How I Lost over 15 Pounds While Living in Spain (and Eating Everything!)

Wow! You look great!

Hey skinny lady!

Who’s that in the picture?

 

It almost never fails. Every time I post a pic of myself on Facebook or some other social media outlet, these are the comments I get from friends and family back home. Since first moving to Spain for a 6-month stint in 2014, and after living here for almost another 8 months, I’ve lost quite a bit of weight. I’ve never been one to track my weight (scales, schmales), so I’m not exactly sure how much I’ve lost (that 15lbs in the title was really just a guesstimate); but I do know that not only have I dropped a couple of dress sizes, I also feel a lot better about my body – the way it looks, feels, and how it serves me as I go about my daily business. And get this: I’ve never once been to the gym.

living-in-spain-weight-loss-before-after
Left: Me – 1 week after arriving in Spain. Right: Me – after living in Spain for a little over a year

 

Before I have you thinking that I’ve slimmed down to the point of having no body issues at all, let me tell you: I’ve still got quite a little pooch going on, I still have minor anxiety sporting a two-piece on a beach full of super-fit Europeans, and, at over 35 years old, I’ve got bits that are jiggling and swaying way more than they ever did (or should). Still, more often than not, I like what I see looking back at me when I look in the mirror, and I know for certain that it has a lot to do with abandoning my American eating and living habits and adopting a more Spanish or European lifestyle. Namely:

 

Smaller restaurant portions

Though I eat all the things I try to avoid when eating out at home – like taters, bread, and pasta – and I drink like there’s no tomorrow, I’ve still managed to shed pounds. Part of this is because the amount of these things that I consume in a sitting is much less than what I’d consume in the States. The US is notorious for its ridiculous portion sizes. If you order a meal for one in a typical US dining establishment, you’re usually presented with enough food for 2 people. Ditto for drinks – especially sodas and beers. Here in Spain, the tradition of tapas – or small plates of food that are meant to be eaten in a few bites – makes it easy to have a filling meal with lots of variety, yet not overeat. One of my favorite Spanish portion control options is the caña – which is basically a half-sized serving of beer. Even when I go out and have multiple rounds of beers, I’m still only drinking half as much as I would if I did the same in the States.

 

Several small meals a day

My typical daily eating pattern in Spain goes something like this…

For breakfast (before 11am): Coffee and/or water.

Post-breakfast / Pre-lunch (between 11am and 2pm): A piece of fruit or, occasionally, a small pastry or slice of Spanish tortilla.

For lunch (between 2 and 3pm): A quick, home-cooked meal like a pasta dish, a big salad, or a meat-and-veggie dish.

Post-lunch: A piece of fruit or two for an after-lunch dessert or snack.

For dinner (between 8 and 10pm): A couple of rounds of drinks and accompanying free tapas or another quick, home-cooked meal.

I’ve adopted this pattern of eating after observing and eventually falling in line with the way I’ve seen the folks around me eat. The concept of eating several small meals a day isn’t unique to Spain. In fact, most nutritionists and weight loss experts in the US recommend this method of eating. Still, it isn’t the norm for the average American. We’ve been indoctrinated with the idea that you should eat ‘3 square meals’ a day – a hearty breakfast, a hearty lunch, and an especially hearty dinner – and that’s pretty much how I used to eat back home (with the exception of the hearty breakfast). Here, lunch – not dinner – is often the biggest meal of the day, which leaves plenty of time to burn off the calories before settling in for the evening.

A glimpse at typical Spanish eating habits.
A glimpse at typical Spanish eating habits.

 

Lunch at home

You’ve probably heard of the Spanish siesta – that 2-3 hour lull in the middle of the day where everything shuts down and people go home to take a nap. While not everyone actually takes a nap during that time, almost everyone I know goes home for a home-cooked lunch. Having that large block of time to go home, prepare a healthy meal, eat it like a normal human (versus inhaling it like a vacuum cleaner), and let it digest a bit before heading back to work, is a luxury that I wish I had in the US. At home, I would barely have time to stuff some chicken fingers and fries (or a similarly unhealthy option) from the downstairs food court into my gullet before heading off to a meeting or rushing to meet an end-of-day deadline. Even on the days when I did go for a healthier lunch option, it was often more expensive to do so, and I’d end up resorting to the cheaper, less healthy lunch the very next day.

 

Coffee done right

Coffee is a known metabolism booster, and can help you burn extra calories IF you drink it the right way. What’s the right way? Well, ditching all the milk and sugar (I’m lookin’ at you, Starbucks), and drinking a small amount of black coffee or coffee with very little milk and sugar (like my beloved cortado) is a start. Also, it’s typical in Spain to have a coffee directly after or between meals, which is just when your body benefits from an extra boost of metabolism to help burn off the food you recently consumed.

