Welcome to the debut expat edition of our interview series! We have a special place in our hearts and our cervecitas for this lady, as she has been an influence and inspiration on us over the last few years, not to mention a good friend. And that lady is Cat Gaa of Sunshine & Siestas.
Both a traveler and an expat, she currently resides in Seville, Spain, and has been there for quite a few years now. She writes in-depth about expat life in Spain, as well as her travels around the country and around the globe.
We originally met Cat back in 2012, when we were looking to escape the winter cold and head somewhere relatively warm, or at least not freezing.
We had been readers of her blog, so we thought we’d give her a shout and see what she might recommend in southern Spain. And, of course, she recommended Seville. Spain has been her home since 2007, where this Chicago native works and lives the expat life.
Recently wed, and fairly recently a proud, new homeowner in Seville, she’s definitely an expat and can most certainly shed light on the immigrant life in Spain. Cat is a teacher, writer, consultant, and probably more. She and her partner, Hayley, also helped us when we got our Spanish visas, as they have a burgeoning consulting business. Alas, we’ll let her get into all that down below.
Let’s rock ‘n’ roll.
1. How long ago did you move abroad, and what made you do it?
Spain and I became a thing when I studied abroad in 2005. I became addicted to roast suckling pig, earthy red wines, and a daily siesta in Valladolid, and knew I’d have to make it back somehow.
That opportunity came once I finished college in 2007, and moved to Southern Spain to teach English through a bilateral agreement between Spain and the U.S. I decided to go south because I’m from Chicago and…it’s cold there. I’m eating my words as I currently swelter in my living room.
2. Do you consider yourself an expat, an immigrant, or something else?
Loaded question. I’m becoming a permanent resident in a few months when I marry my long-time Spanish boyfriend, so I probably should start thinking of myself as an immigrant. [Note: Cat got married in between the time she answered these questions and the time we published this interview.] We are keen to keep our options open and live somewhere else, but will I consider myself an expat, then? I’ll probably just consider myself an English teacher abroad, to be honest!
3. How did you choose your location, and why there? Did it prove fruitful?
I didn’t choose Seville; the Ministry of Education in Spain chose it for me! When I applied to be a Language and Culture Assistant in 2007, I had to choose my top three regions for placement. I selected Andalusia for the culture, Madrid for the airport, and Castilla y León for the history (and my host family).
Once I was given a regional placement in Andalusia, I hoped for Granada, a city with a young, vibrant population and free tapas. Instead, I was placed in Olivares, a rural town ten miles west of Seville. Thankfully, I had a wonderful experience working there, and ended up loving Seville.
Fruitful to my experience? Definitely. To my wallet? Meh, maybe not! Tapas are definitely not free in Seville.
4. How do you find living expenses to be, compared to your home country?
In many senses, what’s cheap in America is expensive in Spain, and vice versa. I make a pretty solid salary for the work I do, and I supplement it through several products (the black market in Spain is alive and well). Back home, I am the poor one who people need to buy drinks for, and in Spain I maintain a great standard of living.
But, I can’t speak enough about how cheap produce is, and I’ve fallen in love again with vegetables.
5. Are you a planner, or do you tend to fly by the seat of your pants?
A planner. I have practically every single day up to my wedding mapped out, and I had to ask my friends to give me a two-month head’s up on my bachelorette party. I’m trying to phase out of the uptight thing, but it’s stuck with me for 30 years…
6. What do you do for a living?
The better question is, What don’t I do? My “job job” is academic director of a small language school, meaning I work in the evenings. In the mornings, I maintain a personal blog, am building a consulting company, do freelance writing and editing, and occasionally tutor. I like to stay busy to the point where I forget I have friends (but, all that money pays for all my vegetables…and plane tickets home).
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?
I’d say there are more positives than negatives at this point: I’ve become more independent, am fluent in Spanish, found a wonderful group of friends, traveled a lot, and enjoy my life and free time, in general. But, on the flip side, I think Spain has killed my motivation! I’m much more tranquila when it comes to life goals!
9. Do you still feel a connection to your old home, or did you really leave it all behind?
I feel like I straddle two continents, and that I can never have it all. Thankfully, social media has made it far easier to keep in touch with friends and family. I could, personally, never leave it all behind.
10. Do you go back often, and do people come visit you?
What’s hilarious is that people have started to become more serious about visiting since I bought a house last year. It’s not like I lived under a bridge before! One thing they do seem to underestimate is just how big Spain is – Seville to Barcelona is not as quick as it may look on a map.
I tend to go home once a year, but with two weddings and a funeral in one year, I seem to be racking up a lot more miles on Iberia Airlines than normal.
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 used to pine after bagels, cheap peanut butter, and Chicago-style hot dogs. There’s now a Costco in Seville, and my husband travels to the U.S. frequently for work, so I never go too long without my favorite American products.
