6 Things I’ve Learned After 6 Years in Spain

Six years ago on September 27th, 2014, I landed in Madrid Barajas Airport for the second time in my life with enough personal belongings to hold me over for the next school year. The day before, I woke up on an overnight bus heading toward downtown NYC (Chinatown to be exact) first thing in the morning and later that day, caught my 5 pm flight to Frankfurt, Germany with Madrid being my final stop on that leg of the trip. If I had known all the way back then what my life would look like now and all that I would’ve learned in Spain, I’m not sure I would’ve believed you!

A photo I had taken just before boarding the Chinatown bus from Dayton, Ohio to NYC, and before I suffered through 24+ hours of travel (bus, subway, plane, bus, and walking with all my luggage)

I will never forget the exhaustion I’ve felt on these trips across the Atlantic nor will I forget the memories I’ve made in the last six years.

There are far too many to count!

Life certainly isn’t what I expected it to be when I set foot on Spanish territory again back in 2014. However, if I could go back in time and tell 25-year old Sarah who was setting off on this adventure then how amazing her life in Spain would unfold, I would! Things may not have turned out the same way if I could but to be honest, I wouldn’t change a thing that’s happened in the past few years.

It’s been quite the ride! I’ve gone through six visa applications, nine moves, a few different jobs, a dozen countries visited, a boyfriend, fiancé, and husband -all the same person!- and experienced a thousand, million different things in all this time.

One thing that has been constant has been all the things I’ve learned. I’ve taken so many lessons to heart but if had to pick just a handful of them, these six aspects of life stand out the most.

1. Spanish people are tough and tenacious.

It’s no secret now that after almost 9 months of dealing with an ongoing, global pandemic that Spain has been one of the hardest-hit countries in the world, economically speaking, especially in the tourism sector.

The central Spanish government came down hard on restrictions way back on March 14th, 2020 by decreeing a full country-wide lockdown. Residents of Spain were only allowed to go to work (only if they were deemed an “essential worker” and their job title or sector appeared on an official list), go to the supermarket nearest their house (within 1 km), go to the pharmacy or walk their dog. Schools closed a few days before the strict State of Alarm was put into effect and bars, restaurants, cafés, small shops, major monuments, and attractions closed as well.

It was a difficult time in the country’s history and we experienced a type of confinement that I had never known before. One week we had all the freedom in the world, going anywhere we pleased, going to work, hanging out with friends, taking any of the various different modes of transportation without worrying (too much) where someone else had been.

The last day I went out and experienced a “normal day,” around 5 pm on March 14th which felt like the calm before the storm.

And the next?

A whole slew of changes bombarded us without much chance to catch our breath.

In hindsight, I predicted March 2020 to be my highest month of income since becoming a freelancer in Spain, but I couldn’t have had a worse month if I had tried (I lost 90% of my income for the rest of the month).

And then, literally, overnight, we woke up on March 9th to the news that Italy had gone into a country-wide lockdown. Spain had also seen a huge jump in cases and deaths related to COVID-19. I had heard that Spanish politics tend to mirror Italian politics and my husband fully believed that Spain would be the next country to enter into a full lockdown.

I, on the other hand, was still in a state of disbelief. It was hard for me to wrap my head around what was going on as the next latest news story hit the stands and another set of brand-new restrictions were rolled out.

Things really began to sink in for me when I discussed in person with one of my long-time students the controversial idea of closing all schools in the entire city of Madrid during our English class. It was the last time I would see her in person until just this past week, nearly 9 months after we had had that last class.

Next came my other private classes being canceled one by one. Parents were all of a sudden very concerned about having someone who wasn’t a part of their household inside their house being in close contact with their children. Not to mention speaking to them off and on for at least an hour.

Bars, cafés and restaurants followed suit not too long after.

Supermarkets were ransacked and dozens of shelves of fruits, vegetables, flour, olive oil, shampoo, toilet paper, and more were left bare.

The lone pack of toilet paper in the neighborhood Mercadona and the nearby empty shelves really did take me by surprise!

Then came the announcement of the State of Alarm, issuing on of the strictest lockdowns (stay at home) in the world at the time. It suddenly became illegal to go outside of your home just because you felt like it.

What was said to only be 15 days at first (subject to renewal), an overwhelming number of adult Spanish residents spent a total of 49 full days at home without the opportunity to go out and exercise, go for a walk, or go out for leisure purposes.

Nevertheless, the Spanish people pulled through this difficult and at times dark period of their history.

