Today’s blog post is written by a guest contributor. We are no longer taking submissions for this program.
Hola! Que tal chicas? My name is Sable, and I am a 35-year-old American woman, born and raised Californian, educated interior designer, who moved to Europe 5 years ago this October, and am now living in Barcelona, Spain, for 4 of those years. I also lived in Prague, Czech Republic, for 8 months as well.
Today I’m here to help remove the filter on the nomad / travel lifestyle and what it really means to live abroad by providing some useful insights through my own story and experiences.
If you’re reading this, you probably like to travel like Sivan and me, and therefore I thought my own journey could provide all of you wanderlusting travel lovers, female-preneurs, and people who want to move abroad with the reality of how things can be when you decide to make a foreign country your new permanent residence.
How I arrived at this point in my life is a long story and I’ll divulge a bit of it throughout this article in order to better illustrate the ups and downs of this adventure that I am still on, but in a nutshell, I had made a promise to myself to live in Europe after visiting 8 years ago. I was also not content living in San Diego and the community I was around and although I loved my bosses, coworkers, and work location, there also wasn’t much room to grow in the architectural and design studio I was working at. I quite literally wanted to change my reality to what I desired: a European career as an interior designer and travel feen. And here I am. So let’s dive in.
First, I’d say the reason why you decide to move abroad is key. Your why will guide the rest of your decisions. My why was basically due to that promise.
+ Reality No. 1: Non-Stop Learning Curve
Now, it’s much easier to take pretty pictures than it is to take a photo of a time or process that is difficult, and boy is being an expat a process. It’s a process of assimilation & for some, culture shock can be very real. Visiting a destination is one thing, and is most certainly not the same thing as integrating yourself into the society of that culture. This list will delve deeper into this first point and how it’s integral to be someone who feels okay when outside of their comfort zone. If speaking at a level of a 3-year-old for some time, or asking for help doesn’t come easy to you, this journey may prove to be more difficult. From different cultural customs like dinner time, bedtime, foods available, appropriate interactions or dress norms, to different language and tax laws, one by one each difference can begin to stack up and make you either homesick or simply frustrated.
+ Reality No. 2: Zero Possessions
So, my first obvious step(s) to move abroad was to quit my job, pack up and move. With 3 large luggages, one carry-on, one backpack, and 7 hats on my head, I moved to Barcelona, Spain. I lit everything I’d worked so hard for throughout my twenties on fire (security, friendships, a good car, cozy apartment, savings, etc.) and chose to start over. Trust me, once you’ve sold your car, furniture, and half of your closet, turning back doesn’t become an option. I’ll be honest, at various points in the beginning I remember thinking to myself, what the f–k did you do? It’s extreme. When I got my first apartment in Prague I seriously lucked out with an angel of a landlord who hooked me up with things like a good bed, pillow, sheets, and dishes so I didn’t have to drop hundreds of euros on getting set back up. So if you’re planning on a semi-permanent move, make sure you either go prepared to repurchase all of this, or get into a situation where it’s already there for you.
+ Reality No. 3: Loved Ones
I had already been living 9 hours from my family for 6 years and they already knew me to be a free spirit, so this move came as no surprise to them. They were fully supportive of my decision. Supportive like hoo-rah, not monetarily. Even so, missing family is very real. Especially when going through tougher moments, or missing holidays, birthdays, or celebrations. I will say though, not being able to attend some of the typical American holidays does get easier. Missing Christmas is still hard on me. We’re supposed to go to the states this year, so we shall see!
Then, something else important to note here, that very much swayed my decision and would be something to take into account is the fact that I had no boyfriend, no pet, and no child so I looked at this as a window of opportunity that I may never see in my life again and would never want to live with this regret. Best decision I’ve ever made. Again, a give or take. Set out and make a life for yourself where you want it, or stay around family and those that have already found their purpose? This decision and journey could look very different if you do have a partner, child or animal to care for.
+ Reality No. 4: A Job
I made my decision to move about 3 months before the actual move and gave a 2-month notice to all involved. Still, it was a bit naive and whimsical because I didn’t have a visa or job locked in, only an interview in Barcelona and savings. I did know in the back of my head though that Americans can get a visa in the Czech Republic without having to fly back to the states to file the paperwork…in case things didn’t work out for me when I first arrived at my desired location in Barcelona.
