How to stay in Spain legally as an American and other frequently asked questions to a US expat in Spain

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I have lived in Spain for eleven years – we are now in the double digits. The only things I’ve stuck to for longer have been gymnastics (12 years) and driving a car (17 years). As September comes and goes each year, the nostalgia kicks in as I remember lugging two overstuffed suitcases from Chicago to Madrid to Granada to Triana. What a long, strange, tapa-filled journey it’s been.

As I approached my ten year Spaniversary, I had planned to write a tongue-in-cheek look at some of the things that make me scratch my head about Spain, weaving in the acclamation process that took a good, darn year. But, parenthood and a busy work schedule meant that that post is still in drafts (I’ll get there by my 20th Spaniversary, promise).

Despite slagging blog and social media activity, I somehow still have page views, followers of my ho-hum #momlife and emails from readers and people who find me organically through Google. Don’t let the out of office message fool you – I love reading them and I appreciate them.

Contemplating a hike in Cazalla de la Sierra. Photo credit: Monica Wolyneic.

I always think, “I can should turn this question into a blog post.” But rather than eleven separate posts, I did a non-scientific study of what you guys emailed and Facebook messaged me about to celebrate 11 years of Spanish red tape and all that comes with it, and I’ve honed down my long-winded emails so that you’re not overwhelmed with word count or information.

Have more questions? Throw ’em in the comments!

How can I legally stay in Spain as an American?

Apart from emails about my favorite places to eat in Seville, I get several emails each week about how to work in Spain and how to legally stay in Spain. Many of you are language assistants or veterans of study abroad in Spain.

I get it. Spain got under my skin, too.

When I was considering making Spain a long-term thing, I looked into just about everything.

Guess what y’all: you have it way easier than I did in 2010.

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I knew about the loopholes for getting an Irish passport (my dad was not listed on the Foreign Birth Registry, so that was out). There was a difficult-to-attain freelancer visa that I would have had to hustle to get – and I was still on blogger.com. I could get married, but that seemed like an awkward conversation to a Spanish boyfriend who proudly proclaimed he’d never get married (about that…).

I found out that I essentially had three options, apart from the whole ring thing: I could try to find a contract and let my card lapse to modify my status from irregular to a one-year work and residency permit, known as arraigo social; I could start working for a company under the table and rat them out under arraigo laboral, or I could continue on a student visa, obtained through a Master’s program I’d been admitted to, and start earning years towards residency as a civil partner. Modificación and cuenta propia were not buzzwords, nor were they paths to residency in Spain at that time.

So, I set out to try and find a job contract. I spend hours crafting cover letters, hand writing addresses of schools and language academies and licking stamps. Every 10 or 12, I’d reward myself with Arrested Development. I waited for the job offers to roll in but… they did not. In Spain, working legally is a bit of a catch-22: you need a work permit to get a job, and you need a job to get a work permit.

Very Spainful to spend a summer stressing out over staying legal, making money and not having to crawl back to America, tail between your legs.

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Dreaming of being legal in Spain

In all fairness, I was up against a lot: the arraigo social was a long-shot because teaching contracts tend to be only for nine-ten months. I’d also been out of the Schengen Zone for longer than the allotted time (120 days in three years) and had passport stamps to prove it. I couldn’t denunciar the Spanish government for legally employing me, either. Feeling overwhelmed and in desperate need of 20 minutes in an air-conditioned office, I headed to the U.S. Consulate in Seville (which, by the way, does not do residency or visa consultations for Americans in Spain), and the then-consular agent told me to renew my student visa como fuera.

Thankfully, I’d applied to do a Master’s in Spanish and had an acceptance letter and enrollment certificate. I deferred my enrollment for financial hardship but it had bought me a bit of time to not let my residency card lapse. I’d discover later that you can apply for a TIE card renewal up to 90 days after its expiration, but I was in survival mode (and I seriously doubt that Exteriores even had a website at that time).

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If my house ever catches fire, my mountains of extrajería paperwork means that it will burn fast.

An overnight bus trip later, I stood in line at the Foreigner’s Office in Madrid, only to be told I’d need an appointment. I plead my case, blaming it on the university taking its sweet time to send my documents and the lack of available appointments, and they told me to come back that following Friday. Back to Seville on the six hour overnight bus I went, returning three days later and having registered my padrón certificate with my brother-in-law.

When it was my turn at the eleventh hour, literally at 4pm the day before my residency card expired, I lied through my teeth and said I was going to begin a master’s program. I remember her making some snide remark about sevillanos. As soon as I had the stamp on my EX-00, I long-distance dialed my mom in the US and told her she could transfer all the money, used as proof of financial solvency for my renewal, back out of my bank account.

As all of this was happening, I attended an American Women’s Club tapas welcome party for new members, as I was considering joining anyway. The woman I sat next to casually mentioned something called pareja de hecho. Doing this would make me the de facto executor of the Novio’s will, and would make him my de-facto owner and keeper. I wasn’t cool with that explanation from the funcionario, but I rolled with it because it gave me residency permission, and I could work legally for 20 hours on my student visa.

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Spanish bureaucracy is no cake walk

And so began the wild goose paperwork chase around Andalucía (including a brief pit stop in Fuengirola, Málaga).

