Archive | September, 2012

15 Life Lessons I’ve Learned from 5 Years Living Abroad

Phew, Five years – that’s easily said.

I first moved abroad when I was at University. Deciding to study European Business Management meant that half of my time would be spent abroad. For me, abroad was Germany – a country that felt so close and yet so different to me! At first, I wasn’t identified – I had a German surname and a German passport, and yet still, I had far too many grammatical mistakes to be a local. Soon, I was grouped with the rest of the Spaniards. During this time, I took the chance to do a 6 months internship in Zürich, Switzerland. I loved the city, the landscapes and the people I worked with and always promised myself I would return some day… After graduating from my Master degree in Madrid, that opportunity came back to me: I had an offer to move back to Switzerland – this time, Lausanne. Even though it was hard to adapt to at the beginning, I fell head over heels with this lakeside city, its views over the french Alps and nearby vineyards. After two years, time had come to move on. And here I am, just celebrating the end of my 5th year abroad, from London.

View over Beijing, China

So for this 5 year anniversary, I’ve prepared a list of 15 life lessons I’ve learned (some of them, the hard way).

Here we go.

  1. Ask questions. I used to be the sort of person at school that hoped for someone else to raise my question, or otherwise, ask after class to avoid possible embarrassment. The thing is: there is no reason to be embarrassed – There is really no such thing as a stupid question.
  2. Follow your gut. Whenever confronted with a decision that has to be made: follow your instinct. Something that doesn’t feel right is certainly wrong.
  3. If others think your ideas are crazy, then you must be on the right track. Not everyone will understand your choices and support your ideas. Don’t ever let this pull you down. The only reason to quit is because you feel it’s the right choice – not because others don’t believe in your dream.
  4. Do it, even if you don’t get paid for it. Getting paid to doing what you want is great, but very often you’ll have to start doing it, as I would say, por amor al arte (literally meaning for the love of art, or fun the fun of it).
  5. It’s OK to fail. You don’t have to be right the first time. You can be right the second. The third. Failures provide us with great learning experiences and prepare us for our big success. Never stop doing something because you’re afraid to fail – remember: the secret of winning is playing often.
  6. The most interesting experiences usually happen when you get off the beaten path. In your career and while traveling, it’s good and comfortable to have a plan – but always be ready to get off that plan whenever it feels right, as the best is waiting for you somewhere completely unexpected.
  7. Your reputation is the most valuable asset. After quitting your job or graduating from Uni, you might feel like throwing a nasty email to your boss or that competitive class mate, but this will never pay off enough to cover the huge hole you’re creating in your reputation. They say never burn the bridges. You never know when or where you’ll meet them again.
  8. You choose the way you view the World around you. A swiss village can be dead boring or incredibly charming. London can be too crowded or full of buzz. It is all in the eyes of the viewer.
  9. Laugh. Often. Laughter is the best medicine. Surround yourself with people who will make you laugh out loud and cry of happiness. I’m pretty sure you’ll have less wrinkles and live longer.
  10. Languages are a virtue. Languages take you to places. Today, it’s quite common to see job offers asking the candidate to be able to write and speak a second language – sometimes even a third. Even when english is widely spoken, languages are very much appreciated and will open many doors!
  11. Stereotypes are only that: stereotypes. We’ve all heard about them. Spaniards always sleep siestas. The swiss clockwork punctuality. German’s don’t joke and all Latin-Americans dance. Well let me tell you something: I know Spaniards that don’t take naps, swiss that were late and germans that made me pee in my pants. Oh, and I’ve also met an awful lot of Latin-Americans that can’t dance! Always keep an open mind.
  12. You’re not as different as you think from everyone else. As soon as I started to tell people who I was quitting finance to move into events, I started to realize that so many others are on their second life or have a dream career they’d love to approach. Finding something in common with someone is much easier than you think.
  13. Learn to enjoy your own company. Do activities by yourself. Immerse in a book, go for a walk/run, visit an exhibition. Travel! Don’t wait for others to join your plan, otherwise, you’ll never do it.
  14. Stop checking your phone when you’re with other people. Seriously, I can’t think of anything more disturbing and disrespectful than sitting with friends or colleagues and realizing everyone is more engaged in their online life than in what is happening right here right now.
  15. You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want. Time is precious, so think about you really want to do, prioritize and do it.

What valuable lessons have you learned, living abroad?

