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Monika Gerber, 66: Relishing the Expat Life

Language enthusiast and longtime Disney artist, motorcycling Monika Gerber is passionate about learning and connecting with people around the world. Now living in Madrid, she shares her experiences of the city: the warm and intergenerational culture, how the art scene differs from that of LA, and why she doesn’t go to sleep before 2 am.

We last chatted with Monika 4 years ago, and just fell in love with her spirit of openness, curiosity, and adventure. The former motorcycle messenger, Venice, CA pioneer (when it was a pretty dicey place to live), and longtime Disney artist has been a lifelong language enthusiast. She has gone from her origins in Germany to the US to living in Japan, then back to Los Angeles and now Madrid, Spain, where she and her husband Joe have transformed an old commercial building into a modern loft/artist studio. 

It seems that Madrid is suiting them just fine. Its strong sense of community, as opposed to the transactional culture of the Los Angeles art world, is a breath of fresh air. The street life, the music, and being able to interact with multiple generations in the street at all hours are all filling her spirit, and then there is the amazing food…

We caught up with the artist, former ski instructor, and world traveler just before she and her husband were about to embark on an inaugural visit to Ireland. 

How old are you now?
I’m going to be 66 this week, on Saturday. 

When did you guys start living full-time in Madrid?
Actually, we are not living full-time here. I live here maybe seven months a year. And Joe maybe four or five.

What’s the advantage to living in Madrid?
Actually, for me, I just love operating in another language. To have to put effort into communication, that was always my interest. I’ve been taking Spanish classes for a long time and all kinds of other language classes. And meanwhile, I have so many friends. After I quit Disney and wanted to get back into the art scene in Los Angeles, it was challenging because everything has changed and a lot of it is about identity. It just seemed like: Where is my place here? I felt a little bit discouraged, then I came here. I had a big show in Germany two years ago that was a huge success, where I got, like, six articles and newspapers. Then I had a show here in a gallery. 

Meanwhile, I know so many artists and galleries here in Madrid. I have another big show coming up in October. That’s what I’m working on right now. It’s also the artists’ world here. The artists help each other out. It’s not as competitive as in the US. It feels friendlier — to me, at least. I have so many other friends; I invite them over for dinners here or we go to galleries, events. It has been really great.

It sounds like it’s much more social in Madrid than it was in Los Angeles.
Exactly. It’s more social; that’s for sure.

Do you find the people that you socialize with, are they Spaniards? Are they expats? Who’s in your group?
It’s half Spaniards, mostly from Madrid, and then there’s also some expats but they’re Venezuelans because we worked with this Venezuelan architect when we built out our place. Meanwhile, we know a huge group of Venezuelans and they have a lot of events. There’s poets, artists, and they have a community and they always invite me. From the beginning, I became part of that community. Then I met also, of course, a lot of Spanish people and the whole neighborhood. You meet people here, even in the streets; it’s very friendly.

It also feels safe. Very often I’m on my own when Joe is still in the US. I walk around at 2 am. There’s never a moment where I feel, “Oh, yeah, this place is unsafe.”

“It feels crazy when you get up at 8 in the morning; it feels like you’re getting up at 6 am”

Speaking of 2 am, my recollection of life in Spain is very late at night.
Basically, you have to adjust. It feels crazy when you get up at 8 in the morning; it feels like you’re getting up at 6 am. Somehow the sun comes up really late here. You automatically go to bed late; I mean, I can’t sleep before 2 here.

We are in the center of the city and so we have, like, a very famous jazz club directly in front of our door. There’s a lot of events and people hang out in front. They have quite famous groups there that perform. It’s, like, quite a scene in front of our door. But people don’t think anyone lives in here because it’s very kind of hidden. They think it’s a business, and there’s a gate. Then you open the gate and go in. Anybody who sees it is like, “Wow, what’s this?”

Wonderful. How has your work changed since you moved to Madrid?
That’s a very good question. Two years ago, I did a whole series that was inspired by all the history of Galicia, the architecture of Galicia. I also worked in some photographs, which I didn’t used to do. That became a new feature. The travels started to influence me. We went to Africa a few times because it’s so close to here. I did, like, this whole series that is influenced by the colors of the travels. The show was also called Color Journeys, or Journeys of Color. Viajes de Colores.

“Madrid is also one of the cities that has the most square kilometers in a forest.”

What are the sort of difficulties that you run into being in Spain?
The only difficulty could be is more a financial thing. If we spend too much time, we might end up having to pay taxes here. So, we have to be careful about that. That’s kind of more a financial setback that could be but, otherwise, on a personal level, it has been very enriching. The one thing may be exercise. Here in Madrid, we go to the gym and, actually, Madrid was sports city of Europe last year. I can see everywhere now small gyms popping up, personal training gyms. I think the fitness movement here is just coming to its prime, unlike California, where it always has been. It takes a little bit more discipline here, I feel. But still we go to the gym every day.

