6 things that I've learnt from the Spanish in 6 months

After moving to Spain in September 2019, here is a round-up of six Spanish values that I’ve learnt to incorporate in my life.

Keep calm and eat your jamon

Away from work, the emphasis in a Spaniard’s personal life is on slowing down and going with the flow. When hanging out with a group of people, you’ll never be given an exact time, or the venue might change last minute, or new people might join in. The dinner time might continue right up until 10pm on weekdays as families continue talking. When someone pushes into a really crowded escalator queue at a metro station, people barely lose their cool.

Observing this natural gravitation towards an easy pace, especially in personal life, and practising it myself has meant inviting a greater degree of tolerance and flexibility into my mind, which has ultimately led to a better control over my anxiety.

Every weeknight is a late night at Mercado de San Ildefonso in Malasaña, Madrid.
Focus on authenticity

Whether it is the women here wearing minimal makeup every day and embracing their natural selves, people being more expressive with their emotions or there being, in general, a strong focus on food that is less processed, I love how authenticity is such an innate part of the Spanish culture.

Observing all these Spanish habits has not only made me feel more comfortable about accepting my own self, but it has also made me look for authenticity in whatever I try to bring into my life- from people to consumables to experiences.

Quality over quantity

For the longest time, my formula for spending had been ‘the cheaper the better’. This meant being price obsessed and at times completely ignoring the quality, even if it was downright in shambles, or even a risk to my health. Whilst at times this has worked for me (*wink* K-Mart *wink*), many times I have simply wasted my money because that thing has completely fallen apart after literally being used twice. One habit of Spaniards that I have noted and implemented is to value quality over quantity, at least in terms of the items that I use very frequently. The initial upfront cost may be high, but because that item lasts for longer, the cost per use turns out to be negligible. Win-win.

Food without spices can be tasty (GASP!!)

Never though I’d say this, but yes, food without spices CAN be tasty. I have definitely learnt to harness the actual flavours of individual raw ingredients, instead letting the spice blends shine every single time. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my spices and use them very frequently, but I have also learnt to utilise different herbs, sauces and techniques, that have exponentially increased my culinary repertoire. I no longer have to feel like I need to rely on certain, very specific ingredients, in order to make a dish successful.

Freshly caught, roasted squid in Cádiz with a simple salad
Be opportunistic with travel

I used to always think that the only way to travel properly is to save $$$, wait for the perfect moment, book a long trip and cover a region in detail. And that was largely because travelling anywhere from Australia is generally quite expensive, unless your income bracket is in the top 5%. Due to this thinking, I missed out on a lot of travel deals and long weekend opportunities. To this date South East Asia, which is literally my backyard, remains largely unexplored by me.

Spain is a small country and travelling is comparatively inexpensive, which is great news. But due to working fewer hours and wanting to maximise my savings, I can only take 2-3 days off a month to travel somewhere inter-region. And whilst I love it, 2-3 days isn’t enough time to explore a region in detail. So instead, I have now learnt how to use weekends to plan a quick but efficient getaway, instead of waiting until Christmas or Easter or summer vacations, when everything is 10 times the regular price anyways. Some tricks include: undertaking long journeys overnight, focusing on smaller, lesser known destinations, and undertaking travel to a large region in two to three parts.

The point is: if you are passionate about something, try to find ways of doing it more frequently than you normally would.

Puente nuevo, Ronda
Don’t be afraid to express your emotions

Time and again I’ve been touched by the Spanish people as they have opened their hearts and homes for me over the course of these months. From inviting me to Christmas lunches and dinners, to reducing my rental expenses, to continuously asking about my welfare- their warmth has never ceased to amaze me. By far the biggest lesson I have learnt so far from them is to value relations and to take time to maintain them. Cultural differences aside, you should never be afraid to give that extra hug, send that extra emoji, smile a bit more, ask someone how they’re doing, and in general make someone feel a part of the community. If we reach out more frequently to those around us, instead of always thinking that we might be imposing ourselves on them, it will improve the quality of life of so many of the vulnerable. You never know who needs you but might be too afraid to ask. And you also never know the last time you might get to speak to them.

