Five Things You Didn’t Know About Filing Your Taxes as an Expat in Spain

If life abroad weren’t complicated enough, filing taxes from abroad becomes even more complicated. As he drove me to the airport in 2007 for a year in Spain, my dad casually mentioned that I’d need to fax my first paycheck so that he could get a handle on my tax situation as soon as possible. “You’ll lose your passport otherwise.”

I scoffed, but eventually heard horror stories of people held at customs for not defaulting their student loans or not filing their taxes. Back before we had smartphones, I scanned and made copies of all of my bank statements just in case Uncle Sam came calling. Every April 15th, I gloated over all the zeros on my tax returns.

European Euros money

Then came love, marriage and the baby carriage, and I entered the murky world of filing taxes in Spain as an employee, dutifully filing in both countries.

A dozen years on, my interest in protecting my assets while understanding tax laws for my little American passport-totting Spanish children had me looking to the experts for more information about how and when to report my earnings abroad, as well as how to generate a positive return. It turns out that I had little idea about the intricacies of basic filing knowhow, which I’m sharing here as five things most expats don’t know about filing their US taxes from Spain:

Deadlines – April 15th is just another date on a calendar for expats filing taxes abroad

When you’re living abroad, you suddenly have double the dates to remember – holidays at home and abroad, your next trip stateside, and when to file your taxes in both countries.

This proved to be especially important for me as an American living and working in Spain. The Spanish declaración de la renta is not due until June 30th but cannot be filed until April 1st; in order to file my American taxes, I had to first file my Spanish claims and receive my return to send to an American accountant. April 15th – the American deadline – is thus too precipitated, but the common knowledge is that Americans residing abroad have a two-month grace period until June 15th, so long as you have filed for the extension prior to April 15th.

Five Weird Things You'll Find in Your Spanish Apartment

You can file for a later deadline, provided you do it prior to April 15th. Below are the important dates to remember when filing your US taxes from abroad:

Previous year tax return: October 15th

FBAR: October 15th

Even if you arrive to a zero balance on your tax return, you are required to fill out an FBAR if your worldwide assets total more than $10,000 or their local equivalent across any account bearing your name – even if just for one day. For instance, I began filing an FBAR in 2014 when I bought a house, as the amount I transferred in from the US was over the threshold.

Child tax credits: having a case of the babies can pay off on your taxes

I was well aware that the Spanish government offered what they called a cheque bebé, or a tax rebate on children up to age three. I chose to get the monthly 100€ check as a lump sum on my Spanish returns, as well as take advantage of the Comunidad de Madrid’s 90€ monthly rebate for working mothers.

When I found out I also qualified for a refund in the US under a recent tax reform called the Child Tax Credit, I was thrilled to know that the money I was paying out of pocket for childcare would be returned.

cute baby in a hat

There are two types of child tax credits: the Child Tax Credit and the Dependent Care Credit. I was able to file for the former, which qualifies for a reduction of $2000 per child, provided the child is under 16, has an American social security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number and is an American citizen. Because I did not earn enough to be taxed in the US via my Spanish income, my child tax credit came in the form of a refund – finally someone paid me a “salary” for my second shift job!

The other credit is for those who wish to claim up to $600 per child for childcare costs for dependents under the age of 12 when one or both parents work or are eligible to work.

Ojo – if you have filed for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion , you will not qualify for these exclusions.

FATCA: This is the reason why your foreign bank asks you for a W-9

Oh, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. No sooner had I signed the dotted line on a mortgage, my assets at my Netherlands-based bank were frozen. Imagine me, IKEA boxes piled onto a cart, having two debit cards and a credit card denied when I’d just been paid my finiquito and my monthly wages.

Parisian bistros

Enacted in 2014 and enforced heavily throughout the world, this IRS-imposed financial bullying is meant to catch those with offshore accounts but ends up hurting expats with its reporting. All Americans wishing to bank abroad are typically asked to provide both a W-9 form and a copy of their residency status to open and operate a bank account; when the law came into effect, I was politely asked to sign a W-8BEN, despite the DO NOT SIGN IF YOU ARE A US CITIZEN OR GREEN CARD HOLDER warning across the top.

Anyone know any Spaniards named Catherine Gaa? No?

Despite following my bank’s instructions, my accounts were frozen for two weeks, meaning my mortgage, life insurance and other important bills went unpaid – even my blog went offline when I was truant on my hosting fees.

FATCA can be problematic when trying to bank or own a business abroad, as the IRS has to know about it. Your bank is probably getting bullied into giving you the W9 and demanding to see your local residency card, anyway. In turn, they report your full name, birthdate, US social security number and bank balance to the US authorities.

Cuenca cathedral

Word to the wise: if you’re marrying a foreign national, bring up FATCA and taxes in the US like you would the question of having children or not. It may impact how you bank together.

Double taxation and Foreign Earned Income Exclusion: do I make enough money abroad to file?