One of the strangest things during this time for me was the absence of children’s voices outside our street. Laughter, chatter, voices bubbling up from outside a restaurant or bar are some of the things I absolutely love about Spanish culture.

(Provided I’m not hearing them at 1 or 2 am mind you)

Puerta del Sol – the heart of the city began to slowly get busier as the months after the State of Alarm went by (September 2020)

A podcaster I follow who also lives in Madrid at one point during the lockdown feared that Spain would never be the same after it. At the time, back in May or June, when I read this, we didn’t know what the re-opening of the country and restarting of tourism would look like.

I disagreed. Personally, deep down I felt that Spain would bounce back and its lively culture and bar life would return. After all, I had seen parts of the financial crisis and recession (la crisis) back in 2010 and watched how even a global recession couldn’t stop people from going out to their favorite café or bar and getting “the usual.”

Though I didn’t know what this last part of the year would look like, I had faith that the country and the Spanish people would get through it while still preserving their culture and way of life.

2. Each year will be distinctly different.

I will let the following photos and captions speak for themselves in this section. The main idea is that there will always be something different (how you feel, your friend groups, a central focus, places you will travel to-or not travel to-and possibly a new career change, move or love interests) that will define each year.

If the years aren’t feeling that much different, maybe it’s time to shake things up for yourself and try something or somewhere new!

2014-2015

Trying new things and breaking more out of my shell when I lived in A Coruña (Galicia) and my lost tourist costume turned into the map of Ohio. These two points on the map were glad they found me! (Verín, Ourense, February 2015)

2015-2016

A year that was the complete opposite of the one before. Instead of hiding and healing from old wounds, I embraced myself fully -faults and all- and traveled more than I ever had in any of these years. (Casa Lis, Salamanca, March 2016)

2016-2017

I achieved big goals this year in line with what I had planned for (and didn’t plan for!): moving to the big city, seeing clay court tennis live, being approved for a work visa and falling for someone from my past. (La Caja Mágica, Madrid, May 2017)

2017-2018

The year I was navigating residency, a career restart, and a brand new relationship in addition to living abroad (Huelva, February 2018)

2018-2019

More major life changes filled this year: getting engaged, going back to long distance for a few weeks/months, planning a wedding and renewing my work permit for the first time. And finally receiving a bouquet of roses on Valentine’s Day (a personal dream of mine). (Chamartín, Madrid, February 2019)

2019-2020

Getting married twice (in Gibraltar and in Northern Ireland, UK), starting our intercultural marriage, finding and decorating an apartment, transitioning from living with roommates to living with my significant other – and a whole lot more!
(Glenariff Forest Park, Ballymena, UK) [Photo Credit: Aaron Jean Photography]

2020-2021

This one is probably the most challenging of all -so far- where there have been a multitude of changes, lots of uncertainty and endless adjustments made on restrictions during a global pandemic. (Estación de Chamartín, Madrid, July 2020)

3. Money truly cannot buy happiness or security.

If you have seen some of my posts and candid stories on Instagram, living here as a freelancer where pay is unstable and job security is vulnerable makes the auxiliar program look well-paid. While things are looking up for me in terms of earnings (more on that in the near future), I’m still not out of the woods yet.

Contrary to it all and while at times I have felt very poor here (in the monetary sense), other times I feel very fortunate to be living in Spain. The cost of living in Madrid does get to me many times throughout the year (read: rent and real estate) but the type of life I can lead here is amazing. This has led me to learn lesson after lesson that having more things or earning more money cannot truly make me happy.

(I haven’t written about the cost of living in Madrid yet but I have written about the cost of living in A Coruña.)

Walking over to a nearby neighborhood (Alemara – Las Cuatro Torres) to admire the fall foliage is free!
For about $30, we can both eat out at a trendy restaurant for their lunch deal: spring rolls, crunchy duck with fried rice and shrimp, mushrooms and asparagus mixed with chow mein noodles.
And you don’t have to skip dessert! (Pictured here: Their famous brownie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream at Shanghai Mama, metro Cuzco)
If you want to pop into a bakery and buy a sweet treat, go ahead! They’re only $1.50 apiece. (The first-ever Napolitana de Crema from La Mallorquina that I’ve ever bought in my time here)

Each day, I’m aware of how much we could be spending to live anywhere else in the world. Madrid’s city landscape reminds me of a mix between Chicago and New York, yet it feels uniquely madrileño. For a major European city, the quality of life here and the cost of living are quite incredible. As a visitor, I always saw the city as a bit expensive (having come from Sevilla and then later on Santiago at separate times) but once I went to visit Barcelona for the first time a few years ago, I changed my mind.

