Student Visa Modification Timeline: How to become a freelancer in Spain

El Parque Del Buen Retiro in Madrid

If you’re reading this, it’s highly likely that you’re on a student visa and have been participating in the Spanish government’s language assistant program for a few years or have completed a Master’s degree and internships but are now looking for a change. If you’ve answered yes, then this post is for you!

My story:

I’m an American who fell in love with Spain a good long while ago back in my junior year in college when I came to study abroad in Seville. I knew I had to come back one day and I succeeded in doing so in late 2014 when I moved to Galicia to teach English and lived there for two years. However, those gray, rainy days sent me packing and in late 2016, I moved to Madrid to expand my horizons, make more connections and slowly try to escape the world of teaching.

After being told I was not able to renew at my school in Madrid for a second year -long story-, I was forced to consider other options in order to continue to live in Spain. So, last February, I began networking, making connections and getting my name out there like never before. I also researched a couple different types of work visa applications in Spain since I was nearing the 3 year anniversary mark in the country. After 3 years here on a student visa, you have the chance to modify your visa to a work visa with a company (cuenta ajena) or present a business plan and pre-signed contracts and start your own business (cuenta propia). Seeing as the latter required less fees and startup costs (as a freelancer translator and copywriter) and not to mention lower visa fees, I chose the latter.

The auxiliar gig had been good to me and afforded me the chance to work in Spain and travel around Europe but I was ready for something new.

 

From start to finish, this entire process took a little over 6 months to complete. I knew that my end goal to start working in Spain as a freelancer and earning full years towards long-term residency (student years only count as half time) would pay off so I started this crazy paperwork trail journey.

During this entire period where I was gathering information, documents, trying to find clients and write my business plan, I never found a comprehensive list of all the steps I needed to do in order to turn in a complete application.

So…that’s why I’ve decided to compile my own list in hopes of helping someone else who finds themself ready to exchange their student visa for a work visa and become autónomo.

Before we begin…

Ask yourself these questions first:

  • Have I completed at least 3 cumulative years in Spain with no more than 90 days outside of the country each year?
  • Can I prove that I have completed my studies during these 3 years (received 3 letters of completion by the schools where you’ve worked)?
  • Can I declare that I have not received scholarship money from the AECID (a Spanish organization) nor from any organization in my home country during my time in Spain?
  • Do I have a valid student TIE? (Absolutely necessary in order to complete this application.)
  • Do I really have a desire to stay in Spain long-term and why?

If you’ve answered yes to the first 4 and deep down really do want to stay in Spain long-term, you’re ready to start the modification process.

 

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer nor can I provide any professional legal advice. I’m merely recounting my own personal experience with this visa application and the timeline I had in order to complete it. All advice I give is merely based on my own experience and opinion.

Pro-tip: It took me about a month and a half to gather and request all of the documents I needed for this application. I would suggest giving yourself about 2-3 months time total in case one of these steps happens to take longer for you.

 

Anyway, let’s get started!

 

STUDENT VISA MODIFICATION TIMELINE

 

May 17th, 2017

I met with Patricia from the law office of Sterna Abogados to discuss my student visa modification options.  I had done a lot of research at that point so I  didn’t have a lot of questions about the process but I created several hypothetical situations to ask. The most important piece of information was that I learned I could legally apply to modify my status 90 days before the anniversary of my 3rd year in Spain. (For me, it would be after late June). The meeting lasted one hour and I was able to ask all of my questions, which mostly consisted of steps to take after getting the visa and then longer term residency card, and I felt confident after I left. I was a bit overwhelmed by all of the steps I had to do but I still felt confident. I had no idea the amount of paperwork that would lie before me. Keep scrolling to find out…

Why Sterna Abogados? I chose to make an appointment with this law office as they are connected to a very informative website called Spain Guru The consultation only cost me 50 euros and I found it very well-worth my time. Due to budget constraints, I chose not to hire the lawyer but the estimated cost for them to help me do the modification was around 600 euros.

June 12th, 2017

In the morning on this day, I applied for and received a background check from Spain on the spot at the Atención del Ciudadano office located on Calle de la Bolsa,8 (metro Sol). The law actually indicated that I didn’t need to resubmit my finger prints for an FBI Background Check from the United States (my home country). And in the end, I wasn’t asked for the background check from Spain but I got it just in case. It also only cost 3,40 euros so it wasn’t a very large expense.

Official background check from Spain. One of the least painful bureaucratic task I’ve ever done!

 

In the meantime, I got some clarification on a few  of the requirements found on this specific  hoja informativa (about the FBI background check) and continued my search for companies that may want to contract my copy writing or translation services.

June 21st, 2017

Sent contact info to the AECID email to request the letter that states I have not received a scholarship from their organization during my 3 years in Spain (does not indicate you have received a scholarship at all, it just can’t be from them).

I had to send an email to becasmae@aecid.es with the following script and information:

Quisiera pedir Certificado de la Dirección General de Asuntos y Asistencia Consulares, sobre si la estudiante con nombre, (insert your full name here), acreditó disponer de medios de vida propios o beca en el momento de presentar la solicitud de visado.

• Organismo que le requiere el documento solicitado: La Secretaría de Estado de Administraciones Públicas (Delegación del Gobierno en la Comunidad de Madrid> Extranjería)

•Copia de la tarjeta de identidad de extranjero, está juntado a este email
(Note: Take a picture of or scan your current, valid student TIE and attach it to the email)

  • Nombre y Apellidos
    •Nacionalidad
    •Nº de Pasaporte
    •Nº de Tarjeta NIE
    •Una Dirección postal donde remitir el certificado (this would be your current address or if you are moving, put down a friend’s address where you know it will be received and not lost)

 

On this day, I also made an appointment (around this date) to go to the US Embassy here in Madrid and it gave me an appointment for July 27th, which meant I couldn’t set my appointment for the Extranjeria until the 28th at the earliest. I selected “notarial services” as my request didn’t fit under any of the other categories provided as I was going through the steps to book the appointment.

 

Pro tip: **Book this appointment early if you are applying to modify in the summer as the Embassy is usually very busy around this season.**

 

June 28th, 2017

Received a digital copy of the letter from the AECID (but for the second time as they spelled my legal name incorrectly)

Hard copy version of the non-scholarship recipient letter from the AECID I received a few days after the digital copy.

 

June 30th, 2017

I finished my last and final-hopefully- day as an auxiliar at my school in Madrid and received both my letter of completion from my school in Canillejas and my first school in Coruña. I hadn’t received one from them during my first year but I kept in contact with my coordinator and she was happy to write up the letter. I received it by email and I printed off a copy of it.

 

Final letter of completion from (and most important of the 3) from the school in Madrid. Your should look similar but each school is different. Make sure you get it stamped with the school seal!

 

July 3rd, 2017

 

On the morning of this day, I went to my bank here in Madrid to request a certified copy of one of my bank statements (with only 2 months worth of transactions, though I would recommend showing 3-4 months) but received a stamped copy of a regular statement instead. I also received both copies of the AECID letter this day.

 

July 13th, 2017

All of my networking from the previous months paid off as a contact informed me on this day that I would be contacted about a big summer project for one of their clients. I learned about the project the next day via an email from the project manager and agreed to join the team. Really glad to have gotten this step over with after months of searching and contacting companies.

 

July 14th-17th, 2017

During time frame, I was in contact with UPTA, an organization with locations all around Spain that offers support for autónomos. I was in the process of creating my business plan and so on this day I inquired about the requirements and application form for the approval process. It typically takes 7-10 days for UPTA (in Madrid) to evaluate the viability (success rate) of your business plan. The cost has remained an affordable cost of 15€ but from doing research on this, it seems to be the cost of the approval letter for the Comunidad de Madrid. For other regions, the cost varies.

 

However, It’s not the organization in Spain that approves business plans. Here’s a short list of the four other organizations that you can contact:

 

  • Federación Nacional de Asociaciones de Empresarios y Trabajadores Autónomos (ATA)
  • Confederación Intersectorial de Autónomos del Estado Español (CIAE)
  • Organización de Profesionales y Autónomos (OPA)
  • Unión de Asociaciones de Trabajadores Autónomos y Emprendedores (UATAE)

 

**Note: I didn’t receive the service agreement from the client in time to be able to go through with getting my business plan approved by UPTA so I unfortunately skipped this step. And on the hoja informativa, it says this step is optional but highly recommended. Looking back on the process, I recommend getting your business plan approved and give yourself plenty of time to get this step completed.**

 

July 18th-19th, 2017

While you’re running around and doing all of these errands and office visits, remember to stop (and literally) smell the roses. Find a stress reliever and stick with it. Mine was taking long walks around Madrid. 🙂

I was in contact with a sworn translator who was recommended in previous posts on the Spain Immigration Group) and asked him for a quote on the cost of two sworn translations of my Bachelor degree diplomas. He quoted me an affordable price of 40€ with next day turnaround. All he required of me were PDF or JPEG copies of my diplomas in order to perform the translation. (If you’re in Madrid and want to hire the same traductor jurado that I hired, please contact me and I’ll gladly refer him.)

 

**Important note: It’s not necessary to give a sworn translator original copies of your university diplomas. He used the PDF copies I had sent him and printed out a copy of each one to staple to the translated and stamped copies. I didn’t know this was the standard procedure so the week before, I told my parents to send my university diplomas to my apartment in Madrid via DHL (a company which I highly recommend) which cost me an extra 40€.**

 

July 22nd, 2017

 

I received the service agreement I had mentioned above, signed it and got it signed by the client. I worked more on my business plan and used a template for one that I found on Spain Guru via this post To see an example of a service agreement, go here.