I wound up getting by on copywriting, doing interior photography for Expedia, networking for small interior design projects, and waitressing at an Irish Bar. Then when I arrived in Spain I worked as an online interior designer and in the last year finally started working for a Spanish company as an interior designer (woohoo!) and take my own private clients on the side.
+ Reality No. 5: The Visa
Citizens of the United States with a valid US passport can travel to 26 European member countries of the Schengen Area for a maximum of 90 days without having to apply or obtain a Schengen visa. Knowing where you’re moving will help you figure out what your visa options are and the avenues to acquire work. This point is also key because nowadays many countries are developing freelance visa programs so that people can become citizens of the world and work for themselves, or others, where they choose. The Czech Republic visa that I had was their long-term visa and I had to go outside CZ to their nearby Berlin, Germany, embassy to complete the paperwork, two times. Now, beware that some countries’ treaties with the USA require you to return to the USA to complete paperwork if already abroad, so it can get difficult and expensive fast on this route. It’s better to handle visa paperwork while still in the U.S.
One website I know of that shares information about this topic is wherecanilive.com. Another option is acquiring a student visa. Whether a university or a language school, both can work if it’s offered by the school. For example, I found later that the school I learned Spanish at also offers student visas (Camino Barcelona). Or, if you work for an international company in the U.S. you could petition for a move abroad. If they don’t offer that, start looking at international companies’ career pages that are in your sector and apply! Another less popular option is, for obvious reasons, here in Spain you can purchase a property of at least 500,000€ and you get what’s referred to as the “golden visa”. In Spain (and other EU countries) there’s the “pareja de hecho” visa which literally translates to ‘defacto partner’ and requires a true partner of that country’s nationality and an official paperwork process. This is how I am a legal resident. After 5 years, if I can support myself, I can become an official resident that wouldn’t need to have a Spanish partner.
+ Reality No. 6: Establishing New Friendships & Networks
My faith in things, like a job and good people, is dangerously risky but also is just how I operate and actually has filled my life with a lot of beautiful serendipity…and gray hairs for my loved ones, ha. I made a lot of friends through my jobs, and a few of them turned out to be quite the lifesaver for both my mental health and navigating the city.
Contrary to popular belief, the Czech are some of the most friendly, fun, and helpful people I’ve come upon in Europe thus far, once you get past their stereotypical unsympathetic facade, that is. I also worked amongst women and men from Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, Macedonia, England, and Ireland which alone expanded my mind tenfold. In Prague, my landlord, my boss, the chef, and my co-workers were all such wonderful people to me. Even so, I can honestly say I went about 4 months without a hug when I arrived in Europe. Try it, I dare you. Well, no I don’t dare you because it’s one of those things that can make a girl cry for home.
So, be sure to always be kind and humble, learn how to say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you in the language of the country you’re going to because trust me, it will take you so far in their eyes, and hearts (especially in France). Your network is going to be a huge key to your comfort and happiness in your new hometown.
+ Reality No. 7: Tax Laws
Once you’ve locked in work, now you have to start thinking about the Man & I’m not talking about a sexy foreign man. I’m referring to the U.S.A. I.R.S. himself. Now, don’t quote me on the exact amount because taxes are so not my forte, but here in Spain, for example, the agreement with the U.S. is that until you make around $120,000, you only have to pay tax to the country you live and do the work in (in my case Spain) – but you do still need to report your earnings to both the US and Spain. Two sets of taxes.
Sounds super fun right? I don’t know about you but doing my taxes and accounting in the US was never something I found to be fun, so you can imagine how much fun it is learning new tax laws and doing them in a foreign country and a foreign language. It’s something to think about and plan for. Finding tax accountants for foreigners, who know international law, is also not an easy task.
+ Reality No. 8: Becoming Bilingual
This brings me to another semi-obvious insight. Language. Unless you already speak the language of where you are going, it’s not guaranteed that people speak English everywhere. Outside of a fancy resort, or hotel / restaurant that caters to international tourists, it can be quite difficult to come by people who are going to fully understand you when you are in a country that fully functions in another language, their language.
Paperwork, doctors, dentists, grocery stores, transportation, signage, labeling, phone recordings, tv, radio etc., it’s all in a foreign language. If you don’t know the language and how to ask for help with basic things, you’ll be trying your luck because in certain countries English is actually not as prevalent as you might think, especially if you live outside of a big city like myself. I live about 45 minutes up the coast from Barcelona, toward France. I absolutely love it here, but the Catalan province’s language is, surprise, actually Catalan, not Spanish. The good thing is though, Catalans speak Spanish so I can survive just fine here. Personally, I am fascinated by etymology so I’ve fully embraced it and am now on my way to fully speaking three (English, Spanish & Catalan) and understanding a bit of two others (Italian & French). Never would have thunk it!