While we’re on FACTA… the reason the whole mess came to be was because of a bunch of rich people using tax paradises to not pay on their worldwide earnings, something that the US requires you to report no matter where you live or where you earn your money (or euros or yen). It traps us little guys who earn normal salaries abroad and pay taxes on those earnings.

While the US has tax treaties with more than 6 countries, these agreements are really meant to not tax foreign nationals living and working in the US from being taxed in both countries. In other words: if you have a US passport and earn money, you should file. If you are, say, Spanish and work in the US, you wouldn’t have to file in Spain because of these treaties.

If you’re earning less than $100,000 worldwide, chances are you won’t owe the IRS any money. You can file for something called the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion in this case, or even the Foreign Tax Credit, which deducts $1 for every dollar you have already paid in taxes in another country. This is where filing for an extension in order to pay taxes in your country of residence comes in handy; you can then apply for the Foreign Tax Credit via Form 116.

Back filing and getting up to tax compliancy

Most expats know that they are legally obligated to file taxes every year, but the common belief is that if you don’t earn money in the US, you won’t have to pay any money to Uncle Sam.

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A friend of mine brought up a great point recently during a US consulate town hall: if I know I owe nothing to the IRS, why do I have to pay someone to do my taxes? When you compare the price of back filing your taxes through the IRS’s streamlined procedure to the $50,000 start price for not complying with FATCA, it makes sense to bite the financial bullet. What’s more, the IRS can find you since you let your bank report to them.

In order to become compliant via the streamlined process, you must:

  • File your last three federal tax returns
  • File your last six FBARs, if applicable
  • Pay any taxes due
  • Self-certify that your previous failure to file was non-willful

What companies can file my taxes for me? Can I use Turbotax if I live abroad?

Anyone else wish they would have learned about filing taxes when they had their first job? Or in high school? Or at any point in their lives?

When I was slinging sandwiches at age 15 at a local deli, I never imagined I’d end up living abroad. My dad dutifully tallied my $6.25 hourly wage before April 15th, and we celebrated with 29 cent hamburgers at MCDonald’s for dinner. Taxes are fun! I’d say as I chowed down at the dinner table.

HA.

You can absolutely use Turbotax or your parents’ accountant, but as we began to earn money from renting our home and then bled money into childcare, I realized I needed someone who was specialized in tax law in both Spain and the US. The Novio does a great job on our declaración de la renta in Spain, reading up on new laws and saving receipts of everything from school uniforms to a new corkscrew for our rental property – but he is as useless as I am on American taxes.

cat gaa sunshine and siestas

Bright!Tax was exactly what I needed as money matters got murky last tax season.

An honest review of Bright!Tax  from an American abroad

Katelynn, a qualified American CPA working for Bright!Tax, got in touch with me immediately to schedule a call and talk through my household situation. While filing taxes when it was just me was a cinch, marrying a person with a different passport and entering a 30-year mortgage and lifelong parentage with him complicated things. Katelynn’s humor and understanding of both Spanish tax law basics and the language allowed her to figure out exactly where we were spending our euros and how that may benefit me in my US return.

Taxes for Americans in Spain

What’s more, the communication was immediate yet not drawn out – she meant business in the best sense of the word, keeping deadlines in both countries in mind. After each call, a follow-up email with my action tasks was sent, allowing me to keep tabs on the documentation I would need to provide for my situation. As I was also preparing for a move and a baby, I appreciated that I didn’t have to chase someone else down.

Rather than sending all of my personal and financial information via email, Bright!Tax uses an interface with double authentication that allows you to fill out corresponding fields and upload your documents directly to their server. It was quick and simple to understand, and I didn’t have to worry about my information getting out to the interwebs or about GDPR, the European data protection laws (my new vendetta after FATCA).

The best part? I was able to get a refund equivalent to a month’s pay via the Child Tax Credit and the depreciation for renting our home in Seville. My dad had worked out how to make my return equivalent to zero year after year, but having insider knowledge of new tax laws meant a payout and direct deposit into my American savings account

I have already reached out to Bright!Tax about my 2019 filing, which will include the FBAR and the FATCA forms, this year. If you mention my blog or my name, you can get $50 off your filing – and if you need to take advantage of the streamlined process, every little bit helps!

February means my place of work will be sending me a list of my deductions for 2019, and the Spanish government will be paying me another 600€ for contributing another member to society (and someone who will pay pensions in the future), so it’s time to get cracking on my taxes once again. As they say – nothing in life is certain but death and taxes – and the cervecita I’ll have when I’m filed and compliant in both countries.

Full disclosure: Katelynn prepared my taxes free of charge for 2018 in exchange for my post. I can’t speak more highly of the whole process – and I keep it real.

God Bless America?: Reflections on my Third Elections Abroad

The world is having a serious identity crisis.

To say that 2016 has been a weird year is to echo the sentiments of…just about everyone. And it goes far beyond the celebrity deaths, the Cubs winning the World Series and me getting pregnant.

You know that phrase, when pigs fly? As much as I’d love for patas de jamón to be raining from the heavens, there has been more bad juju this years than in the last decade. Race riots, gun violence and the refugee crisis have reached a fever pitch. Everyone is offended by everything. Spain finally voted in a government.

