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.

infoex.valencia@correo.gob.es 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…

xKate

“You’re so lucky”. Lots of people tell us that. The truth is, luck has played no part in our move abroad. In fact, I find myself a little frustrated. Luck?! You think the Spanish Sangria fairy visited me in rural Tennessee and flew us over the Atlantic?

On the contrary, we worked really hard and planned a lot to make this move a possibility. We took risks, prepared our employees and clients, broke tough news to families and friends, applied for visas, scouted out a city, poured over budgets, sent a million emails, read books, scoured blogs, sold our stuff and our home. It took us almost 18 months of planning and preparation. That wasn’t luck. That was teamwork.

Luck is defined as “success or failure brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions” and everything we did to get our family here was a direct result of our actions.

We still work to sustain our lives here. We both literally work 9-5 at our home office or coffee shops and sometimes, because of the time change, we alternate working “second shift” taking calls from 5-10pm here (10am – 3pm CST) as most of our clients are stateside while the other person takes after school kid activities and dinner duty. We run a digital marketing/web design agency called Data Driven Design. We have 8 employees and their families that depend on us and our small team is like family. If you’re familiar with small business, you know the grind.

To be clear, I’m not complaining. I’m just telling you that this is the picture we don’t post: Laptops open, faces aglow, kids asleep, as we check in on the business and our work family. We wouldn’t have it any other way. The long nights mean we can afford tomorrow’s adventure:)

Some days here are a real struggle though. To fit in, to learn the language, to do homework with foreign math formulas, to navigate health and public systems, to eat dinner between the hours of 9 and midnight, to encourage the kids to try new things when a new country has already pushed us to the edge of our comfort zones. Simple things like finding bed sheets take way too long and I’m still searching for a decent taco.

So I’m writing this post because I want to encourage all the people that told us, “I’ve always wanted to do that” and say to them: you CAN. It’s just planning, research, work, and mainly  – priorities. This was a dream that became a goal that turned into a plan. So my follow-up question is: “What are your priorities?” If it’s comfort. Abort mission;)

Some people are reading and still shaking their head. But my job doesn’t allow for this? However, I’ve met all sorts of expats here with lots of different stories, and NONE of them involve a turn-key “work transfer”. Each and every person we’ve encountered has a unique and interesting backstory. I love learning all the paths that led them here and meeting this exotic breed of hard-working and optimistic adventure seekers.

Some have chosen to dip into their savings early, downsized to afford a pay cut, retired here, worked to play gigs on the international music scene, sold their house to afford life here, supplemented income by tutoring, started an online store, consulted from afar, and all sorts of other clever ways of making money to make life abroad work.

For us, it was a combination of choosing a small 800 sq. foot apartment and getting rid of our cars. Read more about our cost of living here. Our life here is much more affordable in Spain and leaves us money to travel and make memories.

I realize this is not for everyone. I just hope that for those of you on the fence, you realize it’s a viable option.

And for those of you who think “you’re so lucky”, I’ll know you really mean “good for you” or a similar sentiment.

Thanks for reading amigos. Dream big and good luck you got this!

Kate

The day I dropped my kids off for their first day of public school in Spain, I cried so hard I could barely function. I cried in the school hallway once my daughter was out of earshot. Her teacher, a complete stranger, had to console me.

I speak pretty good “functional Spanish” and I couldn’t even understand this woman- how was my 7-year-old who speaks NO Spanish going to do this DAY, much less the entire school year?

I just kept chanting through sobs “I know this is good for them but I hate this so so much”. 9am to 2pm on Sept. 8 was the longest 5 hours of my recent life and THE day that I had been dreading the most throughout our international move. It was the only uncertain part of this whole experience. Visas are paperwork, a house is just bricks and siding, but my children are another story. What if they didn’t like school? What were we going to do? Homeschool? nope. It’s illegal in Spain. Private school? So expensive and taught in English. There was no plan B.

Both of their teachers do not speak ONE WORD of English. Nada. Neither of my kids knew any Spanish beyond the number 15. They had no friends. There was no before school orientation. Max had to SKIP 3rd grade because they go by birth year here. The kids hadn’t even seen inside the school buildings and did I mention – they had to go to separate schools? How in the BLEEP was this going to work out?!