 

July 27th, 2017

Went to the US Embassy on Calle Serrano in Madrid bright and early at 8:45am. I was able to skip the line and go in through the citizens side but I still had to wait a considerable amount of time before I was seen as well as take a number on two different occasions. Every notarized form you request at the Embassy costs 50€ a page so that’s what I paid for. They had emailed me that week saying their card machine was temporarily down and told me to bring cash. On the contrary, the machine was up and running again that morning but I came with cash anyway. And I would recommend anyone else do the same. It’s likely you’ll find it difficult and inconvenient to make a new appointment quickly, especially if your appointment is in the summer. Once it was my turn to be seen, I wrote the following statement on the official form I was given:

 

Declaro que no poseo bienes o he sido becado o subvencionado por organismos públicos o privados dentro de programas estadounidenses de cooperación o desarollo.

 

Next, I signed it and took a number again. After a short wait, I went to the correct window and swore its validity in front of a notary who was behind it and she signed the form and applied the seal. I left here around 10:30am.

The next and final task I had lined up for that day was to then go to the MAEC Office near Metro Banco de España to legalize the affidavit (US Embassy letter) so that it was valid in Spain. I had to make an appointment online (and appointment times were organized by 4 minute time slots) so I chose to go around 12:20 to give myself enough time to arrive in case the appointment at the Embassy lasted longer. It was quick, painless and not to mention free! The whole process took only about 6 minutes and then I was officially done with all the running around. You can make an appointment with their office here but you can only make it up to two weeks ahead of time, just as an FYI.

Now, the only thing left was to make my appointment at the Extranjeria on Calle de Silva and I did that on this very same day. (I would recommend setting it a little more on advance but I didn’t have that luxury.)

 

July 30th, 2017

I did the last minute preparation for the appointment which included making copies (not entirely needed, by the way), organizing and categorizing all my documents in my trusty file folder and printed out the copy of my appointment form. All that was left was to try to get some sleep that hot summer night and not be too nervous! I would definitely recommend getting a good night sleep and eating breakfast before your appointment in order to feel rested and ready to go in case you get assigned to a less than cheerful funcionario (civil servant) the next day.

 

July 31st, 2017

 

The day to turn in all my paperwork had arrived and ironically this was also the last day my student TIE card was valid. I later on tried to apply to a TEFL program in order to extend my student visa but I was not successful. The important thing was that I turned in my application while the card was still valid, though I realized that I did take a big risk. Anyway, I went to my appointment at 10 a.m. at Calle de Silva and I successfully turned in my full packet of paperwork. The only tasa I had to pay was the cost of the card for 10,86 euros. It didn’t match what was listed underneath the tasas for this visa and I was never asked to pay the larger fee at any other point during the process so I didn’t. (This could be subject to change!)

 

Then, I had to wait.

And wait and wait and wait.

 

Did I mention that during those two months I waited, I stayed in Madrid in August? As see you can see in this photo, I almost melted in the process but good thing I didn’t!!

 

Until one day, 68 days later…

October 9th, 2017

After some doubts about getting my application approved at all, the Spanish government decided to approve my visa modification! Woo hoo! I, however, didn’t check online to see the status of my application due to my doubts and potential missing documents (a missing translation) so I had no idea it had gotten approved at this point.

 

October 19th, 2017

 

I received a certified letter in the mail around 12 p.m. that day from the Oficina de Extranjeria, Calle de Silva and opened it with bated breath. It was delivered straight to my door (after the Correos worker couldn’t find my door and was confused by my name) so make sure you list is the one where you actually live and not a friend’s, as you have to be there to sign and receive the letter. Luckily, it said favorable (approved/favorable) and I knew that my application had been approved. I was about to pay a deposit on a TEFL course in order to renew my student visa the very next but now I didn’t have to! I was no longer a student! Besides celebrating and calling everyone I could about the news, I made an appointment for my fingerprints at the immigration center at metro Aluche. It was one of those high volume times of year as I was given an appointment then for November 28th.

The letter also stated that I had to register myself into the Social Security system within a time frame of 30 days. At this point and taking away bank holidays, I only 13 business days to do so. Talk about pressure!

Celebratory tintos de verano were in order after learning I had gotten my visa approved! (Breathes huge sigh of relief)

(In the meantime and for the entire month of November I was also searching for a new apartment, new private classes and new freelance projects I could work on as a US person. You can imagine my stress levels were through the roof some days as I managed all of these things at once. And you’re familiar with searching for an apartment in Madrid, it can take forever to find a good one.)

October 30th, 2017


I made my first visit to the correct Social Security Office for freelancers in my zip code (see photo below for the full list of offices). I requested my SS number by simply filling out a short form and presenting my approval letter. This was the easiest of my visits there.

 

November 6th, 2017

I went to both Hacienda, the Tax Office (locations are all over Madrid and require an appointment, cita previa, but I went to the one located near metro Guzmán El Bueno) and returned to the same Social Security Office. Unfortunately, I made a mistake and listed my start (work) date as past November 9th (the last possible day for me to register) and it was a holiday only in Madrid. A nice man at the Social Security office told me to go back to Hacienda and ask them to change it.  Didn’t seem like too much of a hassle but remember…this is Spain.

 

November 7th, 2017

 

I had gotten another appointment to see someone at Hacienda in order to change my start date but this time for the afternoon. I don’t recommend ever making an appointment at a Spanish government office in the afternoon. Case in point was that I had my appointment around 1:45 p.m. and around 2:20 p.m., the funcionario I was assigned to informed me that I was not able to change the date until that date had passed. I turned to the Spain Immigration Group and asked about it. And found out the next day, it was NOT TRUE! After crying a bit out of frustration and then calming down, I made yet another appointment at the Hacienda but I chose to go to a location near Avenida de América.

 

November 8th, 2017


Around 11:30 a.m. the next day, I went to a different Hacienda where a very helpful man changed my start date in the system (after I had given him an abridged version of my life story in Spain) with ease. I then hurried on over to the Social Security Office in the opposite direction and got into the Social Security system. I had finally crossed these hurdles and breathed a sigh of relief.

 

November 28th, 2017

 

I was all set for this appointment -or so I thought- at Aluche around 1:30 p.m. until I realized with a gasp, as I started at a sign that said passporte, that I had left my passport on a shelf in my room. Major face palm moment but I was able to recover. I made another appointment at Aluche and was given a date in 2018. Great…

 

January 15th, 2018

I had my second and final fingerprint appointment around 1:30 p.m. (don’t ask me why I kept getting assigned this time) and I came prepared with everything I needed. I finished the appointment in under 15 minutes and I can pick up my fancy new card in 30 days, as well as apply for my Cl@ve PIN to pay quarterly taxes online.head

 

And that’s it! The whole process from start to finish.

I hope you found this post helpful and useful as you pursue your own application and continue living and enjoying Spain.  Any questions or comments, please add them below and join the discussion!

 


**If you’re also living in Madrid and want to chat or receive coaching/mentoring in person for a small fee during the process, please reach out and contact me. (For things such as enhancing your CV, writing a business plan or general advice). I would be happy to help you achieve your own goal of working and living in Spain legally.**

Find me on Instagram and get in touch!


Una carta de amor a mi querida España / A love letter to my dear Spain

Querida bella España,

 

La semana pasada cumplí 3 años en seguidos en tu tierra. Esta puesta del sol era una de las primeras vistas que disfruté de mi primer paseo por el paseo marítimo, en A Coruña. Era mi nueva casa en aquel tiempo y estaba descubriéndola, pasito a pasito. En esa época no conocí a nadie en Galicia, unha nova terra para mim, pero el amor y pasión que he tenido por tu país y tu gente es más fuerte que nunca y tres años de vivir aquí no lo ha apagado en mí sino ha crecido aún más fuerte. Que cansancio tenía aquel día que llegué en Coruña pero yo estaba lleno de sueños y nuevos planes para los años que vendrían.

3 años. Es casi mil (1.000) días en tu país tan bello y tan diverso. Amo a tu gente, tu idioma, tu comida, tus costumbres, tus paisajes y tus playas. Claro que hay y habrá problemas pero este país me dejado soñar y ser yo misma como nunca he podido hacer antes.

España me atreve ser creativa, aventurera, valiente, generosa, una luchadora, una soñadora, una verdadera amante de la vida.

Torre de Hércules October 2014

 

La Alhambra (February 2016)

 

Templo de Debod (June 2017)

Gracias por darme una bienvenida tan grande cuando pisé en su tierra por primera vez cuando tenía 21 años. Tengo tantos recuerdos inolvidables aquí

¿Y ahora? Nunca me imaginé que viviría en la capital, una ciudad tan grande y diversa como el país tí mismo. Diría que soy una persona completamente diferente a la que volvió aquí pero la verdad es que soy como siempre he querido ser. Y me da mucha alegría. No hay precio con el tiempo que he tendido aquí para crecer y floricer como una mujer y amante del idioma español.

Es asombroso lo que puede pasar en poco tiempo y dónde podemos estar.  No puedo esperar ver ni puedo imaginar los rincones que voy a descubrir en el año que viene. 

Sigue soprendiéndome, España. Esoty preparada para la próxima aventura.

