My life in Spain, hasta el momento

So I’ve been here in Burgos, España for two and a half weeks now. Here’s an update on what the transition has been like, how I’m doing with the language, etc…

El ciudad de Burgos

This city is ridiculously beautiful. There’s a bunch of old red-roofed buildings and churches and the like, and the whole place is nestled up against a wooded hillside to the north. The focal point is of course La Catedral de Santa María, which towers over everything and deserves all the attention it gets.

Although there are only 200,000 people living here, the city feels bigger than I thought it would, but still small enough that you run into people you know in the street. Much of the central part is pedestrianized, so it’s a great place for walking. Wandering around through the countless plazas sometimes feels like a dream. I thought there would be one main area in the city center, but instead there are dozens of little squares where people get together. It really comes alive in the evening, when the kids are all in the playgrounds and the adults are hanging out outside the bars and coffee shops.

I’m not real sure what the night life is like, since I’ve only had one night out since I got here, but apparently the pubs stay open until the sun comes up.

La clima / El clima

The weather has been mostly good since I arrived, sunny and warm nearly every day. It gets a little chilly in the evenings, but I’ve never had to wrap up too much; usually I just wear a t-shirt and jacket. Here’s the current hour-by-hour forecast if you’re interested.

Cost of living

I’m definitely finding it cheaper living in Spain than back in Ireland. I’m spending almost half as much on rent here (€200 per month), and less than €35 per week on food. A few days ago I went and bought a kilo of strawberries and it cost me only €2. We grow strawberries in Ireland, too, but they cost at least twice as much there.

Speaking of food…

La Comida

Being vegan in Spain has proved to be a little bit of a challenge, but I’m kind of into the swing of it now. I’ve only eaten out once since I’ve been in Burgos, and that was during my first full day here when I found a fully vegan restaurant cerca la Catedral, much to my surprise (’twas good, too).

Mostly I’ve been getting my groceries at the supermercado down the road and eating mucho pasta, soup and cereal. And pistachios. Shitloads of pistachios.

I can get soy milk easy, but things like falafel and hummus are hard to come by. I’m eating less beans than usual, and methinks I’m not getting any b12 since the soy milk doesn’t have it added here. So I’ll probably need to start taking a supplement for the first time since I became vegan (two years ago now).

The little differences

Amazing what can catch you off guard in a foreign country. I’ve been confused by a few things, caught out by some different norms and the way stuff works here.

Like the metal, rolling window shutters that every apartment seems to have. I had no problem raising them up, but I had to be shown how to lower them again. And if you go into a fruit and veg shop, you’re not supposed to pick out the food yourself; you tell the shopkeeper what you want and then they go get it for you. I had no idea, and so I just looked like an asshole when I started grabbing bananas and manzanas off the shelves. I soon realized what I was doing wrong and apologized in bad Spanish, at which point everyone realized I was from elsewhere and understood why I was so clueless.

One of my favorite things about Burgos are the storks (cigüeñas en español), the massive birds that nest all over the place. We don’t have birds that big in Ireland. They take up residence here on bell towers and atop big monuments, building huge nests that must be five feet wide. There’s a nest atop some old scaffolding right outside the apartment where I’m living, the momma stork always there standing guard, and the baby stork heads peeking out over the top of it. Here’s a pic I snapped of some nests yesterday…

Living arrangements

I live less than a fifteen minute walk from the city centre, on the western side of town, in a barrio called San Pedro de la Fuente. There are lots of apartment blocks here. It’s not very scenic, more modern buildings around, but literally cross the road and you’re in the woods for a nice escape. And it’s pretty close to everything I could want, about five minutes to the library and supermarket.

The apartment I’m living in is pretty basic, but perfect for my needs. I live with una chica llamada Nati. She’s the sister of a Couchsurfer named Pilar who I made contact with before I got into town. Both of them have been legendary helping me settle in.

Pilar, being extremely social, seems to know everybody in the city. She’s already introduced me to loads of people, including some language exchange partners, and invited me out to lots of things. Two weeks ago we went to see A Streetcar Named Desire at the local teatro. Since it was all in Spanish, about the only words I recognized were “Estella! ESTELLLLLAAAAA!”

Learning Español

I decided to come to Burgos because I wanted to learn the language rápidamente and I knew there wouldn’t be many English-speaking people here. I still find myself speaking more English than Spanish though, since most of the folks I meet seem to be better at the former than I am at the latter, at least for now ;-).

