The Top Five Frustrations for Expats in Spain (and why we're still here!)
By: Chelsea Alventosa
The Top 5 Reasons Being an Expat in Spain is Hard
(and why you should totally move abroad anyway)
Living abroad is one of the most rewarding experiences one can have. The clichés are true; living abroad opens your mind to new cultures and experiences and teaches you valuable skills. Learning a second language opens so many doors, and more importantly leads you to people you never knew existed and never would have been able to communicate with if you hadn’t bought that book of 501 Spanish Verbs way back when. Adapting to a new culture teaches you to be flexible and engrains in your mind that nothing will go as planned, and that that’s okay. It allows you to get an outsider’s perspective of the US as you get an insider’s perspective on your new home country.
Though we live in an increasingly interconnected world, less than 10% of US citizens traveled overseas last year in 2012 according to Travel.gov. That means that over 90% of your fellow countrymen can’t even begin to understand the amazing highs and gut wrenching lows that come along with expat life.
Though life as an expat is undeniably an adventure, it really gets me when people back home downplay my problems when I’m having a bad day… or week… or month. “But you’re living in Spain!” they exclaim. “Life can’t be that bad, it’s so beautiful there!”
I know what they’re getting at. I’ve been fortunate enough to follow a dream that I had to live in Spain, and I should be happy that I’m here, even when it gets tough. But what most people who have never lived abroad don’t realize is how romanticized their idea of expat life is. It’s easy to portray that idyllic image of the wanderlustful free-spirited twenty something expat through our social media networks. Instagramming a picture of a beautiful sunset always gives me a little boost to get through the rest of the night. “It is beautiful here,” I tell myself. “I’m lucky to be here.”
But it wasn’t luck that got me here, and it certainly hasn’t been luck that’s allowed me to stay here for going on three years. It can be complicated and there are few options when it comes to being granted a long-term residency card in Spain as a United Statesian and that’s not the only difficulty involved with living here.
As much as I love this country (believe me, I’d probably still be here even if I wasn’t hooked on cheap beer and my boyfriend), it can be really difficult to be an expat in Spain, especially as a non- European citizen. Those are the parts no one back home really thinks about. I say Spain and they think sangria and bullfighting, not crying in front of civil servants at the foreigner’s office. At the risk of sounding whiny (I swear I’m not whining, just keeping it real!) here are my top reasons being an American expat in Spain is tough (in no particular order) along with reasons why you should pick up and move here anyway.
People back home always make jokes about going to the DMV; long lines, incompetent workers, and so on. But imagine for one second that every public office in the US, including police stations, were nightmares like that, and you can begin to understand the insanity that is Spanish bureaucracy. And this isn’t just me over reacting as a biased foreigner. There is actually an entire office and job title devoted to filling out paperwork for people because it’s nearly impossible to do on your own. Gestorías get paid to do paperwork for businesses and individuals who can’t navigate the bureaucratic waters alone, and they make a ton of money by doing so. A Spanish filmmaker even made a hilarious video short documenting this sentiment.
Applying for my student residence card the last three years has been a hassle but manageable, though if you’re expecting anything to get done quickly think again. I applied for my card renewal back in August and I still don’t have the card in my hands. And my attempts to apply for a long-term residence card have been equally nightmarish; the lady in the foreigner’s office in my city knows my name now and talks to me like a baby because she’s afraid I’ll start crying again if she says the wrong thing. The best thing you can do to deal with the bureaucracy is to give them what they ask for, ask few questions and be polite.
Move here anyway because: Dealing with all that red tape gives you a THICK skin and extreme patience! Next time someone tells you no, you’ll be able to figure out how to make them say yes.
2. Friends and family back home don’t understand your new culture
Everyone has experienced this in one way or another, like when you move away for college and go home for this first time during Winter Break. You just can’t explain all the intricacies of your college campus and culture to your best friends from home, so you just tell them it’s great and you’re having an amazing time.
