3 Things I’ve Had to Learn on My Own Since Moving Abroad

1. How to NOT give myself food poisoning

The last time I lived in Spain for a long period of time, I stayed with a sevillano couple in the heart of the working-class neighborhood of Triana. And work hard they did! My host mother Manoli made the other American girls and me two delicious homemade meals per day but reluctantly -in my opinion- left breakfast out for us to make our own meal (hard mini toast with jelly, marmalade, or Lidl’s Mister Choc chocolate hazelnut spread) and hot drinks of choice (coffee, tea or Cola Cao). The portion sizes in Manoli’s house were more than big enough for one or maybe two people even, haha!

The decadent fruit salad Manoli carefully made and served us every Sunday night.
My favorite meal in Manoli’s house: tortellini with queso AND mantequilla too!

Long story short, I was VERY well taken care of by Manoli and Antonio that I had no need to cook for myself. (If the pictures above don’t convince you, I don’t know what will.) Side note, I wasn’t even allowed to set foot in her kitchen so I couldn’t even cook if I had wanted to (and I did, to be honest) but that’s another story. Fast forward to a little over 4 years later and I’ve come back to Spain again and now have the option to cook. I mean, I am obligated to feed and take care of myself during the 9 months while I’m here. I’ve been able to keep myself fairly healthy and trying out new recipes and foods when the mood strikes me (which is almost every day). However, this experience of cooking for myself in Spain is not exempt from a few self-inflicted illnesses along the way. Let me explain (and not get too graphic, I hope).

Of all the people who live in my flat, I buy the most food, dry goods and produce combined. I am trying very hard at the end of the year now to eat through my supply of some foods (ie: dry beans, rice, oils, and some pasta-sparingly-) as I can’t take any of it with me. I’ve now overtaken half of an extra shelf in our refrigerator because I’ve started to buy watermelon and it’s too big to store it on my tiny shelf. Can you blame a girl for trying to make it work, though?

Anyway, I have sometimes bought too much food and not eaten through it as fast as I would’ve liked. I’ve also learned the hard way that some foods expire a lot sooner than you think. The two foods that I’ve gotten food poisoning from this year (2015) alone have been eggs and chocolate.

I did make a pretty bomb paella on the first try but some of my cooking can still give me food poisoning, sigh…

Eggs in Spain are not refrigerated and they can be found stacked in cardboard cartons on the shelves next to the oils or boxes and bags of pasta. The reason why they do not have to be refrigerated here is because the eggs have a protective coating inside and can stay fresher longer than eggs in the US can. The rule of thumb, however, is that once you buy a carton of eggs and start using them, you put them in the refrigerator. I did see the roommate of some friends of mine leave one of her cartons out on the counter in their kitchen so -instead of asking her- I assumed that it was okay to do this. Cut to me buying almost 3 dozen eggs to last practically the whole month and I left them out on my shelf to…well, continue to stay fresh you know. 😛

Needless to say, the eggs went bad sooner than I realized as I no longer had the card with the expiration date on it to check the suggested shelf life. I threw that away when I took all of the eggs out of the flat carton they came in and stored and stacked them inside a shoebox, making the I-love-to-be-organized part of my personality very happy. Well, one week the eggs had reached their expiration -but didn’t smell surprisingly – and a few hours after I ate my three-egg omelet one morning for brunch, things did not end well. It was arguably the worst food poisoning of my life and since then, I have stuck my eggs in the refrigerator as soon as I buy them, regardless if I had enough comfortable space for them or not.

Now, the chocolate is a strange story but it’s another experience that I brought upon myself. It also happened recently (last month) and so I’m really not proud of it. You would think that I would’ve learned from the other violent experience but no. Well, this was a completely different experience but the issue had to due with an expiration date as well, or rather shelf life. I had bought baker’s chocolate (cacao) for when I made cookies and then later Buckeyes earlier in the year. I didn’t use all of the chocolate and put the bar away on my shelf. It got buried under a couple of things on it but I managed to find it again when I was making dinner the night before I left for my vacation during Semana Santa. One of my flatmates was getting kicked out that day (and she deserved it) so when I found the last bit of that cacao bar, I ate it happily sort of as a reward for surviving living with that girl and then finally regaining some peace and quiet for myself inside the flat.