You know the rest – a change in the stable partner laws while our paperwork was processing allowed me to work legally and build years towards permanent residency. But apart from that, it changed my mindset from taking Spain and my life here on a year-by-year basis, and it was a clear sign from the Novio that we were in this for more than just the language goof ups and someone to have a cheeky midday beer with.

So what is pareja de hecho?

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Pareja de hecho meant no long distance relationship for the Novio and me.

The closest equivalent to pareja de hecho in the US would be a civil union; in fact, people seeking fiancé visas to the United States usually have undergone the PdH process. Simply put, you have nearly all of the benefits of being married, but without the financial implications (in Spain, anyhow) or the ring.

Pareja de hecho allows the non-EU partner to work and reside legally in Spain, have access to state healthcare and move about the EU without a passport. It’s assumed that your partner will not be your “keeper” but proving financial solvency is an element when you later apply for your residency card, and your finances will stay separate unless you choose otherwise.

Pareja de hecho is also called pareja estable or uniones de hecho.

I want to do pareja de hecho. How can I apply for pareja de hecho / pareja estable?

Want to legalize your love? Pareja de hecho is one way to stay in Spain legally as a non-EU citizen.

But ojo: paperwork and eligibility for pareja de hecho differs from one autonomous community to another. Some, like Andalucía or Navarra, will allow the non-EU partner to be on a student visa or even apply with just a passport, whereas Castilla y León will not. Galicia wins the living-in-sin game, as interested parties must have lived together on a registered padrón municipal for two years or more. Both sets of islands will only let Spanish citizens, and not other Europeans, apply.

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Sometimes, crazy is the only way to survive (in Spain)

To qualify, both members of the party generally have to be 18 or older, not related and able to enter into a legal partnership on your own free will. From there, requirements vary by the community – and sometimes even the province – in which you’re applying. Your local government will have resources about documentation and application process. And don’t forget that once you have your certificate in hand, you’ll still have to apply for your shiny new residency card (tarjeta comunitaria)!

In hindsight, pareja de hecho was probably the easiest bureaucratic matter I’ve had to deal with in Spain – I’m serious. And if you don’t believe me, I co-wrote an eBook about it (use LEGALLOVE5 for a 5€ discount in COMO’s online shop!)!

All’s fair in love and bureaucracy, right?

How did you get into teaching abroad? Do I need to have a TEFL or CELTA to teach in Spain?

I proudly marched off the plane in July 2005 after a summer abroad and announced I’d be moving back to Europe after graduation. My parents even encouraged me to do a year or two abroad.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Senior year, after the obligatory flippy cup game and textbook buying, I visited the Office of Study Abroad on my campus to ask how to move abroad after graduation; one of the peer mentors told me about the Spanish government’s North American Language and Culture Assistant program, which would allow me to teach 12 hours a week in a public school in exchange for 631,06€ a month, private healthcare and a student visa. I was offered a position in Andalucía two weeks before graduation.

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I needed a TEFL certificate to teach at an English academy

The auxiliar program was a positive experience for me, and I found that I was actually pretty good at teaching phrasal verbs and producing gap fills. My coordinator gave me free reign in the classroom, so at the end of my three years, I felt ready to make teaching my career, even going as far as applying for a Master’s in Secondary and Bilingual Education.

Remember all of those hand-written envelopes? I got a few bites, but the work papers was always the snag. When my pareja de hecho lawyer called to tell me I could get a Spanish social security number, I marched right over to the social security office and later that week, caught that damn overnight bus to pick up my residency card. I had a standing job offer and started work as Seño Miss Cat the following week.

Great methodology, fun songs and likeable characters.

When I left the private school – I was overworked and underpaid, and I didn’t have enough time for blogging and freelancing – I jumped into the English academy world. Having heard horror stories about payment and contract issues, I was wary but needed a way to work while completing a master’s program, so I figured the part-time schedule and academic year to academic year commitment was doable. I was offered the Director of Studies position midway through the year and stayed on until our move to Madrid.

When I get asked whether or not a TEFL or CELTA is necessary, I always give the same advice: if you want to work for a reputable academy, you should have a certificate. Not only does this make you more attractive to an employer, but it gives you footing if it’s your first time in front of a classroom. I agree that experience is the best teacher but Spain is the land of titulítis.

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

Is a CELTA or TEFL preferred to teach in Spain? While TEFL certificates are king in Asia and South America, many language schools in Spain will require a CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults). There’s good reason for this: the CELTA prepares you to teach the Cambridge Language Exams, which is a language level test that most academies offer.

I don’t really miss teaching as I thought I would, but mostly because I really like what I’m doing now. I do, however, miss my two-month vacation!

What do you do for a living? How did you get into university admissions?

After nine years in the classroom, a Facebook post changed my career rumbo. An American university in Spain was looking for an admissions counselor. I read the job description: people skills, basic computer skills, work permission in Spain. I could handle that. I wrote a fun cover letter, added a picture of myself on the school’s U.S. campus and sent off an email to HR and the Director of Admissions – less than a month later, I had an offer.

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A clue to the institution I work for – from one oddball mascot to the next!

Working for an American-style company (it’s an S.A., which is why I got paid maternity leave and am in the Spanish social security system) is a serious dream. My role includes representing the university in recruitment events in my geographic zone, reading applications, counseling students on visas, and overseeing recruitment and marketing for our graduate programs. It’s a fun challenge, and I’m still in education – and I am using my journalism chops at long last. Like many elements of my life in Spain, patience and perhaps some karma helped tremendously.

