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Expat Problems: 6 stages of repatriation

Coming home after a period of time living abroad isn’t always easy. Things aren’t the same as you remember. You aren’t even the same. Finding your place again when everyone and everything has moved on can make readjusting to your new old life seem a little bit like learning to walk again. Plus there’s the emotional toll of leaving behind new friends and abandoning what had become your new normal.

To make matters worse, unlike many other major life transitions, repatriation doesn’t always come with its fair share of support and understanding. The opportunity to live in a foreign country is often seen as just that – an opportunity. Something that you’re lucky or blessed to be able to do. On one hand, that’s true, but like any other self-initiated, out-of-the-norm endeavor (e.g., going back to school, changing careers, becoming a parent) it’s also a matter of sacrifice, risk and day-to-day struggle.

Yet, to friends and family back home (and thanks in part to that steady stream of stunning photos in exotic locales on your Facebook and Instagram feeds) you’ve been living on vacay for the past few months or years. And since ‘coming back from vacation’ isn’t exactly a struggle, you may be left to navigate re-entry back to ‘the real world’ on your own.

I’ve been through the repatriation process twice now – actually, you could say that I’m still going through it – and while I don’t claim to have the science of it all figured out, I felt compelled to share my own process of dealing with and ultimately triumphing over the repatriation blues.

6 Stages of Repatriation

Reverse Culture Shock

From the moment you step off the plane, everything about your home country seems familiar, but in an eerily unfamiliar way. It’s like you’re in The Truman Show or The Matrix. You recognize it all, yet it all seems just… a little… off. Things that you once took for granted as completely normal are now shocking, weird, amusing or maybe even offensive to you.

In my first two weeks back in the US, I had the following moments of reverse culture shock:

At the airport, waiting on my bags:  

Why is everyone so fat and poorly dressed?

 

When greeting old and new friends:

Must remember to shake hands, NOT double-cheek kiss. I almost made out with that guy just now.

 

Shopping for groceries:

Gawd, it’s expensive here. I mean, $8 for a bottle of wine… and it’s not even good!?

 

Catching up on TV shows:

Seriously? Is EVERY commercial on TV for a prescription drug?

 

Getting behind the wheel for the first few times:

Wow. Atlanta drivers exhibit a LOT of aggression.

 

At any given moment on any given day:

This feels suspiciously comfortable. What is all this knowing where I’m going and understanding what everyone around me is talking about?

 

Even though seeing an old place through new eyes may initially be disorienting, eventually your vision adjusts and things begin to appear a bit more normal.  It may take a while, but it will happen.

 

Mourning / Loss

Once the excitement of being home and the disorientation of reverse culture shock start to fade, a new feeling may settle in. It may come on as just a bit of a funk or it may swell into full-blown depression. For me, this stage was much like the aftermath of an amicable breakup.

At the start, it was all too raw and tender. I’d be prone to spontaneous outbursts of tears, complete with shaking my fists at the heavens wailing, “WHYYYYYYYYY!!!?? Why can’t we be together anymore? Why did I have to leave you so soon? We were just getting to know each other! Will I ever see you again?”

Even after the initial pain had dulled and I found myself only thinking of my long lost other home maybe once a day – I couldn’t bear to look at pictures of the place. The images brought back too many emotions, too much of that feeling of loss. I couldn’t stand to hear anyone else speak about my host country or talk about what they knew of my once-beloved. When others told of their trysts with my ex – whether good or bad – I’d invariably think to myself, “But you don’t know it like I do. You can’t possibly. It was mine! All mine!”

Melodramatic? Yes. But true nonetheless. The feeling of grief that I experienced on returning the US, I found out, was common for many returning expats. Expats interviewed by the Wall Street Journal described their own feelings of loss as: “a punch in the gut,” and, “like having somebody dying.” Though I didn’t know that my feelings were common, I did know that they’d have to pass eventually. I remembered an old rule-of-thumb I’d heard ages ago about how long it took to get over an old flame. According to this completely water-tight scientific rule, it takes one week per each month of the relationship to get over post-breakup heartbreak. I tried to use this as a point of solace as the days on the calendar crawled by.

expat repatriation blues heartbreak grief mourning or loss
Image Source: Flickr

 

Comparison / Nostalgia

“It’s 11 o’clock here. If it were 11 o’clock there I’d be….”

“What I wouldn’t give for a churro or a cortado or some boquerones right now.”

