Monday, 21 March 2011

Tales of a Brit Abroad turns one today

When I started my blog a year ago today, I had certainly given the idea of blogging plenty of thought, but I can't claim that I was remotely prepared. Sitting in my bedroom in Madrid one Sunday evening, I finally decided to start a blog: half an hour later the first post was online. Vaguely conceived as a way to keep my friends and family in the UK informed of my expat life and an opportunity to delve further into travel writing, in the days that followed I was pleased to get some positive feedback and even a few followers.

One year on, thanks to promotion via Twitter and Travel Blog Exchange, my blog now reaches far more people than my long-suffering and kindly indulgent loved ones and has opened more doors than I could have imagined. I now write regularly for The Travel Belles, and have also contributed to the Manchester Evening News, East magazine, Trourist and mTrip, among other publications. My snap decision to record my travels online has proven a very rewarding one: my only regret is that I didn't begin sooner, describing my move from Oxford to Madrid and my first six months in the Spanish capital.

It's from a different bedroom that I write today's blog post: I'm now resident in Oxford again. After a year in Madrid, I returned to the UK in August 2010. Readjusting to life in my home country was harder than I had imagined; waking up to dull drizzle rather than the cloudless summer sky and scorching heat of Madrid was disheartening, the coffee was too weak and milky, the prices of public transport too high. My compatriots seemed less approachable, more stressed. Open air swimming pools, tapas crawls and terrazas de verano, the mainstays of my recent existence, were all a thing of the past. I had to remove my rose-tinted gafas and remind myself that the joys of my final months in Madrid weren't entirely reflective of the experience as a whole. Settling into a new job is always challenging, but when combined with an international move, it's even more daunting and takes far more time. Even tougher than getting used to longer working hours and my company's creative approach to forward planning, I was surprised to find it difficult to adjust to life in Madrid. Although I had only spent two weekends in the capital before emigrating, I had enjoyed every moment of my visits and naively imagined that, tiny teething problems aside, daily life would be a doddle and I'd soon slip back into the rhythms of Spain. I hadn't counted on Madrid moving at a rather different pace to my beloved Seville.

Never having lived in a capital before, I hadn't anticipated just how wearing the whirl of a big city's daily business can be sometimes. With my conception of Spanish life shaped in the considerably more laid-back south, the constant motion of Madrid came as a shock. Yes, lunches were still long and nights were still late, but this was not Spain as I knew it. The crowds around Sol and Gran Via frustrated me and sent me running for the metro home, the marcha of super clubs like Pacha and Joy was too much for me. The traffic seemed relentless and inescapable; pretty pedestrianized backstreets a rarity. After a few months, I was surprised to hear myself say 'I just don't like Madrid very much'. Where had my Spanish dream gone so wrong?

Each person's experience of living in the same city is completely different. While most of my fellow expat friends were revelling in Madrid's delights, I still felt lukewarm about it. In a bid to settle in to my surroundings and enjoy my time abroad, I set out on mission 'get to like Madrid'. Now that I had a blog on which to record my experiences and readers awaiting the next instalment of my adventures, I had no excuses not to experience everything the city has to offer. Evenings and weekends were spent exploring the city and its surroundings, testing out restaurants and bars, visiting its many barrios, its parks and its monuments. I can't pinpoint the moment my feelings changed, but gradually they did: Madrid began to grow on me. I slowly learned to love hanging out in the multicultural, gloss-free neighbourhood of Lavapies and its excellent curry houses, I enjoyed shaking up the stuffy atmosphere of barrio Salamanca over post-office drinks with my workmates, I delighted in escaping the weekend crowds by swapping the Retiro park for the wilder Casa de Campo. In short, I found my Madrid.


A Madrilenya of sorts


In the end, leaving wasn't easy. Throwing in the towel halfway through the year might have seemed like a good idea at one point, but I'm incredibly glad I persevered and grew to appreciate Madrid for what it is: a bustling, modern metropolis; a grand old city of famous art galleries and traditional tabernas; an international melting pot; a vibrant destination where the marcha never stops, it only has a siesta; a series of barrios with their own distinct identity but a thread of similarity. Madrid has many layers, and I'm pleased to say that my year there taught me to appreciate most of them. It may not be my first Spanish love, but our relationship certainly taught me plenty of lessons and left me with some lasting memories.

Enjoying Madrid's winter sun

Although I'm not a Brit abroad at the moment, I have no doubt my expat days are far from over. In the meantime, I hope to keep Tales of a Brit Abroad going with tales of my trips overseas, as well as the guest blogger series which has taught me and my readers about life in towns and cities as diverse as Singapore, Wellington and Cesky Krumlov. Thank you for reading and supporting my blog in its first year, and I hope you continue to enjoy it for years to come.

Friday, 18 March 2011

A Brit abroad in Sevilla, Spain

 This month's guest post is particularly close to my heart, as guest blogger Kim is currently living in Seville. In this post, she explains what took her from England to Andalusia and the reasons why she's 'becoming Sevillana'.

