how to avoid being hassled in morocco (especially if you're a woman)

Morocco is so easy to access from southern Spain, it would be almost silly not to go at least once. Which is why I've now been twice. The first time was a quick weekend trip to Tangier and Chefchaouen with a friend at the end of the auxiliar school year. The second, a two-week remote working vacation in Casablanca, with a side trip to Marrakech. On both trips, the Moroccan hustle was in full effect.


In truth, there's no way to avoid being hassled in Morocco. In fact, it should be considered a prominent feature, a defining characteristic of the locale. If you're in well-visited tourist areas like the ones I visited, you're most definitely going to get hassled. Shopkeepers shouting, hash peddlers whispering, little kids begging... it's simply a part of the scene in the streets and souks of Morocco's cities. The best thing for you to guard against, then, is being hustled. Shopkeepers, hash peddlers, little kids, taxi drivers, old women, law enforcement - all could potentially try to lighten your wallet as you walk the streets of Morocco - either by selling, stealing or conning you out of your coins.

Below are a few tips to help you make the Moroccan hassle more tolerable and hopefully help you avoid the Moroccan hustle altogether.  While these tips are from my point-of-view as a woman travelling in a Muslim country, almost all of them are applicable to both women and men.

Well except, maybe...

Tip #1 - Go With a Male

On my first trip to Morocco, I went with a male, and though we were hassled, I wondered if I would be more or less hassled if I'd gone on my own. I would get a second chance to test the theory on my second trip. I spent most of my two weeks travelling solo, but had a male expat accompany me for a few days. The difference in the two experiences was incredible. When I went unaccompanied to places (cafes, restaurants, etc.) that I'd previously been with my male friend, I was often approached more aggressively and even openly sexually harassed a couple of times. I also witnessed a couple of incidents of male-to-female violence that unnerved me and generally made me feel more exposed and more wary than any other place I've visited as a solo female traveler.  If you're a woman who's new to traveling solo, I'd suggest you get your feet wet in other destinations before diving into Morocco or invite a trusted male companion to go with you.

Tip #2 - Dress Modestly

This is another, somewhat obvious tip for ladies. As a tourist, a lot of your behavior or dress code will be overlooked by Moroccan locals, But there's a big benefit to be gained by dressing to blend in versus to stand out. I'd strongly recommend lightweight, cropped pants  instead of shorts, short-sleeved versus sleeveless shirts and dresses, and several lightweight scarves or sweaters to wear while in Morocco. You'll want to always carry your scarf or sweater with you, just in case you find yourself somewhere where covered arms are required.

But, don't think that this restricted dress code equates to an abandonment of fashion sense. On the contrary, Moroccan ladies are quite fashionable - skinny jeans, cute shoes and an endless array of hijab colors, patterns and styles are far  more prevalent than head-to-toe burqas. You might also consider investing in a reasonably priced djellaba or two to wear during your stay. It's the one article of clothing that both men and women in Morocco can agree on.


Tip #3 - Wear Sunglasses and Headphones

Especially good when travelling solo in Morocco, the sunglasses-and-headphones trick is like a semi-impenetrable force field against Moroccan hasslers. You can still hear and see enough to move about, but  your eyes and ears are protected from the full onslaught of everything going on around you.

Tip #4 - Know What You're In the Market For

You know how most people get hustled? By not having a clear and committed idea of what they do or do not want. Before you go browsing the stalls in the souks, have an idea of what you actually want to buy. If you have no idea, use part of your time to get a general idea of what's available in the market, then circle back to make purchases. If you know what you want ahead of time, you'll be less likely to end up buying something you didn't want to begin with. You should also ask a trusted local (someone at your hotel, perhaps) expected price ranges for certain items that you may be interested in (whether it's a taxi ride or a tagine), that way you'll know how much you should be paying.


Tip #5 - Always ask, How Much?

In Morocco, you should treat the phrase, 'how much,' almost like you'd treat the phrase, 'how ya doin?' in American parlance. This is mainly because, in Morocco, you may actually be in the middle of a transaction before you're even aware of it.  Ask it of every person who approaches you out of the blue on the street. They'll either:

  • be shocked that you asked them,
  • tell you that it costs nothing (you should remain skeptical), or
  • tell you how much (feel free to haggle or decline)

Either way, at least now you'll be aware of the nature of the interaction.

Tip #6 - Say, 'No Thank You' in Arabic and French

The two most widely spoken languages in Morocco are Arabic and French. I got away with Spanish on the northern coast of Morocco, but further in, it didn't serve me at all. After a few days on my own,  I'd mastered what has to be the most useful phrase while in Morocco in both French - 'No, merci,' and Arabic - 'La, chokran'.

Tip #7 - Keep it Moving

Someone yells at you to come buy something? Someone begging you for money? Someone telling you to follow the m so they can show you the way to...? Some guy making unwelcome advances? Put it all behind you. Literally. Don't make eye contact, don't slow down or stand still. Get up and keep walking. This tactic works especially well when coupled with...


Tip #8 - Just Play Mute

Of course, you don't have to ask, 'how much,' or say 'no, thanks,' if you don't want to. You don't have to say anything at all. In many cases, that's the best way to avoid being hassled in Morocco. So instead of replying, shake your head, put your hand up, or ignore the hassler completely.

Tip #9 - Don't Go Out After Dark

I don't want to imply that I think that Morocco is dangerous after dark, only that I noticed that there was a certain daytime veneer to each Moroccan city I visited that the populace seemed to shrug off after sunset. It was almost like, if you're a tourist who's bold enough to be out after dark, then you're a tourist who's ready for the behind-the-scenes look. Also, I suspect the hustler-to-hassler ratio dramatically increases after dark, so to avoid them, stay at home after sunset.

Have you traveled to Morocco? What was your experience with street hasslers? Do you have any tips you've used to avoid being hassled or hustled in Morocco? Share them in the comments!

6 Reasons Sitges Is The Perfect Destination For Just About Everyone

In case I haven't mentioned it already, Barcelona is one of my favorite cities on Earth. It’s cosmopolitan, chock full of culture, it has beaches, nightlife, great food and amazing history and architecture. It has so much to offer that it totally overshadows other neighboring cities and towns that are also worth exploring. One of those towns that I think definitely deserves to share in a little bit of Barna’s shine is Sitges. At just a 45 minute train away from Barcelona’s bustling Sants train station, Sitges is a jewel of a destination that has something to offer almost any type of traveler or pleasure seeker.

Don’t believe me? Here are 6 reasons why you (and just about everyone you know) should visit Sitges.

Sitges is for Lovers

Romantic passages, intimate restaurants, cozy boutique hotels, and sweeping Mediterranean views… even if you’re single and solo, you’re bound to feel a little more sexy here.

visit sitges travel lady-statue
visit sitges travel lady-statue
visit sitges travel spain
visit sitges travel spain
visit sitges-spain travel
visit sitges-spain travel

Sitges is for Families

Like the rest of Spain, families abound in restaurants, on the beaches  Lots of family-friendly restaurants and activities and plenty of vacation rentals to house a crowd at better-than-hotel rates.

visit sitges travel families
visit sitges travel families

Sitges is for 'the children'

No, not the little ones. I’m referring to the children of the LGBTQ family. Sitges isn’t just a gay-friendly vacation destination, it’s a gay vacationer’s paradise. It hosts the biggest and most popular gay pride festival in all of Spain every June. No shortage of bars, drag shows, and beeyoutiful boys to gaze at while walking in the streets, sitting in cafes, and lounging on the beaches!


Sitges is for wild women

Sprinkled all over the shoreline are these bold statues of nude women. And sprinkled along at least one of the beaches in Sitges are bold, nude humans.  Sitges is a definitely a safe place for ladies who like to let it all hang out.

visit sitges-travel lady statue
visit sitges-travel lady statue

Sitges is for the weary

The hustle and bustle of Barcelona is only a 40-minute ride away on the Rodalies commuter train. As much as I love visiting and partying in Barcelona, I have to admit that after a few days, I’m worn out. Sitges offers a close-by respite from the madness that is the big-city life of Barcelona.

visit sitges travel uni
visit sitges travel uni

Sitges is for the posh

High end shops, real estate, and world class restaurants make Sitges a favorite spot for the upper crust set, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it since everyone adopts a more casual, laid back vibe here.


How To Get There:

Trains from Barcelona to Sitges depart from França, Passeig de Gracia and Sants stations.

There's also a public bus that runs during the day, and a night bus that provides service between the Barcelona and Sitges until well after midnight.

More on bus and train travel from Barcelona to Sitges.

barcelona to sitges train
barcelona to sitges train

Where to Stay:

visit sitges travel hotel platjador
visit sitges travel hotel platjador

Hotel Platjador is a quirky, but comfy boutique beachfront hotel smack in the middle of Sitges. Spring for the balcony suite for all-day people watching without having to leave your room.

What  to Eat:

El Trull

visit sitges travel el trull
visit sitges travel el trull
visit sitges-travel el trull
visit sitges-travel el trull

Directly across the street from Hotel Platjador is the oldest chiringuito in Spain (allegedly). Aptly named, El Chiringuito, its food is about as nondescript as its name. If you weren't lucky enough to score a balcony room at Hotel Platjador, Go to El Chiringuito, have a beer and people watch from there.

visit sitges travel platjador chiringuito
visit sitges travel platjador chiringuito

Have you been to Sitges yet? What did you love about it?

Why i travel in spain mainly on the train

You ever been on a train that’s just moments away from pulling into your destination, so you get up from your seat, start gathering your things and begin moving towards the nearest exit. Then, suddenly you realize that the train doesn’t seem to be slowing down enough to make a stop. Slowly it dawns on you that the train isn’t slowing down, because it’s not going to stop. And as the train ever so slowly rolls past your destination station, and you stand dumbstruck in the middle of the aisle – your rolling bag clutched in one hand, your jacket draped over your other arm – your eyes and mouth widen while you watch your intended place fade away in the distance and you wonder to yourself,

What the f*ck just happened?

And then,

Where the f*ck am I headed to now?

spain train travel
spain train travel

No? Never happened to you? Oh.


You ever been on a train seated next to an old Spanish man, who, after almost refusing to move out of your assigned seat when you boarded, later lets out the mother of all silent-but-deadly farts that wakes you and the other guy in the seat across from you out of your naps, prompts a coughing fit from the passenger seated 3 rows back, gives you a (literal) taste of what the old man had for lunch and what medications he’s currently taking, and makes you wonder exactly how to say ‘Sir! Do not move another inch. Clap your cheeks down on that foul stench immediately!’ in Spanish without being misunderstood?

spain train travel
spain train travel

Yeah. Happened to me once. Never happened to you?

Well, then…

You ever been on a train with a silent car? A silent car that you specifically booked a seat in because things like loud talking, small children, and cell phone usage are strictly prohibited? A silent car that you’ve been dying to park yourself in so you can rest your hot, hungover head against the cool, cool window and snooze a bit on the way back to your little town after a long weekend of the most turnt-up of turn-ups (aka, Carnaval in Cadiz)? A silent car whose silence is being disturbed by, of all things, a nun…talking…on a cell phone? At first, you feel a little bad at getting angry at a nun. Is that even allowed? But then all those Catholic school punishments come back to you and you think to yourself, “Oh, hell naw, Sister Mary. The rules apply to you too.” But instead of saying anything, you simply scowl in her direction and not-so-subtly snap a picture of her with your phone hoping that the power of shame will compel her.

spain train travel
spain train travel

Still no? Damn, you should get out more.

Or… maybe I should stay put more.

But, it’s hard to stay put when I have this amazingly efficient and wide-reaching network of sleek chariots on iron rails to take me almost anywhere I can think of going in this country. As an American, I am not used to this type of convenience. Our national rail system is more of a quaint remnant of history than a currently viable utility. And the price of using the rail system in Spain is more than favorable. I often make use of Renfe’s SpainPass, a volume discount-type train ticket that’s only available to non-Spaniards. SpainPass allows you to take 4 or more medium- or long-distance train trips in a month for 40 euro or less per trip. Once I realized that with the money I make off of just a handful of private English lessons (link), I can afford to travel to 2 new cities each month, I was hooked. I’ve heard that Renfe has some pretty good student discounts, too. But, sadly (or gladly?), I aged out of those a long time ago. Even without discounts, many of the regular-price Renfe tickets are still in the 40 euro or less range, depending on the day and route of travel.

Of course there are so many other benefits to Spain train travel besides price. Trains offer:

  • More comfort and speed than a bus, and much less hassle than a plane
  • Less of the security hassle than at airports
  • Larger seats / more room
spain train travel
spain train travel
  • No luggage restrictions
  • The chance to see the country and the geography up-close while on the move
spain train travel
spain train travel
  • Free onboard entertainment (in the form of smelly old men, chatty nuns or in-transit movies)

So, Dear Reader, I encourage you to get out there more. Find a destination, buy a ticket, hop a train, and have an adventure.

Just remember to:

  • Always have your phone ready to snap a pic of a naughty nun
  • Always bring nose plugs or air spray in case of an unexpected abuelo ass-ault
  • Always know exactly where your train will be stopping, so you won’t inadvertently end up in Madrid having to buy another train ticket to get back to your intended destination.
5 of my favorite cities for street art

I am not one for museums when I travel. It’s not that I don’t like museums. It’s just that with limited time and lots of things to see and do on a trip, spending hours looking at old or odd things inside of a building doesn’t seem like the best time management strategy. Usually, I’ll save a museum visit for a second or third visit to a destination, or if I happen to stay in a single place for a long period of time.

Yet, even on a first trip or a short stay in a city, I like to get a feel for the culture and energy of the place – and viewing the work of local artists is a great way to do just that.

chasing street art while travelling
chasing street art while travelling

The Unexpected Value of Street Art

Street artists, in particular, often combine their art with a message that is highly relevant in their surroundings, their work can convey a sense of the politics of a particular area – what’s going on beneath the surface of the neighborhood or city you’re in. There’s also an ephemeral quality to street art that makes it more precious somehow. While a traditional work of art might show over and over again at a number of galleries, a piece of street art you see today may not be there tomorrow or next week.

Capturing street art – whether stumbling on works by accident or intentionally seeking them out – has led me down some of the most unexpected paths and into some of the best memories (and photos) during my travels.

Here are some of my favorite cities for capturing impressive works of street art:

London, England

best-street-art-london (4)
best-street-art-london (4)
best street art - londn
best street art - londn

Where to find street art in London:’s London street art walking tour (self-guided)

East London street art walk (self-guided)


Lisbon, Portugal

best-street-art-barcelona (3)
best-street-art-barcelona (3)
best-street-art-barcelona (2)
best-street-art-barcelona (2)
best street art - malaga
best street art - malaga
best-street-art-malaga (3)
best-street-art-malaga (3)
best-street-art-malaga (2)
best-street-art-malaga (2)
best-street-art-malaga (5)
best-street-art-malaga (5)
best street art - berlin
best street art - berlin

Berlin, Germany

best street art - berlin
best street art - berlin
best street art-berlin
best street art-berlin
best street art - berlin
best street art - berlin

Where to find street art in Berlin:

Original Free Alternative Berlin Tour

Free Alternative Berlin Tour

Are you a fan of street art? Where have you seen some great works of graffiti or street art during your travels?