I’ve read a lot of Benny Lewis’ advice on language learning. (In case you don’t know about Benny, he’s an Irish guy who’s fluent in about a dozen languages. He writes all about immersion and becoming rapidly fluent.) One of his main pieces of advice is to just get out there and start speaking, no matter how little of the language you know. Speak, make mistakes, and learn from them. Well, I thought I was cool with making mistakes and looking like a bit of a fool, but it seems I still have a way to go there. I found myself being extremely shy my first two weeks here, and often opting not to say anything if I didn’t know exactly how to say it in Spanish. Crippled by perfectionism!

Even saying “hola” at first was strange. I think part of it is simply getting used to a foreign language coming out of my mouth. Sure, I had some experience with that in school, but it’s much different when you’re actually in the country and not surrounded by other learners. When you’re going it alone it all seems very alien.

I think it’s a little more difficult too when you look like you could be a local, because then you end up surprising and often disappointing strangers when they ask you something and discover pretty quick that you can’t speak the language. (For example, the old guy at the library who leaned across the table to talk to me. No idea what he was saying.) I imagine it might be easier not knowing the language in a place like India, where the locals can take one look at you, realize that you’re going to have trouble understanding them, and adjust their communication accordingly.

That said, I’m beginning to love the whole immersion thing. It’s like the entire environment is conspiring to teach me Spanish. Those first couple of weeks were tough, but methinks I’ve started to turn the corner. I was on a bit of a downer leaving Cork. I wasn’t sure I was ready to move on to Spain, and not knowing the language here was more overwhelming at first than I thought. But I feel myself getting over that now, growing more confident and having fun with the language, willing to make more mistakes.

I carry around a notebook with me everywhere and whenever I want to say a word or phrase but don’t know how, I’ll jot it down and look up the translation later, then learn it off. I usually steal a few minutes of study time when I’m walking around or sitting on the bog. It’s remarkable how all those spare minutes add up when you make good use of them.

I’m slowly getting the hang of the different sounds and just recently started learning how spanish verbs work. Everything is beginning to make a lot more sense now. I’m beginning to see the patterns. Some people say you should start learning grammar right away, but I like Benny’s advice about this: Wait a while and then it’s actually interesting to learn it because you can think back and realize where you were going wrong. It’s like you’re finally solving a puzzle. Plus, it can be too much at the start if you’re learning grammar along with everything else. In the beginning I learned only a few simple words and phrases, the essentials.

I have language exchange sessions several times a week now, and that’s helping. I put ads on notice boards around town and got some respones from that, and I found a few people online. For email, I try to force myself to write to Spanish personas en español instead of en inglés, and then I check and correct what I wrote via Google Translate before sending. I get lazy with that sometimes though and write in English if I know the other person will understand.

Another thing that helps is narrating to myself in Spanish whatever it is I’m doing. So I’ll be wandering around the apartment, saying something like, Voy al baño ahora. Y ahora, estoy en el baño. Ahhhh, excellente. Necesito ir al baño después yo como mucha comida. Y ahora, he terminado, así que voy a ir a la cocina.

(Yeah, I ran the above through Google Translate before posting. Good thing too, or I would have been going back to the slut instead of the kitchen.)

In many ways I think it would be easier to have someone else here at the same level as me also trying to learn the language, so we could both share our little revelations and help each other out. That might be the only advantage I see the traditional classroom method of language learning having over this solo immersion method. With the latter, you feel like everyone else is in the know and you’re struggling to keep up.

Case in point: I met an American guy through Pilar last week. He’s been here in Burgos for six months now, learning the language, and he was able to explain a lot of the how’s and why’s of Spanish to me, and share a few tips and tricks that he had picked up. I had several ¡ah-ha! moments during our discussion.


The people who know me here think I’m pretty strange. Which, granted, I am! I’m vegan and I don’t drink and I wear funny shoes, all of which is much harder to explain when you don’t speak the language. But perhaps the thing that people find strangest of all about me here is that I work so much.

Besides becoming fluent in Spanish, my other primary goal while living in Spain these few months is to build my business earnings to $1000 per month. This has me working a lot, even more than I was back in Ireland. I estimate that I now spend between 50-60 hours per week in front of the computer.

I work mainly from home or at the library. There’s free wifi in many spots across the city — you just have to register for it — though it can be painfully slow at times.

Nobody is really sure what it is I do for a living or how I’m trying to earn money. Nati travels a lot for work and often asks if I’d like to join her on the road so I can see some of the countryside and spend a day in a different town or city, but I’ve been passing those invitations up, opting to spend time in front of the computer instead. It’s a certain type of madness, but I’m determined to either start earning some good money online this summer, or exhaust all possibility of doing so.