“The eggs here are nothing like the ones I could get at the stores in Spain.”

 “You know what I never had to worry about there? Mass shootings.”

This stage could be part of the mourning and loss stage or it could be a separate stage all its own. This is when you begin comparing even the smallest details of your daily life with your life in that other place. And invariably, your old life is always much, much better than your new life back home. Or, at least, that’s how you’re remembering it now.

Suddenly, all of the little things that used to absolutely irritate me about living in Spain were forgotten. I could only remember her virtues. While America, my home country, suddenly appeared to be riddled with flaws. In my mind, I was only verbally registering all these little humdrum things that I’d taken for granted while living in Spain, things that now had value since I no longer had them. But I’m sure I sounded like I was constantly kvetching. Either way, friends and family are likely to find you insufferable during this stage. Some may even let you know it.

 

Isolation / Withdrawal

You think nobody wants to listen, so you cut them off. You don’t go anywhere. You don’t speak to anyone. You’re starting to feel like you can’t talk about anything that happened to you in that other place. You think you’re only sharing tidbits about what’s been your daily life for the past months or years, but you know all other people hear is you bragging – yet again – about how awesome your time abroad was. Your friends all talk about what’s been going on in their worlds for the time you’ve been away. Parties they went to. Dates they’ve been on. Jokes they’ve shared. You don’t think they’re bragging. But you do feel like you keep walking in on the middle of a conversation where you have no idea what anyone’s talking about, yet you’re still expected to follow along. So instead of going out, you’d rather stay at home and Skype or Whatsapp with friends from that other place, or watch movies in your host country’s language. Or, if you’re lucky enough to know another former expat, you’ll only hang with them.

In small doses, a bit of isolation can be good. It gives you time to examine your own thoughts and feelings, take a break from the sensory overload and recharge your batteries. But too much isolation and withdrawal can be detrimental, so it’s important to keep up with regular social activities, even if it’s only with one or two close friends.

expat repatriation blues depression
Image source: DeviantArt

Memorializing

You don’t want to forget or discard all those memories you made, the lessons you learned, all the beautiful people and places you saw during your expat life, but you know that you can’t keep living in the past. Sharing stories with friends isn’t going over like you expect it, so you begin to think of different ways to capture and honor your experiences. Creative projects like writing, scrapbooks, and films are good ways to preserve your travel experiences. Speaking engagements at local schools or clubs offer opportunities to share your travel stories to more receptive audiences. Even speaking with a therapist can be a much-needed outlet for your memories and emotions. The most important thing is that you find a suitable medium that lets you express the highs and lows of your expat experience in a way that can be appreciated over and over again, not forgotten.

 

Integrating

In the final stage, you recognize that you don’t have to completely abandon everything about your old life in order to adjust to your new life. You begin to adapt the things you gained from your expat experiences or things that you miss about your life in your former host country to new contexts and your new locale. For me, cooking has always been a passion. After my return from Spain, I began cooking more and new dishes in my kitchen – not just Spanish tortillas and paellas, but dishes I’d eaten at restaurants and in homes that were German, Ghanaian, Moroccan. After getting used to a daily bike commute in Spain, I began biking more upon my return to Atlanta. I noticed that I was now able to understand every single word of the Spanish conversations that I overheard when I was shopping at the farmer’s market or paying a visit to my favorite Mexican taquería. I was even unafraid to reply back in Spanish (something that used to make me nervous). I felt like I had gained a superpower! One that would allow me to engage with the world and its inhabitants in ways that I couldn’t have done before. All of a sudden, I started to feel less sad that I didn’t have Spain in my life anymore, I was simply grateful to have had it. For weeks, the lack of it was all I could think about, all I could focus on. Now it felt like a playful streak of color in my hair. Something that added just a little pop of interest to my backstory.

And in the end, that’s what each expat experience is. It’s an extra patch on your personal quilt, a new sworl in your uniquely patterned self. You have been irreversibly changed by it. And you will carry it with you always.

expat repatriation blues integrating
Image Source: Flickr

What was your experience returning home after living abroad? Did you find the transition challenging or did you have no difficulty at all adjusting to life back home? What helped you cope with the repatriation blues?

 

6-stages-of-repatriation

 

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30 essential spanish transition words and phrases for everyday conversations

The difference between mastering Spanish vocabulary and grammar and being able to hold a fluid, casual conversation in Spanish is quite vast. That’s because – just like in English – a lot of the nuance and fluidity in a conversation is due just as much to little, seemingly meaningless words as it is to vocabulary and proper verb conjugation.

