Learning to Live in Spain

Have you all read my interview over on Expats Blog? If not, head on over to read my interview and leave a comment on my profile page if you’re so inclined.

Other people to visit: Erik, Erin, Hamatha, Lauren, Cat, and Christine.

One of the questions I was asked in my interview was “If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?” It’s a difficult question for me, because I’m not one to give advice, at least not without advising you to take whatever I say with a large grain of salt. You see, everyone is different, and I don’t think my experience is the only one, or that you’re like me, or anything of the sort.


Maybe you don’t like garlic. But why would you come to Spain then?

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College Study Abroad—If I Could Do It All Again

I get a lot of emails regarding study abroad and applying to be an auxiliar de conversación. Understandably so, as I talk a lot about Spain and my experiences there and how I feel now that I’m back home. People ask for recommendations of places to eat, drink, and see the sights. I’m definitely happy to (try to) help them out, but I often wish I could give them a list of general advice …without sounding stuck up. My biggest piece of advice is to put yourself out there and go study abroad! It truly is an experience that every college student should experience. Even a student working on an online bachelor degree should pack their computer and experience another country. With the world as connected as it is today, we can often forget the value of experiencing places in person. I feel a bit sorry for all the people who attend college online through an online college program or students attending smaller schools that don’t offer study abroad opportunities. Beyond this obvious piece of advice, I had difficulty coming up with my own recommendations of what to see and experience. And then I realized what I…

First day in Spain. Ever.

would like to tell Kaley (age twenty-one).


  • Life in Spain is just that: life. It may be life in Europe, but you still have to do your laundry, write papers, and go grocery shopping.
  • You will walk. A lot. In the U.S., walking distances longer than to and from your car, especially in winter, is not common. This will change. You will walk everywhere—in the pouring rain, in dreadful heat, when you’re tired, when you’re not, when you are hung over, when you’ve got a withdrawl caffeine headache… you will walk.
  • You will make embarrassing mistakes. You will make mistakes that are not embarrassing as well. Live; learn; deal with it.
  • You will eat a lot of pork products. It’s really unavoidable.
  • You will feel frustrated and realize your Spanish has a long way to go. This is okay. This is normal. Embrace it, and realize that the only place to go is up. A note: you will not be fluent by the end of your study abroad journey unless you left for Spain with an absurdly high level. This too is just fine.
  • You will feel like a foreigner. Um, you area foreigner. Yes, you—all 5’11”, pale, freckled, American-faced you. You aren’t Spanish, and people might automatically switch to English when they hear your accent.
  • You will be homesick at times. You might just be more homesick than other people. This does not make you weak or lame or any of those other negative words that haunt you as you try to fall asleep. You may struggle at times—with the language, with the culture, with the schedule—but you will come out stronger on the other end.
  • You will feel disconnected from home. Life, like it or not, will go on without you. Your parents will buy new furniture. Your former roommate will bond with someone new. Your car may not be around when you get home. (Yes, this happened to me in 2009. Blame my brother.) You may get on Facebook and ask yourself, Who are these people?
  • You will worry about money. Yes, some people will travel every weekend—London, Rome, Paris, Greece, Morocco, Lisbon. Save your money. Travel where you have always dreamed of going. Remember that there is value in staying home, visiting your bar, walking the streets of your new (albeit temporary) home.
  • You will go home and feel nostalgic. When you return, whether or not you experience reverse culture shock, you will remember how you felt. You will remember the smell of incense in the cathedral, the taste of tinto de verano, the sight of Toledo across the river, the feel of your scratchy comforter as you fell asleep in a city older than your own country. You will listen to songs that make you cry, remembering what you had there, realizing you’ll never get that back. Be okay with this, this nostalgia of yours. It’s fine to miss it.

Life goes on, but you’ll remember.

Entry written because I’m totally nostalgic right now. Please forgive me.

How to Improve Your (Already Pretty Good) Spanish


When I first went to Spain in the spring of 2008, my Spanish wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. I got there and realized all the Spanish I knew wasn’t useful when trying to explain to the school why I needed to change rooms and how the shower head wouldn’t emit a normal stream of water. I struggled to understand the cashiers at the local grocery store when they told me how much the total was: “Cinco con dos.” Wait, what? Five with two? Does that mean seven?