And although I’m working so much, I am enjoying it overall, definitely. I feel I’m growing and learning a lot right now. I feel like I’m on the cusp of breaking through with this online entrepreneur stuff.

Talking to strangers

One final thing to mention: Much like Ireland, strangers tend to blank each other on the street here, even if they’re neighbors. Sadly, I’m beginning to think this is the norm in most parts of the first world. New Orleans was exceptional in that regard, and I find myself missing those moments when I’d pass an old dude in the street, offer up a nod and a smile, and hear him offer back a cool, drawn out, Allllriiiight.

So that’s how Spain’s treating me, and vice versa. I’m interested to hear if you’ve had any experience living in a foreign country or learning a language. Let me know in the comments, and sure while you’re at it go ahead and tweet this up and like on Facebook via the buttons below. Go on. I’ll be your mejor amigo 😛

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    1. Really enjoyed your description of Burgos. I enjoy listening to Coffee Break Spanish on my iPod but that is the extent of my language learning right now. I agree, those storks are awesome– especially their giant nests! I’m enjoying keeping up with your travels and ambitions.

    2. Living your dreams bro, There’s nothing better than that….

      When I lived in Argentina I made a list of the 100 most used words in Spanish. I then wrote each word on a yellow sticky paper with its English translation at the back and sticked them to the fridge. (Check out this photo)

      Every day I reviewed my little list and took off the ones I know. in less than a week I knew them all.

      Hope it helps and keep inspiring!

    3. This was a very interesting post to read, so thanks for sharing. I’m thinking about moving to Spain some day, so it helps with my decision.

      With regards to the Spanish learning:

      I suggest you use the AJATT site to inspire you. That site is for Japanese, but the idea works for all languages.

      I’ll explain the most important points:

      1. Listening is the most important aspect of learning a language, so you need to do it non-stop. Even if it’s some radio broadcast in the background that you’re not really focused on, it will help.

      2. You need to do everything in Spanish, even watching movies etc. Act like you are spanish and that you only know spanish and that you feel comfortable doing things in Spanish. And because you do all fun things in Spanish, you’ll automatically stay motivated to learn.

      For listening, I can recommend a good Spanish band: Mägo De Oz. It’s blues/rock/folk metal. I don’t know what kind of music you like, but I listen to them a lot.

      Anyway, good luck with your business and the language learning!

      • Hey, thanks a mil for all that, Andy. I’ve done quite a lot to surround myself with the language, but I find that it can be too overwhelming if it’s all Spanish, all of the time. So I pulled back a little from that, though I find myself doing more and more things in Spanish now as I build my confidence.

        I’m definitely with you on the listening part though, and I find myself getting much better with comprehension from listening to lots of Spanish podcasts and music, and doing language exchange.

        • Too overwhelming? Not more overwhelming than the Irish you heard all the time, after you where born… 🙂 And you learnt that language without knowing anything! That’s what makes it difficult now, we keep translating back and forth into the language we know already. But we should really be trying to think in the new language, completely disregarding what we already know. Just pretend like you’re a baby all over again.

          It seems overwhelming, but it gets you fast results…

    4. great to hear your news!

      I lived in a remote village in south africa for 2 months where hardly anyone had any english and the lingo was Xhosa (the clicky language). I was all up for doing my best but found it really hard that people laughed at me all the time. It’s just their natural reaction but being a defenaive fecker i didn’t deal with it well.

      I think that post-it idea from Tal sounds great, could have lots of applications…

      • Wow. And I thought I had it tough in Spain! Trying to learn Xhosa in Africa sounds waaaaay harder! I doubt you can download many podcasts or learning programs for the clicky language, lol!

        I hope all’s well in Cork. Ye should really consider getting some storks there. They really liven up the skyline 🙂

    5. Seems like the way your learning the Lingo is a lot better than the way they try and teach a certain other language in schools here in Ireland. ( ahem )

      I also like the fact your making the sacrifices now rather than let all the fun stuff interfere. We all know its tempting but in the long run, you’ll be better off. Keep up the good work but don’t wear yourself out either.

      • Thanks, Adrian. Yeah, I’m trying to leave room for some fun stuff, just not at the expense of work 😉

        And I definitely agree with you about the language learning. Part of it too though is that we’re not motivated to learn languages in school. We’re told we have to learn French/Irish/Whatever, and so immediately we’d rather not. If I could travel back in time I’d be telling 17 year old me to quit watching reruns of Friends and start studying my French verbs!

    6. Nice to hear how you’re getting along there, hermano 😉 It must be hard to start learning Spanish from scratch, but it seems you’ve picked up on quite some words already. Indeed try not to be intimidated too much by the thought of making mistakes or well-intending people correcting you a lot. It’ll all get better over the next few months.

