Living in Spain

When living in Spain starts to feel like America

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American expat Cat Gaa laments the loss of the authentic Spain she first fell in love with, as American culture slowly infiltrates Spain's way of life.

I could have easily been in a neighbourhood pub back home in Chicago. Armed with two guiri (foreign) friends and a stomach that hadn’t eaten all day, I ordered a cheeseburger meal, piled on the ketchup and sat down on a couch, directly under drapes of spider webs. It was Halloween and one my friends mentioned that – gasp! – another American friend of ours had received trick-or-treaters the night before in her pueblo (town).

De verdad? Really? Since when does the oh-so-racio Seville feel just like America?

Slowly, Americana has been permeating into this city that's as Spanish as the tortilla. At first, I embraced the introduction of peanut butter onto supermarket shelves (and willingly forked over EUR 7 for it) and made special trips to Madrid for international cuisine.

Eight years on, I sometimes feel like I’m living in a parallel universe as craft beer, Netflix and my favourite holiday are becoming mainstream in Spain.

I’ve long been the guiri who drags her heels when it comes to embracing my culture while living in another. I famously chastised my friends for shopping at the American food store and have yet to set foot in Costco. I do not regularly catch baseball or American football games in bars, nor could I tell you the best place to watch one. Yes, I cook Thanksgiving for my in-laws with American products and dress up for Halloween, but those moments are always reserved for special parties with my compatriots. What I love about living in Spain really boils down to the fact that I love living in Spain.

Cue the hate comments: I didn’t really sign up for an American life when I moved to Seville. And in all fairness, I’m letting it happen.

When Spain feels like America

The line between life abroad and life as I knew it before 22 is blurrier than ever. I conduct a large part of my day in English, have English-speaking friends and watch TV in English. I just picked up a Spanish book for the first time in three years. I consume news in English via my smartphone and had to recently ask the novio (boyfriend) the name of the new mayor in town.

I knew I needed to make a change when the novio suggested we get Netflix as a wedding present to ourselves.

Wait, you mean I can watch a show on a big screen with no need to let the show buffer for 10 minutes? And in my native language? The fun of the TDT system, which allows shows to be aired in their original language instead of dubbing. I will binge watch my American television shows on my laptop. Would that EUR 8 a month be better spent on something else?

While Spain is definitely not America when it comes to lines at the bank, reliable service or a way around 902 toll numbers, I find my adult life becoming more on par with that which my friends are living in the US.

I got more than a fair dosage of Americanism this year, spending more than four months out of 15 in the US. Going home is a treat – Target, Portillo’s and endless hours of snuggling with our family dog – but it’s lost a lot of its sheen now that Seville has Americanised itself, be it for tourists or for Sevillanos.

And at what price? Gone are the decades-old ultramarinos that once peddled canned goods; they’ve made way for trendy bars and clothing chains. While I admit that the Setas – a harsh contrast from the turn-of-the-century buildings that ring Plaza de la Encarnación – have grown on me, they caused a lot of backlash and an entire neighbourhood to address itself. Do we really need a fancy coffee bar to do work at, or a gym with the latest in training classes?

As my world becomes more globalised, I find myself seeking the Spain I fell in love with when I studied abroad in Valladolid and the Seville that existed in 2007. We’re talking pre-crisis Spain, pre-smartphones and pre-instagram filters, and one where a frapuccino every now and then helped me combat my homesickness. The Spain that was challenging, new and often frustrating. The Spain in which I relished long siestas, late nights and a voracious desire to learn new slang and new rincones of a new place.

But how do I get back there? The Sevilla I discovered at age 22 is barely recognisable today. Do I love it? Do I deal with it? I mostly stick around Triana, which stills feels as authentic as it did when I took up residence on Calle Numancia in 2007.

Maybe I’m in a slump. Maybe I’m comfortable. Maybe I’m lazy. Or maybe it’s just the fact that Spain doesn’t present the same day-to-day victories as it once did.

One thing I know for certain is that I’m looking forward to jumping back into the Spanish manera de ser (way to be). I can’t wait to head to San Nicolás, sans computer, and search for castañas (chestnuts), to sleep without an alarm and to remember why and how Spain became mi cosa (my thing).

Do you ever feel like you’re no longer living abroad? What pointers can get me back on track?


Reprinted with permission of Sunshine and Siestas.

Sunshine and Siestas: Cat GaaCat Gaa left the skyscrapers of Chicago for the olive groves of southern Spain. Baby wrangler by evening, Cat is the voice behind Sunshine and Siestas, a virtual love letter to Spain. She also runs an expat consulting company dedicated to helping non-EU expats move to and work in Spain. Cat is especially akin to tapas, siestas and the Duchess of Alba. Follow Sunshine and Siestas on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest, YoutubeGoogle+ and Snapchat at cmgaa318.

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2 Comments To This Article

  • PeterHamann posted:

    on 21st July 2016, 23:50:30 - Reply

    Hi Cat! I am an American, living in Toledo, Spain. I wrote something similar (albiet, a bit darker, as is my style and personality I suppose :P :D ) a week or so ago. It's deeper than just the brands and comfort items. Funny side note: A few days after I wrote what I did, I was teaching a Spanish friend how to make peanut butter in his Thermomix! LOL!
    "I would say that it pains me to no end that American culture is taking a firm hold in Spain, with huge single family homes, frozen junk food, workaholic parents, consumerism over quality of life, the appearance of the "bulk buy mentality" of Costco (not to mention actual Costco stores), rented storage units, long commutes spent in speakerphone conference calls with faceless clients, all of those things that I have come to detest, and which Spanish culture had flourished without, which Spain had practically crafted into the anti-brand brand that so many flocked to, becoming more and more "popular".
    I -would- lament the increasing presence of this foreign "American" culture in my adopted country, but I grew up in America of the 70's, 80's and early '90's and had it drilled into me that no one culture is "better" than another, and that to place one culture above or below any other is abominable. That to value any culture over another means that somewhere in the back of my mind (probably unbeknownst to me even) I must surely secretly long for gas chambers, brownshirts, and segregation. To prove to myself and the commisars that this isn't the case, I must embrace ALL cultures, and virtue signal my approval by whole-heartedly welcoming them. While this has caused a bit of soul searching and cognitive dissonance in my new surroundings (where I see my own "native" culture taking deeper root year after year) I can overcome that painful cognitive dissonance caused by reason and consideration by simply closing my eyes and leaning back on what my church, my state, and my leaders so lovingly instilled in me for so many years: "No culture is better than any other."
    So the next time I see a flyer advertising "FREE FIRST MONTH'S RENT!" on a storage unit for some overworked family's "soothing" purchases, instead of clenching my jaw and shaking my head, I'll just remember that golden lesson. I won't warn my friends of the hazards of my own consumer and debt culture, I'll just let the warm and fuzzy sense of self-satisfaction and PC piety wash over me as I remind myself that ALL cultures are good while I watch the country formerly known as Spain die a slow, fattening, American-style death."
  • Sam posted:

    on 20th July 2016, 23:01:31 - Reply

    I've just returned to the US after living 10 years in Madrid. I hear you and felt your pain progressively over the past several years in Spain. I think it's the homogenizing effect of globalization that feels like Americanization to you. Of course, the EU has a similar effect on all of Europe, which was one of the reasons for Brexit in the UK, I believe.