5 lessons I’ve learned after 2 and a half years in Spain
In August 2016, while working as a monitor at a kid’s summer camp in London, I had a very interesting conversation with a little Norwegian boy called Andreas. He was perhaps eight or nine years old. He had white-blonde hair, and a serious, contemplative nature that was beyond his years. I don’t remember telling him about the crossroads I was at – that I wanted to move abroad for good but wasn’t sure if I could cope, or if it was the right thing to do – but I must have. And the way he said this sentence to me, the day we parted ways at the end of the camp, it was as if he had been pondering my situation for a while, that he had been mulling over it with deep seriousness, and finally, gravely, he presented me with his findings. “Sandra. You should move to Europe.”
Now, I’m not saying I moved across the world because of the words of a sweet little kid. That would be crazy. But his words did stay with me. I wondered how and why he knew what I should do. I wondered why I didn’t know what to do. But despite my hesitation, there was a sureness. I needed to know what it was like to live somewhere different. To go somewhere I had never been before, totally alone, anchorless, and see what I could make of it.
So I did it. I moved to Spain to teach English, living first in Córdoba and then in Valencia. Now, two and a half years later, I’m back home. What I have to show for my adventures abroad are some wonderful memories, friendships that I hope will last for many years to come, and some hard-won life lessons that I want to record on paper. These are life lessons I learned while navigating life in a foreign country – about life, people, and the way the world works, as well as things that the Spanish people impressed upon me.
1. No place is perfect
South Africans tend to focus a lot on the problems within our country. And, in all fairness, there are lots of them. Very serious problems that can and do affect our daily lives. South Africans regularly say thing to each other like: “Be careful at X intersection – someone I know was mugged there last week”. Many of us don’t feel completely secure in our own homes, and we can’t help wondering when bad luck will strike. So I was surprised when, after being abroad for a while, I started to think that life in South Africa wasn’t ‘that bad’ after all. Was being away from my homeland making me see it through rose tinted glasses? Or was it just a necessary wake up call, a reminder that literally nowhere is perfect?
Let me say upfront that Spain is a wonderful place to live. But there are some issues, as with any place on earth. Firstly, crime rates are increasing in big cities like Barcelona and Madrid. I was pickpocketed in a bar in Madrid for the first time in my life. While I felt very safe living in both Córdoba and Valencia, I was always very cautious about pick pocketers, because it does happen more than you’d think. People have their bags stolen while relaxing in the park, cell phones are swiped from tables outside of restaurants – it can happen in a second when you let your guard down. More seriously, several shocking incidents of violence caught my attention during my time in Spain. 47 women were killed at the hands of their partners or former partners in 2018, with courts often failing to protect women at risk of gender violence.
Secondly, because of the recession, Spain is not doing well economically. Wages are relatively low, and unemployment is higher than in other Western European countries. It’s also concerning that nationalism appears to be on the rise, with a far-right, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam party called Vox steadily gaining popularity, declaring a “reconquest of Spain”. Just three years ago it was a fringe party with no seats in Congress; this year support for the party has skyrocketed. It’s the first far-right grouping to win more than one seat in congress since Spain’s return to democracy in 1975. All of this is chillingly reminiscent of what happened in the US – and the UK for that matter. Travelling abroad has taught me that politics is pretty much a sh*t-show is most countries around the world, and that fear and hate are to be found pretty much everywhere.
South Africa faces some very real challenges: gross inequality and injustice, corruption, poverty, crime, and more. I don’t want to minimise those issues, and I’d also like to point out that as a very privileged person, my life in South Africa is very different and much easier than the realities that a lot of people face. I do believe, though, that South Africa is abundant with possibility. It’s rich in natural resources, and has some of the brightest, most resourceful minds. My point with this section is that we take the bad with the good. No place is perfect. You have to decide what you’ll accept, and what you won’t – if you have the choice, that is.
2. You have to put yourself out there
Living abroad taught me to take life into my own hands. Before I moved to Spain, I used to be quite passive when it came to social things. My friends organised most events or outings, and I would just show up (if I wasn’t introverting too much that day). When you move somewhere where you don’t know a single person, you don’t really have that option. If you want to stand a chance of building some kind of support network, you have to show up. You have to go to every meetup or social gathering with all the friendliness and enthusiasm that you can muster. It’s hard work if, like me, you find that socialising saps quite a lot of your energy, but it’s vital.
Not only that, but I learned that it’s up to me to create the social life that I want. My first year living in Valencia, I met a British woman named Sarah, who had single-handedly created a flourishing digital nomad community in Valencia that now has over 2500 members. That I could do something like that was unfathomable to me. And sure, not everyone can do what she did. It takes a lot of effort, dedication, and organisational skills to put together something like that – to arrange meetups, parties, and basically create a cohesive social group that now functions very organically. That group was very important to me in my first year, and really helped me find a sense of belonging. The core members of the group became some of my closest friends, and I even met my now ex-boyfriend at one of the group parties.
What I learned is that, if you really want to do something like this, you can. In my final few months in Spain, I discovered that there was no Facebook group for South Africans in Valencia, so I decided to start one. It only has 21 members (there aren’t a whole lot of South Africans living there), and we met up just once before I left the country, but I was proud of myself for mobilising and bringing people together. I never knew I was capable of that. Now, back in Durban, I’ve started a local book club with 12 women, simply by reaching out and putting myself out there. It can be difficult, but it’s always worth it.
3. Community is everything
Piggy-backing off the last point, living in Spain taught me the importance of having a good network of friends. Firstly, navigating life abroad on your own is difficult. Making connections with people – whether local or also foreign – will help you to figure things out and to feel more integrated. No one likes to feel like an outsider, or to feel like you’re doing it alone.
Secondly, friends and family are very important to Spanish people. They are generally very social, and tend to keep friendships for life. Family is fundamental in the lives of Spaniards. In Valencia, Sundays are for gathering the family round for a big paella lunch. Many children live with their parents well into their thirties – this is partly due to economic reasons, but also, I think, because it just makes life easier. Old people are looked after and cared for by their families. Parents or grandparents walk kids to and from school. Families stick together through it all.
If I look at the school where I worked, the feeling of community and togetherness was amazing. It was such a warm and connected environment. Many, if not most of the teachers had been students themselves at the school. Teachers socialise outside of school every single day, having coffee together across the street during ‘recreo’ or lunchtime. And kids call their teachers by their first names, something that was quite a surprise to me when I arrived. I began to see that it’s actually quite nice – there’s less of that rigid formality that we’ve come to be accustomed to.
Social connectedness is said to be vitally important for our health; loneliness is believed to be a bigger health risk than smoking. The tight-knit communities I found to exist in Spain made me miss my own community all the more. In my last few months in Spain, I started to feel that I didn’t have the feeling of social connectedness that I wanted for myself. This ended up being the main reason why I returned to South Africa, despite all the lovely things about Spanish life.
4. Life is to be enjoyed
The Spanish know all about la buena vida. And it seems they know what they’re doing: the 2019 edition of the Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index ranked Spain as the world’s healthiest country, just beating out Italy and Iceland. And according to a study published by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in October 2018, Spain is expected to have the highest life expectancy of any country in the world by 2040, with a predicted average lifespan of 85,8 years.
So, what is it that they’re doing right? Researchers believe it has something to do with the Mediterranean diet, and their excellent National Health Service. Though I am in no way an expert on this, I would think that their lifestyle also has a role to play. During my time in Spain, I noticed that Spanish people spend a large portion of their lives outside. City dwellers walk a lot, because parking is a pain, and their local supermarket or café is probably minutes away by foot. Parks are lush and attractive, and full of Spanish people strolling about with kids and dogs in tow. In Valencia an entire river was converted into a park after problems with flooding. The park is like nothing I’ve ever seen before; it snakes around the city, complete with trees and flowers, football fields, children’s playgrounds, bike lanes and skate parks.
There’s also the stereotype that Spanish people are laid-back about work. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s true (it’s also not true that every Spaniard has a siesta every day – they are not the biggest fan of this stereotype). But many American friends of mine did say how less stressful life appeared to be compared to their own work and performance-obsessed home country. Is it because the Spanish prioritise other things over money? Things like family, health, good food and wine… From my observations, Spanish people love to dine out with friends and family, they laugh a lot, and love to savour every moment of life. I’m not sure about you, but I’m taking a page out of their book.
5. There’s no place like home
I had an absolutely incredible time in Spain. I went skiing in Granada, swimming in Mallorca, wine tasting in Requena, and market-hopping in Barcelona. I drank sangria, feasted on paella, went salsa dancing, partied until 7am, and basically had the time of my life. I don’t regret going to Spain at all, but after a period of time I knew I needed something different.
When I tell people why I came back – that I couldn’t stand being away from my family any longer – I get the sense that they’re surprised, or even confused. But maybe I’m being oversensitive. The thing is, you never know how hard it is until you’ve done it. A South African friend who now lives in London with her husband told me that she has to visit South Africa at least twice a year for her own sanity, and that she has a five-year plan to be back in South Africa for good. If your family is still here, chances are you will ache for them.
And then there’s also the pull of your home country. The little things that you miss. Milk tart and koeksisters. The melting pot of cultures and races and religions. The humility and kindness of (most) South Africans. People are leaving the country all the time. But there are many who come back. And I think that says a lot about how special this place is.