Things I’ve Gotten Better at Since Moving to Spain

Coming from a family of teachers (and officially calling myself one on paper), my mother always taught me the value in learning outside the classroom. Though she counts on her fingers, lady’s a wiz with fractions, teaching my sister and I as we baked Christmas cookies. She taught us animal care by taking us weekly to the barn to groom and feed our first family pet, Pudge, and made us join Girl Scouts.

Any wonder who was my biggest supporter when I decided to move to Spain?

I was recently talking to my friend Gonzalo, one of the Novio’s compañeros from the military academy who lives in Zaragosa. He told me that his parents were amazed at how I’d come to Spain alone and with very little Spanish…and then stayed.

Call it the evolution of a species if you like: adapt or die.

I’ve learned to live without peanut butter, accept that baking here is nothing like it was in Nancy’s kitchen, and spend copious amounts of time on Facebook and Skype in the name of staying involved back home. But, with all of this, I’ve also learned a thing or two and have improved skills that I never thought would be necessary.

Parallel Parking

Recently, my friend Sandra of Seville Traveller and I were attending the Evento Blog España. The rain was pouring down, so we took her car to a nearby barrio for lunch. I watched as she maneuvered her compact car into an even tinier parking spot in a garage littered with cars, scooters and the like.

I’m American, from a place with wide open (parking) spaces, often the diagonal type that are simple to pull in and out of. Coming to live in a place like Spain means that I’ve had to adapt to their bumper kissing, doble fila and maneuvering Kike’s enormous vehicle when it’s my turn to drive. Something to work on? My tendency to panic when driving in a place I don’t know.

This, of course, has not been without oops moments – two years ago, Kike’s tank of a car got a big scratch from my carelessness when pulling it into a parking space, rather than backing it in.

Eating fish

Nothing says Midwesterner like my love for beef and grain. I accidentally consumed fish before realizing that I actually liked it. Since I had never learned names of fish and seafood, I often ordered sea creatures – as well as tripe stew, kidneys and coagulated blood – without knowing what I was really eating.

I’ve also learned how to clean it properly, from pulling the ink sacs and backbone out of a chipirón to lifting the bones of a white fish. It reminds me of a picture of my sister and I during a fishing trip in Wisconsin when we pinched our noses and stuck out our tongues as my father cleaned and grilled the perch we’d caught – it seems I’ve come full circle.

Travel has also made me an adventurous eater, in that I’m the first to try whatever is on the menu – even bugs, weird organs and live oysters.

Cutting Onions Without Crying

When I met Melissa, she told me that part of our monthly rent would go towards things we’d need in the house: cleaning supplies, olive oil and onions.

Onions have also crept into my diet just as fish have, but the hardest thing was learning to cut them without crying – I used to have to wear sunglasses to stay dry! Now, I usually cry while cooking the onions, but that could just be the smoke.

The secret? Doing it fast and cutting on a slant.

Sticking up for Myself

When studying for the DELE exams last November, I had Kike read all of my writing prompts. His conclusion is that I’m really good at reclamaciones, or complaint letters. I used to be the girl who would gulp down food that should have been sent back, or turn on my heel and not stand up to the funcionarios when they turn me away.

That all changed when a taxi driver took me the wrong way and wanted to charge me for it. I asked him to leave me at a cross street, but he insisted it was a shortcut and that would take me to where I needed to go. When I asked him to leave me off and let me walk the rest of the way, he tried to charge me the full amount. I insisted on him stopping the meter, leaving me a receipt and taking down his licence number. With that, he charged me just half and let it go.

I’ve learned to be proactive and not let people or silly rules walk all over me. Not the Vodafone salesman can turn me away when I start running my mouth about how they never signed me up for the insurance I had paid for on my bills, or to a nurse who was verbally abusive to a friend (we filled out a claim in the much-advertised LIBRO DE RECLAMACIONES). I’ve also told a few little lies to the people in extranjería to help speed up the process of getting paperwork done.

In Spain’s current economic situation, people are trying to squeeze as much out of every person as they can, which means that foreigners sometimes bear the brunt of their bad service and overcharging. Being assertive won’t cost you anything.

I still think I’m a little lost guiri whose luck just happens to never run out. Living abroad is a test in patience and resilience, yes, but it’s a lot about stepping back, taking a deep breath and remembering that it could happen the same way in your country.

What have you learned to do better during your time abroad? What do you want to improve on?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. Great article. It’s not until we sit down and look at how far we’ve come, that we realise what we have achieved. I still have a long long way to go… … …
    However, I can now swear in Spanish proficiently, and I cook most things from scratch now. Must admit… the onions in mainland Spain have started me crying again… whereas the Canary Islands onions never did. Bizarre!
    But I just can’t face morcilla – sorry but it looks like I’ll never be fully immersed :o)

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Elle, morcilla is one I am SLOOOWLY starting to like! I had to eat it with apple chutney and puff pastry before changing my mind! And, yes, the key to making it in Spain is breathing in deeply, puffing out your chest, and having great friends to laugh it all off with over a glass of wine!

      Thanks for stopping by!!

  2. Great post! I believe in asking for the book when necessary, too.
    Reg of The Spain Scoop recently posted..Photo Scoop (no. 19): Gaudí’s Casa BatllóMy Profile

  3. Wonderful! I am still working on some of these, the parking might never come good but I hope I can learn the assertive confident Spanish kind of manners that stops my English apologetic politeness standing in the way of getting things done.
    Maya recently posted..Dreaming Spain: The Early YearsMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      I double parked today and didn’t give a crap…making progress (and saving myself the trouble of circling and looking for a proper place to leave the car!). Poco a poco!

