I felt when I first stepped foot in Europe so many years ago. I’m excited to re-learn French (or at least try!). I’m also excited to see the beautiful Alsatian towns with their traditional timbered houses. I want to explore as much as I can on this sabbatical. I want to see the Black Forest and nearby mountain ranges. I’m looking forward to experiencing all that France has to offer while I’m here! 

Moving to Europe Was the Right Choice for Me

So I guess to answer the question, “Why did you leave your country of birth?” I would have to say that Canada just didn’t (and still doesn’t) give me the rush and excitement I’m looking for in my life. Europe, whether it be Spain or France, just feels right to me. I’ve checked off so many places on my travel list, learned so much about myself over the past 11 years, and made a life for myself here that I wouldn’t change for the world. Sure, I miss my family in Canada, but I’m happy here, and I know that moving to Europe was the right choice to make all those years ago.

by Kristen Gammage

Three Day Trips Near Madrid You (Probably) Haven’t Heard Of

Travel Off the Beaten Path

Spain is a popular tourist destination, with Madrid being one of the most visited cities in the country. For those looking to escape the city for the day, there are many popular day trips near Madrid, including places such as El Escorial, Aranjuez, or Álcala de Henares.

These destinations are loved by tourists not just from Spain, but from all over the world. However, if you’re interested in immersing yourself in Spanish culture, you might want to avoid the tourist traps. You may ask yourself, “Where do the locals go?”

Here are three hidden gems near Madrid that you might want to consider for your next trip to Spain. All of them are a quick trip from the city, so you won’t need to book another hotel or worry about bringing your luggage with you!

Sigüenza

Just an hour and a half away from Madrid by train, Sigüenza almost appears to be frozen in time. The small town, located in the Castilla-La Mancha province, dates back centuries. In fact, its castle was raised in the 12th century and remains incredibly well preserved today. You can visit the castle and many medieval houses, churches, and fortifications, all of which are rich with Spanish history and culture. Siguënza is also home to El Museo Diocesano de Arte Antiguo, an art and archeological museum named one of the oldest in Spain.

If you get tired and need a rest, the central plaza near the cathedral is a fantastic spot to stop and enjoy tapas. There are several restaurants located around the plaza and on the side streets leading away from it. If you’re visiting between 2-4 pm, the plaza will likely be alive with locals having lunch out with friends and family.

Although Renfe trains run to Sigüenza, you might be interested in the Medieval Train, a touristic option that runs both a train and tour service. For 35€ (16€ for children), the service will bring you to the town and take you on a fully guided tour of the historical sights. The train trip itself provides medieval music to set the atmosphere and little goodies. Once you arrive, there is also a theatrical performance and free time for lunch and shopping.

Tip: Make sure to check the dates that the train is running, as COVID-19 has affected service.

Manzanares El Real

Located an hour outside of Madrid at the base of the Guadarrama Mountains sits Manzanares El Real. This charming town is set against a stunning background. On one side is the Santillana Reservoir from which the Manzanares River runs. On the other side are the Guadarrama Mountains, an integral part of both regional and national parks, and La Pedriza, part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. During your visit, you might see some of the many animals the area is home to, such as storks, eagles, and possibly even an Ibex goat.

An Archaeologist’s Dream

Manzanares El Real is a fascinating destination, not only because of its natural beauty but also because of its long and rich history. Its castle played a crucial role in the Reconquista of Spain when the Spanish retook control from the Umayyad Caliphate. You can visit the castle ruins and many other historic sites, including the New Castle of the Mendoza Family, which remains in amazing condition and has been converted into a museum.

Apart from its monuments, Manzanares El Real is also part of the many routes of the Camino de Santiago. You can walk part of the Camino from the town, which takes you alongside the mountains. Eventually, you end up at a beautiful hermitage overlooking the surrounding area.

Finally, Manzanares El Real is also home to Bronze Age archeological dig sites in La Pedriza. Nearby is also the famous dig site La Cabilda, located in Hoyo de Manzanares, which sometimes allows volunteers to participate in the excavations.

Visiting Manzanares El Real is easy. Simply take the 724 bus from Plaza Castilla for roughly 4€. The bus drops you off in the center plaza, where you can grab a drink or tapas before looking around. But be careful, there’s so much to see and enjoy, you may want to spend more than one day there!

