It’s time once again to see what the good people of the world have to say – welcome to the next edition of our expat interview series! Today, we’ve got our friend, Karen McCann, on hand to give us all some advice and insight into the world of an expat.
We met Karen and her husband, Rich, back in 2013 during our first stint in Seville, Spain. Now that we’re back here for a longer spell, we’re delighted to be able to spend more time with these delightful friends and neighbors.
The couple have been traveling for decades, and chose to retire in sunny Seville, where they’ve been for over a decade now. They spend most of their time here, while also visiting their home in California every year.
Karen herself is an accomplished travel writer, having written several great books about travel and the life of an expat. We highly recommend everything she puts her pen to, and you can find them all on her dedicated Amazon page.
She’s also a highly regarded blogger, writing about her and Rich’s exploits in both the traveler and expat worlds at Enjoy Living Abroad. You’d do yourself a solid by subscribing to Karen’s blog so you don’t miss out on any of her musings.
Her travels and life experiences abroad inspire her books and her blog, writing about everything from long-term rail travel, to packing light and how to enjoy living overseas in a new and strange land.
All that said, let’s go and and get into our Q&A and see what Karen has to say.
1. How long ago did you move abroad, and what made you do it?
I noticed that I feel more alive when I’m traveling, and wanted to find out if living abroad would have the same effect. And yes, to a large extent it does.
2. Do you consider yourself an expat, an immigrant, or something else?
3. How did you choose your location, and why there? Did it prove fruitful?
Some friends had a place on the coast of southern Spain. When I went to visit them, I fell in love the area, but not their town, which has fabulous weather but an overabundance of tourists and high-rises. A side-trip to Seville showed me the Spain I’d been looking for: an ancient city rooted in tradition, physically gorgeous, with progressive ideas and the most vibrant street life I’ve ever encountered. It has been a great fit.
4. How do you find living expenses to be, compared to your home country?
Our living expenses are almost exactly the same as they were when we lived in Cleveland.
5. Are you a planner, or do you tend to fly by the seat of your pants?
I’m a planner by nature, but I have decided it’s time to travel more spontaneously and embrace the chaos. So far, it’s been terrifically good fun.
6. What do you do for a living?
I’m a travel writer.
7. Do you think you made the right choice, overall, by moving abroad?
8. How do you think your life has changed, for better or worse, since you landed?
My life is richer and more exciting. Moving abroad lets you – makes you! – hit the reset button on your life. You have to rethink everything from what coffee you drink in the morning, to how late you stay up at night.
Suddenly, you’re hobnobbing with people from all over the world, going to bullfights, watching flamenco, eating platters of chorizo that someone has lit on fire… Life’s much more colorful, filled with the kind of stuff that doesn’t crop up in the American Midwest nearly often enough.
9. Do you still feel a connection to your old home, or did you really leave it all behind?
I still feel connected; in a way, both Seville and California feel like home.
10. Do you go back often, and do people come visit you?
I go back twice a year, because America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don’t want to lose my touch. In Seville, I have lots of visitors, some from America, some from various countries I’ve visited in Europe.
One thing I’ve learned: when you live in a destination city like Seville, you never have to worry about losing contact. The most surprising people turn up on your doorstep.
11. Is there anything you miss from your home country that you can’t get where you currently live? If yes, what is it, and how do you get your hands on it?
I know how shallow this makes me sound, but I really miss Saran Wrap. The plastic wrap in Seville doesn’t come with that little serrated metal cutting strip, so you have to have one person hold the roll, another search for scissors, and a third convince you that it really is worth all this trouble to save the last half of a lime.
Now, I just mix my guests another gin and tonic whether they want it or not, avoiding the whole issue of leftovers. Friends who’ve read Dancing in the Fountain know about the Saran Wrap deficit, and kindly send me supplies at the holidays or bring some as a hostess gift.
12. How was the language barrier for you across the board?
Learning the language was essential to survival when I arrived in Seville; back then, no one outside of posh hotels spoke a word of English. Now, the economic downturn has made the city’s citizens rethink this attitude, and young people throughout the downtown area are scrambling to learn English and practice it at every opportunity.
After a mere 11 years of backbreaking effort, I speak Spanish fairly fluently – although far from flawlessly – and I still work hard at it, as many of my favorite friends, shopkeepers, hair stylists, and bartenders are still sticking exclusively to their own language.
13. What was the biggest hurdle for you once you landed? Bureaucracy? Making new friends? Something else?
It was tricky learning to integrate into the Spanish social scene. A Spanish friend insisted I enroll in a painting class, and suddenly I was spending three to four hours a week struggling to master three skills simultaneously: speaking Spanish, learning to paint, and finding my place in a group of local women, many of whom had never actually spent time with an American before and weren’t sure they wanted to start now. It was the most exhausting part of my week for years. But I did make good friends and have become an artist, even selling my paintings on occasion. So, it was well worth the effort.