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And to me, the 2016 Election cycle signals the end of the democratic process as I’d been brought up to believe in. Thinking back to Mrs. Entwistle’s seventh grade social studies class – one in which we recited state capitals and the presidents from Washington to Clinton – seems like it was a century ago, not two decades.

And think about it: 100 years ago, American women still couldn’t vote.

There are decries of the electoral college, of unbiased reporting. And sitting in my living room in the northern part of Madrid, listening to Disney music as a coping mechanism since I can’t have a beer or two for my nerves, I’m still shellshocked by the last few weeks and months.

I voted from abroad. I donated to campaign issues that were important to me. I faxed in ballots for people, taking away from my workload because, hell, these kids were excited to vote for the very first time. Did we sit on our hands? Push a broken system? Stick our fingers in our ears when two people screeched at each other on television?

What in the actual hell happened? More importantly, what does it mean going forward?

A voting history of a Democrat abroad

I voted for the first time in 2004, even registering in a swing state because my home state is always – for better or worse – left-leaning. John Kerry passed by my campus for a speech, bringing along Iowa Golden Boy Ashton Kutcher and actor Ron Livingston to stump for him. I got caught up in election fever, not even bothering to read into the platforms of those up for reelection in the state in which I’d decided to attend college. I even went as far as registering as a Democrat, much to the dismay of my crimson-hearted parents.

Kerry lost by half of a percentage point and, with it, his seven electoral votes, but I proudly donned my I VOTED sticker that chilly November morning. AND I made it to class on time.

In 2008, I was the English teacher who had brought a map of the US with me, fished out of the Target $1 bins. That Tuesday afternoon, I diligently filled in the number of electoral votes each state had to throw at a candidate and put together a collection of markers, crayons and colored pencils so that my other expat friends could color in the states as election boards turned in official results. There were close to 50 of us packed into the top bar at the Merchant until nearly 5am.

2008 Elections

We celebrated over nachos and Budweiser beers until I had the pleasure of coloring my state blue with a Crayola marker that was nearly dry. The next morning, I received hugs from my coworkers as if I myself were Barack Obama. It was memorable, to say the least (and I still made it to class on time).

It was then when I heard the phrase that would resonate with me eight years later, “Cuando Estados Unidos estornuda, todo el mundo se resfria.” When America sneezes, the whole world catch a cold. I felt the optimism and a new era hurtling in from across the Atlantic.

Four years later, in 2012, a head cold and working evenings had me sidelined for election party antics, but I woke up at 6am to news of an Obama reelection. Between my Master’s and a new job, I had hastily shot off a vote without looking deeply into the issues, letting political party lines determine my vote. It didn’t feel as great as 2008, but I felt that my views had representation in all areas of government. Checks and Balances for the win.

But 2016. 2016 is different.

I’m in my 30s, no longer the 19-year-old swayed by celebrities and the rhetoric. Someone who has her values defined and tested. Someone who will be bringing a child into the world in the aftermath of an election that can only be described as long, ugly and exhausting. And, frankly, someone who would prefer being pregnant for an entire election cycle. All 600 days of it. And grossly pregnant.

Over the summer, the Pew Research Center survey found that about six in 10 of us were “exhausted” by the elections – which technically began with Marco Rubio announcing his candidacy in March 2015. Sheryl Crow petitioned for a shorter cycle. I lived through, in that time, two presidential elections in Spain – a country which only allows campaigning for two weeks leading up to the election.

I fully expected to feel relief on November 8th, relief that the mud racking and slandering and name-calling was over. Instead, I woke up anxious and looked for ways to distract myself at work, refusing to open news alerts and keeping my phone in my bag or face down on my desk, an arm’s reach away.

On being an American abroad

It’s an odd thing being overseas when big things are happening in your country. You feel one-part ambassador to the messed up things that are splattered across foreign news, defending the actions of a country that is far from homogenous. Like you have to right the wrongs, to make explanations for every policy, law and scandal. That one person can represent a greater good and not what Hollywood or Washington or the media portray. That, even though Spaniards are outspoken about their opinions, I could explain the historical and sociological roots of America’s political system and why a representative democracy is, ultimately, about people having the power.

Spanish Cowboy under Old Glory. Scottsdale, AZ.

There’s been so much backlash about colonialism and a 240-year-old piece of parchment that begins with “We The People…” but I fundamentally believe that our Founding Fathers wrote a document flexible enough to weather social change, an increasingly global world and demographics.

I work for an American university in Spain, so I don’t feel alienated in my views or living this experience alone – and this university is international, drawing 65 nations to a campus of 800 students. I was impressed watching students debate in the cafeteria and coming in exasperated that their absentee ballots never arrived and could-you-please-please-fax-this-so-my-vote-gets-counted?!