An Expat in Shanghai: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

One of the many advantages of visiting a friend living abroad is that, after a short time, you can already get a grip of his or her daily life in this city. You’ll quickly understand which aspects they enjoy the most and which drive them mad.

After only 6 days in Shanghai, I already had built my thoughts over the city and the life I would live if I moved in for a few months time.

The Great

Shanghai's Skyline, from Bar Rouge

  • The Rooftops. I admit it – over the years, I’ve become a bar snob. Don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy drinks at the local pub. But give me leather sofas, a terrace, a breath-taking view, and an extensive cocktail menu… and I’m sold. I hardly ever step into these places in London (probably because the weather isn’t always good for outdoor lounges and because drinks are prohibitively expensive), but be assured that I would become a regular at Shanghai’s rooftops.

  • Beauty and Well-Being is affordable. During our 6 days in Shanghai, we managed to squeeze in a foot massage, a full body massage, a mani and a pedi. If I’d live there, I would probably make massages a weekly habit – who wouldn’t, for less than 20 USD?

The Good

  • Getting around. Shanghai, compared to Beijing, is fairly walkable. There are some beautiful parks and many leafy streets that allow pedestrians to walk in the shadow on those hot summer days. Being the largest city by population in China, with over 23m people, it cannot be compared to the walkability of Stockholm, of course. You can’t expect to go without public transport! However, public transport works well and is also very affordable.

  • Restaurant diversity. As a tourist, restaurant diversity isn’t something you particularly appreciate in a city – after all, tasting local food is part of the experience. And let me tell you – the Chinese have some really tasty dishes, but they also have quite exotic menus. So, when you’re expecting to stay for a longer period of time, having other cuisines at your disposal (maybe even your home food!) will make it easier to adapt.

  • The culture. China’s culture is very different from anything I had lived before, it’s fascinating. There are so many things to learn from it! If I lived in Shanghai, I know I would sign up for a dumplings master class, I would pick up Kung Fu and do Tai Chi in the park.

The Bad

Funny Chinese Signs

  • The Language barrier. Imagine you’re on your way to a stylish restaurant, and suddenly come across this sign. What do you expect? A toilet? A restaurant? A restaurant serving delicious food in a toilet? Chinese is hard to learn, and not all Chinese people will speak perfectly english. This makes daily life much more challenging!

  • Giving up your personal space. The first thing I noticed as soon as I stepped into Shanghai’s Airport was the amount of people – it was very crowded. I soon learned that this was not particular to the airports – but anywhere you’ll go. People grew up with little space and therefore, their concept of personal space is different from mine. They are more comfortable with up-close and personal interaction, so it’s common to notice people staring and pointing at you, pushing you in a line or looking over your shoulder to see what you’re doing. Having trouble not freaking out in Oxford Circus during lunch time… I doubt I could do this for too long in Shanghai.

  • The Goodbyes. This is something common to all big cities that have a wide expat community – expats often don’t stay more than a year (specially in developing countries), so even though it’s fun to constantly meet new faces… It is also tough and daunting to say goodbye to the friends you’ve made. I’ve been living away from home for 10 years now, and goodbyes haven’t become any easier…

The Ugly

Shanghai Skyline

  • Traffic, pollution and fearing for your life. Traffic is a big issue in Shanghai – there a re just far too many cars! Traffic jam is a common problem at any time of the day. As a pedestrian, you should never assume that green light actually gives you the right-of-way. I learned that, specially bus and taxi drivers, hardly ever obey traffic lights… which makes every road cross a scary adventure.

  • The ultimate culture shock. Before traveling to China, many people warned me about some of the customs that are different from the western World – the concept of private space just being one of them. The constant spitting is probably something I wouldn’t necessarily get used to over time, together with having children pee or poo in the streets or tube stations!

Have you been to China? What other things would you add to this list?

Capture the Season: My London Anniversary

I’m lounging on my terrace, overlooking the park. Every now and then, an airplace traces the blue sky above me, leaving a trail of white clouds behind. I realize that these are the last days of summer – soon, my bikini will have to return to the back of my closet, being replaced by scarfs, leather jackets and boots.

It has been one year since I’ve moved to London and I’m already saying goodbye to my favorite english season for the second time. However, this time, I’m looking forward to welcome autumn. I’m looking forward to student discounts, brand new faces and an exciting big step in my new career. This year in London has been anything but what I had expected. I learned so much about myself, my values and my deepest dreams. I found courage to step out of my comfort and into the exciting unknown. I swiched from fearing not to know where I’d be in five years time, to embracing uncertainty in a 3 months span.

