Top Five Frustrations for Expats in Spain (and why we’re still here!)

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.

From top left: Madrid windows at Christmas, sunset from my apartment in Mérida, the old town of Arcos de la Frontera, spring in Ronda, and me on the Setas in Sevilla

1. Bureaucracy

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

Me and Paco Facetiming with my friends from college as they all had a reunion in NYC without me 😦

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

You see, this could have been avoided.

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.

This award-winning post originally appeared on ExpatsBlog.com as part of their 2013 writing contest and awards. You can see the original entry here.

Expat blogs in Spain

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6 thoughts on “Top Five Frustrations for Expats in Spain (and why we’re still here!)

  1. Pingback: The 24 Month Slump of Expat Life (Confessions) - Andalucía Bound

  2. Hi again! I’m so glad you included both positives and negatives in your post! It’s true. Being an ex pat in any country can be a challenge. The only thing I would disagree with is your claim that Spain has one of the “lowest bilingualism” in the EU. You must remember that Spain has only just come out of relative international isolation in 1975 (when their dictator Franco died) and was only accepted as full member in 1985 (I think). So English wasn’t really a priority then. Now, however, children in public schools learn English even from age 3! Which is MUCH more than what the USA can say about their abysmal bilingual education. It’s sad for a country with Latin America as a neighbor and with its own rich Spanish history (Florida settled by the Spanish in the late 1500s, much earlier than England!) And yet most people can’t even pronounce Spanish words correctly let alone speak it. Most people tend to forget how important Spanish is too. Its spoken in Europe, parts of Africa (Morroco and Equatorial Guinea especially), parts of Asia (the Philippines), and of course nearly all the Caribbean and Central and South America! Plus, nearly all major industrialized countries like China, USA, Japan, UK, France, Russia, etc have a Miguel Cervantes Institute which is dedicated to the spread and learning of Spanish language, literature and culture. So if Americans already are at advantage by speaking English, why can’t most of them learn a second language like Spanish? I don’t think they should expect English everywhere they go. They can learn another language too and if Spain should bolster its bilingual ability so should the USA. Just my honest two cents.

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    • Hi Marrissa, I totally agree with you! It’s a huge shame that bilingual education in he the US is not valued, though it seems that at least the younger generations are realizing the importance of learning languages. It’s really unfortunate bilingual education isn’t a priority, especially because of the rapidly increasing number of Spanish speakers in the the US! Statistically speaking, though, Spain does have one of the lowest levels of English proficiency in Europe, according to the EF EPI index that classifies english proficiency around the world. Spain ranks 18 out of 23, above turkey, France, Italy Russia and Ukraine. I understand that Spain is at a historical disadvantage for being a relatively new european country and I think Spaniards really do value learning English so I only see their proficiency increasing with time. Thanks for your comment!

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    • Hi! I’m not sure if you have ever been to the US? I am from California, where in many places there are more Hispanic people speaking Spanish then there are English speakers! And believe me, it’s the opposite of what you may think, the Spanish speakers expect the English speakers to learn their language! I have extended family (I am part Spanish, Lebanese, Mexican and also European) that have lived in the US for their entire lives and refuse to speak English! and it is not as uncommon as you think! I also lived in Florida for 8 years, and was surrounded by Spanish speaking people, Cubans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, etc.. I just want you to know that the US is FULL of Spanish speaking adults. My husband is Caribbean, and in Jamaica they speak English (Patois dialect) not Spanish. My friend is Haitian and he speaks French and not Spanish. So the Caribbean is full of other languages, but my husband is still happy and eager to learn the language!
      There are ESL programs in every school my children have ever attended. Spanish is alive and well, and most people I know love to learn more about it.

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  3. Pingback: Pros and Cons of the Auxiliares de Conversación Program in Spain - Andalucía Bound

  4. Hola Spain Lovers! Please check out a fascinating new ebook entitled ‘The Reign in Spain’ by expat Galician author W. Kristjan Arnold. This entertaining historical novel examines Spain’s turbulent 20th century. Anyone interested in Spain, history, or politics will enjoy this read. The book is available at the Amazon Kindle eBook Store (google: amazon the reign in spain). Hope you read and recommend!

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