Madrid is also one of the cities that has the most square kilometers in a forest, urban forest. We go bicycle riding in this place called Casa de Campo, and then along the river; it’s incredible. They created all these areas for people to hang out: cafes, they have playgrounds for kids. And you can ride your bicycle, you can jog, you can do all kinds. So, it’s wonderful and goes on and on forever. And there’s so many different bridges. So, it’s kind of interesting. It starts with an old stone bridge that’s, like, 1000 years old, then there’s a very contemporary metal bridge. It’s a fun ride. 

Do you feel that you’ll stay in Madrid?
Yeah, I think we are definitely going to keep it. This is for the long run, for sure. And from here, because it’s also close to Germany, I still have family there. It’s just a two-and-a-half-hour flight. But I didn’t want to go back to living in Germany. I like this challenge of being in a different culture.

And how is Joe adapting?
Yeah, Joe, he loves it here. He totally loves it here. He has a problem with language, so that’s a little bit more challenging. But he totally loves it here. He does some really cool cartoons. He gets inspired by all the characters we see. We have, just a few steps away, a beautiful plaza. It’s very local here, where a lot of families live. You see all these families hanging out at the plaza. It’s packed every night, all the cafes surrounding. It’s just really amazing. There’s always so many people in the street and he would go there and just sit on the bench and do sketches. 

Intergenerational Community

By my recollection, the last time I was in Spain it was surprisingly intergenerational. You would see children, you would see families, you would see older people. Is that the case where you are?
That’s still the case, yeah. But you also see a lot of young people. Everybody goes for a walk at night; that’s just what you do here. They all meet in the street, have a little neighborhood chat. This is one of the main streets here, right next to us. The people are out there — little kids, to the grandparents, to parents. In front of our door, where all the clubs are, you see more young people hanging out, a lot of students. And they stay in front of the door till 7 am on the weekend. 

Amazing. And how’s the food?
We love the food. It’s all very fresh. And that’s actually very fantastic because our gym is upstairs from this beautiful mercado. I have my favorite vegetable stand that’s all basically organic. And then there’s the fishmonger, and they are so professional; their whole life they are fishmongers. And they say, “Do you want it filleted?” They always take the bones out. I mean, it’s so incredible. That’s what they do. The professionalism is so impressive. Everything is super, super fresh. All the fish fresh from the ocean.

In the three mercados, we have all these different foods. We have wonderful Japanese food. They even have Mexican. Of course, Argentinian, Spanish. I’ve never experienced that anywhere else before. You just go to the mercado at night and you can eat there and hang out with people, meet neighbors.

It can be hot in the summer. What do people do?
In August, basically, all the Madrideans, they leave town and go to the sea. Everybody goes to the sea to cool down.

Where do they go?
They go to the south. They go to Málaga, they go to Almeria, they go to wherever there’s ocean. Or they go to the Canary Islands, next to Africa. So, that’s very popular in summer.

“I’m not going to give up motorcycles. Otherwise, I feel old.”

How is your motorcycle?
I still have my motorcycle sitting in LA. Unfortunately, it’s sitting in a lot. But I go for rides when I’m there.

It’s still the red Ducati?
Yeah, it’s still the Ducati. Yeah. I haven’t changed my bike yet. But I’m not going to give up motorcycles. Otherwise, I feel old.

What else do we want to let people know about?
Yeah, it’s just great to have this kind of change of cultures, and I can only recommend it to people to be part of different cultures where you totally have to reinvent yourself a little bit. Just to try to adapt, not to try to impose. Go with the flow of this particular culture. 

This is wonderful. We always end the interviews now with the same question, which is: What are the three things that are non-negotiable for you?
1. I want to have control of my schedule: when I want to paint, when I want to have fun with friends, when I want to exercise. So, my schedule is more and more fluid. I think after being at Disney for 20 years and in structure, in such a strong structure, I actually like being more adaptable. 

  1. Healthy food. I never eat any kind of junk food. For me, wherever I am in the world, I will always find healthy food. So, that’s also non-negotiable.

3. Exercise is a very, very important part of life. That’s something I’ve always done and will always do.

Connect with Monika:

See medical disclaimer below. ↓


  1. Congratulations Monika for your artistic career. It’s great to read your perceptions on living in my country! I’m from Málaga, which is also a very open, and lively city where people from diferente generations meet in the same places, including the beach!
    Sigue así!

  2. Such a fun peak into your life in Madrid.
    To Immerse yourself into so many places is a special experience.


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David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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