Five Weird Things You’ll Find in Your Spanish Apartment

Everything came full circle on my first day back in Spain after a summer in the states – the Novio asked me to pick up a few housewares and suggested I head to the cheap bazaar shop two blocks away. My jet-lagged body was on auto pilot as I walked in, found the corner dedicated to tupperware and kitchen utensils, and picked out a few necessities.

It hit me: this was the same place I bought my household necessities when I first moved into a shared flat in Triana seven years ago. And now, with a big kid paycheck and an entire house to fill, I was back at the same chino to buy dishes and tools.

As we settle into our newly purchased chalet in Barrio León, we’re slowly learning the quirks of the so-called ‘Alcázar.’ Our outside lights don’t work, the oven takes an hour to heat for a morning tostada and the lock on the heavy iron door to our parking spaces split a key in two. But it’s ours! Part of the fun (or agony) of looking for a place to live in Spain is the differences between homes in the US and homes here. 

It goes far, far beyond the house versus apartment debate.

Bombonas

Melissa was clear about setting down the rules: she would shower every evening at 8pm once she was done with her classes, so no one could use the hot water from 6pm. When I inquired why (first world problems, indeed), she opened a cabinet in the kitchen to reveal a bright orange tank  - of propane.

In order to heat water, the bombona uses pressure and a small flame, which flows into the pipes in your sink, shower and washing machine. When the tank runs dry, no hot water: you’ll have to call up Repsol and wait for them to deliver a new one, or just wait until siesta time, when the truck will inevitably drive by and clank all of the fuel tanks together to wake you up.

I ended up joining a gym nearby just to have unlimited hot water.   Flash forward to 2014 and there’s an electric hot water tank in my house that holds enough water for a family of four!

Lights on the Outside of the Room

How many times have you fumbled around in the dark to find a light switch?

Surprise! Spanish living spaces tend to have the light switches outside of the room they correspond to. This isn’t always the case, but you may have to reach around the doorframe to illuminate the kitchen after a night out. That, or use the fridge to guide you.

The lights above correspond not to the hall or study, but to my bedroom. When I’m just waking up in the morning, I’m thankful it’s already daylight.

Persianas

I never leave home without a pair of sunglasses because the Andalusian sun is far too bright. Your house has an answer to that, though, as one of the greatest inventions known to man – persianas. These industrial strength blinds are awesome for cutting out light and noise when you’re taking a midday snooze or wanting to sleep in late, but they also mean zero air flow. Fine when it’s cold, but not fine when you’re on the fourth floor and it’s summertime.

Now that I’m living in a house and not a flat, curious neighbors are always peering into our living room, so we often have the persianas down and the lights on. I’m still bumping into walls as I search for the lights.

Braseros

Believe it or not, it gets cold in Spain – even in the south. While houses in the north are more prone to have central heating and thick carpets, Andalusian houses have thick walls, tile floors and often a noticeable lack of central heating and/or air.

Take it from a Chicagoan: you do not know cold until you have lived a damp Andalusian winter.

Spaniards cope with homes that are colder than the temps on the street by installing something called a brasero. Simply put, a space heater is put under a table, and a thick blanket is draped over the table to trap in the heat. People gather around the brasero and try to cover as much of their bodies with the blanket (extra points if it’s velvet). Ingenious? Maybe. Dangerous? Definitely.

Jesus Tiles

There is nothing more Spanish than bad decor. It was hard for me to imagine living in my new house while the former tenants’ things were still there – heavy wooden furniture, mismatched fabrics and enormous portraits of the Virgin Mother above every bed.

It’s not uncommon to see a flat that has hand-painted tiles depicting Jesus Christ crowned with thorns or a weeping virgin (or, if you’re that lucky, the timeless Spanish rose known as Cayetana de Alba). Each city and town have their own patron saints, which grace buildings, benches and even bars. Sevillano favorites? The Virgen of the Macarena, Jesus of the Great Power and the Queen of the Swamps, Our Lady of Rocío.

The Novio and I have one new tile, a housewarming gift courtesy of my younger sister: 

If you’re lucky, your digs will have modern furniture, an oven and a dryer – and you will have essentially won the Spanish housing lottery. Snatch that place up if the price is right! You also won’t get mosquito screens or air conditioning, so start training your body to cope with bugs and heat rash.

