The 4 big things I wish I had known before moving to Madrid

July 20, 2013

Moving to Madrid sort of happened to me by accident.

Like many or most people, I had spent my teenage years with no idea what I was doing with my life.

Honestly, I kind of expected to die young and not have to worry about it for too long.

But suddenly, during that fatefully hot summer of my 21st year, I ended up being simultaneously unemployed, single and homeless.

(To be fair, every summer is fatefully hot in Phoenix.)

Sweaty, unshaven, pissed off and living on a friend’s sofa; nursing my broken heart and reading Abbie Hoffmann’s autobiography, I suddenly realized what I had been put on this earth to do.

It’s nice to have those epiphanies, and luckily, I’ve had several of them in my life so far.

But the one I had back in ’04, those 14 long years ago, was shockingly clear: I had to get as far away from Arizona as possible.

Everything else was secondary…

Arizona, clearly, was killing my soul, and if I didn’t get out I’d probably end up like so many people I had met around town – cooking meth in my kitchen, Breaking Bad style, and / or selling plasma to make ends meet.

Moving to Madrid just seemed like a logical choice. At least when you compared it to selling plasma.

In any case, I arrived in Spain with no clue as to what I was getting into, and I’ve learned quite a bit since then.

Wanna know all the details?

Here goes…

4 things I wish I had known before moving to Madrid

Perhaps, the wisdom I’ve gathered the hard way can be of service to someone else…

A wise man, as they say, learns from the mistakes of others.

And I really had nobody to ask before moving to Madrid, because back in ’04, the internet was in its early days too.

I mean, we had the internet. In a sense.

But it wasn’t like today.

So here goes…

I hope you learn something from my youthful pain and suffering.

1. Vegetarianism is Basically Impossible (And Why Would You Want To Be a Vegetarian Anyway?)

Spanish food is wonderful, amazing, and life-changing.

There’s a massive variety of great products, and so many different regional cuisines that you could eat something different every day for years and it would all be delicious.

Check out Lauren’s Spanish Sabores blog for some idea. Or my personal top 10 list for details about that.

moving to spain makes being a vegetarian impossible
Look at all those delicious animal products, just yearning to be eaten!

However, one thing that’s not wonderful or amazing is Spanish vegetarian food. Mostly, because it doesn’t exist – or barely.

If you go to a restaurant and ask for something vegetarian, they’ll probably put some ham or tuna on top and you’ll just end up in a semantic debate with the waiter about what does and what does not qualify as “meat.”

(Linguistic note: the word “carne” usually means beef. So if you ask for something “sin carne” you might end up with any other kind of animal product you can imagine. And they’ll insist: no es carne, es pollo. You’ve been warned.)

Technically, you can be as vegetarian as you want here in Spain – if you stay home all the time. But why move to Europe if all you’re going to do is stand around in your (tiny) kitchen roasting zucchini?

In retrospect, I wasted years of my life eating little more than pasta with vegetables, tortilla de patatas, and falafel sandwiches.

It was a huge mistake, and I have no-one to blame but myself (and my first girlfriend, who was, for some reason, all hung up on animal suffering).

Incidentally, being constantly undernourished led me to feel terrible about life for years at a time.

Severe depression, related to being malnourished: Not fun.

Anybody – vegetarian or not – who’s pissed at “the world” for some reason should try eating a 16 oz steak and see if they feel better about it. I bet they will. (And so do a lot of other people.)

Listen: your suffering is probably not about the sad state of society.

You’re probably just lacking in healthy fats and proteins.

Now that I see things more objectively, I realize that a lot of vegetarians seem to be miserable (like I was), and I think it’s just because they’re ignoring the fact that evolution designed us as omnivores.

Oh, well.

Try telling a miserable angry vegetarian that they’ll feel a lot better after ingesting a large piece of horse meat (for example) and see what their response is.

Lemme know in the comments…

2. Moving to a new country really messes with your head

All in all, moving to Madrid was a great decision for me.

