Neerja en España #5: Adjusting to life in Spain

Originally written October 2019

Now, here’s an update about everything in my non-work life, which for once is actually a very significant part of my life!

I’m loving my apartment. We got a 4th roommate and her name is Genesis. She is from Venezuela but has lived in Spain for a few years and knows so much about life here that I am clueless about. For example, one night she suggested ordering in food, which I had somehow not realized was something you could do in Spain. And then she proceeded to show me 4 or 5 different apps that I had no idea existed.

Me, Aiko, and Genesis bonding on our way to Domino’s - turns out Domino’s is a roommate bonding mechanism worldwide):

In terms of other friends, I’ve gotten to know Aparna, a woman in Aiko’s intensive 20-hours-a-week Spanish class. She’s a professional yoga instructor from India and here to learn Spanish to take her yoga business to other countries (I’m being exposed to so many meaningful things people do with their lives that would have never occurred to me back at Dartmouth). Aparna, Aiko and I all go to the same gym and have had fun exploring the city together.

Yoga in the park next to my apartment
Tapas y cerveza

It’s interesting how everyone I hang out with is at least about 4 years older than me - such a change from college! I’m enjoying meeting new people, but I still feel pretty connected to people far away (my favorite times of the day are tied between when I have my afternoon cup of coffee and when my family and close friends Sarah and Sean wake up and text me every day without fail). I’m also enjoying having more time to myself.

It has been so cool to live and work with people from completely varied backgrounds. Almost every day at lunch with my labmates, we fall into talking about a given subject and how it compares in Spain vs the US vs France (we have a postdoc from Nice) - meal sizes/times, how leaders are elected, mushrooms, coffee, PhD programs, cheese, really anything…it’s funny how the smallest things can be so different from place to place. And the small things really matter. For example, I’ve noticed that people here care more about waiting for others. If we’re walking back from a group meeting or lunch and someone for any reason wants to have a quick conversation with someone, we all wait for them and then walk back to our lab together. While this action is unnatural to me after a lifetime in America, I love the concept and practice of treating people like they are more important than maximal productivity.

Today during our post-lunch coffee break (a daily ritual here), we were talking about stereotypes people have about other countries. Someone said that Spain is known as being all about “siesta and fiesta” and honestly…not an inaccurate way to describe my life. I’m actually learning how to chill! (I do have some problems with the concept of “chill” the way it is frequently used, but I think that relaxing is nice.) When I was in college, I would do work all the time, even on breaks. But now, I’ve actually decided to stop working when I leave work, and to relax over the weekends, and to prioritize my sleep and health and friendships over or at least on par with work. I know that there’s so much more to life than work, but I haven’t always lived my life that way, and right now is the perfect time for me to develop a sustainable balance. I left Dartmouth so burnt out and don’t want to feel the same way during/after my PhD, because life is too short to be exhausted and stressed out all the time.

Speaking Spanish has been an adventure. I have a certain sense of humor in English, and I also have a sense of humor in Spanish (or maybe I just make people laugh by sounding stupid), but they’re distinct. The way I form thoughts in English is so different from how I have to think through Spanish, and speaking a lot of Spanish has deepened my appreciation of the ease of speaking in my native language. I feel like my Spanish is improving but not as much as I want it to. When I speak with groups of Spainards, I still have a hard time understanding what they are saying, and coming up with responses in the pace of the conversation. When I speak one-on-one with people, I can have a pretty full conversation and am sometimes surprised at perfect phrases I whip out, but there’s a depth at which I can’t express myself that I can in English. I feel like I can’t connect with people when speaking in Spanish in the same way that I can with English-speaking friends, which is a bit frustrating. I’m considering taking Spanish classes to improve my language abilities. (I’m so happy I ended up taking classes!)

Things have been inevitably frustrating at times: when I misspeak in Spanish, or when I think I said something correctly, but someone still speaks English back to me. When I realize I’ve been doing something one way but there was a much easier way. Having to deal with Spanish bureaucracy (don’t get me started on empadronamiento or tarjeta identidad extranjeria). But it’s kind of cool that my first time adulting for real is here, because it’s going to be amazing to go back to America and know with conviction that the bottled sauce I bought is indeed for pasta, or negotiate a lease in my native language, or to be able to find things like tofu and edamame easily. Things haven’t been always easy, but I am so grateful for these experiences.

In terms of what’s ahead - my parents are visiting soon and we’re going to go to Barcelona (or maybe not, because there’s a lot of protests happening there right now…we’ll see) and Madrid and I’m so excited! Down the line, some friends are going to be spending part of their winter break in Spain which I cannot wait for. I might also make a trip to La Rioja with Aiko to basically just do a bunch of wine tasting sometime in November. Basically, I’ll be traveling a little more than every other weekend and then coming home for Christmas, so the rest of 2019 is going to be crazy in the most wonderful way possible. (I’m happy that I traveled while I could.)

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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