These little ‘meaningless’ words and phrases are also known as linking words or transition words. As a native English speaker, I had no idea just how important they were until I realized that I had no idea how to say them in my host country’s language. A fact which often left me frustrated and frequently caused me to either: 1) come to a dead stop mid-sentence, or 2) simply insert the English word in place of the Spanish word I didn’t know, leaving whoever was listening to me totally confused or amused.

To spare you and your listeners the same amusing confusion and frustration, I decided to compile a list of 30 essential Spanish words that helped me take my conversations from stilted to fluid.

30 Essential Spanish Transition Words and Phrases

  1. Aunque – even though, although
  2. Además – furthermore, in addition to
  3. Mientras – meanwhile
  4. Por lo menos – at least
  5. Entonces – then
  6. Pues – well
  7. Como – like, as
  8. Al principio; al final/por ultimo – to start, in the first place; to finish, in the end
  9. Desde luego – of course, certainly
  10. Ya / todavía – yet, already / still
  11. Asi que; por lo tanto – that’s why; for that reason
  12. Por si acaso – in case
  13. Lo/la que sea; donde sea; cuando sea; cualquier – whatever; wherever; whenever; whichever
  14. Por ejemplo – for example
  15. Sobre todos – above all, especially
  16. Por fin – finally
  17. Un rato, un ratito – A little while
  18. Luego – next, then
  19. De repente – suddenly
  20. Sino – rather, but, instead
  21. Apenas de – barely
  22. De todas formas, de todas maneras – in any case
  23. Por otro lado – on the other hand
  24. Sin embargo – nonetheless
  25. De hecho – in fact
  26. Pues nada, venga – anyway…
  27. Sabes – y’know
  28. Es que – honestly, I have no translation for this one, but it’s one of those non-meaning albeit ubiquitous conversational words like ‘like’ in English. As in, “Like, so are we gonna go to the movies, or maybe, like, get some food, cuz I’m, like, hungry as hell.”
  29. A ver – let’s see
  30. Qué va – no way! I dun beleevit. Yeah, right.

Of course, the list above isn’t a comprehensive collection of all  Spanish transition words – click here and here for more.

 

What are some Spanish transition words and phrases that you’ve found useful? Share them in the comments!

 

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Black in Spain – What’s In a Name?

Morenas
It’s a Friday night, and I’m at one of my favorite tapas bars in Ciudad Real – a place where I usually go alone. Tonight, though, I’ve invited some new friends to join me for a couple of quick rounds there. As is usual for the start of the weekend, the place is packed to overflowing. We order our first round, drink and eat and chat as much as we can over the din from the crowd of Spanish folks inside. A few minutes later, I go to the bar and order a second round for myself. When my tapa comes out a little while later, the bartender isn’t able to make eye contact with me since I have my back turned talking to my friends. He shouts to get my attention. But it isn’t until after a few shouts that I finally hear him.
La morena! La morena!

black in spain - what did you call me

Given the fact that I am, indeed, the only morena in the place, I know he means me. I retrieve my tapa and rejoin my friends, chuckling a little at the incident and commenting to them how that was so very particular to Spain. A bartender in the US would never shout out, “Black girl! Black girl!” My comment is meant to be a lighthearted, amusing observation like all of us expats regularly make when we observe a particularly Spanish practice or custom. However, the one non-American in our foursome seems not to take it this way. The Romanian girl, who has been living in Spain for several years, appears to have her feathers ruffled by my comment. “No,” she says, shaking her head strongly. “They mean that for your hair. It’s about your hair color.”

“Uhhh… no,” I begin, “I’m pretty sure he wasn’t referring to my hair color.”
“Yes, yes! Morena means brown-haired. They call me rubia.”

I could see how she’d be confused. She was right, Spaniards do use morena and rubia to refer to someone’s hair color. But, only if you’re white. The term morena, I explained, was used both ways. It could mean either brown-haired or brown-skinned.

“No, no!” she persists. “You’re wrong. It’s only about hair.”
At this point, I’m beginning to get my feathers ruffled. I mean, why would I make this up? Does this twenty-something year old Romanian girl really think she is about to school me on what the word that has regularly been applied to me in a very specific manner for over a year now means?

