Top Social

Surviving Homesickness in Madrid

Monday, March 31, 2014
Surviving Homesickness in Madrid

I may love living in Madrid, but that doesn't mean that I'm immune to homesickness. About a month ago I got mono, and four lethargic weeks later, I'm still sick. Inevitably, with sickness comes the longing for mom's cooking, the comfort of my own bed, cuddling with my cats during movie marathons, and simply being taken care of. I'm a long ways from home, and homesickness has decidedly hit.

For six months I avoided homesickness by constantly staying busy. "The busier I am," I thought to myself, "the less time I have to think about home!" My strategy was serving me well until I got sick, and then I finally had to sit still with my thoughts.

That's not to say that I don't love Spain - no, that would be crazy talk. I'm obsessed with this place. Being homesick surely isn't the most pleasant feeling in the world, but it's definitely a manageable one. All expats are susceptible to it, but we're also perfectly capable of overcoming it. Here's how I deal with homesickness in Madrid:

If I'm exceptionally homesick on any given day, you can find me hightailing it to the nearest Starbucks and seeking refuge there, consoling myself with chai tea lattes and pretending that I’m back in Seattle. This little sanctuary of mine was particularly revitalizing around Thanksgiving, when I was heartbroken over the fact that I couldn’t feast upon turkey and gluten-free stuffing with my family. When I was holed up there on Thanksgiving Day, missing my parents and moping over the sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie that I couldn't eat, the store started playing Death Cab for Cutie as if it knew exactly how to comfort me.

At first I avoided using Skype because I thought that it would make being far away from my family and friends that much harder. I tried not to think about the need for Skype in hopes that avoiding it would help me acclimate to life in Madrid faster. Now I know that I was being delusional. I've since come to realize that Skype is in fact a huge (and necessary) blessing, because you know what? Face to face contact is crucial when it comes to relationships. You don't get that kind of closeness via email or texting. Here's my reality check: you actually miss people less when you are able to see their faces every once in a while.

I also just learned how to FaceTime (welcome to 2014, Courtney...) and I finally chatted face to face with my best friend for the first time since Christmas. I was surprised by how much less homesick I was after FaceTiming her, and I felt cheerful and revitalized for the rest of the week.

My point being: don't distance yourself because you think seeing your loved ones' faces will just make it harder. At the end of the day, Skype is a huge mood booster and homesickness reducer. Embrace it.

No offense Spain, but when I’m missing my mom’s home cooked meals and my favorite restaurants back in Seattle, the last things I crave are patatas bravas or jamón. No, no, tortilla española and huevos rotos just won’t do. Instead, I seek out American comfort food, whether that be cooking gluten-free Mac & Cheese at my apartment (thanks for the care package, dad!) or going to Carmencita Bar for brunch – where there’s actually real bacon, hash browns and mimosas.

Sometimes I’ll head over to Taste of America, a small chain of stores here in Spain that import goodies from the States. If I wanted to, I could buy peanut butter and Betty Crocker cake mixes there, although it would probably cost me a small fortune. (A box of Fruit Loops costs almost 10 euros!) While I'm allergic to most of the foods sold there (and I probably couldn't afford them anyways), just wandering through the store feels oddly comforting.

Nevertheless, what I miss the most about Seattle is Whole Foods, in all of its organic kale-and-quinoa-loving glory. It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve finally found some healthy restaurants that mimic the Pacific Northwest's health-crazed, alternative spirit. My new go-to place is Federal, which uses mostly fresh, organic ingredients and even serves a killer green juice. Not to mention, their breakfast dishes are reminiscent of my favorite brunch locales in Seattle.

Baked eggs with spinach, goat cheese and caramelized onions alongside green juice at Federal. The closest thing I can get to real brunch on this side of the Atlantic!

Printing out pictures and bringing them to Spain with me was arguably one of the best decisions I made when I left. They're now hanging on my walls and residing in frames on my desk, reminding me of how rich my life is no matter where in the world I am. Every day I look at them and realize how grateful I am to have these amazing people in my life. Being surrounded by such pleasant memories brings good vibes into my living space. And besides, looking at blank white walls is just depressing.

Adorning my room with pictures from back home has made my apartment that much more of a 
happy space.

The key to overcoming homesickness is simple: get out of the house and explore. Having mono and all, every day I'm tempted to come home from work and just sleep for a few hours, further toying with the possibility of not leaving my house for the rest of the day. I mean, even without mono I love a nice siesta just as much as any Spaniard, but giving in to my natural instinct to hibernate all day isn't going to help me.