Brihuega

The adorable town of Brihuega is located about an hour and a half away from the capital, making it one of the top day trips near Madrid. Famous for its lavender fields and local lavender products, you can visit the town by bus or train. That said, you’ll need a car to see the fields up close.

Once you arrive in Brihuega, it will be immediately obvious what the town is famous for. There is lavender everywhere! From shops selling lavender-based goods to house decorations, the entire town is sprinkled with purple. This gives the town a charming and picturesque vibe and provides the perfect backdrop for photos.

Lavender and History

Brihuega isn’t all about lavender, though. Like many Spanish towns, it also has both historical and cultural significance. You may want to stop by the old city walls, 13th-century church, or bullfighting ring. Don’t forget to pop into the tourism office in the center for a free map!

Of course, the crown jewel of Brihuega is its lavender fields. In the summer, the fields bloom with vibrant color and stretch as far as the eye can see. These fields are important to the bee population, but don’t worry–they’re more interested in the flowers than in you! There are convenient parking lots located near the fields for you to stop, get out, and walk around. You can roam and take pictures, but avoid taking lavender, as it’s the town’s main source of revenue.

Adventures Abound: Embark on These Day Trips Near Madrid

If you’re looking to experience something new, join the locals on vacation, or simply don’t have time to leave the Madrid area, consider embarking on these three amazing day trips near Madrid. There are so many incredible places in Spain to see, so don’t miss out.

21 Things to Do in Madrid Before You Leave

Madrid is a city filled with history, art, culture, parks, and great food. Collectively, our team has spent years in Madrid teaching, studying, and getting to know this wonderful metropolis. In this guide to Madrid, we collate our recommendations for bars, restaurants, and things to see and do in the Spanish capital. Whatever you choose, we know you’ll love Madrid! 

1. See How the Royals Live at Palacio Real de Madrid

Go inside and walk around; it’s HUGE! The Royal Palace of Madrid has over 1,000 rooms. With interior measurements of 134,999 square meters, it’s the largest palace in Europe. Photography is allowed outside the building and around the entrance, by the stairs, when you pass inside.

2. Get Your Five a Day at Honest Greens

Take a North American Business School alumnus, a Danish entrepreneur, and a French chef with Michelin kitchen experience and you get Honest Greens. Combine with locally sourced produce and a fast-food philosophy to create a growing number of relaxed eateries. A retro soundtrack plays as you order from the counter and sit down to wait for your seasonal selection delivered to an artfully designed stone table.

3. Visit North Africa Without Leaving Europe by Dropping by Templo de Debod

This is one of the only Egyptian architectural monuments outside of Egypt. Built in 150-250 BC, Templo de Debod was a chapel where many Egyptians honored the god Amun and the goddess Isis. Spain assisted the Egyptian government in building a dam that helped stop the destruction of famous sites. Egypt donated this temple as a thank you for their help. It’s best to see it at sunset!

4. Beat a Retreat From the Madrid Heat at Catedral de la Almudena

The Spanish capital’s cathedral maintains a cool interior. This beautiful venue hosted a fairytale wedding on 22nd May 2004 as King Felipe VI, then Spain’s Crown Prince, married Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano. There is no set entrance fee, but you are encouraged to dig deep in your pockets and make a voluntary donation to help pay for the cathedral’s upkeep. Many visitors like to light a candle for a loved one while there.

5. Join the Brunch Bunch at Café Federal

If you are a homesick American craving pancakes, head to the cozy Café Federal in Universidad barrio. This is a perfect post-breakfast, pre-lunch destination. You can even find plant-based options if you or your brunching companions are vegan.

6. Play Hide and Seek in Parque del Retiro

Parque del Retiro is Madrid’s Central Park. It is so large you could spend the whole day here and still have more to see! Challenge yourself to find the famous statue of the Fallen Angel, go to the lake where you can rent a rowboat, take advantage of “the bars” for outdoor workouts, and check out the Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal).

