Moving to Spain, 3 Years Later: My Spain-iversary

Now that I’m back home with my parents in Texas this summer, I’ve recently been leafing through all the old travel journals that I kept when I moved to Spain and traveled around Europe. They’ve put me in a real emotional mood remembering how excited I felt to be moving to a foreign country. At the same time, all my old anxieties came flooding back: what city would I live in, what apartment would I choose, how would I get to work, would I make any friends, and what the heck comes next after all of this is over.

It’s now been three years since I landed on the tarmac at the Barajas airport in Madrid, giddy and jetlagged and naïve all at once. I thought it would only be appropriate to commemorate this anniversary—or Spain-iversary, in Cat’s words—with a retrospective blog post looking back on my first day in España, the journey I’ve taken since then, and some of the lessons I’ve learned while living abroad.

I may be back in the very same place where I started over 1,000 days ago, but today I’m a much different, wiser person than the freshly-minted college graduate I was, the young man that would step off of that sleepless trans-Atlantic flight into a crisp, Castilian morning.

Reminiscing on my first 24 hours in Spain

As luck (or fate) would have it, my seatmate for the overnight flight between Philadelphia and Madrid happened to be an American named Annie, a fellow language assistant going to teach in Galicia. It didn’t take long for us to bond over our shared love of all things Spain…and our shared anxieties about dropping everything and moving across the ocean for nine months. I couldn’t have asked for a more encouraging companion to begin this journey with, and while our paths diverged as we left the airport—she hopped on a bus north to Lugo while I had to catch the Cercanías train into town—we’ve stayed in touch ever since and have met up multiple times in Galicia.

The vastness that is the Atocha train station really threw me for a loop. Serving as the rail hub for the entire country, Atocha sends off high-speed trains to all corners of the country, not to mention medium-distance and commuter rail…oh, and there’s two metro stops. And the “old” train station is a huge garden foyer. I literally walked in circles before finally finding the ticket stands. Unfortunately it was already half past nine and I would have to wait until a little after 3pm for the next train south.

Trying to kill time and stay awake, I dragged all 100 pounds of my life onto the metro and went for a ride, getting off at the Bilbao stop because, to 22-year-old Trevor, “the name sounded cool.” Thankfully my intuition paid off and I emerged from underground to one of the classiest roundabouts in the Spanish capital. I stumbled into the venerable, 125-year-old Café Comercial without even realizing it was one of the most famous cafés in the country, but bleary-eyed me needed a café con leche, and, more importantly, chocolate con churros. I made the mistake of ordering thin, bitter, Madrid-style “churros” instead of asking for chunky porras, but I convalesced and people-watched on a chilly terrace table nonetheless.

Back at the train station, I eventually noticed a large black-and-green sign advertising Consignas—luggage lockers. I was so mad at myself for being stupid enough to push all my earthly belongings around downtown Madrid and back again when I could’ve just left them at the station. There was no time for self-loathing, though, for the Almería-bound Talgo train was soon departing. Naturally, there was no room for my 50-lb. suitcase, but I managed to prop it up in the aisle at the end of the car.

Zero hours of sleep, multiple trips to the bathroom stall, and harsh, Spanish coffee had done a number on me, so I passed out pretty quickly. Fortunately I woke up just as we entered rolling hills speckled with olive groves, a completely different landscape from the flat, bleak plains to the north. Linares-Baeza was my stop, a lonely outpost between two pueblos that was once the gateway to Andalucía before the AVE trains skipped over this mountain pass for Córdoba.

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I waited an hour for the Alsa bus destined for Úbeda, the mid-sized Renaissance town I would use as my home base for work and travel over the next nine months. I had no hotel reservations to speak of, but fortunately the hotel closest to the bus station, La Posada de Úbeda, had some vacant rooms. Upon entering the lobby/bar area, I was served an olfactory cocktail of cologne, cigarettes, and cleaner. This combination of smells seared itself into my memory and would transport me back to September every time I went back to the hotel for dinner.

I kept returning to eat here, in fact, because the dishes they served up were comfort food for this road-weary boy. I demanded to know what the local specialty was, and the receptionist/bartender, Luisa, suggested andrajos, a dumpling stew with many of the same ingredients as paella. She paired it with a Cruzcampo and an accompanying free grilled cheese tapa: my first meal in Spain.

Surrounded by old farm implements hanging on the walls, middle-aged men debating the budget cuts being announced on TV, and a fluffy white American Eskimo Dog bouncing about, I stirred the clam shells around in my earthenware dish, making a clinking sound as I tried to scoop up the broth. I took a deep breath and exhaled over the spoonful of stew, trying to cool it down. I had just arrived in a small town in a foreign country where I knew nobody, but things were going to be okay.

Where I’ve been since then

My first year had me in loud and proud Andalucía, where Spanish stereotypes are more often truer than not and the accent is so thick you’d think it was another language. I had long wanted to live in this part of the country not only to escape the bitter cold winters of the north but also to explore the remnants of the region’s Moorish heritage, like the Mosque-Cathedral and the Alhambra.

I quickly became the biggest fan of the province of Jaén, which produces a third of Spain’s olive oil and holds a treasure trove of both Renaissance architecture and medieval castles. Fulfilling longtime dreams of mine, I would end up crossing Jaén’s many mountain ranges to spend Christmas in northern France, Easter in Morocco, and summer vacation walking the last five days of the Camino de Santiago.

Year Two brought me to the other side of the country, to Galicia in the northwest, where culture shock hit me like déjà vu. Olive tree monoculture was replaced with family farms and thick, ancient forests. The spitfire andaluz accent was worlds away from the clear, singsong Galician one—not to mention the completely separate language, galego. And while pork still reigned supreme, it shared the stage with beef, locally-raised mussels, and freshly-caught fish.