Our second year on Calle Numancia, we were able to give the place a good coat of paint, though the mint green in my room clashed with the heavy, dark wooden furniture. But somehow, it felt a little more like my own place in the city. Now that my name is on the deed, I have come to miss those days when I paid rent and utilities, and left the rest to Manolo, my landlord.

Are you stressing out over the apartment search? Fumbling through online ads and not understanding the lingo? COMO Consulting’s guide to Moving to Spain has an extensive chapter on finding flats, from deciphering online ads to what questions to ask your landlord, plus two pages of relevant vocabulary. And that’s just one of nine chapters! Click on the button above or here to learn more about Moving to Spain: A Comprehensive Guide to Your First Weeks on the Iberian Peninsula.

More links: Where to Live in Seville // How to Survive Spanish Convivencia

How are you going about searching for an apartment? Have you found anything strange or kooky?

 

Ten Mistakes New Language Assistants Make (and how to avoid them + eBook giveaway)

My Spanish now-fiancé couldn’t help but laugh when I looked, puzzled, at our new coffee maker. I was jetlagged, yes, but also coming off six weeks of straight drip machine American coffee. The cafetera had me reconsidering a caffeine boost and swapping it for a siesta.

‘Venga ya,’ he said, exasperated, ‘every time you come back into town, you act like you’re a complete newbie to Spain!’ He twisted off the bottom of the pot, filled it with steaming water and ordered me to unpack.

Even after seven years of calling Spain home, I can so clearly remember the days when everything in Seville was new, terrifying and overwhelming. That time when the prospect of having a conversation with my landlord over the phone meant nervously jotting down exactly what I’d say to him before dialing.

You know my Spain story – graduate, freak out about getting a teaching job in Spain, hassles with my visa, taking a leap by moving to a foreign country where I knew not a soul. How I settled into a profession I swore I never would, found a partner and fought bureaucracy. I’ve come a long way since locking myself in my bedroom watching Arrested Development to avoid Spanish conversation, though each year I get more and more emails from aspiring expats and TEFL teachers who ask themselves the same questions:

Is it all worth it? Is it possible at all? How can I do it?

Like anyone moving to a foreign country, there’s a load of apprehension, endless questions, and a creeping sense of self-doubt as your flight date looms nearer and nearer. I tried and learned the hard way how to do practically everything, from look for a place to live to pay bills to find a way to make extra income. Call it dumb luck or call it nagging anyone who would lend a friendly ear, but I somehow managed to survive on meager Spanish and a few nice civil servants (and tapas. Lots of tapas.).

As a settled expat, I am quick to warn people that Spain is not all sunshine and siestas, and that it’s easy to fall into the same traps that got me during that long first year. Year after year, I see language assistants do the same, so let these serve as a warning:

Packing too much

Back in 2007, I packed my suitcase to the brim and even toppled over when I stepped off the train in Granada. Lesson learned – really think about what you’re packing, the practicality of every item and whether or not you could save space by purchasing abroad. If you’re smart about packing, you’ll have loads of room for trendy European fashions to wow your friends back home (and you won’t have to lug luggage up three flights of stairs).

Deciding on an apartment without seeing it

I was so nervous about the prospect of renting an apartment that I found one online, wired money and hoped for the best. Despite my gut telling me it was maybe not the smartest idea, I decided to grin and bear it. I ended staying in that same flat for three years. In hindsight, choosing a flat before seeing it was a stupid move that could have turned out poorly. What if I didn’t like my roommates, or the neighborhood? How could I tell if it was noisy or not? Would my landlords be giant jerks? Save yourself the trouble and worry about finding a place to live when you get here.

Choosing not to stay in touch with loved ones

My first weeks in Spain were dark ones – I struggled to see what my friends and family were up to on Facebook or messenger, and I did a terrible job of staying in touch with them. I was bursting to share my experience, but worried no one would relate, or worse – they simply wouldn’t care. Get over it and Facetime like crazy. That’s what siesta hour was invented for, right? Or at least Skype.

