A Madrileño Dining Experience

Madrileños are masters in the art of relaxation. These past few weeks, lunch and dinners out are never less than a 2 hour affair. It begins with a drink, typically my new obsession – tinto de verano con casera. Then, I while away the time chatting and casually perusing the menu. It is usually another 30 minutes before a meal is ordered, probably around the same time I order another beverage. In places that serve in the authentic tapas-style, you get a plate of food with each drink order. So, you wait to eat until another plate arrives with your next drink order. It’s all very relaxed and casual. In comparison to my usual hyper and hurried self, it was a refreshing change.

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As pleasant as it sounds, this “relaxed” atmosphere comes at a price. The camareros are all very relaxed as well. Depending on your hunger levels or schedule, this price can be steep. There were many times when I am sitting with my first drink empty (ice melted and consumed as water) and basket of “patatas chips” crumbs, and the camarero comes out to clean the table to my left then returns directly inside without a glance my way. Coming from the US where service staff work on tips, I’m accustomed to either over-zealous attention or being pushed out and replaced by another paying customer. But that’s not how it’s done in Madrid. You linger as long as you like with your first round of drink and you are likely not to be bothered unless you catch the attention of the wait staff.

Pidgeon eats crumbs from vacated table after the patrons went inside for the bill.

For the most part, trying to be noticed by the camareros can be an amusing endeavor. Since I had no pressing appointments after lunch, it did not affect my schedule. Usually, lunch or dinner was a game of “catch the waiter”. When I want to order, I glance around to catch someone’s attention only to see him disappearing indoors. Sometimes, there’s someone waiting on the table beside me and I think I make eye contact, but when I look again, the server is gone. Other times, there is no one coming out to the terrace for long stretches of time. Although I could prepare my big voice and shout “Oiga!”, the relaxed atmosphere is contagious and I simply wait til the next opportunity. After all, there’s no reason to hurry.

There were two exceptions to this experience. The first was a late 4pm lunch at a café managed by immigrants from China. The waiter was still relaxed, but managed to be easily available when needed. We were one of 2 customers at the time. However, being the only customers does not guarantee more attention. The second time was at a busy tapas bar when I was with another girl. Two ladies sharing tapas seemed to catch more attention for than I’ve ever received from previous waiters. Seems there are perks that come with being a girl in this city.

Overall, I have grown more accustomed to this strange, slow and relaxed lifestyle. The only thing with which I have to learn patience is customer service in other businesses. When the apartment hunter takes an extra 2 days to respond to an inquiry or the airline counter can’t manage to rebook a connecting flight, that’s a whole other story!

Which pace would you prefer for your dining out service?

Surviving my new foreign city

Palacio RealToday is day 13 in Madrid.

What amazes me the most is the range of emotions that can be felt within a short time! So far, I’ve been excited, in awe, afraid, sad, confused and quite definitely lost. But this is not the first time that I have travelled to a foreign country, nor is it the first time that I’ve moved to a shiny new city!  The difference is that for the first time, I am somewhere that will be “home” and I do not speak the language fluently nor am I familiar with the culture. This place is unlike other temporary travels since I have to figure out how thrive and make a life for myself. No matter how adventurous your spirit, something like this inevitably make you pause.

As pathetic as it may sound, I admit that there were many days when I wanted to simply stay inside the aparthotel (apartment + hotel) to live in my safe little room bubble. This feeling was stronger especially on days when I was out without my handy interpreter (a.k.a. spouse) and not a single Spanish word sounded familiar to me!

However, I am in MADRID! Everyone has told me of how wonderful, fun and amazing it is here. And I am not about to spend three weeks frozen in defeat. So, I took some steps to get acquainted with my new city, which I will share below.

1. Walk around the neighborhood.

This was one of my favorite. It allowed me to become familiar with my surroundings and easily explore new sights, sounds and smells (which was not always pleasant). Also, I did not have to interact with anyone other than the occasional “¡Hola!” from a friendly passerby. Plus, it was a great source of exercise which made me feel very accomplished!

2. Make one simple goal to accomplish every day to bring a new experience.

Everyday, I planned one specific experience that I haven’t done yet. For example, I wanted to go shopping at H&M one day. Instead of walking to the shop in my neighborhood, I decided to visit the one at Gran Vía, a popular shopping area in Madrid similar to 5th Avenue in NYC. Since I knew what to expect, I was better able to prepare the Spanish words that I may need to accomplish my task.

Remember, however, to leave yourself open for unexpected, spontaneous things. Those occurrences can make your new life much more interesting!

3. Search for your comfort food.

The power of food is amazing. Not only is it fuel, but it can make you feel “at home” even when you are not quite there. As an immigrant who lived many years in the States, I’ve had my share of moments where I felt out of place. If I can find a nearby Filipino store and get a hold of my favorite snacks, I feel a sense of relief and contentment in an otherwise unfamiliar place. Sure, it doesn’t solve everything, but it helps!

Within the first week, I visited 2 Filipino stores to grab a can of coconut water and chat with the store workers. It was comforting to meet my other kababayan (even if their Spanish was better than their English and my skills are quite the opposite). Now I know exactly where to go the next time I am a little homesick.

4. Connect with other expats in your new city.

The internet makes this goal a lot easier. Just a few searches revealed several Facebook and Meetup groups in Madrid where I could find other expats. I knew they were around somewhere, and it was encouraging to easily find activities where I could meet with them.

To date, I have not met up with anyone yet. And I am also on a search for a church in Madrid, which will be another great way to connect. Sadly, I have not found a “Filipino” group yet. So I will content myself with going to the Filipino store for the moment.

5. Take language classes.

This is another of activity that I enjoy. It kills two birds with one stone. One, you learn the very important skill of knowing how to speak the local language. Two, you meet other people who are on the same boat as you. Additionally, since many Spanish language learners come from all over the world, you can meet with people from other countries! The last time that I took classes was four years ago in Peru. It was a great experience, during where I made new friends from Holland, England and other states in the US.

6. Be patient with yourself.

This is something that the perfectionist in me struggles with, but it is the most important part of adapting to new evirons. All things new will take time before they become comfortable and familiar. You can only take one step at a time. Don’t be too hard on yourself because you can’t expect to know everything automatically! Plus, the fun is really in this process, so enjoy each moment, even when you feel completely lost.

So that is all that I have done so far. I’m sure there are other ways to feel more comfortable in a foreign new city. What other steps have you done?


Map of Wanderings

This feature was a fun discovery in Google Maps. I now have a rough list of places that I’ve seen around the world! There are still more to discover. And it’s exciting to cross things off my list one at a time.