7. Savor the Flavor of Spain at Francesca’s Clueca

Francesca’s Clueca is a great little restaurant in Ibiza with homemade Spanish omelets (tortilla de patata). They are thick and traditionally made with potatoes inside, although you order off a long list of specialized omelets. A personal favorite of ours is the toscana with sun-dried tomatoes, cheddar cheese, and basil.

8. Pay Homage at Madrid’s White House, the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu

La Casa Blanca is a nickname for the stadium of Spain’s (and possibly the world’s) most famous soccer club: Real Madrid. On non-match days, you can take a stadium tour. The tour allows you to enter the changing rooms that were frequented by club legends like Alfredo Di Stéfano, Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Raúl, and Sergio Ramos. When Real Madrid plays at home, you will obviously find it easier to buy tickets for a game against one of La Liga’s smaller teams rather than for, say, El Clásico versus fierce rivals Barcelona.

9. Learn About Spanish History at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reína Sofía

In January 1937, the exiled Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, was commissioned by the Spanish government to create an eye-catching mural. This would be displayed at Paris’ Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life). Upon learning about the 26th April bombing of Guernica, poet Juan Larrea traveled to Picasso’s home to encourage him to make the aerial attack the focus of the mural. Picasso was further inspired by reading George Steer’s on-the-ground account of the Nazi-led onslaught and produced Guernica. Picasso’s mural and several of Salvador Dalí’s works can be found on the second floor of this museum

10. Dunk the Original Donuts

Chocolateria San Ginés is the first place in Madrid that sold churros con chocolate, crunchy dough fried in olive oil, which you dip into lukewarm rather than hot chocolate. They have been serving them since 1894. Chocolateria San Ginés is open from 8:00 am to 11:30 pm every day of the week. Despite opening eight years later than San Ginés, 1902 claims to be the oldest churreria in Madrid. However, it has pioneered the first gluten-free churro and is located centrally, just around the corner from Plaza Mayor. 

11. Enjoy a Birds’-Eye-View of Madrid

Just 4€ buys you a ticket to the 100-meter-high Faro de Moncloa in the Princesa neighborhood. It’s open from 9:30 am to 8:00 pm, Tuesday to Sunday. On a cloud-free day, you can see for miles and miles (up to 100km away). For a nocturnal vista, Círculo de Bellas Artes is the best rooftop bar to visit. Without a doubt, arrive early to get the best seat. A line usually forms before opening.

12. Take Stock of the Markets in Madrid

Mercado de San Miguel is right around the corner from Plaza Mayor. We like to walk past the seafood vendors to see the giant fish they put out daily. Malasaña’s Mercado de San Ildefonso has three floors, three cocktail bars, and plenty of tapas options to help you keep your footing if you’re on a booze cruise. Mercado de la Paz is a historic market that opened in 1882 in Salamanca. This is a great place to stock up on nibbles such as cold cuts, cheese, and olives, along with seasonal fruits and veggies.

13. See Mona Lisa’s Double at the Museo Nacional del Prado

The Prado features Spain’s most famous works of art. Make sure you make it to the Prado Mona Lisa by the artist group, Leonardeschi. This is a painting with the same subject as Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. It has been on display since 1819. Pablo Picasso’s Las Meninas is another piece that you shouldn’t miss. The Prado is one of the largest museums in Europe. Goya, Velazquez, and El Greco are some of the other famous names to look out for here.

14. Bite into History at Restaurante Botín

Restaurante Botín, the world’s oldest restaurant, opened in 1725. This feat has earned the eatery a Guinness World Records entry. The interior has not changed here since its 18th-century origins and neither has the kitchen’s firewood oven. The house specialties are the suckling lambs and pigs imported from Segovia. Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene have used the Botín as a dramatic background in their novels.

15. Shop Until You Drop in Gran Vía, Madrid’s Oxford Street

All the main stores are located here. Along Gran Vía, you’ll stumble across Plaza de Callao. There is an El Corte Inglés store with a top floor full of restaurants. It’s worth a detour! Also, consider walking down Fuencarral, a shopping street closed off to cars that branches off Gran Vía.

16. Go Local at La Máquina Jorge Juan

When the DJ pumps up the volume at La Máquina Jorge Juan, you may think you’re dining in a club. This is a converted stately home in Salamanca, but it has the relaxed feeling of a local fave. To start, order their neat twist on patatas bravas, which are tempura potato sticks accompanied with a smoky, flavorsome salsa.