I was always a bit of a home-bird when I was a child. I even cried all night when I stayed at my neighbour’s house. Travel was never instilled in me either - my parents didn’t travel abroad until I was in my teens - but when I made my first flight from the nest at 17, embarking on a round-the-world trip, there was no holding me back. 

At high school my teachers claimed that I had linguistic skills and encouraged me to take Spanish at GSCE. I couldn’t understand the importance back then, but I am so grateful for their kind words as a Masters in translation later brought me to take a placement in a translation agency in Seville, Spain.
I had visited Seville and mesmerising Andalusia before: I fell in love with the atmosphere, and when I was offered a placement there in 2009, I couldn’t refuse. During the three-month stint, I was getting to grips with translation during the day and slogging away at my MA dissertation most evenings. I lived for the weekends when I would meander through the labyrinth of el barrio de Santa Cruz, the city’s old quarter, getting to know every nook and cranny.

Exploring Santa Cruz

 As my placement was drawing to close, I began to make friends and realised that there was so much that I still wanted to live (mainly the infamous feria de abril and solemn Semana Santa) which were still a few months away. With no other plans and a yearning to gain some more sought-after translation experience, I requested an extension. My boss accepted, offering a further six months, which later evolved into a “definitive” contract. 

Seville Cathedral

So, why did I take the contract? One of the main reasons was language: my passion for Spanish is so strong, and I know that if I were to go back home, I would speak a fraction of what I do day-in, day-out. Here, apart from one British colleague, all of my daily interactions are with Spaniards. My linguistic skills were relatively good before I made the move, but both professionally and socially, they have come on leaps and bounds. Andalusia and its regional accent fascinates me, so much so that I seem to have adopted a local (unfortunately rather rural) twang, lisping or eating “s” sounds: i.e. “athi, the dithen lath cothah –así, se dicen las cosas –that’s how things are said

The second reason was “experience”: very few UK translation agencies take on trainee translators, often requiring at least two years experience, so I really wanted to take the opportunity to improve my career. I am certainly doing just that: I work at least 40 hours a week and translate quite specialised material, although I get far fewer peanuts than I would back home. Despite my frustration about pay, I have to feel “lucky” in a way: Andalusia has been one of the regions worst affected by the crisis and many of my degree-holding friends are either unemployed, becarios (interns) or working voluntarily.
Lastly was culture: I thrive on exploring new places and trying to understand cultures. There is plenty to fuel my need here as Seville is filled to the brim with festivities and overflowing with culinary delights around every corner: despite financial woes, Andalusians love to eat out and the region has the most bars per metre squared in the whole of Spain. 

Getting out of Seville: Grazalema

Since being taken on, I have made sure that I immerse myself deeper into Seville and its surroundings. Most weekends are spent travelling to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the coast or mountains. Or, when Seville-bound, getting on the Sevici (community bikes) and heading to town to tapear (go for tapas). I love testing out a new tapas bar (no wonder I am somewhat heavier since I arrived) and have tried everything placed in front of me, from squid to snails. 

Tucking into tapas


However, the highlight of my time here so far has to be the festivals. Although I am not religious in the slightest, I was completely blown away by the Easter festival Semana Santa (Holy Week). The whole city comes to a standstill to allow the processions to pass through the streets – some of which take up to 12 hours to complete a circuit. Some of the locals’ passion is genuinely astounding.   

One of the pasos from a semana santa procession

 What captivated me more, however (and not because of the alcohol involved) was la feria de abril (April Fair). It is a week-long sensory overload of a celebration, revolving around meeting up with friends, drinking, eating and dancing sevillanas. And not to mention the wonderfully vibrant dresses that girls spend months planning – I had always wanted a traje de flamenca, and last year a friend was kind enough to lend me one. Many people complimented me, saying that they would never believe I were a guiri (foreigner) but I’m pretty sure they changed their mind when they saw my robot-esque dance moves.

Kim in her traje de flamenca at the feria de abril

I think that when friends and family see my photos of my mini adventures, they often think that life is like a holiday for me here, forgetting that it isn’t all sunshine and sangrias. There’s a lot to get used to, things that now I probably take for granted as I have come so accustomed to “their” way of life: simple things like eating tea at 10 o’clock at night. The heat – summer is scorching and 48 degrees is not something to be envious of. And personalities – people seem a lot brasher here and common courtesy is not, well, so common. I also often still get red-faced and a little annoyed when people jovially make fun of a mistaken pronunciation – proving I have still got a bit of Brit in me, taking myself a little too seriously at times.

But above all I live abroad, and life away from your loved ones is hard at times. I know that I am not a million miles away from the UK, and that travel is inexpensive in comparison to years bygone, but with limited holidays (I have the same as any local) and poor pay, visits home are normally saved for special occasions. I am in a constant tug-of-war wondering whether I should stay or not. I’m at an age when friends are settling down and starting to have children; children that will barely know their Aunty Kim, and grandparents that are slowly wilting. But I can comfort myself with the belief that the people who really care about me know that I love my life here and they are happy for me (and their free holidays!).

Kim is currently working as an in-house translator in Seville. She has a passion for Andalusia's language, culture and food, and enjoys writing about her experiences on her blog Becoming Sevillana

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