Six Years in Spain: Reflections of a Life Abroad

Segovia, Spain Aquaduct

Six Years in Spain:
Reflections of a Life Abroad

Sometimes it still feels like yesterday, soaring over the Atlantic en route to Barajas International Airport, mentally preparing to touch down for “a year” in Madrid. Half of me running away from a 9-5 marketing gig and a relationship that had faded to friendship, the other half desperately hoping to recreate the love affair with Spain that had been luring me back since I reluctantly left just two years before.

My first go around had been a whirlwind of just a few months, dancing until dawn in Barcelona, losing myself in the hills and caves of Granada’s Albayzín and Sacromonte, and eventually settling into an overcrowded apartment of artists and bohemians in Sevilla.

This time was different. Rather than blissful Andalucian days filled with painting, writing and daydreaming along the banks of the Rio Guadalquivir, I had a job waiting in Madrid and was meant to start over from scratch in a country I adored but a city I’d never been in and that didn’t interest me in the least.

There was no way I could have known as I clumsily navigated Madrid’s metro that morning that six years later I would be writing this post – my sixth Spaniversary. From the nonstop madness of Madrid (which I did, in case you were wondering, fall madly in love with) to the sundrenched coasts of the Canary Islands, Spain remains my muse.

As I celebrate my sixth Spaniversary, I offer six reflections of life abroad for those who are considering an international move. Some melancholy and some encouraging, these are my musings of a long-distance life.

1. You’re Not a Traveller

Bay of Biscay - Sailing to the south of France
Bay of Biscay – Sailing to the south of France

I was miserable my first months in Madrid. I had long been accustomed to life as a long-term vagabond, having lived and worked abroad here and there over the years. It had always been easy – making friends and carving my place in the world wherever I happened to unpack.

But in Madrid I wasn’t a traveller bouncing in and out of hostels and free to jump in on the whenever-whatever adventures that usually piqued my interest. Here I had a job and an overpriced flat with way too many roommates, and bills to pay. Rather than being surrounded by the visual poetry of Andalucía, I felt like I was in a concrete jungle in a city that hadn’t yet revealed herself to me. It was the first time in my travels I had ever second-guessed my instincts and considered turning around.

Sacromonte, Granada, Andalucia, Spain

Unlike travelling, you can’t just pack up your backpack and jump on a bus to the next town if you don’t meet anyone who sparks up a conversation worth having. Moving abroad is definitely full of new sights and tastes and experiences, but it’s also waking up early and going to work, paying your electricity bills and going to the supermarket. For those vagabond souls out there, working abroad does enable us to intimately discover new places, but in a very different way than backpacking.

2. The People Make the Place

My first months in Madrid were clouded with loneliness, newly single and in a new place where I didn’t know a soul. The city is loaded with newbies in September so it wasn’t hard to meet people, but it took some time to meet people who I actually really jived with, friendships based on like-mindedness rather than just staving off loneliness.

Then suddenly one crisp November night, I was wandering aimlessly with my adorable Belgian roommate. The city was already dressed up for Christmas, from the sparkling tree at the heart of Puerto de Sol to the glittering fairy lights that lit up Gran Via. We picked up a litro and parked ourselves on a curb to listen to Grupo Ernesto – a local madrileño band that filled Calle Preciados with music every Sunday night.

San Isidro, Madrid, Spain

We laughed and sang along, soon joined by a couple of mutual friends who danced along with us as the crowd grew. As we walked back home that night, Madrid was so much more beautiful than it had ever been to me over the previous months, and it wasn’t the Christmas decorations or the cerveza. I realized at that very moment that the people make the place, and that anywhere in the world can be home as long as you’re surrounded by the good ones.

3. You will always be a stranger in a strange land

Baile de Magos. Santa Cruz de Tenerife 5-2016 (1)

No matter how deeply you delve into the local culture and no matter how often your colleagues joke that “tú eres más Canaria que el gofio”, this is not your land.