As soon as I get over my languid sloth-like state and step out the door, I'm overwhelmed by how gorgeous Madrid is. A simple walk around the block does wonders for reducing my homesickness, so you can imagine how great it feels to squeeze in an entire day of adventures around the city.

Not only does getting out and exploring cause me to fall more & more in love with Madrid, but it also makes it feel more like home. Every new restaurant, café and plaza I discover makes the city feel a bit more like my own. The more I feel at home in Madrid, the less I focus on missing the States.

A moment captured on one of my random photo walks through Madrid. I fall in love with the buildings and colors of every street I walk down.

While I still struggle with missing my parents and the comforts of home, I love Madrid too much to let homesickness define my experience here. Such feelings of nostalgia and rootlessness are a natural part of moving to a foreign country, but I believe that they are manageable when you implement the right survival tactics.

Have you ever dealt with homesickness abroad? 
What helped you overcome it? 

Shea McGrath Photography

Sunday, March 30, 2014
Last month I had the pleasure of tagging along with lifestyle photographer Shea McGrath on one of her photo shoots as she gave me a lesson in portrait photography. Shea is a wedding and lifestyle photographer, specializing in natural light photography. She first fell in love with photography as a young girl, when she received her first film SLR camera as a gift from her Godmother. Shea says,

"I didn't really think about doing photography for a living until my study abroad experience in college; I created and captured so many wonderful moments which turned into unforgettable memories." 

When she came home from studying abroad in Spain, she purchased her first digital SLR camera and started taking her friends' engagement photos. She then began working with D&orfs Photography in Ames, Iowa as she finished her college career at Iowa State University.

"This hobby of mine has quickly turned into a passion and it is something that I truly love doing. Being a part of those special moments in peoples' lives brings me pure joy and happiness!"

As Shea showed me the ropes of portrait photography, it became clear to me how fun and easygoing she is to work with. She does an incredible job of listening to her clients' wishes and making them feel comfortable. She is full of innovative ideas, and has the ability to intuitively capture a person's essence in her shots.

During my photography lesson with Shea, I jumped in a picture with my friend Jennifer from Food, Love, & Life. Jennifer writes a fantastic lifestyle blog filled with fun photos of her adventures in Spain and a myriad of mouthwatering recipes! Check it out here!

I had such a great time learning about portrait photography with Shea, and I seriously hope that one day I'll be able to take photos as well as she can! If you are ever in need of a photographer in Madrid or Iowa, I can't recommend her enough. Check out more of her work on her websiteblog and Facebook page.

Budapest's Great Market Hall

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

It's no secret that I love markets. I try to visit local marketplaces wherever I go, and exploring different markets around the world has undoubtedly become one of my favorite parts about traveling. Great Market Hall, or Nagyvásárcsarnok in Budapest is certainly no exception. Great Market Hall comes in second place for my favorite spot in the city, closely behind the extraordinary Széchenyi thermal baths.

This sprawling indoor marketplace is brimming with food stalls, eateries and vendors selling traditional Hungarian goods like paprika and embroidered tablecloths. Although there are many souvenir shops, I was surprised by how few tourists there were, seeing as most of the market was dominated by locals. 

I was mesmerized by the vibrant colors of the old fashioned stalls, especially the signs with vintage fonts that made me feel as if I had stepped back into Budapest's intriguing past. I could have spent hours wandering through the market, watching the bustling locals buy their groceries and listening to the strange yet enthralling Hungarian language.

The market itself is visually stunning, but what makes it truly remarkable is the personality found inside of it. If you are planning a trip to Budapest, I highly recommend visiting Great Market Hall for a distinct taste of Hungary.

Where are some of your favorite markets abroad?

Take Me Back To: Dublin

Monday, March 17, 2014

Happy St. Patrick's Day, everybody! Not only do I love St. Patrick’s Day because it gives me a legitimate excuse to spike my coffee with Bailey’s, but also because it lets me get incredibly nostalgic about my trip to Ireland in 2010. Dublin completely took my breath away, and despite being there for only a few days, I truly became infatuated with the city.

Dublin has a certain rustic charm that I absolutely adore. The picturesque brick buildings and musical accents make me believe in the “Luck of the Irish”, for anyone who lives there is truly lucky. Although my trip started off as an epic quest for good beer, charming accents and leprechauns (the last of which I didn’t quite find), I ended up discovering a delightfully friendly and mesmerizing culture.

