On Nostalgia and Expat Life

It always creeps up on me – whether it’s seeing the plastic grocery bags and hearing the clinking of bottles from within on Thursday night as I ride home from the academy, or passing the trendy bars from which people overflow, gintoncitos in hand, onto the sidewalk in El Arenal.

Sigh. Nostalgia always gets to me.

My life as an expat and guiri in Spain has seen its up and its downs. For several years, Spain was a momentary pause between college and real life, a hiccup of time to travel, learn Spanish and enjoy my early 20s.

Then Spain became my long-term plan, and things changed.

Just last week, the Novio and I were talking about looking for a house to eventually start a family. In talking numbers, mortgages and neighborhoods, I had to tell my head to stop spinning. What happened to renting and dealing with ugly, heavy furniture and noisy roommates and hustling to pay the Internet bill?

Did I grow up that fast? Surely I didn’t do it overnight, but when did I start to feel so….adult?

Danny and Javi visited at the end of February, and Javi caught me off guard when he asked, “Do you miss your life as an auxiliar de conversación?” over a plate of croquetas. Without even thinking about it, I said no. Turns out, Danny does.

I got to thinking about it while they had a siesta later that afternoon. Did I miss working 12 hours a week as a job where I didn’t do much but speak in English to a bunch of teens and take advantage of a few free coffees a week?

Well, yes and no. 

Did I miss having a job that was fun and carried little responsibility?

Yes and no.

Did I miss having my afternoons free for siestas, flamenco class and coffee with the Novio? Hell yes.

Did I miss fretting over whether or not my private classes would cancel on me and leave me without money enough for groceries and bus rides? Hell no.

The first three years in Seville were some of my best. I made friends from around the world, spent my many long weekends lugging a backpack on overnight bus rides and budget flights, stayed out until the sun came up or my feet couldn’t take it anymore. It was my second shot at studying abroad and at squeezing another year out of “learning” as if Spain were my super senior year.

Dios, was it fun. I remember so fondly those afternoon beers that turned into breakfast the next morning, the nights in with giggles, the Guiri Whoa moments. And the hard, hard goodbyes.

But the first three years in Seville were also marred with problems and annoyances: I had to live with roommates, learn to light a bombona, factor shoes into my budget and live off of dry pasta and tomate frito. The Novio and I broke up. I struggled with knowing if Spain was a good idea or a waste of my time. I was doing a job that was easy, yes, but not as fulfilling as I had hoped. 

All of those soaring highs were met with desolate lows. I had to decide to love it or leave it.

Making the decision to spend the rest of my life in Spain meant my days went from siesta and fiesta to frantically looking for a job and spending wisely. Then came nóminas, afiliación a la seguridad social, pareja de hecho, car insurance, sick pay and all of those other “adult” words.

I was living my dream of becoming fluent in foreign bureaucrazy and those of becoming a champion siesta taker seemed to fade away. I had made the transition from language assistant to a full-fledged member of the work force practically unscathed (but very, very poor).

As I adjusted to a full-time schedule and work commitments, I began to miss the old me, the girl who never turned down plans for fear of missing out, who would leave on the next bus out-of-town on a whim. Friday night became catch-up-on-sleep night, and Sundays were devoted to lesson planning. I began to lose sight of the things that were important to me and took out my angst on everyone from my students to my suegra.

Something wasn’t right, and I needed to make a change.

I found myself longing for the Spanish life I had before the private school, even with the stress over money and friends and language and life direction. I wanted to enjoy going out and enjoying Seville without just going through the motions.

So I chose. I chose a pay cut and an arguably less prestigious job and the uncertainty of the job market in the throes of a financial crisis. I chose to be happy and to open myself up to other opportunities, lest it be too late. Even with a master’s and a job and a blog and a boyfriend, I managed to regain a sense of myself and purpose. I realized that I end up setting my own limits for work, relationships and happiness.

Life continues as normal for me, six years after moving to Seville. When I pine to not be tired at midnight and to live close to the action of the city center, I remember everything that came along with it: language frustrations, scrounging for money, sharing a flat, drinking cheap and terrible liquor and eating cheap and terrible food.

I finally have a work-life balance that I craved during the first five years I lived here. Like Goldilocks, it seems I finally have found what is just right.