Speaking about my love of country – even with Spain as a flamboyant lover – was something I enjoyed doing for the first eight years of my expat life. And it’s a country that instilled values like hard work, acceptance and the beauty of diversity in me. It never felt like a chore nor would I have ever categorized my words as hollow. I am critical of the United States despite recognizing the privilege I was born into – not just by possessing a blue passport, but by being educated, white and from a family who supports me.

But this year, yeah. I am at a total loss for words and saddened for so many groups of minorities. The whole world has gone bonkers, and the ripples and cracks are deepening.

The Aftermath: That’s what you get for waking up in Trump’s America

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I will begin by saying that, even though I’m a registered Democrat, I have a lot of Republican values. My parents have never voted Democrat, too young to fully understand Kennedy’s Camelot and those who were taught to prescribe to my grandmother’s words, “My money is my money.” My mother confessed that she was morally struggling over voting for Trump – something I chalked up to her coming around and seeing that party lines can become blurred when you factor in more than experience and policy.

Still, when my absentee ballot arrived, I took the time to research candidates. I voted Democrat for president and Congress, but also filled in a few red bubbles for local and state elections. I felt more confident in my choices this time around and encouraged people to vote despite the age-old excuses of, “my vote doesn’t matter” or “I hate them both.”

When I went to bed just shy of 5am, Spain time, I’d been at an enormous election party since 11pm. It was almost like watching a European football match in a bar – lots of beers, cheering and jeering and floods of blue. Everyone was on my side for once, and I didn’t feel like my team was the underdog. I didn’t get nervous when the early reports put Trump ahead of Hillary and I watched as Florida flipped flopped more than Trump switched parties in the last 12 years.

But at 4am, things were looking grim, so I said goodbye to my friends, refreshed the NYT one more time just in case the world had collapsed and grabbed a taxi. I wanted to do the same as I did for Game 7 of the World Series – use a rain delay (or a few hours of sleep) to reset and let my team get its shit together.

Nearly 12 hours have passed since an Tang-stained bomb got dropped. I had planned to sleep until my body woke up, but at 9am, I bolted upright (oops, don’t tell my midwife) and called for the Novio. His face said it all, despite the fevered whispering that it actually might happen that we exchanged leading up to November 8th.

I passed through the Seven Stages of Grief pretty quickly, and once I’d denounced the actions of my countrymen (I mean, these exit polls are pretty eye-opening), I erased most of this draft and got to writing again.

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This election was more than about breaking the glass ceiling – it was about voting with head and heart for what I believe in. I put aside scandal and morality to look at the cold, hard facts.

It’s tragic that we have to fear for our friends and neighbors, or to fear our neighbors, or post suicide hotline numbers (but kudos to those of you who recognized that this could start an epidemic). It’s tragic that people can’t afford healthcare or that our education level is sliding as college tuition hikes make it impossible for people to have access to degrees. It’s tragic that democracy is crumbling because there is so much more bubbling beneath the surface.

There’s a disconnect between parties and the People, and this is blatantly honest from the eyes of someone who has been abroad for nearly a decade. When I came here, we didn’t think it could get worse than W. He now seems like the harmless village idiot in just a little over his head.

Time will tell what The Donald brings to the table, or if it’s Mike Pence doing all of the heavy lifting. I’m reminding myself between deep nasal breaths that checks and balances exist, as does a party identity. Maybe we can all just hope for a sitting duck? He’ll quack loudly, but probably just swim around in circles, nipping other ducks just to be cheeky. Ducks aren’t violent, right?

But here’s my biggest issue, now that I’ve gotten past the 279 votes my party didn’t win: I am shaking my head and wagging my finger at all of those people who say they’re fleeing to Canada or Europe or staying abroad. Now is not the time to put our tails between our legs and concede because the country is divided, and that fracture is deepening. My hope is that activism takes root, that people do their homework when it comes to issues and policies, that you write to the people you have representing you in Washington. There’s a reason we have a representative democracy – you have to show up.

We have four years, but just two until midterm elections and this vicious cycle begins again for 2020. I’m not giving up hope or prosperity because I believe in the country I call home and the values I hope to teach my child.

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My son is scheduled to come into this world on January 1st, 2017. I’m crossing my fingers that he doesn’t make his debut in 2016, a year marred by head scratching moments and an outwardly struggle to figure out who we are and what we stand for.

I know he will come to me one day and ask, “Mommy, who was president when I was born?”

I want to confidently say that he was born while Obama was in the Oval, when people could love who they wanted, be who they wanted and say what they wanted. I want to raise him to believe in himself and the good of others, but to also question morality and social wrongs.

I want him to be a good person, plain and simple. To use the right words instead of hateful speech. To not bully or belittle someone, but instead offer an ear or a hand or a hug.

Maybe I’m just naïve, but I want to believe people are good but sometimes just stubborn, misinformed and insist upon holding grudges. I want to believe that we, as a people, will hold one another accountable to pick up the pieces and trudge on forward, hand in hand. I want to believe that this is the beginning of positive change.