So to celebrate a year of unexpected London, I’m choosing my favorite photographs of London for my entry to Capture the Season promotion.

I realize it is fall when…

Fall in London, UK

…The city is bathed in a golden light. Despite a blue sky and shining sun, the air is crisp and humid. The parks are covered in yellow-tainted leaves. I rescue my boots and wool scarf from the back of my wardrobe. My weekends go by with long walks along the river, capturing every sight of the city, and conclude my day with a pint of ale and a game pie in a local gastropub.

I realize it is winter when…

Winter in London, UK

… I dread leaving the house every morning and wonder whether I should wear my Hunters, my UGGs or have the courage to leave in heels. I choose to go for one of the first two, and pack the others in my XXL handbag, together with a hat, an umbrella, gloves and an extra thick scarf. Winter in London is unpredictable, so I usually carry half my wardrobe with me to be prepared at any time. Bare branches greet me on my way to work. Winter is the best excuse to go shopping – every shop window is carefully and heartily decorated in Christmas-theme, street lights shine reflecting on the wet streets and it’s simply too cold to spend more than 5 minutes outside.

I realize it is spring when…

Spring in London, UK

… London is covered in green. All the rain and humidity is paying off – crisp green grass, colorful flower beds and even entire buildings covered in leafs! I’m excited to see a ray of sunlight force itself through the cloudy sky. Shop windows display english country flower dresses and some women brave to ditch their winter tights and substitute their coats with light jackets. On a rare sunny afternoon, I fight for a spot on one of London’s many terraces to enjoy a glass of rosé. Hopes are high for summer to come.

I realize it is summer when…

Plane Flying over London

… All I really want to do is grab a book and go to the park. I twist and turn in the sun, hoping to get a hint of a tan. I admire the blue sky, and the many planes flying above me. I hear a bell ringing in the background – cream van is approaching! I look around me, and realize every one else is expecting him, too. Friends are playing ultimate frisbee and rugby close by (I secretly hope to not be hit by them – as my previous experiences have already shown my innate skill to attract flying objects). These days, I feel I don’t need anything else but this: a park, a group of friends and a good book. Add a glass (or two) of white wine and I’m in London’s heaven.

This is my entry in Booked.net‘s “Capture the Season”. I nominate the following bloggers:

Old Shanghai Romance – A Tale of the French Concession

French Concession, Shanghai China

Shanghai is also known as the Paris of the East. This is no wonder – during 100 years, the city was partly occupied by the french. After the Chinese loss of the Opium Wards in 1842, Shanghai was forced to open to international business. The french obtained concession of certain terrain for settlement, which had its own laws and enforcement. Even though it started as a settlement for the french, it soon attracted english, americans and russians, the common point being their affluence and influence. It was home of the wealthy Shanghailanders (foreigners living in Shanghai).

Late 1930s, when the Japanese army invaded the city, many Shanghailanders left. Those remaining, were put in concentration camps at the height of WWII. By 1946, both, the Japanese and most Westerns had gone and Shanghai was cut off from the World.

The city remained almost untouched for 40 years.

Unfortunately, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of unregulated re-development took place in the area, tearing apart many neighborhoods. Some of the most remarkable buildings were substituted by modern high-rise developments.

French Concession Skyline, Shanghai

Since the change of millennia, the Chinese Government has limited and regulated the re-development in this part of the city, in order to retain part of its historic feel. In some parts, you even get the impression to be time traveling back to 1930s.

Time Travel in the French Concession, Shanghai

Fuxing Park, where I came across this old timer, is the only French Style park in Shanghai – with a lake in the center, several small fountains, covered pavilions and beautiful flowerbeds. My favorite part of the park was its tree-shaded walkways, where seniors got together to chat or play chess and card games.

Fuxing Park, French Consession Shanghai

The buildings themselves were unique in style. I expected to be transported to the Paris of the 1930s, but instead, I found it to be a rare mix of western and eastern architecture. A mixture of old and new. I liked it. It was easy to read the city’s history through the lines of the buildings. Some low-rise colonial french style villas still remain, blending in with art deco designs, high-rise luxurious and modern apartment blocks on leafy streets.