It was hard to say goodbye to my adopted pueblo, Úbeda, but at the same time I was ready to leave that small town life for Galicia’s major university town, political capital, and spiritual center: Santiago de Compostela. The regional government had placed me at yet another rural, elementary school, but fortunately I was able to commute between Santiago and the Atlantic coast every day.

That school year would take me to Italy and Portugal, but more importantly, it instilled within me a passion for Galicia. This mini-nation within Spain was so great to me (in spite of the rain) that I decided to renew for another year, a “victory lap” of sorts that would let me eat a little more octopus, check out another coastal village, and spend a little more time with the students I had gotten to know.

But when springtime rolled around, there was no special Spaniard I was dating long-term, there weren’t any career prospects for me besides teaching English, and, to put it bluntly, I was tired of being a foreigner in Spain; I was homesick and ready to move back to the States. So I went out with a bang in June, spending a week revisiting old haunts in Andalucía and celebrating the summer solstice in Galicia by eating roasted sardines and hopping over bonfires.

Things I’ve learned along the way

1) Teaching English in Spain was the first job I had out of college, so I had to learn pretty quick how to live on my own, rent my first (shared) apartment, teach myself to cook, etc….all in Spanish and all in a foreign country. I’m still a little intimidated about how everything works in America—all those insurances and the whole owning-a-car-thing still freak me out—but am looking forward to the challenge. I learned “how to adult,” even if I don’t always feel like one.

2) Spain’s urban environment, even in towns as small as 35,000 and 100,000, showed me that there’s another way to live than the freeways, strip malls, and subdivisions we are sold in suburban America. Most Spanish cities were built long before the age of the automobile. Here, dense, walkable neighborhoods are the norm: barrios where you can run errands, buy groceries, sit down for a cup of coffee, work, and live all within a 15-minute radius without ever having to hop in a car. It’s better for the environment and your health, and who could turn down lively plazas full of kids playing soccer and abuelos enjoying the sunshine on benches?

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3) Before I came to Spain, I did a lot of research and read basically every travel and expat blog out there to get prepared for the big move. Many of these blogs were written by people who stylized themselves as “location-independent nomads” who had managed to secure “passive income streams” while working jobs that didn’t require them to be in a physical office from 9am to 5pm. These guys would hop from Portugal to Panama to Palau, picking up new languages along the way, traveling, and essentially living the dream. I was really intrigued by this lifestyle of traveling full-time, but now that I’ve lived abroad in two different cities and traveled extensively over the past three years, I know this just isn’t for me.

I want to have a home where I can retreat to at the end of each day, where I can have friends and family over for dinner, and where I can have quick access to all my books. I want the routine that comes with those 9-5 jobs often maligned in the travel blogging community. I want a community of people where friendships don’t wither away every eight months as the school year winds down. I want to become a local in a city I am passionate about, not merely a visitor drifting through. I want to start dating and, down the road, start a family. As much as my wanderlust might dissuade me, I want to put down roots.

4) Ask a Spaniard where they’re from, and most often they will rattle off their hometown, their region, and then Spain…in that order. People are fiercely proud of their regional identity here, be it their dialect and/or minority language, unique dishes and desserts, monuments, festivals, artisan goods—you name it. Sometimes this pride devolves into a provincialism where your region is the whole universe, but for the most part I think it’s healthy to appreciate where you’re from and to acknowledge what makes where you grew up so special.

Often in America we get so carried away with searching for the Next Big Thing, be it bubble tea or avocado toast or Holi-ripoff color runs, that we forget about what we’ve always done at home. Living in Spain has shown me how important it is to protect these traditions and local specialties against the homogenizing effects of an increasingly globalized world.

5) Related to #3 above, I’ve noticed there’s a lot of emphasis on moving and/or traveling to foreign countries in the travel blogosphere; people frequently mock Americans for not having passports and for being afraid of the world at large. Much of what these writers have to say is true, and there’s nothing that can expand your perspective like experiencing another culture, being forced to speak their language and eat their food, and encountering stunning monuments and exciting festivals.

But after roaming around Spain and western Europe for three years, I’ve accepted that it’s okay to travel America, too! What the motherland lacks in crumbling castles and multiple cultures, we make up for with natural wonders, our tradition of roadtripping, and immigrants from all over the world who make our cities so much more interesting. As I “settle down” for the long haul back home, I’m excited to explore more of the national parks of the American West and cities from Savannah to Seattle.

6) My time as an auxiliar has also made me acutely aware of my own privilege. This program attracts a diverse bunch of folks from across the U.S. and the English-speaking world, so I’ve gotten to be friends with people I wouldn’t otherwise get to know in the affluent, mainly-white suburb I grew up in. Simply listening to people of color talk about the demeaning comments and actions they endure on a daily basis, both in Spain and in America, has opened my eyes to the fact that my experience is not universal, and that we have a lot of work left to do on the way to a more equal and just society.

I’m also very fortunate to have grown up in the U.S., learned English as my native language, and graduated from college. In hiring me and countless other language assistants, the Spanish government was essentially only looking for young English speakers in possession of a U.S. passport and a diploma. Much of this is due to no effort of my own; simply by virtue of being born in America I have this huge advantage over millions of non-Americans in my generation who would kill to live in Spain and work 12-hour weeks teaching English. I don’t have any delusions about the impact I made (or lack thereof) as a language assistant, but I do hope the program helps Spanish kids get a leg up and become conversant in the lingua franca of the age.

What have you learned and how have you grown as a person after spending time abroad? Tell me about your experiences below in the discussion thread!

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