I also made a pretty nice dinner and ate it after I had the two small chocolate pieces. Dinner digested just fine overnight but for some strange reason the chocolate did not. I ignored the stomach pains I was feeling soon after I woke up the next morning and ate some eggs (gah, again with the eggs!) hoping that I was just hungry and needed sustenance.

Boy, was I wrong.

I had barely eaten the eggs when I needed to visit the bathroom and I knew for what reason the minute I ran down the hall in my empty apartment (thank goodness for that). That was not a fun experience but thankfully it was short-lived and my homemade Alka Seltzer remedy (a glass of water with a sprinkle of baking soda) calmed my stomach down. I finished packing in record time and forced myself to continue with my got sick, packed my bag and caught a Bla Bla Car rideshare 5 hours one way to Madrid and talked with the driver almost the whole way down! It almost put me over the edge to have felt so crummy and to have spoken so much Spanish that day but keep reading and learn the reason why from item number two on this list to learn more! 😉

I got sick the morning I was leaving for an overnight stay in Madrid but you would’ve never known just looking at me! (April 2015)

How I’ve coped: Paying closer attention to and memorizing expiration dates. I’ve also made sure to cook all of my meat well-done or better so that they get cooked all the way through. When it comes to food and cooking for yourself in another country, you cannot take any chances! Be cautious and make sure you put your health first. Don’t learn the hard way like I have a couple of times!

2. How to continue speaking and listening to Spanish even when I’m sick

When I started to study Spanish intensely in college, I would experience these painful headaches and they would always come on after I had been reading a novel (for a class), listening to music, or writing a paper or essay in Spanish for a long period of time. Some weekends -especially those around finals week- I locked myself in my room or holed up in the library to read or write papers for my upper-level Spanish classes and the longer I spent immersed in the language (and in my own little world) the harder it would be at first to resume normal life speaking and interacting with people in my native tongue. I would walk back out “into the real world” after a long study or paper writing session and upon hearing English, my brain would become a bit befuddled.

I didn’t have a very intense reaction like I had had in the past like when I returned home after visiting a Spanish-speaking country. My reaction was not similar to when I returned to the States after a 2-week mission trip in Mexico as a teen and did a double-take upon hearing someone casually speaking on their cell phone in English in the San Diego International Airport. Nevertheless, the reaction that I would have was this: my brain would get used to hearing the language, and then it would experience a little shock once I re-immersed myself with my native tongue again.

It was quite a long journey back then but I’ve come a long way since!

Maybe you can relate to either one of these types of reactions?

Something that has remained consistent over nearly the past 12 years of studying the Spanish language is this simple fact: I can’t handle it when I’m sick. I just can’t.

Hearing Spanish when I’m sick physically makes me more ill. The only way I can explain the reason behind why it makes me sick is that it’s not my native language. It’s not the language my mother speaks to me when I’m feeling under the weather or when I’m on the verge of catching a cold or the flu. Spanish, as beautiful as it sounds and as much as I love it, does not ooze comfort and my mom’s home cooking. It just doesn’t do this naturally for me. Therefore, I don’t (and my mind doesn’t) find the language to be as comforting as my native tongue, at least not yet.

(Back then, I had hoped to meet and fall in love with a Spanish guy. Things certainly did change after I met a Northern Irish guy and later fell in love with him a little while after that and we married in Gibraltar in 2019.)