 

I may miss the carefree days where I could siesta for three hours and never have to worry about what to do on the weekends but how to fit it all in and under budget, I freaking miss my friends.

but at 28, it’s not me anymore.Whenever the pangs of nostalgia hit, they’re quickly quelled when I reflect back on how much I’ve accomplished, how much of the world I’ve seen for choosing plane tickets over drink tickets, and remember that I’m where I intended to end up.

Do you get nostalgic for your study abroad days or college days? How do you cope?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living among pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English Language Academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

Comments

  1. Love this! Though I’m only 3 years in, I’m super nostalgic for my 1st year here. It was so carefree and I had amazing friends and traveled way more. Now I’m working my ass off just to save a tiny bit of money, financially supporting two people and trying to make responsible decisions about what to do next, while not losing sight of what makes me happy. I haven’t found my perfect balance just yet… but I’m glad you have!
    Chelsea Alventosa recently posted..Auxiliar Budget: The Cost of Living in Southern SpainMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      It takes a lot of time – look how long it took me! The important part is to not lose sight of what’s important. I thought having the cool job at a private school was what it would take to make me happy…and it wasn’t. It took me a lot of courage to change plans, change jobs, take a hard look at where I was and where I wanted/needed to be, but it’s working out alright! I’m also traveling and going out more, which was something I needed in order to feel like myself. Now, if only I didn’t have such itchy feet!

      My boyfriend and I will be in Trujillo March 21-23rd. Any way you’re close?

  2. Olé! What a beautiful tribute to what a real life looks like abroad. It´s freaking hard, scary and lonely at times, but what makes it all worth it is how you feel cuando algo te llena. Money can´t buy you happiness, and if that means taking a paycut, then that´s what needs to be done. Finding a balance between financial security (if that even exists) and loving the life you came here to live, is crucial. We´d have these qualms even if we lived on the other side of the charco: breakups, goodbyes, job changes, prioritizing, etc. It´s important to not have the “grass is greener” mentality because after all, our lives are the sames as in the States, just in a different language. ¡Que seas feliz en todo lo que hagas!

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Thanks, guapa! I learned early on that these struggles would be all the same in the US, just in English, and it’s helped me put things into perspective. I often wrestle with following my heart and following my head (and my grandmother’s please to come home), but in the end, I’m happy day-to-day and still young enough to be a bit reckless in my decision making!

      Let’s gripe over a beer one day, yes?

  3. I have a certain sense of nostalgia for my study abroad days, which is definitely a contributing factor for making me want to teach and live in Spain. The thought crosses my mind sometimes about whether my nostalgia gets the best of me, and I should stay in the states. However, I look at where I see myself down the road and realize that this is something I need to do. It’s where I need to be. I do know that there will be ups and downs, just as there are in America, and as Corey stated it will just be in a different language.
    Mike of Mapless Mike recently posted..Why You Should Study AbroadMy Profile

  4. Christine says:

    Wow, this post really spoke volumes. I did study abroad a lot later than most (I was 28 at the time) I thought that I needed to be responsible and stick to “the plan” go to college, graduate and obtain a good job..ahhh and so I did but was I happy? I got laid off from that “good job” and decided to enroll in a liberal arts program and off I went to Madrid. It was there I learned that life is life no matter where you go but it’s the quality of that life and what you do with it that matters. Over the years I have taken breaks from the American dream and lived abroad in different places only to come back; reading this is cementing my realization that I have to go for the quality of life, bills will be bills but where am I happy? To me happy = productive. There is a saying, “do what you love and the money will follow”. As always thanks for sharing with us and inspiring. :o)

    • I love that you did that, C! Speaks volumes about YOU! And yes, for me being happy is being busy and stimulated and surrounded by people! Guess that’s why I like teaching!

  5. I do miss those days of travel when I really had no idea what was happening or where I was going, but I also know I can get them back pretty quickly just by going on a trip.

    I also get nostalgic sometimes for the early months when we first moved to Argentina. I mean, we chose to become expats because it felt like a good mix between travel and settling down. So yes, I do miss seeing things for the first time, I take a certain pleasure in knowing where to go to buy art supplies or which market has the cheapest vegetables or that the cheese vendor knows me and doesn’t overcharge.