I eat lunch at 2:00 and dinner at 9:00 and stuff my face with 12 grapes every New Year as the clock strikes 12. I know to order tinto de verano – not sangria – on a dizzyingly hot July afternoon and that Sunday afternoons in Madrid were created for vermouth and pinchos after a stroll through El Rastro market. These things are second nature now, but they don’t belong to me.

Un #vermut #vermucito en #lalatina 🥃 #demadridalcielo

A post shared by Erica | Get Lost! 🌍✈️ (@getup_getout_getlost) on

Every October I heat up hot wine and invite the gang over to carve pumpkins. I learnt to make pumpkin pie from scratch when I couldn’t find the canned stuff, and spent 3 full days dying Easter eggs with the kiddos at school. They humor me, but these things don’t belong to them.

Coming from the perspective of a gringa who grew up in an immigrant community in LA, this resonates with me on a few different levels. This realization that the parents of my dearest friends have raised their families in a sort of cultural hybrid, as I’ll likely do if I have children here.

I look back on Christmas’ making tamales with my friends’ grandmother, or collecting gold coins thrown out by Lolo on New Year’s Eve, and I realize how beautiful it was to have the opportunity to share in the traditions that had been guarded by the family for so many years.

It’s so easy to take for granted the simple customs and traditions of your community, until you have no one to share them with.

4. Life back home goes on without you

Sistahs babies 8-2017
Meeting the sweet babes of my two college roommates and best friends.

You will miss weddings and baby showers and first birthdays. Your best friend will get engaged or have their heart broken and you won’t be there to celebrate or commiserate for either. Try as you might, you will all too often miss the most important days in the lives of people who are most important to you.

You’ll FaceTime more often at first, but it will die down as your new social circle grows and your free time shrinks. Something silly will happen that reminds you of an inside joke, but you won’t have anyone to laugh with, and those jokes are never really as funny when you try to explain them to someone else.

me kaeligh 2015
Meeting my first niece for the first time.

When you go home for a visit, there will be new boyfriends and girlfriends you haven’t met, new inside jokes that you don’t get, and even damaged friendships dividing your once inseparable chosen family.

You’ll meet up for coffee and get the news, the highlights. But it won’t change that you weren’t there to help a lifelong friend move out when her fiancé stomped on her heart, or even just to toast your buddy’s big promotion.

While you’re absorbing the sights and sounds of countries and languages that had barely touched your radar before, life in the familiar goes on without you.

 5.Those that want to be in your life, will

friends madrid
Retiro Park. Madrid, Spain

There are some who I called my best friends since childhood who have become strangers, yet there are others whose friendship have stood not just the test of time, but an ocean, a continent and thousands of kilometers.

You know these friends because when you see them, absolutely nothing has changed. You walk into their home (you barely recognize it now that the posters have been exchanged for framed art and the futons for feng shui) and you kick off your shoes, find the corkscrew in the same drawer it’s always lived in, and laugh until one or both of you falls asleep on the couch.

These are the friends that make sure to FaceTime you at birthday parties so everyone can pass around the phone, the ones that wish you a happy New Year when the ball drops on your time zone.

These people are priceless. They are family beyond blood. They have chosen to build bridges and keep you in their heart and mind despite the obstacles. Never take these people for granted. You know who are, and I love you ❤ .

6. You are always homesick for somewhere else

Homesick
Chea Smon Village, Cambodia

Last week I took the bus to work, and as we wound up the hill beneath palm trees amid the balmy tropical heat, Danza Kuzoro playing from the driver’s radio, I could have sworn I was in the Dominican Republic, could have tasted the chinolas and heard the neighbors calling K-LO-K, como tú ‘sta!

In Portuguese there’s a word –  saudades – “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone”. Having lived in a few different places for extended periods of time, these saudades can sneak up on me when least expected.

The smell of fresh ginger and hot summer storms pulls my heartstrings back toward Cambodia. Every Christmas my heart longs for California and every spring I remember those first sunny days in Madrid’s Retiro Park, when you can finally kick off your boots and scarf in the grass beside the estanco and echar una siesta as the sun dethaws your winter bones.

Would I change it?

6-2015 Immigrant Life Visa Documents
Annual immigration paperwork 🤦🏼‍♀️

I would be lying if I said I never had doubts.  By the time I graduated university, I had a coveted marketing position at an international NGO that allowed me three months a year field time in places like New Zealand and the Caribbean.

As most of my friends were barely transitioning from serving jobs into “the real world”, I was already burnt out on the 9-5 and constantly scheming of excuses to stay abroad for longer and longer chunks of time.

Moving to Spain meant accepting a (painfully) huge paycut, a mountain of annual immigration paperwork and a loss of security. It also enabled me to meet my partner and many of my dearest friends, to become fluent in a second language and to explore dozens of countries throughout Europe and northern Africa. Like most things in life, there’s highs and lows, ups and downs, give and take.

But I absolutely wouldn’t change it.

❤ Erica

Reflections of a life abroad

© Erica Edwards and getupgetoutgetlost.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Erica Edwards and getupgetoutgetlost.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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33 Comments Add yours

  1. mackinawroad says:

    What a thoughtful article! Loved reading about your transition.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ian says:

    Six years shows how strongly you made the right decision to go. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erica says:

      Thanks! Can’t say I’ve never had doubts, but it sure is a good life 🙂

      Like

  3. What a beautiful article, you cover the good and the bad about living abroad. Some things that people might not consider or realize. I enjoyed reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erica says:

      Thanks for reading! I guess like with any major life decisions, there’s always the highs and the lows!

      Like

    2. Erica says:

      Thank you! Appreciate it 🙂

      Like

  4. Great perspective. I like that you were so honest and seem to have spoken from your heart. I used to move around the US and loved it, but can relate to the difficult times of not knowing a soul and missing life events back home. Even though I have lived in the same area for quite a few years (traveling about 9 or so weeks a year, thank goodness), I still miss the places I have been. I think that the more you see and experience, the more you fall in love with the world, and life. At least for those who enjoy traveling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erica says:

      I completely agree with you! Like so many things in life, I think that no matter which path you choose, you always wonder what the other would have been like… even if you’re content with the decision you’ve made. Or maybe that’s just because I’m restless and think too much! 😆

      Like

  5. Michelle says:

    Love your honesty! I’m going to be relocating overseas soon (to the UK from NZ) and while I’m excited, I’m also very nervous about the move. It’s so nice to read about someone else’s experience. Your post has also inspired me to visit Madrid at some point 🙂

    Like

    1. Erica says:

      It’s definitely natural to feel both excited and nervous! Good luck with everything in the UK, I’m sure it will be a lifechanging experience 🙂

      Like

  6. Jennifer says:

    I almost moved to Spain a few years ago and backed out at the last minute. I always wonder how different my life would have been if I had gone. I probably wouldn’t have met my wife, so that’s a big thing. But I do love the country and still want to go back.

    Like

  7. Great article! As a Canadian with four ears abroad living in Australia, I can relate to every single one of these points. Especially the ‘life goes on at home without you’ and the ‘those who want to keep in touch, will’ points!!

    Like

  8. This is such a nice article: Very personal – and yet really interesting for everybody else on a general level. I think that especially the fact that you are always a stranger in a strange land is a tough one. My parents migrated due to political reasons – and I think that, although everything was fine, good jobs, great circle of friends etc., they’ve always felt a bit like strangers in a strange land. For me it’s different, I was really young, did all my schooling exclusively in Germany etc. – and still, when there’s a soccer match, I’m cheering for the Czechs (and that although I don’t care about soccer one bit 😉 )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erica says:

      I can relate to that away – although my parents were both born in the US, I grew up in a very multicultural community in LA and most of my best friends’ and/or their parents had moved over from Mexico, China and the Philipines to seek better opportunities. Although my situation is different, moving abroad has definitely helped me to relate a bit to what it must have been like for them to raise a family with such a mixture of culture and traditions from both their old and new homelands.