17. Get Your Bearings in the Heart of the City

At Puerta del Sol, you can find the city emblem, which is a statue of a Bear with a strawberry tree. Kilometer Zero is also located here, which is the exact center of Madrid. Without reservation, the best chocolate pastries in Madrid are located in nearby La Mallorquina. Order the napolitana de chocolate. Soooooo mouth-watering!

18. Take a Wander to the Wanda Metropolitano

This is the home of the Spanish capital’s second most popular soccer club, Atlético de Madrid. Just like their cross-city adversaries, Real Madrid, Wanda Metropolitano offers a stadium tour when the team isn’t playing at home. However, if you want a fuller flavor of Spanish soccer, try to visit on a matchday. The Atlético fans are passionate, proudly singing their club-related songs and shouting out chants.

19. Restore Your Inner Equilibrium at Levél Veggie Bistro

Stylish Ibiza is the ideal location for this chilled eatery that showcases upcoming artists alongside signature dishes, such as raw plant-based lasagna with macadamia ricotta and Brazil-nut parmesan. The owners, Fabrizio and Julie, are the guardians of this tranquil spot with its colorful menu which panders to your taste buds. Julie even has a salad named after her with rocket, macadamia cheese, orange wedges, cardamom, and beetroot dressed in a vinaigrette with a base of organic doughnut peach.

20. Eat Out at an A-lister Hideout, El Paraguas

Central, but tucked-away, Salamanca is the barrio the celebs feel relaxed enough to eat out in. Join the likes of Real Madrid stars (we saw left-back Marcelo there on our last visit) and satisfy your hunger for modern riffs on Asturian classics at stylish El Paraguas. The amuse bouches provide a bite-sized intro and outro to your meal.

21. Sip on High-End Cocktails at Pictura

Los Jerónimos is where it’s at if you’re craving exclusivity. This upscale neighborhood is where you’ll find the Mandarin Oriental Ritz, one of Madrid’s most luxurious hotels. Their Pictura is a dress-to-impress cocktail bar with a complimentary nut tree and bijou tapas, such as mini Korean burgers. 

 

Emma Schultz Shares Her Five Year Update

Emma's bio photoThe last half-decade has been a voyage of discovery for Emma Schultz. She has hopped back and forth over the Pond between Spain and the US. The lure of Iberia called to Emma, and it was lovely to meet her again in person in Madrid five years later than the first time. Emma is a Hispanophile who speaks Spanish with the ease of a local, despite her public protestations that her linguistic knowledge is no tanto (not so much). I am so interested in seeing where Emma is in 2021, both physically and emotionally.

Your first article, The Art of Slowing Down, was about relocating to Spain in 2016 and adapting to a new pace of life. Five years later, you’re residing in Spain once more. How much easier is it for you to apply the brakes these days?

In some ways, I feel like it’s easier for me to adapt to a slower pace of life in Spain after living here for five years. Especially when I’ve been here for longer stretches at a time, it comes more naturally. I also find that I’m more flexible about my time and scheduling and feel more relaxed about that being the case than I would have in 2016.

In the same breath, though, I will admit that I still walk very fast by Spanish standards and find that hard to change. I also think that after more time here, I feel more and more comfortable being myself, and I do tend to be more fast-paced than my Spanish counterparts. I think there’s beauty in finding a balance between who I am and the place and culture I’m living in.

In 2017, you experienced the reverse culture shock of returning to Texas and a fresh dose of culture shock upon heading back to Madrid. How disorientating was that for you?

It was very disorienting. There’s something strange about returning home for an extended amount of time and feeling like everything about it is wrong. Even though it’s familiar, it just made my skin crawl because I felt so out of place. It’s also a process of coming to the realization that the only thing that’s changed is you. That can be a beautiful thing. But being nostalgic for the past and missing home, it can be hard to go back and feel like you don’t fit.

Yet, I’d say it’s almost as hard to return to Spain after a long visit home as it is to go home in the first place. Because, without realizing it, you have grown re-accustomed to how things work where you’re from. I felt like I was back on a steep learning curve when I returned to Spain in 2017 after a summer at home.

Four more years later and I still find the back and forth difficult in a lot of ways.

