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The Who What Where Why When of Living Abroad in Spain

A Student Guide to Moving to an Irresistible Country

Article and photos by Heather Olafsson

A tour of the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain.
The author is enjoying a tour of the Alhambra in Granada.

Jumping into the unknown and leaving everything behind can be difficult and sometimes even frightening. Yet, there is so much to gain. In my case, I found Spain to be a beautiful land with a rich tradition, culture, architectural and artistic wonders, warm and friendly people, cultural diversity, varied geography, culinary traditions, and so much more. Here, you can go to the beach and the mountains on the same day, find people chatting in the streets and drinking wine on weeknights, delight in frequent cultural festivals, and be among people slowing down to enjoy life. In Spain, you will have time for self-exploration, which may offer you a fresh direction. Living in another culture and learning Spanish will add a new layer to your personal life while making you more marketable professionally. If you take the plunge, I am sure you will not regret the decision and may even find ways to extend your stay, as in my story.

WHO should live in Spain?

You will need an open mind to move to Spain, an interest in cultural exploration, and lots of patience. You will see and hear things in Spain that may shock or frustrate you, but this is part of getting out of your comfort zone. When I attended my first running of the bulls, I was frightened and confused as I watched people taunt and rile up a large, robust, innocent animal to drive it to run around and charge. However, with a positive attitude, intercultural experiences are healthy — they also make for great adventures and stories.

Running of the bulls in Valladolid, Spain.
A Running of the Bulls event was held in a village near Valladolid.

If you are intrigued by Spanish culture and have a zest for life, go to Spain. In the words of Anthony Bourdain, ¨Any reasonable, sentient person who looks to Spain, comes to Spain, eats in Spain, drinks in Spain, they´re gonna fall in love.¨

Skyline of Grenada with author.
The author is here in Granada, Spain.

WHO am I?

My Spanish adventures began when I studied in Granada, Spain with API during my undergraduate career at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The decision to study abroad was a massive change in my life for the better. Before going, I had studied very little Spanish. Still, my semester in Granada inspired me to reach a level of fluency. I met locals who taught me about their culture and subculture. The study abroad program exposed me to many traditions and aspects of the Spanish culture in the language classes we took at the Centro de Lenguas Modernas and outside the classroom. I learned to cook Spanish tortillas, went to Flamenco shows, and hiked in the Alpujarras. I became passionate about Spain and learning Spanish during my semester abroad. I was sure I wanted to live in the country after college graduation.

As a result of my decision, in 2014 I worked in Valladolid as an au pair. Fast forward to the present, and I am currently living in Madrid, having lived in the country for the past two and a half years teaching English while studying for my Master´s degree in Spanish Teaching. I am currently an English Language Assistant at a school in Madrid and am a fluent Spanish speaker. My time in Spain has changed my career path from business to education; I am now passionate about the learning and teaching of languages and cultures. I plan on teaching Spanish or working in the study abroad education field when I return to the U.S.

WHAT can you do in Spain?

Au pair: This is a good option if you love kids and want to experience the land by living with a family. However, depending on your assigned family, this can be a hit-or-miss experience. Emphasize to the family that you are seeking a language and cultural exchange, as some families want an au pair so they can have a live-in English teacher. There are many international au pair websites, but I recommend this one:

Study: I received my Master´s in Teaching Spanish from the University of Alcalá de Henares Franklin Institute. I did the Teach and Learn program, which is designed such that you pay practically nothing because you are teaching English while simultaneously studying. You receive a monthly stipend, much less than a regular English teacher or assistant typically makes, because you are not paying for the Master´s.

The year was challenging for me in many ways. First, it was my first time teaching in a classroom, and the Spanish education system is very different from my previous experience. I also had many other responsibilities at my school, and the Master´s work was difficult. Balancing was tiring, but I learned so much during that year. My Spanish level improved immensely by studying entirely in Spanish. I learned a lot about who I am as a teacher. You get out of the program what you put into it. I strongly recommend the program I attended if you are willing to be proactive, work hard, and challenge yourself. For more information about the program at the Franklin Institute, which is part of the Universidad de Alcalá, go to:

Franklin Institute in Alcalá holding master's thesis on teaching Spanish culture.
In front of Franklin Institute in Alcalá, the author proudly holds her finished master´s thesis about teaching Spanish culture!

Teach English as a Native English Assistant / Cultural Ambassador

If you enjoy teaching but are looking for a relaxed way, this program is for you. You teach only four days/16 hours per week. You make enough money to live on, allowing you to travel on weekends and experience the diversity of Spain. For more information, see:

Tip: Need extra cash? Teach private English lessons to Spaniards. Giving private lessons is a great way to make extra money and meet locals. Use common sense and meet in a public place if you are not teaching them remotely.

WHAT should you know about Spain and the Spanish culture before you go?

1) The Languages of Spain

While the official language of Spain is Spanish (Castilian), many other languages are spoken. If you want to learn Castilian Spanish, make sure that it is the primary dialect spoken where you decide to go. Be aware that accents do vary significantly across the diverse country. The most clearly understood accents are in the Castile and León regions, Madrid, and Castilla La Mancha. Valladolid and Salamanca are cities famous for their clear and neutral Spanish accents.

Tip: Do intercambios! Conversation Exchange is a great website to find language exchange partners. Try finding someone at the same conversational level in English as you are in Spanish. Also, check Facebook for language exchange events near you. Intercambios are a great way to improve your Spanish language skills and meet locals. I improved my Spanish immensely by doing intercambios.

