It is finally the time for me to bring another guest writer to Project Abroad!
Claudia is the other half of Sincerely Spain blog which is a website that discusses culture, travel, and life abroad in Spain. I’m saying the other half because you could read Dani’s story last month on the blog as well! 🙂
Along with Dani, Claudia provides insights about adapting to the Spanish lifestyle, learning a new language, and thriving wherever you find yourself. Claudia is originally from rural Wisconsin, USA and studied her Bachelors in Sociology and Masters in Teaching at the University of Granada, in the south of Spain. She lived for approximately 8 years in Spain before moving to Helsinki, Finland, where she currently resides. She works in the area of cultural awareness and organizational change. In her spare time she likes to play team sports (soccer/football, futsal, and Gaelic football), read, and hang out with friends.
Over to you, Claudia! 🙂
It was supposed to be temporary…
When I first moved to Spain, in 2009, it was supposed to be temporary—an eight month au pair job with a family in Tarragona. While it was a very worthwhile experience, I did not really make a lot of friends in Tarragona and my Spanish did not improve much either. I guess you could say that my adaptation to the place was quite superficial; I did not really suffer but I did not integrate. After my time there, I fully expected to go back to the States to study my degree. I had already been accepted to school of my choice, had chosen a major, and even had a roommate.
However, that same year I was in Tarragona my parents and little brother moved to Granada and I had planned to spend the summer of 2010 with them. As part of our summer holidays, we went to Portugal for a few weeks and I remember talking to my father about wanting to study Spanish and Portuguese at university and being frustrated that they wouldn’t let me take the two classes at the same time. My father, seeing a different point of view, commented that he couldn’t understand why I would “want to pay $30,000 a year to study Spanish in an American university if my family lived in Spain.”
The point struck home and later that week I was calling my university to see if I could somehow postpone my year or take some classes online. Luckily, I was able to switch my presential learning to virtual learning and, in 2010, I began to take my university courses online while doing 20 hours a week of Spanish classes.
A lot of fun, but also a lot of work
During that first year, I had a lot of fun but it was also a lot of work. I had signed up for something like 24 weeks (20 hours a week) of Spanish classes in addition to my U.S. college classes. I spent the morning in my Spanish school, afternoons “at university,” and tried to fit in social time whenever I could. Luckily, I was 19, so everything felt possible and, looking back, I seemed to have endless energy for all the activities.
I would consider that year to be the first year that I properly tried to integrate into a place abroad. It really helped that my family was already there and I was able to make friends from Spanish school. This meant that I had a mixture of Spanish friends (mostly through my brother) and foreign friends. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but I did enjoy most of the process. In addition, in May of 2011, I sat the DELE exam and ended up getting a B2, which I was pretty pleased with.
However, at the end of the year, I found I was quite tired and I wanted a change—I wasn’t really ready to go back to the U.S. just yet but I also didn’t really want to continue to study online. So, after talking through my options with my parents, I decided I wanted to go live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for six months before deciding what was next.
Properly committing to Spain
While I had the most amazing experience in Brazil, when my six months came to an end, I had to make a decision about what to do next. As my brother had just entered university in Granada the year before and I was aware of how much less expensive it was than American schools, I thought I would try to get in there. When I got back to my parents’ house in Granada, I started studying for the entrance exam with the help of my brother and other teachers. The exam wasn’t easy, but I ended passing with a high enough grade to get into the subject of my choice: Sociology.
Deciding to live my life in Spain properly (at least a four year commitment) as opposed to the chunks of time I had previously spent in different cities really changed the adaptation process. For one, I wanted to do well at school, which would be a challenge in itself. I also really wanted to make local friends, preferably some that were connected to what I was studying. Finally, I had to figure out a life balance that fit where I was in my life, which was very different than where I had been a year before.
It is not easy to study in another language and in another culture
On that first day of class, my brother had to walk me to my classroom because I was so nervous but soon I managed to carve out a place for myself in Spanish university. One of the first things I did was find someone to live with and my freshman housemate is one of my closest friends still today. This helped me tremendously because it was a way to practice my Spanish skills but also a way for me to go over my notes and assignments and make sure that I understood what was going on in class.
