Andalucia Bound: Top 5 frustrations for expats in Spain (and why we're still here)
The 'nightmare' of Spanish bureaucracy is not enough to discourage Chelsea from the Spanish lifestyle.
Living abroad is one of the most rewarding experiences one can have. The clichés are true; living abroad opens your mind to new cultures and experiences, and teaches you valuable skills. Learning a second language opens so many doors, and more importantly leads you to people who with you never would have been able to communicate if you hadn’t bought that book of 501 Spanish verbs. Adapting to a new culture teaches you to be flexible and engrains in your mind that nothing will go as planned, and that that’s okay. It allows you to get an outsider’s perspective of your home country while you get an insider’s perspective on your host country.
Though life as an expat is undeniably an adventure, it really gets me when people back home downplay my problems when I’m having a bad day, or week, or month. “But you’re living in Spain!” they exclaim, “life can’t be that bad, it’s so beautiful there!”
I know what they’re getting at. I’ve been fortunate enough to follow my dream to live in Spain, and I should be happy that I’m here, even when it gets tough. But though we live in an increasingly interconnected world, less than 10 percent of US citizens travelled overseas in 2012 according to Travel.gov. That means that more than 90 percent of my fellow countrymen can’t even begin to understand the amazing highs and gut-wrenching lows that come along with expat life.
What most people who haven't lived abroad don’t realise is how romanticised their idea of expat life is. It’s easy to portray that idyllic image of the wander-lustful, free-spirited twenty something expat through our social media networks. Instagramming a picture of a beautiful sunset always gives me a little boost to get through the rest of the night. “It is beautiful here,” I tell myself, “I’m lucky to be here.”
But it wasn’t luck that got me here, and it certainly hasn’t been luck that’s allowed me to stay here for some three years. It can be complicated and there are few options for being granted a long-term residency card in Spain as an American, and that’s not the only difficulty involved with living here.
As much as I love this country (believe me, I’d probably still be here even if I wasn’t hooked on cheap beer and my boyfriend), it can be really difficult to be an expat in Spain, especially as a non-European citizen. Those are the parts no one back home really thinks about. I say Spain and they think sangria and bullfighting, not crying in front of civil servants at the foreigner’s office. At the risk of sounding whiny (I swear I’m not whining, just keeping it real!) here are my top reasons being an American expat in Spain is tough (in no particular order) along with reasons why you should pick up and move here anyway.
1. Spanish bureaucracy
People back home always make jokes about going to the DMV; long lines, incompetent workers, and so on. But imagine for one second that every public office, including police stations, were nightmares like that, and you can begin to understand Spanish bureaucracy. And this isn’t just me overreacting as a biased foreigner. There is actually offices and job positions devoted to helping people fill out forms because it’s nearly impossible to do it on your own. Gestorías get paid to do paperwork for businesses and individuals who can’t navigate the bureaucratic waters alone, and they make a ton of money by doing so. A Spanish filmmaker even made a hilarious short video documenting this sentiment.
Applying for my student residence card the last three years has been a hassle but manageable, though you can't expect anything to get done quickly. I applied for my card renewal a few months ago and I still don’t have the card in my hands. And my attempts to apply for a long-term residence card have been equally nightmarish; the lady in my local foreigner’s office knows my name and now talks to me gently because she’s afraid I’ll start crying again. The best way to deal with the bureaucracy is to give them what they ask for, ask few questions and be polite.
Move here anyway: because dealing with all that red tape gives you a thick skin and extreme patience! Next time someone tells you no, you’ll be able to figure out how to make them say yes.
2. Friends and family back home don’t understand your new culture
Everyone has experienced this factor in one way or another, like when you move away for college and then return home for this first time. You just can’t explain all the intricacies of your college campus and culture to your best friends from home, so you just tell them it’s great and you’re having an amazing time.
