What to Expect When You’re Expat-ing

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
As an extrovert, I was so confused why I couldn’t “break in” to the parent groups at my son’s school. I showed up every single day wearing deodorant and an eager smile – why didn’t they even acknowledge me?

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

Whether it’s month 1 or month 13 – eventually every expat you know will likely know each other. If you’ve had good or bad experiences with anyone – keep it to yourself. The expat community is just a foreign small town.
Follow Your Instincts
Don’t feel like there’s a right or wrong way to do things. Some people will tell you that such-and-such school is horrible while someone else’s kid loved it. This local wine is better because it was produced by BlahBlah McSpaniard and it’s the only true local varietal. This government form took her 9 months to get processed but 2 weeks for him.
People are trying to be helpful but they are referencing their own stories and experiences. Make your own decisions. If you do solicit advice, make sure you’ve surveyed lots of people and done your own soul-searching and research beforehand.
For expats that have lived somewhere for a while – it’s a point of pride to know all the local ins and outs. People enjoy giving advice, admonitions, and telling their stories. Be able to sort out what’s helpful and what is people just weighing in and knowing it all. In short, don’t let anyone else’s experience dictate your own right to newness and adventure. We’re all meant to screw up our first paella. No amount of advice can change that.
You Will Make Forever Friends
Living abroad is a bonding experience. This experience can truly only be understood by people that have lived it. When you long for Thanksgiving turkey – your people make room for you at their table. When you can’t find ingredients, the US consulate, need a babysitter, optometrist – you name it, they are there and willing.
In a foreign country, far away from those you love, friends quickly become family and expat relationships are fast tracked. We care for each other’s children and love them like our own because we need each other in a deeper way.
I can’t quite find the words to express my love and gratitude for some of the friends I’ve met on this journey. There’s a reason nobody talks about Fight Club – you don’t get it until you do.
Try Not to Be a Homeland Hater
Being bonded by a hatred for the US is not healthy. Those conversations are tired and most expats have likely had some of the same revelations/observations or they wouldn’t be here. Europe has its own set of flaws. Don’t get too caught up in what you hate nor what you miss. We plan to return to the US and I don’t want my kids drinking elitist poison or believing that we aren’t proud Americans.
Take Language Classes
This is so important. You can’t be in a foreign country and not try to speak their language. Too many expats lose hope or stop trying. You can live anywhere and not speak the language but you will not have the same experience as those that try. The beautiful part: You don’t have to be good – it’s all about effort.
Friend Buffets
The expat community is not just Americans. At my daughter’s birthday there were Moroccan, Venezuelans, Mexicans, Germans, Americans, Argentines, Britts, and a partridge in a pear tree. If you go “strictly local” you won’t get to taste the full friend buffet!
I’m excited for our next chapter – when we visit some of our friends from all over the world.
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 like to overshare their expertise but also love to keep their city a secret. It’s a weird combination. “Don’t let people know about our beautiful little corner of the world or all the Americans will come here and ruin it!!” Admittedly, I feel this way sometimes but it’s simply not true. Most people don’t have the means or real desire to do this and unless you are Roman living in the year 138 BC – you didn’t discover anything;)
Expats are Transient
Some families are on a 6 month sabbatical and some people are here indefinitely. Expats are rare birds – always migrating, moving, and shaking. If you’re ready to be a part of this community – get used to goodbyes and lots of “hasta la vista”s.
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.
2 replies
  1. scott hiller
    scott hiller says:

    That’s such interesting information. We’re hoping to relocate there from Denver and will be visiting for our 3rd trip shortly. It sounds like a lot of navigating. Thanks!


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