NoLongerNative is a kind of chronicle of expat life blunders. But I’m noticing that instead of learning from my mistakes, I usually go make them all over again. You know how it goes, once you get far enough away from those embarrassing stumbles you kind of forget it all.
That said, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear me say I arrived in Madrid with a suitcase full of assumptions and expectations carrying over from my first ‘life’ abroad, the two years I lived in Bogotá. I had a certain mental timeline of how quickly things should move. I thought that if something took two weeks in Colombia, it’ll probably be twice as fast here!
And so, settling in for the second go-around is coming with a new set of lessons.
I mentioned the first a couple of weeks ago, that I was surprised my Spanish vocabulary needed a tune-up. Even if you didn’t learn in Colombia, the Spanish you learned in high school is not the Spanish spoken in Spain. While it isn’t necessary to speak Spanish and visit Spain, some proficiency is necessary to visit government offices and do all the paperwork things that go along with being a foreigner.
Keep reading for a few more of the surprises I’ve had these past few weeks as I’ve been settling down in my new city.
Chances are that apartment hunting in Spain is a bit different than in your home country. Or as I came to realize, there are a few aspects that are different and then about one hundred others that you simply took for granted (i.e. an established credit history and a government issued ID). Because of this, recognize that it’ll probably take you longer to find and move into an apartment than you are expecting. Plan accordingly.
First new thing: realtors. Not just for home buying, they are used to show apartments in Spain. I’ve read on some blogs that you can call the numbers on for rent signs in apartment windows and work directly with the owners. However, I was left wondering if this was some sort of house-hunting urban legend since none of the apartments we looked at were shown by the actual owners. Your realtor will also be the person submitting the offer to the property owner. I say offer because the rent—and most other parts of a rental contract—are negotiable.
Ok, a realtor, no big deal. However, realtors are paid fees and those fees are your responsibility. From what we experienced and have had confirmed by folks we know here in Madrid, usual payment is the equivalent of one month’s rent. Again, plan accordingly and double check the costs before you fall in love with a place.
If you’ve never lived in Spain then chances are you don’t yet have a credit history to prove that you pay your bills. In this case, it’s up to the owner to decide what is an adequate guarantee that you’re a good prospective tenant. In our search, we encountered a few different requests, from proof of employment and a copy of our visa to a deposit of four to six months’ rent. Add in the realtor’s fee and a damage deposit and that is a huge chunk of change you should expect to fork out.
On banks and bureaucracy
There’s no way around having a bank account. If you plan on living here, it’s a requirement. Your utilities and cell phone plan are automatically withdrawn each month. If you have to put up a few months rent as a security for an apartment, the bank will hold it for you so both you and your landlord know it’s there and available.
While it isn’t terribly hard to get a bank account, we did encounter a bit of a log jam with our residency cards. Some banks won’t allow you to open an account without the physical card, even if you have a letter stating you’re awaiting the physical card’s delivery.
When you actually venture into a branch to open your account, go first thing in the morning (banks close early) and give yourself plenty of time. I’ve opened bank accounts online in the U.S. In Madrid, it was an hour and a half appointment followed by a return visit the next morning because the printers were down. However, in a few days, the debit cards arrived in the mail and we were able to set up the direct billing for our rent and bills.
You may think the food is just eh
There are some incredible foods in Spain. Over the next two years, I’ll be doing my best to eat every type of olive and sample each varietal of wine. The ham and bread and croquettes and patas bravas are delicious as well. That is, until you get tired of them.
I hope I don’t get kicked out of Spain with my confession, but I’m not the biggest fan of pork. Or paella. Or tortilla. Half the items on an average Spanish menu are fried. And they eat so much (delicious) bread! How is the population not obese?!
Depending on how you normally eat, you may not think Spanish food is the bee’s knees. Everyone has their own tastes, after all. However, Madrid is an incredible food city and there are myriad cuisines—including lots of fresh vegetables—if you know where to look. And isn’t that discovery part of the joy of moving to a new place?
Learning to drive…again
Renting a car and driving for three weeks on vacation? No problem. Do you need to buy or lease a car? Well, get ready to feel 15 again because your driver’s license will not magically transfer over to Spain. Even worse, don’t count on your current knowledge carrying you over either.
If you plan on driving long term, you’ll have to complete a three-part process to obtain a Spanish driver’s license: attend driver’s ed class, pass a written test, and pass a behind-the-wheel test. Speaking with others who’ve gone through this process before wasn’t encouraging. Apparently, even native Spanish speakers fail the written test once or twice before passing. On the plus side, Madrid has an incredible (and affordable) Metro system.
Your new, late-night schedule
I arrived in Madrid and thought hmmm, people sure like to stay out late but no worry, I’ll still maintain my early-to-bed and early-to-rise schedule. Let’s go ahead and crush that dream right now. Because even if you get up at 5:30 am and like to go to the gym and do an errand or two before work, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to.
Things just operate on a later schedule in Madrid. Gyms open around 7:00 am (10:00 on weekends!), grocery stores open around 9:00 am, and most shops at 10:00 am. Speaking of habits, go ahead and adjust your meal schedule as well. If you go out, expect to have lunch around 2:00-4:00 pm and dinner between 9:00-11:00 pm. The good news is that in the off hours you can absolutely find a hundred lovely cafes to serve you coffee and a little sandwich.
Have you been caught off guard in Madrid or somewhere else? Please leave a note in the comments below!