6 best things i ate: lisbon

I really can’t say enough good things about Lisbon. It’s a city I love for many reasons, not the least of which is the delicious and inexpensive food that I ate while I was there. Here’s a rundown of the best food I ate in Lisbon:

Dorado dinner and wine at Cerqueira

A plate of fresh fried dorado steaks with all the fixings and a bottle of wine for under 10? Restaurant Cerqueira is worth the short but steep walk outside of the main tourist area of central Lisbon.


Grilled sardines

The famed dish of Lisbon. I love fresh fish that’s simply prepared. These sardines were both fresh and simple, yet full of flavor.


Pastel de Belem

Seductively creamy, subtly sweet, surrounded by a light flaky pastry and topped with an angelic dusting of cinnamon. The pastel de Belem begs to be eaten with a strong cup of espresso. Who am I kidding? It begs to be eaten whenever, wherever and with whatever.


Salmon burger w/seaweed ‘slaw’ on choco ink bun

Once again, my love of fish was perfectly sated in Lisbon. At the Mercado da Ribeira this gourmet burger stand served up a grilled salmon patty on a bun tinted black with squid ink. Unbelievably good.

how-to-do-lisbon-mercado-ribeira (4)
how-to-do-lisbon-mercado-ribeira (4)

Bacalao w/garbanzo puree

There were so many gourmet and well-priced food options in the Mercado da Ribeira’s dining hall, that my travelmate and I decided to split one (the salmon burger), so we could both have two dishes. My second – this perfectly cooked cod filet over a warm garbanzo spread was as delightful to eat as it was to look at. I’m pretty sure I embarrassed myself slightly via my inappropriate moans while eating this dish.

how-to-do-lisbon-mercado-ribeira (3)
how-to-do-lisbon-mercado-ribeira (3)


Just before leaving Lisbon, I stopped by Café Beira Gare, which is rumored to serve the best bifana in Lisbon. This deceptively simple pork sandwich had my mouth watering for hours after. It’s best accompanied by a cold Portuguese beer.


Have you eaten your way through Lisbon yet? What are some your best food finds in Lisbon?

6 Secrets to Making the Perfect Spanish Tortilla

The tortilla española has to be Spain’s most iconic dish. It’s ubiquitous. There’s hardly any tapas bar or restaurant worth its salt in the whole of Iberia that doesn’t have it on the menu. It’s as Spanish as the hamburger is American. It is consumed for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, as a main, a side, a sacrament at the lowliest and holiest of occasions. At first, I didn’t understand it. I’d imagined Spain as some exalted culinary capital. After tasting the famed tortilla, I thought to myself,

Really? This is your trademark dish, España? Eggs, taters, and onions? And salt… is there even salt? I can’t tell.

But after months of eating tortillas in a variety of settings, I eventually grew to love the dish. Even if you never learn to do so yourself, it’s only a matter of time before you become intimately familiar with the sight, the smell, and the taste of it.


Over the past couple of years, I have seen and eaten Spanish tortillas at the beach, at backyard barbecues, birthday parties, school functions, botellon pre-games, and white-tablecloth restaurants. I even remember the tortilla getting a prominent mention on an episode of the popular Spanish sitcom, La Que Sea Vecina. In it, a spiteful Spanish mom was shooting down a girl who wanted to hook up with her son. After a string of put-downs, Mom dealt the final death blow:

“She can’t even cook a proper tortilla!”

The studio audience erupted in laughter.

So, Dear Reader, if you ever hope to impress your Spanish friends, or win that dashing Spanish beau, or simply avoid being laughed at by a make-believe studio audience, you’ll have to learn to whip out a proper Spanish tortilla. Here’s how.

6 Secrets for A Perfect Spanish Tortilla

how to make a spanish tortilla

1. Rough-cut the potatoes

I learned this secret in the home of my friend and fellow English teacher, Juana. Instead of slicing or chopping the potato into neat, evenly shaped cuts, she used her knife on the potato in a sort of cut-and-turn motion that released rough-edged, irregularly-shaped (though still similarly-sized) chunks of potato. The extra surface area and the cutting method allows the tater release a little more starch, which ultimately makes for a better mouthfeel and texture in the final product. Of course, you can slice them more uniformly as well, and still yield a favorable result.

2. Use a dedicated pan

If there’s any one secret that is essential to having your tortilla come out perfect every time, it’s this one. Keep one pan in your cabinet sacred, reserved only for tortillas and other egg cookery (and maybe pancakes and crepes). This pan does not have to be fancy or expensive, but it should be non-stick and it should never, ever be touched by utensils that can scratch or scrape its surface – so, no metal forks or spoons, only wooden, rubber or silicon spatulas and the like. Keeping your tortilla pan unmarred will ensure that your tortillas consistently slide out of the pan with ease and don’t stick to the sides and fall apart when you try to flip or serve them.

3. Let it rest

After cooking the potatoes and onion, draining off the oil and adding them to the beaten eggs, give the egg mixture a couple of quick stirs, and then… walk away. This is the perfect time to ready your non-stick skillet, get your plate out of the cupboard for flipping, and arrange the rest of your tortilla add-ins and seasonings. Letting the mixture rest allows the flavors to meld a bit, and helps the tortilla set properly when it's cooked.

4. Make it your own

There’s something to be said for simplicity. Sticking to the basic tortilla ingredients of potato and onion is perfectly fine, and honestly, recommended until you feel more comfortable with the cooking technique. But once you’ve mastered the process, it’s time to get creative. The first tortilla I had that strayed away from the tried-and-true ingredients was in Cadiz. An artisan shop in the central market there was serving tortillas with goat cheese and apricot marmalade. After tasting it, the rules of tortilla cookery changed forever for me. Since then, I’ve enjoyed adding in all kinds of ingredients to the basic tortilla, from spinach, to breakfast sausage to mushrooms. Basically, anything you might put in a quiche would also taste good in a tortilla.


5. Don’t fear the flip

Flipping the tortilla is the most intimidating part of the tortilla cooking process. But it shouldn’t be. As long as you approach this step with confidence, you’ll be fine. Be sure to use a plate that’s slightly larger than your pan. Invert the plate onto the pan and move the covered pan over to the sink. Use your left hand to keep the plate tight against the pan while you flip the pan over with your right hand. Lift the pan away from the plate. You should now have a tortilla on a plate in your left hand and an empty pan in your right. There may be a little spillage – that’s ok. Don’t sweat it. That’s why we came to the sink. Just slide that sucker back in the pan, return it to the stovetop, then rinse and wipe down the plate to get it ready for serving.

6. Know your preference

Do you like your tortilla jugosa – or, as a Manchego friend of mine would say, ‘cuando los huevos lloran’ – or cuajada? I’ve found that most people – Spaniards or no – tend to prefer their tortilla jugosa – or with the eggs still a bit runny on the inside. I, however, belong to the cuajada camp. I want that sucker to stay firm when I cut into it. Nothing ruins my day more than digging into a tasty slice of tortilla and ending up with a plate of room temperature yellow goo in front of me. Blecch.

[See that there? That’s called a very strong preference. It’s what most people have when it comes to their tortilla.]

Get to know your own preference and how to alter your cooking time to achieve the desired result. Practice making tortillas often. Hopefully, in the process, you’ll also become familiar with exactly how long you should cook your tortilla española to achieve the desired results of your friends and kitchen guests. So when your would-be Spanish mother-in-law comes over, and you whip out her version of the perfect tortilla without breaking a sweat, she'll know just how much of a tortilla master you are.

Have you perfected making Spanish tortillas in your kitchen? What secrets do you have to share?

Expat Problems: 6 stages of repatriation

Coming home after a period of time living abroad isn’t always easy. Things aren’t the same as you remember. You aren’t even the same. Finding your place again when everyone and everything has moved on can make readjusting to your new old life seem a little bit like learning to walk again. Plus there’s the emotional toll of leaving behind new friends and abandoning what had become your new normal. To make matters worse, unlike many other major life transitions, repatriation doesn’t always come with its fair share of support and understanding. The opportunity to live in a foreign country is often seen as just that – an opportunity. Something that you’re lucky or blessed to be able to do. On one hand, that’s true, but like any other self-initiated, out-of-the-norm endeavor (e.g., going back to school, changing careers, becoming a parent) it’s also a matter of sacrifice, risk and day-to-day struggle.

Yet, to friends and family back home (and thanks in part to that steady stream of stunning photos in exotic locales on your Facebook and Instagram feeds) you’ve been living on vacay for the past few months or years. And since 'coming back from vacation' isn’t exactly a struggle, you may be left to navigate re-entry back to 'the real world' on your own.

I’ve been through the repatriation process twice now – actually, you could say that I’m still going through it – and while I don’t claim to have the science of it all figured out, I felt compelled to share my own process of dealing with and ultimately triumphing over the repatriation blues.

6 Stages of Repatriation

Reverse Culture Shock

From the moment you step off the plane, everything about your home country seems familiar, but in an eerily unfamiliar way. It’s like you’re in The Truman Show or The Matrix. You recognize it all, yet it all seems just… a little… off. Things that you once took for granted as completely normal are now shocking, weird, amusing or maybe even offensive to you.

In my first two weeks back in the US, I had the following moments of reverse culture shock:

At the airport, waiting on my bags:  

Why is everyone so fat and poorly dressed?


When greeting old and new friends:

Must remember to shake hands, NOT double-cheek kiss. I almost made out with that guy just now.


Shopping for groceries:

Gawd, it’s expensive here. I mean, $8 for a bottle of wine… and it’s not even good!?


Catching up on TV shows:

Seriously? Is EVERY commercial on TV for a prescription drug?


Getting behind the wheel for the first few times:

Wow. Atlanta drivers exhibit a LOT of aggression.


At any given moment on any given day:

This feels suspiciously comfortable. What is all this knowing where I’m going and understanding what everyone around me is talking about?


Even though seeing an old place through new eyes may initially be disorienting, eventually your vision adjusts and things begin to appear a bit more normal.  It may take a while, but it will happen.


Mourning / Loss

Once the excitement of being home and the disorientation of reverse culture shock start to fade, a new feeling may settle in. It may come on as just a bit of a funk or it may swell into full-blown depression. For me, this stage was much like the aftermath of an amicable breakup.

At the start, it was all too raw and tender. I’d be prone to spontaneous outbursts of tears, complete with shaking my fists at the heavens wailing, “WHYYYYYYYYY!!!?? Why can’t we be together anymore? Why did I have to leave you so soon? We were just getting to know each other! Will I ever see you again?”

Even after the initial pain had dulled and I found myself only thinking of my long lost other home maybe once a day – I couldn’t bear to look at pictures of the place. The images brought back too many emotions, too much of that feeling of loss. I couldn’t stand to hear anyone else speak about my host country or talk about what they knew of my once-beloved. When others told of their trysts with my ex – whether good or bad – I’d invariably think to myself, “But you don’t know it like I do. You can’t possibly. It was mine! All mine!”

Melodramatic? Yes. But true nonetheless. The feeling of grief that I experienced on returning the US, I found out, was common for many returning expats. Expats interviewed by the Wall Street Journal described their own feelings of loss as: “a punch in the gut,” and, “like having somebody dying.” Though I didn’t know that my feelings were common, I did know that they’d have to pass eventually. I remembered an old rule-of-thumb I’d heard ages ago about how long it took to get over an old flame. According to this completely water-tight scientific rule, it takes one week per each month of the relationship to get over post-breakup heartbreak. I tried to use this as a point of solace as the days on the calendar crawled by.

expat repatriation blues heartbreak grief mourning or loss


Comparison / Nostalgia

“It’s 11 o’clock here. If it were 11 o’clock there I’d be....”

“What I wouldn’t give for a churro or a cortado or some boquerones right now.”

“The eggs here are nothing like the ones I could get at the stores in Spain.”

 “You know what I never had to worry about there? Mass shootings.”

This stage could be part of the mourning and loss stage or it could be a separate stage all its own. This is when you begin comparing even the smallest details of your daily life with your life in that other place. And invariably, your old life is always much, much better than your new life back home. Or, at least, that’s how you’re remembering it now.

Suddenly, all of the little things that used to absolutely irritate me about living in Spain were forgotten. I could only remember her virtues. While America, my home country, suddenly appeared to be riddled with flaws. In my mind, I was only verbally registering all these little humdrum things that I’d taken for granted while living in Spain, things that now had value since I no longer had them. But I’m sure I sounded like I was constantly kvetching. Either way, friends and family are likely to find you insufferable during this stage. Some may even let you know it.


Isolation / Withdrawal

You think nobody wants to listen, so you cut them off. You don’t go anywhere. You don’t speak to anyone. You’re starting to feel like you can’t talk about anything that happened to you in that other place. You think you’re only sharing tidbits about what’s been your daily life for the past months or years, but you know all other people hear is you bragging – yet again – about how awesome your time abroad was. Your friends all talk about what’s been going on in their worlds for the time you’ve been away. Parties they went to. Dates they’ve been on. Jokes they’ve shared. You don’t think they’re bragging. But you do feel like you keep walking in on the middle of a conversation where you have no idea what anyone’s talking about, yet you’re still expected to follow along. So instead of going out, you’d rather stay at home and Skype or Whatsapp with friends from that other place, or watch movies in your host country’s language. Or, if you’re lucky enough to know another former expat, you’ll only hang with them.

In small doses, a bit of isolation can be good. It gives you time to examine your own thoughts and feelings, take a break from the sensory overload and recharge your batteries. But too much isolation and withdrawal can be detrimental, so it’s important to keep up with regular social activities, even if it’s only with one or two close friends.

expat repatriation blues depression


You don’t want to forget or discard all those memories you made, the lessons you learned, all the beautiful people and places you saw during your expat life, but you know that you can’t keep living in the past. Sharing stories with friends isn’t going over like you expect it, so you begin to think of different ways to capture and honor your experiences. Creative projects like writing, scrapbooks, and films are good ways to preserve your travel experiences. Speaking engagements at local schools or clubs offer opportunities to share your travel stories to more receptive audiences. Even speaking with a therapist can be a much-needed outlet for your memories and emotions. The most important thing is that you find a suitable medium that lets you express the highs and lows of your expat experience in a way that can be appreciated over and over again, not forgotten.



In the final stage, you recognize that you don’t have to completely abandon everything about your old life in order to adjust to your new life. You begin to adapt the things you gained from your expat experiences or things that you miss about your life in your former host country to new contexts and your new locale. For me, cooking has always been a passion. After my return from Spain, I began cooking more and new dishes in my kitchen – not just Spanish tortillas and paellas, but dishes I’d eaten at restaurants and in homes that were German, Ghanaian, Moroccan. After getting used to a daily bike commute in Spain, I began biking more upon my return to Atlanta. I noticed that I was now able to understand every single word of the Spanish conversations that I overheard when I was shopping at the farmer’s market or paying a visit to my favorite Mexican taquería. I was even unafraid to reply back in Spanish (something that used to make me nervous). I felt like I had gained a superpower! One that would allow me to engage with the world and its inhabitants in ways that I couldn’t have done before. All of a sudden, I started to feel less sad that I didn’t have Spain in my life anymore, I was simply grateful to have had it. For weeks, the lack of it was all I could think about, all I could focus on. Now it felt like a playful streak of color in my hair. Something that added just a little pop of interest to my backstory.