Un besazo!

Saludos,

 Sarah la Viajera

This post originally appeared on Instagram //este artículo originalmente aparceció en Instagram. Echálo un vistazo aquí.

Alguna vez has vivido o actualmente vives en España como extranjero/a? Cuéntame tu historia abajo en español o inglés! Tengo muchas ganas de leerlo 🙂

 

Living Abroad: The First 24 Hours (Part 2)

In case you missed part 1 of this story, click here.

Soon enough, it was time to land and then disembark from the plane. Since I was on an international flight, we had to go through customs and put our luggage through another set of scanners and then go on our way.  I did just that but needed to exchange some of my remaining dollar bills first.

I had two things working against me at that point: 1) extremely sore feet from walking a few blocks in Manhattan and 2) a really tired and jet lagged body that just wanted to curl up somewhere and sleep.

I wasn’t fortunate enough to be able to do the latter and I tried to connect my little netbook to the WiFi at the airport and send an email back home before I caught the metro. No such luck. I couldn’t figure out which website to go to once I had connected to the network.

So, I braced myself for the real test. The one I had been studying for…

The metro.

I had to navigate the Madrid metro with no one by my side to guide me and no cell phone service. And my first obstacle right off the bat, after I found the entrance to the metro, was buying a metro ticket. I had never used a subway system in my life, though I had just come from NYC.

After a couple of trials and errors, and even a nice madrileño who offered to help me -but spoke too fast-I managed to buy the ticket to the Atocha train station. My main obstacle was figuring out where to put the coins in! So silly but so frustrating at the time. Once  I would arrive at Atocha, I would catch a high speed train (the AVE) to Sevilla, my final destination.

And as much as you can study something on paper, especially a map, the real test of knowledge comes when you have to put it into practice. This is where you see what you’re made of in tricky situations like those.

Again, I had never used a metro or subway system before. I hadn’t even used a city bus! I had spent most of my life up until that point being driven to a place, walking or riding my bike somewhere or borrowing someone else’s car to get there (sending out thank yous again to several friends in Jacksonville who helped me get around for all those years!).

These modes of transportation are all normal for city dwellers but when you come from a gigantic country like I do with an underdeveloped infrastructure, driving everywhere in a car is the norm.

Now, who can tell me how to get to the Atocha Renfe metro station? (Photo taken in January 2017)

Boy, did I have a lot to learn in such a short time. And unbeknownst to me, back in Ohio during my study sessions, I had somehow chosen the longest route possible to take on my very first morning in Spain.

I lugged my suitcase and bag down the escalators and followed a small crowd of other travelers down to the platform to wait. I hadn’t ever seen any of the things I was looking at before: an overhead digital board that announced in how many minutes the train would arrive and what direction it was headed. Signage for the stops it would make on that line from the starting point at that station.

Let’s back up, though. Direction? “As in North or South, East or West?” I asked myself. It didn’t make sense.

Once I rode the pink line (8) of the end of the line, I got off with many other people but had my heavy suitcase to deal with and keep track of. Plus, I was really wanting to take my black wool coat off as I was starting to burn up on the train. But…I didn’t want another thing to carry in my hands so I kept it on and suffered.

However, the bigger issue at hand was just trying to figure out where the next line (the Circular, line 6) was in the huge station I had presently found myself in. I was able to find the platforms for that line but I foolishly thought choosing a platform was going to be as easy as it was at the airport.  I was very wrong.

So, I asked a friendly-looking older lady nearby for help.

Sometimes the only word between you and getting some help is: “hola.” (in Spain)

I mentioned something to her about needing to go to the Atocha train station and that I didn’t know much about the Madrid Metro. She could tell I had just arrived from some foreign land but she helped me make sense of the map I had in my hand.

And then she dropped some knowledge on me. Something I couldn’t have learned back home (cause I didn’t Google transportation tips – shame on me!) as no one there used metro systems or knew how to read metro maps.

It was at that moment that she explained to me that if I wanted to figure out which direction I needed to go, I needed to look at the very last station on that metro line to get it. The light bulb clicked and suddenly I had felt I had had some pretty powerful information in my head now.

Or at the very least, I wouldn’t look as puzzled as I did at the ticket machine earlier. I’ll take that.

So, once I had figured that out, things were a little bit smoother sailing from then on. Except I was getting ever so tired and more annoyed at how heavy my suitcase was (but would realize later on that I had packed much lighter compared to other students). Luckily I met some good Samaritans along the way.  Gentleman who offered to help me carry my suitcase down a wide staircase with very narrow steps for me.

Spanish guys were pretty nice. Maybe I could get used to this kind of chivalry.

Then, I got lost again once I had made it through all those stops on the Circular from Nuevos Ministerios. (Which in hindsight I now pity my younger self for choosing such a long and tortuous route.)

I knew I didn’t have a working cell phone at the time but all of a sudden I had this burning desire to call my mom and ask for her help. Nothing could quench that desire at that moment. But let’s face it, there’s nothing my mom could do to help me, even I had been able to call her.

She and the rest of my family were fast asleep at home, as it was 5 a.m. for them. I wished I could be asleep in a warm bed, too.

This was the bed that was waiting for me at the end of a very, very long day.

But no, I was off on my international adventure in the middle of a metro system some 4,000 miles away from home. And at the time the only thing that was getting me confused was to find the last line where I needed to get off, which was the line 1 at Pacífico.

Asking more questions and seeing that my questions were answered with more helpful replies and tips, I made it to the last line and then, eventually made it to Atocha. I was a  bit tired and thirsty but I was all in one piece, with luggage in tow.

If I remember correctly, I believe that first metro journey lasted just under 2 hours. Now I know how to get from the airport to the train station much faster and in a more efficient way but back then I didn’t.

I was also jet lagged, frustrated and a little bit shy to ask for help. These are all normal things you experience in your first 24 hours.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the train station all in one piece that I started to notice more details around me. I had observed different fashion styles I had seen on the metro earlier but I didn’t pay too much attention to the way things around me looked. I mean, after all, most of the metro stations started to look the same, minus the different colors to match each metro line.

The train station was enormous and I felt like its size was swallowing me up as I slowly walked towards the main entrance to the long distance trains, my head swiveling around on my neck, trying to take it all in.

And then I noticed the view outside one of the gigantic windows.

As if I were being drawn towards it by a magnet, I walked a little bit faster to get a peek at what was outside.

Madrid.

Not the underground view of it, either. Finally, I was able to catch a glimpse of what a real, major European city looked like. I saw parts of brick structures that made up the train station, a whole line of taxis parked out front (and thought to myself, how many taxis does one city need?!) and then farther off in the distance I saw this tall, historic looking buildings. I tried not to noticed that it was also a pretty gray and dismal January day, but I would soon be enjoying the sunny skies of the South of Spain.

My first ever glimpse and photo of Madrid, la capital.

I had a feeling I was going to enjoy living in Europe these next four months.

After taking a couple of pictures, one of the view outside and one of me after over 24 hours of travel and sightseeing – which today, hat particular photo is called a selfie-, I remembered I was thirsty and lugged my stuff to a nearby vending machine. A juice box, which I hadn’t ever seen in a vending machine back in the US, for just over a euro, caught my eye. (I actually got ripped off at that price as I would later learn that you could get 4-6 of them in pack for the same price but it was good at the time.) It satisfied my thirst for a little bit but after that, I decided it was time for me to go on ahead to my train platform and wait for the train. And maybe take a short cat nap if I was lucky.

Final destination: Seville (photo taken later on in 2016)

So I made my way on over to the main entrance that was next to a huge digital board that listed all of the departing train for the next few hours. I saw “Sevilla – Santa Justa” and took note of the platform number. Where said platform was actually located beyond the buzz of activity past the line for security was beyond me.

As I went through the line with my ticket and passport in hand, I was told to load my ginormous suitcase on to the conveyor belt along with my other bag. That was a lot of fun. *Groan.*

I also walked through the typical security gate with things in my pockets, I’m sure, but that was it.

In the back of my mind I thought Spanish airports and stations didn’t put as much focus on security procedures as the US did. Oh, well. I still felt safe but I was minutes away from sitting down and maybe taking a nap.

Finding a place to sleep and boarding the train in a couple hours were the most exciting things on my mind, haha.

As soon as I found the seating area near my gate, I sat down and inched my suitcase closer to me. Maybe I could turn it on its side and prop my feet up on it.

None of that happened because that’s when the exhaustion set in big time. I ended up falling asleep in my chair, holding my handbag and my carry-on luggage close to me.  I didn’t want to have any of my important things swiped from my hands, after all.

I’m not sure how long I ended up sleeping in that chair but it was long enough for passersby to stop and stare at me. I was probably quite the sight and in hindsight, I probably would’ve stared at me, too, haha.

After what felt like a short nap, but hours of waiting for my train, it was time for me to board. I was finally on my way to my new home in Spain: Sevilla!

I ended up finding my correct seat based on what it said on my ticket, after asking for help, of course, as I was clueless. Once I found the seat, and  the appropriate racks to store my luggage, I sat down and took in the surroundings. I don’t remember too much about what I saw but I do remember being impressed that the train took off on time.

The monitor said 15:00 but my body kept arguing with me that it was really 9 a.m EST and it was trying hard to persuade me to take another snooze. I was sitting in a fairly nicer chair now.