The cortado - a shot of espresso with just a little touch of steamed milk. Sugar optional.
The cortado – a shot of espresso with just a little touch of steamed milk. Sugar optional.

 

Shared meals

In Spain, especially in smaller cities like the one I live in, eating is not a solo sport. Meals are meant to be shared – with friends, family members, coworkers, roommates. When you go out to eat with a group, it’s typical for everyone to share from common plates or to share bites of their individually ordered dish with everyone else at the table. At first, I turned my nose up at this practice. But… I want all my food for myself! But, I’m still hungry! But over time, I’ve adjusted. I’ve even noticed that the slower pace of eating in a group setting, helps me feel more full with less food.  I’ve also noticed that Spaniards tend to share snack foods with folks around them. Whenever one of my colleagues has what we Americans would consider a single serving bag of chips or a similar snack, they always end up offering away at least a third of it to others, or eating about half and saving the rest for another time.

Sharing is caring. And better for your waistline.
Sharing is caring. And better for your waistline.

 

Walking

When I lived in the States, my work kept me sitting at a desk for multiple hours a day. After work, I’d walk 2 minutes to get in my car and drive home, where I’d often do more work sitting at a computer, before cooking dinner and watching TV or reading for a couple of hours before bed. Even if I ran errands in the neighborhood – like going to the grocery store that’s literally at the end of my street – it meant getting into my car and driving there. In the US, walking is often seen as a hardship or something that the less fortunate (i.e., those who can’t afford cars) do. The combination of a car-centric culture, and sprawling cities and neighborhoods, make walking for anything other than intentional exercise either unfashionable or implausible.

To put things in perspective, the entire country of Spain is smaller than the state of Texas (in square miles). The lack of sprawl makes walking a lot more feasible. Neighborhoods are designed so that you have almost everything you need within walking distance of your home – grocery stores, banks, schools, retail shops, personal services. And you’re not seen as odd or less fortunate if you walk everywhere, because almost everyone else – from infant to elderly – is walking too.

 

Water, water, everywhere

Because of all the walking I do, and because of a personal commitment to myself to consume more water, I almost always have a bottle of water on hand. I keep a 5L bottle of water in my room by my bedside, so I can not only track roughly how much water I drink a day, but also so I never have to go far to get it.

 

Biking

This is probably the single most influential factor in my weight loss. At the beginning of this school year, one of the professors at my high school was kind enough to loan me a bike to use during my time here. It just so happens that this bike is the oldest specimen of 2-wheeled locomotion ever known to man. It’s also a fixed gear, and it can leave my legs feeling like jelly even when riding on relatively flat terrain. Still, it’s a more efficient mode of transportation than walking, and I ride my rusty steed everywhere – to school, to the grocery store, to the park, to the library. I usually spend around 30-40 minutes biking each day, which isn’t a lot, but it’s definitely made a lot of difference.

My rusty steed - who I've affectionately nicknamed Roci, after Don Quijote's mule of a horse.
My rusty steed – who I’ve affectionately nicknamed Roci, after Don Quijote’s mule of a horse.

 

Easy access to healthy, cheap ingredients

Within a 3-5 minute walk in any direction from my apartment, I have a least 4 independently owned fresh fruit/veggie stands, and 2-3 chain grocery stores. The selection of produce in either of those outlets is generally less varied than what I’d find in the US, but the price and the quality is significantly better. And the fact that they’re so close and right in front of my face, makes it easier for me to grab a healthy snack versus the fast food that I’d normally go for back home.

My favorite neighborhood fruteria - cheap, fresh, seasonal produce a stone's throw away from my place
My favorite neighborhood fruteria – cheap, fresh, seasonal produce a stone’s throw away from my place

 

Fast food is an occasional treat

In the US, fast food is convenience food. Don’t have time to cook? Forgot to pack a healthy lunch? No problem. Just stop by one of the dozen fast food restaurants you’re sure to pass on your way to and from home and pick up an extremely high-calorie, extremely low cost meal. Fast food is so widely available and frequently consumed in the US, it could almost be considered its own food group. While I wasn’t a frequent consumer of fast food at home, I certainly ate my fair share of quick-serve lunches at work, and my go-to snack when on the run was an order of french fries from the nearest Chik-Fil-A or McDonald’s. Here, a trip to a fast food outlet is seen as a treat – something you do every once in a while as a special outing for the kids or yourself. And the prices reflect that. Going to Mickey D’s, KFC or Burger King is often an expensive proposition – a combo meal can run from 5 to 7 euros, and there’s rarely, if ever, a dollar menu. There are also fewer fast food locations to choose from. You almost have to go out of your way to get to one, and you’ll have to pass several cheaper, considerably healthier options to do so.

