After so many years of living abroad, I’ve met lots of Spain newbies, who always remind me of me, my first year here. They say experience is the best teacher, and I’d say that’s about right, especially when it comes to living abroad. Some things you just learn after being here, experiencing it first-hand, and ironing out the wrinkles. However, if I could travel back in time to pre-Spain, I would tell myself a few things. Here’s what I wish I’d known before I moved abroad:
Learning a language takes time, patience, but mostly lots of motivation.
Naive is an understatement when it comes to how I approached learning Spanish via immersion in Spain. I really didn’t understand the effort that goes into learning a language and thought that I would be completely fluent after a short stint abroad by passively “soaking up” the language. Ha, ha, ha!
I’m going to be honest with you. That first year in Spain was painful for me Spanish-wise. I wasn’t picking up the language nearly as quickly as I thought I would, simply because I didn’t consider that my work/living situation as an au pair required me to speak English most of the day. I came completely unprepared and the small bit of Spanish I had studied in high school I had pretty much all forgotten–did I think to brush up before I came? Nooo. I struggled, and it didn’t help that every other foreigner around me had majored/minored in Spanish and were leaps and bounds ahead of me.
But, I stuck with it. As soon as I arrived, I signed up for Spanish classes. I did lots of language exchanges where I STRUGGLED, and to this day, I still don’t know how I made it through them. I watched a ton of movies in Spanish and listened to podcasts, and finally started to make some progress, then more, and more. It does get better as long as you stay motivated.
The good news for those of you reading this that may feel discouraged is that I made a lot of preventable mistakes. I could have assessed my personal situation better, and come to Spain armed with more Spanish. So, don’t do the same thing I did, and if you’re moving abroad to a country that has a different language, come prepared! You will thank yourself for it later, I promise.
Day-to-day life will not be an extended vacation.
Daydreams of my soon-to-be Spanish life included weekend jaunts around the country, gorging on tapas, going out until sunrise. Living abroad seems undeniably glamorous. And truthfully, sometimes it is! Sometimes I do party until dawn, or travel around Europe, or eat ALL THE TAPAS. But most of the time, it’s the same day-to-day life that you would experience pretty much everywhere. Bills and taxes still have to be paid, cleaning and cooking still have to be done; some things you just can’t escape from! Don’t idealize life abroad, and remember that the grass is greener where you water it!
Making local friends will be hard, but not impossible.
When you move abroad, it’s very easy to make friends with other expats who are in the same situation as you. You bond over the perceived peculiarities of your adopted country, you share details of how to find coveted items from back home, you celebrate traditions from your country that are just another day in your new country. It’s easy to put yourself in a comfortable bubble of fellow expats, and it’s nice to have friends who can really relate to your frustrations, but confining yourself only to friendships with other foreigners isn’t going to help you fully immerse yourself in the local culture. Besides, why bother living abroad if you’re not going to get to know the people and the place where you live?
I get it. It can be hard to meet people, let alone in another language that’s not your own. I definitely had a hard time meeting local friends in the beginning and remember wondering if I ever would! And if you don’t have the excuse of meeting them through work or a class, it’s even harder. Language exchanges are key to meeting people. I also used Couch Surfing a lot when I first moved to Spain to find people where I lived to meet for coffee, and then my circle of friends grew. Sign up for activities and classes and don’t let fear get in the way. The more you put yourself out there, the easier it gets! Really.
It’s okay to slowly integrate.
With that said, don’t pressure yourself to integrate into your adopted country overnight. After 5 years here, I still have bad days where I feel especially foreign, even though it happens less and less all the time. It takes awhile to build a new network of friends, to get used to living with homesickness, and to adapt to a new culture.
Your world back home continues (and often moves on) without you.
Don’t expect your old life to be on pause waiting to pick up where you’ve left off when you go back for a visit. One of the worst things about living far away from home is that you’ll inevitably miss weddings, birthdays, funerals, holidays, etc., and it can be really hard. Remember that you’re the one who left your old life behind, and at the beginning of this transition, you’re the one who has to put in the effort to visit and to keep up contact. However, it’s natural that you lose touch with some people. Your real friends will return the effort and will be there.
Accept that things are different. The sooner, the better.
It’s easy to fall into a cycle of comparing all the bad things about your new home to how it was where you came from. Every expat has done it, myself included. It’s easy to put your country on a pedestal when you’re not there and can ignore the negative aspects. Remember, every place has its good things and bad things, and your home country is no exception. Keep an open mind and you’ll enjoy this amazing experience that much more!
What do you wish you had learned before you moved abroad?