I wouldn’t listen. I was stubborn and decided to pull a book out of my handbag. I don’t remember what it was but I do remember not reading more than a line of it and looking out the window for a few seconds at some very green pastures…I didn’t think Spain had green…I thought.

Then, my eyes shut and my head slowly tilted towards the window.

Bam. I was out like a light.

It wasn’t until many years later that I actually saw what few sights there were on the AVE train line between Madrid and Sevilla because I slept through the entire ride my first time! I was excited to experience my first high speed train but I was at the point of my travels where I couldn’t stay awake.

And the nap was supposed to be refreshing but I think because I didn’t pull the shade down and slept in broad daylight. My poor body clock was so confused.

What I was supposed to admire and enjoy outside my window on the high speed train.

So, that high speed train experience went a lot faster than I should have and by the time I knew it, I was finally in Sevilla! The man next to me was kind enough to retrieve my carry-on luggage for me and as he handed it to me, he said, “Very heavy,” and started to walk down the aisle. Huh?

How did he know I spoke English? (He had plenty of time to read the front cover of whatever book I had in my hand, which was in English, that’s how he knew, haha).

I was able to snap myself out of my slumber and get ready to meet the coordinator for my study abroad program.  I was finally going to be able to talk to someone and start to make a connection with someone who lives in this country.  I was starting to feel excited again and less tired.

But, I forgot one little thing: my actual suitcase. I have no idea what I was thinking but maybe I thought that the train attendants would load the luggage off the train for us?

Again, I was thinking train stations worked like airports. Silly me.

Not too long after I found my coordinator, she told me where my luggage would be (in the Renfe office) and we went to collect it. I was glad to finally get into her car and chat about my journey up until that point. I was feeling a bit more energized but not too much. I was looking forward to the couple whose house I’d be living in for the next month.

And I was looking forward to climbing into a bed and sleeping about 12 hours. Give or take, haha.

The drive to Triana, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, was a blur. The only thing that stood out to me was this huge, sort of odd-looking tower towards the river and I kept remarking to myself how big everything looked.

We made it to my host mom, Manoli, and her apartment building fairly quickly. Mary Alice, the coordinator, helped me take my things up not one, not two but five flights of stairs! Bless her. And after Manoli opened the door and greeted us with two kisses on each cheek – that was odd-, and we did our introductions. Mary Alice also went back down to her car and got the 5L jug of olive oil she brought from a family member’s farm (I think?) and gave it to Manoli. I tried not to let my jaw drop as I didn’t know olive oil could be bottled in jugs that big! Wow.

After a short visit, Mary Alice reminded me when and where orientation would be (with her and 3 other girls from  the program in a bar, like no joke) and we said goodbye. Manoli showed me my room and I started to get settled. I desperately wanted to shower and go straight to sleep but I was only able to shower as she wanted to serve me dinner.

Tortellini con mantequilla y queso. Not the meal I had that night but it was one of my favorites later in the semester. (Insert heart eyes.)

The shower felt great and the only thing I remember about dinner was I ate pasta, Manoli’s husband Antonio came home and the two of them chatted with me and told me that “How do you do?” was the only thing the knew how to say in English. They didn’t exactly know what it meant and I was honestly too tired to tell them.

So, once I finished dinner, I thanked Manoli for the meal and wished her buenas noches. To which, she replied, “hasta mañana.

As I shuffled down the hall, the exhaustion had begun to set in again. Why didn’t she just say buenas noches back? I wondered. That’s strange.

At that point, I didn’t have the energy to contemplate anything else. Not in English nor in Spanish.

And with that final thought, I climbed into my bed that first night and fell fast and blissfully asleep.

I had survived day one. Can’t wait to see what the days to come would hold.

Have you moved abroad before? Was your first day anything like mine was? Share your thoughts in the comments below! I’d love to hear them!

Stay tuned for next week’s addition.

Living Abroad: The First 24 Hours (Part 1)

This post is the first of a 6-week series I’m doing this summer since I’ve have had a lot of experience with living away from home, especially now with living abroad. The timeline of these posts will lead up to the end of next month, which will mark 2 years since I have been in my home country, the United States of America. Being away for such a long time wasn’t something I set out to accomplish when I last left in September 2015 or was it something I was sure I could even handle.

However, through different types of circumstances, I haven’t been able to go home these past two years. In these posts, I hope my experiences will paint a real picture of what you might feel, experience and realize about living outside of your home country once you do it. Your personal experience might be different in many ways but I hope to share the lessons, tips and cultural understanding that I have gained in these past two years.

**Side note:  I split this story into two parts as I realized I was recounting 32 hours of a journey and not 24. So consider those extra 8 hours of action and tips a bonus!**

Are you ready? The clock starts now.

The first 24 hours outside of your home country by yourself will be some of the roughest hours of your life. Depending on where you go, the most likely things we all might experience during that first day are sleep-deprivation, confusion, doing things in a different way and being forced to make lots of quick decisions on our own.

I’m going to share my experience by recounting my first day after I landed in Spain to start my semester abroad. I felt like I experienced all of the things I mentioned above so it seems like the perfect place to begin this journey.

See ya later, USA!

The year was 2010 and I was a 21-year old junior in college out of state in Florida. I had a longer  than normal Christmas break in my hometown back in Ohio as I wasn’t going back to my university that semester. In late January, I flew from Dayton to Madrid, Spain with an 8-hour layover near NYC squished in between those two flights.

This little detail is part of what makes my experience a bit more unique. With my brand-new passport and freshly pressed student visa inside, I had searched different airlines to see if they had had any layovers in a city I hadn’t yet visited.

After doing some Internet research, I finally decided on a flight from Continental Airlines (which later merged with United) that left Dayton in the morning and had an 8-hour layover in their major hub, Newark, NJ. After a short search on Google Maps, I saw that NYC was only about  10 miles away. I had only wanted to go there for at least a decade so obviously that was the perfect flight choice for me! I booked it about a little over a month in advance and began packing my one -and only- suitcase.

Why only one? More on that decision later.

Looking back on this part of my journey, I did love the fun stopover in one of the most amazing cities in the world (can you tell I’m biased?) but if I had needed to stick to a tighter budget -which later on in the semester I did-I would’ve skipped it.

As much fun as long layovers and stopover tours can be, if you have even the slightest doubt that you might miss your connecting – and main- flight, choose a flight with a more practical layover time and don’t leave the airport. Especially if you have to arrive somewhere that particular day for an important conference or for an orientation. As tempting as a little jaunt into a new city is, in that case, it wouldn’t be worth it.

Thanks to doing research ahead of time, I planned a quick little taste of NYC trip for that cold late-January morning.

 

Next stop: New York City!

After I landed at the airport, I took the AirTrain into the city, arrived at Penn Station, walked around Midtown Manhattan with my briefcase-looking carry-on luggage and explored the area around me. I had only feasibly planned to spend 5 hours in Manhattan so I didn’t visit any museums, galleries or famous sights that required you to wait in line. Maybe you wouldn’t have enjoyed a such a fast visit like this but I did.

I managed to do a handful of new things that day, all within the span of a few hours.

I hadn’t ever ridden a train before, let alone visited a train station nor had I been to a major metropolitan city by myself. I took my time with things.

I knew that the mere fact and realization that I was in New York City and could walk its streets with real New Yorkers and many other people from all over the world would be enough for me. A bigger and longer trip could wait. And I’m glad I did wait cause my subsequent visits to NYC have been unforgettable. But that first visit was just for me.

And I think that is something you have to keep at the forefront of your mind when you travel internationally for the first time by yourself. Don’t focus on what other people might think of your trip or where exactly you go. If that city is where you want to go, for whatever reason, and you have the means to go, do it.

The only major advantage I had in NYC, though I had never visited before, was that everything was in my native language, English. Things got tricky later on once I landed in Madrid but I’ll explain why shortly.

I managed to buy my train ticket back to the Newark International Airport around 5:30 or 6 p.m. that afternoon and made it to the train’s gate during rush hour.  I had never before been in such a busy hub nor had I seen so many people rushing around like mice scurrying around for scraps of food. Everyone was trying to catch a train before it was too late.

I needed to get back to the airport in a New York minute – but definitely not in a taxi!

Once I arrived back to the airport, I made a couple last phone calls to friends and family back home before I called my phone provider, Verizon at the time, to suspend my line. This was when things got real and I sobered up. My excursion to the city was fun but I had to get ready for what was next.

The longest flight of my life at the time was leaving in about an hour and a half and I was about to completely disconnect from my world. Since I didn’t have a smartphone then, I didn’t know when the next time I would be able to use the Internet and contact anyone was.

And that’s sort of when my nerves tried to take over and a little bit of fear of the unknown begun to sink in.

Had I studied the Metro de Madrid‘s map enough? Could I really understand spoken Spanish that wasn’t from Latin America? Will anyone help me if I get lost? Will everyone look at me strangely and speak to me in English all the time?

These thoughts plagued my mind while I waited at the gate to board my flight.

Actually, scratch that. While I waited in the wrong area near my gate and didn’t realize that the flight to Madrid was almost boarding until I heard the gate attendant say last call on the overhead speaker.

I had not done that spontaneous (ahem, planned) visit to NYC and made it back to the airport on time to only miss my flight due to a silly mistake like that! So, I grabbed my bag and coat, while fishing my passport out of my small backpack and hurried over to the correct gate. Once my boarding pass was scanned, I started to walk down the gate pathway and with each step I took, my heart raced.

It was about to begin.

