Travel Advice

Part I : Expectations

living abroad : part 1 / observant nomad

Living abroad was to this day the best decision I’ve ever made. It gave me an opportunity to discover myself at a time when I felt pretty lost. Living in Spain was my clean slate, a fresh start, and as cliché as it is, felt like the beginning of huge chapter of my life.

I think living abroad is something everyone should do if given the opportunity. Whether your work relocates you, or you ‘re hitting that 20-something life crisis (or mid-life!) moving abroad is a great way to challenge yourself and grow your confidence while expanded your comfort zones.

After living in Spain for 6 months I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on traveling, being alone, and exploring. And by then I’d seen plenty of people swing through town and end up feeling frustrated about one thing or another. So I decided to let you in on some of my personal philosophies I developed when I moved abroad, so others can avoid the same pitfalls – whether you’re moving or just visting, these all apply.

living abroad : part 1 / observant nomad

The first rule: forget your expectations.

Destroy them, bury them, burn them, shelf them. Whatever you have to do – let them go. Expectations have no place when you visit a foreign country. As the great Osho said, “Expectation is the mother of all frustrations.”

And when you experience a new place, culture, and people for the first time – it’s a good idea to let go of any assumptions you have. Assumptions could be anything, like, I think the cab will be here on time, the grocery store is open all day, waiters have to give good service to get a tip, or that place/person/experience is going to be cold/warm/friendly/rude/fun/boring.

living abroad : part 1 / observant nomad

Here’s a solid example. Several Americans and other non-Euro kids I know had big frustrations with the dynamics of waitstaff in Spain. In the US we’re used to doting waitstaff who work hard for those tips. They make close to nothing otherwise because our society allows waitstaff to get paid cents on the hour. But that’s our culture and there are many ‘norms’ we’ve created because of that situation. For instance a bad waiter will (usually) still receive a 10-15% tip because it’s customary.

In Spain it’s very different. Because of their socialist-economy, waitstaff are payed a high minimum wage and most waiters make a decent paycheck – without tips! So in Spain you don’t tip the waiter. The largest tip you’d leave is the change on a bill at a nice restaurant. I’ve seen Spanish waiters chase Americans out the door telling them they forgot their money in the restaurant!

living abroad : part 1 / observant nomad

living abroad : part 1 / observant nomad

Ok, what’s the point? Well because waitstaff makes good money – they don’t wait on you hand and foot. They don’t have to work so hard for a tip. Instead, you have to snap your fingers, raise your hand, give them a nod, or get their attention somehow to get service.

Most Americans feel really uncomfortable and rude doing this – but it’s normal for the Spanish (don’t worry they’re not offended, as long as you’re respectful doing it). So a lot of foreigners end up feeling really frustrated about dining out, because they expect the experience to go a certain way. They’re not used to having to grab a waitstaff for service and feel like they’re not doing their “job”.

living abroad : part 1 / observant nomad

Here’s what they might be missing out on with those expectations: Because of this custom, eating in Spain is a leisurely and relaxed experience. Lunch is usually a 2 hour experience, and tapas can be even longer. This is because the waitstaff isn’t trying to rush you out the door, they make the same money if you’re there or not. Want to sit with friends out of the rain and enjoy a bottle of wine? Go ahead! No rush.

During meals, wine comes included with your order, the food pours out, and friends take their time enjoying each other and laughing. There’s no awkward moment where the waiter interrupts your embarrassing story. Or asks you with a fake smile a hundred times if you want to refill the 2oz missing in your water. Instead you can get service when you want it.

living abroad : part 1 / observant nomad

And it will happen everywhere. Your expectations will be challenged and changed at every corner – and that’s ok! Expectations covers everything from daily cultural norms (like eating out) to traditions (bullfighting anyone?) and even social interactions (flirting is different everywhere).

To avoid this, first allow yourself to acknowledge all your expectations about where you’re going. Write them down, think about them, anything. Just get it out. Cover everything. Then try to imagine how you’re going react when those assumptions are broken. Then one by one feel the freedom when you mentally let each one go.

Another good idea is to read up before you go! I highly recommend the Culture Smart book series for quick reference on the go. Or Culture Crossing seemed to get a lot of Spanish norms right (even the drinking behaviors!)

| all photos by observant nomad |

What do you think?

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Such a great post, Brianna!

Coming from a Scandinavian country, I often find it really awkward when travelling to a country where tipping is expected – am I leaving enough? too much? And did I remember to calculate the tip when I was ordering, to ensure I have enough cash to leave? And like you say – although it’s refreshing with smiling waiters when we visit the States and Canada, it can be a little tiring being interrupted what feels like continuously.

I also really second your sentiment – travelling abroad, alone, for a good length of time is one of the most exhilarating experiences you can ever give yourself. I really believe that you’ll never learn to get to know yourself, until you’ve challenged yourself with immersing yourself in a different culture.

It’s great :)

This is a beautiful piece on travel and life in general. I completely agree with you. That is why we have the saying “exceeded my expectations.” The world is so much more beautiful than we can ever imagine, so it doesn’t help to sell ourselves short.

What a great post! I haven’t traveled abroad yet but I plan to soon (with young children…eek) and that is exactly the kind of thing I would want to know before I went somewhere new. I would never in a million years think of summoning a waiter. I’m so thoroughly American I’d assume that I had done something offensive already and he was ignoring me because of it and I’d probably slink out with my head down in shame once my meal was over. Ha!


Taking your children on a trip is such an amazing gift for them. I know traveling young truly shaped who I am and I’m so grateful my parents let me do that. And I totally understand feeling very American! But good news is that there are plenty of resources out there to learn all about cultural norms before you go.

This is fantastic! I’ve never lived abroad, although now I’m flirting with the idea, but I would love to opportunity to journey to a new place without any expectations. It’s a great privilege to let your guard down or what you expect to receive a new experience. I also think it helps you enjoy these new experiences a lot more. Also love the pictures of you!

Great article, Brianna! Just reading your article makes me feel a bit of a seasoned traveler by knowing some of the cultural differences. I hope you don’t mind but I posted about your article over at my blog ( with a link back here.

Brianna I love this post. I want to go to Spain ten times more now. I love your insights and reflections on traveling abroad and expectations.