    I think, though, I’ll never entirely fit in here. That’s just the nature of it. Sure I have friends, places I go, places I’m comfortable, but I’ll never be from here. Which, honestly, is fine with me. I love it both ways.
    Leigh recently posted..Home has many meanings; home floatsMy Profile

    • Good point, Leigh. I like that I have a homebase and can still jet off for the weekend easily. I know I’ll never be from here, but my Spanish friends now treat me like I do!

  6. “Choosing plane tickets over drink tickets.” Amen! I’ve never regretted drinking my choices for (almost never) drinking into oblivion (it happened maybe once or twice and I swore it would never happen again). Alcohol = temporary fun. Plane tickets = a trip that will hopefully make long lasting memories (of course you can choose to mix up drink and plane tickets but it’s really hard when you are on a tight budget. We can’t all be millionaires with yachts and mansions!).
    amelie88 recently posted..Teaching English in Spain: UCETAM FAQMy Profile

    • I mean, I love a good beer every now and then, but money can only stretch so far! Thankfully cañas are so cheap.

  7. Thanks for a great post. More than anything it has reminded me to enjoy where I’m at in the moment, as things change rather quickly and not always in ways we expect.

  8. Katerina Borghi says:

    Hey,Cat!! I loved your post. It made me think about the reverse nostalgia that I get (a veces me duele hasta el alma) when I think about beautiful Sevilla, and all of the wonderful times I had there. I think the first time I had that reverse culture shock hit me was after studying in Granada, and it pretty much lasted a good 2 years until I moved back to Seville from the states. I really connected with your point that you come to a realization that you are where you are, and hey, without the not so good times,trasnochando and the late-afternoon cañas wouldn’t be half as sweet, would they? Sometimes you just can’t go back, and that’s a good thing. When my nostalgia hits I think of how far I’ve come moving back to the states, doing a Masters that probably wouldn’t have been such a struggle HAD I stayed in Sevilla,and, in the end, I realize I’m glad I took that tough first step. I’m so happy that you’re doing well in your new job/new life pretty much, and I hope to talk to you soon.
    Un abrazo muy fuerte desde el otro lado del Atlántico.

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Hey lady, great to hear from you all the way out there! It’s amazing what just a year or two can do, isn’t it? It seems like my days as an auxiliar are so far away, and my days of working at the private school too! Leaving that job was hard in the sense that I was stepping into the unknown and taking a huge gamble, but it’s all worked out alright so far (and I’m not so negative!). Glad to hear you’re well!!

  9. Great story Cat. Thanks for sharing. I was an expat in London for 2 years and missed my family, friends and the lifestyle of home terribly the whole time. But as soon as it was time to leave I realised how much of a community and support network of great friends I had built up in my time there. I realised I was going to miss them going back to Sydney as much as I did my family and friends from home. Then once I got home I realised my life was much more exciting in London and I wanted to go back. It can be really tough being away from your ‘home’ for a long time but the experiences you have while travelling or living in another country far outweight the feeling of missing home for me.
    Jen recently posted..Destination of the Week – LondonMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      This is one of my biggest fears, Jen – leaving and regretting it. The longer I stay, the harder it is to leave and give up what I’ve built here.

  10. Well written Cat! Reading this article made ME nostalgic as I could totally relate this to my own experience. My case was a bit different as I left Spain after the first year as an auxiliar, partially due to homesickness and wanting to give a “real world job” related to my major a shot, but let’s be honest, it was mostly because of a long-distance relationship I was in at the time that ended as soon as I got back. I can’t tell you how many times during that first year working in the cubicle I daydreamed about my carefree auxiliar days, like you said, my super senior year and 2nd shot at studying abroad. Money wasn’t a huge issue back then compared to when I was college and I saved every penny I could to bring me back to Spain. Since coming back I have often contemplated whether it was a mistake to leave and even gone so far as to reapply for the auxiliar program…every single year that I could (that makes 3 years in a row so far that I have reapplied and then decided after getting a position not to go…and actually 4 if you count the fact that last year after declining my position in Andalucia, I was offered another one in Galicia after the school year was underway due to a shortage). 4 times I have seriously considered returning to auxiliar life, with a concrete offer in front of me, and I have said no, because real life is more practical and hard to get away from. Why was it so easy when we were seniors in college? Anyways, I’ve reached the point this year that I have admitted to myself that it probably makes more sense NOT to apply, that if returning to the program were something I really wanted for myself and my life, I would have done it by now, that being sent to a random small town to work part-time as an oral assistant may not be the best use of my time or the most enjoyable experience, and that I need to find a way to create my own adventures and continue to incorporate travel and living abroad into my life but on my own terms, with or without a comfortable program to fall back on.