If you’re wondering how to help the environment, minorities or women, check out the Jezebel list of places and organizations to donate.
US Elections Abroad

I have to say, this post has been drafted, deleted and rewritten countless times since November 1st. Then I did it all over again on November 9th. It was a blessing and a curse to have the day after the US Elections off of work, and I’m still processing what happened – both in the last 600 days and the last 240 years to get here. I don’t get political on my blog, but I will say that I have yet to defriend anyone for voting differently. Second Amendment be damned – information and activism are the only weapons we need.

If you’re going to comment, be my guest. Call it being polite or just realizing that there is enough room in the world for everyone’s views. I will not allow attacks on others who join the conversation. Keep it nice and respectful, please.

A Very un-Sevillano Summer

I knew I had become the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ (or perhaps toro out of España) when I hopped in the car for the first time yesterday. My mom’s van was parked on an incline, and I was nervous it would roll unless I gave the accelerator a hard kick when I threw it into reverse. I reached for the gear shift to find a stack of magazines.

Oh, right, Americans drive automatic cars. I should probably not rest my left foot on the brake, then.

It’s going to be a long, strange summer back in the Grand Old Republic.

As a teacher, I relish in my two months off. Over the past seven school years, my vacaciones have allowed me to explore other parts of Spain, walk the Camino de Santiago, visit friends and family at home in Chicago and attend world-famous festivals.

At 9:30 pm on June 30th, the Novio picked me up from work and drove me straight to a friend’s bar for a celebratory beer. I had fifteen days before returning to Chicago, and my sister was coming to visit. I’d spend the morning working on COMO Consulting issues, and after a long, midday siesta, he and I would pick out paint colors and furniture for the dream house we just bought before deciding to just have a beer as the nights cooled off. Just your average veranito in Seville.

And then the mierda hit the fan we didn’t even need to turn on because it wasn’t even hot there yet. Expat life, man.

On July 1st, I made my annual trip to the unemployment office to ask for a bit of financial help during my vacations. During July, I’m normally in La Coruña directing a summer camp to be able to make it through August without regular pay, and with a new, unfurnished house in the mix, I needed a bit of a cushion.

Per usual, I was sent away and asked to come back the following morning, first thing. On the 2nd, Manolo took a crawling 80 minutes to enter my new data into the INEM’s system. Little did I know that this would be merely the start of a stressful summer.

My summer days in Spain follow a strict routine: waking up early to run errands before the midday sun hits, returning home and drawing all the shades, making yet another batch of gazpacho, treating myself to a four-hour nap/going to the pool, and finally having a few beers somewhere in la calle when it’s finally cool out, or even a drink at a terrace bar. Weekends at the pool or the beach, depending on how lazy we feel.

Then the Novio presented me with a list of things I’d have to do. Turns out that picking out furniture and paint colors was only the start. I cancelled all of my plans but World Cup games to be ready for home inspectors and furniture deliveries, changed appointments to be able to change my mail forwarding and pay my IBI during reduced summer hours and stayed away from the gym. My leisurely start to a two-month holiday was already stressing me out, and I only had to look at my agenda to remind myself that siestas were totally out of the question.

By the time my sister and Rick arrived on July 5th, I’d successfully signed up for unemployment, had all of my bank accounts frozen because of FATCA and cried to my mom about the stress over Skype. The emotional upheaval became too much to bear that  I cursed my new house and the Spanish system of doing, well, everything.

The bank issue was by far the worst – the US law to prevent tax evaders, called FATCA, went into effect on July 1st, sending banks with American customers into a frenzy trying to report tax-relevant data. On the 2nd – the same day I was signing up for unemployment benefits – ING announced that I was not only a co-signed on a join account with the Novio, but that I also had to sign and turn in a form called a W-8BEN. I got no notification of any immediate consequences.

Normally, I’d sign and mail the form off, but I was curious about this new law and how it might affect me, given I file taxes in both Spain and the US, and now had a mortgage in the mix. Surely this law wasn’t trying to tax me and my teacher’s salary in America, too?

I went to IKEA to clear my mind (or not) and do 588€ worth of retail therapy for my dream house. After resisting the urge to also throw in some rugs and throw pills and just stick to the basics, my ING debit card was declined. So was the credit card. Not wanting to face the Novio empty-handed, I drove to Nervión and asked at the bank. The teller assured me my cards were valid and that the TPV unit was probably to blame.

So I drove back to IKEA, picked up the heavy furniture we’d decided on, and tried to pay again. The same thing happened. Defeated, I wheeled the cart to the holding area and reached for my phone to call the Novio. I had left it charging at home.

Furious once I arrived, he called the bank and they confirmed that my accounts had been frozen because of FATCA, even though the bank was supposed to have been compliant with the US’s demands by the day before. Until I turned in the W-8BEN, they would remain untouchable.

And so set off the frenzy of paperwork, lawyers, denuncias, and tears as I tried to take legal action against a bank that had frozen my accounts without warning (only a judicial order has the power to cancel or suspend an account with previous warning), and the fact that the W-8BEN serves for non-Americans. 