Want to get into international student admissions? You should be personable, able to work independently and keep up with trends in enrollment, higher education and whatever social media a teenager would be into. You should also be willing to answer very, very mundane questions. Working for a small, niche school has its challenges, so every enrolled student feels like a win – especially when you met that student at a college fair, set up a campus visit, helped them choose classes, and given them a hug at orientation.

As schools begin to look abroad (Fall 2019’s cohort was born the same year as 9-11, eh, meaning less kids to go around), many universities are amping up recruitment efforts abroad. Even in Spain, think beyond study abroad!

What is your favorite post on your blog?

Sometimes when I hit publish, I am excited to see how my readers react. Most times, I’m like, “cool, cross that off my todoist app” because of the amount of work that goes into a post. Editing photos, choosing the right words and kinda caring about SEO. I can mull for days over how to frame a post – often choosing to wait a year so that it’s timely.

Asking me to choose my favorite post depends on what I have a craving for reading.

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From itchy feet to firmly planted in Spain

Perhaps one of the posts I find myself going back and reading the most is The Guiri Complex (Or, why I Can’t Have it All). Pounded out on a keyboard shortly after an American food store opened in the same storefront where I’d bought a flamenco dress, I was wrestling with more than just an overpriced box of Cheerios and whether or not I wanted it: it was a moment where I was torn between the life I had built in Sevilla, and the life I thought I could have in the U.S.

Curious: do you guys have any posts you particularly like? I’d love to hear them!

What is the Novio’s real name?

I recently met up for a beer (well, like a dozen) with Joy of @joyofmadrid. As soon as we’d sat down, she said, “I’m so glad we can skip over the basics because we already know one another.”

..and the other one. Believe it or not, Kike is Madrileño! But still Bético.

Ah, youth. This was eight years ago.

I’m not exactly a public figure, but I realize that people know who I am, what I do and where I like to have a caña. But my husband is an extremely private person and someone who is not into social media, internet cookies (or regular cookies, actually) or sharing his personal life. I can respect that, and for this reason he shall remain nameless.

And, no, I did not move here for the Novio. But he’s part of the reason I stayed.

Will you ever return to the U.S.?

Great question. While I don’t want to close the door to returning to live in the land of cooking with butter, I don’t see it happening. Where would the Novio get his hueso salao for puchero? How could I ever go back to not having health insurance? It’s not impossible, but I think it’s unlikely.

It's trite, but Chicago really is my kind of town.

Still my favorite place in the world.

Truthfully, moving to the US freaks me out – the staggering cost of living on meager savings, starting a job search from abroad, letting go of my Spanish lifestyle. The dream would be an American salary in Spain, but everyone makes sacrifices, right?

Cruzcampo is not one of those sacrifices.

If you didn’t live in Seville, where would you live? Where should I live?

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I always said that if I didn’t live in Seville, I’d live in Madrid. And now that the Spanish capital is “home,” I’d choose Seville again. It truly is la ciudad de mi arma, even with its faults (and that reminds me – I really love my break up post).

When I announced via Facebook that I’d be leaving Seville for Madrid, one commenter warned me of how soulless Madrid felt to her. My friend Lindsay, who has lived in both cities put it best (and I love her for it): Cat can find her people and her home anywhere.

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But if I must choose – I really love Asturias and could see myself up north with a bouganvilla-covered house in a little fishing village near where the Novio summered. Send rebujito if this ever happens.

What are your tips for making friends abroad?

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Currently in Sevilla, Denver, San Francisco, New York, Madrid, Sevilla and Jakarta, but forever in Calle Bombita

Saying that the friends I made in Spain are half of my Spanish world would be an understatement. There’s an affinity that we have, as Americans, that extends beyond our shared language and culture. My group and I have left home for Spain – sometimes for the adventure, sometimes for a novio. Most of them had studied abroad in Sevilla (everyone in the photo but me, in fact!) and most of us arrived in 2007.

Had I not met the women I call my Spain Dream Team, there’s a fairly large probability that I wouldn’t have stuck around. The Novio often traveled for work abroad for long stretches of time, so I wizened up and found a group of women about my age who planned on Spain long-term. Little by little, my small circle of sevillamericanas has grown (but not without a few hard bajas).

Remember how your parents told you to leave your dorm room door open during your first week of college? I did that, too, but figuratively. I never turned down an invitation, but in an age where social media was as creeperific, I spent a lot of time at home with a box of Magnum bars.

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I solemnly swear that we are up to no good.

When you’re looking to meet friends abroad, consider what you’re already into doing – there are meet ups for everything from hiking with kids to knitting. If there’s a local expat group, go to an outing or two, or at least tap into their resources. Of those pictured above, most of us met be being introduced by someone else – ask for introductions and don’t think it’s weird (we’re literally all in the same situation, or have been!). Don’t be afraid to invite people for a coffee – I used to drag my German roommate to a cuchitre bar on our street to practice Spanish, and a cook at one of the tapas bars near my house and I kept in touch (and he opened a new bar recently!).