Not bringing enough money

Money is a sticky issue, and having to deal with what my father calls “funny money” makes it more difficult. Remember – even coins can buy you quite a bit! Consider bringing more money than you might think, because things happen. Some regions won’t pay assistants until December, or you may not be able to find tutoring side jobs. Perhaps you will fall in love with an apartment that is more expensive than you bargained for. Having a cushion will ensure you begin enjoying yourself and your new situation right away, without having to turn down day trips or a night out with new friends. 

Not taking time to learn Spanish

Moving is scary. Moving abroad is scarier. Moving abroad without being able to hold your own in the local language is the scariest. Take some time to learn Spanish and practice conversation at whatever cost. Spanish will help you accomplish things as mundane as asking for produce at the market to important situations like making formal complaints. Ah, and that brings me to my next point…

Not interacting with locals

I studied abroad in Valladolid and met not one Spanish person during my six weeks there. While I have great memories with my classmates and adored my host family, I feel that I missed out on what young people did in Spain (and I had trouble keeping up when they did talk to me). In most parts of the country, Spaniards are extremely friendly and open to meeting strangers. Even if it’s the old man having coffee next to you – lose your self-doubt and strike up a conversation. I scored cheaper car insurance just by talking to a lonely man at my neighborhood watering hole.

Adhering to timetables and traditions from your home country

As if adapting to language and a new job weren’t enough, Spain’s weird timetables can throw anyone into a funk. I tried getting a sensible night’s sleep for about two weeks when I started to realize that being in bed before midnight was nearly impossible. If you can’t beat them, siesta with them, I guess.

And that’s not to say you can’t bring your traditions to Spain, either. Making Thanksgiving for your Spanish friends is always memorable, as is dressing up on Halloween and carving watermelons for lack of pumpkins. Embrace both cultures.

Not exercising (and eating too many tapas)

My first weeks in Spain were some of my loneliest, to be honest. I hadn’t connected with others and therefore had yet to made friends. I skipped the gym and ate frozen pizzas daily. My weight quickly bloomed ten pounds. The second I began accepting social invitations and making it a point to walk, I dropped everything and more. Amazing what endorphins and Vitamin D can do!

Not getting a carnet joven earlier

Even someone who works to save money flubs – the carnet joven is a discount card for European residents with discounts on travel, entrance fees and even services around Europe. I waited until I was 26 to get one, therefore disqualifying myself from the hefty discounts on trains. This continent loves young people, so get out there and save!

Working too much

Remember that you’re moving to Spain for something, whether it’s to learn the language, to travel or to invest more time in a hobby. Maybe Spain is a temporary thing, or maybe you’ll find it’s a step towards a long-term goal. No matter what your move means to you, don’t spend all of your waking hours working or commuting – you’ll miss out on all of the wonderful things to do, see and experience in Spain. When I list my favorite things about Spain, the way of life is high on my list!

So how do you avoid these mistakes?

It’s easy: research. I spent hours pouring over blogs, reference books and even travel guides to maximize my year and euros in Spain. While there were bumps in the road, and I had to put my foot in my mouth more times than I’d like to recall, I survived a year in Spain and came back for six more (and counting).

That’s why COMO Consulting has brought out a new eBook to help those of you who are moving to Spain for the first time. In our nine chapter, 110-page book, you’ll find all of the necessary information to get you settled into Spain as seamlessly as possible. In it, we cover all of the documents you’ll need to get a NIE, how to open a bank account, how to seek out the perfect apartment, setting up your internet and selecting a mobile phone and much (much!) more.

Each chapter details all of the pertinent vocabulary you’ll need and we share our own stories of where we went wrong (so hopefully you won’t!). Being an expat means double the challenge but twice the reward, so we’re thrilled to share this book that Hayley and I would have loved to have seven years ago – we might have saved ourselves a lot of embarrassing mishaps! The book is easy to read and downloadable in PDF form, so you can take it on an e-reader, computer or tablet, and there’s the right amount of punch to keep you laughing about the crazy that is Spain.

Downloading Moving to Spain is easy – the button above is linked to COMO’s online shop. Click, purchase thru PayPal, and you’re set! You will receive email notification of a successful purchase and a link to download the eBook. You can also click here.