What were the challenges of switching from teaching to studying in 2018?

I place a lot of value on my professional life, so it was difficult for me to feel like I’d lost a part of my identity when I switched to studying Spanish full-time in 2018. But I also love learning and language, so it was a great opportunity to explore those sides of myself more. I was proud that I accomplished my linguistic goals by the end of that year.

A photo of a European building at sunset.

In 2019, you relocated to California. How smoothly did you find the transition from moving from the heart of Spain to the West Coast in the US?”

The summer I returned from living in Spain for three years was full of transition for me. I moved almost everything back to the US, planned a cross-country road trip to get to California, and started grad school. While I probably packed too much into that summer leading up to starting my degree, once I got settled into my place in Monterey, I loved my life there.

My program was rigorous and demanding, but I loved every moment of it. I learned so much more about my chosen field than I ever could have imagined and made some great, lifelong friends along the way.

When you returned to Madrid in January 2020 as a tourist, how much of an itinerary did you have? Were you guided by returning to old haunts? Or stumbling across new finds?”

My return visit to Madrid in January of 2020 was a bit of both. While I didn’t have a strict itinerary I followed day by day, as I sometimes do for other trips I plan, I did certainly have a list of favorite places I wanted to go back to. I also saved time to explore new places, though.

One thing I felt most strongly when I returned was a need to “prove” myself. I was eager for waiters and shop attendants not to see me as a tourist, but rather as someone who belonged. It was important for me to be seen as someone who had lived there before and wouldn’t be grouped in with people on vacation in Madrid for a week. That bit surprised me.

You moved back to Spain in 2021. Where do you see your long-term future and why?”

I came back to Madrid in January of 2021 to finish my master’s degree with an internship in the city. It was a great experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. For now, I’m loving my life in Spain, but as for the future – I’m happy to take things as they come – something that living in Spain has certainly given me the ability to embrace and appreciate.

Emma in front of a beach background

Fast-moving Emma might seem to be pressing pause in Spain. But I know she is always in motion, ready to move onwards and upwards. Her goals continue to be reachable as she strides so purposefully towards them. Go, Emma, go.

by Leesa Truesdell

Samantha LoDuca Shares Her Five Year Update

Sam in front of some water with a city skyline in the backgroundIt has been a whirlwind half-decade for Samantha LoDuca. She has lived in three different countries, got married, and started new jobs. There was so much to catch up on about her life. Samantha has come a long way since I knew her in Madrid as an inquisitive newcomer who wanted to embrace Spanish culture. Five years on, she’s contemplating signing up for Gaelic lessons from her base in Dún Laoghaire, a coastal suburb of Dublin, the Republic of Ireland’s capital.

Your first Dreams Abroad article was an interview with me in October 2016. You revealed that you studied Spanish for eight years in school. How easy was it for you to adjust to the language in Madrid?”

After consecutively studying Spanish for eight years in high school and university, I was really surprised by how much I didn’t know when I arrived in Madrid. Although I had studied the same grammar repeatedly, I didn’t fully understand how to use it until I heard it being used by natives in everyday conversation. Thanks to the lesson style, my speaking and listening skills were really low when I arrived, but I could read and write enough to get by. All those years studying really helped me have a vocabulary that I could pull from when trying to string sentences together — that was really helpful. Other than that, I would say immersion and forcing myself to speak and listen in Madrid is where I gained the rest of my skills. 

In our second interview, you said you didn’t like to play it safe. What was the riskiest thing you did in 2017?”

The riskiest thing I did was decide to stay and teach English for another year in Madrid. I know that doesn’t sound very risky, but it felt risky to me. It was not a very popular decision among some family and friends at the time. They thought I was going abroad for a year-long adventure and then would return to “real” life. They thought delaying my “re-entry into reality” for another year would make going back so much more difficult. They weren’t wrong, but that second year in Madrid was one of the best years of my life. It shaped what I wanted my “reality” to be moving forward, and I’m so glad I made that decision. 

By 2018, you were well into your second year working in a school. How much had you developed as an educator?”