That’s kind of how I feel about living abroad but on a slightly bigger scale. Some hilarious moments that happen due to language barriers or cultural misunderstandings just aren’t that funny when you retell them to someone who not only wasn’t there, but who also hasn’t lived there. My friends and family back home will never understand the gaditano carnaval and the month long celebration that accompanies it, so it suffices to tell them that it’s like the US version of Halloween where everyone dresses up in costumes and sings songs. They’ll never know the feeling of pride that comes along with spending your first weekend with only Spaniards speaking only Spanish; making it through and having an amazing time. It’s hard to explain the relaxed life style in general, and they won’t understand when you get fed up with siesta because you have lots of errands to run and no time to do them. They’ll tell you you’re lucky that you get to take a rest in the middle of the day and you should just roll with it. And of course you roll with it; you always do.
Move here anyway because: Even though no one can relate to you, YOU are gaining amazing experiences that are uniquely yours. Cherish that!
3. You don’t know where home is anymore
While in your new country you’ll lovingly refer to your birth country as home. But at least for me when I’m traveling and starting to get worn out, I always look forward to getting back home to Spain. I love the familiarity of touching down on Spanish soil, being able to understand the language again and knowing how to navigate back down to my little town. I grab a bocadillo and hop on the next train. It feels like home, and I suppose it’s because this is where my life is now.
But I still get homesick for my other home. I’m beginning to think that home is not a geographical location, but rather a feeling. I think of my hometown and realize that none of my friends even live there anymore, yet I still long to go back for that familiarity: my favorite stores and foods, knowing my friends and family are only a car ride away, and of course my bed. But every time I return to Spain, I feel like I’m leaving home to go home. It can get quite confusing but I now realize that it’s a feeling I’ll be dealing with for the rest of my life, as I’ve left bits of my heart there and here and I’ll always be trying to make it feel whole again.
Move here anyway because: It’s better to have many homes than none, right?!
4. You represent your whole country
When my study abroad program advisor said this to me at our orientation my first day in Spain in 2009 I thought he was exaggerating, but he was totally right. Depending on where you go, you may be the first American that lots of people meet, or at least get to know. When I moved to a small town of 30,000 people I knew there had been other Americans there before living and teaching, but my students still treated me like a celebrity and I consistently got questions from children and adults about whether or not I’ve met (insert celebrity here) or if it’s true that Americans eat McDonald’s everyday.
I’ve found myself struggling to answer questions about what the US is like, and if everything is the way they portray it in the movies. It’s made me aware of how unaware I was about lots of important things, like retirement policies and lots of other political debates. It’s embarrassing to be the only American your Spanish friends know, and to be unable to answer questions on behalf of the US because you simply don’t know the answer and because, of course, not everything is so black and white. I’ve definitely gotten better at telling people that I just don’t know rather than spouting off whatever comes to mind, because this may be the only impression that person gets and I don’t want to make it negative. It’s difficult to have the pressure of representing a nation so large and diverse and it’s important to explain that diversity rather than to affirm the stereotypes that are cast over Americans as a whole.
Move here anyway because: You can help dispel the stereotypes and teach people about the US in a truthful manner.
5. You start to feel guilty for being a native English speaker
As I’ve become more aware and in touch with political and economic fiasco that is Spain currently, I’ve begun to feel more and more guilty about being a native English speaker. I know that, at least in the near future, the demand to learn English will remain high and I will likely be able to find a job wherever I go in Spain.
I watch lots of Spanish friends of mine struggle to find work and I feel incredibly guilty. They’ve studied for years and have graduated from University and still have no jobs. Lots of people I know have moved to the UK to find work washing dishes, and a few people that have stayed are celebrating small victories like getting temporary work as a stock boy at the grocery store.
