From the US to Spain: Expat Interview
Have you found yourself wondering what it would be like to move to Spain? We chatted with American immigrant in Spain, Cat, about her move from the US to Seville from the first leap abroad to some of the challenges along the way.
Real moves: Chicago to Seville
Meet Cat Gaa: Cat left the skyscrapers of Chicago for the olive groves of southern Spain in 2007. Eight years, three jobs and a husband later, she directs academic programs and blogs about tapas and travel in Spain at Sunshine and Siestas.
When did you move to Seville and why?
After studying abroad in northern Spain during university, I was keen to return to the siestas and tapas culture for a year but would have settled for living abroad in just about any country.
After weighing a few work exchanges and my goals for the 12 months abroad – become fluent in a language, live somewhere warmer than my native Chicago and have the opportunity to travel – I decided to apply to a teaching program in Spain. I had absolutely no experience but was eager to take up residence in Andalusia.
As a North American, I had a few bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and I figured a program that provided me with a visa would ultimately work better. The teaching gig, a collaboration between the Spanish Ministry of Education and the US Government, places teaching assistants in public schools around the country, so I didn’t choose Seville – someone chose it for me!
What are some of the bigger differences you adjusted to in Spain?
At the beginning, everything seemed like an overwhelming adjustment, from the language to the Spanish way of queueing up for everything. I was barely 22 and fresh out of school, so tasks that I’d normally do with ease in the US, like setting up a bank account or calling to have wifi installed in my flat, were daunting.
I loved the warm weather but shivered through the winter in a house with no central heating. I struggled with bureaucratic matters and found myself – the eternal optimist – feeling angsty about everything in my life. And I missed my family a lot.
It took meeting a few friends to get acclimated and start enjoying life in Spain. I was determined to make it at least a school term, and I’m grateful my stubbornness kicked in!
What are some things that Spain does better than the US?
There are loads! Spaniards linger over meals and even have a word, sobremesa, for after lunch musing, and they use fresher products. Time is always found to be with family and friends (probably because Spanish TV is rubbish and Netflix only recently arrived), and in most places, the weather allows you to be outdoors often. Spaniards are passionate, traditional and friendly, so even a big city like Seville can feel like a community.
How did you make Spain feel like home when you first moved here?
Making Spain feel like home was really difficult at the beginning – apart from language issues and not making friends right away, I was trying to get a grip on the magnitude of my decision. Facebook and messenger became my enemies as I watched my friends start careers and meet new people. I spent the first month miserably alone, even packing on a few kilos. My mental health suffered, and I felt that I had made a mistake.
Forcing myself to go to a Halloween party of an acquaintance was the turning point. I’d been in Seville for a month at that point, and I told myself that holing up in my flat with the blinds drawn would not be a way to pass an academic year. At that party, I met several friends who I still speak with regularly, and I began to accept invitations to go out for tapas or on day trips.
Having a blog also helped – the following year, many people got in touch with me before the school term began to say Sunshine and Siestas was helpful, and that they’d like to invite me out for a coffee!
Making a home abroad can be tough, but my advice is to stay open to meeting people and trying new things, and realizing that it can never be like your home country.
Where are three of your favourite things to do in Seville?
Eat and drink outside on a sunny day, try out new restaurants and ride my bike around town. They say a sevillano treats the street like his living room, and I find myself outdoors socializing a lot!
What are two things you wish more people knew about living in Spain?
That it gets cold here (and houses in Seville are not insulated well enough to stave out the damp, humid cold) and that, despite expat enclaves, living here is not like living at home. I’ve adopted a lot of Spanish habits and adhere to their timetable, making my transition into a summer at home long and arduous!
You originally intended on a short stay, what made you want to stay in Spain?
I made the decision to stay in Spain a second year after only five weeks. I loved the challenge and craved seeing more of Europe. The week I’d announced this to my boss, I met my husband.
Spain was always a year-to-year decision until he and I decided to buy a house and get married. It, of course, comes with repercussions (seeing my family less, a lower salary, watching friends up and move away), but I feel happiest and at my best when I’m here.
My husband has a job with the Spanish government, but we’re open to moving elsewhere if they job is right. I’d love to spend a year in Asia or South America, and would willingly relocate to another country in Europe. But Seville will always feel like my other home.
What is one thing you wish you’d known before moving to Spain?
Probably that I’d stay longer than intended! I don’t think I wasted my first few years here, but I should have taken better advantage of my free time to learn new skills or do an internship.
What are some items you miss that you want people in Chicago to send to you in bulk?
Portillo’s all-beef hot dogs, Cheez-its, sinus medicine that doesn’t leave me feeling like I’ve ingested a horse tranquilizer and my friends stuffed in suitcases. As Spain modernizes, I’m finding more and more American products on the shelves, something that I am grateful for one day but abhor the next!
Would you consider moving back to Chicago?
My Spanish husband and I would consider moving back to the US (or to another country), but he could never do Chicago. It’s too cold and too expensive for him, though I’d move back in a heartbeat and relish in my summers in Sweet Home.
Thinking of making the move to Spain after reading about Cat’s experiences? Take a look at our guide to planning an international move.