  4. A great idea for a post! I’m afraid that eating fish and seafood is not something I’ve learned to do in Spain in over 20 years – it all tastes of ammonia to my deformed tastebuds (always has, since my mother first served it to me in my high chair)! But I have learned to ask (in my worst Spanglish) ‘hay pescado dentro?’ in restaurants before I choose anything, as tuna often lurks in the croquetas and ensalada de la casa without it actually saying so on the menu!

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      My father was SHOCKED when I asked for grilled shrimp on my first evening home, despite never having chocked it down before…though I can’t do the tuna from a can yet! Thanks for stopping by, Belinda!

  5. Great post, Caat!

    I’ll you what I’ve learnt …. the civilising effect of kissing or shaking hands with all your friends every time you get together, even if there are 2, 20, 20, 200 of them … It’s important!
    Simon Harris recently posted..Nov 13, Barcelona Transport – Trains, Buses, Metro and More!My Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Ofu, I must seem like the rudest person on earth because I get so tired of it and find an excuse not to double kiss everyone!

  6. Since we moved to Panama I’ve learned not to stress about arriving at an appointment late and that it’s OK to park wherever I want. It seems the yellow paint is seen as a suggestion, as everyone ignores them and parks there anyway.
    Linda Bibb recently posted..Costa BravaMy Profile

  7. Great post, Cat,

    Spain keeps reminding me to fib and lie to get through the red tape and silly ways of doing things but I still have yet to learn it well… I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing (that I haven’t learned it yet) but I seem to be the one to suffer.
    Lauren @ roamingtheworld recently posted..A day trip from Madrid: Alcalá de HenaresMy Profile

  8. Hahaha, I just noticed that you mention me! Btw, parking is the easy part. It only requires a little practice. Driving in Seville with people circulating like crazy kamikazes is the hard part! This is the real concrete jungle, dear!
    Sandra recently posted..Spanish Churros: A Typical Treat in SevilleMy Profile

  9. Tiana Charles says:

    I’ve learned that even little old ladies can be rude an cut in front of you in line at the grocery stores. I’ve also learned that it’s okay to call attention to their behavior and not feel like I just punched granny!

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      UGH agreed! I was just commenting that to Kike the other day!

      Hope you’re well – great to hear from you, rubita!

  10. Love this post! Travelling broadens your mind so much. I guess I’ve learnt not to be so judgemental of the food in other cultures. xx
    Scarlett recently posted..3 Things you can’t help but love about ChristmasMy Profile

  11. Cutting an onion on a slant, huh? Guess I gotta give that a try:)
    D.J. – The World of Deej recently posted..Adventures on the San Francisco Cable CarMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      With my acute sinuses, it seems to be the only thing that works! I’m already sniffling at how many onions I’ll be butchering this weekend for a Spanish-friendly Thanksgiving!

  12. I didn’t know about slant-cut onions, either. Thanks for the tip (onions always make me weep). And all that Spanish seafood sounds great!
    Terry at Overnight New York recently posted..Bryant Park Hotel: On IceMy Profile

  13. I started eating a lot more fish too! I never thought I would like it so much. Shellfish still weird me out though.

    I think the number one thing I’ve learned in Spain is how to be more patient. Sometimes things are just so frustrating when you’re somewhere abroad.
    Jessica recently posted..Spanish Protests: The N14 Vaga General in BarcelonaMy Profile

  14. I got some problem in Spain! Signing up some services are just really hard sometime due to the efficiency of the system! I wish they will improve !
    LeX @ LeX Paradise recently posted..Fly to South Korea this coming winter with AirAsia X !My Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      I have had the same! What are you trying to do? Drop me an email, and I’ll see if I have any ideas for you.

  15. Being out of your comfort zone does force you to lear new life tricks, real quick. I still yet have to master parallel parking myself because there’s always Jack to do it for me :)
    jill recently posted..Scenes from the Amazing Valley of FireMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      This has given me something to laugh about while letting my fingers freeze by finishing up a project for my master’s after midnight. Really enjoyed reading about your prep – don’t know how I missed the vast majority of the actual trip! Going to be good an finish the project, but I’ve got a six hour bus ride tomorrow and plenty of battery life. Thanks for stopping by, Jill!

  16. It’s interesting looking at how we’ve changed and what we’ve learned. Well done you on the Libro de Reclamaciones – I’ve used it a few times too. Funnily enough once was in a hospital, though with an orderly. My son (1 yr old) was sick in hospital with a rare blood disorder and this woman laid into me and was very abusive. I didn’t get all of what she said, and my husband didn’t tell me till later, as he knew I’d flip. Eventually got an acknowledgement of my complaint from the hospital, after months of chasing, though no apology.
    Fiona Watson recently posted..10 things I’ve learned I can’t live withoutMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      I think the libros are great in theory, but not always great in practice. My friend was so upset, that the only thing I could think to do was write down the complaint, if only for peace of mind. I can only imagine the treatment is worse now with the recortes and less staffing!


  1. […] the examiner would steer him through different situations, asking him to parallel park (man was I thankful I’d finally mastered that) and safely exit the […]

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