Poco a poco (little by little)

After two months in the beautiful, historic city of Granada, I’m looking back at what I’ve learned during my major-life-change move from Dallas. From the things that have been pleasantly nice surprises, to the things I’ve struggled with, it’s time for a pulse check, and I’m happy to share our findings.

On the whole, two-months is still a short time to assess a major change like this. I still feel a bit unsettled but, at the same time, it’s been an amazing experience that makes me very happy to be living here in Granada. A few of my new expat friends told me that it took them over six months to feel “home” and settled; another one said it took him almost a year.

When I moved from Thailand to the US about 30 years ago, I remember I had culture shock from adapting to the language, to meals, to just about everything. I was ready to go back to Thailand within the first week, but I promised myself that I would only consider going back if I still felt miserable after a year.

Fortunately, I did adjust and adapt to my new culture and country within a few months; I ended up staying thirty years, living longer in the US than I did in Thailand!

Still, whether one has previous experience moving to a new country or not, it is always a big life-change and one can anticipate some less than smooth adjustment. People do things differently in Spain than in either of my two home countries. I’m older too, and maybe not as flexible, but more set in my ways.

So, here’s a quick inventory of some adjustments:


Perhaps the most difficult adjustment is the language. While we did take one semester of Spanish in Dallas (with emphasis on slow, correct pronunciation), nothing has prepared us for the speed and intensity of daily living, nor the special Andalusian accent spoken here in Granada. Imagine landing in Mississippi, with their heavy drawl and phrasing, while you still just barely communicate in English!

The Andalusian people speak Spanish very fast and leave out some syllables, which makes it even harder to understand. For example, our very city, Granada, is pronounced Grana (with the da often left out) by locals. Hasta Luego is shortened to either hasta or luego, and we thought there was a special goodbye of buen noch till we realized it was their version of buenas noches.

Spanish schedules and meal times

We are stilling adjusting to it, but it’s getting much easier. We just made a conscious effort to eat lunch (2:00ish) and dinner (9:00 – 10:00ish) later and are careful not to plan to visit any places that might be closed for siesta. The good thing about being retired is that we are not on any time schedule, and if the bank or stores do close, we just have to do it another day (that’s the Spanish attitude!).

Slower pace.

Everything is slower in Spain, from the walking pace on the street, to the queue at the post office and the bank, to the service in the restaurant. For someone like me, coming from working in a fast-paced company and with speedy customer service in the US, it can be quite an adjustment. On the other hand, it’s nice to not be in a hurry.

By the way, don’t tell the Spanish they are lazy. They hate that, and will point out that theirs is a more balanced, healthy-paced lifestyle, and the news that Spain will pass Japan by 2040 as the country with the longest life-span kind of backs them up.

No false friendliness

Our region’s people have a reputation for appearing rude, but it’s more like they get to the point without false niceness. They answer calls with dime, or “talk to me” (no hello). There’s not much small talk, sometimes none at all. Store clerks expect you to get to why you are there straight off.  We had to learn that this was not rudeness, just their way. Spanish politeness is in fact based more on tone of voice. So, it’s OK to just say ‘give me a coffee’ to your barista – just make sure you do it with a smile.

Watch where you walk.

Granada is made for walking, and we love that. We enjoy the scenery, fresh air, and the constant exercise is giving us “Granada butts.” Still, we have found two things to watch out for, if only we could at the same time.

While Granadinos move at a slower pace, they don’t move around you on the sidewalk. If they want to walk where you are standing or walking they will brush past you as closely as possible and often even knock into you. In the US, I’m used to giving a wide berth to avoid colliding with strangers in public places, and if we happen to bump into each other, then an apology exchange follows with “I’m sorry” … “sorry” … “no my fault.” This doesn’t happen in Granada. Cars are very good at yielding to pedestrians, but beware of the walker to walker conflict.

The second pitfall of walking concerns the Granadinos who love their dogs but don’t clean up after them. The tourist area streets are clean, but in the area where we live, about a 15 minutes’ walk from the city center, there is a lot of dog poop.  Jim and I try to watch out for each other when we walk, but one mistimed look at Google maps and you can be in deep…, well, you know. Jim and I spot for each other, willing to push the other out of the way if it looks like the other might make a fatal misstep.

Fresh food

As a friend of ours said, living in Granada is in some ways like going back to American cities of the 1930’s or 40’s. There are limited big department stores like Walmart or Target. One can easily go to the supermercado (which is like a local grocer) to buy all the food one needs to save time, or one can visit smaller specialty stores on every corner, immersing oneself in the culture here via the daily ritual of shopping at stores, each dedicated to bread, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables.