And in the end, that’s what each expat experience is. It’s an extra patch on your personal quilt, a new sworl in your uniquely patterned self. You have been irreversibly changed by it. And you will carry it with you always.

expat repatriation blues integrating

What was your experience returning home after living abroad? Did you find the transition challenging or did you have no difficulty at all adjusting to life back home? What helped you cope with the repatriation blues?




Subscribe to Solo in Spain - get the latest posts delivered to your email inbox. Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner
30 essential spanish transition words and phrases for everyday conversations

The difference between mastering Spanish vocabulary and grammar and being able to hold a fluid, casual conversation in Spanish is quite vast. That's because - just like in English - a lot of the nuance and fluidity in a conversation is due just as much to little, seemingly meaningless words as it is to vocabulary and proper verb conjugation. These little 'meaningless' words and phrases are also known as linking words or transition words. As a native English speaker, I had no idea just how important they were until I realized that I had no idea how to say them in my host country’s language. A fact which often left me frustrated and frequently caused me to either: 1) come to a dead stop mid-sentence, or 2) simply insert the English word in place of the Spanish word I didn't know, leaving whoever was listening to me totally confused or amused.

To spare you and your listeners the same amusing confusion and frustration, I decided to compile a list of 30 essential Spanish words that helped me take my conversations from stilted to fluid.

30 Essential Spanish Transition Words and Phrases

  1. Aunque – even though, although
  2. Además – furthermore, in addition to
  3. Mientras - meanwhile
  4. Por lo menos – at least
  5. Entonces - then
  6. Pues - well
  7. Como – like, as
  8. Al principio; al final/por ultimo – to start, in the first place; to finish, in the end
  9. Desde luego - of course, certainly
  10. Ya / todavía – yet, already / still
  11. Asi que; por lo tanto – that’s why; for that reason
  12. Por si acaso – in case
  13. Lo/la que sea; donde sea; cuando sea; cualquier – whatever; wherever; whenever; whichever
  14. Por ejemplo – for example
  15. Sobre todos – above all, especially
  16. Por fin – finally
  17. Un rato, un ratito - A little while
  18. Luego – next, then
  19. De repente - suddenly
  20. Sino - rather, but, instead
  21. Apenas de – barely
  22. De todas formas, de todas maneras – in any case
  23. Por otro lado – on the other hand
  24. Sin embargo – nonetheless
  25. De hecho – in fact
  26. Pues nada, venga – anyway…
  27. Sabes – y’know
  28. Es que – honestly, I have no translation for this one, but it’s one of those non-meaning albeit ubiquitous conversational words like ‘like’ in English. As in, “Like, so are we gonna go to the movies, or maybe, like, get some food, cuz I’m, like, hungry as hell.”
  29. A ver – let’s see
  30. Qué va – no way! I dun beleevit. Yeah, right.

Of course, the list above isn't a comprehensive collection of all  Spanish transition words - click here and here for more.


What are some Spanish transition words and phrases that you've found useful? Share them in the comments!


Subscribe to Solo in Spain - get the latest posts delivered to your email inbox. Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner
Black in Spain: Clearing My US Customs

Reading Summary:

Checked Baggage

Back in the US, I have developed a sort of shorthand when it comes to recognizing the many faux pas, microagressions, and downright blatant acts of racism that may occur at any given moment on any given day. After a lifetime of experiencing them, the form and structure they take are familiar, they seldom vary. I am rarely taken off guard. Like finding my keys in the bottom of my purse, I’m skilled at detecting American racism not by sight, but by the sound of it, the feel of it.

"...many times, because of my own filters – I interpret something as racist that really isn’t or, at least, isn’t very racist. This has often created a disturbing sense of disorientation."

Here in Spain, though, the structures, the patterns are different. Much like the language itself uses different sentence structures and verb forms – the acts of racism or colorism that I experience are of an almost entirely different composition. For all but the most blatant occurrences, I often don’t recognize that they’ve happened until after they’ve happened. And many times, because of my own filters – I interpret something as racist that really isn’t or, at least, isn’t very racist. This has often created a disturbing sense of disorientation. I second guess my own emotional reactions, my shorthand no longer serves. I regularly try to remind myself to assume the position of an observer; recording and noting these occurrences, becoming more conscious, more aware of the subtle variations in understanding and interpretation.

Language plays a big role in the need for this adjustment. Even the words used to describe my flesh, my race, my skin color are words that would make me cringe, then lash out if I heard something even close to them being said in the US. Negra. Which literally means, black. Morena – which can either mean dark-haired or dark-skinned. When I hear them said aloud in public, I often have to quash an instant and conditioned fight-or-flight response that initially surfaces; an instinct developed after generations of hearing words that describe my skin color come from the mouths of people who don’t share that color. An instinct that comes from knowing that this particular speaker-subject combination usually either spells awkwardness or trouble.

Almost every time I go clothes shopping here, I am likely to catch a snippet of conversation between other shoppers discussing some article of clothing. For me and my black American ears, the words that most frequently penetrate through the background buzz of a crowded store is, ‘las negras’. My ears involuntarily perk up. Are they… talking about… me? I doubt that they are. But… they could be. If I were in the US, I’d never pause my shopping to try and decipher if the shoppers next to me were discussing black blouses or black people. Mainly because it would be unlikely to hear a non-black person in the US saying out loud in public, ‘I like the black ones,’ to actually refer to a black person. In Spain, it’s quite possible that you could hear this language being used to describe either shirts or people. So, because I am here, I pause and listen for a moment, even though I realize that if they are talking about people and not blouses, I’m the only one in earshot who’ll think anything of it.

Of course, there are the times when no translation is needed; when there is no mistaking exactly what is happening. Like the time I was walking down a busy Barcelona street at night with another black person and passed a young 20-something-year-old woman. I couldn’t tell if she was Spanish or not, but I did hear a heavy accent when she turned in our direction and shouted out, “Nigger!” with a look of vicious glee, as we walked by.

black in spain - cheked baggage
black in spain - cheked baggage

During my first Semana Santa, I was travelling through Seville with another black American friend.  On our way back from a very pleasant dinner, we got stuck in a crowd of people who’d gathered to watch one of the many religious processions happening during Holy Week. Unable to move either forward or backward, we found ourselves unintentionally positioned in front of a group of seated spectators. A few of them were extremely displeased that we were blocking their view, and began to spew disparaging remarks at us. “Negras! Jillipollas!” (roughly equivalent to, ‘black assholes!’) they grumbled loudly enough for us to hear.

My friend tried apologizing in Spanish, explaining that we couldn’t even budge. After a while, a space opened up and I attempted to move further along down the sidewalk. I was blocked by a middle-aged Spanish man, who, after letting a stream of other people (all white) pass by, repositioned himself so that I couldn’t pass. Fed up, I turned myself sideways and forcefully nudged past him, rubbing against his arm in the process. He snatched back his arm, produced a handkerchief from his pocket and proceeded to vigorously wipe the place on his forearm where my touch had apparently soiled him. The surrealness of the whole scene was underscored by the imposing, heavily adorned statue of Jesus slowly passing by above our heads, a look of resigned sorrow plastered upon his face.

"I felt slightly sorry for these clearly ignorant people, and concluded that I was simply better than them, if not on the basis of my external color, then on the basis of my internal character. Of course, this reaction was as problematic as the expected one."

In both of these incidents, it was clear to me that the perpetrator’s intent was to somehow make me feel inferior, to make sure that I knew that they knew that I was less than them because of my skin color. But, as is often my tendency, I responded contrarily. Instead of feeling denigrated or even really angry, I noticed a mixed feeling that was 1 part pity and 2 parts superiority beginning to grow within me. I felt slightly sorry for these clearly ignorant people, and concluded that I was simply better than them, if not on the basis of my external color, then on the basis of my internal character. Of course, this reaction was as problematic as the expected one. I developed the tendency of walking around town with my headphones always in – preferring a soundtrack of 90s ‘conscious’ rap to the possibility of overhearing comments on my appearance as I passed. I noticed myself scowling, looking down my nose, or shaking my head at Spaniards I passed in the street who I thought looked at me disapprovingly. I was disengaging in a way that was making me feel even more alienated than any racial slur could have. I resolved to check my own internal prejudices as much as I could. Perhaps, I thought, instead of distancing myself from these ‘others’, I should focus my efforts on finding and connecting with other others like me.

Too much pride was pulling me into the dark side.
Too much pride was pulling me into the dark side.

All my skinfolk ain't my kinfolk

Before I moved to Spain, I lived in Atlanta for over 16 years. As of the 2010 census, Atlanta’s population was 54% black. I was born and raised in Macon, Georgia, where black people make up over 65% of the population. I attended an HBCU (Historically Black College / University) for my undergraduate degree, and the neighborhood I lived in before moving abroad was roughly 95% black.

Suffice it to say, I’m not only very accustomed to, but I also like being around black people.

However, I’m also quite accustomed to working, living with, and getting to know people of other races and cultures. Whether in corporate or educational settings, I’ve often been the only or one of few black or brown people in the mix, yet I’ve always adapted easily to any environment, regardless of the demographic makeup. So, the idea of living in Spain where I knew I’d be one of relatively few black people didn’t faze me. Still, I, like many black Americans and other expats who’ve lived apart from their own for weeks and months, tend to actively seek out others who look like me. My interactions with other black people from across the Diaspora while living in Spain – black Latinos, black Europeans, and black Africans – have been an interesting study not only in our cultural similarities and differences, but also in how we are viewed by the racial majority here, as well as how we view each other. Whenever I’ve either proactively engaged with or actively acknowledged another black person that I encounter here in Spain, I usually find that they’re either:

  1. Not willing or able to engage with me – often because of cultural or language differences that limit or prohibit communication,
  2. Willing to engage with me, but only to ‘profit’ from me in some way – either men hitting on me, someone trying to sell me something (from umbrellas, to drugs, to ‘tours’, etc.),
  3. Or, willing to engage me on regular, friendly terms – in some instances, this only happens after we’ve quickly moved past the other 2 phases above.

After several months of living in Ciudad Real, a smallish town in the interior of Spain with very few black people among its inhabitants, I remembered joking to some of my American friends that the ayuntamiento or the policia local must have warned all the brown people in town not to get too friendly with one another while living here. I’d even developed a faux slogan for the town:

Ciudad Real. Where even the black people don’t like black people.

My friends and I laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea. Yet, after months of getting the same chilly treatment – avoided eye contact, un-returned salutations – from brown folks I passed on the streets, I started to wonder if it wasn’t such a ridiculous notion after all.

The one tentative friendship I managed to develop was with Eduardo, a black Cuban who’d lived in the area for roughly 7 years. “Los negros en este ciudad estan en conflicto,” he told me, in an attempt to explain why I felt that other black Latinos in town were dismissive of my attempts to be friendly or engaging. I wasn’t sure exactly what they were in conflict about. Eduardo didn’t explain further. After a while, I wondered if the internal conflict that Eduardo alluded to was similar to the conflict that I’d observed in some black Americans when deciding whether to engage with certain black people in Europe – specifically, Africans.

In one of the online travel groups that I’m a member of – one that targets black travelers – another member, a black American, recently asked for advice on where to find other black people in Barcelona. He clarified his request by specifying that he was interested in meeting black Europeans. Since I know that there are tons of Africans to be seen on the streets of Barcelona, I found it a bit odd that the request for other black people specifically left them out of the equation.

It occurred to me that there seems to be an unspoken rule among black Americans (in addition to many Spaniards and other expats in Spain), that one simply does not make friends with Africans. And even though I don’t tend to follow that unspoken rule, it’s not until I find myself in the company of another American that I realize how unusual I am. In fact, sometimes I feel like I have a guilty secret. A thing I should probably not confess if I don’t want to be looked at as strange, misguided, or even a little crazy by my fellow brown countrymen. But I confess it anyway, because I often forget to be self-conscious until someone reminds me. Like the time I received an unexpected reaction from a well-traveled American friend visiting me in Spain, when I casually mentioned:

“Yeah, so, I went to dinner with this Ghanaian friend of mine the other day….”

Her head snapped in my direction, her facial expression a mixture of incredulity, disapproval and concern.

“You actually went out with him?”

Or the reaction from another American visitor, when we were in a small bar-slash-club in the center of Naples. When 2 African guys approached us to dance, she shooed them away and later referred to them as “those 2 ugly dark Africans!”

For my part, I make friends with Africans for several reasons, most of them entirely selfish.  As I mentioned earlier, I like black people – our way of being, our easy laughter and joking even when things aren’t always that good. The way we walk as if there is music playing just for us. Our style – the way we adorn ourselves – jewelry, colors, hair. There’s a comfort in the familiarity of appearance and mannerisms of black people that relaxes me, puts me at ease. I like hearing patois and pidgin as much as I like hearing street slang and Southern drawls from back home. And then, of course, there’s the food.

My African friends here in Spain have fed me often and each time, it has given me a taste of home, especially since a lot of my Southern culinary and cultural roots presumably have their origins in West Africa. My African friends know how to properly fry up a fish. I don’t have to explain to them what okra is or why I miss it so. When they put a plate of chicken yassa, jollof rice, thiboudienne, black-eyed peas or huge slices of summer-sweet watermelon on the table in front of me, I see, smell, and taste traces of home – both the America that I know and the Africa that I’ve imagined as one of her orphaned offspring. When the sounds of azonto, kizombo, West African hip hop, or South African house music coming out of their speakers sets off an impromptu dance party, I find myself remembering blue lights in the basement, slow-dragging at the supper club, and backyard booty-shake contests from back home. I pause my bobbing and two-stepping only long enough to think, ‘how can I not want to be around all of this?’

My African friends have also helped me learn the language of this country that we both live in. Some of them speak very little English, so Spanish is the only language we have in common. Many of them came to Spain without knowing very much Spanish, but have mastered it in a few short years. They introduce me to new Spanish words and phrases I haven’t heard; are patient when I struggle with the vocabulary and verb tenses, or ask them to explain things I don’t understand. I also listen to them speak amongst themselves in their native tongues, occasionally asking them the meanings of words I hear them repeat often in their conversations. Because of this, I now know how to distinguish the sounds of Wolof, Mandinka, and Hausa, and can even say a scant few words in each.

"...despite the many cultural similarities that my African and black Latino colleagues and I share, and our ability to bridge the language gap that often exists between us, it isn’t always easy to surmount the other gaps that separate us..."

One of my most memorable, albeit short, friendships with African expats in Europe was with a Senegalese and Ghanaian duo that my friends – another black American and a white Italian – and I met on a trip to southern Portugal. We met the Senegalese half of the duo by chance, at a bus stop. After failing to communicate in English and Spanish (which he didn’t speak) and Portuguese (which he spoke, but we didn’t), we resorted to – of all things – Italian. As it turned out, he had lived in Italy for several years, and was pretty fluent. After showing us around town, paying our train fare and introducing us to his Ghanaian friend – who, thankfully, spoke English and Portuguese, and happily shuttled us around town in his car – we shared drinks, a home-cooked meal, and sat up all night telling stories to each other; each of us speaking in a different language that at least one other person at the table could translate to the others.

Yet, despite the many cultural similarities that my African and black Latino colleagues and I share, and our ability to bridge the language gap that often exists between us, it isn’t always easy to surmount the other gaps that separate us and make us regard each other with as much unfamiliarity as the native residents of our host country often regard us both. These gaps are sometimes due to gender, or our relative socioeconomic status, but more often they’re attributable to a little blue booklet known as an American passport.