I stared at my phone all day through tears. I just knew that the teachers were going to call and tell me to come get my kids. That they were panicked and bawling and they needed their mom. That people were staring at them or yelling at them to do something that they didn’t understand.

At approximately 11am, I completely went off the deep end. For some reason this thought hadn’t occurred to me until that moment: “What if they have to go to the bathroom? They can’t even ask that?!!!!” OMG they’re going to pee their pants and Billy Madison won’t be there to say “You’re not cool unless you pee your pants”. My tear ducts were the only thing not pathetic about me. 3 more hours of crying and phone staring.

We had ruined their life, I was sure of it.

Finally, 2pm. Nothing felt better than seeing their little faces come out that school door. They were alive. I couldn’t even believe it. “How was your day peanut?” “OK mama”.

The first 12 days of school were a bit rough but not nearly as bad as I expected.

I creeped on them at school and found Max playing soccer and Sam skipping rope with friends. I went from walking Max into the school to leaving him at the gate. They were exempt from a few tests early on because of the language barrier and an aide was helping in their classroom a few hours a week with language acquisition. “Bit by bit” their patient and loving teachers would tell me…”Poco a poco”.

This has become my 2nd favorite phrase in Spain: “Poco a poco”. Not only does it roll off the tongue, it’s now become a mantra. Little by little we have learned, fallen, overcome, forged relationships through gestures and facial expressions, studied, cried, and laughed. Mainly, we’ve leaned on the kindness and generosity of each other and some amazing new friends that have come to feel like our family.

It really hit me this week – 4 months into school, that the daily reports have graduated from “OK mama” to “¡Súper bien!”

This week I said, “Let’s go around the table and take turns telling our favorite thing about Spanish school”. It was the longest meal at our table since August. Here’s a highlight reel, as there were way too many rounds:

– Metal utensils in the cafeteria and ceramic trays (no waste!)
– Songs on the PA instead of school bells
– Small schools (only one class per grade!)
– “Tutoria” a class when they problem solve social situations (playground drama, choosing nice words, owning mistakes, etc)
– “REAL food, not peaches from a big can. They make everything.” Max, my 9-year-old going on 67.
– Teachers that hug and kiss them all the time
– Being friends with different types of people (diverse religions and nationalities)
– No hard feelings or over sensitivity (The Spanish are refreshingly thick skinned and blunt)
– Walking to school
– Languages (English, Spanish, and Valenciano)
– Having little ones at school with them (school is free in Spain starting from age 3 so there are loads of little uniformed peanuts)
– People wear their clothes two days in a row..haa, less laundry:)
– “No playground equipment so we get to use our imagination!” Sam

So there you have it, their pint-sized POV and the most valuable currency in my world. As we kept going round and round the Taco Tuesday table with all the positives, it became clear…we indeed did not ruin them.

Their Spanish improves every single day. At his haircut yesterday Max cut me off, “don’t translate Mom. I know what she’s saying”. With pleasure buddy;) When we do homework, they’ve already defaulted to using words like “suma, resta, por” and all of the Spanish numbers, as it comes to them quicker than English most days. Eeenie meenie miney mo between siblings has been replaced with the Spanish equivalent. I could go on and on. It’s just incredible.

Bit by bit we’ve shown them that change can be fun, people at their core are kind, and the first step through the school doors is always the hardest. Correction: We did not show them – more like the other way around;)

I hope you do the seemingly scary. It’s never as bad as you think and always worth the trouble. It might not be a new school in a foreign country but maybe my kids at 7 and 9 can inspire you like they do me. Start a blog, write a book, quit your job, buy the shoes, pop the question, retile the bathroom, grind towards your goals and go get your life! You’ll get there “poco a poco” I promise.

And if you can’t beat your fear – do it anyway.

Much love from Valencia,

La familia Hickey

I’m ‘baring all budgets’ in this post to let you know that if money is your biggest obstacle to moving or traveling extensively abroad – you’re about to get real pumped!!

