Five Things to Love About Being an Expat in Spain

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in her timeless classic “The Writing Life.”

Nearly two years living as an expat in Spain, I suspect Spaniards instinctively get this. There’s a sense of ease, even joy, to Spanish living. Is it the sun, the wine—its sparkling sibling, cava—the revered gastronomy, or the spectacular landscape—from the lush green of the north to the warm beaches of the south? As I wade through a mound of paperwork to renew my visa (the bureaucracy here may not be a selling point) for yet another year, I look back at how I have spent my days, and what it is that keeps me here.

Family Reigns Supreme | If I had to choose one headliner that, for me, defines Spanish culture, it wouldn’t be the paella, the sangria or the siesta, it’d be the strong familial ties. For many Spanish families, Sunday family meals are sacred, so are get-togethers celebrating various festivities throughout the year, such as the Día de los Reyes Magos(Three Kings Day) and Nochevieja (New Year’s Eve), when it’s customary to have dinner with your family before heading out to party for the night. So, it didn’t surprise me when a friend, a married father of three and a serial marathoner who also happens to be a highly successful partner at a top law firm in Madrid, said during a conversation: “When I think about what is my achievement in life? It’s my family.”

It’s the Little Things, Stupid | If life is a series of moments and experiences strung together, then Spain’s doing something right. Whether it’s the clinking of coffee mugs in the morning at the local tabernas where the baristas almost always ask if you want the milk in your cafe hot, cold or warm; or the friendly vendor at your traditional mercado who queries if you are buying avocados for today or next week, so he can find the right level of ripeness for you as he prepares your bag of groceries with care; or the transit worker who takes about five minutes of his time trying to explain directions to someone with broken Spanish; or that most people will greet strangers in the elevator or the doctor’s office, Spain has it down when it comes to the little stuff in life. Even in a big city and a major European capital such as Madrid, the little pleasantries and etiquette make life that much more enjoyable, especially for an expat.

Universal Health Care | As if the Mediterranean diet, the strong social networks and an enviable work-life balance weren’t enough, the country also boasts a universal health-care system (which many take great pride in and feel is the right thing). It’s no wonder that Spain claims the top spot for life expectancy in Europe, according to a Eurostat study published last year.

Friendliness, Connectedness | When my former roommate in Madrid left each evening like clockwork to tomar algo (roughly translated as “take something” or “have a drink”) with friends, it wasn’t so much about the coffee or the caña (small beer) as it was about the ritual of spending time with friends. Plans with friends, I’ve learned, are often open-ended. One might meet for lunch and not return home until after dinner. They aren’t slaves to their calendars and can just sit and catch up, laugh, chat over a coffee for hours. The siesta is a dying tradition, especially in big cities, but the paseo (stroll without a specific destination) and relatively long lunches seem to be alive. Sobremesa (time spent after a meal, hanging out with family or friends, chatting and enjoying each other’s company) is a thing here.

Life Isn’t Over After 40, Or When You Have Kids | Lively groups of grannies dressed to the nines enjoying a beer with cod croquettes at the famed Casa Labra in Madrid, more than likely a pre-dinner affair, were among the first things that caught my eye when I first moved to the capital. It isn’t uncommon to see young children accompanying parents at bars and outdoor terraces. In short, your life doesn’t sink into boredom and an endless series of chores as you transition through various phases of life. A certain playfulness seems to be ever-present. My last encounter with this was New Year’s Eve dinner with my Spanish partner’s family in Málaga: His nearly 70-year-old parents (a physician and a painter) dashed off to party with their lifelong friends right after the midnight toast with the family. I am told they are usually the last ones to return home Jan. 1—usually at around 6 a.m. or 7 a.m.

As a New Yorker with immigrant roots, I have a fair idea what the American Dream entails. As an expat here in Spain, I’m still trying to grasp the Spanish dream, but I do know it involves lots of friends and family time, preferably spent over a carefully prepared meal, with wine, and followed by a generous helping of spirited sobremesa.




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