Picture this: I need to renew my Spanish identification card (known as T.I.E. in Spanish) and after gathering ten different papers and scheduling an appointment that is not at all convenient for anyone with a day job, I show up at the Comisaría de Extranjería y Fronteras, the Spanish social security office for foreigners and have no idea where to go. I walk up to the “help desk” a.k.a. “give out daily dose of attitude” pitstop and I say “Hola, tengo una cita por renovación de T.I.E … ¿Puedes decirme donde ir, por favor?” He responds with his face contorted like I just interrupted his wedding speech and grimaces out a “¿de qué?” That’s merely the start of a two-hour trek that results in me having to do the whole thing again because… razónes…
The logistics of moving abroad are not easy. Figuring out how to afford the move, completing all the necessary paperwork perfectly (and on time), and possibly making last-minute trips to government offices that are a two-hour drive away on the same day as take-off are all situations that one needs to consider. But what they don’t tell you is what happens after one has been in the country for a while; after the wanderlust fades and the mundanity of daily expat life sets in. Now what? Now, one has to deal with all the pressures of life… but in a foreign language and culture.
An Outsider Living Inside
When I left the USA, I missed my friends but I knew that they were only a phone call away and I would make new ones in Spain. This was the case, but after a year you realize it’s just not your loved ones that make a place home. I was missing the connection to a larger community, a culture. As much as I love the Spanish way and pace of expat life, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s not for me and never really will be.
I feel like a tourist who lost his passport and has been waiting for a replacement… for two years. I love and adore my Spanish friends and they have made my time in Spain absolutely wonderful. Still, it’s hard to sit on the Metro day in and day out and only understand bits and pieces of a conversation. Sure, my Spanish is better by the day and I need to “immerse” myself to fully appreciate everything Spain has to offer, but Spain would exist with or without me so it’s up to me to determine how integrated I can become.
“¿Qué haciendo, hoy?” – What are you doing today?
Another roadblock was understanding work culture. I work at a bilingual school where I am supposed only to speak English. However, speaking only English is rarely the case and the language assistants, like myself, are often the last to know of any information. We would frequently get frustrated reactions from other teachers who were in the meeting if we didn’t understand something. This happens on a weekly basis. If my Spanish was better and if my entire legal status to stay in the country wasn’t tied up with the school, I could voice my concerns without fear of repercussions. It makes working abroad very precarious, and that’s from the perspective of someone who was on the job hunt in America!
”¿De Qué?” – What?
Remember when I said how stressful it was in America to get the paperwork completed in a timely fashion just so that an employee might mess it up and you have to go back into the office and do it all over again? Yeah, well imagine that, but in another country! I was already fighting the gnawing anxiety that made me shaky just by going to the Spanish social security office for foreigners. And, on top of that, depending on who you get, you will be given totally different information regarding which forms to complete and the exact number of copies for each document. Hate the idea of walking around with four copies of your passport, your T.I.E. plus the physical version of both? Get used to it! I had to carry around eight copies of these two documents in my handy padfolio for the last two years.
Feelings of Isolation and Loneliness
This all leads to the overwhelming feeling of isolation and loneliness that is a common expat experience. It leaves one wanting a friend to go through this struggle as support. However, at the end of the day, these problems are no one else’s.
One could, of course, call their friends Stateside and complain about the growing pains of expat life. It will come across to them as a two-year-long humble brag. One could always confide in their friends one has made abroad and most likely they will be the ones to help one battle the crushing sense of anxiety. Unfortunately, they also have their own issues to deal with. And when it comes to getting your T.I.E. renewed it was a bit too difficult to have a friend tag along.
Stay Humble – The Struggles of Expat Life
With all that said, I have to be grateful for my expat life. I have a stable job, an apartment, the know-how to navigate the city, and a network of companions that I can count on. I couldn’t imagine doing any of this without one of those foundations to lean on, much less none. It taught me humility that, after the “honeymoon” phase, Madrid was not here for anyone. To anyone tackling the challenges of being an expat with or without the support groups I’ve mentioned, more power to you! I truly don’t think anyone can relate until they’ve done it themselves. I want to offer my wholehearted support to anyone who feels like the entire experience of living abroad is reaching a critical point of exasperation.