Before we made our decision to move to Valencia, Spain my husband and I had to crunch the numbers and I tirelessly scoured for blogs and information about the cost of living in Europe. The problem is that everyone has a different idea of “cheap” and “expensive” as those are relative terms. I couldn’t find an answer to this that satisfied my need to know “how much will this cost?!!”

Your girl Escobar almost forgot to take her coca leaves (for altitude sickness) out of her bag at the airport in Peru! #lockedupabroad

In order to make this blog post purposeful and informative, I’m just giving you the actual numbers. How can you make a life decision without knowing the costs?

This is a transparent look into our finances but I’m so passionate about sharing it and documenting it for 3 important reasons:

1. I showed this spreadsheet to my kids (ages 7 and 9) so that they can understand what life costs. It brought about really great questions and important learning for them.

2. Our priorities as a family are to do things together and those travels and adventures cost money. If we want to go out to dinner, a movie, and buy popcorn – we can’t ALSO go on vacations. Now the kids have some ownership over our money-making decisions and are learning to prioritize with us. See here how they chose to address Christmas gifts this year:)

3. You can do the things you want to do in life if you prioritize them. Our apartment is small but in the heart of the charming old town (cue House Hunters Voice over chick), we don’t fill it with stuff, and we walk everywhere.

So without further ado. Here’s the cost of our life in Spring Hill, Tennessee – where cars and square feet abound:

TENNESSEE

$2000 House (4 bed/2.5 bath)
$900 2 Cars
$ 360 Health Insurance
$135 Car Insurance
$100 Boxing Membership
$135 Burn Workout Membership
$300 Gas for Cars
$230 2 Cell Phones
$60 Internet
$60 Electric
$60 Gas Bill
$40 YouTube TV                           TOTAL: $4,380

VALENCIA, SPAIN

$110 US Phones (we kept these for business purposes)
$1100 Apartment (2 bed/1 bath)
$50 Internet
$50 Soccer Team
$330 Health Insurance
$175 Bank: “Managed Treasury” in Nashville  (The bank receives and deposits our US checks)
$15 Sabadell Spanish Bank Account
$25 2 Cell Phones
$80 Electric
$22 Gas
$ 240 Language Class (2 people 3 hrs/week)        TOTAL: $2,197

 

So – how’s my dirty laundry smell?

Now you fully understand “how we afford that”.

As you can see, our European dream is LITERALLY half the cost of our Tennessee life. I promise you that I didn’t make these numbers up to come to this. Of course we had start up costs like buying bikes and locks, new bedding, the visa applications (see visa costs here), realtor fees, and the plane tickets to get here. But these start-up costs will balance out as we save money over the next months.

I have not included food in this breakdown. Some people eat out a lot and others cook at home. I left this off as each family is different and this cost is a variant that you can calculate for yourself using a really clever site called Numbeo. This site allows you to compare the cost of living in cities all over the world. Numbeo has prices broken down into categories like common grocery items, healthcare, transportation, and gives price comparisons on everything from domestic beers to McDonalds meals. They also take a look at crime, traffic, and quality of life. Here’s a Numbeo screenshot comparing Valencia, Spain and Nashville, Tennessee.

A reminder that if you choose private schools, most are located in the suburbs and require transportation. That is a budget game changer. We chose public schools – read what’s best for you in my blog on the subject here.

We wanted 3 things out of this move: For the kids to speak Spanish, to travel and bond as a family, and to have a better work/life balance. Our monthly budget reflects those priorities.

For some of my former high school students reading this (over 1,300 of you!): I hope that you write out your monthly spending then write out your life priorities/goals. Compare lists. Make adjustments. I think that most adults will tell you it took them too long to do this and if you can do it early on in life – you’ll be more fulfilled.

If you have any questions – reach out. I hope your family budget reflects what’s most important to you. It’s never to late to start! $uerte amigo$…

Max and his teacher Gema the day before school started.

As the mama bear, this was really all I could think about. I was SO nervous about my kids daily life and the decision around the right school for them. I will tell  you now – this was the scariest part of the move that turned out to be (I’m writing this on their 12th day of school) just fine. Not to say I didn’t bawl at drop off on day 1. My kids are newly 7 and 9 years old. I think that each child is different and each age presents unique challenges. You know your kid, your comfort levels, and you’ll pick the right school.