She goes on. “I have experienced it!” She insists.
“Oh. Well, then.” I quip sarcastically. “Yeah. You’re probably right. You probably DO know more about what it’s like being a black person in Spain than I do. So, sure. You got it.”

We go back and forth a couple more times. The Romanian girl digging in her heels about the hair-color-only usage of the term. Me continuing my sarcastic retorts telling her that, yes, I was sure she was right because I couldn’t possibly have any idea what I was talking about.

Later, at another bar, I see the opportunity to ask for a second opinion. The bartender at this place is quite friendly with us, as we frequent the bar often, and he stops over several times to chat with us throughout the night. Just before closing, we each order a drink. I happen to choose a drink called La Morenita – a rum cocktail. When the bartender stops over, I ask him, “Can you answer a question for us?”
“Sure,” he replies.
The word morena, does it refer to someone’s hair color?
“Yes,” he confirms.
“Does it also” – I pause to look at the Romanian girl – “Refer to…” and let the sentence hang unfinished.
The bartender takes his cue and completes the phrase. “Color de piel? (Skin color?) Siiiii….” he drones as if to say, of course.

The Romanian looks dissatisfied. She shakes her head as if she still doesn’t want to accept his answer.

Adjusting the Color

“When moving to a new country, there are tons of cultural adjustments and considerations one has to make…. But… there was one I had never even considered. What do I call myself here?”
African-American, black, colored, negro. All of these terms are familiar to me. They have been used to describe my features, my race, my people – both in the past and present – in the country I call home. When moving to a new country, there are tons of cultural adjustments and considerations one has to make, many of which I was prepared for when I decided to move to Spain. But of all of those I had given thought to – the food, the language, the way of life – there was one I had never even considered.
What do I call myself here?

Two of my early attempts at literal translations proved both confusing and frustrating. The first came when I was having a casual chat with a potential roommate – an Egyptian guy – in San Pedro de Alcantara. I don’t recall exactly what we were speaking about – maybe I was telling him something about life back in Atlanta – but I do remember that I used the word negro to refer to black people. He stopped me short. “No,” he said. “We don’t say that. It’s not nice. It’s better to say moreno.” Oh. I stood corrected. Feeling an alien sort of embarrassment at being scolded by someone else for the language I’d chosen to use to refer to myself.

The second instance was when I was teaching a lesson on jazz to my bilingual students in music class. A part of the text we were reading and translating mentioned something about notable African-American musicians. I thought this would be a good opportunity to help them understand what the word meant. I pointed to myself, “I’m African-American.” “Whaaat?” My students responded with shock and surprise. I was shocked and surprised at their response. What did they think I was? Where did they think this brown skin and kinky hair came from? It wasn’t until much later that I realized that my students’ shock came from them misunderstanding that the term African-American implied that I was actually African, and had just grown up in America.

 

Moros y Negros
And then there’s that peculiar Spanish term that’s neither moreno nor negro. Moro, which literally translates to Moor, is a Spanish word denoting certain people of color that – when I first encountered it – left me feeling more angry than confused. It was my first full day in the town I’d be teaching in, and I was walking around familiarizing myself with the area, when I saw the scrawled graffiti on the wall of an empty little plaza – the image of a faded red swastika with the words ‘No Moros’ emblazoned over it. Previously, I – like many other black Americans – assumed that the term Moor was synonymous with Africans, and therefore with black people. So, naturally, I was not only pissed but also a little concerned about where I’d landed when I saw that bit of racist wall art.

“Since sorting out the variants of Spanish racial terminology… I’ve heard all of them used in different situations by different kinds of people. In some instances, I can even get a feel for how racially clued-in or clueless a person is by which terms they use.”
Since then, I’ve discovered that, for Spaniards, there’s a distinction between moros and morenos, or, negros. This excerpt from Baltasar Fra Molinero’s 1995 book entitled, La Imagen de los Negros en la España del Siglo de Oro (The Image of Blacks in Golden Age Spain), succinctly explains the difference:

“Negros” eran los africanos que no eran “moros.” Esta clasificación ya venía de antiguo. Los nombres usados para referirse a los esclavos negros–etíopes, negros, morenos, prietos, pardos–reflejaban en mayor o menor medida ciertas tensiones ideológicas…. Había que crear una teoría del género humano que los incluyese, pero que los diferenciase también. Los tonos de pigmentación distintos se convierten todos en uno solo, el “color negro”….”
“Negros” were Africans that weren’t “moros”. This classification came from older times. The names used to refer to black slaves – etíopes, negros, morenos, prietos, pardos – reflected in greater or lesser measure certain ideological forces…. There was the need to create a theory of the human species that included them (blacks), but that differentiated them as well. The distinct tones of pigmentation were all transformed into a single one, the ‘color black’….”

In short, moros are Africans, but they’re the Africans that aren’t visibly denoted as black, e.g., Egyptians, Moroccans, Arabs, etc.

Since sorting out the variants of Spanish racial terminology that could and could not be applied to myself, I’ve heard all of them used in different situations by different kinds of people. In some instances, I can even get a feel for how racially clued-in or clueless a person is by which terms they use. Like the one Spanish gent in Ciudad Real that I struck up a conversation with on a biking trail. He used negra, and explained that it was because he used to date a black girl and she preferred it. Or the woman who was sitting next to me and my visiting cousin in a bar, talking in none-too-quiet tones to her friend about how she liked – here she silently pointed to her own non-black skin, presumably out of respect for the two lovely morenas within earshot – but not subsaharianos. My black Cuban associate, Eduardo, would use both negro and moreno interchangeably. And my latest roommate, when recommending a barber to our other roommate – a curly-haired Italian guy – assured him that the barber would be able to do a good job with his hair because he was, “un moro de Marueco.”

As for myself, I’ve adopted a kind of double vocabulary about race much like I do in America – I prefer to use 1 term (negra) when I’m around others who are like me, and another (morena) when in mixed company.

And when it comes to bartenders in crowded tapas bars, I generally tend to let them know my name early on, so we avoid any future complications.

black in spain - what do you call a black person

Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the “black experience” in Spain and the US.

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Black In Spain – The Exotic Beauty

La Guapa Morena

“Que guapas morenas!” the guy from the beachside restaurant shouts in our direction. My friend Dominique and I turn toward him, smile, and simultaneously issue a coquettish reply of “Graciaaaaas!” We’re on our way back to my place after hanging out at the beach in Marbella for a few hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon. A few paces later, I turn to Dominique and remark, “You know if some random dude had shouted that to us in the States we wouldn’t be thanking him, we’d be looking for a fight!” We both laughed at the ironic truth in that statement. If we were back home in Atlanta, and a white guy exclaimed, “How pretty you two black girls are!” as we passed, our response would be markedly different.

In general, Spanish men (and quite a few women) are openly appreciative of attractive ladies they see on the streets. In my orientation class when I first arrived here, our coordinator even dedicated a section of her presentation to warning us about piropos, or catcalls, that the ladies in our group were likely to experience from men on the streets. Since that time, I’ve noticed that there’s a distinction made when a piropo or sentiment of attraction is directed toward a black or brown girl. Even the simple usage of the more specific morenas versus chicas or just plain “que guapas” to express admiration demonstrates that there’s some ‘other’ lens I’m being viewed through as a brown-skinned girl. The first time I got such a comment was on a solo trip to Barcelona about a month after I’d arrived in Spain. A 20-ish something guy passed me walking in the other direction, smiled and nodded his head with the look of someone appreciating a nice painting or a souped-up automobile. He mumbled loudly enough for me to hear, “Que buena esa morena,” before continuing on his way. At my age, I know how to appreciate a genuine, non-creepy compliment, so I quickly smiled in his direction without halting my stride. Still, every time I hear the sentiment echoed on the streets of Spain, I wonder to myself if the equivalent in English would translate to that dreaded not-quite-compliment, “She’s cute… for a black girl.”

Stares, shouts, comments, are par for the course on the streets of Spain.
Stares, shouts, comments, are par for the course on the streets of Spain.

 

Don’t Fetishize Me, Bro

To the collector, you are one-dimensional item. Everything of value or interest about you is tied up in the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, and the mythology surrounding them both.
Of course, there have been several instances when the ‘guapa morena’ comment hasn’t been so welcome. Take, for instance, the guy who I encountered on one of my first trips to the local library in Ciudad Real. Only minutes after introducing himself to me, and telling me how guapa he thought I was, he asked me for a kiss. I was completely taken aback and more than a little creeped-out by the incident, and when I recounted it later to a friend – a Spanish man – he explained that it was rather common for some Spanish men to assume that a brown-skinned girl equals easy prey. He went on to explain that most of the black women in Spain have immigrated from Latin America or Africa, and some of those who are experiencing financial problems or looking for a way to remain in the country permanently are eager to accept the advances of almost any Spaniard if it means financial security or the promise of becoming a Spanish citizen. For this reason, some Spanish guys will test the waters, so to speak, to see how much they can get away with when meeting a morena.