Even though there’s now thankfully Google Translate at our fingertips, it’s not always possible to use it in certain circumstances so things can feel like an uphill battle until you take on learning the language. While DuoLingo shows initiative, learning how to say cat, boy, milk, and ‘I like’ isn’t anywhere near going to help you survive in a country. You have to submerge yourself, and welcome in the learning opportunities all around you. It can be exhausting and make you feel like you’re 3 years old again. I feel like I’m 18 in my Spanish-speaking years now, ha. Technically I have a C1 accreditation, and my peers consider me fluent – so that’s a cool achievement!
+ Reality No. 9: Physical Pain
Another struggle I had was a physical one. Us Americans are very accustomed to using cars, it’s our normal, but when you start to have to walk everywhere like to the embassy, doctor, work, job locations in other countries, transportation/metro, gym, grocery store, carrying bags, post office, airport, home etc. your body can begin to feel aches and pains in places you’ve never felt them before. For me, my pain manifested in my feet, particularly my left foot where I developed crystalized blood around my big toe, and later a fissure in my hip’s articulation. So fun right? All this to say, take care of yourself. Have the right shoes, try to keep your healthy routines if possible, strength train and do your cardio, get rest, eat well, and so on and so forth. In these moments I was reminded that health truly is the ultimate wealth.
+ Reality No. 10: Isolation
Lastly, friendship is and has been one of the most difficult things about being an expat. Both maintaining friendships, as I quite literally grow apart from them, as well as establishing them, especially when I live outside a main city and work a M-F job, have side jobs, a partner, dog, hobbies and travel a lot. Only some of my family and friends have visited, which honestly hurts, as it makes me feel like I’m not a priority if I’m being sincere, even though I’ve come to visit multiple time$ which makes me feel like it’s a one-way relationship. No thanks.
I think in general friendships are a growing pain for everyone and that time, distance and experiences give you perspective on them. It’s hard not to get down about it sometimes, but on that same note, life does go on. It has to. Give people grace, we’re all going through something. You draw your boundaries where you need them and know that some friendships ebb and flow, some are chapters and some are forever.
Quality over quantity.
While I technically chose to isolate myself by moving two continents and an ocean away, a journey like this is not for the faint of heart, and there will be many moments you feel extremely isolated and alone and like no one understands what you’re going through – especially if a pandemic comes along and you live outside of a main city and are working from home, ha! But as you can see, with some of these struggles I equally have and had so many positives from them. The initial efforts, exertion, learning, patience, and solitude have afforded me to assimilate within time and feel much more at ease and ultimately at home. I’m now a stronger, more capable, worldly and experienced human being – and that’s got to be good for the overall planet, right?! 🙂
There are so many other insights, and struggles I went through, and maybe even still experience, or things that I have to continuously accept (like less economical earning power being one heavy one), that I could, and should, probably write a book about, but I don’t want to overwhelm or sound like I’m complaining here so I’ll save them for another time. I just wanted to remove the filter and let it be known that whether naively or preparedly done, moving abroad is totally possible and I highly recommend it. I myself paint a pretty picture of it all. Like I mentioned, it’s hard to photograph or share or put into words what you go through because it’s on a continuum of amelioration.
Everyone’s journey is different and the truth is: growth happens outside of your comfort zone. To this day I will still experience tough days being an expat. But I don’t dwell on it, or let it get me down or play the victim because as I learned, at some point you just have to accept the reality you’ve chosen (if it’s what you truly want and see for yourself) and get on with it! Period. That’s really when I found my happiness and grove.
Despite the struggles, I am beyond content with my decision. It did help that I met a wonderful and intelligent Spanish Catalan man along the way. He, and our french bulldog, have given me even more reason to stay…if the free universal healthcare, weather, geography, tapas, incredible wine, laid-back lifestyle, and quick European flights weren’t enough. 😉
I do hope these insights can help you decide whether you want to make a similar life-altering decision and / or keep them in mind along your own journey. Don’t be intimidated though. If I can do it, you most certainly can too!
Feel free to reach out to me if you have questions or follow my journey over on Insta or check out my YouTube channel where I take you on adventures through Catalunya, France and other lesser known locales. Carpe diem ladies!!