Expat Life Then and Now: My Seven Year Spaniversary

I can’t clearly remember my first days in Spain. Between the jet lag, the whirlwind tour of the Iberian Peninsula with my grandmother and the nagging thoughts and regrets, it didn’t fully hit me that I had up and moved to Spain to teach English until nearly three weeks after my plane touched down on September 13th, 2007.

Cue my Jessie Spano moment once Helen was boarded on a plane back to the Motherland.

I was terrified to start a life in Span alone, barely 22 and not proficient in Spanish. Every challenge – from getting my residency card to remembering how to separate the trash – seemed to come with a mountain of self-doubt. Que Dios bendiga my bilingual Spanish roommate and my bilingual coordinator for helping me through those rough first weeks.

My first year in Spain seems like it was both so far in the past and like it was last year. I met Lucía and Valle, old coworkers from Olivares, last week for dinner, and the piropos rolled in – You look more womanly. You and the Novio seem to be a balanced couple. WAIT you and the Novio are still together? And you’re getting married?! And there’s a HOUSE in the mix!?

My, my you’ve come a long way (proof is below, as far as flamenco dresses are concerned).

Seven years is a long time, leches!

WORK then: auxiliar de conversación // now: director of studies

When I first arrived to Seville, I worked at a high school in nearby Olivares as a language assistant. For the first time, I was deviating from my goal of becoming a magazine journalist, and I’d have to do a job I had no experience in. Actually, in having a teacher for a mother, I swore I’d never run a classroom.

My job in Olivares was fun – I was respected by my coworkers and students, and found I was actually considering teaching as a vocation. After three years, I was given the equivalent of a pink slip and thanked for my participation in the auxiliar program.

Faced with no job prospects, no magic paperwork solutions and no money in my bank account, I thought I’d be done for in Spain, but both a loophole in Spanish law and a school desperate for a native speaker fell into my lap in one week, thus launching my career in teaching.

The longer I do it, the more I love it. In fact, I’ve turned down a few job offers in favor of my current job, directing the academic side of a small academy in town. I still have contact hours and get my kiddie cuddles fix daily, but not enough to leave my voice ragged and my nerves frayed at the end of the week.

SIDE JOBS then: student tour guide and tutor // now: freelance writing and voiceovers + entrepreneur

I came overly optimistic that my money would stretch forever in Spain – and it did, but only because I saved up a ton of green by working two jobs and cashing in a scholarship. But as someone who despises boredom, I needed to find something to do midday other than siesta.

Doing research for an article about volunteering abroad brought me to We Love Spain, a then baby student tourism company. I began asking questions about what the company did and where the trips took them, and was offered an internship as a PR rep. Let’s be clear – PR like you learn in journalism school doesn’t prepare you for Spanish PR. I spent time passing out flyers and making phone calls, but got to know my city and a lot of people through WLS. We amicably went our separate ways when I realized I wasn’t making enough money to support my travel and tapas habits.

I tutored up until last year as a way to make some quick money, but as my professional network grows, it’s hard to find time to commit to biking around Seville and giving homework help.

Nowadays, I fill my mornings with more than sleeping until a late hour and lazing around the house (me and lazy can only be used together if it’s post-work week, and even then, it’s a stretch). I do freelance work in both writing and translating, record children’s stories for iPads and tablets, and am getting a business up and running, COMO Consulting Spain.

Even during my ‘summer vacation’ I found time to plan half a wedding and co-author an eBook about Moving to Spain.

Hustlers gonna hustle, after all.

LIVING SITUATION then: shared flat in Triana // now: homeowner in Triana

The 631€ I earned as a language assistant my first year didn’t go too far each month, and paying rent was my first order of business with every paycheck I got. Turning down a room with a balcony right under the shadow of the Giralda when I first arrived, I ended up in a shared flat in Triana with two other girls – a Spaniard and a German.


Living in shared accommodation is one thing, but when you add in another couple of languages and cultures, things can get complicated. I thankfully escaped to the Novio’s nearly every night before moving all of my stuff and my padrón to his house. Four years later, I moved back to Triana with my name on the deed and way poorer. 

SOCIAL LIFE then: bars, discos and botellón // now: bottles of wine and the occasional gin tonic

Working twelve hours a week allowed me to explore other interests, like a flamenco class and loads of travel, as well as left me with two new hobbies: drinking beer and eating tapas. But that didn’t come easily – I actually had many lonely weeks where I’d do little more but work, sleep and walk around the city to stave off boredom.

Once I did make friends, though, life become a non-stop, tinto-de-verano-infused party. My first few years in Spain may have been chaotic, but they were a lot of fun!

