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May article

Monday, 6 May 2019

‘Moving abroad, five years on' by Emma Hearle

It's a constant flow of challenges that you have to overcome, but it's worth every drop of sweat, tears, and... beers!

On June 1st 2014, I boarded a plane, leaving rain behind (yes, even in June) and took a flight from Birmingham (England not Alabama!) to Barcelona El Prat. Sure, I’d been to Spain before, holidaying in Mallorca as a kid, but it wasn’t quite the same this time. Saying goodbye to my mum and dad at the airport is still something I remember vividly to this day. My mum trying to be strong but watching her middle child (and second to leave the nest) walk through security I could tell she was fighting back the tears. “I'll only be a two hour plane ride away and you can come and visit whenever you like”, I assured her in the weeks leading up to the big day. My dad, ever the cool cucumber, text me as soon as they were back in the car, “we’ll see you in six weeks Em”. Yes, they were coming out for a holiday in less than two months!

I’d brought along two 20kg suitcases stuffed with as many summer outfits, bikinis and sandals as I could before the zips on the suitcases broke. I mean this was only June, the thought of having a whole summer of sun, sea and in my case sunburn was really the best feeling ever and I was ready to lap every minute of it up. In the UK you may have got the summer clothes out the attic briefly in May for an above averagely warm bank holiday weekend, only put them away again a few days later. I’ll buy warmer clothes when I need them I thought - imagining that Spain could be cold was unthinkable as I was met with that warm gust of air as I stepped off the plane in El Prat.

One of the hardest things, despite being so excited and grateful for what was ahead, was leaving behind a loving family, fantastic friends, the fourth sibling (and apple of my mum’s eye) our black labrador Bella but more than anything, my comfort zone. Saying that, I did have my boyfriend Jordi who after having met in Cheltenham two years earlier, we decided to set our on this new chapter together. After five years of living abroad himself, he missed the beaches, warm weather and jamón iberico.

He’d gone out a few weeks prior and was waiting in Arrivals with all his family! Even though I’d been swatting up on my Spanish in the weeks before, suddenly sitting in the backseat of a car full of native speakers I realised how much I needed to really crack on practicing the language. I think I’d also underestimated the amount of Catalan spoken in this part of Spain. I’d hardly heard Jordi talking in Catalan as in Cheltenham it was all about the castellano with his expat community of Spaniards from Santander to Seville. Now I’m not going to sugar coat it, it was difficult initially. One part of his family spoke mostly in Catalan and it was very tough to start with. Thinking your following the conversation as you understand a couple of words that are pretty similar to English, Spanish or even French to realise two minutes down the line that wasn’t what they were talking about at all and you’ve just said something really irrelevant and everyone is laughing! But five years on, I can say that I’m so glad I went through being thrown in the deep end as it’s sometimes what you need in order to come out stronger. I can follow most conversations now and it’s so nice to not feel completely lost when hanging out with my Catalan friends. I tell my sister, who has been here for a year, (after hearing all the stories she decided she wanted to experience the living abroad adventure too) that if she doesn’t understand not to worry as with her knowledge of Spanish, one day the Catalan will just click!

Looking back it’s quite amazing how subtle differences in culture, can rub off on you personally without really realising. My friends always point out how feisty and ‘Spanish’ I’ve become. I don’t need to say thank you, sorry or excuse me five hundred times as that I learnt pretty quickly this is just a super British thing to do and I’ve even been told off for it here in Spain. Marta, Jordi’s mum contesting to me thanking her for a lovely Sunday lunch, “Emma no tienes que dar las gracias, es un placer!”

I also needed to learn to raise my voice, or risk not being heard round the table as the volume of a Spanish family gathering is definitely a fair bit louder than a British one. I was always taught not to shout but here, although it takes getting used to, it’s common practice to get your point across and fully understood! It's part of the passion for what you believe in and I am definitely the loudest person around a British dinner table now!

I have completely adopted “Spanish time” and the thought of eating dinner before 9/10pm is unheard of and arriving fashionably late to parties is completely acceptable and to be expected. I absolutely love the more relaxed approach to timing and everyone being more laid back about things. Sure you’re catching a flight in a couple of hours but let’s finish our second cortado and I’ll give you a lift to the airport. Not being through security three hours before a flight would’ve given me anxiety just thinking about before, but now it’s a causal hour and maybe twenty (if I’m lucky) and we’re straight to the gate, avoiding all the awkward hours of killing time and rubbish airport food.

It took me a couple of years, but I’d say I’ve completely climatized now to Spanish seasons and am not that cringeworthy Brit who’s wearing sandals and a pair of shorts in March because the sun is out and it’s above freezing temperatures! You learn after a few springs not to rush storing the wooly knits and boots away too soon as there is a long summer ahead where you will miss being warm and cosy as you desperately seek shade and air conditioned shops. It’s so lovely to really make the most of wearing clothes for all seasons as the weather gradually warms up throughout the year and slowly summer becomes autumn and autumn becomes winter. Wearing flip flops before June (at the earliest!) is not really done and I have to persuade my friends how chilly it is at night when they’re packing clothes for August at Easter as they’ve seen the sun icon and 20-22 degrees on the iPhone weather app. Let’s not forget this is considered a decent summer’s day back home! 

One of my favourite things to do in the week is shopping at the local market. This isn’t typical in the UK unless you go to a “farmers market” in a wealthy town and pay £3 for an aubergine. I love the fresh, seasonal produce here and that people make smart choices depending what produce is in season. Waiting for September for the figs (you’d also need a fortune to buy these in the UK!), sweet potatoes galore in October and oh my gosh the strawberries and watermelons come spring/ summer! It still blows my mind how affordable and locally sourced these all are and how much better they taste than the sad, imported frui and veg you’ll find in a Tesco or Sainsbury’s in Cheltenham! The “buy now, eat now” culture is definitely different as people aren’t scared to buy their meat, fish and vegetables and prepare a meal from scratch. Saying that, my first port of call on landing home is always the Marks and Spencer “Simply Food” - the sandwiches aren’t quite the same here and coronation chicken is not something you’ll find in Mercadona or Caprabo - I mean the sandwich was invented in England!

My, “let’s go and see how we get on” approach to living in Spain has completely changed and I can’t quite imagine leaving now. Despite the nature of expat friends coming and going, I have made some friends for life, and feel like I have a family of my own in a place I now consider home; here’s to another five years!

 

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