Lessons Learned Our 1st Year in Spain
We are nearing our 1 year anniversary as expats with kids. I wrote this in the hopes that someone new to the expat life abroad scene might need a little advice from someone a year into this adventure. I enjoyed looking back on the last 11 months and while I wouldn’t change a thing, here are some things I wish I knew:
1) CHOOSE UNCOMFORTABLE
It will be tempting to gravitate towards friends that speak English so you’ll have to push yourself. In the micro decisions to go sit with all the Spanish soccer moms and try my damndest to follow their disjointed rants – I grew and learned the most. The easy thing would have been to drop my kid off and go grocery shopping or get some work done with a glass of wine at the soccer bar adjacent to the field. I truly had to psych myself into pulling up a chair, shoving myself physically into the circle of parents, and trying to express myself a foreign language. It’s still not easy but it gets better every week as they realize I care and get to know me.
This goes for school drop off and pick up when I was hot and just wanted to get a start on our 20 min sweaty walk home, doling out snacks and a listening ear from an emotional school day. Instead, I tried to mingle and chat with parents and scruff some cute little kid heads. I wanted to get get home and get my bra off but I also wanted to be a part of a community. Those efforts have been embarrassing and tiring but again – worth it.
2) TRAVEL SMART
Looking back on this first year I wish I would have relaxed a bit on the amount of trips we took. I did it American style: Get outta dodge at every school break! I didn’t take into account that just being here IS travel in year #1. There is so much to see and learn, local holidays to experience, and playdates and coveted birthday party invites that shouldn’t be missed in a new community. We took 6 trips this year and I would suggest shaving that down to 2 or 3. You’ve got time. It also is a lot of work to discover your new country, make new friends, set up routines, etc and with kids a trip throws that rhythm off.
3) VISA RENEWAL TIMING
With your NIE residency renewal you can apply 60 days prior to your expiration date – try and renew as soon as you can to get the ball rolling. Be mindful of travel after your NIE has expired if you are planning to go out of the country. You can still travel but you’ll have to get an “autorización de regreso”. Also, if you are leaving while your visa is being processed you’ll want to be mindful of the timing on any documents that they might need from you – if you’re gone for over 10 days, you might be sweating that instead of enjoying your vacay. I planned lots of summer travel and I wish I would have considered the expiration date of my NIE and the visa renewal process. Email me if you have questions.
4) YOU ARE STILL YOU
I love the Spanish people and culture and I want to fit in here and immerse myself in the culture. That said, I am also American. We have realized that we don’t have to do everything that Spaniards do just because we think we should. The Spanish eat lunch at 2 or 3pm and dinner at 10pm – this just doesn’t work for us. Our kids need sleep to function and my marriage needs me fed to function. We pick the kids up at 4:00 from school so a 3:00 lunch doesn’t work. At the end of the day we’re still Americans in Spain. I am proud of both parts of that statement and we’re doing what works for our family.
5) THE PAPERWORK IS NEVER DONE
I thought that after my initial visa application to get here I was over the paperwork hump. In fact, it was just beginning. For a country that is all about “tranquila” – I was stressed out too much this past year about the visa renewal, soccer “ficha” (a lengthy registration that is required to play soccer in a league), and authorizations to travel (see #3).
My advice – find a good local Tabacc store to make your copies and print documents enjoy their company, because you’ll be there a lot:) A printer is a smart investment but wasn’t for me as I had already befriended two ladies down the street who have put my whole world on that copier glass. We’re in too deep.
Moreover, stay comfortable in the paperwork groove. It will get done, you will get all the documents rounded up. Don’t wait until the last minute and always bring every paper you own to every meeting because you never know who will need what. I’ve come to accept that paperwork and hoops are a part of expat life and like any other challenge in this life abroad – it’s worth it.
6) EVERYTHING CHANGES IN SPANISH BUREAUCRACY
This post will be outdated in 6 days or 10 months as Spanish document requirements are a moving target. Be careful with advice from Expat online groups and friends because processes are always changing. Email consulates, email the immigration office and ask questions of government officials or of someone with very recent first-hand experiences.
firstname.lastname@example.org is the email address for the immigration office.
7) WORKFLOW TAKES TIME
I thought that we would be able to just continue to “work from home” like we did in the states. We run a digital marketing agency and had a hard time adjusting to the time change for our first few months. We would wake up and “beat” employees and clients to tasks but we had to take calls during their business hours – aka Spanish wine and dinner time. This posed a problem as were were almost working “double days” at first – working all day and then taking calls at 8 and 9pm. Also, with our small space we were not allowing our kids to be kids. They had to stay quiet and still while we were on a call or one of us had to leave. It took time to set up a rhythm but I would say to anyone working on a different time zone in a new place – you need to account for some adjustment time and a whole lot of teamwork 🙂
8) SAY NO
I realize that I am contradicting #2 but I am proud of myself for not saying yes to every new friendship, coffee, and playdate. This first year was about exploring our city, settling in to new digs, and you just can’t do it all. You aren’t desperate for friends – you’re in the quiet search for good people. There’s a big difference. I’m glad I vetted my friendships and followed my gut on saying no when I wasn’t feeling it.
9) TAKE SPANISH LESSONS
I was a 10 year Spanish teacher with a Mexican language background. I quickly learned that Spain is a different beast. Taking 90 minutes a week to go to a nearby language school for private lessons has made a huge improvement in my understanding of idioms, slang, cultural norms, and has given me a more confident command of the language. Unless you are a beginner, I would shy away from group lessons with more than 2 people. That’s another blog entirely;)
10) YOU WILL HAVE VISITORS!
Because of all the paperwork, community building, getting aquatinted, and travel – squeezing in guided tours of your city is not always easy. We had over 20 visitors that came to see us and Valencia this year!! I am SO grateful they came all this way. However, I did not factor the emailing recommendations, making reservations, tour guide assisting, stopping of my “normal life”, etc that would come with those visitors.
Try and spread out visitors a bit and make sure to let them do some exploring on their own so you don’t burn out as a guide. Communicate with your loved ones ahead of time that you are not on vacation, you are living your regular life and they will understand completely. I strategically didn’t go to places or take a tour knowing that I would do that with the next visitor – that made it fun for all of us experiencing it together.
Don’t encourage people to visit you that will not enjoy themselves in a foreign country…their distaste for something you love will likely ruin your relationship. This didn’t happen to me but I think it’s worth mentioning.
10) YOUR KIDS WILL BLOW YOUR MIND
Looking back a year ago I was so nervous about them (ages 7 and 9) not being able to speak any Spanish before we came. I smile at this now. Kids are incredibly fast learners. They picked up the language in public school here so fast and developed a lot of grit as they navigated new cultures and situations. My favorite part of this move is undoubtedly watching my kids grow, learn resilience, and understand what it feels like to be different. They will carry this empathy with them for the rest of their lives.
Don’t impart your adult fear on the peanuts…they are more malleable than you can imagine.
If you are newly abroad I hope you make your own top 10 list and jot it down to reflect on later. If you are thinking about jumping the pond – you can do it! If you are one of the 20 people that visited us – thank you for spending your money, vacation, and time with us! We missed you and hope you feel in love with our city. We cherished making memories with you, vale:)
If you are one my new “Spanish friends” or “Spanish/American friends” – you are a true treasure to me and I thank you BEYOND words for helping us, including us, going out of your way, answering questions, embracing my kids, and loving us this first year. Brindis al año que viene … más aventuras, la risa, los nenes, y Bobal…AMUNT Valencia!
Thanks for taking the time to read friends…
Great life lessons packed into one short year.
My marriage needs me fed to function. LOL. Love you, woman!!