Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Sue Burke of Mount Orégano writes for us

Some of you may know of the blog Mount Orégano, which is written by Sue Burke, an American expat living in Madrid, Spain. She recently took a look at the HSBC Expat Experience report and has offered to make a guest appearance on our blog, to give insight on what being an expat has been like for her. We're really excited to introduce Sue to you all and so without further ado...

A learning experience
By Sue Burke

When Spaniards ask me if I like living Spain, I always say yes, even though I'm not here to like it. After ten years in Madrid, I've noticed that Spaniards have an inferiority complex about their country and I don't want to hurt their feelings.

The truth is my husband and I moved to Spain to learn about it, not to like it. And we've learned a lot.

Even before we were married 18 years ago, we wanted to live overseas to experience another culture. Just to make it a truly different culture, we agreed that it should be a non-English-speaking country, and since the only foreign language we knew was Spanish, that narrowed things down. When we finally got a chance to move to Madrid, we took it even though we had never been to Spain and didn't know anyone there.

The actual move wasn't too much harder than moving cross-country in the United States, where we're from, except that our possessions came by slow boat and took three months to arrive. All our years studying Spanish gave us barely enough language skills to get by, but Spaniards have plenty of pride in their language and were glad to help us improve. We found a comfortable apartment, arranged our banking and insurance reasonably easily since Spain is used to foreigners, and set about living internationally.

At first, Spain didn't seem especially strange beyond all the differences that any tourist notices: odd meal times, unique food, an insane devotion to soccer, and a baffling street address system. But slowly, details emerged.

For example, you must eat only in designated places, never at your work desk. There is an unspoken dress code, and your clothes must suit your activities. Laws are either obeyed to the letter or are treated as suggestions to be ignored at will. You must always greet people, even the other patients when you enter a doctor's waiting room, but the greeting need not be cheerful. If you smile a lot, as Americans tend to do, people will think you're an idiot because no intelligent person could be happy so much of the time.

Eventually, I learned enough to have opinions about Spanish politicians and what numbers are lucky in the El Gordo lottery. I cheered for Spain in the World Cup (after the US was eliminated, of course). I knew when the weather was being unseasonable, and that bats are a sure sign of spring.

Most of all, I began to realize that Spaniards do things differently for reasons that relate to their history, their geography, and their climate.
These experiences have given them a unique culture. Something may seem strange, even illogical, but there's a reason for it — and Spaniards excel at certain things because their culture gives them an advantage.

I know people who came to Spain and instantly fell in love. We came and soon discovered that the country is bigger on the inside than it looks like from the outside.

We came to find out the inside story. We learned along the way that Spain is in fact easy to like. But that's just a side benefit.


We're really keen to hear from more of you so if you'd like to make an appearance and talk about your own expat life, email us at, via this blog or our twitter and lets get talking!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting perspective on living in a different culture. I wholly agree that a culture is more complex when viewed from within than when viewed from without.



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