Advice on when friends move? In the picture of us dressed in trajes de gitana – one of my favorites – only three of us are still in Spain, but we’ve seen one another at least once in the last two years. A part of me dies when one of my friends announces that she’s moving away from Spain and I have ZERO advice other than whatsapp.

Do you have any advice for someone moving to Spain?

After my first year in Spain, I returned to my summer job at an outlet mall in suburbia. Tasked with folding rows of chinos and steaming dress shirts at Banana Republic, I struck up a conversation with an American who had just returned from 17 years in Galicia. As I found her sizes and zipped up dresses, she reminded me, “Spain will change you. No vuelvas just yet.” Seventeen years seemed like an awful long time to be away from my family, my language and my culture, but I assured her I’d stay another year.

Dreamy.

I’ve never forgotten that milestone. By the time I’ve been here 17 years, I will have probably had another kid, maybe moved again and who knows what else. If someone had told me that I’d fall for a Spaniard when abroad, I would have believed them. Had someone told me I’d live my adult life here? I wouldn’t.

I’m often asked what I’d do differently. Truthfully, not too much. Maybe I would have tried harder on this blog, or tried harder to make more professional connections earlier. Maybe I would have saved more money. I probably would have paid a little more money for an apartment with air-con because, damn, Sevilla is hot. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m pleased with how things have gone – even those hours, sitting in the dark eating Magnum bars when I had no friends.

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My advice? Remember that it’s not your home country, so nothing will be the same. Spanish customer service is pitiful, traffic is just as bad as in the US but with crappy radio. Life is life in Spain, but as they say: Spain is different. Not a good different of bad different, necessarily.

Just different – and fun, challenging, enriching and delicious. Here’s to 11 more!

Any other burning  questions for a long-term expat in Spain?

This post contains links to my residency blog, COMO Consulting Spain, including links to our online shop. Have a click on any of the links to learn more about how to move to and work in Spain. We were recently hacked, so every click makes a world of difference (and we put a humorous spin on Spanish red tape!).

On Letting Go & Floating On:  Musings from a Chronic Traveler

At lot has changed with me this week: I got married! The Novio and I finally said our Sí, quieros (albeit in English) in a bilingual, bicultural fiesta. In the US for the rest of the month, I’m gearing up to say adiós to a potential life in America and hello to a future in Spain.

There, I finally said it.

Danni, another Chicagoan-turned-española and a part of Las Morenas de España, sent me this article that I found myself nodding to. Do we have to say goodbye constantly to say hello to what we really want and maybe even need?

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I’m a chronic traveler. I’ve said “hello” and “good-bye” more times than I can count. The issue lies in the fact that I spent so many years holding onto my “home”, Chicago, because I was afraid that if I loosened my grip even in the slightest, I’d lose it forever. I felt my heart being pulled in several different directions spread out all over the globe, but I felt that if the anchor that held me to home budged even a little bit, that I’d have to address the fact that I see home in several places.

I tried to keep one foot in Chicago, and the other wherever my plane or train landed next, and I came to the realization that it’s hard. I assumed that the more time and distance I placed between myself and “home” the blurrier the memories, the weaker the connections and the further I’d drift out into open water. Little did I know that “home” is fluid, and that by allowing myself to drift ever so slightly, I don’t necessarily lose a home, but gain the ability to feel at home wherever I am.

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On Saying “So Long” in order to Say Hello:

That’s the funny thing about traveling: in order to say “hello” to someone, or some place new, you must first leave where you are, and that’s not always the simplest thing to do. It’s never easy taking those first steps to venture away from the comfy, cashmere snuggie that is your “now” and leave.

Whether you jumped from the cliff on your own will while screaming “Viva Wanderlust”, or you inched your way slowly with the help of family, friends, and travel-inspiration on Instagram, you did it. No matter how you arrived, or what made you leave: I commend you. You are brave. You are strong. You’ve done what others talked themselves out of doing, and spoke louder than the voice in your head, you know, the one that disguises itself as “logic”.  Hello. Hello to you, and welcome.

On Saying Hello:

Hello. Hola. Bonjour. Ciao. Ni Hao. Hallo. Habari. Shalom. However you say “hello” it means the same thing: I’m here, and I’m opening myself to you and my new surroundings. Even if your voice shakes, hello is an invitation for life to happen and for you to live. At times, hello is tiring, and it’s intimidating and it’s daunting.

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It’s an act of self-assertion. I’m here. It leads into those long conversations with people who start out as strangers and end up as friends. This word—these five letters—are crucial for the chronic traveler because combined with a smile, they can melt any ice. Saying “hello” for me is the first step that opens my heart to a new home, and stretches the ropes that tie me to my first home, where I was born and raised. Hello starts the game of tug-of-war that pulls me from here to there as I travel.