      As for going out more, I’d suggest you take 1 day a week off to go out and see the city and surrounding places and meeting new people and just generally sniffing up the Spanish air. That still leaves you with 6 days where you can work for as long as you like, plenty of time to devote to your business. I think the one day out without touching the laptop (I know, it’s hard!) can inspire and invigorate you to get back to work the next day with your batteries charged. With new ideas and nice experiences and the feeling that you’re actually living abroad. You wouldn’t want to return to Ireland or whatever will be your next destination and feel sorry for not soaking up enough of the experience.

      Mucha suerte por allá, compadre!

      • Muchas gracias, Esther! I did try the 24-hour internet fast once a week for a few months earlier this year. Twas good. I may try it again soon. I usually try to take it easier on Sunday’s anyway.

        The great thing about doing language exchange is that it forces me away from the computer to go talk to some real people for a while. I’ve actually been amazed at how many people I’ve found. I could have two sessions a day if I wanted!

    7. It seems you’re surviving pretty well 😛

      By the end of your stint here you have to write a full post in Spanish!


      PS: may I correct just two small things: it’s LA ciudad (ciudad is a feminine word) and EL clima.

      PS2: If you like folk/irish music (I don’t know, maybe you like it, although it could not be true…as I don’t like “folcloric” spanish music) you can try “Celtas Cortos” from nearby Valladolid.

      • Muchas gracias, Álvaro! I welcome those corrections, and the music recommendation 🙂

        I do plan to write a post and record a video completely in Spanish in August. That will be my big test!

        Thanks for the comment.

    8. Great post, Niall! The info about the cost of living is surprising and really helpful. I’ve always thought Spain would be too expensive to spend much time in so I typically head to South or Central America for my Spanish fix! I’ll have to reconsider that after reading this!

      • Thanks, Peggy. I’ve been pleasantly surprised too with the cost of living here. Although I hear I’d be paying closer to Irish prices if I was living in Madrid or Barcelona.

    9. Hi Niall.

      I made a 30-days trial living in Malaysia this winter.

      It a cool mix of first-world infrastructure (that enables you to do job if you intend) and second-world warmthness (people usually give you smiles and if you smile first – EVERYONE smiles back what stunned me).

      As for language I first planned to learn Malay and even started studying words and phrases in advance but lost interest then. English is already foreign for me and is an official language in Malaysia, for multicultural communication.

      When I needed my hair cut I studied phrasebook at it was enough. Other times English was enough.

      So during the big New Year party at the main square I didn’t understand quite anything, but still enjoyed the weather, atmosphere and colourfulness.

      Even though I also spent most time near computer I was engaged in several communications with locals. I suspect it’s easier when your skin makes evident that you are foreign. People become genuinely curious. These communications in Malaysia are mostly pleasant but unfortunately police is very weak so few touts simulate curiosity of ordinary people for their interest, so it’s necessary not to become too chilled in this atmosphere.

      • Wow, very cool, Pavel. I can’t wait to explore places like Malaysia myself. I have a feeling I’m gonna fall in love with SE Asia with all those people willing to smile back at me 🙂

    10. It was wonderful to read this post, Niall, it takes me back to when I was 7 years old and suddenly found myself trying to learn Spanish. Nowadays I find myself trying not to forget English!

      If you go out at night be on the lookout for kebab shops (in most parts of Spain they cater to the drunken folk ;)), they’re sure to at least have falafel. As for the whole talking to strangers thing, well, Spain varies a lot from one place to another. Go to Cádiz, for example, and you’ll probably find yourself trying to get rid of all the strangers talking to you!

      • Thanks for the kebab shop, G. Good timing too, since I’ll be out tonight 🙂

        And yeah, I’ve heard that the people in the south of Spain are a lot more friendly from the start, whereas up north it takes a little while for folks to warm to strangers.

    11. Hey! I came across your blog while doing some apartment research. I will be moving to Burgos in January and was wondering where you live/lived so I could look in that area/apartment complex! Thanks so much!

      • Hi Danielle,

        I got lucky and ended up moving into the spare room of an apartment that was rented by the sister of a Couchsurfer I stayed with when I first arrived in Burgos. Go on Couchsurfing and ask on the message board there if anyone has recommendations.

    12. I visited Burgos a few years ago. Nice neat city. I was glad to see your blog on Burgos as I’m going to visit there again during another planned tour of Spain. I wish you the best of luck with your plans. You’re definitely not lacking enthusiasm!