  11. Well written Cat! Reading this article made ME nostalgic as I could totally relate this to my own experience. My case was a bit different as I left Spain after the first year as an auxiliar, partially due to homesickness and wanting to give a “real world job” related to my major a shot, but let’s be honest, it was mostly because of a long-distance relationship I was in at the time that ended as soon as I got back. I can’t tell you how many times during that first year working in the cubicle I daydreamed about my carefree auxiliar days, like you said, my super senior year and 2nd shot at studying abroad. Money wasn’t a huge issue back then compared to when I was college and I saved every penny I could to bring me back to Spain. Since coming back I have often contemplated whether it was a mistake to leave and even gone so far as to reapply for the auxiliar program…every single year that I could (that makes 3 years in a row so far that I have reapplied and then decided after getting a position not to go…and actually 4 if you count the fact that last year after declining my position in Andalucia, I was offered another one in Galicia after the school year was underway due to a shortage). 4 times I have seriously considered returning to auxiliar life, with a concrete offer in front of me, and I have said no, because real life is more practical and hard to get away from. Why was it so easy when we were seniors in college? Anyways, I’ve reached the point this year that I have admitted to myself that it probably makes more sense NOT to apply, that if returning to the program were something I really wanted for myself and my life, I would have done it by now, that being sent to a random small town to work part-time as an oral assistant may not be the best use of my time or the most enjoyable experience, and that I need to find a way to create my own adventures and continue to incorporate travel and living abroad into my life but on my own terms, with or without a comfortable program to fall back on.

    • Cat Gaa says:

      You make a great point, Janna. I sometimes feel like I take a step back but figure that, in the big picture, there’s a reason why!

  12. The grass always seems greener on the other side and it is so easy to look back on times and feel such nostaligia. Luckily, it seems like you are in a great place and have a lot to be happy about!

    Oh yeah, those private classes. I will never, ever, miss these!
    Jessica Wray recently posted..Young, Alive & Present in GranadaMy Profile

  13. Thanks for sharing, Cat! This definitely a nice honest testimony- I really appreciate your comment “I decided to love it or leave it.” I’ve found that it’s so easy to associate those fun college memories as being completely carefree when in reality (like when I recently found my planner from Junior year) – yes, it was awesome and my metabolism was a champ but it wasn’t without worry about what was coming down the pipe after the golden college years. Not to mention, homework and tests are a major drag. Ha. :) I’m 28 as well and have really come to appreciate being exactly where I am in life too. Kudos to us!

  14. I love the goldlilocks reference. I relate to this so much – my life here is SO different than my au pair year when I went out 6 nights per week. When my friends at home still tell me their jealous of my life here, I’m like it’s really no different than yours except I’m poor in Germany. Great post Cat!
    Alex @ ifs ands & butts recently posted..cruising the moselle valley.My Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      I had to take my car in to be fixed, got my bike stolen and am sleep deprived. Yep, just a normal day in expat world!

  15. This post speaks so much truth. I’m in my 3rd year living in Spain, and now I’m making less money than I did my first year, working more, and doing a master’s. Sometimes I feel like I’m going in reverse…aren’t I supposed to be more stable now? And shouldn’t instability have the perks of irresponsibility? Turns out it doesn’t! Even though I can’t stay out until the crack of dawn every weekend, I think about how much I’ve grown personally. I’m always a little nostalgic for the good ol’ days, but I have those memories, and I know I’ll keep making more.
    Paige recently posted..Balancing Work, School, and Living in MadridMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      That’s really the beauty of it, Paige – we’re still here trucking along and still learning. I’m thankful Spain keeps surprising me! Thanks for reading, and suerte with the master’s!

  16. do you care if I retweet this post?

  17. Cat, good on you for recognizing and going for what you want.
    Penny Sadler recently posted..7 Stunning Sunsets Around The WorldMy Profile

  18. Love this – and you know what? It happens no matter where in the world you are, even at home.
    wanderingeducators recently posted..The Best of Ireland: an A to Z GuideMy Profile

    • I agree! I have yet to be back to my university since graduating but seem to always pine for it, as well as summers in Chicago and sometimes experiences I haven’t even had!