Thirteen days later, on the day before I left for the US, my bank accounts were finally restored. I had refrained from rebajas, from overspending and from visiting the terrace bars I loved frequenting in the balmy nights in summer – un verano poco sevillano, indeed.

But the beers and the ice creams and the laughs and the joy of sharing my city with my family put a band-aid on top of the financial struggles I was having. We spent afternoons strolling from bar to bar before they’d have siesta, escaped to Granada and Zahara de los Atunes and ate out every single night (I clearly didn’t pay).

Needless to say, my whole body relaxed as soon as I was sitting on a plane bound for good ol’ America. Now that I’m back in Chicago, I’m focusing on not stuffing my face and building my second site, COMO Consulting Spain. There will be a few surprises here and there, but I’m not ready to spill yet!

What are your summer plans? How do you cope with re-entry into your home country?

On Nostalgia and Expat Life

It always creeps up on me – whether it’s seeing the plastic grocery bags and hearing the clinking of bottles from within on Thursday night as I ride home from the academy, or passing the trendy bars from which people overflow, gintoncitos in hand, onto the sidewalk in El Arenal.

Sigh. Nostalgia always gets to me.

My life as an expat and guiri in Spain has seen its up and its downs. For several years, Spain was a momentary pause between college and real life, a hiccup of time to travel, learn Spanish and enjoy my early 20s.

Then Spain became my long-term plan, and things changed.

Just last week, the Novio and I were talking about looking for a house to eventually start a family. In talking numbers, mortgages and neighborhoods, I had to tell my head to stop spinning. What happened to renting and dealing with ugly, heavy furniture and noisy roommates and hustling to pay the Internet bill?

Did I grow up that fast? Surely I didn’t do it overnight, but when did I start to feel so….adult?

Danny and Javi visited at the end of February, and Javi caught me off guard when he asked, “Do you miss your life as an auxiliar de conversación?” over a plate of croquetas. Without even thinking about it, I said no. Turns out, Danny does.

I got to thinking about it while they had a siesta later that afternoon. Did I miss working 12 hours a week as a job where I didn’t do much but speak in English to a bunch of teens and take advantage of a few free coffees a week?

Well, yes and no. 

Did I miss having a job that was fun and carried little responsibility?

Yes and no.

Did I miss having my afternoons free for siestas, flamenco class and coffee with the Novio? Hell yes.

Did I miss fretting over whether or not my private classes would cancel on me and leave me without money enough for groceries and bus rides? Hell no.

The first three years in Seville were some of my best. I made friends from around the world, spent my many long weekends lugging a backpack on overnight bus rides and budget flights, stayed out until the sun came up or my feet couldn’t take it anymore. It was my second shot at studying abroad and at squeezing another year out of “learning” as if Spain were my super senior year.

Dios, was it fun. I remember so fondly those afternoon beers that turned into breakfast the next morning, the nights in with giggles, the Guiri Whoa moments. And the hard, hard goodbyes.

But the first three years in Seville were also marred with problems and annoyances: I had to live with roommates, learn to light a bombona, factor shoes into my budget and live off of dry pasta and tomate frito. The Novio and I broke up. I struggled with knowing if Spain was a good idea or a waste of my time. I was doing a job that was easy, yes, but not as fulfilling as I had hoped. 

All of those soaring highs were met with desolate lows. I had to decide to love it or leave it.

Making the decision to spend the rest of my life in Spain meant my days went from siesta and fiesta to frantically looking for a job and spending wisely. Then came nóminas, afiliación a la seguridad social, pareja de hecho, car insurance, sick pay and all of those other “adult” words.

I was living my dream of becoming fluent in foreign bureaucrazy and those of becoming a champion siesta taker seemed to fade away. I had made the transition from language assistant to a full-fledged member of the work force practically unscathed (but very, very poor).

As I adjusted to a full-time schedule and work commitments, I began to miss the old me, the girl who never turned down plans for fear of missing out, who would leave on the next bus out-of-town on a whim. Friday night became catch-up-on-sleep night, and Sundays were devoted to lesson planning. I began to lose sight of the things that were important to me and took out my angst on everyone from my students to my suegra.

Something wasn’t right, and I needed to make a change.

I found myself longing for the Spanish life I had before the private school, even with the stress over money and friends and language and life direction. I wanted to enjoy going out and enjoying Seville without just going through the motions.

So I chose. I chose a pay cut and an arguably less prestigious job and the uncertainty of the job market in the throes of a financial crisis. I chose to be happy and to open myself up to other opportunities, lest it be too late. Even with a master’s and a job and a blog and a boyfriend, I managed to regain a sense of myself and purpose. I realized that I end up setting my own limits for work, relationships and happiness.

Life continues as normal for me, six years after moving to Seville. When I pine to not be tired at midnight and to live close to the action of the city center, I remember everything that came along with it: language frustrations, scrounging for money, sharing a flat, drinking cheap and terrible liquor and eating cheap and terrible food.

I finally have a work-life balance that I craved during the first five years I lived here. Like Goldilocks, it seems I finally have found what is just right.

