What I Learned After a Year (-ish) of Living in Spain

I meant to write this post seven months ago.  It was meant to be “what I learned after a year of living in Spain”. But time got the best of me and now it’s really “what I learned after a year and a half of living in Spain.”

In the past year and half since I moved to Valencia, Spain, I have had many unforgettable experiences. I have met many different people, and I have been many different places.

It was not always easy. Despite what my pretty Instagram photos will lead you to believe, there were many times where I wanted to throw in the towel and go back to the comfort of the country I spent the last 17 years of my life in. There were moments of extreme frustration (especially when having to deal with anything government related, or when trying to go to a store during what you consider to be normal business hours).  There were moments of loneliness—of truly feeling like a foreigner. There were moments of total cultural shock. But after each of those moments I would end up walking the streets of beautiful Valencia, I would look up, look around, and I would remember where I was. I was living my dream of living and working in Europe. I was able to keep my career and make a sustainable living for myself abroad.

So, what exactly have I learned during my time living in Spain?  What cultural differences have stood out to me during this time, and will I ever get used to siesta hours and everything being closed during the entire month of August?

First, I want to address some interesting cultural differences that I have noticed while working and living in Europe, compared to living and working in America (besides the obvious and well known fact that Americans live to work and Europeans work to live).

Tipping: I learned that 95% of the time you do not tip in Spain. This took me a long time to get used to, but when I first arrived, I got one of my tips rejected by someone. That quickly made me stop tipping.  The man gave me back the tip and said “no, that’s not the amount that I said.” I am glad that people here are paid well enough in the first place that they do not need to live off of tips. That being said, the fact that people in Spain (and in Europe in general) do not have to “work” for tips means (usually) horrible customer service. On top of not having things like Yelp to rate businesses—customer service is non-existent here. If it’s not bad service at a restaurant it’s bad service at a store. (If you are not a patient person you will not make it in Spain. Just save yourself the trip now.)

When you go to a store in Spain you will have to wait for the person working in the store to finish their 20 minute conversation with their neighbor, or friend they’ve known for 20+ years, or their nephew. They will just talk and talk and talk while you (patiently) stand in the store waiting. Sometimes they may even join you in the conversation, depending on the size of the store you are in. Even things like online orders, making a claim with your bank—the customer is not always right in Spain.  They will not refund your money (and all that with a sassy attitude on the side).

Something else I have found amazing about Spain is their view about the middle of the day. Seriously, this is insane. Listen to this—“mediodía”, literally “mid-day” to them is 2 pm.  2pm.  I tell them, literally this is not what mid-day means. Mid-day is the middle of the day. Not 2 pm. But since they eat at 2pm, mid-day is 2 pm. Unless I have plans to have lunch with friends, I still eat at noon and I am given strange looks by everyone in the office. If I go out to lunch at this time I am guaranteed to be practically alone, and the people I order food from will give me weird looks. They don’t know if I’m eating breakfast (which is at 11 am) or lunch (2 pm).  They don’t know if they should give me coffee or beer. Who eats at noon? Who takes a break from work at noon?

That brings me to another point that my American colleagues will find weird: because of siesta time the cleaning ladies clean the office between 2-4pm.  That means that while I am working, the (lovely and very sweet) cleaning lady is trying to clean around my keyboard. I still find this very odd. In the States, they tend to come in the evening, when the office is closed and people are not working.

One thing I do love about working in Europe is the work/life balance.  Gone are the days of accruing 10 days off for one year of work (including sick days). Suddenly I have 21 days a year plus the 20 or so national holidays.  That means over 40 days off a year. When summer rolls around people start talking about vacation. Vacation is something people in Europe actually take. Wether you have kids or not, you take time off during the summer, you don’t work, you go somewhere, and you enjoy life.

Unfortunately for me I still have somewhat of an American mentality when it comes to work and vacations. When summer rolls around and everyone starts asking me about my vacation plans I never end up having any. Summer vacation is something I haven’t really had since I was in high school so the whole concept is still a novice to me. It’s almost August as so far—no vacation. In fact, I’ve only taken 4 days off the whole year, one of which was to renew my passport. 

