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What it really means to live abroad in Spain

The culture shock set in immediately. As I stood at my bag claim carousel, clouds of cigarette smoke engulfed me. I knew Spaniards smoked a lot, but inside an international airport? At baggage claim? Wow. This was different, for sure.

This was Madrid. I had arrived.

My lackluster confidence began to wane even further as I tried to muddle my way through unpracticed conversational Spanish.

¿Dònde està la estaciòn de tren? No one seemed to understand my basic question. And to my horror, I didn’t really understand anyone else, either.

What language were these people speaking? It didn’t sound like Spanish. Or at least not the perfectly didactic, newscaster Colombian Spanish that I had learned over five years in high school and four years at university.  Despite myself, and this annoying language barrier that wasn’t supposed to be there, I ended up at the train station. Finding the correct train to Sevilla was a completely different story.

I’m not even sure how I got to my apartment that day. It might have been the jet leg or my disheveled, cracked-out brain trying to process my new environment. I felt like I was in survival mode. Did I take a taxi? Did someone from the TEFL program meet me? Who knows? All I remember is curling up on my bed in my freezing cold room in January, too tired to unpack and too emotionally distraught to contemplate my strange new reality. I pulled the space heater close, closed my eyes, and slept.

When I awoke, it was dark. I was scared. What had I done? Why had I committed to moving to Spain, by myself, to teach Spanish- without a return flight … or an escape plan? The only thing set in stone was the one-month of classes it would take to earn my TEFL certificate. One month’s tuition included rent for the apartment I was hunkered down in, along with two other American roommates I had yet to meet.

I think back to how brave I must have sounded to my friends and family in the states.  “I’m moving to Spain… Yea, I’m going to teach English….. I don’t know when I’ll come home. Maybe after a year.

Then here I was, in Spain, this scared little girl who felt miserable and alone. And I didn’t understand these Spanish people! What was with that lisp?! Who was I fooling? I was no brave one. I was probably going to quit this thing before it even got started.

Fast forward several months….

Spain

To my pleasant surprise, living in Spain started to suit me quite nicely. I fell in love with the lifestyle. Late mornings, starting your day at 10 AM or so. Some work, maybe, or a stroll through a park or along the river. Maybe I’d just take the day to read the new Harry Potter book (and hunker down until I finished it).

Hanging in Parque Maria Luisa, one of my favorite places to jog.

Hanging in Parque Maria Luisa, one of my favorite places to jog.

It wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine, though. Despite the lovely, laid-back lifestyle, I went through the trials and tribulations of living in a foreign city, speaking a different native tongue (although I finally started to get a handle on that lisp) and having to make friends. I was lonely- a lot.  Even with frequent trips home or visits from friends every couple of months, I couldn’t shake the slight tinge of homesickness.

Making friends In Sevilla

Making friends In Sevilla (‘scuse the midriff, yall!)

Finding a “real” job also proved somewhat impossible. What TEFL doesn’t tell you when you’re signing up for their program is that, despite all of the credentials and their ability to connect you with so many teaching opportunities in schools, you can’t very well work in a European country if you’re a non-European citizen without having to jump through some major hoops to obtain the appropriate work visa. Even if you had said visa, an EU citizen would get preferential treatment. The paperwork was easier on the employer’s end- something about having to justify that there was not another EU candidate that was qualified for the same position. It seemed like an uphill battle.

Sevilla

So, what were all of the other Americans and Canadians doing for work? The solution presented itself easily enough. They were creating their own positions as private English instructors and putting up flyers around town with their mobile number displayed in little tear-off tabs at the bottom. This was such a foreign concept to me, but it was working for everyone else.

I purchased a Spanish mobile phone and got to work. Within a week, I had three clients: a young girl in high school, an older man named Eduardo, and another lady. Let me tell you, speaking Spanish on the phone was something I had never done, and I was quite proud of myself for accomplishing that task somewhat successfully.

Enjoying one of many trips to Barcelona

Enjoying one of many trips to Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona

The cost of living being as low as it was (my rent was about €120 a month- back when the dollar was strong- and groceries were about €20- Oh, and bottles of wine? You could get one for €2), all I needed were three clients once a week (so three hours of work a week) to pay my bills and have spending money. My dad teased me that I wasn’t costing him anything while living in Spain, so I should stay a while (my parents were helping me out, before I landed my first real job out of college). Not paying my car insurance alone was saving heaps (I didn’t have the best track record, with about six accidents under my belt and three totaled cars).

All of this to say that it was pretty ideal. Living in Spain, enjoying the most relaxed lifestyle possible; having long lunches, siestas and dinners; enjoying the most amazing festivals in my own back yard (Feria was my favorite), it was a dream life.

Feria de Abril was quite the party! I could walk to the fair grounds from my apartment!

Feria de Abril was quite the party! I could walk to the fair grounds from my apartment!

So why didn’t I stay? I largely blame homesickness. Wanting to be closer to my family and friends got me in the end- not to mention that guy that I had just started dating before I became an expat.

More than just the homesickness, I had aspirations of returning to graduate school and getting my masters in international peace and conflict resolution. I wanted to live in Washington DC and eventually work somewhere like the Department of State (which actually did end up happening).

So, I organized a grand exit. My sister and two of my best friends meet me in Spain that summer. We backpacked around Europe for a couple of months before I returned to Spain for my final farewell in August.