And now, I would like to make it very clear—it is not easy to study in another language and in another culture. I think it took me three months before I understood enough to be able to take coherent notes and I probably studied for twice as many hours as the Spaniards in my class. I don’t share this to demotivate anyone for doing what I did but so that you can have realistic expectations of what is possible.
At the same time, by deciding to live like the Spanish (by going to university full time and living with one of my classmates), my integration in Granada intensified greatly. I personally believe that this kind of integration into the community can really help with your adaptation process because it makes you feel like you belong. During these years, most of my friends were Spanish and while I did hang around with some foreigners, with the exception of my family, they did not make up the majority of my circle.
Starting an internship meant an evolving integration into the community
After a brief study abroad in Lisbon, Portugal, I finished up my undergraduate degree and started contemplating what I wanted to do next. It is quite common for students in Spain to get a Masters of some sort, so I decided to get a Masters in Teaching. For me personally, the course I chose didn’t really fit what I was looking for and I was soon bored with my classes. Therefore, I was really happy when I got an internship at a local business with a good reputation that allowed me to learn something new while finishing the Masters.
Including the internship, I spent two years at the company I was working and, again, my integration into the community adapted and changed. The role I played now was different than before and I was now a part of the system, dressing up a bit more formally for work every day, paying my taxes, etc. I have never worked in an office in the U.S., so I cannot make huge comparisons, but I really liked the 8 – 15.00 work day (no lunch included) and the level of casualness in the company.
At the same time, we really did take our work seriously. I know that, due to the productivity index, people often think that Spaniards are lazy and don’t really work that much (especially compared to most Western Europeans). However, as a sociologist by training, I would ask you all to question that index as, essentially, it is based on the fact that people in Spain make less money per hour than in other places in Europe. This is true. However, if you spend time within most Spanish companies, you would be hard pressed to say they are lazy at work.
It was time to move on
After two years at the company, I discussed with my superiors that there was not much chance that they would be able to continue my contract. In addition, to me it felt like it was time to move on and explore something new in the world. So, I began looking for different options moving forward and the one I chose brought me to Helsinki. I am by no means the kind of person that likes to move abroad and actually find it quite difficult to do, mostly because the adaptation process is so complicated. However, I am very glad to have made this choice and now, one and a half years into living in Helsinki, I am slowly starting to feel integrated.
Thank you for sharing your story Claudia! It’s great to see that although sometimes it may seem like you’re making a ‘serious’ or ‘long-term’ choice, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that. We change, circumstances change, needs change. And we have the choice of how we approach life in that sense.
I also asked Claudia what are her top three tips for adapting to living in the new country. Here’s what she shared:
1. Be patient! This is something Dani and I are always talking about because everything you are trying to do right now will take time. Adapting takes time. Learning a language takes time. Even just feeling like you have made the right choice takes time. If you thought you would have accomplished x, y, or z thing by two months in but you are not even close to achieving that goal, be patient with yourself and think about how much you have learned and how you can reframe your goal so that you are more likely to achieve it next time.
For us, this goes for small things and big things alike. When you are in a country you have known your whole life, things like getting a cell phone contract may not seem difficult. However, as soon as you find yourself in a new culture, especially with a new language, everything changes and the simplest things will take more effort, energy, and time to accomplish.
2. Step outside your comfort zone. It is easy to convince ourselves that what we know is the right thing to do. However, I would say step out of your comfort zone and do some things that make you feel a little bit uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean you have to go bungee jumping or move somewhere without planning anything but consider how many times you say “no” to something on a regular basis because it is outside your comfort zone.
For me personally, I often have this feeling in social situations. I don’t really like to meet new people and can often convince myself that I don’t really want to do “that thing” because there will be new people there. I also consider myself to be a socially awkward person, so once I get there, I don’t ever know what to do. At the same time, I often put myself in many awkward situations and the reward is usually always higher than the cost.
3. Be kind to yourself: If you are going to push yourself, also remember to be kind to yourself. If you achieve something new, do something outside of your comfort zone, or just have had a long day, remember that you can celebrate just how far you have come. This might mean treating yourself to a new book and a glass of wine or a nice dinner or a trip somewhere new. Whatever you are feeling, remember that you are doing awesome and don’t be afraid to be a little extra kind, when you are feeling down but also when you are feeling great!
If you’d like to connect with Claudia, it’s best to do via Instagram: @sincerelyspain