I came back having improved, but not that much. I was determined to return and, while there, get better. I did so, thanks to a number of things that I would like to share with you all.

I used to think pisar meant “to piss.” Point taken.

But first, let me explain. This list is for people whose Spanish is already past the AP test and who don’t need me to explain how to conjugate the past subjunctive. If you do need that, I suggest other methods. However, undertaking mine won’t hurt you!

Even Barbie listens to me!

Practice, practice, practice. I make this mistake with Mario a lot – I revert back to English whenever there’s something I don’t know how to say (i.e., I’m too lazy to get my butt to WordReference and look it up). In college, one of my professors espoused the idea of circumlocution. If you don’t know how to say, for example, door knob, say something like “the thing that you use to open the door” or “the round thing you use to turn.” And so on. But suck it up and forget about if you’re going to make a mistake asking the lady on the street corner how to get to the train station. She’s probably heard much worse.

This is your brain on Spanish. 


Read. I enjoy reading the Spanish newspaper, especially certain sections like the editorials where the language tends to be a bit richer. Just yesterday I read part of an editorial that used three words/phrases I didn’t understand in one sentence (ouch!): desmemoriado, irse de rositas, estropicio. Luckily, I complained to Mario and he told me all the meanings. Great for me, right? I know, it’s annoying that I can just be lazy and ask him, but I also spend a lot of time on WordReference. The forums are a godsend!

Write. I’ve just noticed this in the past few weeks. As a part of my job, I translate a newsletter for one of the teachers. Then I ask my handy dandy personal assistant to edit it for me, just to make sure my errors aren’t too egregious. When I first received them, the red marks (thanks Microsoft Word!) were a lot more frequent. Now there aren’t so many of them. As I drove home yesterday, I began to realize just what great practice this is, translating a similarly formatted document with different wording again and again. I recommend it, even if you don’t have a Mario. There are websites out there where you can write and have native speakers correct you (LiveMocha, for one).


Listen. If you’re a newbie, try the TV, where you’ll be able to see the people’s lips move (unless it’s dubbed, not an uncommon practice in Spain). Try the 3 o’clock news if you’re actually in Spain, too. If that’s way too easy (who are you and how can I hit you in the face?) try the radio. If you’re like, “Psh, girl,” then try a soccer game. If you can understand a soccer game, you have arrived. I congratulate and perhaps even bow at your feet. I hope they do not smell.


 Notice errors. Spanish people do this thing called leísmo, meaning they use the “le” pronoun instead of “lo” in certain circumstances. For instance, they might say “Le veo,” when it should be “Lo veo.” Another common error is when they use hubiera twice instead of habría + hubiera. For example, “Hubiera ido si me hubieras dicho.” Wrong. It should be “Habría ido si me hubieras dicho.” It’s an error that sounds okay to Spanish ears (kind of like mixing up lay/lie/laid), but I pick up on it, and ask Mario if they’re wrong. I like understanding errors and how to avoid them. Mario, like any good Spaniard, does employ leísmo from time to time, and I’ll admit, it’s rubbed off on me somewhat. Having spent so much time in Castilla León, it just rounds right to me.

So does this. Right on!

Eat at restaurants. If you want a challenge, try to learn the names of all the meats, cuts, fishes, cooking methods, and so on. I assure you, learning what morro is may ensure that you will never, ever eat it. I haven’t—and I promise you I don’t regret it.

Pick up a book. I read the Millennium series in Spanish. It felt like the best of both worlds. I was constantly immersed in dialogue in Spanish and I learned how to say things like, “La cocina daba al comedor,” that I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise. Also, I don’t think the Millennium series was especially rich in English and in Spanish it was much the same. However, I didn’t notice it in a foreign language.

Get mad. Try using a foreign language if you’re angry. I assure you, it will be difficult to continue speaking the language of Cervantes when there’s steam pouring out of your ears. Nonetheless, you will definitely learn something. You may want to pick up a few swear words here and there. Cat recently wrote a post that I found particularly amusing. I endorse it fully. A few of Mario’s friends seem to have lots of experience in swearing. Thus, their lexicon is quite impressive. (Note: Mario is far from this.)

After all, swearing mitigates pain. What more do you need?