At the same time, I was so young when I arrived that large parts of my personality were still very under-developed, and so I found out that “coming of age” in an environment wildly different from where you grow up has some serious psychological consequences.

In my case, I think the changes have been positive, but people who knew me before would probably disagree.

If I went back to visit my friends in Phoenix at this point, I imagine they’d think I’m too loud, not nearly politically-correct enough, and into touching people way more than is appropriate for an Anglo-Saxon.

And that’s okay with me.

One thing that happened as a result of moving to Madrid and changing languages is that I couldn’t do typical American sarcasm anymore.

Good luck translating all that obnoxiousness into a foreign language, especially when you have a vocabulary of about 400 words!

I spent my first few months attempting sarcasm, and failing. Eventually I gave up. And it’s probably better that way.

At the same time, I was becoming much more extroverted.

As a teenager, I had been worried about sounding ridiculous if I said something in stupid English, but speaking Spanish made sounding stupid inevitable. After a few months, I just stopped caring, and became a much more talkative person.

In any case, massive changes to your identity make you wonder who you really are.

When people say “You’ve been here so long, you’re Spanish now!” I just laugh. I definitely don’t feel Spanish – whatever Spanish feels like.

And I don’t really feel American either.

Also, any time I meet somebody who claims to be a “citizen of the universe” I think they’re being ridiculous.

(Yeah, I was born here in Nebraska, but then I went to college in Oklahoma City… I’m really a citizen of the universe, more than anything…)

moving to madrid, spain was a great decision. la alberca, salamanca province
That’s your humble author, on a recent trip to La Alberca in the Salamanca province.

So what am I?

Just some guy who sits on the sofa blogging, I guess.

In any case, living abroad makes you get out of your comfort zone, which–in my mind–can only be a good thing.

Change is going to happen anyway, so you might as well get used to it!

3. Good Weather is Relative

I remember, despite knowing nothing whatsoever about Spain, having at least the distinct impression that it was going to be sunny and warm, always.

Well, of course, living in Arizona I had never really experienced seasons.

Winter, as much of the world understands it, was something I had only seen on TV, or come into contact with for a long weekend visiting Grandpa in New Mexico.

Who knew that winter could be so damn long?

Now, I’m pretty sure that Spain’s famous “good weather” is only considered to be good relative to the weather in London or Berlin or Stockholm.

In Madrid, we have this sort of silly climate where it can be cold, cloudy, windy or rainy (or some combination of the three) on most days from early October until the middle of June.

Then, from one day to the next, it’s hot and sticky and your underwear is a sweaty disgusting mess so foul-smelling you expect mushrooms to start growing in your intimate regions any minute.

Plus, even if you have air conditioning, you can’t afford to use it, because, well, that’s what living under an austerity plan does to you.

(See #4.)

4. The Spanish economy was about to collapse

Back when I was heartbroken and living on my friend’s sofa, I was actually thinking of moving to Argentina.

No reason.

It just sounded cool.

But, doing some online research at the ASU library, I found out that Argentina was in the middle of a massive economic crisis, complete with an austerity plan designed so that they could someday pay back their loans from the IMF.

flagelación de cristo
Living under an austerity plan feels sort of like being flagellated by a couple of Romans, but without the promise of eventual salvation.

Of course, I had no idea what an austerity plan was, but it sounded dismal – even from thousands of miles away.

I imagined myself going down there and getting a job where I’d be paid in chickens or sacks of potatoes, just like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Not for me.

Spain, on the other hand, was booming!

I found an article on an expat site in which some guy broke down the cost of living in Madrid compared to a typical ESL teacher’s salary, and any way you sliced it, it beat the hell out of slinging cappuccinos and riding my bike around Phoenix all summer long.

So what the hell – I bought a ticket and ended up the moving to Madrid just a few weeks later.