On Getting Situated:

What do you need to feel at home? Do you need familiar faces? Your favorite brand of cookies or candy? Do you need to hear a language that you can understand and speak? Do you need McDonald’s or are you more of a Burger King fan? What makes you feel at home: safe, happy, comfortable and at ease? I asked myself this question several times and this is what I’ve come up with:

  • Food: Vegetarian food, International cuisine, and American-style Brunch make me feel at home. I live on happycow.com because in my opinion, food and positive food experiences line the walls that make “home” for me. Sharing a meal, cooking with strangers in a hostel, shopping in local markets: this is a form of making memories that is essential to my feeling at home and content.
  • Jeans (with at least 2% spandex): I know, that’s really specific, but I mean it. I feel sexy and comfortable in jeans. I’ve lived in 4 countries and traveled to several more, and there is a direct and undeniable link between my ability to find jeans that make me feel my best, and my likelihood to live (happily) in a place. Okay, it’s not just about jeans; it goes a bit deeper. It means being able to shop, and feel like my size and my style is represented. It’s about the fact that I’m halfway across the world, and everything I’ve ever known, and still manage to participate in the mundane act of shopping. I feel those ropes that link me to “home” pull tighter because I realize that what I did there, I can do anywhere and what I’m trying to hold onto so tightly isn’t unique to that one place. That’s a sobering thought.
  • Community: I need community! I need friends, and friendly people with whom I can chat about everything, and about nothing. I yearn to look at my calendar and see that in X amount of days, there’s an event that I’m looking forward to attending, and with people that I genuinely want to see. That’s why I became involved with Las Morenas de España, a site for young, adventurous, WOC interested and/or living in Spain. I want to hug those who arrive at Barajas with looks of confusion, exhaustion and pure adrenaline and tell them that it’ll be ok, and that they’re home. Home, there goes that word again. It gets easier. Now, every time my heart extends its strings to form a new connection with a fellow chronic traveler, I feel my fists loosen and my mind relax slightly, which again, draws me further away from my home base, but I’m learning that’s okay. I tell those who lay down roots in Spain to collaborate, to reach out and to speak up because more likely than not, our narratives will overlap. I found so much in common with other women and travelers on a recent trip to Nantes, France than I ever could have imagined. I try to find community wherever I may travel, even if it’s for a weekend holiday: there are secrets to be revealed, experiences to be had, and people to meet.  Support one another, and build something great. To all the nomads, travelers, self-proclaimed wanderlust-havers: we are stronger together than we could ever be apart. Build. Create. Unite.

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On Saying Good-Bye:

There’s a certain ease and comfort of realizing that home is where you are in that moment. I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that it’s okay to loosen my grip, because that’s the only way to make space for new connections and links. The trouble with home is that it cannot be captured and contained. At times I feel pulled in a million different directions: Portugal, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Spain, America, France, Germany; all of these places, and the people I was blessed to cross paths with left an imprint on my heart. On the other hand, they also pulled the rope away from where I started, where I thought home had to exist.

How foolish I was to think that I could bottle home and keep it stagnant. It’s impossible. It’s unrealistic. Hello’s happen because good-bye’s happened first. With that being said, I’d like to remind you of the most beautiful thing I’ve learned as a chronic traveler: our heart is a muscle. Muscles require that you use them, and the more the use them, the bigger and stronger and more flexible they get. I can say now, with no fear or doubt that I find home—what I love about home—in every experience, new friend, adventure, hello and, the inevitable good-bye.

11822432_10152934229266533_4550720742415852319_nDanni, Community Director at Las Morenas de España, is a twenty-something, Chicago native currently residing in Madrid. Lover of language, words, and travel, she’s managed to combine all of her passions through her work. In her free time, you can find her exploring the winding streets of Madrid, hunting down good flight deals, planning her next adventure and writing & researching for LMDES. Danni loves spicy food, natural hair, music and of course, her wonderful life partner. If you need to find her, she’s the girl with huge hair and her face buried in her Kindle.

A word about Las Morenas de EspañaLas Morenas de España is redefining the Black experience in Spain. With stories, resources and insights and exclusive travel knowledge, Las Morenas is the ultimate destination for anyone with an interest in Spain.  This site is a space for diverse stories to be shared, community to be fostered and for people all over the world to have an inside guide to Spain, inspiring them to experience and enjoy the country in a way they never have before.

Sound off: can you empathize with Danni? 

On the Road Again: Getting a Driver’s License in Spain, Part II

Miss the first part of how I fought bureaucracy and came out semi-victorious? Read Part One of On the Road Again here.

Miguel dangled the car keys to his Auris in front of me. Vamanoh, he said, inclining his head in the direction of the car.

I got in, doing the mental check I’d been taught to do in the car years ago: adjust the seat, adjust the mirrors, put on my seatbelt. Miguel got in and asked me to turn on the car. Easy enough, I thought, but the car roared forward as soon as I took my foot off of the clutch. Cuidaaaaaado, Miguel cooed, busy whatsapping.

After passing the driving theory exam, I’d have to do a few classes to learn stick shift and prepare for the practical exam. Miguel told me the median amount of classes he gives per student was 30; he gave me a limit of seven. Gulp.

I drove stick once when I was 17, an exchange for convincing my mom to give my teacher, a high school friend, a horseback-riding lesson. Being a visual person, Kike had drawn me a motor and explained how the gears worked to propel a car and control his speed. Still, I wasn’t prepared to actually get behind the wheel without so much as an instruction about when to ease off the clutch and brake. Cue my 15-year-old self, nervous and convinced I’d crash into the first tree that crossed my vision.

There are two words for the verb drive in Spanish – conducir, which refers to actually steering the car and controlling the pedals, and circular, which is used for obeying signage and giving way when necessary.

Miguel steered me towards Dos Hermanas to practice highway driving while I experimented with the gear speeds and got used to the car. I was immediately relieved that I was already ahead of the learning curve and knew how to circular, so I could concentrate on what my feet and right hand were doing.