 

Now, are any of the above behaviors impossible to duplicate in the US? Absolutely not. Am I suggesting that there are no overweight or obese Spaniards? Nope. In either country, individual health and body weight are often a reflection of the daily lifestyle choices we make. But due to cultural norms, I think it’s more difficult to make these choices and stick to them on a regular basis back home in the US of A. As my time in Spain comes to an end, I often worry if I’ll be able to hold on to these healthy habits that I’ve picked up in my host country. I like to think that it’ll be easy, but I’m not 100% sure. For my own sake, and for the sake of my Facebook photo admirers, I certainly hope so. :)

Have you noticed any positive body changes during your travels or time living abroad? What do you think was behind it? Have you been able to stick to your healthy habits after returning to your home country?

Share your feedback in the comments!

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Traveling Solo: What to Do When Everything Goes Wrong

Oh, f**k. I am literally stuck in Portugal.

My heart rate quickened a few paces. I hadn’t really allowed myself to think that the worst possible scenario would happen, so now that it was in fact happening, I found myself momentarily bewildered. I’d made the foolish mistake of traveling to Portugal  without my passport, but since I’d gotten lucky on the flight out of Spain, I thought my luck might hold out for the return trip. It didn’t. After trying other alternatives (presenting a copy of my passport, then my Spanish resident ID) that were refused by the airline agent, it became clear that I was not getting on this flight.

My brain began slowly filling with a thousand thoughts:

Shit.

Um. Ok. What the hell are you going to do now?

This can’t be happening.

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod

What if I can’t get out of here? What if I’m stuck in this airport for months or years like that one movie with Tom Hanks?

How could I be so stupid!?

Shit!

This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. Why do bad things always happen to me?

Jesus Christ, I’m sooo stupid!!

I just wanna go home.

*Eyes starting to well up with tears*

If you travel often enough, eventually it will happen. The worst possible scenario. You find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere. You missed your flight. The hotel booking fell through. You’re lost in an unfamiliar place where you don’t speak the language. Or worse yet, you’ve been pickpocketed or injured.

While I haven’t had any serious travel emergencies yet (knock on wood), I’ve definitely found myself in a pickle more than once while travelling – most recently on a solo trip back to Spain from Portugal. What I’ve learned from these travel blunders is that the best and quickest way out of them is to… keep calm and carry on.

you could panic. but what  good would that do?
you could panic. but what good would that do?

 

Don’t Panic (Ok, panic. But make it brief.)

After realizing that my pleading with the airline agent was useless, I found a bench to sit on, and let the reality of the situation settle in a bit. I tried to tame my wildly racing thoughts as best I could (repeating over and over to myself, ‘It’s going to be ok. It’s going to be ok.’). Suddenly, a calming piece of advice that a friend of mine once said to me popped up in my mind: ‘Every problem has at least 5 solutions’.

Slowly, I felt the panic begin to subside and a steely resolve take its place. After a few more moments, I went to the bathroom, washed my face, fixed my hair, and touched up my makeup. Then, I set to work.

escape-from-portugal-oporto-airport
well, at least it’s roomier than my apartment back in spain.

 

Gather Your Tools

I knew I would need to rely heavily on my cell phone, so I checked the battery. It was about half full. I started scouting out the airport terminal for power outlets. Then, checked to see if there was free Wi-fi at the airport. No luck. Fortunately, my cell phone data plan worked, and the signal was strong.

Once you’ve calmed yourself down, take inventory of what you’ve got to help you get out of this situation – cell phone, map, GPS, snacks, the phone number of ‘a guy who knows a guy’. Use whatever you’ve got within reach to help you get yourself out of this predicament or weather the storm until you do.

Using travel tools proactively can also be a big help in case of a travel mishap. For example, take pics of your hotel, the hotel stationery, or the street you’re staying on in case you get lost and can’t communicate where you need to go. Save emergency contact info into a notes app on your phone. Save text versions of walking directions to/from your hotel on your phone to use in case you can’t access GPS. Download maps that are accessible offline. Download travel apps you can use to book last-minute flights and hotels and find bus and train schedules.