By 2018, I had learned a LOT about teaching. Before moving to Madrid, I had never studied education or worked in a classroom. There was a lot to learn (like managing classrooms, lesson planning, etc.). The most important thing that I learned was that EVERY single child has so much potential and is really excited to learn. When someone stops believing in a child (i.e., teachers, parents, coaches), that is when you see the child lose that excitement and potential. I never ever wanted to do that to the children that I taught. The best part of the job was seeing them get excited about learning. 

By 2019 you were settled back in Chicago. How much was reverse culture shock still having an effect on you?”

The reverse culture shock was SO bad for me. I honestly don’t think it ever fully went away. As I fell in love with Spain’s culture, people, and lifestyle so quickly and easily, I barely noticed that it happened. Coming home, it was so hard to accept that it wasn’t my life anymore. In Chicago, I tried surrounding myself with people that weren’t from the US and eventually started meeting some Spanish people living in the city. It was great! I was able to share my favorite parts of American culture with them. Additionally, they were able to teach me new things about their cultures. We all could connect on what it’s like to be a foreigner living in a new city. 

In 2020 you relocated to Madison. What did you learn most about yourself or life in general there?”

Relocating back to Wisconsin was a really tough decision for me. Chicago had been my home for five years before I moved to Spain. I thought that it would be the obvious choice to return to Chicago when I was moving back. But, after being in Spain, Chicago no longer felt like home. Most of my friends had moved on to new stages of their lives that I wasn’t quite at. 

I had a yearning to be close to my family (something I had never really felt before). There’s a stigma sometimes to moving back home, especially in US culture — so I was combating that too. Luckily, little did I know it was the perfect decision. I moved in with my parents in late January 2020 while I looked for apartments in Madison. 

When COVID hit, I was still apartment hunting, and I realized this is a chance for me to spend an unbelievable amount of time with my parents, something I never thought I’d have again. I lived with them until October. We went through the worst wave of the pandemic together, but we created some really amazing memories together too. 

You moved to Dublin at the beginning of 2021. How difficult was it to do so during a pandemic? Bonus question: Guinness or Murphy’s?”

Yes! Moving internationally during a pandemic is really hard. When we moved to Ireland, the country was in its highest level of lockdown (which meant only essential places, like supermarkets, were open. There was no gathering with anyone outside your household, and you could only travel 5km away from your home). It stayed like that for about five months, and now things are slowly opening up. 

The hardest part for me so far has been not having a chance to meet people and integrate myself into the culture. That’s my favorite part of traveling and living abroad. Now I’m finally able to start doing those things, and I am really excited about it. P.S. I have to say, Guinness!

As Ireland eases back into its laidback way of life, Samantha can’t wait to explore what the country has to offer. She’s looking forward to gaining a more authentic taste of the country, starting with a visit to Cork, Ireland’s second-largest city. There is so much regional diversity to discover within a relatively small space. You can get from one end of the country to another in less than three hours, and Samantha is excited to get to know this miniature paradise better.

by Leesa Truesdell

Leesa Truesdell Shares Her Five Year Update After Living Abroad

leesa-truesdell

As August 2021 approaches and the world slowly opens again, I smile about the happy memories leading up to the moments before, during, and while living abroad in Madrid, Spain. After living abroad for a year, I began working and then didn’t stop. Then, the pandemic approached while I was moving to start the next phase of my life in a new city. The world feels different now and might remain this way for quite some time. What we must not forget is that life will always have ups and downs. It is in those moments of uncertainty that we truly understand our character. Our most trying times are sometimes the best, at least for me they are. I’ve thought a lot as my life has changed drastically over these last five years and this is what I would like to highlight.  

How do professionals who want to travel, work, study and/or move abroad handle a change? Here are the first five answers that came to mind after living abroad. There has been one for each year since August of 2016. 

Year One: 2016-2017 

My Arrival — Go With the Flow Because Nothing Feels Normal

I arrived in Spain on a sultry August day. I didn’t expect things to be like the USA. However, I also did not feel equipped to understand how different the culture and lifestyle is from the American way of life. It’s the complete, total opposite. Americans appreciate a more fast-paced way of life and thinking (especially the younger generation). We have three meals a day, generally. The traditional family eats dinner at night. It’s a bigger meal than lunch. In Spain, it felt like everything was “traditional.” Let’s face it, they’re the land that conquered many others. So, in reality, their way of life and thinking is very conventional in a sense. It’s family-driven and lunch is at 2 PM. It’s the largest meal of the day, and don’t forget your siesta. I felt so turned around but eventually managed to accept the things I couldn’t control and embrace them. 

