Happy Spanniversary to us! We’ve officially survived year number one of expat life (undoubtedly the hardest one, right? Wait, right!?). In some ways it’s hard to believe– we’re just now starting to feel more settled, more secure and more at home. But in other ways, so much has happened over the past twelve months.
Regardless of how life appears on Facebook, it hasn’t all been paella, parties and sangria. Moving to a new country with no friends, no jobs, no home, no, ummm... plan, has been exciting and invigorating, but it's also been hard; harder than we ever imagined it would be. Looking back, most of our challenges have come from the long process of understanding how day-to-day life works here, with a dash of language barrier and cultural differences sprinkled in. Like any big move, it also took us awhile to make friends and build a community – both of which are key to having any inkling of a social life and feeling less like outsiders.
So now, one year later, Valencia is actually starting to feel like home. We understand more, speak more, and feel more empowered. We have a wonderful multi-national group of friends to drink beer and eat Cinco De Mayo tacos with. We have a steady work routine and a solid amount of free time to work on our Spanish or travel. It was a rocky beginning, but we’ve slowly fallen in love this city and are very happy with our life here.
As with most anniversaries, it’s impossible not to think back on the 12 months. So, in honor of our one year Spanniversary, below are the top 5 ways we’ve (slowly) felt (more) at home in Spain.
Embracing the culture beyond the touristy parts
Obviously, we stay up late, occasionally siesta and drink Spanish wine nearly every night. We even managed to go out for two nights during Las Fallas, an all-night affair ending in DJ dance parties and 60-foot bonfires. But embracing the culture beyond the obvious fun “pretend-we’re-on-vacation” stuff is much more difficult. We’ve learned to be more direct and apologize less. We’ve learned not to be offended easily and that there are wonderful people and complete assholes everywhere in the world. We’re careful not to judge the whole by a few and are grateful for many more experiences with some of the incredible people we’ve met along the way. We’re reminded that this – being surrounded by different customs, routines, attitudes, energy - is exactly what we sought out and that discomfort usually means we’re learning and growing.
Changing our expectations of work
Reality check. We all need money to live, even in Valencia where the cost of living is a fraction of what it is in most U.S. cities. After blowing through the majority of our savings getting settled and then, getting married (worth every penny!), we were yearning for financial security. So, we took on a bit more work. In addition to Cohica, we’ve both been working 25-32 hours/week to re-bolster our savings. This financial security allows us to feel more relaxed and travel more – one of our biggest reasons for living here!
We’ve also learned to embrace a new definition of work life. Gone are the long commutes, long work weeks, and the stress and pressure that comes along with work. But also gone are the fancy titles, nice things and status that comes with U.S work culture. It honestly took us awhile to get comfortable with this change - feeling settled and satisfied in part-time work without impressive titles and but with more free time and a somewhat absurd number of Spanish holidays. It’s entirely different than our previous lives and we’re really starting to enjoy it.
(Working toward) learning the language
Understanding and speaking Castellano is pivotal to feeling at home here. Sure, we can maintain an expat existence – speak English at home, at work and only socialize with expats. It’s doable. But we realized early on that we won’t completely integrate or feel at home until we learn, practice, speak, and understand Castellano.
Obvious statement: it’s hard to learn a new language! All of those people who said “once you live there, you’ll know Spanish in no time,” Do. Not. Know. But we’re both working hard, taking four hours of classes per week and practicing daily. We’re both (slowly!) making progress!
Making a home
When everything is new, different, and often exhausting outside, it’s important to have a home that feels comfortable and cozy. We’ve nestled into our flat, slowly acquiring more things (beyond the four suitcases we moved with) and it’s starting to feel more like our place. It’s not perfect, however, and we’re in the process of searching for a new apartment that’s brighter and a bit more quiet at 4am. We know the importance of feeling positive in the place you come home to each day, and are crossing our fingers for the perfect new digs.
Finding a community and social life
We go to the same fruit market on Fridays and the same vegetable stand at the central market on Saturdays. The morning team at the pool know Megan and offer patient Spanish practice. We have a handful of favorite cafes and bars where we see the same people all the time. Our barrio is finally starting to feel less big city and more small town. All of these interactions and acknowledgements contribute to feeling like we’re part of a community, which is really nice, especially given that our friends and families are thousands of miles away. Recently, we’ve even received a locals discount instead of the tourist price. A badge of honor, 12 months in!
And we have friends - a pretty big group of wonderful people from all over the world, both English and Spanish speaking, who are all wonderful. We’ve had parties and dinners and picnics and they are all fun and interesting people. And no, while we have a hearty handful of British mates, we have yet to meet (let alone befriend) a fellow American.
The last twelve months have been a crazy adventure with a lot of ups and downs. With summer upon us (including a few exciting trips on the books), we’re looking forward to reaping the benefits of completing our freshman year abroad.
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