That’s kind of how I feel about living abroad but on a bigger scale. Some hilarious moments that arise from language barriers or cultural misunderstandings just aren’t that funny when you retell them to someone who hasn’t lived there. My friends and family back home can't understand the gaditano carnaval and the month-long celebration that accompanies it, so it suffices to tell them it’s like the US version of Halloween where everyone dresses up in costumes and sings songs. They’ll never know the feeling of pride that comes along with spending your first weekend with only Spaniards speaking only Spanish, making it through and having an amazing time. It’s hard to explain the relaxed lifestyle in general, and they won’t understand when you get fed up with siesta because you have lots of errands to run and no time to do them. They’ll tell you you’re lucky you get to rest in the middle of the day and you should just roll with it. And of course you roll with it; you always do.
Move here anyway because: even though no one can relate, you are gaining amazing experiences that are uniquely yours. That's worth cherishing.
3. You don’t know where home is anymore
While in your new country you’ll lovingly refer to your birth country as home. But when I’m travelling and starting to get worn out, now I also look forward to getting back home to Spain. I love the familiarity of touching down on Spanish soil, being able to understand the language again and knowing how to navigate back down to my little town. I grab a bocadillo and hop on the next train. It feels like home, and I suppose it’s because this is where my life is now.
I still get homesick for my other home. I’m beginning to think that home is not a geographical location, but rather a feeling. I think of my hometown and realise none of my friends even live there anymore, yet I still long to go back to that familiarity: my favourite stores and foods, knowing my friends and family are just a car ride away, and of course, my bed.
But every time I return to Spain, I feel like I’m leaving home to go home. It can get quite confusing but I now realise that it’s a feeling I’ll be dealing with for the rest of my life, as I’ve left bits of my heart there and here and I’ll always be trying to make it feel whole again.
Move here anyway because: it’s better to have many homes than none, right?!
4. You represent your whole country
When my study abroad program advisor said this at orientation on my first day in Spain in 2009 I thought he was exaggerating, but he was totally right. Depending on where you go, you may be the first American (or other nationality) that people meet, or at least get to know. When I moved to a small town of 30,000 people I knew there had been other Americans living and teaching there before, but my students still treated me like a celebrity and I consistently got questions from children and adults about whether or not I’ve met (insert celebrity here) or if it’s true that Americans eat fast food everyday.
I’ve found myself struggling to answer questions about what the US is like, or if everything is the way they portray it in the movies. It’s made me aware of how unaware I was about lots of important things, like retirement policies and other political debates. It’s embarrassing to be the only American your Spanish friends know, and to be unable to answer questions on behalf of the US because you simply don’t know the answer and because, of course, not everything is so black and white.
I’ve definitely gotten better at telling people that I just don’t know rather than spouting off whatever comes to mind, because this may be the only impression that person gets and I don’t want to make it negative. It’s difficult to have the pressure of representing a nation so large and diverse and it’s important to explain that diversity rather than to affirm the stereotypes that are cast over Americans as a whole.
Move here anyway because: you can help dispel the stereotypes and teach people about your country in a truthful manner.
5. You start to feel guilty for being a native English speaker
As I became more aware and in touch with Spain's political and economic fiasco these past years, I began to feel more guilty about being a native English speaker. I know that, at least in the near future, the demand to learn English will remain high and I will likely be able to find a job wherever I go in Spain.
I watch lots of Spanish friends of mine struggle to find work and I feel even more guilty. They’ve studied for years and have graduated from university and still have no jobs. Lots of people I know have moved to the UK to find work washing dishes, and a few people that have stayed are celebrating small victories like getting temporary work as a stock boy at the grocery store.
I know it’s a bit silly to feel this way but it’s hard to see really good, intelligent people leaving Spain because they have no other options, while I’m living pretty comfortably as a foreigner in their country.
Move here anyway because: your English skills can be really helpful in a country that has one of the lowest levels of English proficiency in Europe and you meet so many people through teaching.
So, although at times expat life in Spain can be really tough, there are so many parts that make living abroad worth it. In life we have to choose which things we are willing to suffer through in order to be able to enjoy the parts that we love. As expats we suffer through the difficulties of living abroad because we love what comes with it: tons of laughs, amazing friends and unforgettable experiences. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
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