I was really about to get on a enormous plane that would fly me across the ocean to a country where I knew no one.

At this point, I accepted that I was now completely on my own. My ticket was scanned, I had called my family to say, “see you on the other side, ” and I suspended my cell phone service once I had gotten comfortable in my assigned middle seat. *Groan.*

It’s not like I had never flown before or done any traveling on my own. I had. I had done a lot up until that point in time but I had never gone as far away from home as I was about to go at that moment.

That’s what made me the most nervous and fearful although in a way, it was slightly comforting to know that I was heading to a modern and well-developed country. I think these feelings are normal and we all experience them.

I was so excited to go to Spain and study there that,  in the midst of my exuberance, I forgot to wrap my head around the issue of distance until two weeks before. I had gone through the same thought process when I moved away from home to go study in Florida. This seems to be a habit of mine, haha.

This NYC tourist was about to turn study abroad student in Spain in the morning. Behind me is the Flat Iron Building, my favorite building!

The flight took off around 9 p.m. EST (3 a.m. in Spain) and there I was. I was on my way but trying to get a glimpse of beautiful NYC below (another reason why I chose that layover). I don’t really remember seeing much to be honest.

Just that I was quite uncomfortably seated between another girl who was also going to study abroad and an older man who kept sending the dinner back or asking the stewardesses for things. And he later took his shoes off before going to sleep. Lovely.

Soon after we were served dinner, my first in-flight meal in many moons, and I watched a little bit of a show or movie on the screen in front of me, I became more relaxed. The people to my right and left still irritated me a little bit but not as much as before. I was focusing on the fact that soon I would be in the country I’d dreamed of seeing since my journey with the Spanish language had begun a few years before.

Eventually I got to sleep, albeit late, and I managed to sleep for maybe a few hours. And then the daily routine disruptions began. The stewardesses turned on some of the overhead lights and begun serving breakfast.

I went to check my watch. It’s 2:30 a.m. What are they doing? It’s not breakfast time! I wiped the excessive amount of dust from my heavy, sleep-laden eyes to get a better look.

I then look at the in-flight monitor that’s facing me (which I swore I had turned off) and the local time said 8:30 a.m.

Oh.

And that’s when it dawned on me that it was in fact breakfast time in some parts of Europe.  You know, that continent I was currently flying over at the time? So I put my folding tray down accepted the breakfast tray the lady handed me and considered it a late night snack, haha.

Sleep deprivation would kick in once we landed but I was experiencing a myriad of emotions at that time as we were fast approaching our destination: Madrid, the capital city.

The city wasn’t my first real peek of Spain, but rather the mountains in the northwestern part of the country were (and area I would call home a few years later). I had seen mountains before but they were always ones located in my own country. Something about seeing mountains overhead in a plane, halfway across the world, was very moving to me. And it was my first image of the country I had waited so long to finally experience. Tears welled up in my eyes and I let them gather there for a moment and blur my vision.

That was a particularly moving moment.

Meanwhile, I focused back on breakfast and try as I might to catch a little bit more sleep, it was to no avail. I decided to pull out my guide book and study the metro map one last time.

To be continued

 

5 Things to Do in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

This verdant northwestern corner of Spain is not to be missed. While Santiago is the final destination on the Way of St. James, there is so much more to discover. Whether your visit is long or short, you’ll find dozens of things you can do in this enchanting city. Here are five of my favorites!

    1. Take a rooftop tour of the Cathedral

Do this in the late spring or summer to get the clearest views.  For one hour, a guide will show you around the rooftops, explain its history and allow ample time for photos.

2. Eat Galician octopus at O Bogedon Os Concheiros

Santiago is packed with great places to eat from bars to family-style restaurants that serve the freshest seafood.  Wander away from crowded Rúa do Franco and your taste buds will be rewarded with some of the most succulent octopus you’ve ever tried.

 

3.  Visit the Museo do Pobo Galego

A great way to get a deeper look at the rich culture of this unique region is to visit the museum about the Galician people and their way of life. Don’t forget to snap a photo of the famed spiral staircase inside!

4. Take a hike

Get to know Galicia. Pico Sacro is just a short 30 minute bus ride and then a short hike up to the peak. Your efforts will be rewarded with a stunning view of the surrounding area.

5. Shop at the Mercado de Abastos

Head to where the locals shop. Go early to find deals on fresh seafood and produce.  It’s a busy place but you’ll definitely walk way with your arms full.

Regardless of how much time you have, you’ll leave the city with wonderful memories. Don’t forget to plan a return trip as there are more hidden treasures waiting to be found!

An Open Letter to My 18 Year Old Self: Life, 10 Years After Graduation

The world is at your feet. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, Sarah.

You heard these phrases from anyone and everyone often leading up until the day of your high school graduation. However, the white cap and gown you will wear on that day and the words that will be spoken on that stage will soon be but a distant memory. This moment was all you could think about at the time, even though finishing this stage of your academic career practically drained you of almost every ounce of willpower you had left. And you even went to sleep after midnight, something you had managed not to do during most of your high school years (and still earning good grades).

Nevertheless, you did it. You achieved one of the many milestones you will go on to accomplish in your life. This day was just the beginning of your brand new life as an adult, though you didn’t fully grasp it at the time. It was going to be exciting and full of adventures. You were going far away to college after all and literally starting a brand new life. Where no one had ever heard your name before or new your parents or any other detail about you. I can’t promise you that life after your high school graduation will be easy or that you will always be happy but you will go on to create an amazing and enriching life for yourself. Just you wait and see. (But get to working on this life you want. It won’t just magically come to you!)

Sadly, I also can’t promise you that, and it’s with great sadness I write these words, everyone who sat with you and walked across this very stage with you will still be walking on this Earth 10 years later. I wish I could save you from the disappointment and grief you will experience, but I can’t. It’s the heartbreaking and stark reality of life. It’s so short.

Gorgeous tulips in Lugano, Switerland

Take heart. Though not everyone who was with you at age 18 will be by your side at age 28, you will learn how to live your days to the absolute fullest. You won’t always be flying off to a new city for a weekend or exploring a castle or working on an exciting new project. There will be times when you won’t want to do anything more than curl up underneath your covers and lay in our bed -somewhere in the world- and watch a TV show series on your laptop or read a book in another language (spoiler alert from the future: yes, you will know how to speak more than two languages by this time in your life -and yes, it’s pretty freaking sweet.) But, you know what? It’s okay to do these things, too. You are human after all and everyone needs to recharge their batteries once in a while.

A lot of things in your life are unknown at this point but trust in the process. Everything is working together for your good and for your benefit. It takes time and you will be pruned and molded into becoming an amazing, caring and empathetic person. You will blossom into more of who you saw yourself becoming all of your teen years and I think you would not only be proud of her, but you would be in awe of her as well. Do you know what you do on a regular basis a decade from now? I’ll tell you.

The young woman you have become speaks up in group discussions. She talks to cute guys and even sits down next to them on public transportation without batting (too much) an eye!  She’s not afraid to speak her mind or add her thoughts and ideas to a discussion because she knows her opinion adds value. She travels solo. SOLO. A concept I know is completely foreign to you as you haven’t quite left home for the first time yet (which will feel like you’re being abandoned just FYI but you’ll be over it in two weeks, so don’t have a meltdown just yet). I could go on and on about the woman you’ve become but I’ll sum it up in one sentence: she’s beautiful inside and out and she’s a dearly loved child of God. You have fought for everything you have and are at this moment in time but don’t think for a second that you will stop fighting because you have a long road ahead of you. It will all be worth it, though.

These last 10 years of your life zipped by like a high speed train and the next 10 unfortunately won’t be slowing down any time soon. Don’t let that scare you but rather let it motivate you to make the most of it.

Here’s to another beautiful decade of your life. Make every moment count and make a difference in someone else’s life. You won’t regret it…trust me on this one. 😉

