The Charca: Coming to Grips with a Life Abroad

Lisa is perched on the white mortar bench, manipulating her camera to get the best shot of the Alhambra. Al-i-Al-i-haaaambra, the Gaga fan sings to herself before turning the camera around to ask me to snap the cobalt blue clouds that hang low over her head and the majestic sight behind her. I smile at the friend I sometimes liken to a bobblehead – always cheery and pleasant – and shake my head in disbelief that she’s sitting two feet in front of me and across the valley from the most-visited site in Spain.

She, my dear high school friend and college drinking buddy (more times than we’d like to admit), was my fifth visitor to Seville this year. Between Beth, Jason and Christine, and Jackie, I’ve seen Cádiz, Córdoba, Jeréz, Granada and my own Sevilla through the eyes of long-time friends. There’s something odd about sharing your life in one country with someone you’ve lived the better part of your life with in another, a pressing need to cling to something familiar while demonstrate just how foreign you’ve become.

It goes back and forth with me, though.

Driving to the airport Thursday morning, Lisa recounts her busy 10 days ahead – plans for Bears games, her fiancé’s 30th birthday, family events and back-to-back Thanksgiving dinners upon landing.

“Oh, right!” I say, “Happy Día de Acción de Gracias!” and pull into the ramp marked Salidas, silently giving thanks that she could make the trip in the end, what with her eminent wedding and lack of wanderlust.

I go to work exhausted from two full weeks without so much as a respiro. Kat and I meet at the door to cart in six pies she’d ordered, two of which were pumpkin. I give the box to María, not wanting to be tempted to make off with it and call my parents from my cellphone to ask how their annual Christmas Tree shopping is going. Luckily, my picky niños saved me enough breakfast for the following day: tarta de calabaza, save a few small nibbles taking out by curious but cautious students.

More than ever, as my Spanish raíces grow firmer and deeper, it’s harder for me to completely uproot from America. I almost feel like I have a foot in each country, spanning the vast Atlantic Charca. Love my tortilla and jamón, but won’t turn down a hamburger. Can dance flamenco (lite, desde luego) and line dance. Miss my mommy, though I can’t complain at all about my suegra, either.

Last night I met Lindsay and Kelly for one last beer and nachos at Flaherty’s, a Sevilla institution I often choose not to go to for its overpriced Guinness and abundance of drunk guiris. But, come on, this place was MADE for us, and it closes its doors indefinitely today. We reflected on the times we’d drank more than la cuenta there, or watched a World Cup game, or met friends. A little piece of Angloism is dying here in Seville, I thought.

Then I hopped in a cab and directed the driver to my house. He was listening to a conservative radio program that was discussing American consumerism and Black Friday. Knowing full well I was foreign, he guffawed upon hearing that President Obama’s website had a deal on products available from the online store. Under his breath, he said, “You Americans are crazy.” I smiled to myself, happy to know we’re still as important to the rest of the world in the wake of economic crises, elections and FC Barcelona’s record.

Today we’re celebrating Thanksgiving at Jenna’s house. She promises no turkey, apart from the ones we’ll make with our hands and hang on the wall. We did this two years ago in what will go down as the greatest Thanksgiving of all time – one full of non-Americans, spilling turkey gravy on made-from-scratch apple pies and more laughs than one should handle on all of that turkey. I remember writing the names of all of the special people in my life, with more Spanish Marías and Josés (and, clearly, José María) than American names. I feel thankful for the company of all of these amazing people who make handling the holidays a bit easier and are sure to bring Cruzcampo.

I can’t say I’m anything more than 100% American, despite having lived a good part of my life away from its borders and military bases. My native tongue, blue eyes and freckles define me as the opposite of mu’daquí , yet they don’t marginalize me. I even told the tribunal and examiner at the DELE speaking exam that famous story about Chicago de la Frontera.

Sometimes Hayley and I talk about how boring our lives have gotten, now that we’ve settled into our Spanish lives with a sprinkle of American holidays and outings. Over beers in la Encarnación last week, she confessed that she no longer feels interesting.

But we’ve chosen this life, I suppose, to not be entirely in one country or another, but rather straddling two cultures. I don’t know, it could be worse. I kind of like it.

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. “(…) it could be worse.” — What? Don’t you realize you are a privileged? Two cultures in a lifetime! That’s awesome. Being far away from one’s family is hard but, on the other hand, you would have never known all the people that surrounds you now.
    [is would have never known correct? -not sure]

  2. The more time I’m in Spain the more I realize it’s all about mixing my culture into theirs. I still celebrate some American holidays, cook American recipes, and have American friends. There’s no reason not to and it makes me enjoy Spain that much more!

  3. Good to see some Chicagoans (is that what we call you?) representing in Spain. We could use a touch of your class, and, erm, drinking action here in Extremadura. Come!

  4. Jessica Alcorn says:

    In just my third year here I already feel like even though my life seems glamorous to most people it is as normal ie boring as everyone else’s is just with more trips around Europe. But then a lot of times I have a hard time imagining my life in the US even though I miss it. It’s a weird mix. did you do on the DELE??

  5. Oh, Cat… how your blog brings me to tears every time. Bravo, mujer! TQM!

  6. I think the longer you live in another country, the more you appreciate your home and your “new home” and at the same time, realize neither place has it “all” or is “perfect.”
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