Year Two: 2017-2018 

The Passing of Tata and Life After Living Abroad

The Resilience Abroad series started when I lived in Madrid. While I was grieving about the loss of Tata, I was also reflecting on what she meant to me and how her living memory would never be forgotten. At the time, I was in a foreign place. I didn’t know it back then, but I was living the life I was supposed to. I was grieving abroad and blessed with time to get to know myself better for the latter half of what was to come that year. 

Later that November, I moved back to my college hometown and began work in a field that was new to me. In this role, I worked around the clock either in my mind or physically at work. It was the job where I took home the issues that went unresolved. I thought about them all the time when not working. Hence, around the clock.  I didn’t realize this while it was happening, but not only was I still grieving, I also experienced the opposite again.

Reverse Culture Shock

I was re-learning the American way of life but now it felt more intense because I had just experienced living abroad during my first real experience with death. While I had been resilient, I hadn’t learned about reverse culture shock. It’s real and somehow I was too busy to see the signs. I had put myself in a situation where I ignored signs and tried to move on the best way I knew how. This job enabled me to focus on work at the expense of these larger issues in my life. 

Unfortunately, I focused too much on the new work to understand the complexity of reverse culture shock. I couldn’t explain the reverse of what was happening to me and didn’t know it at the time. Instead, I tried my best to adapt to a new job in a location that was nowhere near what it resembled before I left for Madrid. The experience changed me. Moving back to a city I once knew and outgrew wasn’t a recipe for success. Live and learn. 

Year Three: 2018-2019 

Complacency is Not OK. Speak Up and Do Your Best.

I knew I was trying my best not to downsize the person I had become and the person I wanted to be. Living in the same place again while losing who I was made me feel complacent. One thing I knew for sure was that my core principles and integrity would never be compromised. I was tested on multiple occasions. Sometimes, when you’re given tests in life, you realize later on that passing might not be feasible. If the test is rigged from the beginning and you are answering the questions correctly, then there might be something else going on. 

Pay to play happens frequently in the states. It’s unfortunate. I spoke up about this repeated inadequacy that I was seeing and instead of getting a thank you, I got a no thank you. Sometimes, life doesn’t respond the way we expect when we follow the moral code we’ve had since elementary school. In our formative years, we’re taught “stranger danger,” D.A.R.E., and how to be a good person. The end result was a tough concept for me to wrap my head around. I lead with principle and teach others to be honest and respectful. Speaking up will always be the best decision I ever make, no matter the consequences. 

Year Four: 2019- 2020 

Accept the Things you Cannot Change and Move on as Quickly as Possible. Life is Calling. Pick up the Phone. 

What I’ve learned is that the past is the past and you can’t change it. You can be bitter and resent something that you can’t change or you can move on and perhaps be a positive influence. It’s easier said than done. You get scars, and the record plays over and over in your mind on how you could have fixed it. But, in time, you learn after one full record or two that it’s time to let go and live for now. 

The transition from 2019 to 2020 was a tough year. The pandemic didn’t make it any easier, but Dreams Abroad did. I focused my energy on all of the positive things I saw in the people who made my life better through this effort. This included the last trip I took before the pandemic. This was the most important trip of my life, and the one I kept putting off because I didn’t have the time allotted. This life event was the most meaningful and therapeutic — the one I needed to take the next step in my life. Don’t wait too long — when life is calling — pick up the phone.

Dreams Abroad became the uplifting resource I needed when others were contributing each week. Thank you to those of you who are reading, your articles not only assisted our community, but they spoke to me too. 

Year Five: 2020-2021 

Embrace Change

I moved to Washington, DC, and learned that the program I moved for wasn’t exactly the best fit. Maybe it would have been had the instruction and research been face-to-face but, hey, it’s OK to say no and move onto the next chapter. If what you thought isn’t serving you, move on as quickly as you can. Many of us can say that the pandemic has closed doors and opened new ones. Embrace it. I’ve learned that what will be will be. Sometimes things are within our control and they aren’t. Recognize the two and embrace change. Remember to always keep the go-with-the-flow mindset if at all possible. We’re halfway through 2021 and things are opening up again. We can do this. 