Every morning at 11:15 a.m., I became Miguel’s chauffer, taking him to drop off paperwork at the DGT or test center, picking up other students and even driving my father-in-law to the doctor’s office, just like I did when I was 15 with my own dad. I began to feel more and more comfortable behind the wheel and remembered just how much I love driving. I learned on the fly that I’d need to be in second to enter a rotunda, that right turns on red are illegal and reason to fail the practical exam, and that it was in my best interest to not speak Spanish too well.

The day before I was slated to take my practical exam, Miguel explained to my driving partner, B, what to expect. We’d be asked first to show the examiner the insurance and circulation permission, turn the lights on and off, and open the hood to point out the different parts of the mechanics. The driver then gets ten minutes to drive “de forma autónoma” or by themselves, after which the examiner would steer him through different situations, asking him to parallel park (man was I thankful I’d finally mastered that) and safely exit the car.

The driver is allowed up to ten small mistakes and automatically fails if the driving instructor, who sits in the front seat, has to slam on the brakes.

I slept horribly the night before the exam, trying to map out possible routes in my head where I knew the signage and circulation rules, careful not to pass near a school, lest any kiddies dart out between cars. What’s more, I’d freaked out the day before when I made one mistake, which led to a whole string of them. As a former gymnast, it was like falling off the beam on a mount and falling ten more times.

Rainstorms were on the forecast for that Tuesday morning, but I was convinced this would work to my advantage. Miguel picked me and another student up and took us to the testing center to wait our turn. Waiting is something that I can’t stand about Spain, and it added to the nervous feeling in my stomach when I saw the amount of cars in the lot, all waiting for the examiners to point to them and strap into the car.

When I did my driving test at age 16, my dad forced me to drive four times the minimum amount of practice hours. I arrived to the DMV to a stern-faced examiner who announced she was getting a divorce and then failed me. The last thing I wanted was to have history repeat itself.

B went first. I could tell she was nervous as she pulled out the insurance papers and tried to turn on the lights, but got the wipers instead. The examiner, named Jesús (talk about final judgment), scribbled on a piece of paper and I prayed to Saint Christopher, patron saint of motorists, that Blanca would calm down and pass the exam.

Within five minutes of leaving the testing site and driving towards Dos Hermanas, she had been failed. It was then my turn, and I was actually glad I was in an area I didn’t know – I didn’t feel over-confident. All of the flubs I’d committed the day before didn’t even creep into my conscience as I navigated around curves roundabouts and yield signs. Jesus told me he wasn’t surprised that I drove well because of my experience, and I relaxed and started to enjoy the sound of the rain outside of the car and the swish of the wipers. When we pulled into the testing facility again, Jesus didn’t ask me to show him anything under the hood, instead having me sign a waiver and promising to have my name changed on the paperwork as soon as possible (it took several days, clearly).

I got out of the car and whispered to Miguel, “¿Me ha aprobado?” He eagerly nodded his head and I began the barrage of calls to announce the good news.

For all of the horror stories I’d heard about driving exams in Spain, I was surprised at my good fortune in passing both tests quickly. I’ve even bought my brother-in-law’s old car, a Peugeot 307, and can’t wait to be back on the open road again. And see that lovely green L? I’ll have that in my car until March 2014!

Have you ever considered taking the EU driving exam? Were you successful? Have more questions? Direct yourself to my sister page, COMO Consulting Spain for all things Spanish-red-tape!

Making the Choice to Live Abroad (and Stay)

My first steps in Spain landed in a big wipeout.

Armed with two suitcases, a carry-on and my laptop bag, I tried to hoist my backpack onto my bag, using a round, aluminum can as a platform from which to ease my arms into the padded straps.

Yes, I brought all of that with me. Two free pieces of luggage? Those were the days.

 

And I fell, right on my culo. I roared with laughter, falling over on my side and howling. That’s just kind of been my story in Spain.

After five years of living abroad, I’m often asked why I’ve chosen to live a life abroad in sunny Spain. The reasons that have kept me here are quite simple – ask any of my dozen friends who have been here to visit over the last few years, question my parents, read this blog start to finish in one sitting to really swallow the heartbreak of defeat, the uncertainness of a new relationship, crap work experiences. I have slowly made my life in Spain, from the first few shaky steps and the fall on my butt to establishing my version of happiness in my little burbuja in Seville.

—–

Studying abroad is what made me want to move away from the US in the first place. Perhaps after reading too many of those Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul books, I decided that living abroad was ever going to happen, it needed to be right after graduation.

 

Just days before commencement, the North American Language and Culture Assistant Program offered me  visa and the promise of a job in a high school somewhere in Andalucia. The summer before leaving was full of hurried preparations, tearful goodbyes, and a yo-yo like inner peace with my decision. I kept telling myself it was just eight months, and that no one would be mad at me if I messed up and came home.

My reasons were simple enough: to learn Spanish and travel during a second chance at studying abroad. DJ Yabis, the blogger behind Dream Euro Trip had similar intentions. He writes: I wanted to study and live in Europe so I applied for a prestigious full scholarship (read: tuition, roundtrip flights, insurance and monthly allowance for 2 years) sponsored by the European Commission and GOT IT! Similarly, Mariann Kun-Szabo of tiny girl with a big bag said: I was selected for a scholarship to spend my internship in Spain, with all the costs covered, then I could not stop traveling. Like DJ and Marianne, I had an opportunity fall right in my lap to obtain a visa, work and live in Europe for eight months.

