Sabbatical year

Notes on living in a foreign country

Some quick observations on living in a foreign country – and on Madrid

  • Have you heard suggestions about doing things to engage your mind in typically mindless activities (e.g. brush your teeth with the other hand)? That’s how everything initially is in a new country. Simple things like going to the grocery or driving are a constant mental challenge and sensory stimulation.
  • What’s the climate like in Madrid? Someone described it yesterday as similar to West Texas or New Mexico. Did you know Madrid’s latitude is actually just about the same as Pittsburgh’s? But being so close to the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert (dust outbreaks all the way from the Sahara are common in Madrid), the climate is semi-arid. We have yet to see rain. The rain in Spain most certainly does not stay mainly in the plain.
  • We’re spoiled. I remember when our air conditioning stopped working for a couple days last summer and I thought the sky was falling. There’s not much air conditioning in Spain, despite temperatures in the high 90s and up into the 100s. We use wind. And it’s really not that bad. Then again, it’s a “dry heat,” so that might help.
  • It’s good to start slow. We’ve appreciated Paul & Sylvia’s wisdom in not over-scheduling us for this first month. I honestly hadn’t expected it to be so taxing early on just to adapt to living in a new place.
  • It’s great to have people who know the culture as guides. I know some people move into a new country entirely on their own. I’m sure they find a way to make it, but it’s hard for me to imagine. The help we’ve received from Paul & Sylvia, some other missionaries here, and those in their community has been invaluable. I’m not quite sure how we would have made it through all the initial needs (finding and securing a place to stay, figuring out legal stuff, etc.) without them.

Some important skills if you might ever live in a foreign country, or even do much travel (actually, these could be pretty helpful right where you are)

Yes, we’ve now lived in a foreign country for three weeks, and I’m giving advice. Take it as advice from someone who has lived in a foreign country for three weeks. Just the things we’re finding. I’m sure a bigger and better-informed list will come with more experience. So you can just disregard these and wait until the post at the end of our time here.

  • Learn to drive a stick shift. You never know when you might need to.
  • Learn another language. It’s the road map of a culture. And it’s key to getting around in a culture. If you know where you might be, which language to learn is obvious. If you don’t know, I would choose Spanish or Standard Chinese (assuming, of course, that you know English). After those, I’d choose French. Then Russian or Arabic. All you have to do is learn all of those, and you can go nearly anywhere in the world and get by.
  • Red = countries that don't use the metric system, via
    Red = countries that don’t use the metric system, via

    Get comfortable using the metric system (see the graphic).

  • Learn the art of people-watching and cultivate curiosity. Pay attention to people’s practices, the stories they tell, and their most commonly used images.
  • Read. Read things from and about other cultures.
    • Want an enjoyable, quick read that will give you some categories for understanding cultural differences? Check out Sarah Lanier’s Foreign to Familiar (link to Kindle edition). If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised at some of these differences and develop a better appreciation for them.
    • Read world news.
    • Learn about religions of the world. Understand a person’s/culture’s religion better and you’ll understand much more about their stories and how they perceive the world. Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

That’s all for now. Just some bits and pieces from what we’re learning and experiencing. School starts in just over two weeks. Next weekend we have a leaders’ retreat with several others who are planning to start the Algete church, and things will start happening pretty quickly after that.

4 replies on “Notes on living in a foreign country”

And, based on my family’s experiences many years ago in a foreign country, you’ll REALLY appreciate being an American!! We sure bonded, not only with all foreigners, but especially with Americans. I still keep up with some on FB!

Funny thing about language in Europe…English is the official language of the European Union, at least according to the speaker we had last year while in Europe.

With #14 trip to Africa just 2 weeks away, I’d say you are spot on! Things will get better! Just get into that siesta habit and everything will seem better even if it’s not! Blessings to all!

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