From America to Spain: Happily ever after

  • American expat in Spain
Interview
Published 7 months ago

When Cat from Chicago, US graduated from high school, she went to Seville, Spain for her studies abroad. Oh! And for the tapas, the siestas, and the flamenco dresses. What was supposed to be a year abroad and an immersion in the Spanish language, has turned into a ten-year fulfilling expat experience. Ever since Cat decided to settle in Spain, she met her husband, bought a house, has worked in two different cities, and has become a mother. Today, Cat feels that Spain is her final destination, but who knows what the future beholds?

Hi Cat, please introduce yourself. Where are you from, what are you doing in Spain, and what were you doing before you arrived?

My name is Cat Gaa, and I'm an American expat in Spain. Originally from Chicago, I turned down a job at a radio station in the Windy City to move abroad for a year after graduating from college. My goal was to travel and become fluent in Spanish.

What brought you to Spain?

When people ask me why I've stayed so long, the short answer is food (and love). The long answer is so much more – I love the linguistic immersion, that Spain is so much more than paella and playa, that each day brings a new challenge. Spain got under my skin after studying abroad here in university, and I don’t think I’ll be leaving any time soon.

What is the process of moving to Spain?

As an American, the most difficult obstacle is the visa for Spain. Unless you’re a footballer or fisherman, securing a work permit can be nearly impossible. For this reason, I came on a student visa to teach English as part of the language assistants program. For three years, I worked as a teacher in a rural high school outside of Seville before doing pareja de hecho, or a civil union, with my now-husband. This allowed me to work legally, and I have been in the education sector ever since as a teacher, examiner, and teacher trainer ever since.

With a friend in Spain

What is your favourite thing about Spain, and what is your least favourite thing?

My least favorite, apart from the fact that my family isn’t here, is probably the infrastructure for building a career. As a teacher, I was enjoying my job but never felt 100% fulfilled. In my observation, Sevillanos are content to earn enough to get by and never save for a rainy day. In Seville, there wasn’t much industry either, so I took advantage of my husband’s temporary posting in Madrid as a civil servant to find a job outside of TEFL. My current job is as an admissions counsellor at an American university in the capital, where I recruit international students and manage the communication in and out of our office.

How is today’s expat job market in Spain?       

Thankfully, there are more opportunities, especially in the tourism and communication sectors. It has also become popular to live in Spain on a non-lucrative visa but work remotely or give classes online. Though it’s costly to get started, entrepreneurs often thrive in Spain. Creativity and grit can take you a long way.

How easy or difficult it is to find accommodation in Spain, and what type of accommodation is available for expats?

As a homeowner, it’s hard to say. Across Spain, cities are feeling the crunch on affordable housing because of the touristic apartment boom, which has driven locals out of the neighborhood and has driven prices up. Seville has a healthy Erasmus and study abroad population, so house hunting in the autumn is cut throat. Many are leaving the city and moving to the nearby villages to have more space and amenities. Flats are common in cities but may cost the same as a house with a garden in the suburbs. It’s worth mentioning that homes can be old and not have modern appliances.

girls in flamenco dress

What is some essential etiquette in Spain?

As loads of media have covered this topic, I will add two things that are specific to Seville: one is to wear something new on Palm Sunday to watch the religious processions, and women should not wear a traditional flamenco dress on the opening night of the annual fair.

How do you find the lifestyle in Seville?

The lifestyle in Seville is more affordable and easy-going than in Madrid. It’s a double-edged sword: Sevillanos live well but are often stagnant in their careers. We call the city ‘el ombligo del mundo’ – or the belly button of the world. A local truly believes there is no better place on earth, and this sometimes means that they can be close-minded and keep their social circles tight.

How is the transportation system in Seville? How do you move around?

Seville is flat and a wonderful city for walking. Many of the streets in the historic part of the town are pedestrian-only. In addition, there are hundreds of kilometers of bike lanes set away from the road, so I usually cycle. There’s one underground line and a wide bus network, too. That said, you can generally get anywhere in the city in 30 minutes. Plus, Seville is a great jumping-off point for other cities in the region, as well as the beaches and mountains. What it's not great for is driving or parking with many one-way and pedestrian-only streets, and a lack of parking garages.

How is everyday life for you in Seville?

I still have to get up and go to work, pay bills and clean my house but I do it in Spanish.

Do you feel that you have adapted to your new life?  

Ten years on, yes. I feel more like a fish out of water in the US when I go home for a short time.

expat mother in Spain

What do you do in your free time?

As a new(ish) parent, I haven’t got much free time! When I do, I run a residency consulting website, which specializes in North Americans and non-Europeans. I also like to stay active, I have a personal blog, Sunshine and Siestas, about my expat experience, and enjoy travel and photography. It’s a good day when I can snag a nap.

Are there activities for people who enjoy nightlife?

Definitely, and there’s something for everyone, from traditional cervecerías to riverside discos. Socializing and drinking are intrinsic to most Sevillanos, so meeting to ‘tomar algo’ or have a drink is common. The same goes for food, though the international food scene isn’t great.

What new habits have you developed in Spain?

I walk everywhere now – including to work – whereas I would have to drive in the US.

What is your opinion on the cost of living in Seville?

My friends back home often feel compelled to buy me a steak and a nice glass of wine when I return home because they can't fathom the low salaries. I have never been wealthy but neither have I been poor.

Considering that most Sevillanos have a net salary of around 1,100 € per month, everything from rent to entertainment is reasonably priced. My rent for a house just outside of the historic district is nearly half what we pay for a two-bedroom walk up in Madrid, and we can easily have a great meal with drinks in Seville for 10 € per person. A bus ticket and beer are around 1,20 € and you can get three medium-sized baguettes for 1,10 €. A movie ticket is probably 7 €, which is also the cost of two tapas and a few beers!

However, utility costs, particularly electricity, are very expensive. Because Seville has extreme temperatures, we spend a lot of money on keeping our home either warm or cool enough.

If you could do the move to Spain all over, what would you do differently?

I think I would have looked for more professional development activities outside of teaching and been a better networker in my early years. I am happily employed in Madrid now, but I wish I would have tried for unpaid internships, more writing opportunities or professional courses in web design or marketing. The job market in Seville is slimmer than Madrid, so it would have been to my benefit to get a foot in the door earlier.

What do you miss the most about your home country?

Family is the trite answer – Chicago in the summer is something I truly miss. Festivals, boating, kosher hot dogs, and the Chicago Cubs.

Have you had a moment when you almost felt like leaving Spain? How did you overcome that? What kept you there?

I felt very much in a rut after an amicable break up with the man who is now my husband. He was often abroad for work, and I didn't think there was a way for me to stay in Spain unless I got married, so I returned to the US for the summer. Once there, I realized I wasn't quite ready to be done with Spain. I had committed to another year at the school I was teaching at, had already signed a lease and was looking forward to seeing my friends, who I'd not really said goodbye to. I left the door open, and proceeded with caution in re-entering the relationship. I took Spain on a year-by-year basis until I married and became a homeowner, just four years ago!

Can you give some useful tips that soon-to-be expatriates in Spain might benefit from.        

To research, to reach out to other expats in the area and to remember that not everything will be the same as in their home country. It's completely fine to have dinner at your house at 6 pm like you would back home, but you can't fault a grocery store for being shuttered at 4 pm because of the heat. When you're able to relax and roll with the quirkiness of your new home, you'll settle in better.

What are your plans for the future?

Another kid in the next year or so, and then who knows!