In our small community, we have established relationships with our local small food store, whose people now greet us every time we walk in. I also have my local favorite fruiteria, where I can buy mangoes in November at the cheapest price. Even better, even though I had lost hope of finding anything spicy in Granada, I took a chance and asked them for very spicy (muy picante) pepper and, to my surprise, the lady smiled, went into the back and came back with a handful of hot peppers! This small event just made my (and my Thai taste buds’) day! Even when not going into the store, it’s nice to walk by the stores on our streets and get  small nod of the head, hand gesture, maybe even a smile, of recognition through the glass from the owners.

What makes the difference in adjusting

If this sounds like a lot of effort, it’s because it is. It is an adjustment to go to different places for different things. One has to struggle to explain what one wants, and even when a store has it, it may not be quite the same as in the States (ketchup tastes different!).

So let me pass on a couple of tips, more like mindsets, that can help others better acculturate wherever you are.

Empty your cup

I always like this Zen koan.

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, but then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s full! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “This is you,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.”

We all come with baggage, including expectations of how life “should be.” When one moves, it’s important to acknowledge our baggage but set it aside. If we try to impose America’s way of efficiency, we would be miserable and it would not change anything. I feel It helps us to keep our cup empty to fully enjoy the experiences of the new culture.

Go with the flow

Another way to adjust is to acknowledge the difference between the old life and the new life and make each a small step to adjust slowly. We try not to fight it and go with the flow. Poco a poco (little by little) is not just a Spanish way to adjust, but universally good advice.

So we try not to push back. We don’t fight it or complain about it (much!), but adapt. We are now a fan of late lunches and siestas. After all, we mentioned that Spaniards are projected to pass the Japanese as having the longest life expectancy in the world (with the US’ decreasing), so we have things to learn!

Having a partner

It helps if you have a partner or friend to share your experience with or someone to vent to about your struggles. I am thankful to do this with Jim. His sense of humor and laid-back attitude have helped me to cope. On some days, when we both were struggling and it felt like we were banging our heads against a bureaucratic wall, we just have to laugh and shrug together. Having a partner to share the load with definitely helps lessen it.

We also joined a weekly expat meetup group where we commune, share our challenges, and exchange coping tips with people from England, Belgium, France, Mexico, UAE, Venezuela, and the US. It definitely makes the adjustment easier and more fun. It really makes a difference to have friends who can say “I went through that.”

If you are doing it alone, there are others out there in the same boat. Join local groups, expat forums, or start a club; you will find someone  and it will make the adjustment easier.

Find a happy place

We try to find a few things that make the tough days a little easier, like somewhere to go that will help if we are feeling down or stressed. If one of us is struggling, we go out for a walk around the streets and have a wine & tapas. It’s good to just soak up the atmosphere and remember why we moved here in the first place.

Our comfort nest

We both have days when we just feel a bit homesick or wonder why we moved to this strange new place. We also sometimes want a break from the language struggles, so we stay in and recharge.

There’s a take-out Pad Thai Wok. The food may not be as authentic, nor spicy, enough as in Thailand but chatting with the staff there, who have been to Thailand, has helped cheer me up. Jim keeps a big bag of tortilla chips and salsa for his comfort food reminder of Texas. We might opt to watch American TV shows like Modern Family or my favorite PBS Masterpiece Theatre series, but snuggling on the couch will always pull us out of our funk and put a smile back on our faces.

So, two months later, Jim and I can definitely say one thing for sure: if we had to do it over again, knowing all the challenges, we absolutely would.

But as they say back home in Texas, it’s a long road and a little wheel; it will take a lot of turns to get there… poco a poco.


2 thoughts on “Poco a poco (little by little)”

  1. Thank you Jiab for a spot on assessment of life in Granada. After spending three months this summer and a full month in spring, we already feel adjusted there. However, when we returned to the US, we felt like so much here was foreign to us. The prices of everything are high, no free tapas, food not as fresh, waiters bugging us so they can turn a table, divisive political atmosphere and too fast paced!

    We return in a few weeks for a brief six week stay and can’t wait. Then back again for a few months in the springtime. If it weren’t for kids and grandkids here in the states we would be living full time in Granada. If we are lucky, living there half a year, every year, will give us at least half the benefits (including a bit longer lifespan, hopefully!) that you and Jim currently enjoy!

    I recognize many of the people from the Meetup group in the picture you posted and it makes me even more homesick for my beloved second home…Granada.

    Patty Lawrence

    • Patty,
      Thank you for your comment. We look forward to meeting you in Granada in a few weeks when you are back to your second home!


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