In a beachside restaurant in Malaga, I am having an early dinner with my Ghanaian friend. The sand and waves aren’t quite enchanting enough to offset the peculiar happenings closer to our table. Throughout the meal, the wait staff speaks almost exclusively to me. Our waiter conspicuously places both the check and the change in front of me, even though my friend pays the tab. While we’re dining, a waiter shows an elderly couple one of the last available tables on the outdoor terrace – it’s directly next to ours. The woman in the couple glances at the table, then scowls disappointedly in our direction and asks loudly and incredulously, “AQUI?”

Weeks later, I head out to one of the most popular clubs in central Malaga with a motley group of friends – 1 white Italian guy, 1 mixed-raced French girl and 2 West African guys. At the door, there’s a bit of a delay as the bouncer brusquely asks for, then takes his time thoroughly examining the IDs of the 2 West African gents. The rest of us simply exchange confused looks, wondering (yet knowing) why none of us was even given half a glance before being allowed to pass into the club.

In Ciudad Real, Eduardo – my black Cuban friend – and I are exiting a salsa club in the center of town. Just a few paces beyond the club, we pass 2 local police officers headed in the other direction. All of a sudden, they stop and question Eduardo for his documentation. He produces his papers. One of the cops rudely snatches his documents, and starts peppering him with questions. Meanwhile, I’m standing there, unidentified and unquestioned, watching as the tension starts to build. The more the cop questions, the more upset Eduardo gets. Soon, the rude cop escalates things. He grabs Eduardo’s arm and shoves him against a wall nearby before starting to pat him down. Realizing this all-too-familiar scene, I whip out my phone and start recording the incident with my camera. Rude cop finally pays attention to me. He comes over, snatches my phone and barks at me that it’s illegal to record the police (at that time, it isn’t). Reluctantly, I pocket my phone. Rude cop returns to harassing Eduardo. His partner stands silently in front of me, looking a bit embarrassed. “Is this how it works in your country? Is this what your job is?” I ask him, frustrated and angry at the whole ordeal. After a few more moments of shaking Eduardo down, rude cop has enough, and lets us go.

When we discuss this incident later, Eduardo will say that things are different for me – because I’m a woman and because I’m American. I’d like to say it’s not true, but I know that it is. I even take advantage of it sometimes. Like when I notice someone eyeing me with that ‘untrustworthy immigrant’ look, I speak English loudly in their presence to command a little additional respect from them. It almost always works. When I present my passport at airport checkpoints, I smugly relish in the slight bit of surprise I sometimes see on the attendant’s face. I know that I can pass more freely into certain spaces – restaurants, shops, people’s homes – because I am an American, and therefore assumed to be an expat with financial means, not an immigrant with financial needs. I am aware of the privilege that my passport bestows on me in this place, and of how it can not only distinguish but also alienate me from other black people living here.

black in spain - US passport
black in spain - US passport

Eres mas toubabo.” (You’re more like a white person). This, from a Barcelona-based Senegalese friend of mine who is explaining – in less subtle terms – why my experience as a black person in Spain is often different from his. I’m pissed at his choice of words. Growing up, I would often get teased by other black Americans for ‘acting white’ or ‘talking white’, so I’m definitely not pleased to be confronted with the same accusation years later and halfway around the world. He continues, assuaging my anger by explaining in greater detail. As a black person born and raised in America, he says, I understand and am more familiar with European values and social norms than he is or ever will be. While we may both see differences between our cultures and Spanish culture, for me, the differences are subtle, while for him they are comparatively vast. Even though he’s lived in Spain for years, he’s prone to saying, “This is not my way of life.”

Langston Hughes, one of the first black Americans to travel extensively in Spain made note of his own experiences interacting with other black and brown people in the country. During the Spanish Civil War, Hughes, a poet and journalist, worked as a war correspondent for 6 months in 1937. During his time in Spain, Hughes drew several parallels between fascism in Spain and racism back in the US. And in one poem, Letter from Spain to Alabama, Hughes uses a fictional encounter to share both his confusion at seeing black Africans fighting on the side of the fascist regime and the difficulty of bridging language and cultural gaps with his would-be kin. Decades later, I find traces of my own experience in his words.

Letter from Spain to Alabama, by Langston Hughes

We captured a wounded Moor today. He was just as dark as me. I said, Boy, what you been doin' here Fightin' against the free?

He answered something in a language I couldn't understand But somebody told me he was sayin' They nabbed him in his land

And made him join the fascist armyAnd come across to Spain And he said he had a feelin' He'd never get back home again.

He said he had a feelin' This whole thing wasn't right. He said he didn't know The folks he had to fight.

And as he lay there dying In a village we had taken, I looked across to Africa And seed foundations shakin'.

Cause if a free Spain wins this war,The colonies, too, are free - - Then something wonderful'll happen To them Moors as dark as me.

I said, I guess that's why old England And I reckon Italy, too, Is afraid to let a workers' Spain Be too good to me and you - -

Cause they got slaves in Africa - - And they don't want ‘em to be free. Listen, Moorish prisoner, hell! Here, shake hands with me!

I knelt down there beside him, And I took his hand - - But the wounded Moor was dyin' And he didn't understand.

There are no Black Americans

I am walking past the cluster of bars that line one side of Plaza Merced in central Malaga. A group of gregarious young men shout out as I pass by them,


I snicker to myself, shake my head and keep walking.


Nope. I shake my head again.


It appears that I am not the only one here who occasionally struggles to reconcile my Americanness with my new environment. Often, when I introduce myself to other people here, the question is asked, “De donde eres?” (Where are you from?)  With my typical response being, “Soy Americana.” (I’m American.)

On more occasions than I can count, my answer has been received with a mixture of surprise and slight disbelief. The person I’m speaking to either repeats the word, as if to confirm that they’ve heard me correctly,


…or, I’m peppered with more questions to help the listener clarify my response.

Such as when a Cuban guy sitting next to me at a bar queries, “Pero, tus origenes…?” (But, your origins?) Or when my new roommate presses, “Pero, que mezcla tienes?” (But, what mix do you have?) Or even the European guy who I bumped into at a rooftop BBQ in a hostel who accepted the fact that I was American, but not too American, since he was convinced that my grandmother must have been a slave from Africa. I calmly assured him with as much shade as humanly possible that my grandmother was born in the 1930s. I resisted the urge to append the statement with ‘dumbass’, choosing to punctuate the sentence with a look that conveyed the same sentiment.

I, too, sing America.
I, too, sing America.

In fact, the only reason my grandmother even entered into the conversation is because I’ve developed a boilerplate response to the persisting questions about my being a full-blooded American. When I’m ready to put a quick end to the questioning, I simply respond. “Mi madre es Americana, y la madre de mi madre es Americana, asi que, soy Americana.” (My mother is American, my mother’s mother is American, so for that reason, I’m American.)

Even though many internationally known film stars and popular music icons are clearly both black and American, even though the President of the United States and his family are all black Americans, for some reason, it’s hard for some Spaniards and other Europeans to easily accept that there’s one standing right in front of them. But if I’m honest, sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that I’m American.


“Kisha, is it true that the police shoot black people in the US?”

This question comes from one of my students during an English conversation class when I’m encouraging them to ask me about life in the US. Lately, the news from home has been filled with images of police brutality and excessive gun violence by law officers against unarmed black people. Images and commentary surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, the related non-violent protests and the violent Baltimore riots have made their way all the way over to Spain. My students are shocked at the graphic nature of it all, they can’t seem to believe that the police can actually kill citizens without any real punishment.

Even my other black associates here in Spain – who are used to being profiled, harassed or occasionally mistreated by the police, confess that the situation is far more severe in America.  As Eduardo says to me, “I may be treated differently or badly here due to the color of my skin, but I’m not going to be killed because of it.” I can’t help but think that maybe one of the reasons many Spaniards find it hard to believe that there are black Americans, is because our own country doesn’t treat us or make us feel like we’re Americans.

For this reason, I don’t always feel the nostalgia or the tender longing for my home country that my brown kin from other parts of the world do. When my Senegalese friend speaks of home, how he wants to go back there, and how simple life is – even though it can also be tough – I almost envy his longing. When my Cuban friend speaks of spending days at the beach, catching and eating huge fresh fish right out of the ocean, having anyone open the door of their home to you for a bite to eat, a drink, a little dancing… I am more than a little jealous – even though we both know that Cuba, at least politically speaking, ain’t no island paradise.

The place that I do have longings and nostalgia for is actually something of a non-place; a sub-category of America known as black America. I long for the taste of my (and other) grandma’s food – sweet potato pie, cornbread, mac-and-cheese, collards – and that of the black people from my region – fried okra, gumbo, shrimp and grits, low country boil. I desperately miss the sound of Southern-speak on the streets of my steadily gentrifying black neighborhood, rubbing elbows with the elders at the neighborhood grocery store. Even the not-as-familiar but still recognizable and treasured sounds of my colored cousins from other parts of black America – the ‘over-hoard’ pronunciation of the LA homeys, the mellifluous bravado of black New Yorkers, the in-between-north-and-south speech patterns of folks from the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. But this, I realize, is different from missing America herself. I have no wistful yearnings for her purple mountains majesty or her fruited plains. I, like many black Americans, regard my home country with a double-mindedness. Yes, I am from there. But, I am also not. That is, the American identity as it is most often portrayed both within and outside of my native land, is not my identity. This is something that seems uniquely different from the relationships that others in the diaspora have with their countries of origin. Even though their color may be different from others in their home country, their culture – language, history, music, cuisine – is almost completely shared. As a black American, I have always known that I exist as part of 2 cultures. My history has its own month. My music has its own stations. My literature has its own shelves in the bookstore or library. My cuisine – which I consider to be the only truly American cuisine, found nowhere else in the world – is not commercialized and widely recognized around the globe as American. The larger American culture – that of fast food, football, movie stars, and big cars, and the culture of black America – that of gospel, hip-hop, and soul food are not consumed domestically nor exported under the same label of 100% American, even though both of them are.

And so while I occasionally flaunt my Americanness – the passport, the perfect English – as a badge of privilege, I, like “los negros en este ciudad,” am conflicted about my American identity. When I say, “I’m American,” I sometimes feel the need to affix an asterisk to the end of the statement.

The eloquent black American actor, singer, civil rights activist, and occasional expat Paul Robeson sums up the feeling rather nicely. When asked by an interviewer, “Do you still feel American?” Robeson responds:

“I would say that unquestionably I am an American – born there… upon the backs of my people was developed the primary wealth of America…. There’s a lot of America that belongs to me yet. But just like a Scottish American is proud of being from Scotland, I’m proud for being African…. So I would say today, that I’m an American who is infinitely prouder to be of African descent. No question about it. No question about it. I’m an Afro-American and I don’t use the word American ever loosely again.”


Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the "black experience" in Spain and the US.

Read the other posts in the series now:

Black in Spain - Icons and Images

Branded Identity

I remember the first time I saw the bottle. My eyes widened in surprise, and I let out a half-sigh, half-chuckle sound.

“You gotta be f***in’ kidding me.”

I briefly wondered if my roommate had stashed the bottle of rum under the counter, way in the back, with the label turned to the wall by sheer coincidence or because she was trying to be culturally sensitive. Or… maybe it was because she knew how much I liked rum.

Either way, I wasn’t expecting to see the brand name and image on the bottle.


Above the bold, block print was the image of a black woman’s face and decolletage in profile. The woman looked like she was from colonial (read: slavery) times – she was wearing a brightly colored tignon-like sash around her cropped curly hair, complemented by ethnic-looking gold hoop earrings and a chunky beaded necklace. Her pouty lips were only slightly lighter than the color of the bright red beads around her neck.

black in spain - image of negrita rum
black in spain - image of negrita rum

I held the bottle in my hands, close to my face, examining the image, then the name, then the image again. I shook my head and chuckled once more.

“Welcome to Spain,” I said aloud to myself.

This would not be the first time that I would find myself bemused, perplexed or completely shocked at an image or representation of a black figure in this country.

"Prior warning never really prepares you for the moment when you’re face-to-face with an image that... is, at best, an inappropriate caricature, and, at worst, completely racist."

As a going-away present, one of my friends had given me the book Kinky Gazpacho, the memoirs of a black American woman who had lived and studied in Spain on multiple occasions. I remembered the author’s mention of some of the more disturbing racial images she had come across during her time in the country, so I wasn’t completely taken unawares or unprepared to experience such imagery in Spain. But as I searched my memory of the images discussed in the novel, I didn’t recall her mentioning this one. And even if she had, prior warning never really prepares you for the moment when you’re face-to-face with an image that everything you’ve ever been taught tells you is, at best, an inappropriate caricature, and, at worst, completely racist.

I’m standing in the convenience store, transfixed, struggling to reconcile what I’m seeing with what I’m feeling. I swivel my head around from one side to the other, hoping to spy someone else who is just as shocked and appalled as I am at the image I’m standing directly in front of. There isn’t anyone, of course. I am the only one here that is even remotely concerned or paying any attention to this figure. If anything, the few people in the store may be beginning to wonder why this tall brown woman has been staring at a candy display for so long. After mumbling a few ‘hhwwhat the f*cks’ and ‘is this real’s under my breath, I realize that there is only one thing I can do. I slip my hand into my bag and retrieve my phone, position myself in front of the image, and snap a picture. If it’s still there when I look at my phone later, I’ll know I’m not crazy and that this shit really did just happen.

The image – a bald, chocolate-colored infantile figure with bulging eyes, grotesquely exaggerated smiling red lips and a perfectly round mid-section – is the well-known icon of the ubiquitous Spanish candy, Conguitos.  It’s not only seen on packages of the candy – where the little chocolate figure is usually pictured with one hand on his hip and the other giving the thumbs-up sign (in older versions of the image, he was holding a spear) – but also in 3D in-store displays that use the protruding belly of the little Congo man as a container for small packets of the popular chocolate treats. These displays are usually located right at the front of the store, next to the impulse buys and the cash register. Which is handy, since this common placement of the figure has given me frequent opportunities to examine it up close and be completely, head-shakingly shocked and appalled at it… just like the very first time.

black in spain - conguitos candy
black in spain - conguitos candy

While the image of the woman on the bottle of Negrita is one that could be considered questionably racist, in my mind, there’s no question at all that the Conguito mascot – the Spanish equivalent of a tar baby –  is about as racist an image as there could be.