If you act quickly, you can score Moving to Spain for a discount this week:

         Timetable            Discount          Final Price
Monday, September 1 thru Wednesday, September 3                50%                 5€
Thursday, September 4 thru Friday, September 5                 25%               7,50€
From Saturday September 6                  0%                                            10€ 

 

(note that days are defined as GMT+1)

And get this – I’m giving away TWO of our eBooks, free of charge, to aspiring auxiliares. All you have to do is post a question in the comments, which I will gladly answer, and follow COMO Consulting on social media to win more entries. This contest is a quick one – just 48 hours – so if you don’t win, you can still get the eBook for a discounted price.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

As someone who has been there, I know it’s tough to leave a life behind for a new one you know nothing about. But trust me, it’s worth it. You only have one life, why not make la vida española part of it? 

Please remember that intellectual property is just that – this eBook belongs to COMO Consulting Spain, is copyright and should not be duplicated, reproduced or resold. Remember that science project you worked crazy hard on in elementary school, and you beamed when it was over and you were proud? That’s how we feel about Moving to Spain: A Comprehensive Guide to Your First Weeks on the Iberian Peninsula. Gracias!

A Very un-Sevillano Summer

I knew I had become the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ (or perhaps toro out of España) when I hopped in the car for the first time yesterday. My mom’s van was parked on an incline, and I was nervous it would roll unless I gave the accelerator a hard kick when I threw it into reverse. I reached for the gear shift to find a stack of magazines.

Oh, right, Americans drive automatic cars. I should probably not rest my left foot on the brake, then.

It’s going to be a long, strange summer back in the Grand Old Republic.

As a teacher, I relish in my two months off. Over the past seven school years, my vacaciones have allowed me to explore other parts of Spain, walk the Camino de Santiago, visit friends and family at home in Chicago and attend world-famous festivals.

At 9:30 pm on June 30th, the Novio picked me up from work and drove me straight to a friend’s bar for a celebratory beer. I had fifteen days before returning to Chicago, and my sister was coming to visit. I’d spend the morning working on COMO Consulting issues, and after a long, midday siesta, he and I would pick out paint colors and furniture for the dream house we just bought before deciding to just have a beer as the nights cooled off. Just your average veranito in Seville.

And then the mierda hit the fan we didn’t even need to turn on because it wasn’t even hot there yet. Expat life, man.

On July 1st, I made my annual trip to the unemployment office to ask for a bit of financial help during my vacations. During July, I’m normally in La Coruña directing a summer camp to be able to make it through August without regular pay, and with a new, unfurnished house in the mix, I needed a bit of a cushion.

Per usual, I was sent away and asked to come back the following morning, first thing. On the 2nd, Manolo took a crawling 80 minutes to enter my new data into the INEM’s system. Little did I know that this would be merely the start of a stressful summer.

My summer days in Spain follow a strict routine: waking up early to run errands before the midday sun hits, returning home and drawing all the shades, making yet another batch of gazpacho, treating myself to a four-hour nap/going to the pool, and finally having a few beers somewhere in la calle when it’s finally cool out, or even a drink at a terrace bar. Weekends at the pool or the beach, depending on how lazy we feel.

Then the Novio presented me with a list of things I’d have to do. Turns out that picking out furniture and paint colors was only the start. I cancelled all of my plans but World Cup games to be ready for home inspectors and furniture deliveries, changed appointments to be able to change my mail forwarding and pay my IBI during reduced summer hours and stayed away from the gym. My leisurely start to a two-month holiday was already stressing me out, and I only had to look at my agenda to remind myself that siestas were totally out of the question.

By the time my sister and Rick arrived on July 5th, I’d successfully signed up for unemployment, had all of my bank accounts frozen because of FATCA and cried to my mom about the stress over Skype. The emotional upheaval became too much to bear that  I cursed my new house and the Spanish system of doing, well, everything.