One thing I do not love about living in Spain is how hard it is to get…anything. Gone are the days of Amazon packages being dropped off on your doorstep. So long stopping by Michaels for crafts. Sayonara CVS, where you could get Ibuprofen without having to tell the pharmacist (and everyone in the pharmacy) what all of your ailments are. Au revoir going to stores during regular business hours.  Adios endless options for every single thing you could possibly imagine (you want shampoo? You have two choices. Thick or fine hair. You want toilet paper? Single or two ply?  Literally two choices. One brand. That’s it. Forget about the endless isles at Ralphs.)  

Let me tell you about the second (and only second) time I ordered something online. My package arrived within the only half hour that I was not home. Of course they can’t leave the package on my door step or in my mail box and of course I couldn’t pick it up later that day. Now I had to wait another 24 hours and walk 25 minutes (in the heat) to go pick it up.

What’s that?  Oh, you have to go to the bank?  Cool.  The bank is open on Monday-Friday from 8:30am-2pm. Do you have a full time job, no car, and no bank nearby?  Well, looks like we’ll see you at the end of September when we’ll be open later! (But will still closed between 2-5pm because, duh.)

People who have lived here their whole lives don’t think of any of this as inconvenient. It’s what they’ve known their whole lives and so their used to it.  But from someone who has spent the last significant portion of their life in “you can have it all right now at the click of one button—literally a drone will have it to you in one hour” America—wow do I get frustrated by these inconveniences sometimes. I printed some of my art on a tote bag and of course the store, as of last week, just decided they will only be open Monday-Friday 9am-2pm. If I wouldn’t have the fortune of working from home, I literally would not able to perform normal tasks.  

On another note, remember when I scoffed at the idea of someone doing their laundry at 11 o’clock at night simply because electricity was cheaper?  After over a year of living in Spain: I get it. I do it.  That stuff is expensive.  #teamnosleep

Some other differences between living in the US and Spain: there are two times of the year where everyone spends the entire weekend switching out their closets. For the most part, homes in Europe are smaller than in the States.  They don’t have as much storage space, they don’t usually have walk in closets. That means that when summer turns to winter and winter turns to summer, everyone spends one of two weekends (seriously it’s like it’s in some sort of unannounced government calendar) switching out their closets. Obviously I do it too because I also have very limited space. Currently my winter clothes are under my couch (that has a secret storage compartment in it) and inside my large suitcase. When winter returns (which seems very far away in the current heat I am sitting in) I will change everything back and my apartment will be a chaos of clothes everywhere for two weeks.

All jokes aside, of course there are bound to be cultural differences, but I love living in Spain. I enjoy being able to explore new places, alone or with a group of friends. I love being able to be in a new country in an hour and a half.  I love meeting and making friends with people from other countries and knowing that seeing each other is not hard. Since moving to Spain I have explored the streets of Seville and Madrid, skied the snowy Alps, drank the most expensive drink of my life in Geneva, skied the slopes of Andorra, danced in music festivals in Paris, climbed the hilly streets of Lisbon, and explored endless regions of the beautiful Valencian province.  I have made life-long friends from all over the world. I have eaten tons and tons of paella. I have gone to more music festivals then I can count. I have really, really enjoyed life. My “I’m saying yes to every opportunity presented to me” has left me with memories and people I will never forget.  During my time as a foreigner in a foreign land I have been knocked down, challenged, and strengthened. I have grown, matured, and learned. I came alone with two suitcases, no place to live, and not knowing a soul. Now I find myself with a community of friends, a cozy apartment I call home, a daily routine, and a happy soul.

Valencia, you may be frustrating as hell sometimes and you are definitely hot as hell in the summer, but I sure do love you. Whether I am still here or not in a year, five years, ten years, who knows—but what I do know is that the time I have spent here so far has shaped me into a better and stronger version of myself. I’ve learned that there are good people out there in the world and that you can in fact pick up somewhere else and completely rebuild. I’ve learned that I am a strong and brave woman.

Enough sappyness. Here are some photos I took throughout the past year and a half (-ish) in Europe.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

2 Responses to “What I Learned After a Year (-ish) of Living in Spain”

  1. michael shuttleworth

    Thanks for sharing life in Valencia with me. I am glad and happy that you have lived through the differences in living in a different country and are enjoying life on the continent. We miss you here but you will come back if and when you are ready. Remember we are leaving the light on!!



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