For what we are able to do here, on such little income -looking at it from a US perspective- is amazing. Like, in any other part of the developed Western world, we would be living off rice and beans and spending all of our earnings on rent and utilities, public transit and some food. (Plus scouring all groups for the free events and free days at museums that we could)

If anything I’ve learned while living in Spain, it’s that while being a little more frugal is the norm, it’s okay to splurge a little every now and then.

Especially when it doesn’t really feel like so much of a splurge! 🙂

4. Life here is full of simple yet rich pleasures.

A sunset over the mountains brings pure joy and a sense of calm.
The first strains of morning light hit and reflect off the smooth surfaces of the skyscrapers in Plaza de Castilla.
The first almond tree blossoms of the season becomes something you look forward to year after year.
This rich, deep green colored aloe vera leaf turned out to be the most inexpensive and deeply hydrating treatment for my skin this year.
A large flower exhibition puts a new spin on a very familiar and beloved park.
When something like a good cup of hot chocolate is not only hard to find but also hard to make. Sip and savor it.
Turning the clock back and feeling like a giddy young child all over again at the sight of Christmas lights in December.
Finally taking a photo with your favorite building in the city even though it is mid-August in Madrid! (Mask was worn after)
Going to a familiar destination with someone new allows you to see the same place only with fresh eyes.
When the ocean is one of the few things on Earth that can truly calm any turmoil and unrest in your soul.

5. You will not miss out on what is for you.

Where will the path lead? (Parque del Buen Retiro, October 2020)

This one is pretty straightforward.

And it’s a lesson I’ve learned time and time again.

In terms of living in Spain, however, it can be best explained like this: either you will stay or you will leave.

I’ve met countless people in three cities in these last six years and just a small handful of them have stayed – both in the country and in my life as close friends. The number of friends who live within a short distance from me or a few metro stops away is few and far between. The rest live in other countries and quite a few live on another continent.

With the long distance friends and family, we sometimes go weeks on end talking about every little thing and what’s happening in our lives or spend weeks or months silent, going about our lives until the mood strikes and we pick things back up from where last left them.

With people I know and have met around Spain, some of them have an expiration date, and that knowledge lingers on the edges of our conversations. Others have stuck by me for years, staying by my side through visa applications, crazy roommate after crazy roommate as well as watching my life move from one stage to the next. For anyone living abroad, you know that saying goodbye to people is a rather sad yet inevitable part of the experience.

So, it’s pretty simple. Destiny will do everything it possibly can to keep you here for the long-term or only hold things together for a short while. Doors will open or doors will close. Either way, you will be one step closer to figuring out where exactly it is that you are meant to be.

6. The experience you have is what you make of it!

You might think that the wind ruined my photo but I’ve come to love taking photos where the wind does what it will with my hair! (Ávila, February 2020 – last day trip pre-pandemic times)

I could make this a much longer reflection post but my experience is only one small sliver of living abroad. Without a doubt you will (or have had) a different experience compared to me. It’s a totally natural occurrence because no two people have the exact same personalities, backgrounds, beliefs, interests and worldviews. What I have struggled with may not be something you would struggle with and vice versa. Same with how I’ve spent my free time and which passions I’ve pursued during my time here.

Thinking back on the people I’ve met in the last 6 years, I know some people who are starting their 7th school year as an auxiliar (I can’t imagine this for myself!), others who are starting their first or second year at their new job (via a work permit), a couple of others who have moved, gotten married and now have a couple of children. Others who have moved out of Madrid after a long stint to somewhere sunnier, near the ocean and has an even lower cost of living. Change is a part of life and if you aren’t growing or learning something new, it makes you wonder why you are where you are.

The biggest piece of advice I could give you in these last few lines is to take hold of every opportunity that comes your way! Whether it’s going to a language exchange that you’ve never been to, a hobby that you’ve never tried or somewhere you’ve never thought of visiting, go and try it out!

You will never know who you will meet, what you will see or what new interests (or passions) you will stumble upon!

Whether I will stay in Spain long-long-term, I can’t say for sure with absolute certainty. What is certain is that I will be exploring it and writing about this exquisitely beautiful and culturally rich country for many years to come.

Have you also lived in Spain for a long time? Any words of wisdom for us or lessons that you have learned in that time? Share your comments below!

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