The bank issue was by far the worst – the US law to prevent tax evaders, called FATCA, went into effect on July 1st, sending banks with American customers into a frenzy trying to report tax-relevant data. On the 2nd – the same day I was signing up for unemployment benefits – ING announced that I was not only a co-signed on a join account with the Novio, but that I also had to sign and turn in a form called a W-8BEN. I got no notification of any immediate consequences.

Normally, I’d sign and mail the form off, but I was curious about this new law and how it might affect me, given I file taxes in both Spain and the US, and now had a mortgage in the mix. Surely this law wasn’t trying to tax me and my teacher’s salary in America, too?

I went to IKEA to clear my mind (or not) and do 588€ worth of retail therapy for my dream house. After resisting the urge to also throw in some rugs and throw pills and just stick to the basics, my ING debit card was declined. So was the credit card. Not wanting to face the Novio empty-handed, I drove to Nervión and asked at the bank. The teller assured me my cards were valid and that the TPV unit was probably to blame.

So I drove back to IKEA, picked up the heavy furniture we’d decided on, and tried to pay again. The same thing happened. Defeated, I wheeled the cart to the holding area and reached for my phone to call the Novio. I had left it charging at home.

Furious once I arrived, he called the bank and they confirmed that my accounts had been frozen because of FATCA, even though the bank was supposed to have been compliant with the US’s demands by the day before. Until I turned in the W-8BEN, they would remain untouchable.

And so set off the frenzy of paperwork, lawyers, denuncias, and tears as I tried to take legal action against a bank that had frozen my accounts without warning (only a judicial order has the power to cancel or suspend an account with previous warning), and the fact that the W-8BEN serves for non-Americans. 

Thirteen days later, on the day before I left for the US, my bank accounts were finally restored. I had refrained from rebajas, from overspending and from visiting the terrace bars I loved frequenting in the balmy nights in summer – un verano poco sevillano, indeed.

But the beers and the ice creams and the laughs and the joy of sharing my city with my family put a band-aid on top of the financial struggles I was having. We spent afternoons strolling from bar to bar before they’d have siesta, escaped to Granada and Zahara de los Atunes and ate out every single night (I clearly didn’t pay).

Needless to say, my whole body relaxed as soon as I was sitting on a plane bound for good ol’ America. Now that I’m back in Chicago, I’m focusing on not stuffing my face and building my second site, COMO Consulting Spain. There will be a few surprises here and there, but I’m not ready to spill yet!

What are your summer plans? How do you cope with re-entry into your home country?

Big news: I bought a house in Spain!

I have a new hell.

The foreigner’s office has been officially replaced with a new place that wants to make me rip my hair out: IKEA. 

You see, I bought a house – a 125-square-meters-with-an-incredible-terrace and three stories and a kitchen large enough for an actual table and multiple bookshelves and closet space for my two flamenco dresses. There are two bathrooms, three bedrooms, air conditioning units in most rooms, mosquito nets on all of the windows and room to put in a dryer.

It’s a HOUSE, not a piso. And best of all, it’s in my favorite neighborhood in all of Seville: Triana.

But when the Novio and I signed our mortgage in June and began talking about painting and buying furniture and the logistics of moving all of our things, I knew his functionality and my hours decorating my doll houses would lead to arguments over money and space. 

In hindsight, it was genius to not go together to IKEA. The Novio and I did some online shopping one night, then he went and graciously wrote down the numbers and where to find our basics – a table, four chairs and bed frame – in the self-service area. We calculated 600€, just what we had leftover after buying a custom-made couch and the big appliances for the kitchen. I offered to go the following day and pay with our joint account, then have the whole pedido sent to our new place.

After picking the perfect time to go in Spain, despite having entered in the rebajas sales period, I quickly steered through the maze of cute set ups and couches that wanted to be sat on. I ordered our bed frame and found a few light fixtures, then steered right towards the self-service area. 

The headboard and table were heavy, but I felt triumphant for handling it all on my own and happily presented my debit card. 

Denied.

Again.

And a third time.

After asking my bank for help and getting nothing in return, picking everything up at IKEA once to have my credit card also denied, I threw my hands up in the air, asked the Novio to take out cash for me since my bank had frozen my accounts because of the new FATCA rule, and finally, five hours later, paid for our goods.