I, too, have a college degree that I haven’t really put to use, and I feel pretty guilty that I came here instead of taking advantage of the job opportunities in the US. I know it’s a bit silly to feel this way but it’s hard to see really good, intelligent people leaving Spain because they have no other options, while I’m living pretty comfortably as a foreigner in their country.
Move here anyway because: Your English skills can be really helpful in a country that has one of the lowest levels of bilingualism in Europe and you’ll meet so many people through teaching!
So, although many times expat life in Spain can be really tough, there are so many parts that make living abroad worth it. In life we have to choose which things we are willing to suffer through in order to be able to enjoy the parts that we love. As expats we suffer through the difficulties of living abroad because we love what comes with it; tons of laughs, amazing friends and unforgettable experiences. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Contest Comments » There are 85 comments
As always, you've put into words what I have the hardest time explaining to friends and family. I greatly enjoy your blog! Good luck.
You've convinced me to move to Spain! And you really touch upon a lot of things I'm experiencing right now being abroad, it's great. I love reading your blog!
Hey Chelsea! I love reading your blog and this article is so great! I know you've been an ex-pat WAY longer than me (hehe I'm new) but I can totally relate to these things anyway. Thanks for a good read :)
Hi Chelsea, I have recently started reading your blog, which I enjoy a lot. One of the things I like, which is highlighted in this particular entry, is that being an expat creates a new community in itself. I am English, you are American, but we are both living in the South of Spain and have very similar experiences, from the bureaucracy to the stereotypes, to the beauty and fun that can be found here!
Chelsea, you eloquently described Spanish life as a foreigner. Your article made me long for home, as well as not want to leave this magical messed up country that is Spain . I look forward to reading your next article!
Great article! Its really refreshing to hear about the hardest parts of living as an expat, and its a really effective way of showing how awesome it is that its still worth it! Miss you but glad you have made such a beautiful life in such a beautiful place.
Thanks for the insight Chelsea! I think it's really useful for people who have friends who are expats.
I experienced a lot of similar challenges while studying and living abroad in Argentina. Thanks for writing, Chelsea!
Really loved this article Chelsea! I think it really helps friends of expats to be able to related to some of their realities.
You really touched on a lot of universal frustrations of traveling, studying, or living abroad! I really experienced the negative stereotype of Americans while overseas, it got me down until I realized that I had the power to change people's perceptions! Great article, Chelsea!
Hey Chels, I have always looked forward to your new and most of the time hilariously entertaining blogs! You are so insightful and I now have a ever increasing aspiration to visit Spain!
Chelsea, the honest perspective on expat life is so interesting. I love the positive attitude you bring to every challenge!
So thoughtful and well written! While we miss you lots and lots, it's been so great to see how you've grown while abroad!
Couldn't have said it better myself. Chelsea you are fantastic!
This blog posts is one of the realest interpretation of living abroad. As someone who has lived abroad (even with the girl who posted this blog, haha) I must say I agree with her...almost word for word. As I read through her feelings, I get goose bumps that someone else can feel or has felt exactly the way I have. One thing is true, you can be in los pueblos de Espana enjoying the bocadillos and endless sangria. Or you can be in Miami trying to "use" that college degree and be a workaholic like the typical America. Wherever your at, you have to remind yourself its about happiness! Some may never find it, from small towns to wild tropical cities...you just have to FIND IT. xxoo
Chels, your blog is great!I love that you write up on all of your experiences. Always entertaining! :)
Gurl, if I wasn't convinced we were twins before I am now haha. You captured the ups and downs of expat life in Spain perfectly!
As you've pointed out in your title, these are only the top five frustrations for expats like us living in Spain. You probably know just as well as I do that these only scratch the surface, but what's great about reading blogs like yours is that we know we're not alone and that we can relate to others that are feeling the same way.
Hello! I disagree with your comment that you are not using your education, you are just continuing it. I always say you are just exactly where you are suppose to be for a reason! I love seeing the world through your travels, and how it makes you appreciate the simple things of 'home' that you may not have if you followed the typical young American trait of instant gratification!
