Before we arrived in Europe – I thought that it was going to be Spain + our family. I knew other foreigners lived here but in a city of almost 1 million people I never thought that I would bump into them. Why didn’t I think of these other humans??? No idea. Part naivety and part self-absorbed perhaps.
If you want to make a life in a foreign country, you’d be remiss not to be prepared for the “expat” part of the journey.
If you’re moving to get away from an “everyone knows everyone” situation – you’re in for a big surprise. We moved from a city of 50k people to a city of 900k but the expat community here is more incestuous. While this is a very wonderful and useful friend network as you need help, advice, etc. it can also be a bit challenging to navigate.
In an all-Spanish environment, English speakers are a welcome and exciting respite from the struggle to communicate. In short, it’s just easy. Furthermore, this is a way to get great information on visas, taxes, government forms, schools, etc. In a foreign world – a leg up is very much appreciated. However, there are some pitfalls and harsh truths in expat communities. In my 2 years in Spain – let me offer you some unsolicited advice:
Living abroad is a constant battle between: Do as you’ve always done or do as the locals do. This choice is not as easy or straightforward as you might think so I’m giving you a few nuggets I’ve gathered along the way.
Comfort Zones are Not Why You Moved
Likely you never said to yourself: “I want to move 5k miles across the ocean to eat at Applebees and learn English”. You will have to re-center your family and your mind with your “why” many many times over. Opportunities will present themselves on any given day: navigate a conversation in a foreign language at a dinner table with new people or have a coffee with a new expat friend from Oklahoma. The latter is easier and likely more “fun” in the short term. The former is possibly more enriching. You don’t always have to stretch yourself but you do owe it to your experience to check back in with your “why”.
Adding to the challenge: Most Spaniards have lived in their hometown all their life. This means that they don’t know what it’s like to be an outsider nor how to recognize a newcomer. You are going to have to make moves to integrate yourself and create community. One of my expat friends here has a true talent for this. She has befriended the “lettuce guy” at the market, the chefs at her local restaurants, and everyone in her path. It’s 20% because she’s outgoing and 80% because she makes an effort. She asks lots of questions, brings along thoughtful gifts as tokens of thanks, asks for phone numbers, and patronizes local businesses. She makes it look easy but it’s a fine art: equal parts courage and habit.
Take Your Time
Don’t worry…you will make expat friends very quickly. Before you put all of your eggs in one basket – vet your hens.
Everyone’s Experience Works for Them
Some expats do not want to meet other expats. Local’s only. That’s some Bloods and Crips type ish right there! Some people only hang with other expats. Most are a good blend of the two. There’s really no right or wrong answer – just be careful not to judge anyone’s journey. It’s easy to say before you get here: “I’m not going to hang out with a bunch of American’s – that’s not why I’m here”. Ok hot rod: don’t be too proud because unless you are fluent in the local language (regional dialects rule Spain – not Spanish) and local governments…it’s not all sangria and sunshine.
Be Patient With Locals
My cajun neighbor and I had the same experience. We deduced that the Spanish see lots of people flit in and out of their community and if you’re persistent and consistent, they will let you in. Poco a poco amigo. In year 2 we have been much more embraced as people know we care and are part of this community.
Watch Your Mouth
Follow Your Instincts
You Will Make Forever Friends
Try Not to Be a Homeland Hater
Take Language Classes
Careful with Social Media
There are lots of Expat Facebook groups. For Moms, Americans, business owners, Aussies, left-handed parakeet breeders – you name it. While there is useful information on these pages, be wary. Lots of people on these groups are no longer living in the country and some never even came – they were just traveling and wanted the inside info. When I was planning our move from the US and grasping at straws, I relied WAY too much on these groups. Now that I’ve lived here – I know that about half of those social media trolls are using old intel and are complete horse sh*t.
The Secret’s Not Out
Expats are Transient
Your experience will be what you make it. I promise that it will not be without a little comparing, a lot of language fumbles, mistakes, stories, laughs, struggles and triumphs. The expat community is a wonderful part of the living abroad and a welcome “bonus chapter” to our story of life in Spain.