In 2008 I spent six months studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. It was the first time I lived outside of Wisconsin and the furthest I’ve ever been from home. During my time there, I learned a lot about myself and a even more about the rest of the world outside the United States.
When I wasn’t studying at the public university, I traveled at every possible opportunity. During the semester, I visited various parts of Spain – from Cadiz to Granada to Seville to Bilbao, Barcelona and San Sebastian – I wanted to see as much as I could while living in the country!
Rather than bunk up with other Americans, I roomed with a girl named Bri I met on campus. She was born and raised just outside of Madrid. We would take turns practicing Spanish and English with one another (in Spain we’d be considered “intercambios”) and also cooking new meals for one another. With her help teaching, and many spilled eggs later, I learned how-to make the traditional Spanish tortilla.
Toward the end of the semester my mother came to visit. Bri and I took our mothers to a traditional seafood dinner. Since her mother couldn’t speak English, and my mother couldn’t speak Spanish, we spent the entire meal translating! It was great practice for the two of us and a beautiful bonding moment between international mothers, even with the language barrier.
It was this experience and so many others that taught me several life lessons along the way.
Here are 7 Life Lessons I Learned from Living in Spain:
- Slow down.
Life in Spain is slow and sweet. At first it drove me crazy! I was coming from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a challenging school in the Midwest. There I worked two jobs, served on the board of my student organization, was a full time student and slept an average five hours a night (no joke). I’m so glad I took a break from that busy lifestyle during my junior year to relax and really soak in the Spanish lifestyle.
I focused on school, participated in fútbol sala (outdoor soccer on a hard surface), practiced my Spanish and explored at leisure. I ended up working a few hours a week teaching 5- and 6-year-olds Spanish, but I’d hardly call that a job. I was involved enough to experience the culture but not so busy that I was overwhelmed or feeling rushed.
- Spend time with loved ones.
Friends greet one another with warm hugs and besos on each cheek. And Spanish families are very close knit. For many, extended family members live in the same home or in very close proximity. When you’re with family or friends, the focus is on that moment and the people you’re with. Also, being away from my own family during that time made me realize how much I appreciate them (the whole crazy bunch).
- SIESTA! (aka naps)
In Spain, lunch is the biggest meal of the day and spans several hours. They take the break during the day to go home and spend time with loved ones. Business owners lock up, leaving hand-written notes in shop windows, letting customers know they’ll be back in a few hours. Finally, after the long, relaxing meal you lay down for a restful, mid-day nap, heading to work afterward to finish the day. Can we all just agree that naps are winning at life?
- Travel is good for the soul.
While overseas I traveled to nine countries in just under seven months. The last month there was spent traveling by train through Western Europe with two friends, Hannah and Eugene, who were also studying abroad. We stayed in hostels, couch surfed, biked through nude parks, slid down natural water slides in the Swiss Alps, hiked along the coast in Cinque Terre and spent our days exploring and seeking new adventures. I read, wrote and spent my days doing whatever my heart desired. It was incredible!
- Stop and enjoy your coffee.
The typical Spanish coffee is café con leche: half espresso, half steamed milk. Every neighborhood has a café where you can walk up to the bar and order your café con leche, alongside the Mahou and tapas on display. But don’t offend/confuse the bartender/barista and ask for it to go. Café con leche is served in a ceramic mug to be enjoyed at the bar, preferably with a neopolitana (i.e. chocolate croissant). Instead of sipping your to-go Starbucks cup in rush-hour traffic on your way to work, you relax with friends over a steamy café con leche and ease into your morning.
- Move your body.
Just like most of Europe, there’s great public transportation in Spain. By the time I left I knew the metro system, bus schedules and paseos like the back of my hand. I was constantly on the move!
The Spanish also love to dance. After meeting friends for tapas and a few copas de vino you would head to salsa or the discoteca. Not sure how to salsa? The locals take the lead and spin you around for a night of dancing that will leave you spinning for days. Ask my mom. I took her to my favorite salsa bar during her visit.
- History is remarkable.
Breathtaking cathedrals, castles and palaces. Cobbled streets and crumbling architecture. There is such a tremendous amount of history to be discovered stumbling through Europe that you have to leave the United States (or whichever country you’re from) to experience it.
Studying abroad and living in Spain opened my eyes and changed my life for the better.
Is there somewhere you’ve lived or traveled to that changed your life? Please share in the comments below!