Chelsea I always enjoy reading your blog! You are a terrific writer! Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. They are lucky to have such an exceptionally talented, intelligent, kind and caring person as yourself. Keep up the great work!
Even as someone who has never lived abroad, I always love reading your blog. This article in particular makes me feel better prepared for the day when I finally say "Why not??" and go!
Love your blog, I like that with this post you acknowledge the real challenges but still find the positives. We definitely do not realize how good we have it, and your time in spain will always have been worth it!
I always love reading your blog, Chelsea! As always, great entry. As someone who has never been to Europe it's interesting for me to get your insider's view :)
Great information for everyone moving to Spain. It's very useful and tells the real Spanish way of life. Share if you know someone who wants to come to Spain. Muy buena información para cualquiera que quiera mudarse a España. Es muy útil y cuenta la auténtica for ma de vida de los españoles. Compártelo si conoces a alguien que quiera venir a España.
Another brilliant post Chelsea! Love how you keep it so real. You've made me want to pack my bags and jump on the next flight over there because despite how frustrating Spain can be, it really is an amazing experience (especially if you're as lucky as me to have had a super cool and talented flatmate) Keep up the good work pal! X x x
Chels great answers, I cannot help to keep smiling when I read some of your posts which take me back to those days we shared together. All the best my wee sis. See you soon for a knees up :)
Love your list and I agree, go for it. You do live in a strange limbo type of world, which not many understand, but it is so worth it. We have been in Spain nearly 16 months and love it.
Wonderful post! I definitely felt the "representing US" thing in my time abroad, it's an odd kind of pressure. But I agree that it's great to represent the country proudly and talk about the good stuff :)
This is a wonderfully written article, Chelsea. Your list is so thoughtfully articulated. I was never able to so clearly explain feeling guilty about being a native English speaker! I look forward to more blog posts!
Very Enlightening! Despite the difficult times you've experienced that come with living abroad, I love that you can see the awesomeness in it too. I would love to visit but I don't think I would have the courage to actually pick up and leave everything known and comfortable to me and move to a foreign country. You've always had a courageous and independent spirit, so I'm not surprised you seized the opportunity to move to Spain and can appreciate all aspects of living there-good and bad! Great Post!
Love this and love your "move here anyway" sections! Always great to read your blog :)
So helpful and beautifully written! Awesome job Chelsea, I love reading your blog :)
Agree 100%! I laughed out loud about frustration #1. I've never lived in Spain but the bureaucracy in France is maddening and labyrinthine in its own right. I admire that your takeaway lesson is "develop a thick skin." Mine was "accept defeat and cry in public." Kudos, Chelsea. You're an inspiration!
I am so proud of you Chelsea! You are living your life to the fullest every day and you are helping people feel empowered by teaching them English. However, I miss you dearly! Love you sissy
Chelsea, Chelsea, I don't even have a passport yet I have been able to enjoy the world. Your Post and Pictures of all the places you have visited are truly beautiful. Thanks for sharing !!
Chels, love your point about being the representative of the U.S. I could not imagine being THE American people think about when talking about the U.S. Interesting point and keep up the impressive blogging :)
I always love reading your blog! I feel like I get to learn about the world while sitting on my couch. I can't wait to have travel experiences like your own. Great work!
Hi Chelsea! I completely agree with you that facing challenges and frustrations makes you tougher and more resilient. I can only imagine the extra levels of irritation that you must have to go through being Non-European when you are doing your paperwork. And yes, wherever you are from you do represent your country, and have to come up with witty replies for whatever comments are chucked at you! Great article, well done xx
I understand the part about feelings guilty. Luckily, no one has made me feel this way yet though! It can be tough sometimes, but it´s still very worth it. Spain is a great place!
You hit the nail on the head, Chelsea! All of these are so true!!