Architecture in the French Concession, Shanghai

Today, the French Concession is one of Shanghai’s most expensive terrains. Expats and artists make the atmosphere trendy and exclusive. Tree-lined streets are filled with little fashion boutiques, while wider streets boast expensive shopping malls. When lunch or dinner time approaches, groups or friends and couples make their way to one of the stylish bars and restaurants. In the French Concession, one can find any type of cuisine – from original spanish tapas, the best italian wine bars and beautiful french cafes to modern Vietnamese cuisine and fresh quality sushi.

Gate in the French Concession, Shanghai

While my stay in Shanghai, I visited some great bars and restaurant in this area, which deserve an individual post – stay tuned!

Have you ever visited the French Concession in Shanghai? Which were your impressions?

September Challenge: Where’s North Again?

I’ve got a terrible sense of direction. In fact, even after one year in London, I occasionally find myself taking a complete different course. I blame those small curly alleys that characterize Europe’s oldest towns. I love them – they’re mysterious, obscure and full of history. But they’re charm distracts me and confuses my senses. I get hypnotized by the narrow streets, old bricks and tiny windows… And suddenly, I forget whether I was walking north or south.

Me and My Map in Buenos Aires, Argentina

I still can’t understand why I couldn’t get a cab that night.

It all began with a school trip to Madrid when I was 12. I was enchanted by the colors, variety and abundance of clothes in one of the big department stores and, at the time to return to the meeting point, I was lost. I exited the store to a different street and couldn’t figure out whether I was meant to go to my right or my left. I wandered for what I felt were desperate long hours (but probably was only about 30 minutes), trying to locate something familiar. I asked other pedestrians for directions, but everyone seemed to be as much as a tourist as I was at that time. I did make it back to the meeting point eventually, but no one was there. Thankfully, I am a kid of the 1980s with a very tech savvy grandfather that handed me a bulky yellow and black mobile phone and taught me how to use it in case of an emergency. I called up the hostel and after about 20 minutes of despair, one of my teachers came to pick me up and tuck me in the bus back to the airport.

Seriously, people, mobile phones are Heaven’s creation.

That was just the beginning of my realization: I suck at giving, taking and understanding directions.

Over time, I’ve misdirected myself, my friends and my family in several different countries. The most recent one having been in London. I ran out of my temporary apartment in Marylebone (a neighborhood I love and know very well) to meet a friend. After rushing for 10 minutes, I reached Baker Street. I stopped for 10 seconds and thought “This doesn’t make any sense“. I did, though. I had just ran towards the exact opposite direction for 10 minutes.

The years have taught me to live with this disability. I embrace getting lost in a new city and occasionally finding hidden gems that make my travels unique. Last year, I ditched the map and got lost in the streets of Lisbon. The year before, I visited Venice and soon realized that the real charm of the city is away from its touristic attractions.

Not carrying a map and giving in to the adventurous city explorer in you is often a good thing to do, but the ability to read a map or intuitively find back your track in case of distress is, well, useful.

September Challenge: Learn how to read a Map and improve my natural sense of where north is.

The 1001 Uses of a Map, in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Fashion is only one of many uses I can find for a city map in Buenos Aires.

Not only do I want to work on my orientation to avoid missing a plane back home from China or arriving late at important meetings (yes, I’m usually late because I get lost… not because I’m sort of spanish), but also because it’s a skill I’ll require to be a real day skipper. You see, I haven’t given up on my dream of hiring (or even buying) a sailing boat and spend a few months sailing along beautiful and dramatic coastlines. And as it seems to be the case, orientation is key.

I even have a plan:

  • I’ll take a map with me at all times. I might not use it. But it’ll still be useful to have – specially in a country like China, where I can’t really explain myself verbally.
  • I’ll take pictures of street signs of the roads I particularly like (or know!).
  • I‘ll be observant. Sometimes, a particular shop, building or square helps me to find my way back. This is also the reason for which I usually give directions like “walk on the left of the park towards Benny Room boutique, turn left where the black Champagne bar is and walk straight down to the road until you find a dark blue wooden bar”. No road names. No north-south. Only points of interest (or in nautical terms, waypoints).
  • I’ll try to think of the direction I’m going every now and then. Maybe I should buy a tiny compass for this.
  • I’ll always wear my Garmin watch when I go walking/running. Even though its first use is to track my fitness training, I’ve also used it when simply going for a walk. It stores my track, which I can then analyze online – I can see the height differences and the exact route on a map. This way, at least I’ll see what turns I’ve made (and then probably laugh at the many time I walked in circles).

Do you have a good sense of orientation? If so, please tell me your tricks!

PS: I am traveling in China for 9 days – to follow me on the road, please come and join my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter!