Updated: 2 days ago
The number one reason people move abroad, in my opinion, is for cultural immersion. They want to experience a place from within, not from the outside looking in as a tourist. Of course some expats move abroad for more specific reasons like a new job opportunity, or just to escape the politics and hub bub of life at home. But for me, I've found more than cultural immersion or an escape - I have found myself.
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Maybe it’s the aroma of sizzling shellfish on a hot grill on a tapas night, or the bluster of the uniquely named "cierzo" wind carrying laughter from children in the Plaza del Pilar lifting my spirits. Or perhaps it’s the ache of a day walking the stoned alleyways, which shouldered Roman carts, Moorish slaves, and high heeled women over thousands of years (well, maybe not the high heeled women). It's these few things and so much more that make me feel a sense of belonging when I visit my second home in Zaragoza, Spain. To illustrate, here are 6 ways that living abroad part time has created a better me.
1) I throw my schedule out the window in Spain.
This may very well be the pinnacle of self-change on this list, because I am always on a schedule. My day in the US starts with my toddler yelling "the sun is up!" around roughly 630 am, and ends early at 9pm after a long day of work, chores, child wrangling and a strict 5pm happy hour/dinner time. I'm hardwired this way.
In Spain, the first thing I learned about the time here is, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." If bar dwellers below my apartment are hollering in the wee hours of the morning, well, just go to bed later. The schedule is absolutely absurd in Spain. I wake around 9am (or sometimes even later) and shake my fist at my blackout blinds for keeping me in a deathly slumber so late. (Although I've grown used to this routine, I still shake my head that an adult my age could sleep past 730am). The morning then completely disappears before its noon, time to hit the street.
By 1pm you need to start thinking about eating a big and wine filled lunch, because if you're not sitting down before 3pm you won't get to eat again until 8pm. Meal times are sacred so you can't miss them. Even if hunger hasn't hit, come 8pm it's time to once again hit the street for strolling, snacking, and more drinking until about 11pm, when you can finally go to bed. As unnatural and foreign as this is to me, I've learned to embrace it. When in Rome, right?
2) I walk more in Spain.
I’m profoundly healthier in this way, when I visit. My step count is well over 10,000 daily, and my thighs burn after the slog of strollers, bags and groceries up the three flights of stairs to my apartment after each outing. I don’t drive in Spain, I walk everywhere. For goodness sakes - I take public transportation!
3) I live more sustainably in Spain.
One trip to the grocery store in the US and I’m left $250 lighter, with 25 pounds of packaged foods and carbo treats, most of which will expire by the time I get around to eating them. I'm always throwing out wasted leftovers or expired/spoiled things. In Spain, I take my little cart and walk to the nearest market for only a handful of items, only that which I can carry - maybe a tomato, a wedge of cheese, and some escabeche tuna for tonight’s ensalada illustrada. I only buy what I will eat in the next 48 hours. Besides, the trip to the store is kind of like a main event each day.
Also, I recycle more in Spain. In the US we have a massive garbage can to fill all manner of cardboard, plastic, glass and cans. There's no sorting and it's not really anything I think about. In Spain, I carefully sort and bag each type of recyclable and walk it down three blocks to the nearest city bins to dispose of them properly. It's a lot of extra effort and a total pain, but it's what they do here, so I'm being more green for it. Yay me!
Finally, they don't use plastic really ever here. Ziploc bags are near impossible to find (I use several of these daily in the US), expensive, and certainly not offered in packs of 250 like at home. You also don't see doggie bags and take away bags in restaurants, unless you specifically ask. When you do get a take away container, it's usually so nice that we end up re-using it like we would Tupperware. I haven't seen anything made out of Styrofoam here, ever. Bags in the store are replaced by paper (at a small cost), or most people bring their own bags. Living green! Wahoo!
4) I dress better living abroad in Spain.
Everyone in Spain looks sharp, all the time. I can't tell you how many fall mornings I do the drop off run at school with no bra, concealed by a heavy sweatshirt, or how many days I just wear air-wicking camping clothes around the neighborhood. I barely make an effort in the US unless it's a trendy place or a nice night out. In Spain, you won't see sweatpants, baggie clothes or sloppy looking outfits. No one tramps around in workout wear or scantily clad garb. The look is sophisticated, muted, always put together. This motivates me to dress better myself. I have to look the part, after all! Because of this, I get to try a whole new wardrobe that I wouldn't really get to wear at home without standing out as out of place in Florida. Clothes shopping is a blast in Spain!
5) I get to speak a second language in Spain.
This one will probably grind some gears with my Spanish-speaking husband, but I feel more comfortable speaking Spanish in Spain. In our town not many people speak English so I am forced to practice, no matter how bad I am at finding the right words. It can be a struggle sometimes, but really rewarding when it flows naturally.
6) I’m closer to my family in Spain.
Because our Spanish apartment is a shoebox of about 450 sq. feet we really have no choice but to spend a lot of time with each other. In the US we have space to go to our own areas, which can really limit family time interactions.
Since my toddler is a dual citizen of Italy and America living part time abroad, just like me, she's experiencing things most people never get to experience in a lifetime, let alone several times a year. To see her discover the world through this new lens brings me such great joy. I go out of my way to share as much as I can with her when we visit, so that she can understand the world isn't just in the US.
My husband is happier in Spain too. He gets to see his Spanish relatives, we get to share new moments in time with these people, who we would have only seen rarely otherwise, and I can tell that he feels reconnected to his youth growing up abroad.
He's happy, my daughter is happy, and I'm happy.
So when people say to me, “why do you have a home in Spain?” or “You’re barely ever there.” or worse, “That’s not a good financial decision!” I simply smile to them and say, “I’m a better person living abroad in Spain”, and leave it at that. It doesn’t have to make sense for any other reason than that it makes me happy to belong somewhere else completely different, half way around the world.