Of course, back in the good ol’ days, nobody suspected that we’d end up where we are today… 27% unemployment, an austerity plan designed to pay back the government’s massive debt to Germany, and up to our eyeballs in political corruption.

No, back in those glory days of the early 2000s, we thought that Spain was well on the way to becoming a little USA, and Madrid was just like EuroMiami – everybody was rich, happy and lounging around without a care in the world…

Designer sunglasses, breast implants, and finally trading your donkey in for an actual automobile… Life was going to be just like one of those great Reggaeton videos for us madrileños!

And now, here we are. Desperately trying to keep Angela Merkel and the troika (whatever that is) happy so that we can keep on keepin’ on a little while longer…

Well, it’s been a nice ride. And it’s not over yet.

Questions? Comments?

Hit me! Right here in the comments…

Mr Chorizo.

P.S. Update (January 2016). This article is kind of old at this point. I’m well past year ten… if you want more about that, check out 12 years of Expat Life in Madrid.

P.P.S. Even though I complain sometimes, moving to Madrid has been a great decision. And my friends from Detroit, Boston and other northern cities who have read this article say I’m being a whiny baby about the weather. And whaddya know… They’re right!

P.P.P.S. I’ve got a lot more to say about moving to Madrid at this point. Check out these articles about working in Spain or making friends for a bit more about that. Have fun!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Having just moved to Spain 14 months ago, I love hearing the perspectives of others who’ve lived through it. Quite frankly, I don’t care for vegetarians, because most of them (In the United States, at least) put themselves on a moral pedestal and assume their dietary habits will get them off the hook for other ignorance and injustice they practice in their lives.

    I will have to disagree with you regarding the weather. To me, it’s warm and lovely in Madrid all of the time. However, I’m from Wisconsin, so the worst weather I’ve experienced in Spain isn’t especially bad to me. I’ve taken to wearing a coat at all times because I’ve noticed the looks from locals when I’m wearing a polo shirt and khakis while they have a heavy jacket and scarf.

    1. Haha thanks Danger Al! Of course, you’re totally correct about the weather. A friend from Boston cleared up my doubts. (Being from Phoenix I had never really experienced much winter before arriving… But in fact, Madrid’s winter is much better than sub-zero temperatures and being buried under snow!)

  2. Hi Have a friend moving to Madrid for a year for work and school. Another friend and I want to get gifts to send with her. We are at a total loss here. Any advice of things she will need? Thanks.

    1. Umm… These days most of what you can get in the US is available in Spain too. Maybe get her some peanut butter. Or Michelob. Or god-knows-what.

  3. I’m so glad I ran into your blog post. I just got home from a month long visit to Europe and I spent the last part in Madrid with my girlfriend lives here. It’s calling my soul. I’m back in Utah (where I live) trying to figure out how I’m going to make the move. I was born in Mexico City so my Spanish is fluent. I guess I just want to pick your brain about how I’m going to be able to do this? My biggest concern is getting a visa and obviously finding work with the way the unemployment is currently at. HELP!


    1. Hey Barby, I’m not really an expert on visas… I got mine the hard way. Most people’s advice is “marry a Spaniard”. Anyway, jobs aren’t too hard to find if you speak English. Good luck!

  4. So I am a 16 year old girl who visited Madrid for a week a year ago today. Everyday since I have been there I have missed it. Just something about it felt like home more than any other place in the world. I don’t know much Spanish but I am learning more and more everyday. I hope to live in Madrid after college or even go to college there. My major that I would like to study is interior design. Is there any colleges in Madrid that have that major as an option? How expensive is college there? Would you recommend to go to college in the states or in Madrid? Sorry for all the questions, but I’m excited and also scared. But I won’t let fear keep me from moving there. And also is there any tips that I could use to start preparing now to move there? Thank you -Lily

    1. Hey Lily, university is pretty cheap over here when compared to the US or the UK. I’m not sure about interior design, but you can probably find something similar somewhere. I’d start by contacting some universities and see what’s up. Have fun and good luck!

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