Wrap Up

Dreams Abroad has become something more than just a website. The last five years after living abroad have been a way for me to meet like-minded, talented individuals of all ages, backgrounds, and principled belief systems. Each person that I have interacted with has touched my life. For that, I feel forever grateful. Nothing can ever replace the loss of a loved one. It’s been one of the hardest things in my life. There is no manual on how to handle your situation. 

One thing I know for certain is that working with this tight-knit group has given me new memories. I feel so very blessed to have found the lives of so many fulfilling and achieving their dreams. It makes my heart smile and soul feel more alive than ever before. This is what makes a good day, good. This is why we are still here after all of this time. 

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What I Know Now After 8 Years in Spain

When I moved to Spain in 2012, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had made up my mind that it was time for a change and “winged it” through the transitional process needed to move from one continent to another. I didn’t even profoundly conceptualize the fact that I was moving to another continent. All I knew was that my godfather had a niece there and she was living her best life. So, I decided to take a stab at a few years in Spain myself. Pretty crazy, right? Here are some things I know now after eight years in Spain.

1) Programs Will Pay You to Work in Schools and Teach Children About Your Language and Culture

When looking back on what little thought I put into how I was going to earn a living here in Spain, it makes me cringe. I had no idea that there were programs run by the government. Plus, some private programs help assimilate you into the country and its culture. They BOTH pay you a reasonable stipend for doing so.

My research did not go further than a few Google searches which strongly suggested taking a TEFL certification course (which I did) and the importance of purchasing a flight outside of the Schengen area to justify your entrance into Spain on a one-way ticket (did that also). BEDA, UCETAM, and a host of other programs are available to people looking to teach English in the school systems here in Spain, provided that the individual meets the requirements.

2) The Unbeaten Path is Best

As a native New Yorker, I have always despised tourism. Before moving to Europe, I worked right next to the World Trade Center which was always swarming with tourists. I was once photographed on my lunch break inside a McDonald’s. After yelling at the tourist, she apologized and explained that she wanted a picture of the pretty mirror behind me. Go figure. 

My best experiences overseas have been those where I meet a friend who has brought me somewhere, like a lake where the locals go, their hometown when there is an annual local festival or even just a great and affordable restaurant. It’s quite understandable that when we go on vacation, it’s sometimes more convenient to book a tour because it covers more ground. However, a few days off that guided path to make your own discoveries is the part of your travels where memories are really made. 

3) Make the Time to Explore Barcelona

My first time in Barcelona was with a friend who always traveled cheaply by overnight bus. When we went together, we immediately went to a secluded beach in a town a few stops away, entirely accessible by commuter rail. When we arrived, we made friends with a local. He let us stay in his sister’s empty apartment which she rented to tourists. He even lent us his French Bulldog, Eva. She took us on an incredibly special route to a nice café where we ate breakfast. A popular sight amongst the people in that town, everyone greeted her and asked about her new friends. She’s even got her own Instagram.

4) Never Measure Yourself Against Societal Norms

When I first got here and started to imagine how my life would be if I chose to spend a few more years in Spain, I recall saying to someone: “Teaching these classes is just a way in for the moment. I don’t see myself being a 35-year-old TEFL teacher.” Little did I know that those very words would haunt me. 

I’m approaching that age fast. I have since fallen in love with teaching foreign languages to children. Did you know that here in Spain, you are considered young until you are approaching your mid-40s? People have children later and they take time to study and figure things out. Often, they do all this in a secure home environment. In the States, we are put out of the house when we’re between 18 and 21. We are strongly encouraged to do anything humanly possible to stand on our own two feet. 

Wrap Up

Having gone through that time in life, which for many is extremely transitional, I can honestly say that life really begins in your 30s. I have spent lots of time reminding myself that my circumstances are different because of the choice I made to start over and move abroad. There will be no moping around trying to figure out why things are not the way I imagined. Each of my choices has made me stronger. Now, I’m one who knows to be more assertive and to put myself and my overall health as a top priority.