      Like

  9. I love this list. It is so true, you stop being a traveller and live does move on. I really struggle with the constantly being homesick for going on another adventure

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erica says:

      I think some of us are just restless by nature! I recently read an article that said scientists now believe there’s a ‘wanderlust’ gene (DRD4-7R). Interesting stuff! https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travel-truths/the-wanderlust-gene-is-it-real-and-do-you-have-it/

      Liked by 1 person

  10. pinkcaddytraveloguegmailcom says:

    I loved reading your story! I can only imagine how difficult moving abroad would be. I love travelling, but I also love my home base. Thanks for being so introspective and for sharing your experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erica says:

      Thanks for reading 🙂

      Like

  11. There’s a lot here that strikes a chord here, not just for travelers in Spain, but travelers around the world. Personally, I’ve lived 5 months in Spain and 3 years in China and I can relate to the sense of feeling a stranger in a strange land and a longing, sometimes, for home.

    But still I wouldn’t have changed those experiences for the world. Thanks for your thoughts, it’s inspiring to read articles like this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erica says:

      Thanks for reading! I absolutely agree that the experiences outway the nostalgia, but I think sometimes people get so tied up in the ‘glamour’ of expat life that they forget that there are two sides to every coin.
      Were you teaching English in China? I’m considering a relocation and would love to hear a bit about your experince! I’ve mostly been researching the SE of China in Shenzhen. Where were you living?

      Like

      1. Hey Erica,

        We were living in a small city called Putian and then the much larger one of Xiamen. Teaching English yeah China is an amazing place, a country of contrasts that offers so much for the senses. When teaching English I do recommend doing your research at the start as there are good schools and bad schools. Find a good one, though, and you can earn good money there with plenty to save, particularly after your first year when you get to know people. Shenzhen is great, there’s less pollution in the SE. Even less in Fujian province which we ended up in. I’ve also heard great things about Kunming, closer towards Vietnam, and the whole of Yunnan province. I could go on about this for a long time, but happy to answer anymore questions.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Erica says:

        These are great tips, thank you so much!! The Fujian provinces hadn’t really been on my radar before, but now that I’m looking at a map it looks ideal! Coastal is an absolute MUST for me 🙂 🙂 Do you have any posts on your blog you could point me towards? Would love to read more about your experiences !

        Like

  12. Love your article, to which we can totally relate: we lived abroad for ten years. 🙂 Expat life can be challenging sometimes, but if you truly love your new home it can be a blast!

    Like

    1. Erica says:

      Couldn’t agree more!! Ten years is a long time… where were you living??

      Like

  13. allnatalie says:

    This is near to my heart because I am seriously considering leaving NYC for Europe and it scared the bazeesus out of me. I’ve been a nomad for a while and have been quite enjoying it, but home base was always NY. My husband moved to The States 9 years ago and he can appreciate the “stranger in a strange land” sentiment quite well! Good luck on your journey, looks like you’re viewing it all with a lot of positivity!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erica says:

      Life’s views are better with a positive outlook! 😉 Where in Europe are you thinking of moving to?? There’s so much to see and do and explore on this side of the Atlantic, I’m sure it will be an incredible experience. I’m a bit envious of the east coasters out here that can simply hop on a direct flight and be home… getting from Europe to California is double the time and the hassle!

      Like

  14. Its definitely different and takes some adjusting, but I think it teaches us a lot of life lessons quicker! Its also great to fully immerse yourself like you did.

    Like

  15. fittwotravel says:

    Its definitely different and can be very challenging moving to another country, but I think it teaches you things a lot quicker. It helps to immerse yourself in the culture, like you did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erica says:

      I absolutely agree! You learn so much – not just about the country and the culture, but about yourself!

      Like

  16. Really great to find this post! Ive moved from Canada to NZ with my Kiwi boyfriend and the distance is not easy. Sometimes it seems crazy to want to live abroad but its so true, you’re real friends will stick with you, life at home will go on and its really quite amazing going home for visits. I feel like I appreciate everything 10 times more! Good or you for 6 years!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erica says:

      If I didn’t live in Spain, I would almost definitely be living in New Zealand right now! As much as it’s hard to be away, I’m sure you’re loving gorgeous Aotearoa! I used to be a tour guide there about 10 years ago and am absolutely in love with every bit of the country. Where are you living at the mo?

      Like

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