Alcohol – particularly beer and wine – is present at meals, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have beer with lunch before returning to work. When I studied abroad at 19, I’d have to beg my host family not to top off my glass with wine every night at dinner, or remind them that I didn’t want Bailey’s in my coffee. But as soon as I met the Novio, he’d order me a beer with lunch and dinner, despite my request for water. 

Now, most of my social plans are earlier in the evening, involve far less botellóns and garrafón, and leave me feeling better the next day. I sometimes get nostalgic for those nights that ended with churros at 7am, and then remember that I have bills and can’t drink like a college kid anymore. I still maintain my love for beer, but hearty reds or a crisp gin and tonic are my drinks of choice when I go out with friends.

SPANISH SKILLS then: poquísimo // now: C1+

To think that I considered myself proficient in Spanish when I moved to Seville. I couldn’t understand the Andalusian accent, which is riddled with idioms and missing several syllables, despite studying abroad in the cradle of modern Spanish. My roommates and I only spoke to one another in English, and I was so overcome by the Novio’s ability to speak three foreign languages, that I sheepishly admitted to my parents that I’d let myself down on the Spanish front when they came to visit at Christmas.

I buckled down and began working towards fluency. I made all of the mistakes a novice language learning makes, including have to put my foot in my mouth on numerous occasions, but it has stuck. In November 2011, I sat the DELE Spanish exam, passing the C1, or Advanced, exam. I then one-upped myself by doing a master’s entirely in Spanish the following year.

I’d say I now speak an even amount of English and Spanish because of my line of work and my choice to have English-speaking friends.

FUTURE PLANS then: learn Spanish and travel a whole bunch // get married, decorate a house and start a bilingual family

A college friend put it best this summer when the Novio and I celebrated our engagement. He told me all of our friends thought I was insane for passing up a job at a news radio station in Chicago to go to Spain to teach, and that I’d made it work.  I can clearly remember the stab of regret that I had when I boarded the plane, the moments of confusion as I navigated being an adult and doing so in Spanish, of missing home and friends and hot dogs and baseball.

But here I am, seven years later, grinning as I remember how different my life was, but that I grabbed life by the horns and made Seville my own. I’d say I’d surprised myself, but I would expect nothing less.

Now that I’m planning a bilingual wedding, dealing with the woes of homeownership and starting a company, I realize my goals are still in line with those I had long before I decided to move to Spain. In the end, my life isn’t so radically different from 2007, just more polished and mature.

Reflections of My Years in Spain – Año Cuatro / Cinco / Seis / Making the choice to live abroad

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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. Love it! 7 years is a long time! It’s awesome to see all of the cool stuff you’ve been up to, especially since yours was the first blog I found when I made the decision to move to Spain 3 years ago. I just realized… today is MY 3 year Spainniversary! Ha! Also, I’d love to learn more about how you found those freelance opportunities. Keep hustlin’, girl!
    Chelsea of Andalucía Bound recently posted..15 Ways to Mentally Prepare Before Moving AbroadMy Profile

    • Hi hi! Start using LinkedIn groups, connecting with people in Gib (loads of expat magazines down there), and sending out general queries. I often get a lot of work from other bloggers who mention my name! Good luck and here’s to a great fourth year!

  2. Hi cat, I follow you on WordPress. I know Spanish and I understand it fairly well but how did your improve it quickly on your own time. Thank you :) my blog is a work in progress but it’s called wanderlust bridge.wordpress.com

  3. Happy expativersary!! What an amazing 7 years you have had! I absolutely loved reading this, it was so motivating and inspiring to me, only just celebrating my 2 years a few months ago. It’s awesome to see that even a less conventional path can allow you to achieve all of the goals we might believe are only possible in a familiar setting.
    Sophie recently posted..Toronto summerMy Profile

  4. Wow, I just love this post in every way. Amazing to see how life has changed and how you’ve created it yourself. High-five friend and cheers to the future!

  5. What an incredible journey, Cat. You are a remarkable young woman. I wish you all the best in this exciting new stage of life.

    • Thank you, Susan. I think you can agree that Spain is wonderful place to live and grow, and I’m glad I’ve stuck around!

  6. Lemme get all older-brother / old-folks on you real quick…

    While we haven’t known you for most of those years, we’re proud of how far you’ve come and what you’ve accomplished. You really are a great representation to others of how to be an expat, how to get what you want, and how to work your ass off to make it all happen. Your name comes up as an example in our conversations with others, and it’s good to know that you’re aware of all the hard work you’ve put in and where it’s gotten you. (Until your head gets too big, anyway.)

