out with the old (hat)

This new year has crept up too fast! I feel barely ready for it. The last time I had a good grasp on what was happening in 2015, my husband accepted a job offer in the U.S. From that point, we had one month to close out a life in Spain, find an apartment the month after and yet another month to set up a new home.

Whew! It is exhausting me again to think about what ensued to reach this point.

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Goodbye old neighborhood! (Madrid)

So here I am, back in the country where I grew up. Even more, I am back to the metropolitan area that closely resembles “home”. After over a year of life in Madrid – feeling like I’m on perpetual blind dates in search of new friends, having cafe con leche and vino on terrazas when I actually found amazing friends, kissing everyone on the cheek twice (even if I didn’t like them), maneuvering Spanish bureaucracy and other challenges and joys of being an expat – that chapter is closed (for the moment).

Now, a new challenge is in front of me. It’s no longer about integrating into a new culture and new country… at least not that much. I’m still having lunch at 2pm, dinner at 9:30pm and hanging out at “night” starting 6pm, sounds odd. But that aside… knowing that I’m back for a couple of years, there must be a way to merge wandering tendencies with finding peace and contentment back in my old haunts.

So, how can one look at an old place with new lenses? Guess that’s what I will find out. After all, wandering never really ends no matter where you live. There is always something to explore.

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Hello new neighborhood! (Jersey City)

Here’s looking forward to a 2016 full of new discoveries and friendships! Happy New Year!

What are you looking forward to this year?

Madrid quirks that I wish I knew before coming

Countdown: 17 days until the arrival of my first official visitor to my Madrid apartment. I am excited to welcome my sister for 2 whole weeks! The best part is that I have extra motivation to clean and make this humble pre-furnished, one-bedroom look like a cosy home.

While preparing for her visit, I began to wonder about what sort of things she may want or need to know in order to have a comfortable visit. There are the usual tips such as knowing how to say a few things in Spanish (hola, gracias, quiero un vino tinto, por favor etc.) or trying Spanish delicacies like tortillas and paella. But you can find those tips on any Madrid article on the web. So, I am listing a few things that I wish others had warned me about before I came to this lovely city. Over the last few months, there were several more that I thought of. However, for the sake of brevity and my aging memory, I will give you five:

1)  Lights automatically shut-off almost anywhere.

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Electricity is an expensive commodity. To be more budget-conscious and eco-friendly, most public places – restaurant bathrooms, apartment lobbies and hallways – will have a switch to turn on the light. However, after a minute or so, it shuts off. Some lights may automatically turn on with motion-sensor. But the automatic shut-off is the thing to be watch out. It is NOT FUN if you are fumbling for keys to your apartment door and suddenly, you are in complete darkness. It is even worse if you are in a bathroom and the same thing happens. Personally, I try to immediately locate the light source upon entering the room and (in case it’s a motion-sensor) it helps to flail your arms so that the sensor knows you are there! It may seem silly, but this technique has helped me more than once.

2) If you can’t figure out how to open/close the door – it might be a sliding door.

Speaking of important bathroom info… before my move to Madrid, encounters with sliding doors were limited to ones that lead to a balcony or patio. Here in Madrid, where space can be at a premium, many cafes, bars and restaurants ditch the typical push and pull for its sliding relative. This tip may seem like a “no, duh”, but, I’ve had enough encounters where I stood like a dummy in front of one until some kind-hearted camarera took pity and enlightened me.

3) Don’t step on the dog poo!

pooMadrid is a city of dog-lovers, or so it seems to me. I see many adorable barking creatures coming out of apartment buildings, being walked around the block or tied on a bike rack in front of a store awaiting its human. Therefore, when wandering the lovely neighborhood barrios, it is likely that you will find these ubiquitous staples. Sometimes they are in an easy-to-spot pile. Other times, it looks like they were stepped on and stamped down a line on the sidewalks. Whatever it’s form, it would be wise to keep your eyes on the pavement to ensure that your next step remains pleasant and clean. (Can’t help much with the smell though.) Thankfully for most sightseers, it’s rarely seen in the crowded tourist areas. But, better safe than sorry.

4) Pedestrians make their own rules as they go.

Growing up near New York City has taught me certain rules to follow as a pedestrian: a) Walk fast. b) Follow the flow of the traffic by staying on the right side and don’t stop (unless absolutely impossible). c) Don’t make eye contact. However, these rules don’t exactly work on the streets of Madrid. If you try to walk straight and fast, you will likely run over grandma en route to buy bread or the dad picking up the kids from school. Instead you have to either a) slow your roll – you don’t have anywhere to be right? (Even if you do, it’s okay to be a few minutes late.) or b) learn to slalom – swerve around slow-moving pedestrians and ones that decide to abruptly stop to look inside a store. Do this as safely as possible on the narrow sidewalk without pushing those in the opposite direction onto incoming traffic. It doesn’t matter which side of the sidewalk you decide to walk on… really. As long as you don’t run into people, you’re fine. And, if a friendly passerby may want to say “hola”, it should be safe enough to make eye contact, share a quick smile and say “hola” as you walk past.

5) Doorknobs are perfectly acceptable in the middle of the door.

doorTo be honest, this isn’t a very useful tip. I wanted to add it to this because it’s something that fascinates and perplexes me. Hey, I like symmetry as much as the next gal! However, doorknobs that are dead center do not provide much leverage to open a door. You have to push a little more than if it were on the side furthest from the hinge. But, anyway. It is what it is.

Does anyone else have other tips or quirks to share with Madrid first-timers?

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?