Then there are those who take their brown-skin attraction in a slightly different direction. I call them ‘collectors’. They – both men and women – are intrigued by the rareness of black flesh. To them, what is rare is seen as more interesting. And the person who’s able to possess a rare thing for themselves is made more interesting as a result. The having of this rare object then, is something of a status symbol for the collector, even if the having is only temporary. To the collector, you are one-dimensional item. Everything of value or interest about you is tied up in the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, and the mythology surrounding them both. Ironically, this pretty much makes the collector the bizarro version of your garden variety racist, for whom everything odious and worthless about you is based on your skin color and its associated mythos.

It doesn’t take long to identify a collector. He or she will probably lead with something that specifically refers to your race. They may even confide in you – completely unsolicited and out of the blue – the fact that they’ve always wanted to ‘be with’ a black girl or have mulatto children. While you’re struggling to put your eyes back into your head from the ridiculousness of such a remark, the collector will probably be leaning in to get an appreciative stroke of your skin or tug at your hair, or quite possibly even commenting lasciviously on another black person passing nearby, completely oblivious to the fact that they are creeping you all the way the f**k out.

 

The Mouths of Babes

“Mommy, that man has black skin!”

I involuntarily snap my head in the direction the voice came from, and wrinkle my face up at the little girl’s overly loud comment. We are at a seaside resort in southern Spain – a place heavily populated with both Spanish and non-Spanish holiday makers from other parts of Europe. Among the rest of the crowd tanning on the nearby shore, playing in the pool and sipping cocktails at the bar, my friend – a native of Senegal and a longtime resident of Spain – and I are the only brown faces (and bodies) in sight.

The little girl who made the comment looks to be about 7 or 8 years old. From her accent, it sounds like she’s from the UK, where I assume that she would have had more exposure to black people than a girl of her age from Spain. Why, then was it so novel, so unusual to see a person with ‘black skin’ that she felt compelled to blurt it out in public? Why had her mom who was sheepishly grinning in our direction and hurrying her little one along before she could say anything else –  not yet trained her that blurting out such a thing in public wasn’t exactly appropriate? Meanwhile, my friend, who’s probably well accustomed to receiving such comments and stares, is completely unfazed. He smiles and waves at the little one while I brood silently in the background.

Days later, when I’m reflecting on this incident, it occurs to me that this little kid was no different than many full-grown Spaniards I’ve encountered that momentarily lose their cool and some of their senses when they see a black person – saying and doing something that leaves the unaccustomed (like me) frowning and wondering, “What the f**k?”, while those who are used to these outbursts (like my Senegalese friend), simply offer a patronizing smile and the equivalent of, “Awwww… Bless your heart!”

 

Can I Touch It?

It’s Christmas season in Spain. Even though I’m missing family time and the Christmas traditions I’m accustomed to back in the US, I’m still enjoying my first Christmas in my host country. I’ve finished checking off the last of the gift recipients on my relatively short Christmas list, and I’m looking for the finishing touches to put on the gifts that I need to wrap and deliver to local friends in Ciudad Real before the long winter break.

I ducked into the little store thinking they would definitely have the gift ribbon I was looking for. It was, after all, a chino*, and chinos carry at least 4 of everything ever made. As I was preparing to check out, the Spanish girl working in the store who’d helped me find the ribbon remarked to the Chinese lady behind the counter, “Que guapa, no?” (Isn’t she pretty?) “Si! Es guapa!” the other woman enthusiastically replied, smiling in my direction. I thanked them both profusely. Before I could finish my ‘gracias’, La China (the Chinese lady) recounted in her heavily accented Spanish that she used to work in a neighborhood in nearby Toledo where there were other girls… here she paused to rub the skin on the back of my hand to indicate what kind of girls they were. She said that she loved seeing them, and whenever they would come in to shop or talk, she would rub their skin. Here, she paused to stroke my hand again. “Muy suave!” (very smooth!) she beamed, then suggested the Spanish girl have a go. “Siiiii…” La Española replied in awe, after stroking the back of my hand for herself. “Que suave!!” By now, my eyes were as big as saucers, my brow furrowed, and my smile a tentative, bemused one. “Como un bebe,” (like a baby) La China continued, smiling brightly with confirmation of her knowledge. As I handed her the coins for the ribbon, she couldn’t resist one more stroke. The transaction complete, I hurriedly stuffed the ribbon in my bag, managed to bumble out another ‘gracias’ and a ‘feliz navidad’, then swiftly pivoted and exited the twilight zone.