  19. This is a great article! I find that finally finding a work-life balance is one of the tops things that I want from life. I can’t wait to get to Spain again!!
    Val-Eating The Globe recently posted..Two Organic Vegetarian-Friendly Restaurants In San Miguel de Allende That Even Meat Eaters Will LoveMy Profile

  20. Having recently made a lot of changes to my life – how and where I work, how often, etc – I can relate to a lot of this. I feel like a switch suddenly went off and now all of a sudden my priorities have changed from worrying about weekends to worrying about various responsibilities. I like this switch – it feels exciting and new.
    Adam recently posted..A Sunday Without my iPhoneMy Profile

    • It IS a good change. Taking the time to get settled has made a difference in how I see Spain, my relationship, and my goals. Speaking of, how did your appointment go last month? I can only imagine it was successful!

  21. So great that you’ve found that precious and elusive balance!
    Lillie – @WorldLillie recently posted..The Best Ice Cream in Boston, and a Beautiful BabyMy Profile

  22. Nicely expressed Cat! It’s so true that life is life where ever you go and it’s about choices. I’m glad you can recognize all these things and honor yourself about what you want and need!
    I often think about how much simpler my life was in Spain but it was that much easier in part because I knew it wasn’t permanent. I’m still finding my road back in the States… hasn’t been as simple or easy but who said it would be?
    Lauren @Roamingtheworld recently posted..Visions and desires for 2014!My Profile

    • Thinking that Spain wasn’t permanent pushed me to live it up, just like you mention, Lauren. Things were very black and white about what I had to do and what was just extra. It’s a bit more grey now, but at least I speak Spanish! Sending a big hug – you’ll find your way!

  23. What a smart post on growing up. You sound so comfortable in your 28-year-old skin. And as for the memories, they’re waiting for you whenever you want to call them up — sort of the best of both worlds.
    Terry at Overnight New York recently posted..Hotel Americano: Feeding VIPs at the Armory ShowMy Profile

  24. I think the push-pull of care free youth vs. accomplished adult is a pain most of us have felt at one time or another. Sometimes I miss the days of 9-5 when my working hours had a clear end and the weekends were mine to do with as I please, then I realize I was bored, unfulfilled and looking for any task I could do to cross off a list. I find daily gratitude are the best way to keep me in the present and appreciative of what I have right now.
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..PHOTO GALLERY: The Beauty of Galapagos BirdsMy Profile

  25. Now that I’m in my 30s, I don’t miss my 20s at all. Sure I may have had a lot of fun, but I also had a lot of growing pains. I was probably 28 before I started to really understand who I was and feel confident in my choices, and it’s just gotten better every year since. Everything is more meaningful, from my relationships to my travels, and I appreciate them so much more now than I did 10 years ago. I can’t wait to see what my 40s bring!
    Heather recently posted..Becoming a Celebrity in ChinaMy Profile

    • I keep telling myself that, Heather. Hard when your students are half your age (or younger!) and remind you of it often! I’m OK with turning 20 – still have 18 months to enjoy my 20s though!

  26. Great account of your experiences – thanks for sharing this!

    Btw just followed you on Twitter as well – like your site! Looking forward to connect!
    MightyTravels recently posted..Airfare Deal – from San Jose to Boston and back to Sacramento $280 on United AirlinesMy Profile

  27. Hmm, it will be my first year as an auxiliary and I wonder if my experience will be drastically different at at 28 rather than age 20-something… I am not going for the parties, dare I say, but for the experience of getting to live abroad and a change in pace. I look forward to experiencing everything (the ups and downs), as you have. Thanks for the post :).

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Hola, Molly. Your experience will be different, for sure, but I’d encourage you to be open to lots of things! Have a great time!

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  1. […] An eclectic mix of old and new, Madrid is a city that has slowly crept its way into my heart. At first, it was a necessary stop on my way to or from Chicago, but after so many visits, it feels like an old sweater, a city I can navigate just as well as Sevilla, a cosmopolitan exclamation point in my sometimes mundane expat experience. […]

  2. […] morning – I’ve been aching to return since (particularly because that was one of my poorest points of expat life – we didn’t pay to see anything and split two plates of food between five of […]

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