There are 3 types of schools in Valencia – and the whole of Spain: Public, private, and “concertado”. Ultimately, we chose public schools and I’ll tell you why:

PRIVATE SCHOOLS

THE BAD: They’re expensive!! High enrollment fees and expensive monthly payments. We had the money but we didn’t want to strap ourselves and not be able to travel in Europe. Also, private schools are usually conducted in English and our biggest reason to move here was to have the kids immersed in the language. We knew that they wouldn’t be pushed to learn Spanish as fast in a private school.

Finally, and our last straw – they are all (but one) in the outskirts of town. This means that we would need a car OR they would take a bus, with a hefty price tag, and this would make for a very LONG day. Pick up around 7:30am and drop off around 5:30pm.

THE GOOD: The education and facilities are great! Most public schools – not so much. Also, there are still opportunities for language acquisition as your kids will be with lots of Spaniards, learning Spanish on the playground and in social settings. The quality of education will likely be a bit better. If your child is a superstar or perhaps of middle-school age, already fluent in 2 languages, etc – you’ll want them to keep a high-caliber curriculum. We just wanted our kids to be loved, supported, and immersed so we weren’t really big on a challenging curriculum/tons of homework.

You will probably be with like-minded expats and well-to-do families. This didn’t matter to me much but I think you might want to consider your social scene as it’s a big part of  your life.

If you want to have language choices that you select (minimizing Valenciano, maximizing Castellano, etc) you can make those decisions with private schools.

Biking to school on the first day.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS

THE GOOD: They are local, so if you enroll early enough (in May) – you’ll be a short walk from school…which is important as you might be going there 4 times a day because of siesta. Although, we choose to keep our kids in school all day – even during the long lunch break/siesta so that they can play with friends.

They will be completely immersed in the Spanish language. Most teachers don’t speak English at all. This seems scary but it will quickly become normal and your child will adapt. I’m watching my kids grow EVERY day and it’s incredible. Also, they’re free! Lunch is around 4 euro a day and you have to buy books, but that’s it.

THE BAD: The facilities are not glamorous – especially compared to US standards. Some don’t have playgrounds, most are old buildings, and there are no frills.

The enrollment process is more involved and it’s hard to get into schools when you first arrive. The Spanish school system is based on points. You get points for being registered with the government (but everyone has those), points for being an alum (that doesn’t help ex-pats!), points for where you live, and points for siblings going to the school. It’s a bit tough to navigate the Spanish bureaucracy and school is no different.  We stayed patient and we had help from a friend with this so it wasn’t too bad. If you arrive after May – you better be standing outside the school in early September ready to beg to get your kid in school – IF there’s space. *My kids are in two different schools because there wasn’t room.

CONCERTADO

THE GOOD: Concertado is the Spanish form of charter schools. They are usually Catholic and there is usually about one concertado per every 2 public schools. There isn’t a huge difference between concertado and public schools – only the religion. It really depends on the one you choose and what’s close to your house.

THE BAD: They are hard to get into, just like public schools. They cost but it’s a very nominal fee. Only 20% of what a private school per year.

 

The hard part is – you can’t pick a school before you pick a house! It’s frustrating but if you time it right – get your visa by May and have your apartment picked by then as well. May is when the schools open up their extra spaces and they fill up quickly. If you enroll your kids in May you can “relax” and enjoy a LOOONG summer with the kids getting acclimated/traveling. If you’re more adventurous or inexperienced (like us): Arrive in August and the MINUTE that school’s open in September – be standing there with all your paperwork ready to enroll. That landed us in 2 different schools and only a 15 min walk from our apartment, but it was a bit of a gamble.

Sam in front of her school before starting segundo grado primaria

For our family, the first year is about language acquisition – not stellar instruction. It’s about learning new norms, meeting new friends, and learning to deal with change and a new language. Your kids will do great wherever you send them. They are braver and much more formidable than you. Have faith in them and try not to impose your fears on their malleable little minds. Best of luck and let me know if I can help you in any way.

You got this!

Kate

Great list of private schools in Valencia here.

Another super helpful resource for schools/links: Moving2Valencia