2) Work to Live, Don't Live to Work

In Spain, people work to live, meaning other aspects of life, such as personal relationships, are considered more important than work. I recently explained to a Spaniard how young Americans get summer jobs. He looked concerned and said he would not want his teenage son to work in the summers because he likes to spend summers with him.

3) Greetings and Personal Space

A woman and a woman or a man and a woman greet each other with two kisses, one on each cheek. A man and a man greet each other with a handshake or a hug. In general, Spanish culture is warm and friendly. You will notice that when people converse, they stand very close to each other.

4) Schedules

In Spain, everything happens several hours later than in the U.S. Many stores and businesses close for siesta in the afternoon and on Sundays to rest. Meals are taken at different times than in the U.S. Lunch (the largest and most important meal in Spain) is enjoyed between 1:30 and 4 p.m., and dinner between 8 and 11 p.m.

5) Meals

Meals are an essential ritual in Spain. People rarely eat on the go, and meals can last hours. Little processed food is consumed; overall, the food is relatively fresh. Emphasis is put on planning and enjoying meals daily, making Spain´s culinary culture rich.

Typical Spanish breakfast.
A typical Spanish breakfast: Coffee with milk, toast with tomato and olive oil, and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
6) Tapas culture

In Spain, wine or beer is usually accompanied by food. Many cities, such as Granada, Leon, and Salamanca, serve tapas for free along with a drink. However, if they are not free, they are usually inexpensive. The custom is to wander from bar to bar, trying various foods and ambiances. Sharing food is quite normal in Spain. A dinner can last hours. Many streets are full of lively tapas bars, and buzzing with people enjoying food, drinks, and each other's company.

Tapas of jamon, olives, and red wine.
Jamón and olives here accompanied with La Rioja wine.
Tapas bar in Valladolid, Spain.
A bustling tapas bar in Valladolid.
7) Festivals

There are many festivals in Spain. I recently visited Las Fallas in Valencia, an annual festival where massive, incredible sculptures are made and then burned. Check it out!

Las Fallas sculpture. Las Fallas sculpture burning.
Author and a friend in front of a sculpture at the Las Fallas festival before the traditional burning ceremony (right).

WHERE should you live in Spain?

Brainstorm and make a list of your goals while abroad. Next, research Spanish cities and towns available to you according to your chosen program. Make a pro/con list for each possible city or town according to your goals, and pick what feels like the right place. If your focus is Spanish language acquisition, I do not recommend a big touristy city like Madrid, where many people speak English. However, suppose your main goal is to travel. In that case, I recommend Madrid for its central location in Spain and its international airport.

WHY live in Spain?

  1. Truly experience living abroad: Living in another country is a unique experience — you are not merely a tourist. Living in another land provides you the distance to view in a new light some aspects of your home culture that you had previously taken for granted while also allowing you to appreciate the unique qualities of your current home.

  2. Travel and adventure around Spain and Europe: Traveling around Spain, and Europe in general, is relatively easy due to the advanced mass transportation systems. Living in Spain allows you to explore the region in depth relatively easily. Just make sure you do not travel so much that you do not slow down and take the time to experience living in Spain as fully as possible.

  3. Spanish language acquisition: Knowing the language will make you more marketable for employment in the U.S. when you return. Learning another language is beautiful because it allows you to connect to people you otherwise might not have met. While in Spain, I try to learn Spanish, as I cannot emphasize the many reasons to know a language spoken by locals and internationally.

  4. Develop your sense of empowerment needed to take on life's challenges: Living abroad involves many daily struggles and adventures. Routine tasks like going to the supermarket or getting your hair cut are more complicated but exciting than at home. Fending for yourself using Spanish is obviously more difficult than in your native tongue. You cannot go running to a family member for support whenever needed. Suppose you can tackle life abroad and do it successfully. In that case, you will develop more vital coping skills, become a better problem-solver, and become more adaptable to life's challenges. Handling your development will provide greater confidence and a sense of independence that you will internalize for the rest of your life.

  5. Becoming a global citizen and breaking free of stereotypes: I realized during my time abroad that culture is an ever-changing, fluid notion. While stereotypes may have some basis in superficial reality, they usually turn out to be false on a deeper level. Not all Spanish people eat paella, drink sangria, and love bulls and flamenco. Living abroad has taught me more profoundly about politics and diplomacy to better teach Spaniards that not all Americans live and think as portrayed by the media. In the increasingly globalized world in which we live, spending time abroad has never been more critical.

WHEN to go to Spain?

There´s no time like the present! Check upcoming program deadlines!

Author Heather Olafsson. Heather is originally from Brookline, Massachusetts, and recently graduated with a Master´s in Teaching Spanish from Franklin Institute at the University of Alcalá de Henares. Previously, she completed her undergraduate degrees at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Tourism Management and Spanish. She is currently living in Madrid and has lived in Spain for three years. Heather believes in positivity and in living life to the fullest. In her free time, she enjoys many activities, such as exercising, knitting, and traveling.

Pictured to the left, Heather looks out at El Escorial de San Lorenzo.

 More Articles on Study Abroad in Spain
Study in Madrid: Visting the Prado Museum. Study Abroad in Madrid: You May Never Want to Leave
Living in Spain as a student. Visiting Madrid Park. What to Know About Studying Abroad in Madrid
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Living Abroad in Spain: Expatriate Resources

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