But, I wish Enrique traveled to the U.S. more often, or remembered to bring me more than one box of Cheez-Its. I’ve learned to cope with a lack of some products, but not manufactured, cheesy yumminess.
12. How was the language barrier for you across the board?
I spoke pretty decent Spanish when I moved here, though I’d learned it in a city known for their lovely Castillian accent. It was kind of like the Midwest of Spain. When I moved to Andalusia, notorious for their atrocious speech, I was thrown for a loop and completely lost my mojo when it came to even the simplest of tasks, like asking the bank to cash a check, or ordering pizza over the phone.
Further, I convinced my students that I spoke zero español because I could never understand what they were saying, instead prompting them to try saying it in English. When they invited me to attend their end-of-the-year dinner, their jaws dropped when they heard me speaking with other teachers!
13. What was the biggest hurdle for you once you landed? Bureaucracy? Making new friends? Something else?
I’ve always been one to hold my own pretty well, so once I got past the first few shaky days of finding a flat, buying a cell phone, and signing up for a bank account, the panic set in. I was okay not making friends right away, but the biggest hurdle was essentially losing all of the labels I had used to define myself: I went quickly from college student with the goal of becoming a journalist, to broke English teacher struggling to communicate. I spent many afternoons at home eating ice cream (I gained ten pounds my first few months here) and stalking all of my friends on AIM, convinced I was missing out on everything at home.
Finally, making a few American friends helped me make the transition, and once I did, I decided I wanted to stick around for another year.
14. How hard was it to make friends and have a social life? How is your mix of friends between locals, immigrants, travelers, etc.?
I looked at my social life like I looked at the first few weeks of college: I never turned down an invitation to do anything (even if it meant going to a horse race with a creepy, older coworker). I also had a college friend teaching in a nearby province, so visiting her held me over until I made friends of my own.
Now, I’m faced with two larger challenges: making friends with long-term expats my age, and then taking care of them. We’re all getting busier and busier, and I now have a
fiancé husband, and certain social and family obligations there, so it’s increasingly difficult to all meet up. I am fortunate to have a group of American girls around my age with whom I have connected, and we are stand-in family to one another!
15. If you could change something about how and when you became an expat, what would it be?
I honestly don’t think I’d change a thing. I ended up in a beautiful city, met wonderful people, and found a vocation. More than once a week, I consider leaving and trying something else, but my husband and I have resolved to stick around in Seville, close to his family, until he’s given an assignment abroad.
16. Do you think it’s easier or harder to move abroad today, versus when you did it?
Without a doubt. Spain has far more visa options available to non-EU passport holders. Between that, more variety in teaching and internship programs, and more websites with great information, people can get informed without leaving their couches.
I do recommend to clients that they not move to Spain permanently without having spent a significant amount of time here. On the surface, Western Europe is a lot like the U.S. or Canada, but the culture and social cues here are far different. I found it easy to adjust in study abroad since it was such a short time, but I truly had culture shock when I moved here for the initial nine months.
17. What crazy story can you tell us about a terrible expat experience, and what did you learn from it?
I’m sure I have loads (I’m a hothead, so everything seems terrible at first), but my first major expat dilemma came after spending a weekend visiting a friend in Ireland. I forgot my residency card and was nearly detained in the airport for trying to sneak into the EU! Because I’d taken an overnight bus from Galway to Dublin, I was exhausted and probably still drunk, so I began crying.
Word to the wise: Bring important travel documentation!
18. What about a good experience you had that makes it all worthwhile?
I met my husband! And I ride my bike to work.
19. What dos and don’ts do you have for a burgeoning expat?
I’ve probably said it a million times, but do do your research and speak with expats in your desired destination, and don‘t let your fears get in the way. Nothing has to be permanent.
20. Would you recommend people come to your city, or is it full now?
People tend to stay in Seville short-term, so come one, come all! Just don’t come in the summer because I can’t take you out for a beer, and it’s hot.
21. Do you think you’ll ever move back to your home country?
It’s definitely an option, even if only for a few years. I’d spring to go, and would love to live closer to the mountains, or somewhere other than the Midwest.
22. If you were a color, what color would you be, and why?
Green, just because it’s my favorite, and all the things I like are the best things.
23. Any last words of wisdom or warning?
The most common question I get at COMO is about coming to Spain without a visa. You can legally stay for up to 90 days. If you’re hoping for a long-term option for Europe, look into different visa stays, as ‘black marks’ on your passport can count against you! Coming here without a Plan B can kick you in the culo later on down the line.
And that’s it! Many thanks to Cat for taking time out of her ridiculously busy work and life schedule to give us the time of day, and give all you folks out there some insight into what it’s like to be an expat in Spain. She’s hopefully been an inspiration and source of knowledge to all y’all out there. You can visit her at the following locations:
Want more? Join us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, and Flickr.
What’d you think of the interview or the answers? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!