Not Everyone Lets Travel Change Them

The second of two summer trips to Mexico as a teen and the start of all my awkward and crazy adventures in many different foreign lands!
(Ensenada, Mexico, 2007)
This month marked ten years since my first international trip
and my first time leaving my home country of the United States of America. In mid-July 2006, a group of teens from my high school in Ohio and I boarded an early morning flight to San Diego, California, where we would team up with a local missionary and his family and live out of an old school bus turned RV for the next two and a half weeks, driving around rural parts of Mexico. That trip changed me, broke me and humbled me in ways I didn’t know were possible.
I only knew that I would never view travelling and other cultures the same way again. It was no longer something that I would do for pleasure but it instead became a way for me to get to know people from backgrounds that were so vastly different from my own. People who didn’t speak the same language or view the world as I did. It showed me that I am but one person in a huge, diverse and beautiful world. It showed me how insignificant I am but also at the same time just how much of a difference one person can make in the world in which we live.
However, I feel that I am in the minority when it comes to other travelers who are out traipsing across the world as I type. I let travel change me and I am far better off by letting it.
If you rush through a city or a country in a hurry, you may miss out
on incredibly unique experiences like this one (a man and his donkey who walk
the Camino de Santiago), Fisterra 2015.
I travel slowly.
I learn languages well enough until I feel the words that I speak to my core, to the very depths of my soul. I talk to locals and ask for their advice and recommendations. I want to know where they would go if they were visiting the city for a few short days and not just depend on a guidebook or a few online reviews. I prefer to spend long stretches of time in a city or a country until I form a routine, find a favorite café or the cashiers at the supermarket or local shop owners begin to recognize me and bring me my “usual.”
Not everyone welcomes this type of slow paced travel and while I would normally say, “that’s OK” or, “to each their own,” a recent travel experience that went sour has forced me to think about the many different ways that you can travel.
Teaching English abroad here in Spain and traveling on the weekends and during paid time off, have shown me that there are dozens of different types of travelers and an endless amount of personalities that you can meet on the road. I’ve met plenty of wonderful people and I have had so many interesting conversations with people from all over the world in the past decade. I’ve been invited to visit them in their homes to share a meal or join them on a day trip or make plans to do a longer trip to a destination we both would love to experience.
Some of these conversations and times spent with said wonderful people have blossomed into long-lasting friendships. Some of them only lasted for a season and then life forced us to go on our separate journeys. Both types of relationships have enriched my life and I am grateful for them.
Sometimes your tour guide comes in the unexpected form of an older, white-haired fisherman and shows you exactly how the locals live (Fisterra, Spain, 2014)
On the other hand, life is all about taking the good with the bad. Not every travel experience will be your favorite and make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside when you reflect back on the memories. There will be many that you wish never happened or never turned out the way they did. There will be words you wished you didn’t hear and ones you wished you never said. Images you wished you could erase from your mind but instead they linger, though thankfully some of the details get blurry and they fade away with time. You still can’t change your experience and in the future, you will be just as grateful for the bad experiences as you are for the good ones. That is, if you learn from the bad ones and move on from them, first.
I can relate to this as a recent negative travel experience left a bad taste in my mouth and an ache in my heart. Both of these things will fade with time and disappear but the effect it had on my travel style and compassionate, wanderlust-driven heart may last a bit longer. How much longer, I don’t know but perhaps only until I learn from the situation and move on from it without looking back. And until I accept the fact that not everyone experiences travel the same way I do. In a way, it’s a hard truth to accept.
If you’re reading this and you truly want to get the most out of an experience that you can, follow these guidelines while you travel (and tell me how they changed your trip for you!):
Don’t consume travel as if it were a product and then stop using it when it isn’t working for you. Instead, use it as a means to grow as a person and learn from the people you will meet along the way. Each person has their own unique story and perspective on life and if you just stop and get to know someone who’s different than you, you will learn simple yet profound lessons.
Don’t put unrealistic expectations on everyone you meet and everything you see. Instead, accept people –flaws and all- as they are and try to put yourself in their shoes before you even consider judging them. (In fact, don’t judge them.) I’m not perfect and I do not demand perfection from anyone else. Living or traveling abroad is messy and frustrating. If you can work through the problems and the messiness, you won’t come back from the experience unchanged.
Not every day is sunshine, on-time flight arrivals, no screaming babies and knowing exactly where you’re going. It’s OK. You’ll still survive!
Don’t simply learn languages just to know the words or be able to ask where the bathroom is. Instead of having head knowledge of one or more languages, let that intellectual understanding move down and settle in your heart. Meet someone whose first language isn’t the same as yours. Let them show you their perspective on life! I learn languages so that I can understand another way of thinking and people whose mother tongue is completely different than mine. You may have to learn a new language before you can make friends with someone who would later become your best friend. It happens more often than you think while traveling.
Knowing how to say “hello” in a dozen different languages is fun but it honestly doesn’t get you that far in life. (Molins de Rei, Spain, 2015)
Don’t take advantage of a culture and place so that only you can benefit from it. I understand that a major part of experiencing other cultures is to learn to give and take –and to be respectful of their customs. Just as one wouldn’t deface a UNESCO World Heritage site, you shouldn’t only come to a place to enjoy the things it has to offer but you should get to know the culture and the people, too. If you want to travel more deeply and let it change you, you should instead prioritize experiences and people over material things and experiences.
Witnessing a sunset on a cool winter’s day in the middle of a very rainy season is priceless. No money necessary to see this either! (Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 2015)
 After a lot of reflection and dissecting how I personally travel and take experiences in these past couple of weeks, I’ve finally been able to identify what type of person tends to not let travel change them. It’s a type of person that I have been at one point in my own life and the type of person I encounter on the road and would rather pretend doesn’t exist so that I don’t have to speak English to them, haha.

Well, if you consistently do any of those things that I listed above while you travel that I recommend you not to do, I hate to say it but…you are a tourist.

You are not a traveler. You may try to convince yourself and everyone else that you are indeed a traveler with more stamps in your passport than years on this Earth.

You may have all of those things and appear to be a traveler to the outside world but I think even you will eventually realize the type of “traveler” that you are. There’s no shame in being a tourist from time to time (we all are at some point in our lives) but if that’s the only role you assume in the places that you live, you are sorely missing out on a more fulfilling and enriching travel experience.

 

Sometimes your own two feet are the single best things that can take you on an adventure of a lifetime. (Barcelona, Spain, 2015)

If you come to terms with how you can’t always live inside a bubble where everyone speaks your language, everyone knows and follows the customs of your country, then you will have assumed a new role and your perspective will change. You as a person will change and grow because you have voluntarily assumed the role of a traveler. Someone who searches beyond the “top 10 things to do” lists and tries to dig deeper and discover the culture that’s shining and bursting forth around them.

If no one has ever forced you to change or rethink the way you live your life and then you go all over the world, you won’t be able to embrace all the beautiful cultures and people around you. They won’t ever change you because you simply won’t give them the permission. You choose not to let them past the walls you’ve built and let them into your life. It’s safer and less complicated. Besides, you can easily and quickly continue on your way once you’re finished with a place. No harm in doing that, right?

Well, I think it’s wrong.

And that, my readers, I believe is the most foolish and saddest decision you can make while traveling.

 

Traveling is a great way to grow as a person. No two people travel for exactly the same reasons!
(Fisterra, Spain, 2015)

Do you let travelling change you? Why or why not? If yes, how deep do those changes run? Join the discussion below and share your thoughts. I’d love to hear them! 

Why I Cried When I First Entered the Alhambra Palace

This past February I had the opportunity to visit Granada for an entire weekend thanks to a few days of paid vacation for Entroido (Carnival). I didn’t miss much in Galicia as it rained during most of the week that I was gone and a lot of the Carnival activities were postponed or still celebrated but done so in the pouring rain. I wasn’t too disappointed that I missed out since I stayed for Carnival the previous year and had a lot of fun checking out the festivities around Ourense, a destination spot for most Carnaval-goers in Galicia.

However, the Galician winter was about to get well underway and I had to escape down to the sun drenched streets of Andalucía and check out Granada.

El Albaicín, a neighborhood that has the most white houses (pueblos blancos) that I´ve ever seen!

Andalucía is the stereotypical image of Spain — warm and sunny weather, flamenco, bull fighting and an over-abundance of olive oil — but for me, it’s my happy place. Ever since I lived there in 2010 and every time I go back to visit the region, I get so excited yet relaxed at the same time. Something inside me loosens and calms down. A feeling I usually only experience each time I arrive home in Dayton, my hometown. And to me this makes sense. This part of the country – a country that is not my own – has become like another home to me.

And speaking of second homes, Sevilla in particular is like that for me and not only because I’ve lived there before. It’s because I integrated myself into the culture and made some wonderful lifelong friends in the few short months I was there. It’s where I learned how to speak Spanish and, after a lot of hard work and countless headaches, become fluent in it. Where I learned to live and thrive after having experienced a few tough lessons that semester abroad. I came back from those experiences stronger and with a greater appreciation for that region and the Spanish people themselves. And whenever I head back over that way, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning. I can´t sit still nor can I concentrate on anything else. And you definitely can’t wipe the ear-to-ear grin off my face or the damper the joy I feel inside when I go.

However, Granada and specifically the Alhambra has been calling my name for the last decade. It was a shame that I never went while I was a student in Sevilla but sometimes life presents you with a second chance and this past February I got mine. And everyone knows that if you plan a trip to Granada you MUST go visit the Alhambra – especially when you’re still in your twenties and can get a little bit of a discount on the entrance ticket! 😉

Two things in particular motivated me to visit Granada and the Alhambra this year instead of putting it off once again. I’ll start with one of the reasons that doesn’t make me tear up as soon as I think about it for too long, as I’m not as emotionally invested in this one as I am the other one.

First off, at the school I’m working at here in Santiago there is a beautiful little girl who was born blind. Besides noticing that she needs assistance getting to and from her 5th grade classroom to other classrooms and that she uses a special Braille typewriter to complete her homework assignments, she’s a normal 11 year old girl. In the beginning when I first started working with her in the art classes I assist, I was nervous around her and I didn’t know how to best communicate with her. I got frustrated with myself when I wasn´t relate well to her or when she didn’t understand the point of the activity we were doing at the time.

That all changed when I started really paying attention to how she views the world and which of her other senses she uses to best communicate with those around her as she can’t rely on her sense of sight. In the beginning I felt sorry for her, to be honest. Especially the first time I came to the realization that she can’t see the color purple -my most favorite color in the world- with her own two eyes, no matter how much I desperately want her to see it. It took me some time to accept that she isn´t able to see and that it´s not something that she can change about herself. But, after I learned that she experiences the world best through touch, I began to focus my words and actions around touch whenever I interacted with her. I found this quote from a well-known poem about Granada again and it wasn’t until after I met this wonderful little girl that I truly understood its meaning.

