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.”