What Living in Madrid as an Expat is Really Like

For this month’s American Expats series, our next stop is Spain. Cat Gaa, a Chicago native, moved to Seville, Spain, in 2007, and now lives in Madrid with her Spanish husband and young daughter. Here, she talks about churros, unique Spanish festivals, and walking the Camino.

Cat’s background:

What living in Madrid is really like

Straight after college, I moved to Seville, Spain, to teach English. More than a decade later, I now live in Madrid and work in recruitment and admissions for a US university. And a year and a half ago, welcomed our first child. 

What living in Madrid is really like

On culture shock: When I moved to Seville in 2007, it was a city still stuck in the past – siestas were respected, nothing was open on Sundays and the Virgin Mary was everyone’s best friend. In Seville, and in Spain in general, things have changed to a great extent. There are more English language services, better transportation links, and greater food options. It’s now a place where expats can move somewhat easily.

On learning Spanish: Before moving to Spain, I had also studied abroad here, so I had the basics and accent down, but I wasn’t ready for the local slang. Many times, there were tears, and, in my worst blunder, I told people at a wedding that my mom was a junkie. But I am now fluent in Spanish (maybe even bilingual?) and use it daily.

On Madrid’s weather: Madrid is actually the highest capital in Europe and because of the altitude, it’s drier. We also have four seasons and it snows on occasion.

What living in Madrid is really like

On Spanish coffee: Would you believe I didn’t drink coffee before moving to Spain? Now coffee is my ritual and my zen moment as a working mom. I take a café con leche (coffee with milk) in the morning on my way to daycare and a cortado (espresso with a few drops of milk) after lunch.

What living in Madrid is really like

On breakfast: Spaniards often have two breakfasts: something light at home before a larger, mid-morning breakfast. In the south, breakfast is usually pan con tomate: toast with olive oil, crushed tomatoes and salt, plus a slice of acorn-fed ham.

If you’re in Madrid or further north, churros are standard fare but you can also get baked goods, a slice of Spanish omelet or toast.

What living in Madrid is really like

On healthcare: The healthcare system here is phenomenal — it cost me 90€ to have a baby. Yes, you’ll have wait times and doctors have little bedside manner, but your employer takes the cost burden and everyone is entitled to universal healthcare.

On raising a baby in Spain: Spain is pretty baby-friendly – my biggest challenge is often what to do with my stroller if I’m out having a coffee and have to use the bathroom (most bathrooms are in the basement in central Madrid!).

That being said, raising a child in a country that isn’t your own isn’t easy. But after 21 months in the motherhood journey, I think I’ve struck a balance with cultural norms, language learning, and the in-laws.

What living in Madrid is really like

Caa with her son in Rome, Italy

On feeling safe: I’m pretty cautious when I’m out, but Madrid – and Spain in general – is far safer than many countries. I have gotten two bikes and a laptop stolen, though. The laptop was completely my jet-lagged brain’s fault!

On the best places to travel in Spain: I am a sucker for Asturias, a region wedged between the mountains and the sea along the northern coast. I also love the the Siglo de Oro towns in Extremadura, and of course, Andalusia.

What living in Madrid is really like

On unique Spanish festivals: Oh man, Spain is RIFE with strange traditions! There’s a festival in northern Spain where family members carry coffins to give thanks to God for saving sick relatives, another where a goat is thrown off a bell tower near Zamora and a Granada-area water fight. Many of these odd festivals have been celebrated for centuries and are rooted in religious traditions.

My favorite is the Feria de Sevilla, where locals practically camp out in makeshift bars and dance, drink sherry and ride around in horse carriages.

On walking the Camino: I walked 326 kilometers (200 miles) on the Camino del Norte, the Northern route that snakes along the coast before dipping inland towards Santiago. I walked with a close friend during a time when I felt fulfilled in many aspects of my life, so it was a joy to meet other pilgrims and just put one foot in front of the other without thinking about all of the trivial parts of life. I can’t wait to walk it again.

What living in Madrid is really like

On homesickness: I can cope with going long stretches without going to the US. I work for an American university and hear English all day long, have a Costco membership in Spain and there a number of American food stores and chains near me. 

Now that I’m a mom, I do have moments where I get the feeling I’m depriving my parents of the grandparent moments, and that my kid may not have a real American summer (you know, summer camp and bug bites and the ice cream truck and playing in the sprinkler). When we were considering the move to Madrid, my husband budgeted in a yearly trip to the US for four people, so here’s hoping we can make that happen! And my first stop back in Chicago is usually Portillo’s for a beef hot dog and strawberry milkshake.

What living in Madrid is really like

¡Gracias, Cat!

P.S. What Living in the Czech Republic is Really Like and The Ultimate Camino de Santiago Packing List.

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Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

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