14. How hard was it to make friends and have a social life? How is your mix of friends between locals, immigrants, travelers, etc.?
It was easy to make friends among the expat community, where everyone’s a transplant, most are eager to get to know you, and there are thriving social clubs organizing events on a regular basis. The locals, on the other hand, are happiest hanging out with people they’ve known since baptism.
I accepted early on that I would never be on the inside of those social circles, and when I’m lucky enough to have a seat at the table, I appreciate their generosity of spirit. My friends come from all over Europe and the Americas, as well as Spain.
15. If you could change something about how and when you became an expat, what would it be?
For me, it was the right move at the right time. But, bringing my dog over was a bit bumpier. For a start, she was lost in the Madrid airport for four hours; I finally had to rent a car and track her down in one of the more distant cargo warehouses.
And, while she eventually adapted to city life, she was an old country dog who had a hard time with so much change all at once. She loved some things, like chorizo and elevators and outdoor cafes, but she hated our slippery marble floors and really missed chasing rabbits in the woods.
16. Do you think it’s easier or harder to move abroad today, versus when you did it?
It’s a lot easier today, thanks to technology. Just think how much our electronic devices have changed over the last 11 years, and how much easier and cheaper it is to keep in touch. I remember having to sit in a booth at an Internet cafe to call my sister. That seems so antiquated now.
17. What crazy story can you tell us about a terrible expat experience, and what did you learn from it?
I arrived in Spain deeply opposed to bullfights. Going to one seemed akin to seeing my own beloved dog thrown into a ring and tortured to death for the amusement of a bloodthirsty crowd. But then, my closest Spanish friend invited me to a capea, a practice fight where the animals would be spared, and convinced me it would be a cultural experience I wouldn’t forget. And she was so right.
As we walked onto the farm hosting the capea, a forklift came trundling toward us, carrying the corpse of a huge black bull, head lolling, blood dripping everywhere, with a one-eyed white pit bull running along beside it, trying to lick the blood off the bull’s face. Aghast, I learned a group of amateurs had hired the place for the day and were killing their first toros.
As if that wasn’t grisly enough, they had dragged one of the slain animals out of the ring, strung it up, and were hacking chunks of meat off it and throwing them onto the barbecue. A short while later, I was handed a plate of sizzling bull meat and a fork. It didn’t seem the time to mention I was a vegetarian. And opposed to bullfighting.
That day, I learned to view bullfighting through different eyes. I’m still not a big fan, but I now understand what the locals mean about the strength, courage, and skill it takes for a man to stand his ground in the face of an enraged, 1000-pound animal charging in his direction. For those amateurs, sweating in their fancy outfits, it wasn’t just about killing the bull, but about doing it quickly and cleanly – if possible – with style, grace, and respect for tradition. It was a defining moment in their lives. I felt honored to be a witness to it.
18. What about a good experience you had that makes it all worthwhile?
19. What dos and don’ts do you have for a burgeoning expat?
Do your research so you know what to expect. I’ve met people who, after one sun-drenched, wine-soaked weekend in Seville, sold everything and moved here. They were amazed that it wasn’t quite so jovial on a rainy, stone-cold sober January morning. Others arrive convinced that life will be easier if they don’t even attempt to learn Spanish. It isn’t. And, it’s a lot less fun.
Perhaps the most important thing to do is to relax. Mentally unpack your bags: worry less, stop comparing everything to home, enjoy being here now. You’ll have a great time.
20. Would you recommend people come to your city, or is it full now?
When I wrote Dancing in the Fountain, a British friend was deeply worried that the city would be overrun with Americans. So far, that hasn’t happened. Expats make up a tiny fraction of the city; Seville has not lost its Spanish flavor.
21. Do you think you’ll ever move back to your home country?
I get asked that a lot. At this point, I don’t see that happening, but it’s entirely possible that some quirk of fate will make me reconsider. So, the real answer is, I don’t know where I’ll ultimately wind up. But then, does anyone?
22. If you were a color, what color would you be, and why?
Red. Because life is short and it might as well be vivid.
23. Any last words of wisdom or warning?
When we set out in search of adventure, what we really discover is ourselves. All journeys are inner journeys. If we’re lucky, the excitement of exploration lets us shed our ordinary preoccupations long enough to feel the rapture of being alive.
“Travel is like love,” says author Pico Iyer, “mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity, and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” Amen to that.
And that’s a wrap! Thanks very much to Karen (and Rich!) for taking time out of her life as an author and expat to sit down and answer our questions. We hope this chat has been of value to you, whether you’re looking to follow a similar path, or if you just need inspiration for your own daily life. You can visit Karen at the following locations:
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What’d you think of the interview or the answers? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!