I loved reading this! Everyone always talks about the benefits of living abroad but few are honest enough to talk about the struggles. Thank you for sharing your experiences so I can live vicariously through you. :)
I identify with all of these perfectly and I've only been here in Spain 3 months!! Especially #1, 4 and 5. I do feel guilty for having the job I have just because I speak English, it feels so unfair sometimes! I try to tell my students that so they don't resent me, and make it clear that I was just lucky to be born where I was, and now I'm here to help them succeed! Also the amount of times I've gotten the question 'What is America/what are Americans like?' Yes, let me just describe a huge and diverse country in a sentence for you. Ahh!! Really well written and thoughtful article with an awesome approach. Living abroad is definitely difficult, something I think many people don't see if they haven't done it before.
So many things in this remind me of what I've experienced in Italy so far, especially the infamous Italian bureaucracy. At the post office even the native Italians have trouble figuring out the system and all I think is, "They speak the language and are having trouble? I don't have a prayer!" As always you balance humor, heartfeltness, and helpful information!
I love reading your blog! It is so great to hear someone's thoughts while experiencing such an adventure! xoxo
Great article Chelsea! I really liked your reasons for moving to Spain dispite the hard things that you have to go through on a daily basis, being an expat in Spain.
Me gusta tu forma de ver las cosas,eres increíble, sigue asi,mucha suerte desde el sur de España
Great article, Chelsea! I follow your blog (you are super relatable) and hope to be in Spain next year to teach English. Good luck with the contest =)
Chelsea, you make it sound like a breeze to live abroad! Maybe some day I will too
Chels, This puts in to words absolutely everything I've experienced about living abroad, and also makes me want to go back ASAP. I can really tell how much you've grown and how all these experiences have shaped you to become the fantastically amazing woman that you are!!!
I loved reading this, Chelsea! I could definitely relate to #3, even though I don't live abroad. It's comforting to know that these feelings are truly universal, regardless of where we live. Amazing job!!
Very well done Chelsea! I laughed, smiled, cried with you as one who remembers some ups and downs of living my year in Belgium and studying in Germany. I "can" relate to much of what you write! And, as you say, "it's worth it!"
Great opinion on living abroad. Really enjoyed the "move here anyway" parts!
Chels, I love reading about what you're doing and seeing all your pictures! As my longest friend it's fun to keep up with you! You're such an amazing person. Keep doing what you're doing (both in life and your blog). Love you!
What a wonderful post Chelsea! I see a tremendous amount of personal and intellectual growth from your writing. I love your unique, subtle humor (I laughed out loud several times) and the authenticity and vulnerability you've conveyed in such an eloquent way. I've always wanted to live abroad, and your unique approach to discussing life as an expat has shed light on both the daily struggles, as well as the rewarding, unforgettable moments and feelings that I would imagine make it all worthwhile. I commend you for opening up your new life in such a fun, and truly informative way. I greatly admire the work you're doing and the life you're living in Spain, and even envy some of it :) Buena suerte amiga!
Great article Chelsea. Makes me want to get a taste of Spain someday soon!!!
I am a friend of Pam's and have heard many stories about your travels. You are wise beyond you years. I wish you continued success. Have fun and be safe:)
Thanks Chelsea for writing this article, it's very witty. Even though I'm spaniard I feel identify strongly with some points such as the battle against the bureaucracy, the feeling of being from abroad (yes, I was living in the UK and working as au pair and waitress with a bloody university degree) or the difficulty of having just one home (because home could be everywhere). Thank you too for giving another view from my country, not everything is right but not everything is wrong. I like this post very much :)
Chelsea, your writing is enlightening, entertaining and honest. This post motivates me to move abroad!
Very well put! We miss you but are so happy you're thriving in Spain!!! Xo
You're awesome and so is this post! You make me want to move abroad
I completely agree with all of these - especially that the definition of "home" has changed after living abroad, and now home for me is anywhere there are people I care about.