We explored the beautiful Trinity College, wandered through the shops of Grafton Street, toured the Guinness Storehouse where I drank my first Guinness ever (obviously this was before I found about having Celiac disease… if only Guinness made gluten free beer too!), bar-hopped and listened to live rock music in the pubs of the Temple Bar district.

Fact of the matter is, I’d give anything to go back right now. Not only are the Irish by far the friendliest people I’ve met throughout my travels, but the country is simply stunning. I'm dying to visit again one day and spend more time exploring the rest of Ireland. (And perhaps by then, gluten free Guinness will exist!)

Have a great St. Patrick's Day, everyone!


Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Today I awoke to the heartbreaking realization that I’m no longer in Budapest. The majestic city absolutely stole my heart, and now it hardly seems real that I was actually there, experiencing its magic firsthand. The entirety of the city captivated me – and I found myself constantly in awe of my resplendent surroundings. The twin cities of Buda and Pest are not only stunning, but they also possess enthralling personalities. While some parts are rough around the edges, others are purely exquisite.

Fisherman's Bastion in Buda

My favorite part about the architecture is the juxtaposition between the stately pastel colored buildings that look like decorative Easter eggs, and the ominous dark buildings that look like victims of a ravenous fire long ago. While many of the sights and notable landmarks were built in 1896 for the city’s millennial celebration, to me the entire city felt extraordinarily old. I could almost picture myself stepping back in time and experiencing the antiquated Budapest that once was.

Vajdahunyad Castle in Pest
Chain Bridge
Heroes' Square in City Park

Budapest has gone through a markedly tumultuous history, yet has come out more regal than ever. We saw one of the most harrowing snapshots of Budapest’s history when we visited the House of Terror, a museum in the former headquarters and torture site of the Nazi and communist secret police. The city has seen its fair share of heartbreak, and while its days of Soviet occupation ended long ago, there are still some vaguely reminiscent traces of its communist past. Even riding on the metro, with its vintage leather handles on the ceiling, charmingly outdated stations, and archaic recordings that announced the upcoming stops and closing of the rickety doors, made me feel like I had transported myself back to the 1960s. Though I was never alive to experience the 60s myself, riding on Budapest’s public transportation evoked an enigmatic nostalgia.

Great Market Hall, my favorite place in Pest

Nevertheless, Budapest has gracefully transitioned into a remarkably elegant city that nods to both its former greatness and turbulent history. If I could describe the city in one word, it would be “regal”. I was completely entranced by how majestic the city was. At times I felt as if I were living in a fairytale, which makes coming home and reminiscing about my trip that much more surreal. “Did that really happen?” I ask myself every two minutes as I daydream about wandering through the colorful hills of Buda, crossing the magnificent Chain Bridge, getting lost within the vibrant Great Market Hall, and soaking for hours in the famous Széchenyi thermal baths.

Exploring Castle Hill in the sunshine
Széchenyi thermal baths - hands down my favorite experience in Budapest! (We went at night, so I didn't bring my camera along. I'm so glad I didn't, because we ended up getting stolen from here!)

One of my favorite moments of the trip was when were atop the Fisherman’s Bastion – one of the highest lookout towers in Buda – sipping steamy mulled wine in the sunshine and admiring the breathtaking views of Pest. As we were gazing out upon the Danube, Parliament, Chain Bridge and St. István’s Basilica, a nearby musician was playing cheerful classical tunes for the crowds below. Suddenly, the clock struck noon, and all of the bells in the city started chiming at the same time. The bells rang from every which direction, and we fell silent to witness the enchanting scene before us. In that moment I felt so present, so fully immersed in the magic of the moment, that all I could feel was pure joy. As I soaked in every detail of our surroundings, happiness radiated from every inch of my body. I felt so alive.

Now I can’t shake the feeling that it was all just a splendid dream, a mere figment of my overactive imagination. If it weren’t for the hundreds of pictures that I took, I’d have a hard time believing that all of it was actually real. But I suppose the best part of it all is that despite my nostalgic reminiscing, Budapest was just as magical in the moment as it is now in my mind.

How I've Changed Since Moving to Spain

Monday, March 3, 2014
1. I can actually stay out late

In Seattle, I was pretty much an abuela, or "grandma". I was lucky if I could stay out until closing time, which in Washington is between 1:45 and 2:00 am. It was a real struggle to stay awake past midnight. As many of you already know, here in Spain people don't even start heading to the clubs until about 3 am, and eventually they head home around 6 or 7 am. Needless to say, I've had to adapt. Now, when I go out on the weekends I'll usually stay out past 3 am, and about every other weekend I'll have one big night where I stay out until 6 am. I'm sure many of my friends back home won't believe this, but I've actually changed my ways. Thank goodness for siestas, am I right?