So. I essentially hate IKEA for being the torture that it is – an obstacle course riddled with carts and baby strollers, an endless amount of impulse buys staring me down and never-ending lines. Going three times in 24 hours did not help, either.

Not that you care about my current grudge against the Swedish home decoration king (though not their meatballs), here are some pictures of our soon-to-be hogar dulce hogar. 

and the best part…

The house is on a corner lot in the Barrio León section of Triana. Wide avenues, chalets and a few famous residents, like the San Gonzalo depiction of Christ and Our Lady of Health, and the family of singer Isabel Pantoja. Most are rumored to gossip at renowned bakery Confitería Loli or in the dinky but bustling Mercado de San Gonzalo.

To me, the house is the physical manifestation of making the decision to live abroad permanently (or until I’ve paid it off), and whatever is to come next with the Novio.

Want to know more about the process of buying a house in Spain? Be patient…I’ll eventually figure out what I just did for the sake of having a house house in a beautiful barrio.

Four Great Mobile Apps for Keeping in Touch Back Home (and free talk time giveaway!)

When I studied abroad in 2005, my host family didn’t have internet. If I wanted to check in with my family back in Chicago, I’d have to walk down the street to the locutorio and buy credit for a pay phone.

Nine years later, Telefónica’s green and blue phone booths are but an icon of the past and everyone seems to be glued to their smartphones. Ever since breaking down and getting one in 2011, I’ve been able to keep in touch with my family and friends back home far more easily, sending photos and videos of the Feria de Abril to just about everyone in my contacts list!

If you’ve got a smart phone, you have a wealth of apps to help you connect with your loved ones (or just make them jealous of the cheap prices of wine):

Whatsapp

Whatsapp took Spain by storm a few years back, as it was one of the first free messaging services that used wi-fi or 3G for texting. 

To be honest, I have a love-hate relationship with Whatsapp. It’s so great on paper – texts, photo and video sharing, and you can even share your location. But nothing beats a phone call.

Anyway,  the first year is free, and then you have to start paying, but it’s worth it for group chats, sharing, and not freaking out at your phone bill!

Get it! Android | iOS

Postagram

As a proponent of still sending snail mail from time to time, I think postagram is fun and pretty much genius. This app allows you to send a picture right from your phone in real postcard form for the same price as it would cost to send it by mail yourself – you just save the trip to the post office (aka the waiting room of doom in Spain) and what you send is more personalized! What’s more, you get 140 characters – just like a tweet – to send a message.

Get it! Android | iOS

Snapchat

I have to admit that I love snap chat. Originally created (in my mind) for teens to send gross pictures of themselves, I love getting shots of my friends on coffee runs or in beer gardens, or of my niece, Bounder the Mutt.

What snapchat does is it sends 10-second videos or photos to the contact(s) of your choice, which are then deleted and take up no space in your phone’s memory. There’s also a new chat feature where you can hold down the record button and have some face time with your amiguitos back home.

Get it! Android | iOS

toolani 

Move over, Skype and Viber – toolani has just blown my mind. 

After struggling to hear my family on Skype because of a nagging delay and loads of dropped calls, I needed to look for a new way to do our weekly calls. Most Sundays, I’m out having lunch or at a Betis game, making it hard to coincide with my family. toolani works as a phone filter that doesn’t need an internet connection to make cheap international calls – dialing the US cost less than $0,02 a minute! 

With toolani, you can call and text about 150 countries, and your contacts are automatically loaded onto its server. The app also allows you to buy more credit easily.

Just last week I called my family to catch up for cheaper than calling their landlines, as well as shot the breeze with my friends at Jets Like Taxis, who are currently in Austria. Not only were the calls well-priced, but the call quality was top-notch, and there was no delay.

Giveaway!

I’ve partnered with toolani to bring you guys free talk time on their service. There are 100 free vouchers available for Sunshine and Siestas readers with the code toolsunshine. Download their free app and present the code at checkout, and you can talk with people around the world. 

The voucher code is available for you guys from today, May 16th, until Saturday, May 30th. toolani is compatible with both smartphones and iPhones in just about every corner of the globe!

If you like the service, consider connecting with toolani on Facebook or twitter, or surprising one of your friends back home with a call!

