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The Who What Where Why When of Living Abroad in Spain

Tips on Moving to an Irresistible Country

Article and photos by Heather Olafsson

A tour of the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain
The author 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 weeknights, delight in frequent cultural festivals, and simply be among people slowing down to enjoy life. In Spain, you will have time for self-exploration, which in turn may offer you a fresh direction in life. 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 proverbial comfort zone. When I attended my first running of the bulls, I was quite frightened and confused as I watched people taunt and rile up a large, strong, and innocent animal to cause it to run around and charge. However, with a positive attitude, intercultural experiences are healthy.…and they also make for great adventures and stories.

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

If you are intrigued by Spanish culture, and you have a zest for life, then go to Spain by all means. 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
The author 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 turned out to be a huge change to my life for the better. Before going, I had studied very little Spanish, but 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 both in the language classes we took at the Centro de Lenguas Modernas as well as outside of the classroom. I learned to cook Spanish tortilla, went to a Flamenco shows, and hiked in the Alpujarras. I became passionate about Spain and learning Spanish during my semester abroad, and was sure I wanted to live in the country after graduating from college.

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 either 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, this can be a hit or miss experience, depending on your assigned family. 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, which is much less than what a normal English teacher or assistant normally makes because you are not paying for the Master´s.

The year was challenging for me in many ways. First, it was the first time I was 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. It was tiring to balance, but I learned so much during that year. My Spanish level improved immensely by studying entirely in Spanish, and 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
The author in front of Franklin Institute in Alcalá proudly holding 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 to do so, then this program is for you. You teach only four days/16 hours per week. You make enough money to live on, giving you freedom 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 always meet in a public place initially.

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 is the primary dialect spoken where you decide to go. Be aware that accents do vary greatly across the diverse country. The most clearly understood accents tend to be in the Castile and León region, 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 who is at about 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. Recently, I was explaining to a Spaniard how young Americans get summer jobs. He looked concerned and said that 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 very important in Spain. People rarely eat on the go, and meals can last hours. Little processed food is consumed, and overall, the food is quite fresh. Emphasis is put on planning and enjoying meals on a daily basis, making Spain´s culinary culture quite 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 a variety of different foods and ambiances. Sharing food is quite normal in Spain. A dinner can last hours. Many streets are full of tapas bars that are lively and buzzing with people enjoying food, drinks, and each others' company.

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

There are many festivals in Spain. I recently went to 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 available to you according to the program you are considering. Make a pro/con list for each possible city according to your goals, and pick the place that just seems right. If your focus is Spanish language acquisition, then I do not recommend a big touristy city like Madrid, where many people speak English. However, if your main goal is to travel, then 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 own 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 with relative ease. Just make sure that you do not travel so much that you do not slow down and take the time to experience living in Spain as fully as you could.

  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 make an effort to learn Spanish, as I cannot emphasize the many reasons to know a language spoken by locals as well as internationally.

  4. Develop your sense of empowerment needed to take on life's challenges: Living abroad involves many daily struggles and adventures. Normal tasks, such as going to the supermarket or getting your hair cut, are more difficult but more 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 you feel the need. If you can tackle life abroad and do it successfully, you will develop stronger coping skills, turn into a better problem-solver, and become more adaptable to the challenges that life throws at you. Handling your own 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 have come to realize 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, love bulls and flamenco. Living abroad has allowed me to educate myself more profoundly about politics and diplomacy such that I am better able to 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 important.

WHEN to go to Spain?

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

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 a total of 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 of course, traveling.

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

Related Topics
Study Abroad in Spain
Living in Spain: Expatriate Articles and Resources

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