Spaniards are notorious night owls, so I must caffeinate accordingly.

2. The way I speak English has changed

Despite being hired as a native American English speaker, at my elementary school I'm required to teach British English. Between teaching British English at work and always hanging out with my posh British roommate outside of work, this different way of speaking has proved to be subconsciously contagious.

My Pacific Northwest accent has stayed the same (I'm desperately clinging to my Washingtonian habit of pronouncing my "t"s like "d"s - "I'm from Seaddle, where there's lots of wader"...), but the way I structure sentences has changed. For instance, instead of saying "Do you have any tomatoes?", I inadvertently copy the Brits and say, "Have you got any tomatoes?" I've also started to say things like, "I can't be bothered to go proper grocery shopping right now." The Spice Girls and the Royal Baby would be so proud.

But I suppose I must admit that the language I speak most often here is Spanglish. I find myself saying the following phrases to my fellow expat friends on a daily basis: "I just don't have the ganas today", "I'm going to echar the &%$@ outta this siesta", and, "I'm so tired of his tonterías." 

3. Fashion has taken a backseat

Being a foreigner in Spain, I already get a lot of intense stares that make me feel as if I'm an animal in a zoo. Sure, it could be a lot worse; like many Spaniards, I'm short, tan and brunette - so I get a lot less attention than say, my two gorgeous German roommates who are tall and blonde. Nevertheless, I stick out... and I get stared down a lot. Any you know what? People gape even more when I dress like a total foreigner.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I've temporarily traded in my preppy, all-American J.Crew and Kate Spade ensembles for a more convenient Zara-inspired look, simply because I'm sick of being gawked at. I miss my pearls, gingham button ups and Sperry's, but they'll be waiting for me back home at my country club where people don't look at me like I'm some sort of rabid wildebeest.

I miss you, preppy stripe collection.

4. I'm not a healthy eater anymore

RIP long lost Paleo baking supplies

Last year when I was living at home, I became a really healthy eater. I was even Paleo for four months, for crying out loud. I only ate organic fruits and vegetables, I only bought hormone & antibiotic free/free range/organic meat, and I would exclusively shop at Whole Foods, PCC & Trader Joe's. (Okay, so I got kind of obsessive about it when I moved back in with my parents. But there are worse compulsions to have.)

Anyways, all of the good habits that I accumulated back home all went to hell when I moved to Spain, because everything here is fried, artery-clogging and addictive. Fried potatoes have become a weekly staple. Finding decently priced organic food is a headache. I can't even remember the last time I drank a green smoothie. Who am I? I mean, it's not my fault that I can't find kale because it isn't grown here, nor can I take the blame for the fact that a tiny box of quinoa costs a whopping 9 Euros. I guess I could work harder to find more creative solutions, but see point number 5...

I've traded in kale chips for these bad boys. And I mean "bad" in the literal sense, as in someday they'll probably kill me.

5. I'm less conscientious

This is probably the laziest I have ever been, for better or for worse. Spaniards get a bad rep for being lazy, and while I can't speak for the population of an entire country, I can definitely speak for myself. I'm still generally a productive person, but considering how gruesome of an overachiever I used to be, this is the worst that my work ethic has ever been. In turn, I'm a lot less stressed out and I've found a much healthier balance in my life. But still, my American conscious is constantly plagued with guilt by my intermittent unproductiveness.

I used to define conscientiousness. Now, I'm always running 10 minutes late, efficient time management is a capricious mood rather than an abiding skill, I don't make my bed everyday, and if I really need to get something done, chances are I'll take a very long nap first. If you knew me back home, this is a really big deal.

6. I'm more flexible and patient

Having to adapt to living in a new culture takes a lot of patience as it is, and then when you add in a job that involves working with children all day... well, it just skyrockets from there. Even the littlest things like going to the grocery store, mailing something at the post office, or setting up a bank account require a ridiculous amount of patience compared to doing those same mundane tasks back home.

This doesn't mean that I'm chill and Zen all the time (spoiler: I'm not), but living in Spain and dealing with many frustrating circumstances has taught me to take things as they come and accept the things I can't control. It's truly been a challenge at times, (okay... at most times, especially when it involves dealing with painfully inefficient Spanish bureaucracy...) but overall it's made me a stronger individual, so I really can't complain now, can I?

Patience is: teaching 50 screaming kids how to make Thanksgiving turkey crafts, and then coming home to find art supplies in your hair.

Have you ever lived abroad? 
How did it change or impact you?