“Dale limosna, mujer, que no hay en la vida nada, como la pena de ser ciego en Granada..” -Francisco Asís de Icaza (Translation:  Give him alms, woman, there’s nothing worse in life than being blind in Granada.)

I ended up getting tired of seeing or hearing this quote as it was mounted on a plaque near a main plaza in the center of the city but I let the words sink into my mind and I mulled it over those few days I was there. The little girl I’ve gotten to know, Paula, has changed my perspective on life and I am more grateful for my sight now than I ever have been before. She was once someone who made me so nervous to be around but now she brings me so much joy. I love seeing how she sees the world with her hands and she impresses me with her love for extreme sports such as surfing and horseback riding. She actually showed me horses communicate best by touch so she can communicate perfectly with them. In a way, she is more in tune with the world than most people ever are in their lifetimes. She feels the same emotions that most kids her age feel but what’s different about her is that she also takes time to absorb experiences and get her hands on them too so to speak.

So, as I made my travel plans for Carnival, I decided that I had to take advantage of going to Granada and while I was there, I had to see the Alhambra. It wasn’t as if I would lose my sight any time soon –knock on wood– but I felt that it was now or never.

Secondly, a terrible start to 2016 was also a big motivator for me to go to Granada and not put it off any longer. I woke up to the news that my oldest cousin, who lived in California, passed away at age 32 from her grueling battle with first, breast cancer and then later the following September, lung cancer. As the new year drew near, the cancer ravaged her body even more until she went peacefully on the very last day of 2015, surrounded by my mom’s family. I cried my eyes out when I awoke to the news and the days following. After a while I pulled myself together. Or as best as I could while living far, far away from my family.

Thoughts and plans I had once put off overwhelmed me as I pondered over just how short life truly is. I also wondered if there was a dream place that my cousin had ever wanted to go see in her lifetime. I don’t know if there ever was as it was something we hadn’t ever talked about before. One place in particular for me stood out and I couldn’t dismiss the thought or put it off any longer. I had to see the Alhambra before I die. It was an item on my bucket list that I had yet to fulfill and there was no time like this year to cross it off. And not only would I do the trip for myself but I would do it for these two special people in my life who have taught me so much in such a short time. I would go for Paula, a joyous little girl who may never be able to see the world as I do and for my cousin Jenna, a beautiful and kind soul who left this world far too soon. I would go for them and I would enjoy every single sight, smell, sound, taste and touch along the way.

Now, getting myself to Granada and not running into any road blocks along the way was the only challenge that lay ahead of me. I had the burning desire to go and I had my reasons for going firmly in my mind. The only things that could slow me down or hinder me from going at all were technology and the various modes of transportation that I needed to take in order to arrive there in one piece.

The clasic blue, yellow, green and brown tiles (and Arabic script) that can be seen all over the palaces.

When I finally made it to the entry door of the Nasrid Palace (the starting point of any tour of the Alhambra) and the man who had told me earlier to go to the taquillas first to exchange the ticket I had printed off at a La Caixa ATM for an official ticket, . He recognized me from earlier and the tone of his voice as he said, “Vente amiga. Hay tiempo para todo,” urged me to walk faster towards the ramp and into the magical palace that was just a few feet away.

As the barcode scanner passed over my ticket and beeped, I realized I had completed the final step of my journey. I was in. No one told me that I had arrived too late and had missed my entry time into the Alhambra. No one told me that I had bought the wrong ticket and that said ticket wouldn’t allow me to enter. I was in and it was finally my turn.

And as I took my first steps down the path that lead to the main door, the tears came. And not in a soft and graceful way, but in a more intense, please-no-one-look-at-you kind of way. You know, the kind of tears you shed after you complete something very strenuous or you hear of bad news about something or someone that’s very close to your heart. The kind of tears that ruin mascara and good makeup, haha.

Images and experiences of what it took for me to get there flashed before me: a flight from Santiago to Madrid, the Cercanias train from the airport to the Atocha station and a short walk to the bus station in Madrid, an overnight bus to Granada, a brief early morning check-in to my accommodations and then finally, a taxi up to the hilly area where the Alhambra palace is located. I had arrived. And I was finally seeing the beauty of this palace that I had dreamed of seeing for so, so long. I continued to cry and wipe my eyes as I walked into the first room of the Nasrid palace and I took in all of the tiles, designs and Arab architecture. I waited for a couple groups to pass by me and got my bearings. I had no idea what kind of a treat my eyes were in for later as I continued to make my way through all of the palaces and gardens that make up the Alhambra.

The sunrise I saw over the ancient Albaicín neighborhood earlier that day and the six hours total I spent on the grounds were more than worth my time. It was an experience that I’ll remember for the rest of my life and while I will cherish it forever, I would not be opposed to visiting both the palace and the city again.

The Alhambra and Granada are two magical places that can’t be replicated. And I must confess that I fell in love with the city in less than half a day. That´s a first for me! I’m so honored to have had the privilege to see them both and for the memories I made there. I know I’ll be back for a visit and perhaps I’ll cry then too or perhaps it is possible to visit the Alhambra with dry eyes. I’ll have to find out if this is true! 😉

The Most Epic ¨How I Almost Missed A (Insert Mode of Transportation Here)…..¨ Stories

If you know me outside of the blogosphere, you´ll know that I have a habit of being late. It doesn´t matter what for or why, I am simply always late. The long answer can be found (and deduced) in this blog post but the short answer is this: I love to wake up early and get a head start on the day but I move slow in the mornings (and often over-thinking everything). This translates to me arriving late to almost everything under the sun: movie theaters, restaurants, bus stops, train stations, airports and even my own parents´ or grandparents´ house for dinner, haha. It´s like I have this insatiable desire to see just how close I can arrive to the time before a movie starts without me or before a train decides to leave me in its dust at the station.

I´ve been traveling internationally off-and-on for almost 10 years and you would think that I would have a set routine or schedule when it comes to traveling but I honestly don´t. I have packing a suitcase down to a science yet I can´t seem to do the same for the actual travel part. The most important aspect of traveling (minus the experience itself) in most people´s opinions.

As much as I try to break the habit or simply take baby steps to be more punctual, the whole being late thing seems to go well with my lifestyle so why change? It also doesn’t help that the Spanish culture in which I live is more laid-back and most of the events, parties and activities (even movies sometimes!) are known to start late (sometimes 2-3 hours late). One of the most ironic things about this culture; however, is that the trains -all around the country- leave at the exact time the schedules say they are going to leave. And once the doors whoosh shut, not a single soul can get on or get off said train. Or can they…?

(Disclaimer: Don´t try these methods at home or in another country. I can´t guarantee any of them to work. And I don´t want any of you to get angry with me for having tried one and it not working. But you guys still might get mad at me anyway because of how lucky I´ve been when I´m late. And I´ve had plenty of times where I haven´t been lucky – don´t worry.)

Come take a little trip down memory lane with me as I recount three experiences where I should have missed a city bus, a regional bus and then, most recently, a train but didn’t!

1. Catching a city bus in Jacksonville, Florida that was running on a detour route and on a Sunday (a slow day)

2. Being the second to last person to board a bus in Madrid heading to A Coruña after a spring break trip with my brother

3. Making it onto a train from Ourense to Santiago at night and after I spent the afternoon at the nearby thermal hot springs.

My 2015 in Partly Foreign Words (Parte Uno)

The format of this post was inspired by a similar one I read in the beginning of 2015 by a former auxiliar and fellow blogger, Jenny Marshall at A Thing for Words. You can check out her post here. I’m in no way endorsing her blog or writing this post as to copy it word for word. I merely liked the style and wanted to thank her for giving me inspiration to come up with a list of words on my own. A list of words that defined 2015 for me and what I’ve learned throughout the year. And naturally as I made my way through the year, mentally retracing old footprints and adventures past, I realized that I could split this review into two posts to make it more digestible for my readers. So, are you ready to join me on this linguistic journey? Venga, vamos!
Cabalgata in Coruña January 2015

 

 

January: cabalgata. Language: Spanish. Meaning: Three Kings
Parade

I rang in 2015 with a couple of friends in A Coruña and we went to a couple of bars in and around the beach that night. It was one of the best New Year’s Eve/Day celebrations I’ve ever had but the celebrations continued a few days later. In Spain (and a few other countries), they celebrate the Epiphany (or the coming of the Three Kings or los Reyes Magos) and that day is always January 6th. Most children all around the country wait for the Three Kings to visit their house the night of the 5th and put gifts in their shoes or in their room. To an outsider, the holiday may seem like a second Christmas and it is in some respects. A lot of children are more excited about Reyes than they are Christmas Day – it’s true!

Roscón de Reyes in all its glory – with a hidden king figurine and bean inside!

However, the Three Kings Day has its own traditions that make it distinct from Christmas. One of those traditions is to watch a parade
of floats from local organizations and see volunteers dressed up as the Three Kings (insert names here) throw out candy for children and adults alike to catch and enjoy. Before my friends and I found a good place to watch the parade, we picked up some chocolate covered churros to enjoy while we waited. And then the following day, I went to the pastor and his wife’s house to enjoy the traditional dessert of the Three Kings (sweet brioche roll with a sugar garnish) with hot thick chocolate. It’s no wonder why I got sick that month but thankfully during the middle of the month, I made a vow to eat less sugar for the rest of 2015. Surprisingly I stayed true to that vow for the majority of the year (minus holiday and birthday celebrations) and I’m really proud of that!