If the little Negrita and the little Conguito were the only racially offensive product images I’d come across during my time in Spain, I might not be as baffled or concerned. Yet, there have been more. Many more. Cola Cao – an extremely popular breakfast beverage (similar to Nesquik in the US) – features as its brand image a pair of black people – 1 woman, 1 man – hauling baskets filled to the brim with cacao pods set against a backdrop of what is, presumably, a chocolate plantation. The sugar packets produced by the Ciudad Real-based company Cafes Barrenengoa, which would show up alongside my coffee at roughly 1/3 of the cafeterías around town, were imprinted with an image of a smiling, black-faced, bug-eyed, red-lipped little man dressed in all white and posed in ‘I’m a little teapot’ fashion pouring a thin stream of coffee into a cartoon cup on the other end of the packet.

black in spain - cafes barrenengoa
black in spain - cafes barrenengoa

Then, there was that one inexplicable inanimate image that I encountered on a trip with a local friend to his small village just outside of Valladolid. I entered a tiny neighborhood bar with 2 other Spanish associates. Before we were well inside, I spotted the statue on the far side of the room, in a corner under an unused television. It was the figure of a young boy, black-faced, red-lipped, and barefoot. He was clad in a simple green jacket with too-short sleeves and plain brown short pants, a straw hat placed atop his kinky, sculpted hair. He sat looking absently at the floor in front of him, a docile smile plastered on his lips, his hands neatly folded in his lap, his legs crossed at the ankles. I drew an instant parallel between this figure and the racist American images of Little Black Sambo or pickaninnies. But. Why was it here? Given that the bar and its few patrons were quite likely relatives of my host (he’d already mentioned that he was related to almost everyone in the tiny village), I refrained from questioning the bar’s owner or my associates about the statue, not wanting to bring tension into an otherwise tranquil weekend getaway. Instead, I satisfied myself with another picture, another documented piece of evidence regarding Spain’s troubling depictions of black people.

black in spain - pickaninny statue valladolid
black in spain - pickaninny statue valladolid

Still, if these corporate-sponsored, mute, and unmoving depictions were the only ones I’d encountered while living here, I might be able to convince myself that these images are simply leftover, untouched relics from a distant past that no one has bothered to update (though other companies with racist brand images have successfully done so). That, even if there is widespread, complacent acceptance of such inappropriateness, surely no living, breathing person in today’s Spain would actively perpetrate or stand in support of such imagery. Of course, that was not to be the case.

What's Behind the Mask?

In the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays, you see them everywhere. The Reyes Magos, or Three Wise Kings, those legendary Biblical figures who are said to have traveled from distant lands bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to present to the newborn baby Jesus. Since the Middle Ages, one of those wise kings has been depicted as a black man, a representation of the ancient Christian kingdom of Ethiopia in East Africa. In Spain, the Reyes Magos are much more popular than Santa Claus or Papa Noel. Whereas in the States you have actors who dress up as that jolly old man who brings gifts to kids, In Spain, the actors dress as the Three Kings. They make appearances at schools, churches, and local functions. Proud parents and smiling children line up for a photo with the kings just like kids in the US wait to have their picture taken with Old St. Nick. And when it comes to the black king, most often, a black actor isn’t cast to play the part. Instead, it’s far more common to see a Spanish actor wearing blackface portraying the role of Baltasar, the black wise man. Though I was spared from seeing any real-life blackface versions of Baltasar with my own eyes, friends who lived in other parts of Spain would send me pics of the painted wise man showing up in their town squares, their schools. I could only shake my head. It was at least a small comfort to see and hear that, in some cases, organizers of Three Kings appearances actually went to the trouble of finding a black actor to play the role of a black person – a novel concept.

black in spain - blackface reyes magos
black in spain - blackface reyes magos

Months later, I would experience my first Carnival, and, with it, more examples of everyday people – most of them young – dressed up in blackface. In Spain, the entire Carnival celebration is a time for absurdity and lampooning. Large choral groups perform in parades and at concert halls, singing scathingly humorous songs that make fun of the government, political officials, historical figures, society as a whole. Meanwhile, on the streets and squares of almost every Spanish city, groups of friends who have spent weeks planning and selecting elaborate matching costumes, show them off at huge, public, alcohol-fueled gatherings that last all day and all night. Among the myriad of costumes I saw in both Cadiz and Miguelturra, there were at least a handful that relied on the use of blackface to achieve their full effect, but one of them in particular stood out. As I rounded a corner near the main square in Miguelturra, with my black Cuban friend in tow, my gaze immediately fixed on the guy hanging with his friends outside the nearest bar. His costume was basic – a pair of large googly eyes, huge plastic red lips, and a big, curly afro wig affixed to the outside of a pitch black stocking that was covering his face. Just a moment after I saw him, he saw us. I could tell because he snatched the black stocking-mask up over his head quickly.  The mask off, his own face was sporting a look like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. This action was more disturbing for me than the mask itself. It was an act of confession. An admission by this man that he knew his costume was racially insensitive, offensive, unacceptable. But he was only willing to make such an admission if there happened to be someone there who could call him on it. It’s one thing to do something racially insensitive or offensive and claim ignorance; it’s an entirely different thing to do it with full knowledge that it’s wrong and potentially hurtful. Was there no other cute, amusing, or creative costume this guy could have come up with without relying on racial stereotypes that even he knew was wrong?

One of several 'blackfaced' Carnival goers seen in Spain
One of several 'blackfaced' Carnival goers seen in Spain

Throughout the week-long Carnival celebration, I saw many Spaniards dressed as fictional characters, animals, religious figures, even cross-dressing, but I saw no other cultural or racial stereotypes-as-costume. This is not to say that there weren’t any – only that I didn’t see them.

"...when it comes to denigrating racial stereotypes in Spain, it seems that blacks are just a bit more fair game than others."

After the seemingly endless partying of Carnival week was over, and I’d returned to my regular classroom and private English lessons, those troubling images stayed on my mind, and I struggled to make sense of them. One of my private students at the time was a 17-year-old, very bright, well-spoken and critically thinking Spanish young man. Since both his level of English and his level of critical analysis were quite high, we’d often spend our lessons watching Ted Talks, discussing abstract concepts, social issues, and the like. During our first lesson after Carnival, we both traded stories of our festival experiences. I shared with him my observations of people dressed in blackface – including the one guy who acted as if he was caught red-handed – and asked his opinion on it, specifically, what he’d say to people who might interpret it as racist. To my surprise, he seemed a little defensive. He explained that, for Spaniards, wearing blackface during Carnival isn’t racist. That it’s the one period of the year when people get to let off steam, and make a mockery of the world around them. That when it comes to mockery, everyone – including black people – is fair game. I chose not to press the subject further – it was, after all, an English lesson not a lesson on racial perceptions. Yet, when I remembered the lack of Carnival costumes mocking other races or ethnicities, I couldn’t help but think that, when it comes to denigrating racial stereotypes in Spain, it seems that blacks are just a bit more fair game than others.

After months of being confronted by these images of black people, I found that I was still surprised, still questioning. How does a so-called modern society still quietly tolerate and vocally celebrate this kind of imagery so blatantly and out in the open? Where’s the public outcry? Where’s the independent criticism? What year is it? Why is Spain so very stuck in the past when it comes to issues of race?

To understand and find an answer to these questions, I decided to take a step back and try to examine Spanish culture itself. I wanted to find out where these images originated from, and why they still persisted so openly today. Baltasar Fra Molinero’s thorough examination of the representation of blacks in Spain in art, literature, and theater at the start of the European colonial era does much to explain the present-day media images and public perceptions of black people, not only in Spain, but in western civilization as a whole.

These excerpts from his 1995 book, La imagen de los negros en la España del Siglo de Oro, shed light on the characterization of black features and humanity in early Spanish media:

“…ciertas características biológicas externas (piel, pelo, nariz, boca) pasaron a convertirse en marca o significante de la condición social de esclavitud. De ahí se pasó a una consideración moral: su inferioridad social empezó a verse como inferioridad natural. De esa forma el color negro de la piel adquirió un nuevo sentido: los negros no eran humanos completamente. El nuevo significado de piel negra pasó a ser el de la brutalidad y la inferioridad.”

“Certain external biological characteristics (skin, hair, nose, mouth) became trademarks or symbols of the social condition of enslavement. From there, it came to be a moral consideration: the social inferiority of blacks began to be seen as natural inferiority. In this manner, black skin acquired a new meaning: blacks were not completely human. The new meaning of black skin came to be that of brutishness and inferiority.”

“La risa y el tono humorístico fueron las respuestas literarias a la esclavitud de los negros, que eran representados como seres graciosos e inocentes. En palabras del crítico Lemuel Johnson:”

Laughter and a humoristic tone were the literary responses to the enslavement of blacks, who were represented like cute and innocent beings. In the words of the critic Lemuel Johnson:

There is nonetheless, a tolerant mockery in these representations. One might almost say benign, were it possible for an essentially malignant historical process to be so described. “

Molinero even recognizes that the racist tropes of Spain’s Golden Era are not just a thing of the past:

“Siguen vigentes hoy en la literatura, el cine, y la television: negros graciosos e infantiles, mulatas que invitan a sexualidad prohibida, negros santos de alma blanca y defensores del statu quo del Imperio…”

“[These images] still persist today in literature, film, and television: cute and childlike black men, mixed-race women who entice with a forbidden sexuality, saintly negros with white souls and defenders of the status quo of the Empire….”

Worth a Thousand Words

"As we’ve seen recently in the US with the Confederate flag... images, icons and symbols are visible indicators of what ideas and interpretations are buried in the hearts and minds of a people. "

Images and icons are cultural shorthand. They encapsulate what we think, how we feel, who we are as a culture and a society with little need for words to explain them. Their continued use over time – decades, generations, centuries – give them deeper meaning, makes them more entrenched as symbols of something that no longer needs to be said, thought about, examined. The image eventually becomes the words, it replaces the need for thought, it blurs critical examination. As we’ve seen recently in the US with the Confederate flag in South Carolina, images, icons and symbols are visible indicators of what ideas and interpretations are buried in the hearts and minds of a people. Their continued existence or their change or removal signifies where a culture or society is in their ability to self-examine and acknowledge that some images that we would like to pass off as a benign piece of history, are anything but that.

'black sambo' figurine on display in a vintage curiosity shop - Malaga
'black sambo' figurine on display in a vintage curiosity shop - Malaga

In the collective consciousness of the Spanish people, images of black racial stereotypes represent the persistent, though often under-the-radar idea that the black person is a cartoon character, a not-quite-person whose differences require exaggeration to ensure that there is little confusion about his status in the society -  that of the ‘other’ who is as grotesque as he is exotic. Even in a modern economic environment where products like rum, sugar, and chocolate are no longer produced through a system of forced labor – some of the images associated with these products in Spain still favor the depiction of the black person as a happily content slave.

black in spain - cola cao
black in spain - cola cao

Even a black American head of state like Michelle Obama is not safe from the Spanish tendency to caricature black people as the exotic slave. In August 2012, the Spanish indie mag, Fuera del Serie caused international controversy – perhaps intentionally – by featuring a cover photo of Michelle Obama’s visage superimposed on the image of a slave woman with an exposed breast alongside the title, “Michelle Se Come A Obama” (Michelle Is Eating Obama). The magazine contended that the image, and the accompanying article, titled, “Michelle Tataranieta De Esclava, Duena De America” (Michelle: Granddaughter of a Slave, First Lady of America), was intended as a tribute to the First Lady – a nod to both her American slave ancestry and an examination on how she’d been able to “seduce” the American public into liking her even more than they liked her husband. Of all of the associations, images, and terminology to use to highlight the pedigree and accomplishments of Michelle Obama, it seems… odd that slavery, seduction, and a vague reference to cannibalism would top the list.

michelle obama - spain magazine cover
michelle obama - spain magazine cover

Not all of the troubling depictions of black people in Spain are linked to the country’s legacy of African enslavement, however. On a rare evening when I decide to join my 3 Spanish roommates and a few of their friends in the salon for some TV watching, the hugely popular Spanish sitcom, La Que Sea Vecina comes on. In this episode, one of the recurring male characters meets a lady for a blind date in an expensive restaurant. Unable to pay the tab, the guy snatches the unattended purse of another woman dining nearby. When the victim returns from the bathroom and finds her purse missing, she asks the couple if they saw anything. The blind date woman – who witnessed her beau’s pilfering – quickly covers for him and replies that it was, “un hombre moreno vestido en un traje” (a black man wearing a suit). I involuntarily smack my head. My roommates and friends react neither to the character’s statement nor to my reaction, but there is a palpable tension, a pregnant silence in the room. At the next commercial break, I excuse myself so I can go to my room and make better use of my time by catching up on some work.

As I walk down the hallway, I think to myself, “Well, at least he was wearing a suit.”

Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the "black experience" in Spain and the US.

Read the other posts in the series now:

Black in Spain - What’s In a Name?


It’s a Friday night, and I’m at one of my favorite tapas bars in Ciudad Real – a place where I usually go alone. Tonight, though, I’ve invited some new friends to join me for a couple of quick rounds there. As is usual for the start of the weekend, the place is packed to overflowing. We order our first round, drink and eat and chat as much as we can over the din from the crowd of Spanish folks inside. A few minutes later, I go to the bar and order a second round for myself. When my tapa comes out a little while later, the bartender isn’t able to make eye contact with me since I have my back turned talking to my friends. He shouts to get my attention. But it isn’t until after a few shouts that I finally hear him. “La morena! La morena!

black in spain - what did you call me
black in spain - what did you call me

Given the fact that I am, indeed, the only morena in the place, I know he means me. I retrieve my tapa and rejoin my friends, chuckling a little at the incident and commenting to them how that was so very particular to Spain. A bartender in the US would never shout out, “Black girl! Black girl!” My comment is meant to be a lighthearted, amusing observation like all of us expats regularly make when we observe a particularly Spanish practice or custom. However, the one non-American in our foursome seems not to take it this way. The Romanian girl, who has been living in Spain for several years, appears to have her feathers ruffled by my comment. “No,” she says, shaking her head strongly. “They mean that for your hair. It’s about your hair color.”

“Uhhh… no,” I begin, “I’m pretty sure he wasn’t referring to my hair color.” “Yes, yes! Morena means brown-haired. They call me rubia.”

I could see how she’d be confused. She was right, Spaniards do use morena and rubia to refer to someone’s hair color. But, only if you’re white. The term morena, I explained, was used both ways. It could mean either brown-haired or brown-skinned.

“No, no!” she persists. “You’re wrong. It’s only about hair.” At this point, I’m beginning to get my feathers ruffled. I mean, why would I make this up? Does this twenty-something year old Romanian girl really think she is about to school me on what the word that has regularly been applied to me in a very specific manner for over a year now means?

She goes on. “I have experienced it!” She insists. “Oh. Well, then.” I quip sarcastically. “Yeah. You’re probably right. You probably DO know more about what it’s like being a black person in Spain than I do. So, sure. You got it.”

We go back and forth a couple more times. The Romanian girl digging in her heels about the hair-color-only usage of the term. Me continuing my sarcastic retorts telling her that, yes, I was sure she was right because I couldn’t possibly have any idea what I was talking about.

Later, at another bar, I see the opportunity to ask for a second opinion. The bartender at this place is quite friendly with us, as we frequent the bar often, and he stops over several times to chat with us throughout the night. Just before closing, we each order a drink. I happen to choose a drink called La Morenita – a rum cocktail. When the bartender stops over, I ask him, “Can you answer a question for us?” “Sure,” he replies. The word morena, does it refer to someone’s hair color? “Yes,” he confirms. “Does it also” – I pause to look at the Romanian girl – “Refer to...” and let the sentence hang unfinished. The bartender takes his cue and completes the phrase. “Color de piel? (Skin color?) Siiiii….” he drones as if to say, of course.

The Romanian looks dissatisfied. She shakes her head as if she still doesn’t want to accept his answer.

Adjusting the Color

[su_pullquote align="right"]"When moving to a new country, there are tons of cultural adjustments and considerations one has to make…. But... there was one I had never even considered. What do I call myself here?"