 

Brainstorm & Prioritize Your Options

What’s the thing that needs to happen first? What’s most important right now? What’s the fastest, most efficient way to get that thing done?

My 3 main options were: Getting on another flight, finding a place to stay, or finding another mode of transportation to get back to Spain.

After a quick search online for other flights, I ruled out that option. Even if I could get past security for another airline (sans passport), the cost of the flight would be ridiculous. Since I was already out of the money from the lost flight, I didn’t want to pay more than I needed to.

My next best bet was finding an alternative way out. Lastly, I’d look for a place to crash, if finding a way out took longer than I hoped.

 

Be Resourceful – Know Where to Go for Info or Help

Thankfully, I had apps for Renfe – Spain’s railway system, BlaBlaCar, and Skyscanner on my phone, and I’d bookmarked the site for Portugal’s railway system. I used Google to search for buses going between Portugal and Spain. In under an hour, I’d found info on the next trains, buses, and rideshares going to Madrid. But online bus information can often be out of date, so I ended up consulting with both an airport security guard and the airport tourist info office to make sure the info I’d found online was correct (turns out, it wasn’t). Since there was nothing leaving until the next day, I used my handy AirBnB and Booking.com apps to look for a cheap place to stay in the meantime.

Having the right info at hand during a travel emergency makes all the difference, and knowing where to go to find it is essential. In my case, I relied heavily on online travel tools. But the people around you can also be excellent sources of help and information. Information desks or tourist offices are available in most large cities. Bus drivers and taxi drivers are great for helping you find your way – they know the area well. Hotel concierges and desk staff, security guards and police officers, store workers in commercial areas – not only are all of these people good sources of ‘official’ info, they’re also more likely to speak English than a random person on the street.

 

Think Positively

Even if you do everything you should do in a travel emergency, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get out of the situation quickly. No matter what happens, though, keeping a positive mindset and being able to laugh at yourself will help you make the best of a bad situation.

In the end, it took a few hours of searching for and confirming transport and lodging, an overnight stay at a cheap but centrally located AirBnB room (15 euros), and a 5-hour BlaBlaCar ride (30 euros) the next day from Oporto to Madrid. During that time, I encountered some rude and unhelpful people, took a walk through what – at first glance – looked like a sketchy area, and suffered a late-night bout of gastrointestinal distress. I tried to view the whole ordeal as a comical adventure, which kept me from getting too riled up or freaked out, even though there were several times when I wanted to do both. In the end, I made it out of a sticky situation without too much incident, feeling like I earned a merit badge in the process.  And a ridiculously hilarious travel story to boot.

did i ever tell you about that one time when i smuggled myself into spain from portugal? fun times.
did i ever tell you about that one time when i smuggled myself into spain from portugal? fun times.

 

Have you ever experienced an embarrassing travel mishap or stressful travel emergency? How did you make it out alive? Share your experience in the comments!

 

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how to cope when you hate your host country

Living in a different country isn’t always sunshine and roses. Sometimes the experience is a complete emotional rollercoaster. One moment, you’re all thrilled and tickled with the newness of it all – the sights and sounds, the new people you’re meeting, all the fun you’re having. The next moment, something happens that throws you for a loop, knocks you on your ass, and literally leaves you cursing the ground you stand on. Most times, though, the good experiences outweigh the bad, and the bad experiences just turn into funny stories that you share with friends over drinks.

But sometimes,  the bad feelings don’t just blow over. Sometimes everything about your host country works your last effing nerve. Sometimes the potent combination of: being isolated from family and friends, not speaking the language, confusing cultural differences, climactic anomalies and missing ‘normal’ food becomes way too much to bear. And as the days and weeks pass without any sign of your situation improving, you find yourself seriously wondering if you should just call it quits, pack up and go back home where you belong.

go-home-meme

Since I’ve actually experienced the scenario above (and talked myself out of a one-way plane ticket home), I thought I’d share some suggestions for dealing with the post-honeymoon phase; or, as i like to call it: ‘a survival guide for expats who’ve considered repatriation when the novelty wasn’t enuf’.

7 Ways to Cope When You Hate Your Host Country

Don’t lash out – Often, the reception you get from the locals in your host country can feel less than hospitable. It can be tempting and sometimes, warranted, to fight fire with fire, picking a fight with anyone who rubs you the wrong way. Fighting the good fight day in and day out, however, quickly becomes exhausting. You’re constantly on edge, waiting for the next person to ‘make your day’. You’ll end up wearing yourself down long before you wear them down.  My advice: even if you’re getting bad energy from people, resist the urge to give it back. At least not too harshly. In short, throwing shade is cool. Throwing epithets and punches, not so much.

