First time living abroad? If so, you may be wondering what it’s like to be a foreign national residing in a country that is not your own… Or perhaps you’re a ‘citizen of the world’ and have traveled around the globe and called many places ‘home’ over the years. Whatever the case may be, what you’ve experienced in other countries may or may not be similar to Spain (…don’t forget that ‘Spain is different’). In any case, most Americans usually have a good experience here and find locals to be personable and welcoming, or at the very least tolerant. Despite positive reviews, however, remember that there are always two sides to every coin. So, as you’re getting excited planning your trip, remember that being a foreigner abroad – just like life itself – has good and bad things about it.
The Red Tape
By far the most annoying aspect of living in Spain is the bureaucracy. Even Spaniards complain about all of the hoops you have to jump through just to get anything done. Although this situation affects everyone residing in the country – citizens and foreigners alike – it’s especially frustrating for those who are used to a more efficient system. If you’re coming to Spain with a student or working visa, or even if you’re not, be prepared to spend quite a bit of time filling out forms, getting passport photos taken, making photocopies, and perhaps even gathering paperwork from various government offices around the city.
Despite the headaches this will certainly cause you, keep in mind that as an American you have many privileges politically. With an American passport, you’re free to enter, exit, and travel freely throughout the Schengen countries during a period of ninety days as a tourist. Although not recommended, many Americans overstay tourist visas in Spain, but rarely have problems such as being deported and/or barred from entering in the future. If you have a visa, you can remain in the Schengen countries or enter/exit as long as it is valid. Also, if you decide to visit European countries that are not part of the European Union, such as Norway, Switzerland, and Iceland, or travel to EU member states that are not part of the Schengen Treaty, such as the UK and Ireland, you’ll experience no problems.
Obtaining a student visa as a US citizen is a very straightforward process; it’s virtually impossible to be denied. On the other hand, getting ‘papers’ is extremely difficult and results in many Americans living illegally in Spain for indefinite periods of time. If you’re planning on coming to Spain for more than ninety days, don’t make your life difficult – take advantage of the fact that you’re American and request a student visa.
A New Environment
For most people, living abroad for any length of time is quite possibly the longest they will have ever been away from home. Although many Americans are used to moving around the country – whether it’s to go to college, to start a new job, or otherwise – living on the other side of the Atlantic with a six-or-more-hour time difference is uncharted territory for most. As coming to Spain is an exciting experience, people rarely feel excessively homesick – missing friends and family being par for the course, however.
Nonetheless, it certainly isn’t the same to leave an environment in which virtually everyone and everything is familiar and enter another where you know no one and nothing is like home. One can only imagine, though, that if they have undertaken such an endeavor as going abroad, that the sensation of everything being new is more than welcomed.
Once in-country, however, the disadvantages of not being in one’s own surroundings become very apparent: things like not possessing a vehicle, not being able to see your family doctor or dentist, having to find a new hairdresser, and not knowing where to buy things – just to name a few – become everyday inconveniences. Despite the initial frustration that this may cause, it’s all part of the experience, and it’s quite likely that once (and if) you return to your normal routine back home, things will seem boring and redundant and you may very well find yourself missing what you thought to be so annoying while living in Spain.
On a surface level, American and Spanish culture are extremely similar. After all, an overwhelming amount of American products have been introduced in Spain over the years, resulting in both Americans and Spaniards alike drinking Coca-cola, eating at McDonald’s, going to Starbucks, listening to American music, and watching Hollywood movies. Most Spaniards will not readily admit it, but a great deal of their popular culture comes directly from the US and the UK. Thus, there can a be sort of ‘love/hate relationship’ with the United States. In spite of this, Spaniards are usually quite welcoming when dealing with people on an individual basis, even if their political views don’t exactly align with the current agenda of the White House.
This being said, Spain has many elements of its culture than differ greatly from the way things are stateside. First and foremost is the pace at which life occurs. Regardless of where you come from in America, you are certainly used to a much faster-paced lifestyle than that of even Madrid, which is said to be the most bustling of the country’s metropolises. What perhaps took half an hour in the US might stretch over several days here – or even longer! When it comes to deadlines, don’t be surprised if you go to the dry cleaner and your suit isn’t ready. Also, punctuality, of course, is not much of a virtue either; arriving thirty minutes late, though not appreciated, is all too common. As a foreigner, your first reaction is to get angry and frustrated. This can prove to be a great disadvantage as you may come off as being pushy or trying to hurry things along unnecessarily. If you allow yourself to adjust to this way of life, however, you’ll find that the benefits can outweigh the inconveniences. People in Spain work to live – not the other way around – and as a result, tend to enjoy the little things in life a bit more. So, before you lose your cool, think about all the stress you left behind in the States and try to relax and smell the roses.
Perhaps your grandmother used to tell you “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Most Americans would agree with this saying, although this is not always the case in Spain. The Spanish concept of politeness differs slightly from ours, which may lead to misunderstandings. For example, if someone offers you something, you’re generally expected to decline merely as a formality. It’s only when your host repeats the offer that it is considered polite to accept. Though this does happen in America, in Spain this custom seems to permeate all areas of life, even the most trivial ones. In the same fashion, if you wish to offer something to someone – be it a beverage, an invitation to a social event, or whatever – be prepared to insist. A Spaniard will most likely not feel comfortable accepting the first time you offer, but will wait for you to reiterate before feeling that it’s alright to say yes.
The Language Barrier
Despite globalization and the prominence of English in Europe, in Spain it will be absolutely necessary to have a working level of the local language, not only to get around, but also to be accepted into society. Keep in mind that if you venture to areas of the country where regional languages are spoken, this may even include being able to communicate in the corresponding one, in addition to Spanish.
Being a foreigner puts you at a disadvantage linguistically in that you are not using your native language. It’s harder to express yourself and to interact with people in any situation, be it business or pleasure. However, if you hone your Spanish skills to perfection, you’ll find that you’ll be esteemed even greater for being bilingual than if you were merely another local. You will be taken as a cultured individual and in some cases even be admired or considered as an example to follow.
The Glass is Half Full
Despite the potential disadvantages that you may face as a foreigner in Spain, if you are culturally sensitive and proactive in your efforts to understand Spanish culture and society, what are seemingly hindrances can actually be made to work to your benefit. Just remember: the glass is half full.