African-American, black, colored, negro. All of these terms are familiar to me. They have been used to describe my features, my race, my people – both in the past and present – in the country I call home. When moving to a new country, there are tons of cultural adjustments and considerations one has to make, many of which I was prepared for when I decided to move to Spain. But of all of those I had given thought to – the food, the language, the way of life – there was one I had never even considered. What do I call myself here?

Two of my early attempts at literal translations proved both confusing and frustrating. The first came when I was having a casual chat with a potential roommate – an Egyptian guy – in San Pedro de Alcantara. I don’t recall exactly what we were speaking about – maybe I was telling him something about life back in Atlanta – but I do remember that I used the word negro to refer to black people. He stopped me short. “No,” he said. “We don’t say that. It’s not nice. It’s better to say moreno.” Oh. I stood corrected. Feeling an alien sort of embarrassment at being scolded by someone else for the language I’d chosen to use to refer to myself.

The second instance was when I was teaching a lesson on jazz to my bilingual students in music class. A part of the text we were reading and translating mentioned something about notable African-American musicians. I thought this would be a good opportunity to help them understand what the word meant. I pointed to myself, “I’m African-American.” “Whaaat?” My students responded with shock and surprise. I was shocked and surprised at their response. What did they think I was? Where did they think this brown skin and kinky hair came from? It wasn’t until much later that I realized that my students’ shock came from them misunderstanding that the term African-American implied that I was actually African, and had just grown up in America.


Moros y Negros

And then there’s that peculiar Spanish term that’s neither moreno nor negro. Moro, which literally translates to Moor, is a Spanish word denoting certain people of color that – when I first encountered it – left me feeling more angry than confused. It was my first full day in the town I’d be teaching in, and I was walking around familiarizing myself with the area, when I saw the scrawled graffiti on the wall of an empty little plaza – the image of a faded red swastika with the words ‘No Moros’ emblazoned over it. Previously, I – like many other black Americans – assumed that the term Moor was synonymous with Africans, and therefore with black people. So, naturally, I was not only pissed but also a little concerned about where I’d landed when I saw that bit of racist wall art. [su_pullquote align="right"]"Since sorting out the variants of Spanish racial terminology… I’ve heard all of them used in different situations by different kinds of people. In some instances, I can even get a feel for how racially clued-in or clueless a person is by which terms they use."[/su_pullquote]Since then, I’ve discovered that, for Spaniards, there’s a distinction between moros and morenos, or, negros. This excerpt from Baltasar Fra Molinero’s 1995 book entitled, La Imagen de los Negros en la España del Siglo de Oro (The Image of Blacks in Golden Age Spain), succinctly explains the difference:

"Negros" eran los africanos que no eran "moros." Esta clasificación ya venía de antiguo. Los nombres usados para referirse a los esclavos negros--etíopes, negros, morenos, prietos, pardos--reflejaban en mayor o menor medida ciertas tensiones ideológicas…. Había que crear una teoría del género humano que los incluyese, pero que los diferenciase también. Los tonos de pigmentación distintos se convierten todos en uno solo, el "color negro”….” “Negros” were Africans that weren’t “moros”. This classification came from older times. The names used to refer to black slaves – etíopes, negros, morenos, prietos, pardos – reflected in greater or lesser measure certain ideological forces…. There was the need to create a theory of the human species that included them (blacks), but that differentiated them as well. The distinct tones of pigmentation were all transformed into a single one, the ‘color black’….”

In short, moros are Africans, but they’re the Africans that aren’t visibly denoted as black, e.g., Egyptians, Moroccans, Arabs, etc.

Since sorting out the variants of Spanish racial terminology that could and could not be applied to myself, I’ve heard all of them used in different situations by different kinds of people. In some instances, I can even get a feel for how racially clued-in or clueless a person is by which terms they use. Like the one Spanish gent in Ciudad Real that I struck up a conversation with on a biking trail. He used negra, and explained that it was because he used to date a black girl and she preferred it. Or the woman who was sitting next to me and my visiting cousin in a bar, talking in none-too-quiet tones to her friend about how she liked – here she silently pointed to her own non-black skin, presumably out of respect for the two lovely morenas within earshot – but not subsaharianos. My black Cuban associate, Eduardo, would use both negro and moreno interchangeably. And my latest roommate, when recommending a barber to our other roommate – a curly-haired Italian guy – assured him that the barber would be able to do a good job with his hair because he was, “un moro de Marueco.”

As for myself, I’ve adopted a kind of double vocabulary about race much like I do in America – I prefer to use 1 term (negra) when I’m around others who are like me, and another (morena) when in mixed company.

And when it comes to bartenders in crowded tapas bars, I generally tend to let them know my name early on, so we avoid any future complications.

black in spain - what do you call a black person
black in spain - what do you call a black person


Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the "black experience" in Spain and the US.

Read the other posts in the series now:

Black In Spain

So, what’s it like there? I heard that Spain isn’t a good place for black people. I heard that Spanish guys loooove black women! I heard that Spain is one of the most racist countries in Europe.

The questions come from many places. Family back home. Friends of friends who are considering travelling here. Acquaintances on social media. And every time I get the questions, I always wish I could answer simply. No. Spain isn’t a good place for black people. Yes. Spanish men love black women. Yes. Spain is one of the most racist countries in Europe. But, I can’t. There’s too much nuance, too many instances and experiences that I’ve had that both confirm and negate those statements. So, instead of a definitive answer, I reply with the equivalent of ‘It depends’, or ‘Yes, but,’ then expound on that neither-here-nor-there answer as best I can for the audience that I’m speaking to.

As with any country, the topic of race in Spain is a complex one that has many facets and requires a more-than-surface-level exploration to even begin to formulate any definitive conclusions.

“Being black in Spain is hard sometimes,” I say with a sigh.

“How so?” My friend Annie replies.

We’re sitting on a bench in a park in central Malaga, sharing a bottle of cava. I take a sip from my little plastic cup before responding.

“Welll…” I begin, “First, there are the stares. Which honestly, aren’t always that bad, but it can take some getting used to.”

In the brief space of time before I continue, my mind flits to several incidents, tiny little moments, and curious occurrences that I’ve experienced in my now almost 10 months living on the Iberian peninsula. How do I summarize all of these things to Annie in a casual conversation? How do I recount those myriad moments that have either curdled my blood or left me shaking my head in bemusement? I decide not to go into it all right now. It’s a gloriously sunny day, I’m beginning to feel the effects of the cava, and I don’t want to ruin either my sunshine- or champagne- buzz with heavy talk. I quickly sum up my previous statement about the stares with some observations on times when I felt I was stared at rudely, and others when I felt it was out of admiration or curiosity. I get the feeling that Annie gets my feeling of not wanting to go much deeper into the subject, and, soon, we switch to more situation-appropriate topics.

Over the next few days, however, my exchange with Annie comes back to mind often. How would I sum up the experience of being a black American in this country? I realize it’s an important part of my cultural immersion and exchange to make note of such sociological differences, and to analyze them both critically (as a student of culture) and personally (as a black woman with my own story to tell). So, I decided to start not only being more aware of these moments, but also to start taking notes on the experiences that I’ve had so far.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing first-hand observations and experiences with the concepts of race, color, and culture that I’ve gathered during my time in Spain. In doing so, I hope to shed some more light on a subject that – in my opinion – warrants a more in-depth examination, especially in light of recent incidents regarding race and police brutality against black people back in the United States.

One of the many cries of frustration that I’ve heard from my brown-skinned kin from back home in the aftermath of these racially-charged incidents has been ‘maybe it’s time to leave the US behind’, or similar statements that paint the non-US experience as a more suitable one for black people. I hope that my experience as an African-American living in Spain reveals that issues of color and race aren’t exclusively American, and that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the pond.

Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the "black experience" in Spain and the US.

Read the other posts in the series now:

Black In Spain - The Exotic Beauty

La Guapa Morena

“Que guapas morenas!” the guy from the beachside restaurant shouts in our direction. My friend Dominique and I turn toward him, smile, and simultaneously issue a coquettish reply of “Graciaaaaas!” We’re on our way back to my place after hanging out at the beach in Marbella for a few hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon. A few paces later, I turn to Dominique and remark, “You know if some random dude had shouted that to us in the States we wouldn’t be thanking him, we’d be looking for a fight!” We both laughed at the ironic truth in that statement. If we were back home in Atlanta, and a white guy exclaimed, “How pretty you two black girls are!” as we passed, our response would be markedly different.

In general, Spanish men (and quite a few women) are openly appreciative of attractive ladies they see on the streets. In my orientation class when I first arrived here, our coordinator even dedicated a section of her presentation to warning us about piropos, or catcalls, that the ladies in our group were likely to experience from men on the streets. Since that time, I’ve noticed that there’s a distinction made when a piropo or sentiment of attraction is directed toward a black or brown girl. Even the simple usage of the more specific morenas versus chicas or just plain “que guapas” to express admiration demonstrates that there’s some ‘other’ lens I’m being viewed through as a brown-skinned girl. The first time I got such a comment was on a solo trip to Barcelona about a month after I’d arrived in Spain. A 20-ish something guy passed me walking in the other direction, smiled and nodded his head with the look of someone appreciating a nice painting or a souped-up automobile. He mumbled loudly enough for me to hear, “Que buena esa morena,” before continuing on his way. At my age, I know how to appreciate a genuine, non-creepy compliment, so I quickly smiled in his direction without halting my stride. Still, every time I hear the sentiment echoed on the streets of Spain, I wonder to myself if the equivalent in English would translate to that dreaded not-quite-compliment, “She’s cute… for a black girl.”

Stares, shouts, comments, are par for the course on the streets of Spain.
Stares, shouts, comments, are par for the course on the streets of Spain.

Don’t Fetishize Me, Bro

"To the collector, you are one-dimensional item. Everything of value or interest about you is tied up in the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, and the mythology surrounding them both." 

Of course, there have been several instances when the ‘guapa morena’ comment hasn’t been so welcome. Take, for instance, the guy who I encountered on one of my first trips to the local library in Ciudad Real. Only minutes after introducing himself to me, and telling me how guapa he thought I was, he asked me for a kiss. I was completely taken aback and more than a little creeped-out by the incident, and when I recounted it later to a friend – a Spanish man – he explained that it was rather common for some Spanish men to assume that a brown-skinned girl equals easy prey. He went on to explain that most of the black women in Spain have immigrated from Latin America or Africa, and some of those who are experiencing financial problems or looking for a way to remain in the country permanently are eager to accept the advances of almost any Spaniard if it means financial security or the promise of becoming a Spanish citizen. For this reason, some Spanish guys will test the waters, so to speak, to see how much they can get away with when meeting a morena.

Then there are those who take their brown-skin attraction in a slightly different direction. I call them ‘collectors’. They – both men and women – are intrigued by the rareness of black flesh. To them, what is rare is seen as more interesting. And the person who’s able to possess a rare thing for themselves is made more interesting as a result. The having of this rare object then, is something of a status symbol for the collector, even if the having is only temporary. To the collector, you are one-dimensional item. Everything of value or interest about you is tied up in the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, and the mythology surrounding them both. Ironically, this pretty much makes the collector the bizarro version of your garden variety racist, for whom everything odious and worthless about you is based on your skin color and its associated mythos.

It doesn’t take long to identify a collector. He or she will probably lead with something that specifically refers to your race. They may even confide in you – completely unsolicited and out of the blue – the fact that they’ve always wanted to ‘be with’ a black girl or have mulatto children. While you’re struggling to put your eyes back into your head from the ridiculousness of such a remark, the collector will probably be leaning in to get an appreciative stroke of your skin or tug at your hair, or quite possibly even commenting lasciviously on another black person passing nearby, completely oblivious to the fact that they are creeping you all the way the f**k out.

The Mouths of Babes

“Mommy, that man has black skin!”

I involuntarily snap my head in the direction the voice came from, and wrinkle my face up at the little girl’s overly loud comment. We are at a seaside resort in southern Spain – a place heavily populated with both Spanish and non-Spanish holiday makers from other parts of Europe. Among the rest of the crowd tanning on the nearby shore, playing in the pool and sipping cocktails at the bar, my friend – a native of Senegal and a longtime resident of Spain – and I are the only brown faces (and bodies) in sight.

The little girl who made the comment looks to be about 7 or 8 years old. From her accent, it sounds like she’s from the UK, where I assume that she would have had more exposure to black people than a girl of her age from Spain. Why, then was it so novel, so unusual to see a person with ‘black skin’ that she felt compelled to blurt it out in public? Why had her mom who was sheepishly grinning in our direction and hurrying her little one along before she could say anything else –  not yet trained her that blurting out such a thing in public wasn’t exactly appropriate? Meanwhile, my friend, who’s probably well accustomed to receiving such comments and stares, is completely unfazed. He smiles and waves at the little one while I brood silently in the background.

Days later, when I’m reflecting on this incident, it occurs to me that this little kid was no different than many full-grown Spaniards I’ve encountered that momentarily lose their cool and some of their senses when they see a black person – saying and doing something that leaves the unaccustomed (like me) frowning and wondering, “What the f**k?”, while those who are used to these outbursts (like my Senegalese friend), simply offer a patronizing smile and the equivalent of, “Awwww… Bless your heart!”


Can I Touch It?

It’s Christmas season in Spain. Even though I’m missing family time and the Christmas traditions I’m accustomed to back in the US, I’m still enjoying my first Christmas in my host country. I’ve finished checking off the last of the gift recipients on my relatively short Christmas list, and I’m looking for the finishing touches to put on the gifts that I need to wrap and deliver to local friends in Ciudad Real before the long winter break.

I ducked into the little store thinking they would definitely have the gift ribbon I was looking for. It was, after all, a chino*, and chinos carry at least 4 of everything ever made. As I was preparing to check out, the Spanish girl working in the store who'd helped me find the ribbon remarked to the Chinese lady behind the counter, “Que guapa, no?” (Isn’t she pretty?) “Si! Es guapa!” the other woman enthusiastically replied, smiling in my direction. I thanked them both profusely. Before I could finish my 'gracias', La China (the Chinese lady) recounted in her heavily accented Spanish that she used to work in a neighborhood in nearby Toledo where there were other girls... here she paused to rub the skin on the back of my hand to indicate what kind of girls they were. She said that she loved seeing them, and whenever they would come in to shop or talk, she would rub their skin. Here, she paused to stroke my hand again. “Muy suave!” (very smooth!) she beamed, then suggested the Spanish girl have a go. “Siiiii...” La Española replied in awe, after stroking the back of my hand for herself. “Que suave!!” By now, my eyes were as big as saucers, my brow furrowed, and my smile a tentative, bemused one. “Como un bebe,” (like a baby) La China continued, smiling brightly with confirmation of her knowledge. As I handed her the coins for the ribbon, she couldn't resist one more stroke. The transaction complete, I hurriedly stuffed the ribbon in my bag, managed to bumble out another 'gracias' and a 'feliz navidad', then swiftly pivoted and exited the twilight zone.

"As a black person living in a country like Spain where the population is largely homogenous – at least in outward appearance – it’s not an uncommon occurrence to find out that you’ve instantly become a walking museum exhibit."