 

I may miss the carefree days where I could siesta for three hours and never have to worry about what to do on the weekends but how to fit it all in and under budget, I freaking miss my friends.

but at 28, it’s not me anymore.Whenever the pangs of nostalgia hit, they’re quickly quelled when I reflect back on how much I’ve accomplished, how much of the world I’ve seen for choosing plane tickets over drink tickets, and remember that I’m where I intended to end up.

Do you get nostalgic for your study abroad days or college days? How do you cope?

Eight Reasons Why You Should Teach English in Spain NOW

The most common question I get when meeting new people in Spain is, ‘Why did you originally come here/go to Spain/decide on Seville/move abroad to work as a teacher?’

I could answer this question in volumes, but it’s just easier to say, to travel, to learn Spanish, and to try out teaching English as a foreign language.

In March 2007, I found out about the Auxiliar Program, known in the United States as the North American Language and Culture Assistant Program. I gathered the recommendation letters, drafted a letter of intent in my best 101-class Spanish and sent off a packet to Madrid. Spending a year in Spain for 631€ a month sounded like a good plan.

This is where I shake my head and think, If only I knew that this was the start of everything.

I spent three years working as an auxiliar de conversación in a high school in Olivares (Seville). It has been, to date, my favorite job, one which I looked forward to going to every day. I got to talk all I wanted, plan activities as diverse as a gap fill about Evil Knievel to a Halloween party, and my coworkers bought me breakfast every day.

My last day at IES Heliche was gut wrenching, but, I came away with skills I didn’t think I’d ever acquire, and the job plus my formal training with an academically challenging and internationally recognized online TESOL diploma has led to others in the same sector in Seville. There are many nay-sayers who are quick to blame the program for its lack of organization or slow payment process, but I firmly believe that  you get out what you put in.

And now they give you materials about how to teach. I was thrown to the lions (lions that looked a lot like 13-year-old kids).

I receive emails everyday about teaching abroad. Given how difficult it’s getting to stay under the radar without a visa, I always recommend the auxiliar program or a similar gig which grants you a student visa and health insurance, along with a stipend. There are 3,000 jobs up for grabs around Spain which will pay you between 700€ and 1000€ a month in exchange for working 12-16 hours, and now countless companies are offering similar positions.

Let’s practice a bit of first conditional, in which we talk about circumstance which can be true in the present or future.

If you go to Spain to teach,

You’ll learn Spanish.

Immersion learning is one of the best ways to acquire a language. From dealing with the bureaucratic mess that can be the Spanish government to living with international students or workers, there is no doubt that your spoken Spanish will improve. Try turning off the subtitles on the TV, reading the local paper and chatting up the abuelos in the bar down the street. When I first met the Novio, he told me my castellano was gorgeous, but my mistakes made it difficult to understand me.

Nowadays, he’s threatening to not take me to anymore Betis games because my potty mouth is too much for the other fans around me. Spain is a great place to put your textbook Spanish from high school to use (and you’ll finally get to exercise the “Oh, they only use that in Spain” vosotros form!).

Spain is also home to several dialects and even another language, so if you geek out about linguistics, Spain will be an audible treat for you.

You’ll have ample time to travel.

Ever heard that Spanish people love to party? It’s true, to an effect, but there are multiple holidays that will make a long weekend (you’ll likely work just four days a week) even longer. There are a dozen national holidays that fall within the school year. Plus, you’ll get local and regional holidays off, plus two full paid weeks during the Christmas holidays and another during Holy Week. If you’re in Málaga or Bilbao, you also get another week off somewhere because the local festivals are during August.

You’ll travel for cheap.

The running joke when I was an auxiliar was, “Where is Cat going this weekend?” Since coming to live in Spain as an English teacher, I’ve been to every autonomous community and 20 countries. Budget airlines abound in Europe, and Spain has several hubs along the coasts and in Madrid. Sign up for offers from every airline that flies out of your nearest city, and you’ll be surprised how cheap it can be to get around Europe.

Apart from that, Spain’s network of public and private transportation is top-notch. All major cities are connected via rail, and private bus companies are a comfortable way to travel both long and short distances.

Classes are often held in the evenings, which also gives you time in the morning for online teaching gigs or hours to devote to personal or professional deveelopment.

You’ll have people looking out for you.

When my mother first met my boss from the auxiliar program, Nieves, she gave her a hug. It had been three years since I’d worked in Olivares, but Nieves and I have remained close. My mom thanked her over and over for looking after me when I first arrived to Seville without a single contact and flailing Spanish skills.

Now that the language assistant program isn’t new, its participants know you’re likely in your 20s and far away from home. I was taken care of like one of their own, even offered winter coats, free rides to work and the opportunity to take part in several cultural experiences (I spent the first weekend in Seville betting on horses at the Pineda racetrack and then stayed out until 8am). That said, everyone has a different experience with regards to coworkers, but attitude can go a long way to forging healthy relationships with them.

You’ll gain international experience.

Getting a job in America seems scary competitive, so having international experience on your resume will be a great talking point in an interview. Apart from learning Spanish and trying out something new, be sure to tell a potential employer that you’ve picked up valuable problem-solving skills and explored diverse interests. Network on LinkedIn before returning home, keep a blog of your experiences and be sure to make your year or two teaching in Spain stick out.

You may just get sucked into it, too.

You’ll learn about Spanish culture, and not from a textbook.

They say experience is the best teacher, so forget all of the business you learned in high school from your textbook. Without a doubt, living in Spain and working as a teacher has given me first-hand knowledge of Spanish schools and Spanish life.

As a tutor, I became friends with several of the families who employed my services. This meant offers to attend first communions, family luncheons and even ride in horse carriages during the Feria. Inviting me into their homes meant I got an idea of how Andalusian families lived, from crowding around their braseros when it got cold to checking out what Spanish kids ate for merienda. While I only moonlight tutor now for one family, I’ve remained in contact with several of the households who once paid my groceries and travel habit.

You’ll have the visa and health insurance figured out.

Coming to work in Spain legally if you’re a North American is difficult. The various teaching programs offered to native speakers have the advantage that you’re awarded a student visa for the duration of the program which is available for renewal, as well as private health insurance during that time. I’ve had all sorts of work-ups and check ups done, just for the sake of milking it for what it’s worth. The student visa will also entitle you to student discounts and the ability to travel around Europe longer than a Schengen visa can provide.

To be clear, the auxiliar program through the Spanish government employs you for either 12 or 16 hours a week, which also gives you time outside of work commitments to try other things. I’ve taken flamenco and French class, worked for a student travel company and still found time to do tutoring and partake in the siesta culture.

You’ll get to live in Spain for an academic year, and you’ll get a stipend to do it.

You get paid to talk in your native tongue a dozen hours a week. If that’s not reason enough, I don’t know what is.

Not too keen on an assistant teaching position, or you’ve already gotten around the visa issue? In Seville alone, 26 new English language academies opened for the 2012-13 school year, and it’s a growing sector. Once you’ve got a TEFL degree, finding a place to work is far easier. There are also many alternatives to the auxiliar program that still get you the necessities to live here, and I’ve broken them all down for you.

If you are an auxiliar, tell me about the good and the bad of your position. Would you recommend it to a friend?

The 3500’s: How Not to Despair with a High Inscrita Number When Applying to be an Auxiliar in Spain

Around this time six years ago, I was waiting to receive my visa for Spain. My passport was held hostage, and I ticked off the days before my flight left, bound for Madrid. I recall not knowing if the pit in my stomach was from nerves or just anxiousness to leave and see what it would be like to live in Spain for a year and teach English at a local high school. Look at me now! This post was written by Tamara from Traveling Natural as she prepares to head off to Galicia, one of my favorite parts of Spain.

I started this post AGES ago and by ages, I mean in April, but so many turns of events have happened since then, that it must be re-written. Initially I wanted to inspire the masses of procrastinating future auxiliary language and cultural assistants (which I will refer to as LACAS) with extremely high numbers, of better planning and execution for next year.

But then I decided to take the Peace Corps philosophy of (yes, I have applied to the PC, and probably every awesome program known to twenty something’s that have changed careers a million times already since graduating college, you can read about that here) “hurry up and wait” and see what happens.

First of all why did I apply late? Because I decided that I only wanted to apply to BEDA and take my chances, especially since the ministry program had so many issues last school year. But the coaxing from a friend and the fear of getting waitlisted with BEDA, had me fumbling around PROFEX for over an hour the next day, March 27th to be exact.

Well I received my number–à 3,543 

…and thought “This is a complete joke and I’m never getting placement with such a high number!”

A word of advice:

  1. Apply early! Especially if you have your heart set on living in Madrid ( I actually didn’t)
  2. Set an alarm on your phone and a reminder in your calendar to apply early!!!
  3. Apply to more than 1 program
  4. Wait

Yup! You read número cuatro correctly. Just wait! See what happens. Future LACAS drop out of the program all the time for various reasons and slots open up.  Or maybe that’s all you can do since you didn’t follow #3 and only applied to one program.

Well this, my friends, is where the turn of events happened.  On June 27th, exactly 3 months to the day I applied, I received placement in Galicia, España!

And according to the website they have placed up to 3,765 LACAS thus far! So there is hope if you are in (or above) the 3500’s!

I actually ended up getting into and accepting the BEDA option instead. So número 3,544 lucky you!

Future LACAS I hope this was helpful to you. If you take away anything, remember to just wait it out…and everything will fall into place! Or in the words of Cat Gaa “it will work out in the end.”

You can catch Tamara blogging over at www.travelingnatural.com. When she is not blogging she is looking to create an extraordinary experience out of this thing called life.  

Have any other questions about the auxiliar program? If you’re waiting on a high number, or unsure if the program is for you, why not consider an internationally recognized TEFL degree with job placement help? Mine has been the difference between getting the job or not.

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