         Don’t clam up – I get it. You hate the place, so obviously you want to limit your exposure to it. But becoming a recluse solves nothing. Find places that you enjoy going to – bookstores, cafes, parks, libraries, movie theaters – and make it a regular habit to visit them. If you haven’t found your social group yet and feel shy about going out alone, go to restaurants and bars during off-peak hours, when you’re less likely to be surrounded by couples and families. Sign up for a class or join a gym.  If you do end up taking some time to be a recluse, that’s ok. Just try not to let it linger for too long.
          Take a step back – Remove yourself as a participant in the daily expat struggles that you encounter.  Become an observer instead. Imagine that you are there to explore, compare, and document, as an anthropologist, journalist, artist, historian. Treat this experience as your work or project. Approach your time abroad this way and you’ll be less likely to get emotionally riled when frustrating things happen. Even if you do get riled, at least you’ll have a productive outlet for your emotions.
          Stay connected – Stay in touch with people back home. Especially those who are good listeners, or make you laugh. Join online groups or communities (some of my faves: Black Americans Living Abroad, Solo Women Travelers, Bellas Morenas de Espana), where you can share with other people who can relate to the experiences you’re going through. Look for local gatherings or groups to join – especially those where you’re likely to find other expats. Check Couchsurfing, and Meetup.com to see if there are active groups in your area.
          Plug in – I’m not usually an advocate of binge-watching tv, but as an expat, it may not be as easy or feasible (due to language barriers or telecommunications issues) to watch your favorite programs from back home. Scheduling time to catch up is a good distraction from expat woes.
          Travel – Maybe it’s your city or region that doesn’t agree with you? Explore other parts of the country, or find cheap ways to travel to nearby countries.
          Get a job – Occupy your time? Make money? This one’s a no brainer. Find side jobs based in your home country that you can do remotely from your host country. Check Craigslist, ODesk, and other freelance job sites for opportunities. Giving private English lessons is another good money-making option that works for almost anyone, since native speakers are usually highly prized non-English-speaking countries.

Remember the reason – Why’d you want to move to another country in the first place? Is that reason still valid? Have you strayed from your original goal? Do you need to set a new goal to help motivate you?

 

What are some ways that you’ve battled the expat blues? How do you know when it’s time to throw in the towel and head back home? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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spanish word of the day: cojones

The things you learn on roadtrips.

On a recent one with some Spanish friends, I learned just how important cojones are to Spanish people.

It happened just after we passed Toledo heading southbound. Tio Pepe blurted out from the back seat, “Tocame los cojones! Que me voy a Bargas! Y si no me los toca… a Menasalbas!”

Hwhhaaaaat?

While my three Spanish compadres were laughing among themselves, I was once again left scratching my head at some vulgar Spanish expression whose meaning completely escaped me.From what I could gather from Pepe’s explanation,  the expression had something to do with two towns we’d passed – Bargas and Menasalbas – south of Toledo. I’d never heard of those towns before, but I’d heard plenty of expressions using that oh-so-familiar Spanish word for testicles.

“Spanish people talk about cojones a lot,” I intimated to my friends.

They all agreed. Eager to impress upon me just how essential cojones are to Castellano, my travel companions took the opportunity to school me on several uses and variants of the word. And I took notes. Here are some of my favorites:

    • que cojones…?  – used as part of a rhetorical question, as in, ‘que cojones es esto (what the hell is this)?

pero-que-cojones

    • hasta los cojones  – (to have had it) up to here; to be fed up. Literal translation: up to the balls.

 

    • acojonante – fabulous, amazing.

 

    • vas como los cojones de los galgos – used when someone lags behind. A galgo is a Spanish greyound. Approximate translation: you’re moving like greyhounds’ balls.
Galgo_Español_en_la_arena
i’m sorry you got dragged into this.
    • par de cojones – when someone is brave or fearless they are said to have a par de cojones or to have done something con dos cojones. Literal translation: a pair of balls.

con-dos-cojones

    • cojonudo – awesome, amazing, great

 

    • cojonazos (aka, huevasos) – guy who is henpecked, or a guy who sits around ‘tocando sus cojones’ (touching his balls / doing nothing) all day.

 

    • un cojon – a whole lot. (e.g., ‘te quiero un cojon’)

 

    • mil pares de cojones – with a lot of force, effort, or difficult. Literal translation: A thousand pairs of balls.

 

And that’s just a short list. Turns out there are dozens more uses for the word cojones in Spain. Which means that cojones could quite possibly be the most versatile word ever.