    So yeah, congrats!
    Ryan from Jets Like Taxis recently posted..Be Festive: Celebrations with a DifferenceMy Profile

  7. To say you inspire me more and more with each passing post would be an understatement. Keep hustling, I know more good things are sure to be on the horizon.


  9. Awesome recap. In glad you’re loving your decisions and not looking back. Xo

    Kim recently posted..Musical moments: GlazzMy Profile

  11. feliz aniversario Cat!

    i always love how you write about Spain and your time in this tiny country, but lovely as well!

    sigue asi!

  12. It’s been really cool to hear your story that dates back to 2007 (when I was still in high school…eek!) and follow your adventures and new opportunities since I’ve come to Spain in the past 2 years. I wish you all the best in your new consulting business, house, and marriage! ^_^

    • Of, if it wasn’t bad enough that my students are half my age and under this year…meanie! Just kidding, of course, and thanks for all of the encouragement! It’s been a ride, to say the least!

  13. Congrats, Cat! I am so happy to read about your success. It gives me hope that my decision to leave Indiana in search of a new life in Spain will pay off (I’m just starting year 3…). Thanks for all of the advice you have shared with people like me. :)

    • Hey Laurie, the key is being open to anything and working towards your goals (but, then again, being open to anything!). Good luck!

  14. Way to go Cat! 7 smashing Spanish years under your belt and stronger than ever! Know what you mean about growing up– my third and fourth year in Spain have been much different to the first two!
    josh recently posted..Una Inquisición Española!My Profile

  15. Inspiring, Cat! Congrats on living the dream, even as the dream grows with you. I moved to CA whenabouts you moved to spain, got married in 2012 and we bought a house in november. It’s not spain, for sure but thanks for reminding us to reflect on the joys of our adventures. -Marie (yep, from all the way back in Wheaton)

    • Marie! Great to hear from you! California isn’t Spain, but it’s an adventure nonetheless. Just proves that tasking risks often has rewards! Hope you’re well over there on the other side of the world!

  16. You never know will life will take you. Half the things I’ve done post-college have completely surprised me and I would never have predicted the professional/personal choices I’ve made over the years. You’ve come a long way in those 7 years! Good luck with the bilingual family :). Your future kids’ first sentence will probably be Spanglish.
    amelie88 recently posted..Wild Horses in Montana PreviewMy Profile

  17. Happy Spaniversary! I’m so impressed by how Sevillana you’ve become and all that you’ve taken advantage of!
    Kirstie recently posted..Studying Abroad in Madrid: A Five-Year RetrospectiveMy Profile

  18. Congratulations Cat! I’m particularly impressed with how you gained your Spanish knowledge, after 3+ years now in the Netherlands I’ve *just* gotten to B1. Sounds like you’re perfectly set up now in Spain! Are you thinking of getting a Spanish passport?
    Caitlyn recently posted..Mayhem in MechelenMy Profile

  19. Bravo to you, Cat. You are doing one hell of a job rocking a Spanish life. It was so nice to meet you in Seville, as you have been an inspiration to me to follow my dream and take the leap to move to Spain after 7 years of building a life post college in the states. Can’t wait to see what the future brings you and see your cute Spanish babies.
    Kara of Standby to Somewhere recently posted..USA Farewell Tour and Standby to SpainMy Profile

  20. Congrats! And also YESSSSSS for the SBTB photo in the lead 😀 Such a classic episode!
    Lillie – @WorldLillie recently posted..See Boston By a Fun Harbor Cruise… With Brunch!My Profile

  21. Isn’t being an adult fun! Seriously congrats! You are an inspiration!
    Penny Sadler recently posted..Do You Believe in Ghosts? Investigating Paranormal Activity on The Queen MaryMy Profile

  22. Way to go, Cat. You’ve achieved so much in your first seven years in Spain. Looking forward to following your continuing adventures in your second seven, and beyond.
    Gran Canaria Local recently posted..Hotel MadridMy Profile

  23. Wow, what a journey you’ve had! Thanks for sharing it. I can’t believe you planned a wedding and wrote an e-book on your summer vacation. That’s a super productive vacation!
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..GO GREEN TIP #105: How to Grade Dolphinarium FacilitiesMy Profile

  24. You’ ve certainly come a long way, Cat. Congratulations! Love your engagement pic–you look so poised!
    Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com recently posted..The Kindly Drivers and Other Stories of Kindness on the RoadMy Profile

  25. An excellent report card — you’ve packed in a lot. And you’ve got a living diary of it in your blog, from having a flamenco dress made to starting your business. Abrazos!
    Terry at Overnight New York recently posted..ONE UN: Where the diplomats stayMy Profile

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