I love reading your blog and seeing how it applies to my current life in another city as an expat!
Spot on! Spot on! Wonderful article and I can't wait to read more!!
Great article, Chelsea! I'm happy to see a study abroad friend grow roots in Spain. I'm pretty settled in America now, but Spain will always hold a piece of my heart, and I think I'll always want to go back someday. Buena suerte!
So jealous of you living the european dream. makes me miss it!
Dear Chelsea, i want you to know that i actually read all(mostly all) of this so be proud! Haha i would love to travel to spain and other places... i just wish i didn't have to get on a plane to do it :)
Chelsea, I love this. I can agree with so many of these when I lived in Spain. I love reading your blog, it makes me miss living in Spain so much!!!
Well put! Just moved to England and this definitely helped me settle in!! GOOD LUCK!
This is really great info. It is always nice to have a heads up on what it is really like in other countries!
You make me want to live abroad again, even though it can be tough sometimes! Great blogs, Chelsea!
What a great article Chelsea! You play devil's advocate beautifully and make me really miss living abroad!
Chelsea. Your blog has always struck me as exactly who you are in person- brave, smart, kind, and witty. I only hope that someday I get a taste of the life you enjoy abroad. You inspire me to live my life to the fullest and live for the experience, no more, no less.
One thing that really surprised me during my visit to Spain was a city wide all day strike!! I had never experienced anything like it!
Hey Chelsea! Thanks for another fantastic article. I love following your blog because you have a very clever, witty, and eloquent way of expressing everything I think, but can't put into words. Keep up the great posts please :D
What a pleasure to read! Your comments about acquiring multiple homes in our lifetime really struck a chord. It's rewarding to see how much we can get back when we put in and attempt to acclimate ourselves to new and exciting experiences. Definitely hope to travel to Spain someday!
Chelsea this was a wonderful insightful blog post giving your readers a glimpse of your life in Spain. But more importantly it is gives us a glimpse of your heart❤ What an incredible experience you are having. You are growing into an amazing women and I know your mother is so proud and smiling! Krissy
Chelsea, As a beginner travel blogger, you have inspired me to continue my writing and travel journey. Your blog was one of the first ones that I came across with and began following you. I've always had a passion to visit Spain and explore what it has to offer. Your knowledge in the area had made me plan for a trip. I'm looking forward to see where it will take you! Best, Ruthie Turner - Ruthie's Routes
I love number three... having lived various places both abroad and domestically within the US in the past 3-4 years, I can totally relate! Home is where the heart is :)
Certainly living abroad is not easy, being far from the familiar, from home, family, friends, and the like is quite difficult at times. But the great joy of living here, is that you get a true sense of what Spain is like- this knowledge comes from your own experiences. I am genuinely happy with my life here, and frequently I tell myself "I can't believe I live in Spain.
Great article Chelsea! You play devil's advocate beautifully and make me miss living abroad in Siena, Italy.
I'm so proud to be your friend! Taking studying abroad to a whole new level. You are brave, 1 to live in abroad and 2 to teach. I'm so excited to see you this week!
Always enjoy reading your blog, and am looking forward to more from you.
You've discussed the highs and lows of expat life in such a fun, witty way.. I have a much better sense of what you're going through after reading your blog. Great work Chelsea!
Chelsea, Thanks for sharing! I really appreciate all of your posts, as they make me reflect upon my time in Spain. Gaining experience abroad is truly life changing and I think it's important that not only are you sharing why it is important but you also point out how few people from the United States actually travel abroad. Keep up the great posts!
After living there for only a year, and having moved back I find myself explaining these same things to everyone here at home. I've pretty much gone through this my whole life coming from a European family and being raised with those values, lessons and life skills as well as growing up in the US. I've created a culture of my own to follow and just as you express the same highs and lows of expat life makes me realize this culture i've created for myself, so many others have done too! Missing every second in Spain no matter the obstacles. Good luck Chelsea!