Madrid Carnaval 2020

These are the top six qualities that I’ve learnt from the Spanish. Are you someone who has had the opportunity to learn something from another culture? Are you an expat in Spain who has learnt some invaluable things during their time here? Let me know in the comments below, or in my IG 🙂

Cover photo: Calle Cuevas del Sol, Setenil de las Bodegas (Andalucía). https://www.instagram.com/p/B8lzlqloKAz/

My quest for the most perfect Portuguese custard tarts

It is no secret that I have a huge sweet tooth. When planning my Portuguese sojourn, one of the items I wanted to tick off my bucket list was to try the famous Portuguese custard tarts, or ‘Pastel de Nata’ (lit: cake of cream). I had come across them in a Portuguese bakery in Perth, where the taste lingered long after they had melted in my mouth. The crunchy pastry was filled with creamy, delicious, not-too-sweet, gooey custard that oozed into my mouth as soon as I had popped them in. The downside was that they were very small in size and too darn expensive ($2 to $3 per tart as far as I remember). Unfortunately, when your desires don’t match your wallet size, you have no option but to rein in your cravings.

So obviously when I decided to explore the land that invented this perfection, I knew I had to devour as many as possible. After I arrived in Porto, probably one of the first questions I asked the hostel reception was about the whereabouts of this divine deliciousness. I was surprised to find that the ‘real’ Pastel de Nata actually came from Belém, a suburb in Lisboa (Portugal’s capital). Whilst it is easy to find a delicious and cheap Pastel de Nata all over Portugal, you have not tasted the real deal until you have visited the most famous bakery in Bélem that bakes literally hundreds and thousands of them on a regular basis.

Pastel de Nata from the streets of Porto- what I thought was the real deal, until I was told that it actually resided in Belém

History bears witness that originally, the nuns of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (monastery of Jerome) came up with the recipe of Pastel de Nata and would make it in bulk. However, later in 1837, the recipe was passed onto someone outside of the convent and they founded the famous bakery ‘Pastéis de Belém’ (lit: cakes of Belém). This, confusingly, is also the name given to the actual tarts produced from this bakery to allow them to be differentiated from those produced in other places. Pastéis de Belém is literally a 2 minute walk from Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, making it an ideal place to get your sugar fix after you have spent a good amount of time being mesmerised by the monastery’s rich architecture.

Hard day’s work at ‘Pastéis de Belém’
Ok, it may not look very different from the tart I had in Porto, but my gosh, it was definitely more delicious. I think the pastry was definitely crunchier which produced a greater contrast between the pastry and the filling and elevated the experience to another level.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

And of course, since you are here in Belém, and by extension in Lisboa, why not take the time to appreciate the rest of the place?

Monumento a los descubrimientos: A monument celebrating the efforts of all the Portuguese navigators, religious authorities and army generals who travelled far and wide ‘discovering’ new lands (read: colonies) for the riches and personal gains of the Portuguese crown.
As seen near Monumento a los descubrimientos. Displayed above are Portugal’s South Asian colonies.
Torre de Belém (Belém Tower)
We’re back in central Lisboa, painfully climbing uphill to Castelo de São Jorge (St George Castle).
Also, have you noticed the resplendent tilework, or azulejos, that is visible all over old buildings in Portugal?
The iconic tram of Lisboa
Somewhere in Bairro Alto (old Lisboa).
It’s THE place to be for a great night out in Lisboa as it contains the highest concentration of bars and restaurants that keep the city alive right up until sunrise hours. The steep streets can help you burn those excess calories too.
A casino in the middle of Lisboa? No. A store selling nothing but over-priced, colourful tins of Sardines? YES! Welcome to ‘O Mundo Fantastico da Sardinha Portuguesa’
Igreja de São Roque
Miradouro do Castelo de São Jorge (Viewpoint of St George’s castle)

Até já Lisboa. We will meet soon.

Cover photo: Somewhere in Praça Dom Pedro (Lisboa).