Playing new card games with friends on a holiday is also fun!
February: ciclogénesis. Language: Spanish. Meaning: storm
with gale force winds
(similar to a tropical storm where you will indeed get blown off the sidewalk if you’re not careful, haha)
The beach is beautiful in any season and in any weather.

 

My first winter in the infamously rainy region of Galicia did not disappoint, though it wasn’t as rainy as most winters usually are. Or at least that’s what the locals told me. In the fall I learned the word temporal and quickly learned that those
always bring a lot of wind into the area along with a lot of rain. You know, the kind of rain that will last all day and all night.

Some cities even look more beautiful in the rain I’ve learned….

 

What I did not expect (or prepare myself for) was to see hail at any time during the month of February! Yes. I’ve seen a lot of weird weather in my life thus far and I’ve lived through three or four tropical storms (no hurricanes, however, thank God) that
have brought tremendous wind and rain but I didn’t expect this. The air during a temporal or ciclogénesis is warm but the hail is so cold and if it hits you just right, it can almost cut through your skin like a sharp knife. (Or hit you smack dab in the middle of your face if you don’t properly take cover as you walk up a hill in it, haha)

Rain is still rain though – and it’s often rained on me a lot here!

 

The strength of the winds in these types of storms is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced either. A friend and I were walking to a cultural center to see a local documentary on the Camino de Santiago and took the side street where it’s located. Little did we know that we would pass a couple of open spaces (where there are no tall buildings) and that the wind cut sharply through us even to our bones and almost pick us up and carry us away. And that gust of wind was so cold, too! I hardly ever say it’s cold here but that time I was cold! Dressing in layers was something I learned from living in Florida except in the case of Galician towns and cities, putting more clothes on your body can only help you, not hurt you! haha
At the end of the month I went to see a different kind of precipitation:
snow!

 

March: melhor. Language: Portuguese. Meaning: better
I always recommend people weight lift olive oil bottles to rid themselves of jet lag!

 

I’ll let my pictures for this word say more than what I can express. Needless to say, this month was one of my best months
abroad last year. It was full of cultural and linguistic experiences and a special visit from my older brother!

Spring had also finally arrived to rainy Northern Spain. The trees were starting to sprout new leaves, flowers began to bloom and birds began to stick around longer and sing us melodic songs in the mornings. And, for my brother’s sake, most of the month was sunny and dry. Except the afternoon we finally were able to go see the castle in Coruña it poured down rain. What made things worse was that we had to fight with nature to try and save our respective umbrellas from the cruel and gusty winds.

Luckily he had plenty of Spanish and Portuguese coffee to keep him warm  (and alive)!

Nevertheless, we survived and had a great time together, save for one little argument in the middle of the historic center of Toledo. 😛 One of the best times during that month for me personally was being able to act as an interpreter and translator for my brother in the beautiful and charming city of Oporto, Portugal. (It was the second visit for me but the first one with nothing but rain and cloudy weather!) Thank God he already spoke
Spanish and didn’t need much help in Spain. Whew…

A beautiful view of Toledo from the main street

 

In Portugal, he forced me to use my sometimes broken Portuguese to ask questions and get directions or get clarification from locals. At times, I came in really handy for the both of us and I was glad that I could help my brother in this way, after he had helped me countless times before. It was also good practice for me but what I shouldn’t have done was translate the Portuguese we were hearing and reading to BOTH English and Spanish. I got a bit carried away with the interpreting and after our second day there, I fell into my bed at the hostel completely exhausted and slept with my clothes on that night, haha! The reason why I over-interpreted was because I was simply so excited for my brother and me to be in Portugal and hearing the language together for the very first time.
So much love for Portugal and all their hand painted tiles!

 

It really was o melhor.
April: pa’lla. Language: Andalú -dialect of Castilian
Spanish. Meaning: over there
In Córdoba in front of a restaurant with an exceptional name (¨translation: go over there, way over there!)

I started the month of April off in the Central and Southern parts of the country. It was actually the second month in a row that I was in the
enchanting region of Andalucía, where my love affair with this country first began.

Andalusians are the butt of most of the jokes Spaniards make—not all— and it is usually the first region that comes to a Spaniard’s mind if you are talking about regional and linguistic differences with them. Regardless of their reputation and dialect, it is one of the few places in the world where I am happiest and feel like I am at home. Every time I’ve returned to Andalucía, whether it’s Sevilla, Córdoba, Málaga or any other city or town, my heart soars and I turn into a little girl who is eagerly awaiting Christmas morning. I absolutely love this part of Spain and always will. (I didn’t choose to work there due to complications and rumored delays with paychecks—and those rumors are true.)
Whenever I miss the south I make or go order a traditional breakfast like this one:
tostas (toast) with tomate (pureed tomato) and olive oil with tea and fresh squeezed orange juice.

 

Thousands of international students come to Sevilla and the rest of the region to study each year. Not everyone –foreign or national—can understand the way the locals speak, let alone learn how to speak Spanish well but I was one of the fortunate ones who succeeded. I originally thought the accent was ugly and that the Andalusians had a lisp but I changed my tune after I met some of the most wonderful people from different parts of Sevilla and Andalucía. The accent suddenly became beautiful to me the more I spent time with those beautiful people. It’s funny how quickly opinions can change in a such a short period of time.

Now English speakers can understand a little bit of what this wonderful part of Spain says!
Now, I won’t lie and say that I understand every word that comes out of the mouth of an Andalusian person. In fact, the more time away I spend from the region, the harder it is initially to tune my ear back to the accent. Which is why I have to listen to Andalusian singers or watch TV shows or videos with Andalusian actors sometimes. (Or talk to some of my Sevillian friends!)
I love how diverse Spain is and how cultural surprises are almost around every corner. What’s more, I love how you can live in one part of the country and then move to another part of it and have a completely different experience. And, as I love to play around with my native language, I love that the Andalusians do something similar with their own accent and dialect.
May: igrexa. Language: Galician. Meaning: church

This rose garden reminded me of the roses that would bloom in
my mother’s flower beds at my childhood home. 🙂

April brought thousands of rain drops (en abril aguas mil) in Galicia but we all reaped the benefits later on in May. The
weather was fantastic and flowers were blooming everywhere – especially in the
rose garden at my school that year.

I also made it to my first ever soccer (football) game and saw Real Deportivo play
(and save their spot in their league). 😛

I also personally had one of the best surprise trips of my life that month. And it involved visiting a friend’s church (which I had originally
thought was only his grandparents’ church) one random weekend in a nearby city. The weekend three friends and I visited the thermal baths in Ourense for the first time was the weekend for Mother’s Day in Spain, the baptism of an English language assistant at the church and part of a four day weekend for us working in Coruña. And to top it off, I met an old friend of my Galician friend in the States and surprised the pants off him when I dropped my friend’s name at a lunch we were invited to. As much as I want to chalk it all up to coincidence, I can’t bring myself to that conclusion. It truly was an amazing –albeit short—and culturally enriching weekend. I couldn’t have orchestrated a better weekend and I know that it was only through God working behind the scenes that it happened.

Funny thing is, when my friend and I entered the church, I was nervous that everyone there only spoke Galician, including the pastor. And
my other nagging thought was that, “What kind of impression will I make on my friend’s grandparents if I can’t even speak their language?” I was really worried for nothing but the name of the church was indeed in Galician so what’s a guiri (foreigner) supposed to think?

June: hoguera. Language: Spanish. Meaning: bonfire
Does this look fun or crazy to you?…

The month of June ushered in some fantastic weather and a couple of opportunities for me to travel around Spain. And it was also the month that cities all around Spain celebrated the infamous Dia de San Juan. I personally had been hearing about it all school year from teachers, friends, church members, shop keepers, my students, random people who struck up conversations with me (or vice versa) – you name it: anyone who had
seen it at least once before took it upon themselves to spread the word.

This wasn’t a small celebration in the city, they celebrate things BIG in Coruña! The official holiday is June 24th  but on the night of the 23rd, crowds of locals and visitors alike gather on the beach to light bonfires –some of the biggest I’ve EVER seen!-, watch fireworks, go to concerts and hang out with friends and family. Unfortunately nowadays, it’s a big outdoor cocktail party or rager for young people. It’s become (or maybe it always was?) an excuse to drink a ton with your friends and then jump over small bonfires for good luck.
Because alcohol and fire are two safe things that go together, right? Didn’t
think so, haha.

It was fun to jump over a little fire myself for good luck – as a part of the festival’s tradition

 

It was certainly an experience and one I’m glad I had. I may go to another San Juan festival again or I may not after having lived to tell the tale. Plus, the poor city workers of La Coruña are tasked with the difficult job of cleaning up the beaches after the
big party. However, they do get a little bit of help from the animal kingdom. What I did not realize was that the day after San Juan is a smorgasbord for any seagull within flying distance of the region. I didn’t see all of the seagulls feasting on all the “deliciously” disgusting trash that party-goers had left but I saw the thousands of tiny little seagull footprints that were left behind. It was quite a sight to see the beaches all lit up with the bonfires but it was equally impressive to see the party cleaned up the next day. What I really didn’t like on either day was that the entire city filled up with smoke from the bonfires and it took a full day for it to exit the city.
I also paid a visit to the city where I would be moving to for the next school year –
Santiago de Compostela 🙂

 

 

So…maybe I’ll stay clear of Coruña this upcoming summer. We
shall see what happens!
(Stay tuned for part two…)