Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated
and nobody knew moving abroad could be so difficult.
Moving to a Spanish-speaking country was something I had promised myself I would fulfill within 5 years of graduating from college. My study abroad experience 100% changed the way I viewed the world and 100000% changed the way I viewed myself. I learned so much about language, culture, communication, values, independence, lifestyles, and confidence. I grew more during that semester living in Bilbao than any other 5-month period in my life. I’ve always said that if it had been a fall term instead of one in the spring, there is no way I would have come home instead of finishing out the year in País Vasco. That’s not to say that it was all sunshine and rainbows. Lots of homesickness, frustration, and challenges were experienced along the way. But our minds have a funny way of only remembering the positives, and the excitement of a new adventure never left me.
I was very aware of the cultural barriers that exist for an American living in Spain. I felt prepared because I understood la vida española and the annoyances that come along with it. And I was right – I was prepared for that. I didn’t encounter nearly as much culture shock upon arrival. In fact, most of these annoyances seemed charming at first, because the irritation was overpowered by a sense of nostalgia. Of course the waiter is going to ignore us for an hour. LOL! Of course the banks will only be open on weekdays until 2 pm. HAHA! Of course I have to go spend 10+ hours running around Madrid, getting my fingerprints, paying fees, making copies of all my important documents, and waiting in endless lines just so I can reenter the country after winter break because they still haven’t processed my T.I.E application after 4 months. CLASSIC SPAIN!! 🤷🏼
okay maybe the last example was never quite so charming.
But this time I’m not studying abroad, I’m living abroad. That fact caught up to me pretty quickly. I don’t have someone finding me housing, a host mom to cook for me, a study abroad company arranging flights and week long tours, a relaxed class schedule, or an admin team that knows my face before I even arrive. That’s not an insult to the faculty at Instituto Franklin. They are AMAZING, but they have 170+ Master’s students and lord-only-knows-how-many undergrad students. They’re always willing to answer any questions with endless support and encouragement. However, their job is to provide the resources, not constant hand-holding. I expected that. But amongst all the preparation and anticipation, I neglected to consider the difficulties that were to come.
Is anyone surprised that I made a list about it?
Things that are much harder than you’d* think when moving abroad.
- Not having a support system.
I was really lucky to travel with 3 of my close friends from UND last time. We spent all of our time together because we lived near each other and had almost all the same classes. Madrid is much more spread out and I came here knowing no one. Also the Midwest has a 7-hour timezone difference. I knew I’d miss my family and friends, but the separation is magnified when you find yourself needing support.
- Not using enough Spanish in your daily life.
Madrid’s international vibe is super cool, but not ideal for language immersion. I also teach in English all day instead of attending Spanish classes. On top of that my Master’s program is almost entirely in English.
- Not being able to make Spanish friends easily.
All but one of my classmates are foreigners. And I’ve found it really difficult to break into the social groups of locals. I’m sure new Americans feel the same way. *takes note for future reference upon return to US*
- Not knowing how to navigate the health system when you’re sick.
I’ve been to the doctor more times in the past 6 months than I have in the last 6 years. Also, piojos. You can google that, because I’m not ready to talk about it yet.
- Not knowing how the inconsistent, inefficient institutions will function that day.
Because nothing ever goes as expected. You can’t fully rely on what someone (citizen or employee) tells you, because your experience may very well depend on the random luck of the draw of who’s behind the desk when you walk in the door. Not to mention that Spain has such a lack of urgency, I sometimes wonder why anyone bothers showing up for work at all.
- Not realizing that the education system is the complete opposite.
Wowza. Name an aspect of education (like infrastructure, admin, teaching methodology, teacher training, assessment, curriculum, daily schedule, school supplies or literally anything that comes to your mind) and I’ll explain how unbelievably different it is here.
- Not having the ability to adequately express your thoughts.
You people have no idea how smart I am in English!! (Click here for relevant Modern Family clip.)
Is anyone surprised I made a second list about it??? ….Nope? okay, cool.
Things you can do to make the first list a lot less horrible.
- Be stubborn.
Listed first because it comes so naturally to me. 😉 But seriously don’t give up. Set backs will happen. You didn’t come this far only to come this far. (<- kudos to Amelia for sharing this new favorite phrase of mine.)
Surprise! You’re not the first person to move to Spain. Everyone who has gone through the process knows which parts suck the most and has secret information on what you should do and they want to help you!! And those who haven’t gone through it yet are also incredibly lost and you can be incredibly lost together! Woo!
- Hire a tutor.
Marta is the bomb. Plus she’s the most Spanish Spaniard I’ve met so far, so I’m hoping to absorb some of it by proximity. She also is good at listening and then spontaneously giving me mini-lessons on the things I struggle with.
- Ask for help.
Whether it is a tutor or a colleague or a classmate or an expat facebook group. Ask. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ve done far more embarrassing things than ask for help.
- Set up intercambios aka blind friend hang outs.
Yeah so I’ve been on several of these using conversationexchange.com. It’s a super cool site where you can connect with people who want to meet up to practice languages. Outcomes are kind of what you’d expect out of a blind date. Some go really well and you have great conversation. Some people show up 45 minutes late and then ask you why you didn’t go get a coffee even though they never bothered to tell you how late they were running at any point and it’s so incredulously insulting that all you can do is blink. 😐😑😒 But you still got to practice Spanish and have others to meet with, so que va.
- Try new hobbies.
You came for new experiences. Might as well discover hidden talents and meet new people. (Besides that one time you participated in a soccer game and you get kicked real dang hard in the shin and the entire experience confirms that it is the WORLD’S WORST SPORT TO PLAY AND THAT INCLUDES JUST PLAIN OLD RUNNING.)
- Watch netflix and read books (in Spanish).
Ministerio de Tiempo. Chicas del Cable. Ocho Apellidos Vascos. Mil Veces Hasta Siempre. El Tiempo Entre Costuras. Los Ingrávidos. (<- on the to-do list)
- Use google maps to bookmark a ton of cool places to check out.
And then invite someone to come join you! Madrid has endless nooks and cute restaurants/cafes/bars/museums/shops/parks to explore. Its diversity is stunning.
- Be okay with being lonely.
You are awesome. And funny. And you already talk to yourself, so hey it’s a party! And when that doesn’t work, it’s okay to accept the loneliness and know that it, too is an important part of the journey.
- Take victory in the successes.
You finally remembered to take a bag with you to the grocery store? Yay! You navigated home for the first time without using your gps? Go you! You said a sentence using a conditional with the pluscuamperfecto del subjuntivo? TIME TO BRING OUT THE TROPHY!
- Sit down. Be humble.
And laugh. a lot. at yourself and the situation. Because sometimes that’s all you can do.
So this is me practicing humility and admitting that it hasn’t has been as smooth as I’d hoped. But this is also me saying that it’s okay. Knowing how much my last experience abroad influenced me keeps me optimistic that all of these obstacles, too, will have a positive impact on my life. When I look back at all of my experiences so far I am so happy I made this decision and that makes me excited for the future.
*I acknowledge that some (or many) of you were fully aware of these challenges and that I was being naive. But your girl’s a dreamer.