by Niall Doherty

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

El ciudad de Burgos

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

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

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

La clima / El clima

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

Cost of living

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

Speaking of food…

La Comida

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

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

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

The little differences

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

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

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

Living arrangements

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

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

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

Learning Español

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Talking to strangers

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

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