By Karen McCann
Living abroad is an opportunity to reinvent yourself that rarely exists outside the witness protection program. You get to hit the re-set button on your life. When I moved to Seville in 2004, my new friends had no idea that back in rural Ohio, I’d been leading an early-to-bed, low-fat vegetarian lifestyle. Suddenly I was hanging out in smoke-filled bars, having wine-soaked lunches and dinners that lasted until four in the morning. Especially late nights might include strolling home arm in arm with friends, and (if I am to be totally honest with you) singing a medley of old show tunes, Beatles hits, and “Besame Mucho.” The neighbors put up with it because they know that next time they might be the ones serenading the barrio.
Relocating to a foreign land is all about trying new things and letting go of preconceived notions – about yourself and everything else. Among the first things to go are usually your expectations surrounding the move itself. Here are seven things I’ve learned you don’t need to do when moving to Spain.
1. Restore a crumbling ruin. Contrary to what you’ve read in all those charming books about building a new life in Europe, you’re not actually required to buy a decrepit old farmhouse and spend years restoring it with the help of semi-literate but wise and amusing locals. I rent a fully renovated apartment in downtown Seville, which has some of the liveliest street life in Europe. Not having to plaster walls and lay tile leaves me plenty of free time to sit in sidewalk cafés sipping espresso and observing the passing scene.
2. Win the lottery. Unless you’re determined to live in unbridled luxury, Spain can be a pretty affordable place to take up residence. We moved to Seville after my husband took early retirement, and even maintaining a cottage back in the old country, our monthly outlay hasn’t changed significantly. If you’re job hunting, finding a good one in Spain’s depressed economy can be tough. However, a surprising number of jobs can now be done online. A young couple I know found marketing and sales work on Craigslist, paid off their college loans in a year and now travel the world, doing their jobs with Skype and emails.
3. Wait until you’re fluent in Spanish. While arriving with a working knowledge of the language is handy, you can – like me – pick it up when you get here. Choosing to take Spanish classes online will jumpstart the process, but daily life is where you test-drive your newfound knowledge. It took me months to work out how to order my preferred breakfast beverage, which is té hecho con agua, con un poco de leche aparte para añadir (tea made with water, with a little milk on the side to add in). Less explicit instructions result in a cup of steamed milk with a teabag in it (ugh!) or no milk at all, as if they assume that by “on the side” I mean at someone else’s side.
4. Eat spicy food. American friends often arrive expecting a European version of Mexican cuisine and are stunned to discover that the Spanish rarely eat anything even remotely picante (spicy). Relieved to spot the familiar tortilla on the menu, they anticipate thin, flat circles of bread, ideal for stuffing with zesty filling, and are astonished to be presented with a dense omelet utterly devoid of spices or peppers. Even the dramatic chorizo al infierno (chorizo from hell) isn’t highly seasoned, although watching them light it on fire is always good entertainment.
5. Pack a hat. Despite the glaring summer sun and some decidedly crisp, rainy winter days, Spanish urbanites, especially the Sevillanos, go bareheaded. Faced with bad weather, they’d rather duck into the nearest bar than wear a hat. If your goal is to blend with the populace, you’ll do the same. Leave your Panama behind and buy sunscreen and an umbrella when you get here.
6. Worry you won’t meet people. While it’s true many Spaniards are slow to befriend anyone they haven’t known since baptism, there are always some who find foreigners intriguing and will be pleased to get to know you and help you find your way around. The expat community tends to be highly sociable and sympathetic to the trials and tribulations inherent in any major move. Even if you’re not a joiner, you’ll want to consider getting involved in clubs and classes where you can meet locals and the international crowd.
7. Lose touch with family and friends. In these technologically advanced times, you can maintain incredibly close contact with loved ones. And when you live in a destination location like Spain, you’ll find they come to you. Sometimes the biggest challenge is getting them to leave; I’ve had guests arrive for the weekend and stay for weeks. Houseguests who overstay their welcome are often impervious to hints that they should move on. One expat friend, unable to budge such a guest, announced he was leaving town, packed a bag and escorted the guest out the door. When the guest was well on his way, my friend returned to his apartment and resumed his life.
Living abroad keeps you on your toes. One blazing hot night, my husband and I found ourselves sitting on the edge of a big stone fountain. Dabbling our feet in the cool water, pretty soon we were wading, then dancing in the fountain. It’s technically legal to do this on hot nights in Seville, but an old man passing by growled, “Hey you two, is that any way to behave? You wouldn’t do that back where you come from.” And that’s the whole point. Moving overseas, you embrace new experiences and let go of misconceptions that can get in the way of the life you want to lead.
An award-winning journalist, author, editor and blogger, Karen McCann has been living in Seville, Spain, since 2004. Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling micro-enterprises. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville and traveling the world. For more, check out her website and travel blog at http://www.enjoylivingabroad.com/, visit her on www.facebook.com/enjoylivingabroad and follow her on www.twitter.com/EnjoyLvngAbroad.