As a black person living in a country like Spain where the population is largely homogenous – at least in outward appearance – it’s not an uncommon occurrence to find out that you’ve instantly become a walking museum exhibit.
In Spain, and there’s a sort of no-holds-barred, ‘I’m not even gonna question if you’re ok with this because I know you’re ok with this’ aspect to the commenting on and touching of black skin and hair that is markedly different from the US. Here, complete strangers feel no qualm about remarking loudly about your ‘different’ features or even getting in a quick pet. Like the one time, when I was walking through a crowded club in Malaga, and a woman I passed yelled out over the din of the party, “I like your hair!” Then proceeded to shove her hands into my picked-out ‘fro just before asking if she could touch it. Or like an entirely different chino incident, when I was perusing the aisles for some household necessity, and another shopper – a middle-aged Spanish woman – decided to grab a few of my braid extensions and marvel aloud at how they got that way, how long it must have taken to do them, and what sort of material they were made of. Part of this uninhibited touching is cultural – Spaniards have a completely different concept of personal space than Americans. That is to say, by American standards, Spaniards don’t really have a concept of personal space. Close-talking, double-cheek kissing, resting a hand on a shoulder or back while conversing with someone – all of these are interpersonal conventions that might make the average American feel uncomfortable.

As a black person living in a country like Spain where the population is largely homogenous – at least in outward appearance – it’s not an uncommon occurrence to find out that you’ve instantly become a walking museum exhibit. For many, you’re one of the few chances they have to get an up-close look – or touch – of this rarely-seen specimen that is a black person. Does that mean it’s ok for someone to breach your personal space for a rub of your skin or a grab at your hair? No. But it does help explain why it’s happening. Why you’re being stared at on the street, in the grocery store, on the metro. Yes, even now, in the 21st century, where black people are more prominent in international media than ever before, and you’d think that the sight of a black person walking down the street minding their own business wouldn’t cause a stir.

 

"Can I touch it?"
“Can I touch it?”

 

Yet, if I’m completely honest, I can’t gloss over the fact that I’ve experienced some unwanted touches from my fellow countrymen in the United States. Particularly when it comes to my hair. The fact that I wear my hair natural and often change the style it’s in, has frequently sparked interest from co-workers and associates, to the point where they can’t resist a touch. Usually though, this kind of uninvited touching only happens with people whom I share space with regularly or have known for a period of time. And even then, the social norms regarding personal space in America makes them do so with a bit of timidity and hesitation that seems fitting for putting your hands on someone without explicit permission.

I often find myself torn between feeling weirded out and feeling honored and appreciated in a way that I’d never be on my home turf.
I also have to admit that sometimes it feels damned good to be positively noticed for the color of your skin. Back home in Atlanta, there are so many beautiful men and women of color of every shape, size, and type that I would scarcely garner a second glance on the streets. Being good-looking and black isn’t really worth commenting on when damned near everyone around you is good-looking and black. So, after each of these experiences, I often find myself torn between feeling weirded out and feeling honored and appreciated in a way that I’d never be on my home turf. After many months of being guapa’d and groped in public and private, I’ve finally learned to take it all in stride, and more often than not I have a laugh at it – if only to myself.

Case in point: one afternoon, late in the school year, one of my Spanish roommates knocks on my bedroom door. She wants to introduce me to some family members who are visiting. After greeting them, my roommate’s mom says, as sweet as she can, ‘Me gusta tu color’ (I like your color).

What I think is…

What? This old thing?

Girl… you better get a good look while ya can! I’m about to hop in the shower!

Ya sure? Cuz, ehhh… I dunno… I was thinking of changing it.

Oh. I… like… yours… too?

I’ve been growing it since birth.

But, what I say is:

Graciaaaas!”

 

* Throughout Spain, a chino is a one-stop-shop or convenience store that sells a wide array of household goods, snacks, and personal items for a very low price. They are almost invariably owned and operated by Chinese immigrants – hence the fitting, albeit politically incorrect, name.

Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the “black experience” in Spain and the US.

Read the other posts in the series now:

 

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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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