How I’ve coped: I speak and listen to the language anyway. I’ve gone to school anyway even when I haven’t felt the greatest or when PMS has been at its worst for me. I’ve listened with the same attentiveness to the teachers and students who chatter away in the native tongue during class. And you know what? I’m still alive and not worse off for having done so. Or at least not too much. While it takes twice as much strength and concentration to listen to someone speak Spanish when I would much rather be alone and curl up in my bed with a movie or book and banish the sickness at my doorstep, I let them speak and I listen. It’s still not my favorite time to hear the language but I am learning to work through this dislike and hopefully, one day find some comfort in it when I’m feeling crummy. Maybe I just need an older Spanish abuela or abuelo to speak words of comfort to me the next time I’m sick and my perspective of the language will go from annoying to soothing?

I’ll report back with my answer as soon as I experience this or if my feelings change….

(For now, I’ll stick to tea! :P)

3. How to ask for help in countries where I don’t speak the local language

First of all, let me state that I am privileged by the sole fact that I am a native English speaker and that I was born in the United States of America and have had (and still have) access to so many amazing opportunities in the world. I never forget either one of these things no matter where I go or who I meet. I am very thankful for my native language and nationality. However, I am not a fan of being catered to and do my best to go visit countries where I can speak the local language (eg: Spanish) and can “leave English at home” so to speak. Well, I needed it when I went to Portugal and Morocco for the first time a few years ago but those stories are for another day. Spanish came in handy in both places surprisingly but more so in Morocco than Portugal if you can believe it.

However, when I went to France for two weeks last December, I felt paralyzed in quite a few (what should have been) easy social situations. I don’t know more than just a few words and phrases in French and didn’t feel compelled to study up on anything intensively before I left for my trip. (Mistake number one.)  And what’s more is that I didn’t think that the fact that the large language barrier would e a problem for me as I don’t really care for the French language in the first place (don’t hurt me, francophiles, French food is amazing!). The worst thing of all was that in France, I didn’t stand out (at least not too much). My dark brunette hair, black eyebrows, and slightly olive tinted skin made me blend in very well with the Parisians that winter, despite the large number of nationalities that are represented in France today.

I think what took me longer to get used to was the cost of living in Paris. It’s a classy city with a high price tag!

Well, if you look like one of the locals, what will other locals do to you? Ask you questions or make comments to you in the local language, of course!

Had I been in Portugal (whose language I have actually studied these past two years or so) this would’ve been a positive experience. I would’ve practically welcomed all the exposure to the language and after that, I would’ve asked for more. But French is not Portuguese, even though they had some similarities in vocabulary that I was not expecting. I was lost in translation during my 5-day stay in the City of Lights but had a magnificent time there. By the end of my time in the city, I found that -after forcing myself to listen- that I could understand maybe 30% of spoken French and even understood directions that were given to me and two new friends but I sure couldn’t have repeated them to you if asked, haha.

I managed to find this and other important landmarks on my own so things weren’t entirely difficult…

Thankfully I got relief from my language woes when I headed South to visit my American friend Gwen who is teaching English in Grenoble, France. Gwen has studied French for years and speaks fluently with an almost unnoticeable accent, in my opinion. We needed each other during the holidays and had a wonderful visit together, our mixed cultures and languages aside. She helped me more than she will ever know with diligently translating from French to English from general conversations to song lyrics to prayers to most of a sermon at her church. She even helped unite two non-English speakers and one non-French speaker (me) and help us understand one another while we all spent the day together adventuring in the snow and countryside near Grenoble.

Gwen, an amazing friend and my personal translator for the week I spent in Grenoble. (December 2014)

How I coped: I’ve come to the realization that I must force myself to learn a little bit of the local language before I go and then keep a humble and non-judgmental attitude during the course of my stay in a new country. I also make sure to learn how to say, “Do you speak English?” in the local language so that the person I’m trying to get help from knows that I am really trying my best to connect with the culture and its language. I don’t always handle these complex language situations with grace but I’m learning as I go.

One lesson and day at a time…

Have you lived abroad for a long period of time before? Where did you live? What things did you learn? Do you have any tips for current or ex-pats in the making? Share your stories in the comments below!

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