Cat: Sunshine and Siestas
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Please tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you, where are you from, when you came to Spain.
My name is Cat Gaa, and my story is like many others I know in Spain’s story: Not ready to enter the work world, I walked out of an interview offering me a job as a radio stringer and into the General Consulate of Spain in my native Chicago to apply for a visa. While looking for a gap year experience, I came across the Ministry of Education’s Language and Culture Assistant program and was offered a position. I was placed in a rural high school outside of Seville, where I taught for three years, and I am now the first grade teacher at a bilingual school in the same city. I expected to stay in Spain for eight months, and I’ll soon be hitting my five-year anniversary!
When and why did you start blogging about your experiences?
I graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in journalism. I figured the year abroad would give me a good break to travel, get some inspiration and return to the States to work in the field. My blog was a little blogger page with no widgets or knowledge of HTML that was meant to jot down my thoughts and share my experiences with my family and friends while away. Little by little, I’ve acquired a following, work frequently freelancing and now receive emails daily about how to make the sunshine and siestas lifestyle a reality.
Do you have a favorite entry?
When I finish an entry and push myself away from the computer, I typically have one of two feelings: it’s either, well that will get a lot of traffic and comments, or a glowing, proud feeling. There are a few posts that I return to frequently because they make me laugh or remind me about my first few clumsy months over here in Seville.
I really love my breakdown of how I got my accent. People now tell me my andalú is spot-on and they can often tell the neighborhood I live in. I have light skin and eyes and freckles, so I certainly don’t pass for an Andalusian, but my exploration is humorous, honest and peppered with my favorite sevillano sayings. You can read it here.
A big part of my life in Spain is teaching, so I wrote a post explaining how I run my classroom. Many people often ask me how to get into teaching abroad, so I felt I owed it to readers to tell them what it’s really like, and how to make it a successful experience. I am certainly not an expert, but I think teaching is a profession I could have been good at. Pictures of my bulletin boards, materials and such can be found here.
Apart from writing about Spain, I travel as often as my work schedule and budget allow, and I wrote last month about my trip to Istanbul. I felt so inspired by the old-as-dirt city and the overload it did on my tummy and eyes, so I used the photos I took on my camera, trusty old Camarón, to tell the story. I got a lot of positive response, which is something I find really fun about keeping a blog. When I check my stats, I’m often wowed by the array of countries reading. My post about Turkey is here.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Spain differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
In the five years I’ve been here, I’ve definitely been through a whole host of emotions and feelings about Spain. I’ve loved it and never wanted to leave, and I’ve hated it and never wanted to return. I’ve gone through heartache, missed weddings and births, stood for lines outside the foreigner’s office just to ask for paperwork and been jobless. Still, I find I’m at my best self while here.
In America, I feel like I’m much more of a homebody. Maybe it’s just the warm temps here, but a night where I don’t meet a friend for a beer or tapa seems like an unfulfilled day. I’m extremely Spanish in my routines and would observe the siesta more often if I could.
Still, I have moments of culture shock from time to time, like accidentally getting in line to kiss the wood and alabaster hands of Seville’s most famous Virgin Mary statue, or when I got hit by a car. IN A CROSSWALK. It makes living here a lot less mundane to be able to share these stories on my blog and with friends and laugh about it. It was a little tough to readjust when I first arrived, but I already had a summer course in Spain under my belt, so I knew to expect napkins on the floor and how to queue up for train tickets.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Spain? If you could, would you change some of the decisions/preparations you made?
Before coming to Spain, I couldn’t read enough on everything from finding an apartment to maximizing my meager salary. I enrolled in a TEFL course, quizzed Spanish contacts I had and tried to scour just about every website about living in Seville. In short, I tried to be as prepared as possible, even though I nearly didn’t board the plane for fear of what awaited me on the other side of the charco. Still, all of the mix-ups and frantic phone calls made for part of the experience, and I learned a lot in the process.
In retrospect, I could have done more planning when it came to my long-term plans here. I didn’t expect to ever apply for a resident visa, file taxes or be a part of the contributing society in Spain. I think that all of the desperation, feelings of giving up and going back to Chicago and not think it was in me to fight against bureaucracy have made my resident visa and full-time job even sweeter. If you’re looking to stay in Spain more than a few years, I would start reading up on laws, types of visas and ways to make it happen. Since that realm is getting more and more complicated, it helps to know your stuff.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Could you share one with us?
Murphy’s Law applies to my life in Spain, and one of the categories on my blog is guiri atope, or extra foreign. I’m always the one to let a swear word slip in public, or do something super embarrassing in front of famous Spanish people, but I think the aforementioned story about the Virgin is the utmost guiri I have felt in Spain. The story was told exasperatingly to another Chicagoan and one of my dearest friends here, and she immediately prompted to head home and blog about it.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Spain?
- Don’t expect it to be like your home country. I sometimes think Spain is totally backwards, but have to remind myself it’s a completely different place with a completely different set of values and completely different history than my own. It can be hard adapting to things, but you learn to embrace it (Oh, crap, the supermarket is closed Sunday. Wait, I can leave the shopping till another day!)
- Learn the language. In expat enclaves, I cringe hearing that people have lived there for decades and can barely ask for their meal in Spanish. I think it’s an extreme disservice to the language that produced some of the world’s greatest authors and poets, as well as a disservice to yourself. Knowing Spanish also gets you respect, it seems, as people in the public service sector have no patience for you if you don’t speak Spanish.
- Don’t forget who you are. It’s common to fall into the trap of only hanging out with expats, but the opposite can be said, too. I was crestfallen when I had to fight to celebrate Halloween at a bilingual school when it claimed to be multicultural. Don’t write off other expats just because you wanted to be completely immersed. Nothing is sadder than having to celebrate a holiday on your own (besides, you probably wouldn’t know where to order a Thanksgiving turkey were it not for you expat friends!)
How is the expat community in Spain? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
I came to Spain long before people used social networking to make contacts, so I did suffer quite a bit at the beginning. For someone accustomed to having loads of friends and not being the shy one, it took me several weeks to find other American friends. Since then, I’ve joined the American Women’s Club and Democrat’s Abroad, which has helped me meet a great circle of expats.
Sadly, a very common part of expat life is having to say goodbye to your friends, and often. I get very, very attached to people and am sad to see them go, but have worked hard to maintain the friendships I have with other Americans who are planning on staying in Spain for a while. Having people who understand the woes of visas or want to have a cookie exchange has really helped me beat homesickness on more than one occasion.
How would you summarize your life in Spain in a single, catchy sentence?
To borrow from a dear friend, me : Spain :: little boy : dinosaur museum
You can find my blog, which speaks about teaching English, living in Spain, navigating a bilingual relationship and more at http://sunshinesandsiestas.com and my twitter handle is @sunshinesiestas . I love hearing from readers and invite you to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.