Then suddenly, a week before my plane took off rumbo Madrid, I felt like Spain was where I needed to be. On the plane I went, waving giddily to my parents as I skipped through security at O’Hare and into the International Departures terminal.

My year was not without its ups and downs – I struggled to learn Spanish, had trouble making friends and tried to not think about the life I was putting on hold for a year. Facebook became my enemy, my Skype calls home barely concealed my homesickness. I felt that every label I’d ever used to describe myself had suddenly been stripped away, leaving me fumbling for some sense of self-awareness. But I met the Novio, and he was worth sticking around for. My Spanish Adventure began to take root.

—–

I have started looking at my life in terms of school years, just as I always have. After all, I’m a teacher and a student, and my worklife is measured in school years. My mother said, “Think of Spain as your super senior year of college.” Poor woman didn’t know I’d be on super senior year número six already, but giving myself a few months’ break in between keeps one foot in each bucket – one in España and the other in America. No one is really making my choose just one yet, but I’m sure that will come.

Seville throws me curveballs every other day it seems. If it’s not dropping my clothes out of the window when hanging them to dry (no tumble dryer), it’s the sting of not knowing if I’m always making the right decision. But the feel of the sunshine on my face, the fresh produce and the andalú that has kept me here. If I had to put it down in 25 words or less, I’d write that the folklore, the daily challenges and the blunders have kept me here, not to mention love.

—–

 

When I put the question to my readers, it was clear that moving abroad is a change that many have decided to make. Be it the draw of adventure or to try something new, the promise of fresh love, language learning and running your fingers along walls that have existed far longer than you have. Spain is the romantic realization of sultry Latin dreams and of wild jet-setter nights.

Many of them wrote that they, too, had been lured by Spain’s familiar, yet exotic traditions and the chance to live a new adventure. Jackie’s response that she ended up in her happy place, Shannon remarking “I’d love to live in a place where something centuries old is still considered new. I want the romance of history, culture and new adventures,” and Robin of A Lot of Wind just wanted the adventure: We chose to live abroad because we wanted to reach out and grab a bit of life that wouldn’t have dropped into our laps otherwise! And I just love how Marianne of East of Malaga summed it up: It’s a land of beauty, wine and dance – with always a hint of a little romance ;)

 

And I’m not the only one to follow my heart when it came to sticking around in Seville for more than just the sunshine and siestas. Four readers met their partner while on short-term stays in Spain:

Natalia’s husband danced right into her heart on a week-long trip to la Hispalense: Feria de Sevilla, 2009—I spotted a charismatic Sevillano in a caseta and asked him to dance. Happily married and still dancing sevillanas! while Kaley met hers after a pick-up basketball game in Salamanca while studying abroad: 2009 Salamanca. Basketball win. Hemos quedado. Spilled the wine. Climbed the cathedral. Fell in love. 3 years later: I said yes! And Steph of Discovering Ice uses her boyfriend as the perfect scapegoat for her wanderlust: I was in love with a Colombian who was literally half the world away…we just used travel as an excuse to be together! :)

I sometimes think how different my life in Spain would have been had I not accepted the invitation from Kate to go out the night the Novio and I met. Like Melanie: I met my Spanish husband on a bus traveling from Madrid to Cáceres. One seat away then could have meant a world of difference now.

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Travel Bloggers’s responses interested me, too. As I make connection with like-minded travelers, I find that we have much more in common than the T-word. When it comes down to it, an adventurous spirit and the will to do something about it. When I think back on the times when Spain almost didn’t happen because of my own fears or the unwillingness to miss a Hawkeye Football season, I cringe at being so stupid. Alexandra Kovacova of Crazy Sexy Fun Traveler said: I hate boredom and wanted to learn more about this amazing world out there and different cultures. Raymond Walsh of Man on the Lam confessed: I wanted to cover the earth before it covered me.

Some worldly parents, like Talon Windwalker of 1Dad, 1Kid, 1Crazy Adventures said he “wanted my son to see the world and be raised as a global citizen & I wanted to get more living into our life,” whereas Durant Imboden told me that he “didn’t have a choice” because his parents took him along. My parents encouraged my traveling – even if it was just running from one end of the house to the other when I was a kid – and I feel I owe them for instilling an adventurous spirit and apetite for me, and taking me abroad when I was just old enough to have it stick in my head and put me on a direction for life.

Ash of The Most Alive hit the proverbial clavo on the head: Decided to build my life on the principles of adventure, learning and justice – not the social norms of 9-5 mortgage and retirement…
 
…now there’s something to live and travel up to.
 
Lex of Lex Paradise had the mentality for why I came, seizing a pasing opportunity and fulfilling a dream. He wrote: Well, I am now living in Spain as well ;) never thought but it just happened as it suppose to be ;)” which is why I’ve chosen for him to win the $15 Amazon Gift Card. I loved this project and the responses, so don’t forget that Karen’s book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, full of loads of laughs and sage advice, is available on Amazon for purchase (in paperback and Kindle format).