What other apps are on your phones?

How College and my Study Abroad Program Prepared me for a Life in Spain

Emails form part of my daily routine, and many who write are travelers looking for a great place to eat or see flamenco, asking about what to miss and what can’t be missed, and seeking information on where to stay in Seville or how to get around.

As my blog readership grew and moved into an expat blog, I began to get more and more inquiries about moving to Spain, which prompted me to co-found COMO Consulting Spain

On my first trip to Europe in 2001, at age 15

Claire’s recent email stood out. At 17, she’s already dreaming of moving abroad once she finishes school. When I was 17, I’d already traveled to Europe twice and was hooked on the idea that I’d study abroad. The more I think about it, the more a life overseas made sense, thanks to the decisions I made in college and what seems to be a four-year beeline straight towards my final destination.

With her permission, I’m including a snippet of our conversation, as well as a longer explanation of how I got to Seville in the first place:

Claire D. writes:

I just started reading your blog a few days ago and I’m already hooked. I’m seventeen and ever since I visited last summer, I’ve been in love with the idea of living in Europe. Unfortunately I don’t know anybody else who has the same dream as me so I’ve been searching for information and advice from people who have experienced living abroad, which is how I found your blog. I feel like I have so many questions for you but I’ll start with your study abroad program.

I’ll be starting university here in Canada in September and I’m thinking about majoring in Global Studies. I know you mentioned that you studied abroad during your college education as well. I was wondering what you majored in and if it was related in any way to your studies of Spanish language in Spain.

I knew what I wanted to study from the time I was 12. My elementary school had a TV lab, and each sixth grade class got to produce a morning news program. My first assignment was interviewing other students about fire safety on the playground. As a kid with countless interests, being in a cubicle would NEVER be for me.
 
College
At the University of Iowa, I went into journalism, but we were forced to pick another major or concentration. Most of my peers chose Poli Sci or English. The reason I chose International Studies as my second major was because it was a DIY program, so all I had to do was argue my way into classes, prove that they had something to do with international studies, and I could earn credits towards my degree.
 
 
Christi and I lived with the same host family in Spain!
 
I enrolled in courses like Paris and the Art of Urban Life, Beginner French, Comparative Global Media and Intercultural Narrative Journalism. I have always loved travel, languages and media, so a concentration in international communication was a great fit for me, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed my coursework. I also chose to minor in Spanish because it was my favorite subject in high school.
 
Little did I know that choosing to minor because, hey! I’m an overachiever, would actually set a course for the rest of my life. My mom studied in Rome during college, and all but demanded I do the same (she did not, however, ask this of my little sister). Between dozens of cities and scores of program choices, I balked and did the simplest one: a six-week summer program in Valladolid, Spain, operated and accredited by the state of Iowa. A large contributing factor was the $1000 that went towards my tuition, too.
 
Study Abroad
I know virtually nothing about Valladolid, a former capital about two hours northwest of Madrid, and my first impression was not great: a hazy day and a kid peeing on the side of the road. As our program director, Carolina, called off names and assigned my classmates to host families, I grew really nervous.
 
 
With Aurora, my host sister, in Valladolid
 
Aurora lived in the Rondilla neighborhood of Valladolid in an ático. She was in her mid 30s – a far cry from the majority of señoras who were widows and creeping up on the tercera edad. Her mother of the same name came each day to make our beds, cook for us and wash our clothes. From the very start, young Aurora welcomed us into her home and her circle of friends, inviting me and my roommate out for drinks or movies, and making sure we were exposed to as much castellano as possible.
 
If you’re going to study abroad, do so with a host family. You’ll have someone to give you an introduction to Spanish life, cuisine and culture. My experience would have been much different if I’d lived with other Americans, and I still visit my host family as often as I can.
 
 
I took classes in Spanish Literature and Culture in Valladolid
 
When looking for a study abroad program, I’d suggest that you take into account more than just cost and location. Schools and programs are now offering internships, specialty courses and the ability to take class at universities with native university students. If your language skills are strong, give yourself that challenge. I also chose to study somewhere that was not a study abroad mecca – there were less than 40 Americans in Valladolid that  summer, so I learned far more in six weeks than I expected to! Consider going somewhere besides Granada or Barcelona, like Santander, Alicante or Murcia.
 
