After living in a foreign country for a number of years, many expats find that they have taken on a lot of local customs and habits—sometimes due to sincere efforts to integrate, sometimes despite themselves. Which is why it is always so fun for me to ask fellow longtime expats if they feel they have “gone native,” and if so, in what ways.
These are questions I often pose to expats I run into here in Madrid. I also conduct expat interviews for a blog, and that is one of my favorite questions to ask.I am always curious to see what habits people have taken on and what they have not. What I have found is that for most expats, one of the first customs they adapt to tends to be eating on the Spanish schedule, which consists of a light breakfast, a large three course meal at two or three in the afternoon, and a light dinner at 10 at night. I too found that food customs were some of the first I took on, perhaps because I was inspired by the fact that the Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest in the world. A longtime expat I interviewed told me that one of her favorite parts about living here has been learning to cook Spanish dishes.
If you have moved to a country where they speak a foreign language, learning it is of course a big step towards assimilation. Besides making it easier to shop, order a meal and call a plumber, it helps you to break out of the expat bubble and make local friends. Madrileños have a reputation for being open and friendly, so it is quite easy to meet people here. A lot of that is due to the fact that a large percentage of the population moved here from other provinces of Spain. Many do not even consider themselves true Madrileños. In fact, it is said that you are not an authentic Madrileño—or gato as they are nicknamed—until three generations of your family have been born in Madrid. In a sense, many Spaniards here sort of feel like they are “expats,” and I’ve always thought that this is what contributes to the open and friendly atmosphere of the city.
Professional life often helps us longtime expats assimilate. This holds true not just for those working in offices and schools, but for freelancers as well. A translator I interviewed said that running her own freelance translation business here has made her feel like more of a local. And that’s not just because she is contributing to the local economy and paying taxes; it’s also because it gives her a chance to meet other local businesspeople, entrepreneurs, and freelancers. As she has started to hear that they are having similar problems or successes, she has realized she is not so foreign after all.
Certainly being in a relationship with a local makes you integrate more quickly. An American friend of mine says her marriage to a Madrileño has opened up an automatic social circle to her and given her a local family as well.
Some expats find that having children has made them integrate more fully into local culture. In Pamela Druckerman’s book on parenting in France, she describes how having children brought her and her expat husband closer to the Parisian lifestyle. Besides getting the chance to meet local moms at the park and at the schools, she got to learn French nursery rhymes and songs from her newly bilingual kids.
Of course, not every expat has the same experience. A theatre enthusiast I interviewed says that having children actually made her less integrated into Spanish society. Before she had children, she was free to stay out all night, take a leisurely siesta, and eat late. But having children inspired her to return back to her British roots. And it wasn’t just about keeping her kids on early bedtimes (something that is rarely a priority in Spain, least of all when there are fiestas on). She actually found herself instinctually turning back to customs and attitudes that were familiar to her from her own childhood.
How about you? Do you feel you have become a local, and if so in what ways?
by Sheila Sullivan.
Sheila is a freelance translator, editor, writer, and serial blogger who has been in Madrid long enough to consider herself a permanent Madrileña.
Read Sheila's other Expat Focus articles here.