I didn’t quite make it a year, but I gave it my best shot. It was an incredible learning and growing experience. I know that, although I wasn’t as brave as I initially thought I’d be, I was braver than most who never want to step out of their comfort zone. I had lived and worked abroad – in Spain – and it had been both harder and easier than I ever imagined. Sevilla became a part of my story… my soul. It will always be a home away from home and hold a special place in my heart.

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15 Responses to What it really means to live abroad in Spain

  1. Akwaaba GoldenTours March 6, 2014 at 2:18 PM #

    Nice story 🙂 I moved abroad when I was 19 and didn’t understand the people around me. It was quite stressful and I often felt lonely. Later on, I did learn the language, but now I’m in another country (Ghana) and I’m facing the same problem. Language barrier. It’s probably the most frustrating problem when traveling, in my opinion! It can isolate you so easily and it makes you feel like you don’t belong.. and I always think people laugh at me! 😀 hah

    • Lindsay March 7, 2014 at 11:26 PM #

      The language barrier really is very difficult, and I think it’s often downplayed when people live abroad. Unless the person has a language mind and easily picks up on the local dialect, it’s much more difficult to overcome than most people let on, especially if you’re own your own. It seems like it would be a lot less lonely if you had a spouse/partner or friend with you. Where did you move when you were 19? And now you’re in Ghana, a place I’ve been wanting to visit since having a friend from Ghana in grad school! And it looks like you run tours there? I’ll have to look you up if I ever make it there!

  2. Adelina | PackMeTo March 7, 2014 at 5:26 PM #

    You definitely grow a lot when you live abroad. While I didn’t have an immediate freak out like you, I definitely had my share of frustrations and annoyances. It’s hard not to when no one seems to understand you. Not to mention the unpredictability of teaching English – I can’t imagine. I didn’t teach, but I had friends who did and I was amazed and how okay they were with their flex schedule. I need a routine! I’m back home now, but I’m starting to think of my next adventure. 🙂

    • Lindsay March 7, 2014 at 11:21 PM #

      Where did you live abroad, Adelina? I think I grew more from that experience (living abroad, alone) than any other. It definitely forces you to be independent- in every way. I struggled with the emotional independence, but that was my greatest growth. I’m so glad I had the experience, though, because I’ll never have regrets that I didn’t strike out on my own!

      • Adelina | PackMeTo March 8, 2014 at 12:02 PM #

        I lived in Budapest for 19 months. While I was there, I felt that everything that was going wrong was so annoying and the worst thing to happen, but now looking back, each of those were growing opportunities. I know what you mean about emotional independence. After that experience, I feel a lot more comfortable on my own and knowing that I can solve my own problems.

        • Lindsay March 8, 2014 at 3:22 PM #

          Nice. I love Budapest. I’ll bet it was so neat to live there. I had a friend who lived in Prague, and I think it was an adjustment for her as well. (I associate the two cities b/c I visited one then the other, not implying they are the same ;-).) It’s hard to see the “opportunity” in the difficult moment. It always seems to come in hindsight.

  3. Renuka March 8, 2014 at 5:38 AM #

    Spain looks like a cool, chilled out kind of a country as you mentioned, but it takes time to adjust to any new place, culture and environment. Thanks for the insights!

    • Lindsay March 8, 2014 at 3:17 PM #

      Thanks, Renuka. Spain was pretty much the perfect place to test the waters as far as living abroad goes. Low-stress lifestyle and life view in general over there. I just wanted to share some realism about living abroad. I think, as travelers, we tend to romanticize our experiences and encourage others to strike out and “just do it.” While I am a full supporter of that mindset, I think it’s helpful to admit also to the struggles, not to be whiney or ungrateful, but just to be real and help temper expectations. There might be real, live super humans out there who live in a sea of rainbows, but I have my doubts. It’s more likely they’re just not being 100% honest.

  4. Mike March 12, 2014 at 3:02 PM #

    Beautifully written. It’s great to see that you learned and grew from your experience in Spain. If you did those two things, the experience cannot be called a failure. I will be leaving my job to teach English in Spain beginning this fall. I’m not sure how long I will end up being in Spain, but as long as I learn and grow from the experience it will be worthwhile an will be something that I will carry with me forever.

    • Lindsay March 12, 2014 at 4:00 PM #

      Thanks, Mike! I agree, learning and growing are, while often painful, the experiences necessary to move forward in life! Otherwise, you remain stagnant. The more I can push myself out of my comfort zone, the more enriched I feel as a person! Good luck in Spain! You’ll love it!

  5. atravelingb March 12, 2014 at 7:53 PM #

    Great story, Lindsay! It is easy to envy other people’s abroad experiences and assume that they are so easy and flawless. The adjustment can be hard. Your opening scene in Spain sounds a lot like mine, except mine was in Barcelona and I could NOT for the life of me decipher the Catalan. The lessons you learn are so important though, I still refer to many of mine today. Spain still has a special place in my heart too, it is so hard not to!

    • Lindsay March 12, 2014 at 11:15 PM #

      Thanks, Bridget! I worry about coming across as too “spoiled American”- but I aim to be authentic and share truths. Sometimes, the more difficult the experience, the more fulfilling it is in the end! Yea, I can’t pick up the Catalan in Barcelona either!

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