As soon as I was off the plane at O’Hate (wrote that accidentally, and it stays), I announced that I would be moving abroad as soon as I finished school in 2007.
 
Back to College
Once back in Iowa City, I dove back into coursework. I worked for the Daily Iowan, continued taking Spanish courses, had a successful summer internship at WBBM Chicago that could have turned into a job…but I dreamed of Spain.
 
My coursework became more and more focused on international communication and moving abroad, and my trips to the study abroad office were frequent.  At this point in time, there were very few gap year programs, and I had two choices: teach abroad or work on a holiday visa.
 
 
I also focused on my college football obsession and grilling brats on Saturday mornings.
 
My decision to teach in Spain was two-fold: I was nervous about the prospect of living abroad, and I knew I wasn’t done with Spain once I finished my study abroad program. I’m glad I had a primer before moving here after college – I may have been confused by Andalusian Spanish, but at least I was aware that things close midday! 
 
I received the email that I’d been accepted to teach English in Andalusia just a few days before graduating in May 2007. Then came the tailspin to get a visa, book flights, look for a place to live in Seville, figure out what the hell I was thinking when I applied to TEACH since I had an aversion to kids, and wondering if Spain was really worth all of the hassle.
 
Life In Spain
 
But I went anyway, touching down in the land of sunshine and siestas (and this blog’s namesake) on September 13th, 2007.
 
 
My parents have supported me since coming to Spain, even though we’re thousands of miles away from one another.
 
If I may say it, there’s a huge difference between living abroad alone when you’re still in your late teens as opposed to living there after you’ve graduated. Living abroad has its own set of what ifs, of doubts, of struggles, and when you’re younger (that is, if you’re a basket case like I was!), everything seems a little bit tougher. When I arrived in Seville, I lived with a 19-year-old girl from Germany who really struggled to be away from home, and ended up leaving soon after settling in. I highly suggest you consider studying abroad anywhere to get a taste of what to expect, whether in an English-speaking country or even in Spain. 
 
To be honest, adjustment was really hard at first. Now that I’ve lived here for nearly seven years, I feel at home and well-adjusted. There are so many factors that go into getting used to life elsewhere: language, customs, food, timetables, religion. I came ready for culture shock and loneliness, and I was SO lonely in Spain for about six weeks, but never turned down any invitation to do something or go out, whether from a coworker or from another expat. I have my sorority background to thank for that, and yet another reason why college really did its job in setting me up for adulthood.
 
 
Back to the studies. Here in Spain, I teach and direct an English academy in addition to freelance writing and translating, but think that my studies ultimately led me to this life abroad. Even though I’m not working with both feet in the journalism bucket, I honed my communication skills in a lot of other ways. Global studies is fascinating, and if you’re interested in higher education, should lend well to tons of cool masters programs in development, international communication or business, or even immigration law (that’s the next master’s I’d love to tackle!).
 
My Advice
Be open to all of the options and opportunities. Follow your heart. Take challenging coursework. Apply for internships abroad. Volunteer. Ask questions. Make friends with your professors and study abroad staff. Research. Take a leap of faith, and remember that you will make mistakes, have doubts and want to give it all up for the comfortable, for what you know, for a relationship or for something better (and perhaps it is).
 
You’ll probably have critics. My grandma has given me Catholic guilt all of my life, and is convinced I’m living abroad to torture her. I can say that my parents are now OK with my decision to stay in Spain and continue the life I’ve made for myself here, and they have supported me throughout – through break ups, bad jobs, strep throat, uncertainty and all of the lame stuff that being an adult (abroad or not) can bring.
 
 
Blending in…kind of…at the Feria de El Puerto in 2010
 
I do still dream of moving cities or even countries. The Novio is in the Spanish Air Force and occasionally has opportunities to go elsewhere. Even though I’m settled and happy in Seville, I’d love to go back to square one and start all over again – and write about it!
 
Do you have any questions about life abroad, teaching overseas, or Seville? Email me at hola@comoconsultingspain.com!
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