In Spain, and there’s a sort of no-holds-barred, ‘I’m not even gonna question if you’re ok with this because I know you’re ok with this’ aspect to the commenting on and touching of black skin and hair that is markedly different from the US. Here, complete strangers feel no qualm about remarking loudly about your ‘different’ features or even getting in a quick pet. Like the one time, when I was walking through a crowded club in Malaga, and a woman I passed yelled out over the din of the party, “I like your hair!” Then proceeded to shove her hands into my picked-out ‘fro just before asking if she could touch it. Or like an entirely different chino incident, when I was perusing the aisles for some household necessity, and another shopper – a middle-aged Spanish woman – decided to grab a few of my braid extensions and marvel aloud at how they got that way, how long it must have taken to do them, and what sort of material they were made of. Part of this uninhibited touching is cultural – Spaniards have a completely different concept of personal space than Americans. That is to say, by American standards, Spaniards don’t really have a concept of personal space. Close-talking, double-cheek kissing, resting a hand on a shoulder or back while conversing with someone – all of these are interpersonal conventions that might make the average American feel uncomfortable.

As a black person living in a country like Spain where the population is largely homogenous – at least in outward appearance – it’s not an uncommon occurrence to find out that you’ve instantly become a walking museum exhibit. For many, you’re one of the few chances they have to get an up-close look – or touch – of this rarely-seen specimen that is a black person. Does that mean it’s ok for someone to breach your personal space for a rub of your skin or a grab at your hair? No. But it does help explain why it’s happening. Why you’re being stared at on the street, in the grocery store, on the metro. Yes, even now, in the 21st century, where black people are more prominent in international media than ever before, and you’d think that the sight of a black person walking down the street minding their own business wouldn’t cause a stir.

"Can I touch it?"
"Can I touch it?"

Yet, if I’m completely honest, I can’t gloss over the fact that I’ve experienced some unwanted touches from my fellow countrymen in the United States. Particularly when it comes to my hair. The fact that I wear my hair natural and often change the style it’s in, has frequently sparked interest from co-workers and associates, to the point where they can’t resist a touch. Usually though, this kind of uninvited touching only happens with people whom I share space with regularly or have known for a period of time. And even then, the social norms regarding personal space in America makes them do so with a bit of timidity and hesitation that seems fitting for putting your hands on someone without explicit permission.

[su_pullquote align="right"]I often find myself torn between feeling weirded out and feeling honored and appreciated in a way that I’d never be on my home turf. [/su_pullquote]I also have to admit that sometimes it feels damned good to be positively noticed for the color of your skin. Back home in Atlanta, there are so many beautiful men and women of color of every shape, size, and type that I would scarcely garner a second glance on the streets. Being good-looking and black isn’t really worth commenting on when damned near everyone around you is good-looking and black. So, after each of these experiences, I often find myself torn between feeling weirded out and feeling honored and appreciated in a way that I’d never be on my home turf. After many months of being guapa’d and groped in public and private, I’ve finally learned to take it all in stride, and more often than not I have a laugh at it – if only to myself.

Case in point: one afternoon, late in the school year, one of my Spanish roommates knocks on my bedroom door. She wants to introduce me to some family members who are visiting. After greeting them, my roommate’s mom says, as sweet as she can, ‘Me gusta tu color’ (I like your color).

What I think is…

What? This old thing?

Girl… you better get a good look while ya can! I’m about to hop in the shower!

Ya sure? Cuz, ehhh… I dunno… I was thinking of changing it.

Oh. I… like… yours… too?

I’ve been growing it since birth.

But, what I say is:


* Throughout Spain, a chino is a one-stop-shop or convenience store that sells a wide array of household goods, snacks, and personal items for a very low price. They are almost invariably owned and operated by Chinese immigrants – hence the fitting, albeit politically incorrect, name.


Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the "black experience" in Spain and the US.

Read the other posts in the series now:

the cortado - my daily ritual

I can make a ritual out of almost anything. Perhaps it's my Catholic past. Maybe my inner bruja. No sé. Rituals help me mark the time. Moments. Hours. Days. Seasons. States of mind. They are asterisks on experiences. A reminder that I was a little more aware, more present in this moment. That I took the time to appreciate a gift - no matter how tiny - that was given me by god, nature, the universe. One of my daily rituals here in Spain is having a coffee. On the rough, cold winter days I had in the place we do not speak of, it was reason for me to get out of bed and drag myself across the chilled marble floor of my little piso. On others, it was impetus for me to get dressed, leave the house, and will myself to a nearby cafe where, hopefully (could today be the day?) I'd meet someone willing to strike up a friendly convo, but, usually, I'd just sit taking small comfort in both the sound of voices other than my own and the smile from the person behind the counter serving me my beverage. At other times, it's been my way of noting to self that this is the start of a new day, and I'm ready for it. In fact, I now have a saying: I haven't woken up until I've brushed my teeth, and I haven't started the day until I've had a coffee.


Early Adult Education

The cortado at the high school where I work is the best in town. Perhaps, the best in all of Spain; possibly, even, the known universe. But only when Emi, the lunch lady, makes it -  not her husband. For some reason, he never steams the milk quite right, and the fluffy 'capa' that I love, is always missing when he makes it. I once intimated this to Emi. Now, when I enter I don't even have to order it anymore. As soon as she sees me, she starts pulling the shot and warming the milk.


Sweet Sublimation

Adding the sugar is a subritual in itself, and can vary slightly depending on if the coffee is for wake up, post meal, or hangover treatment. For the first, about a third of the packet is sprinkled lightly on top of the foam; the resulting design appreciated before it submerges and disappears into the caffeinated depths of the cup. For the second, very little sugar is used. Sometimes, it's skipped altogether. For the last, a little more sugar is added after every sip, so that the final swallow is absent of any bitterness, and can be considered more sweet treat than am beverage.


(Im)patient Initiation

The perfect cortado is often elusive. But once you've had it, you'll never stop searching for it again. Anything less will seem like a huge letdown, a testament that the preparer is a novice or just completely out of touch with Spanish coffee culture. At my neighborhood coffee shop, they change and add new bar staff so often, that at least once a month, I find myself side-eyeing the new blood for serving up an inferior product. I have become part of their initiation. The old head notices either the confused look on the initiate's face when I order, or the dissatisfied slight scowl on mine when my drink is received. Oldhead rushes to instruct. "Es como un solo, pero con poca leche. Y te metes la leche enfrente de ella, hasta k ella te dice, 'Ya'." The noob attempts, presents. I taste. Of course, it isn't quite there yet. But. She'll learn. I'll be back again tomorrow for more practice. Yesterday, the new new girl was alone on her shift. No old head to guide her. Ok. Let's see whatcha got, dahlin. She doesn't do well. My cup is full of more not-quite-hot milk than coffee. The cup looks like it's full of very dirty dishwater. I return the beverage, apologetically explaining that that's too much milk for me (I'm going to the library next. Please. Think of the others.) She attempts again. It's better. But only slightly. I try to drink it, but the excess amount of milk starts to work on me almost instantly. I return the cup to her half full, pay and exit swiftly. I'm miffed. The superstitious part of me links a bad coffee to a bad day ahead.


Prophetic perfection

The following day, Saturday, I have work to do. I have no time for instruction. I ride slowly past my neighborhood bar to see who's working. It's new girl. Alone again. Not on today, sugah. I U-turn and head to a cafe in the town center. I rarely go there, because their prices are higher. But there's a reason for that. I order. A few moments later, perfection is placed before me. The beverage, a few shades darker than me, which lets me know that not too much milk has been added. A beautiful, fluffy cloud of steamed milk rests at the top of the cup, its bright white nucleus like a target that silently suggests, 'add sugar here'. I sigh delightedly. It's been too long. I savor each sip until the very last. At the finish, the last remnants of fluffy foam cling to the sides and bottom of the glass. Some people read tea leaves. Me? Coffee foam. I can see the future. It's going to be a great day.

How I Lost over 15 Pounds While Living in Spain (and Eating Everything!)

Wow! You look great!Hey skinny lady!

Who’s that in the picture?

It almost never fails. Every time I post a pic of myself on Facebook or some other social media outlet, these are the comments I get from friends and family back home. Since first moving to Spain for a 6-month stint in 2014, and after living here for almost another 8 months, I’ve lost quite a bit of weight. I’ve never been one to track my weight (scales, schmales), so I’m not exactly sure how much I’ve lost (that 15lbs in the title was really just a guesstimate); but I do know that not only have I dropped a couple of dress sizes, I also feel a lot better about my body – the way it looks, feels, and how it serves me as I go about my daily business. And get this: I’ve never once been to the gym.


Before I have you thinking that I’ve slimmed down to the point of having no body issues at all, let me tell you: I’ve still got quite a little pooch going on, I still have minor anxiety sporting a two-piece on a beach full of super-fit Europeans, and, at over 35 years old, I’ve got bits that are jiggling and swaying way more than they ever did (or should). Still, more often than not, I like what I see looking back at me when I look in the mirror, and I know for certain that it has a lot to do with abandoning my American eating and living habits and adopting a more Spanish or European lifestyle. Namely:


Smaller restaurant portions

Though I eat all the things I try to avoid when eating out at home – like taters, bread, and pasta – and I drink like there’s no tomorrow, I’ve still managed to shed pounds. Part of this is because the amount of these things that I consume in a sitting is much less than what I’d consume in the States. The US is notorious for its ridiculous portion sizes. If you order a meal for one in a typical US dining establishment, you’re usually presented with enough food for 2 people. Ditto for drinks – especially sodas and beers. Here in Spain, the tradition of tapas – or small plates of food that are meant to be eaten in a few bites – makes it easy to have a filling meal with lots of variety, yet not overeat. One of my favorite Spanish portion control options is the caña – which is basically a half-sized serving of beer. Even when I go out and have multiple rounds of beers, I’m still only drinking half as much as I would if I did the same in the States.


Several small meals a day

My typical daily eating pattern in Spain goes something like this…

For breakfast (before 11am): Coffee and/or water.

Post-breakfast / Pre-lunch (between 11am and 2pm): A piece of fruit or, occasionally, a small pastry or slice of Spanish tortilla.

For lunch (between 2 and 3pm): A quick, home-cooked meal like a pasta dish, a big salad, or a meat-and-veggie dish.

Post-lunch: A piece of fruit or two for an after-lunch dessert or snack.

For dinner (between 8 and 10pm): A couple of rounds of drinks and accompanying free tapas or another quick, home-cooked meal.

I’ve adopted this pattern of eating after observing and eventually falling in line with the way I’ve seen the folks around me eat. The concept of eating several small meals a day isn’t unique to Spain. In fact, most nutritionists and weight loss experts in the US recommend this method of eating. Still, it isn’t the norm for the average American. We’ve been indoctrinated with the idea that you should eat ‘3 square meals’ a day – a hearty breakfast, a hearty lunch, and an especially hearty dinner – and that’s pretty much how I used to eat back home (with the exception of the hearty breakfast). Here, lunch – not dinner – is often the biggest meal of the day, which leaves plenty of time to burn off the calories before settling in for the evening.

A glimpse at typical Spanish eating habits.
A glimpse at typical Spanish eating habits.

Lunch at home

You’ve probably heard of the Spanish siesta – that 2-3 hour lull in the middle of the day where everything shuts down and people go home to take a nap. While not everyone actually takes a nap during that time, almost everyone I know goes home for a home-cooked lunch. Having that large block of time to go home, prepare a healthy meal, eat it like a normal human (versus inhaling it like a vacuum cleaner), and let it digest a bit before heading back to work, is a luxury that I wish I had in the US. At home, I would barely have time to stuff some chicken fingers and fries (or a similarly unhealthy option) from the downstairs food court into my gullet before heading off to a meeting or rushing to meet an end-of-day deadline. Even on the days when I did go for a healthier lunch option, it was often more expensive to do so, and I’d end up resorting to the cheaper, less healthy lunch the very next day.


Coffee done right

Coffee is a known metabolism booster, and can help you burn extra calories IF you drink it the right way. What’s the right way? Well, ditching all the milk and sugar (I’m lookin’ at you, Starbucks), and drinking a small amount of black coffee or coffee with very little milk and sugar (like my beloved cortado) is a start. Also, it’s typical in Spain to have a coffee directly after or between meals, which is just when your body benefits from an extra boost of metabolism to help burn off the food you recently consumed.

The cortado - a shot of espresso with just a little touch of steamed milk. Sugar optional.
The cortado - a shot of espresso with just a little touch of steamed milk. Sugar optional.

Shared meals

In Spain, especially in smaller cities like the one I live in, eating is not a solo sport. Meals are meant to be shared – with friends, family members, coworkers, roommates. When you go out to eat with a group, it’s typical for everyone to share from common plates or to share bites of their individually ordered dish with everyone else at the table. At first, I turned my nose up at this practice. But… I want all my food for myself! But, I’m still hungry! But over time, I’ve adjusted. I’ve even noticed that the slower pace of eating in a group setting, helps me feel more full with less food.  I’ve also noticed that Spaniards tend to share snack foods with folks around them. Whenever one of my colleagues has what we Americans would consider a single serving bag of chips or a similar snack, they always end up offering away at least a third of it to others, or eating about half and saving the rest for another time.

Sharing is caring. And better for your waistline.
Sharing is caring. And better for your waistline.


When I lived in the States, my work kept me sitting at a desk for multiple hours a day. After work, I’d walk 2 minutes to get in my car and drive home, where I’d often do more work sitting at a computer, before cooking dinner and watching TV or reading for a couple of hours before bed. Even if I ran errands in the neighborhood – like going to the grocery store that’s literally at the end of my street – it meant getting into my car and driving there. In the US, walking is often seen as a hardship or something that the less fortunate (i.e., those who can’t afford cars) do. The combination of a car-centric culture, and sprawling cities and neighborhoods, make walking for anything other than intentional exercise either unfashionable or implausible.

To put things in perspective, the entire country of Spain is smaller than the state of Texas (in square miles). The lack of sprawl makes walking a lot more feasible. Neighborhoods are designed so that you have almost everything you need within walking distance of your home – grocery stores, banks, schools, retail shops, personal services. And you’re not seen as odd or less fortunate if you walk everywhere, because almost everyone else – from infant to elderly – is walking too.


Water, water, everywhere

Because of all the walking I do, and because of a personal commitment to myself to consume more water, I almost always have a bottle of water on hand. I keep a 5L bottle of water in my room by my bedside, so I can not only track roughly how much water I drink a day, but also so I never have to go far to get it.



This is probably the single most influential factor in my weight loss. At the beginning of this school year, one of the professors at my high school was kind enough to loan me a bike to use during my time here. It just so happens that this bike is the oldest specimen of 2-wheeled locomotion ever known to man. It’s also a fixed gear, and it can leave my legs feeling like jelly even when riding on relatively flat terrain. Still, it’s a more efficient mode of transportation than walking, and I ride my rusty steed everywhere – to school, to the grocery store, to the park, to the library. I usually spend around 30-40 minutes biking each day, which isn’t a lot, but it’s definitely made a lot of difference.

My rusty steed - who I've affectionately nicknamed Roci, after Don Quijote's mule of a horse.
My rusty steed - who I've affectionately nicknamed Roci, after Don Quijote's mule of a horse.

Easy access to healthy, cheap ingredients

Within a 3-5 minute walk in any direction from my apartment, I have a least 4 independently owned fresh fruit/veggie stands, and 2-3 chain grocery stores. The selection of produce in either of those outlets is generally less varied than what I’d find in the US, but the price and the quality is significantly better. And the fact that they’re so close and right in front of my face, makes it easier for me to grab a healthy snack versus the fast food that I’d normally go for back home.

