Seville, I’m breaking up with you

Querida Sevilla mía,

You know that age-old, “It’s not you, it’s me”? Well, it’s not me. Eres tú. We’ve reached the end of a nine-year relationship, one marked with uncertainty at the beginning, with as much elation as frustration in the years since we became intimate. And más pronto que tarde, I knew we’d end up here.

Te estoy dejando.

giralda sunset1

My friend Stacy maintains that the first Spaniard you fall for is never the one you stay with – it’s always the second. If Spanish lovers were cities, you’d be my second great love, my second Spaniard. Two years before we got to know each other, Valladolid entered my life. Stately and daunting, but a romance that was always a little off. Castilla y León’s capital never did it for me, a bit too cold and a bit too stand-offish to be anything long-term. Neither the castles nor the robust red wine could woo me, but it was a foray into what it meant to truly love a city.

You and I met on a sweltering July day in 2005, your characteristic heat baking midday as I dragged a suitcase towards Calle Gravina. Back then, the Alameda was all albero, you could drive down Constitution and around the roundabout at Puerta Jerez and there was a noticeable lack of skyscrapers, gastrobars and coffee houses. On the surface, you were beautiful, but I pined for Valladolid, not entirely convinced you were boyfriend material.

tapas bodeguita romero typical Spanish tavern

Two years later, we were thrust together again. Still sore from being flat-out rejected by Granada, I set out to try and get to know you on a Sunday evening in late September when everything was shuttered. Walking down Pagés del Coro, I craned my neck to watch the swallows dip between the balconies and around the spire of La Estrella chapel.

Swallows, golondrinas, always return to where they’re from. Even at that moment, exhausted from two weeks traveling and unsure about starting my job the next morning at IES Heliche, I knew I had returned to where I was to be from. In those tender first steps in our relationship, I was smitten. I would soon fall deeply in love with you.

Plaza del Altozano Triana

But today, nine years later, I ripped the band aid off, and HARD. I just up and left it seems, without time for long goodbyes at all of the places I’ve come to haunt in these years together, to the hundreds of caras I’ve come to know in the barrio. No ugly cries, just a few tears pricking my eyes as I locked up my house, rolled one suitcase to the bus stop and headed towards Santa Justa and, later, Madrid.

Like I said, it’s you, not me.

I guess you could say I saw this coming, like that little ball that sits low in your stomach when you know life is going to darte un giro in a big, big way. I needed that giro because you’d simply gotten to easy. I can understand even the oldest abuelo buried deep into one of your old man bars, can no longer get lost in your tangle of streets. You are a comfortable lover, warm and welcoming, familiar and comforting.

But I’m not one to be estancada, stagnant, comfortable. Walking down La Castellana in March, the ball in my stomach dissipated as I skipped from a job interview back towards Atocha. The trees were bare, but the sky was the same bright blue that always welcomes me in Seville. As they say, de Madrid al cielo. Madrid was calling.

Sunshine and Siestas at the Feria de Abril

Sevilla, you’ve been more than good to me, giving me just about everything I’ve ever needed. You’re easy on the eyes, fiery and passionate, deeply sensual and surprising. You’ve shown me the Spain I always wanted to find, even between castles and tintos de Ribera del Duero and my first impression of Spain. You’ve reignited my love for culture, for making strangers my friends, for morning beers and for living in the moment. You changed me for the better.

And you will always be that second great love, te lo prometo. Triana will always be my home.

But you’ve just gotten too small. My dreams and ambitions are too big for your pueblo feel, as much as I’ve come to love it. Your aesthetic beauty continues to enchant me as I ride my bike past the cathedral at twilight or I leave extranjería and am not even mad that my least favorite place in Seville is also one of my favorites. Your manjares are no match for the sleek pubs and international food in Madrid, which I know I’ll grow tired of.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

I admit that it was difficult to reach your core, to understand the way you are and learn to appreciate those nuances. At the beginning, it was all new and fun and boisterous, the out-loud way that you live each day, those directionless afternoons and long, raucous nights. Lunches that stretch into breakfast. Balmy evenings, Cruzcampo in hand. Festival after procession after traffic jam. Unforgettable sunsets. Unannounced rain showers. Biting cold and scalding heat. You are a city of extremes and mood swings, for sure, but you’re at your best that way. You are as passionate as they say you are.

Still, there were frustrations with the language, that lazy way that you “forget” letters and entire syllables. Frustrations with getting around and untangling the back alleys of your deepest barrios. Frustrations navigating the choque between our two cultures and figuring out a way to make it work for nearly a decade. There was a lot of give and take, that’s for sure.

my first feria de abril

And that’s not to say you haven’t changed for the better in these nine years together.

You’re more guiri-friendly, easier to get around and constantly coming up with ways to reinvent yourself without losing what makes you, . Even when I rolled by eyes at the Setas, I found the best views from its waffle-like towers. You always find a way to stay true to yourself, even if that means having to take the long way home when the streets are choked with a procession or if I call the Ayuntamiento and they send my call from office to office without ever getting through to an actual human.

But those same things that I once loved have become annoyances as we’ve gotten more comfortable with one another. Some of it is trivial, lo sé, but in the bigger scheme of things, we need time apart. Room to breathe, to try new things. I can’t get everything I need from you right now, Seville, y ya está. I know the decision was quick and may have its repercussions, but it’s what I have to do right now if we ever want a chance again.

Expat in Seville Cat Gaa

Madrid presents so many new possibilities. I scoffed at the idea of living there and opening myself up to loving it, but it will never be you. In fact, I think it will be like Valladolid, a tough nut to crack and one whose true character I may never know the way that I know you.

I’ll look for you in the bares de viejos, in a sevillano passing by wearing a Betis t-shirt, in the way that the Madrid gatos will laugh at my accent or look puzzled when I ask for a copistería or a cervecita. You’ll probably follow me around, to be honest. You were never one to let go lightly.

I love Seville Heart Necklace

This morning, as I drove over the San Telmo bridge towards Triana, the swallows returned. It was already a warm July morning, maybe even eleven years to the day since I first felt the breeze over the Guadalquivir. Eres un amor para toda la vida, Sevilla. Maybe in three or five years’ time, we’ll find ourselves back together, a bit more mature and ready for a new stage in our relationship. You’ll have changed, I have no doubt, and so will I.

But if the golondrinas are any indication, volveré. It’s the natural course.

Con todo mi cariño,

Cat

Wondering about my absence the past two months? I’ve been back and forth on the AVE, making trips to Madrid for job interviews, spending time alone with Sevilla and even squeezed in a ten-day trip to the US for my sister’s wedding. On July 3rd, 2016 – coincidentally the same day I applied for my visa for Spain in 2007 – the Novio and I officially moved to Madrid. I’ll start a job in a few weeks as an admissions counselor at a prestigious American university with a campus in the heart of La Capi. Adiós, teaching – never thought I’d see the day!!

No time for complatency

Will I like Madrid? I’m positive I will. Will I love it? Not in the same way that I love Seville, but the Novio and I have big plans for the next few years, and Seville was simply too small for our career ambitions. I’m not entirely sure how the scope of Sunshine and Siestas, a blog that has largely been about Andalucía, will change, but you can count on my voice coming through! 

I’m curious to hear your reactions to the news, which I’ve managed to keep surprisingly quiet! Not even sure I believe it myself!

Preguntas Ardientes: Can I Enjoy the Feria de Abril as a Tourist?

The azahar bloomed while I was away. Even in Valencia, home to the famous oranges of the same name, the smell was cinged off by firecrackers and smoke during Las Fallas. And as I watched a gigantic Merlin burn from a towering statue to a small pyre, marking the end of my first Fallas, my next thought was immediately on the next big event: the Feria de Sevilla.

Sunshine and Siestas at the Feria de Abril

I am a dedicated feriante – I try on my traje de gitana weeks before to ensure its fit, attend flamenco fashion shows and a sevillana was the third song played at my wedding. I wait for the alumbrado with as much nervous energy as I pine for the last day of school. Feria is my jam, and everyone knows it.

But what if you’re a tourist, or passing though Seville during the Most Wonderful Time of the Year? I get this question often, and not just from tourists, but from those living elsewhere in Spain. I may live the sevillana version of high life when it comes to horse carriages and caseta invitations on occasion, but I also freak out in the days leading up to the fair, thinking that I may not have a place to go, or I may be stuck wandering the Real while I wait for a friend to answer their GD phone. In no other moment do I feel as foreign as I do local.

Know Before You Go

Spain is definitely a country that, on the surface, seems welcoming. The sunshine! The fiestas! The people! But in Seville, lo señorío and el postureo run deep, meaning that anyone outside of posh social clubs, religious brotherhoods or the Duquesa de Alba’s inner circle can get left in the albero.

farolillos

Begun as a cattle fair several centuries ago, the Feria de Abril marks the first of Andalusia’s springtime fairs. It’s the largest, most popular, and the place to see and be seen. During one glorious week of the springtime, makeshift tents, called casetas, are erected on a patch of land that is unused for 51 weeks of the year. This is called the Real de la Feria, and in the weeks leading up to the event, workers log in hours setting up the casetas, stringing up lights and building an enormous main gate, called the portada.

The party starts on the third Monday following Resurrection Sunday with a socios-only fried fish dinner, known at the pescaíto. At midnight, the mayor turns on the lights of the entire fairgrounds, ending with the portada, and sevillanas immediately tumble out of the tents. The Feria continues every day from about 1pm until the wee hours of the morning, officially shuttered on Sunday night with a fireworks display at dusk.

alumbrado feria de sevilla 2010

The casetas are owned by religious groups, social clubs, political parties and groups of wealthy friends. A whopping 90% of them are privately owned and run, so you’ll usually see someone guarding the entrance and asking for proof that you’re in association with the tent’s dwellers that week. And the list for securing your own caseta is over a decade long, so it’s best to make friends before the fair starts.

Making the most of Seville’s most exclusive party

Feria is an expensive party – from the horse carriage rentals to the tent memberships to the clothing – but it’s free to attend, and gawking doesn’t cost a cent. But to truly enjoy it, you may have to lower your expectations.

La Feria en Crisis

First, know that there are two sides to the fair: Feria de Día, and Feria de Noche. Daytime fair is far more demure, as this is when most socios spend their time at the fairgrounds; the fair at night becomes borderline hedonistic, where tent flaps are drawn and sevillanas disappear.

Should you choose to go in the daytime, you’ll be treated to carriage parades and striking Andalusian horses until dusk – not to mention the daily bullfights happening in La Maestranza, bringing in some of the biggest names in bullfighting. This is the fair at its purest, with flamenco music playing and castanets clapping. Be aware that this is also when it’s the most difficult to gain access to the private tents. I have a less-than-stellar reputation of inviting my friends to Los Sanotes, which means side eyes and a stiff greeting from a few of the more traditional socios. But once night falls, most of the older crowd has gone home, making it easier to pop in and out of the casetas.

Free Casetas  – the city operates a number of public access Distrito tents, which are larger and a bit more raucous than a traditional tent. Those also open to the general public are casetas belonging to political parties, labor unions and, in some cases, religious brotherhoods.

A Map of the Seville Fair fairground and free public casetas

If you know someone who is in the local police force or works for a large, locally-based company like Abengoa or ABC, ask them if you can buy entrances from them. These sorts of places don’t operate using cash, but rather tickets in various denominations for food and beverage.

Or, you can always use the, “My friend is back at the bar and not answering my phone calls” trick to sneak into a crowded tent! Not that I ever have.

Dressing Up – On my first Feria, the Novio invited me to his best friend’s family’s tent (a rather estrecha relationship for Feria) for the Alumbrado. Knowing that the fairgrounds were full of albero, a chalky dirt than lends well to both bullfights and horse poop, I dressed as if I were doing housework – ratty jeans and tennis shoes.

I may never live that or the baby-sized complementos down (ugh, not to mention both a mantoncillo and a gargantilla wrapped into one outfit):

Vamanos a la Feria Carino Mio!

Remember that this is an event where you’re to see and be seen. Even if you’re not planning on donning a pricey traje de gitana, women should wear a dress or dress trousers. I don’t know how, but heels are a must. Men, in many private casetas, are required to wear a suit and tie after 9pm, regardless of the heat.

And please none of those souvenir-shop dresses or hair clips – that screams guiri more than getting too drunk off of rebujito!

Etiquette – That brings me to my next point, or fairground etiquette. On Seville’s biggest stage, you’ll notice that despite the abundance of alcohol and atmosphere, no one is outwardly drunk until nighttime. I was once kicked out of a caseta for being with a friend who’d imbibed a little too much!

spanish american girls at the feria de sevilla

If you receive an invitation to a private caseta, don’t bring 10 more of your friends without asking. It’s customary to buy the first round of drinks, though you’ll more than likely be turned down. If the tent is crowded, don’t immediately take a seat, as it’s an unwritten rule that those tables are reserved for paying members. Instead, make friends with the bartender – just don’t forget to pay your tab or overstay your welcome!

Some casetas will simply ask you who you’re with, as it is up to that socio or family to split the bill at the end of the week.

Spanish and Flamenco dancing – I’m often asked how necessary it is to dance sevillanas to enjoy the fair. While it’s definitely my favorite part of the whole experience, you do not have to know this four-part dance. Sitting and watching is fun, and people will often break into the dance on the streets, as well.

Should you be in Seville for a few weeks and want to learn, dance studios and gyms have intensive courses for 10-15€/hr. Check out Cuesta Sport, Látidos or Helena Pachón to learn how to coger la manzana, la comes, la tiras.

Flamencas on a horse carriage

As for knowing Spanish – it’s helpful. How else will you insist upon buying a whole round of montaditos de lomo for your generous hosts?

Fairground Tours – if you’re a little freaked out for a first-timer, find the information booth just under the main gate on Antonio Bienvenida. The city’s tourism board offers tours around the fairgrounds, culminating in a drink in a public caseta. Let the rebujito flow!

My advice for a Feria first-timer

I was completely unprepared for my first Feria, from my lack of proper clothing to not saving enough money to truly enjoy it. If you’re visiting Seville for the first time, don’t let the Feria be your only plans – since the fairgrounds aren’t in the city center, you’ll find that it’s less intrusive than Semana Santa.

Portada de la Feria 2013

Take one day out to go to the Real after lunchtime and a siesta. Dress up nicely – long, dangly earrings and a shawl are fine, but don’t overdo it if you don’t have a traje de gitana, ladies. Walk across the Puente de San Telmo and the entire length of Calle Asuncion, which leads right to the main gate. Take a stroll around the Real to marvel at the horses and the elegant costumes before popping into a public caseta – the Fiestas Mayores (Costillares, 10) and Partido Popular (Pascual Márquez, 66) tents are a bit pricier for food and drink, but often have live music from 8pm or 10pm on. If you can’t score a private tent invitation and sweet talking gets you nowhere, skip dinner and have hot chocolate and fried donuts on Calle Manolo Vázquez.

How To (3)

Read more of my posts on the Feria de Abril, Seville’s most flamboyant celebration, from how to dress and dress up your dress, a list of vocabulary you’ll encounter and the Dos and Dont’s.

Have you been to the Feria de Sevilla as a tourist? What were you thoughts – I would love to hear the negative!

When Living Abroad Starts Feeling Like Living in America

I could have easily been in a neighborhood pub back home in Chicago. Armed with two guiri friends and a stomach that hadn’t eaten all day, I ordered a cheeseburger meal, piled on the ketchup and sat down on a couch, directly under drapes of spider webs. It was Halloween, and one my friends mentioned that – gasp! – another American friend of ours had had trick-or-treaters the night before in her pueblo.

De verdad? Since when does the oh-so-racio Seville feel just like America?

When

Slowly, Americana has been permeating into a city as Spanish as the tortilla. At first, I embraced the introduction of peanut butter onto supermarket shelves (and willingly forked over 7€ for it) and made special trips to Madrid for international cuisine. Eight years on, I’m feeling like I’m in a parallel universe sometimes as craft beer, Netflix and my favorite holiday are becoming mainstream, albeit jabbered on about in Spanish.

I’ve long been the guiri who drags her heels when it comes to embracing my culture while living in another. I famously chastised my friends for shopping at the American food store and have yet to set foot in Costco. I do not regularly catch baseball or American football games in bars, nor could I tell you the best place to watch one. Yes, I cook Thanksgiving for my in-laws with American products and dress up for Halloween, but those moments were always reserved for special parties with my compatriots. What I love about living in Spain really boils down to the fact that I love living in Spain.

Cue the hate comments: I didn’t really sign up for an American life when I moved to Seville. And in all fairness, I’m letting it happen.

Spanish potato omelette

The line between life abroad and life as I knew it before 22 is blurrier than ever. I conduct a large part of my day in English, have English-speaking friends and watch TV in English. I just picked up a Spanish book for the first time in three years. I consume news in English via my smartphone and had to recently ask the Novio the name of the new mayor in town. 

I knew I needed to make a change when the Novio suggested we get Netflix as a wedding present to ourselves. Wait, you mean I can watch a show on a big screen with no need to let the show buffer for ten minutes? And in my native language? The fun of the TDT system, which allowed shows to be aired in their original language instead of dubbing. Ni de coña – I will binge watch my American television shows on my laptop. Wouldn’t that 8€ a month be better spent on something else?

While Spain is definitely not America when it comes to lines at the bank, reliable service or a way around 902 toll numbers, I find my adult life becoming more on par with that which my friends are living in the US. I got more than a fair dosage of Americanism this year, spending more than four months of fifteen in the US. Going home is a treat – Target, Portillo’s and endless hours of snuggling with our family dog – but it’s lost a lot of its sheen now that Seville has Americanized itself, be it for tourists or for sevillanos

But at what price? Gone are the decades-old ultramarinos that once peddled canned goods – they’ve made way for trendy bars and clothing chains. While I admit that the Setas – a harsh contrast from the turn-of-the-century buildings that ring Plaza de la Encarnación – have grown on me, they caused a lot of backlash and an entire neighborhood to address itself. Do I really need a fancy coffee bar to do work at, or a gym with the latest in training classes?

Reflections of Study Abroad in Spain

As my world becomes more globalized, I find myself seeking the Spain I fell in love with when I studied abroad in Valladolid and the Seville that existed in 2007. We’re talking pre-Crisis, pre-smartphones and pre-instagram filters, and one where a Frapuccino every now and then helped me combat my homesickness. The Spain that was challenging, new and often frustrating. The Spain in which I relished long siestas, late nights and a voracious desire to learn new slang and new rincones of a new place.

But… how do I get back there? The Sevilla I discovered at age 22 is barely recognizable. Do I love it? Do I deal with it? I mostly stick around Triana, which stills feels as barrio and as authentic as it did when I took up residence on Calle Numancia in 2007.

This sort of rant seems to be a November thing, when rain has me cooped up outside instead of indulging in day drinking and mentally preparing myself to de-feather and de-gut a turkey. Maybe I’m in a slump. Maybe I’m comfortable. Maybe I’m lazy. Or maybe it’s just the fact that Spain doesn’t present the same day-to-day victories as it once did. 

One thing I know for certain is that I’m looking forward to jumping back into the Spanish manera de ser once the Novio arrives back home this week. I can’t wait to head to San Nicolás, sans computer, and search for castañas, to sleep without an alarm and to remember why and how Spain became mi cosa.

Do you ever feel like you’re no longer living abroad? Any pointers to get me back on track?

The Anatomy of a Cesta de Navidad

When my very first cesta de navidad arrived, wrapped up in cellophane and emblazoned with Corte Inglés publicity, I excitedly ripped open the top of the box and dug out the contents of the box.

I was literally a kid on Christmas morning, just three weeks early.

Many companies and organizations give pre-packaged Christmas baskets to their employees during the holiday. They’re also raffled off at bars and hermandades for a few euros, but they all have two things in common: edibles and booze.

cestas de navidad el corte ingles

In my first cesta, I received four bottles of wine, one of whiskey and one of anisette, plus enough cured meat to tide me over until Easter. Baskets also include typical Christmas sweets, cheeses, conservas like bonito or white asparagus and an interesting brick of something called a “Christmas Broth.” Contents are neatly packed up and shipped out to the tune of anywhere from around 20€ and up to 300€! 

While my Christmas shopping usually consists of plane tickets to spend the holidays somewhere with my parents, this year I’ll be flying home for wedding planning. Rather than scramble for gifts amidst other scrambling shoppers, I decided to make a twist on the traditional Christmas basket by bringing my favorite and American-palatte-approved goodies home in ceramics.

What is in a Spanish gift basket

Because, really, what do you get the woman who has it all (as far as Spanish souvenirs go) and is picky? 

My American-Tastes-and-Customs-Friendly-While-Still-Being-Andalusian Cesta de Navidad:

1 50g sachet of saffron – 5€

Cesta de navidad saffron

The same amount of azafrán in the US costs $16, so I was thrilled to find it wrapped up nicely!

1 220g package of Andalusian oranges covered with chocolate and olive oil – 5€

cesta de navidad chocolate covered oranges

Everyone in my family but me are chocoholics, and these oranges are representative of Seville, with the olive oil giving it an appropriate amount of acidity.

1 300g orange marmalade spread – 4,50€

cesta de navidad orange marmelade

Naranjos abound in Seville, and the oranges collected from them are made into bitter orange marmalade. Nuns at the Santa Paula monastery make this particular type, and peddle it out of their turnstiles.

1 250mL tin of Basilippo Arbequina extra virgin olive oil – 8€

cesta de navidad Andalusian olive oil

Basilippo is an award-winning brand of extra virgin olive oil planted, harvested and pressed in nearby El Viso del Alcor.  The arbequina olive it’s made from is known for its suave and balanced taste.

1 package of Ines Rosales Tortas de Aceite with cinnamon and sugar – 2,50€

cesta de navidad Ines Rosales cakes

Tortas de Aceite have been around for ages, and Ines Rosales is an international superstar when it comes to producing them just outside of Seville. Other varieties include savory with rosemary and sea salt, or made with oranges.

Assorted lard-free polverones – 2€

mantecados de estepa

I’m not a fan of these crumbly cookies, which are ubiquitous with Christmas in Spain. The most common version are made from manteca, or pig’s lard, which is a no-no with customs in the US. I found some piggy-free varieties at Ines Rosales.

6 Cola Cao individual packages – 1,43€

cesta de navidad Cola Cao

The bright yellow plastic canisters are a Spanish kitchen staple, and I love the powdery goodness of Cola Cao every Sunday with my churros. Rather than buying the canister, you can get individual packets just like at a bar.

1 package of Suchard turrón with whole almonds – 2,94€

cesta de navidad suchard

Spanish Christmas sweets let me down, but chocolate turrón is practically a gigantic candy bar. The normal stuff is nougat, made only with sugar, egg whites and honey.   

3 individual bottles of Frexienet cava – 3,99€

cesta de navidad champagne

These small bottles of cava are festive and perfect for toasting the new year at midnight on New Year’s Eve. And they’re easy to carry and open!

3 individual tetra bricks of Don Simón red wine – 1,35€

cesta de navidad don simon

I’m the only wine drinker in my family, so these miniature tetras are for novelty more than anything! Plus, customs is getting stricter on how much alcohol you can bring back, and it must be claimed on your customs form.

1 jar of pimientos de piquillo – 1€

cesta de navidad pimientos de piquillo

For whatever reason, I thought that pimientos de piquillo would make a good gift for a dad who loves to experiment with recipes. If all else fails, I don’t think they’ll go bad any time soon!

San Vicente semi-cured cheese – 3,65€

Cesta de navidad hard cheese

Meats are a big no with customs, but hard and semi-hard cheeses are totally fine. My sister loves any sort of stinky cheeses, and this is one gift I’m glad to get in on!

2 bottles of Taïfa beer – 4,40€

cesta de navidad local beer

My family members are big beer drinkers, so I picked up some local Taïfa cervezas from the Mercado de Triana. Thankfully, craft beer is catching on in Seville, and these varieties are palate pleasers.

And to put it all together, 1 ceramic bowl – 12€

cesta de navidad ceramics

All that extra weight cost me 50.05€ for each cesta. 

I added little touches of things I’d known would be hits, such as black-and-white old photos of Seville for my parents, a tub of Nutella for my sister (not Spanish, but what everyone equates with European snack food) and a Spanish heavy metal CD for my brother-in-law.

Noticeably absent are the meats, the fish and the olives, but why transport things home that could get me in trouble with customs, or go uneaten?

Are you decking the halls, or are you more of a Scrooge? More on Christmas in Spain: Spanish Christmas Sweets | My Favorite Spanish Christmas TraditionsSnapshots of the Reyes Magos

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

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?

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