Five Years, Five Goals

The chalk squeaked as I drew a line under the word SUCCESS. My 4 ESO students read it, es-soox-essss, a habit I hadn’t been able to break in my three years working with them. I always knew it would be an uphill battle.

I crumpled small slips of paper from atop the teacher’s desk and picked one up. “Teacher, you are beautiful.” That little paper ball went right into Franci’s face.

At the end of my three years of teaching at I.E.S. Heliche, I asked my 16-year-olds to tell me one thing that made them feel successful before turning the question, “Has your English teacher been successful?

When I graduated, I made a list of three things to accomplish in my first three years out of college. Five years later, I’m closing in on my fifth anniversary of moving to Spain on September 12th. I told myself I could consider myself successful if I accomplished three things – but that list seems to grow as my years in the land of sunshine and siestas climb.

Last year, I examined the four things I love about Spain. This year, the five most important things I’ve accomplished during my years in Spain.

Year One. Move Abroad

Once I had studied abroad, I knew that the only place for me to go after graduation was to anywhere but America. I did all of the research, using my study abroad office and contacts I’d made through the Daily Iowan. When the opportunity to participate in the North American Language Assistants program came up, I abandoned my plans to do a work holiday in Ireland and brushed up on my Spanish. Working just 12 hours a week gave me time to do an internship at a travel company, make friends and travel throughout Iberia.

My parents came to visit at Christmas this year, and I struggled at even mundane tasks, like translating menus and asking for directions. My dad joked that I’d been to busy guzzling sangria to actually learn the language, so my goal for my second year in Spain was to work on perfecting my castellano.

Year Two. Learn Spanish. Really, like actually speak it.

As anyone who has traveled to Spain can tell you, the Spanish they teach you in school no vale over here. I struggled with my accent and theirs, didn’t understand their slang. It even took the Novio and I several months speaking in English before I worked up the nerve to ask to switch to Spanish.

The majority of my life in Spain is now down in my second tongue, but it didn’t come easy. I bought several books, began watching TV in Spanish and made an effort to use it as often as possible. Become proficient in Spanish has taken me thirteen years, but I finally have the C1 Certification of Proficiency from the Instituto Cervantes. Toma. Time to focus on something more fun, like traveling.

Read about preparing for and taking the DELE. Then read about my weirdo accent.

Year Three. Travel to 25 countries before turning 25.

The time I didn’t spend learning Spanish during my first year was time I spent traveling, hitting six new countries andseveral regions in Spain. My goal to travel to 25 foreign countries looked more and more possible.

I traveled overnight from Budapest to Prague with my friend Lauren, and she snapped a 6am picture of me setting foot in the 25th. Since then, I’ve been to several more, but all the while I’ve felt fortunate to have a springboard from which to explore Europe. I’ve done some cool things, like snuck into monasteries in Romania, ridden a donkey through rural Morocco, camped under the stars on Spain’s Most Beautiful Beach.

Read my Top 25 moments (with links between all five posts) on Backpacking Matt.

Year Four. Beat the Paperwork Game.

By far one of the biggest pitfalls of being a non-European in Spain is the paperwork hassle. Any guiri can tell you that the standing in lines, running from one office to another, surrendering all of your personal info and then not hearing back for weeks is enough to make you turn around and say adiós to Spain.

Stranded with few options for renewing my student visa status after the Auxiliares program dropped me, I struggled to find a way to legally stay in Spain, even considering working illegally. I exhausted my contacts one by one until the US Consular Agent suggested something that have never occurred to me: lying.

I already had paperwork pending for a Master’s I’d decided not to do, so I hopped on the first bus to Madrid and applied. Having never filed paperwork in the capital, I wasn’t aware that the Foreigner’s Office worked on an appointment system, and that they were booked for months (which also meant I stood out in the cold for several hours alone). The guard gave me the number, and I called. Tensely. Making things up. And I got in the day before my residence card expired.

Kike and I had also done a de-facto partnership, which was passed from a simple piece of paper denoting that he was responsible for me to a piece of plastic denoting I could stay in Spain for five years without having a porque to go near the office. I fought the law, and the law handed me a loophole.

Read How to Deal with the Foreigner’s Office and how to trick funcionarios and pretend you’re smart.

Year Five. Find a Stable Group of Friends

The problem with being an expat is that many people come and go, making my cycle of friends constantly in motion. Even those I think will be long-term sometimes pack up and go. And with a partner in the military, I still find myself alone. Finding friends is easy, but keeping those who are inclined to stick around – both American and foreign – has been more difficult. Thanks to the American Women’s Club, working at a school with Spaniards and making an effort to befriend Kike’s friends, I’ve got friends all over Spain, and I sadly don’t spend much time with people I know will only be in Seville for a year.

Algo se muere en el alma, right? Have drunkenly sung that sevillana far too many times.

Year Six. Figure out how long-term this all is.

My students decided that I had, in fact, been successful in my first three years in Spain. Still, all of these years abroad has gotten me a little disconcerted. I’ve spoken with a lot of expat friends on the subject fo staying in Spain, especially admist a crippling financial crisis and little job security. Why not go to America? I ask them and myself. Who wouldn’t want a mortgage, kids and to deal with all those stupid jingles?

Haha, oh yeah. Looks like it’s time to set some new goals – what should they be?

The Charca: Coming to Grips with a Life Abroad

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

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

It goes back and forth with me, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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