My favorite neighborhood fruteria - cheap, fresh, seasonal produce a stone's throw away from my place
My favorite neighborhood fruteria - cheap, fresh, seasonal produce a stone's throw away from my place

Fast food as an occasional treat

In the US, fast food is convenience food. Don’t have time to cook? Forgot to pack a healthy lunch? No problem. Just stop by one of the dozen fast food restaurants you’re sure to pass on your way to and from home and pick up an extremely high-calorie, extremely low cost meal. Fast food is so widely available and frequently consumed in the US, it could almost be considered its own food group. While I wasn’t a frequent consumer of fast food at home, I certainly ate my fair share of quick-serve lunches at work, and my go-to snack when on the run was an order of french fries from the nearest Chik-Fil-A or McDonald’s. Here, a trip to a fast food outlet is seen as a treat – something you do every once in a while as a special outing for the kids or yourself. And the prices reflect that. Going to Mickey D’s, KFC or Burger King is often an expensive proposition – a combo meal can run from 5 to 7 euros, and there’s rarely, if ever, a dollar menu. There are also fewer fast food locations to choose from. You almost have to go out of your way to get to one, and you’ll have to pass several cheaper, considerably healthier options to do so.

Now, are any of the above behaviors impossible to duplicate in the US? Absolutely not. Am I suggesting that there are no overweight or obese Spaniards? Nope. In either country, individual health and body weight are often a reflection of the daily lifestyle choices we make. But due to cultural norms, I think it’s more difficult to make these choices and stick to them on a regular basis back home in the US of A. As my time in Spain comes to an end, I often worry if I’ll be able to hold on to these healthy habits that I’ve picked up in my host country. I like to think that it’ll be easy, but I’m not 100% sure. For my own sake, and for the sake of my Facebook photo admirers, I certainly hope so. :)

Have you noticed any positive body changes during your travels or time living abroad? What do you think was behind it? Have you been able to stick to your healthy habits after returning to your home country?

Share your feedback in the comments!

Traveling Solo: What to Do When Everything Goes Wrong

Oh, f**k. I am literally stuck in Portugal. My heart rate quickened a few paces. I hadn’t really allowed myself to think that the worst possible scenario would happen, so now that it was in fact happening, I found myself momentarily bewildered. I’d made the foolish mistake of traveling to Portugal  without my passport, but since I’d gotten lucky on the flight out of Spain, I thought my luck might hold out for the return trip. It didn’t. After trying other alternatives (presenting a copy of my passport, then my Spanish resident ID) that were refused by the airline agent, it became clear that I was not getting on this flight.

My brain began slowly filling with a thousand thoughts:


Um. Ok. What the hell are you going to do now?

This can’t be happening.


What if I can’t get out of here? What if I’m stuck in this airport for months or years like that one movie with Tom Hanks?

How could I be so stupid!?


This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. Why do bad things always happen to me?

Jesus Christ, I’m sooo stupid!!

I just wanna go home.

*Eyes starting to well up with tears*

If you travel often enough, eventually it will happen. The worst possible scenario. You find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere. You missed your flight. The hotel booking fell through. You’re lost in an unfamiliar place where you don’t speak the language. Or worse yet, you’ve been pickpocketed or injured.

While I haven’t had any serious travel emergencies yet (knock on wood), I’ve definitely found myself in a pickle more than once while travelling – most recently on a solo trip back to Spain from Portugal. What I’ve learned from these travel blunders is that the best and quickest way out of them is to… keep calm and carry on.

you could panic. but what  good would that do?


Don’t Panic (Ok, panic. But make it brief.)

After realizing that my pleading with the airline agent was useless, I found a bench to sit on, and let the reality of the situation settle in a bit. I tried to tame my wildly racing thoughts as best I could (repeating over and over to myself, ‘It’s going to be ok. It’s going to be ok.’). Suddenly, a calming piece of advice that a friend of mine once said to me popped up in my mind: ‘Every problem has at least 5 solutions’.

Slowly, I felt the panic begin to subside and a steely resolve take its place. After a few more moments, I went to the bathroom, washed my face, fixed my hair, and touched up my makeup. Then, I set to work.



Gather Your Tools

I knew I would need to rely heavily on my cell phone, so I checked the battery. It was about half full. I started scouting out the airport terminal for power outlets. Then, checked to see if there was free Wi-fi at the airport. No luck. Fortunately, my cell phone data plan worked, and the signal was strong.

Once you’ve calmed yourself down, take inventory of what you’ve got to help you get out of this situation - cell phone, map, GPS, snacks, the phone number of ‘a guy who knows a guy’. Use whatever you’ve got within reach to help you get yourself out of this predicament or weather the storm until you do.

Using travel tools proactively can also be a big help in case of a travel mishap. For example, take pics of your hotel, the hotel stationery, or the street you’re staying on in case you get lost and can’t communicate where you need to go. Save emergency contact info into a notes app on your phone. Save text versions of walking directions to/from your hotel on your phone to use in case you can’t access GPS. Download maps that are accessible offline. Download travel apps you can use to book last-minute flights and hotels and find bus and train schedules.


Brainstorm & Prioritize Your Options

What’s the thing that needs to happen first? What’s most important right now? What’s the fastest, most efficient way to get that thing done?

My 3 main options were: Getting on another flight, finding a place to stay, or finding another mode of transportation to get back to Spain.

After a quick search online for other flights, I ruled out that option. Even if I could get past security for another airline (sans passport), the cost of the flight would be ridiculous. Since I was already out of the money from the lost flight, I didn’t want to pay more than I needed to.

My next best bet was finding an alternative way out. Lastly, I’d look for a place to crash, if finding a way out took longer than I hoped.


Be Resourceful – Know Where to Go for Info or Help

Thankfully, I had apps for Renfe – Spain’s railway system, BlaBlaCar, and Skyscanner on my phone, and I’d bookmarked the site for Portugal’s railway system. I used Google to search for buses going between Portugal and Spain. In under an hour, I’d found info on the next trains, buses, and rideshares going to Madrid. But online bus information can often be out of date, so I ended up consulting with both an airport security guard and the airport tourist info office to make sure the info I’d found online was correct (turns out, it wasn’t). Since there was nothing leaving until the next day, I used my handy AirBnB and apps to look for a cheap place to stay in the meantime.

Having the right info at hand during a travel emergency makes all the difference, and knowing where to go to find it is essential. In my case, I relied heavily on online travel tools. But the people around you can also be excellent sources of help and information. Information desks or tourist offices are available in most large cities. Bus drivers and taxi drivers are great for helping you find your way – they know the area well. Hotel concierges and desk staff, security guards and police officers, store workers in commercial areas – not only are all of these people good sources of ‘official’ info, they’re also more likely to speak English than a random person on the street.


Think Positively

Even if you do everything you should do in a travel emergency, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get out of the situation quickly. No matter what happens, though, keeping a positive mindset and being able to laugh at yourself will help you make the best of a bad situation.

In the end, it took a few hours of searching for and confirming transport and lodging, an overnight stay at a cheap but centrally located AirBnB room (15 euros), and a 5-hour BlaBlaCar ride (30 euros) the next day from Oporto to Madrid. During that time, I encountered some rude and unhelpful people, took a walk through what – at first glance – looked like a sketchy area, and suffered a late-night bout of gastrointestinal distress. I tried to view the whole ordeal as a comical adventure, which kept me from getting too riled up or freaked out, even though there were several times when I wanted to do both. In the end, I made it out of a sticky situation without too much incident, feeling like I earned a merit badge in the process.  And a ridiculously hilarious travel story to boot.

did i ever tell you about that one time when i smuggled myself into spain from portugal? fun times.


Have you ever experienced an embarrassing travel mishap or stressful travel emergency? How did you make it out alive? Share your experience in the comments!


Subscribe to Solo in Spain - get the latest posts delivered to your email inbox. Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner
how to cope when you hate your host country

Living in a different country isn't always sunshine and roses. Sometimes the experience is a complete emotional rollercoaster. One moment, you're all thrilled and tickled with the newness of it all - the sights and sounds, the new people you're meeting, all the fun you're having. The next moment, something happens that throws you for a loop, knocks you on your ass, and literally leaves you cursing the ground you stand on. Most times, though, the good experiences outweigh the bad, and the bad experiences just turn into funny stories that you share with friends over drinks. But sometimes,  the bad feelings don't just blow over. Sometimes everything about your host country works your last effing nerve. Sometimes the potent combination of: being isolated from family and friends, not speaking the language, confusing cultural differences, climactic anomalies and missing 'normal' food becomes way too much to bear. And as the days and weeks pass without any sign of your situation improving, you find yourself seriously wondering if you should just call it quits, pack up and go back home where you belong.


Since I've actually experienced the scenario above (and talked myself out of a one-way plane ticket home), I thought I'd share some suggestions for dealing with the post-honeymoon phase; or, as i like to call it: 'a survival guide for expats who've considered repatriation when the novelty wasn't enuf'.

7 Ways to Cope When You Hate Your Host Country

Don’t lash out

Often, the reception you get from the locals in your host country can feel less than hospitable. It can be tempting and sometimes, warranted, to fight fire with fire, picking a fight with anyone who rubs you the wrong way. Fighting the good fight day in and day out, however, quickly becomes exhausting. You're constantly on edge, waiting for the next person to 'make your day'. You'll end up wearing yourself down long before you wear them down.  My advice: even if you’re getting bad energy from people, resist the urge to give it back. At least not too harshly. In short, throwing shade is cool. Throwing epithets and punches, not so much.


Don’t clam up

 I get it. You hate the place, so obviously you want to limit your exposure to it. But becoming a recluse solves nothing. Find places that you enjoy going to - bookstores, cafes, parks, libraries, movie theaters - and make it a regular habit to visit them. If you haven't found your social group yet and feel shy about going out alone, go to restaurants and bars during off-peak hours, when you're less likely to be surrounded by couples and families. Sign up for a class or join a gym.  If you do end up taking some time to be a recluse, that's ok. Just try not to let it linger for too long.


Take a step back

Remove yourself as a participant in the daily expat struggles that you encounter.  Become an observer instead. Imagine that you are there to explore, compare, and document, as an anthropologist, journalist, artist, historian. Treat this experience as your work or project. Approach your time abroad this way and you’ll be less likely to get emotionally riled when frustrating things happen. Even if you do get riled, at least you’ll have a productive outlet for your emotions.



Stay connected

Stay in touch with people back home. Especially those who are good listeners, or make you laugh. Join online groups or communities (some of my faves: Black Americans Living Abroad

Solo Women Travelers, Bellas Morenas de Espana), where you can share with other people who can relate to the experiences you're going through. Look for local gatherings or groups to join - especially those where you're likely to find other expats. Check Couchsurfing, and to see if there are active groups in your area.



Plug in

I'm not usually an advocate of binge-watching tv, but as an expat, it may not be as easy or feasible (due to language barriers or telecommunications issues) to watch your favorite programs from back home. Scheduling time to catch up is a good distraction from expat woes.



Maybe it’s your city or region that doesn't agree with you? Explore other parts of the country, or find cheap ways to travel to nearby countries.



Get a job

Occupy your time? Make money? This one's a no brainer. Find side jobs based in your home country that you can do remotely from your host country. Check Craigslist, ODesk, and other freelance job sites for opportunities. Giving private English lessons is another good money-making option that works for almost anyone, since native speakers are usually highly prized non-English-speaking countries.


Remember the reason

Why’d you want to move to another country in the first place? Is that reason still valid? Have you strayed from your original goal? Do you need to set a new goal to help motivate you?

What are some ways that you've battled the expat blues? How do you know when it's time to throw in the towel and head back home? Share your thoughts in the comments!

spanish word of the day: cojones

The things you learn on roadtrips. On a recent one with some Spanish friends, I learned just how important cojones are to Spanish people.

It happened just after we passed Toledo heading southbound. Tio Pepe blurted out from the back seat, "Tocame los cojones! Que me voy a Bargas! Y si no me los toca... a Menasalbas!"


While my three Spanish compadres were laughing among themselves, I was once again left scratching my head at some vulgar Spanish expression whose meaning completely escaped me.From what I could gather from Pepe's explanation,  the expression had something to do with two towns we'd passed - Bargas and Menasalbas - south of Toledo. I'd never heard of those towns before, but I'd heard plenty of expressions using that oh-so-familiar Spanish word for testicles.

"Spanish people talk about cojones a lot," I intimated to my friends.

They all agreed. Eager to impress upon me just how essential cojones are to Castellano, my travel companions took the opportunity to school me on several uses and variants of the word. And I took notes. Here are some of my favorites:

    • que cojones...?  - used as part of a rhetorical question, as in, 'que cojones es esto (what the hell is this)?


    • hasta los cojones  - (to have had it) up to here; to be fed up. Literal translation: up to the balls.


    • acojonante - fabulous, amazing.


    • vas como los cojones de los galgos - used when someone lags behind. A galgo is a Spanish greyound. Approximate translation: you're moving like greyhounds' balls.


    • par de cojones - when someone is brave or fearless they are said to have a par de cojones or to have done something con dos cojones. Literal translation: a pair of balls.


    • cojonudo - awesome, amazing, great


    • cojonazos (aka, huevasos) - guy who is henpecked, or a guy who sits around 'tocando sus cojones' (touching his balls / doing nothing) all day.


    • un cojon - a whole lot. (e.g., 'te quiero un cojon')


    • mil pares de cojones - with a lot of force, effort, or difficult. Literal translation: A thousand pairs of balls.


And that's just a short list. Turns out there are dozens more uses for the word cojones in Spain. Which means that cojones could quite possibly be the most versatile word ever.

how to do lisbon: learn how to say thank you in portuguese

I love the sound of Portuguese. As soon as I slid into my seat on the plane from Madrid to Lisbon, I couldn't help but smile. Portuguese swirled around me, sounding like a hybrid of Italian and Spanish spoken with lilting intonations that lulled me to calm.

Despite it being a big city, Lisbon's residents were never too busy to engage in a small bit of conversation, and always seemed quite friendly and willing to help - especially if you tried to speak even the smallest bit of Portuguese.

To show appreciation for their hospitality, the great food, perfect weather, and the affordability of it all - learning how to give a heartfelt thanks in Portugese was the least I could do.


Learn More Useful Portuguese Phrases

This post is 1 part of Solo in Spain's How To Do Lisbon series... 

how to do lisbon: have a bifana

While the bifana didn't originate in Lisbon (that credit goes to the town of Vendas Novas), the snack is strongly associated with Portugal's capital city. The bifana consists of a juicy stack of thinly sliced pork layered on fresh, soft yet crusty bread. Sounds simple, but the unseen effort and just-right ingredients are what make this sandwich sublime.The pork is slow-simmered in a seasoned marinade. The bread is pillowy inside and just crackly enough outside. When the sandwich comes together, the juices from the meat seep into the bread, staining it with flavor. Served along with a helping of mustard that you can add as you please, the bifana is a deliciously indulgent snack that you can only experience in Portugal.

Cafe Beira Gare on Google+

This post is part of a series on How To Do Lisbon.


Subscribe to Solo in Spain - get the latest posts delivered to your email inbox. Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner