What I haven’t told you

It’s time to get real.

I’ve been trying to make the best of this relocation despite daily set-backs, complications, mistakes, miscommunications, the language barrier and various other difficulties but I am done pretending now that I’m ok. I am not ok and have not been for some time. This has been a complete disaster.

Traveling is one thing. Tearing your life to pieces and then trying to rebuild a brand new life in a foreign country is something quite different.

Yesterday – let’s just start with the latest crappy surprise – I found out that I have to get a Spanish driver’s license. This will cost anywhere from 830-2300 USD (each). I have to take driving school classes. I have to get a physical and mental check-up and also petition the DMV in Louisiana to provide written confirmation that I have no blocks on my driver’s license. If you’re at all familiar with the Kafkaesque nightmare that is the Louisiana DMV you will understand that this may take months if they ever even provide it, and I guarantee they will not mail it overseas so I have no idea how I am going to receive this proof since, in my experience here in Spain, every government office wants printed hard copies with wet signatures.

I am not entirely convinced I would pass a mental check-up right now in any language. Of course the written “theoretical” test as well as the practical tests are all in Spanish. The fees are not reimbursable – I have to pay out of pocket. The test is notoriously difficult to pass, even for native Spaniards. I will likely have to take driving classes on my weekends. Oh, and while lying awake in bed at 3AM stressing out over this and other problems with the relocation, dimly wondering if this relocation will give me a heart attack and actually kill me, I realized it will almost definitely be on a manual transmission car, which I cannot drive. And I have to have this license by the end of June or else my company will not allow me to lease a car any longer. I found out about this requirement yesterday on accident while chatting with a work associate. My HR did not relay this info to me; the relocation company that is supposed to be helping us get settled in here did not tell me. I found out by accident, nearly two full months after we moved here.

I could write a laundry list of the multiple failures of the eight or so entities that are involved in this move and various acts of god that have made this year-long effort to relocate me to Spain during covid a complete clusterfuck nightmare. All of my personal belongings from my old home (before we were made homeless for three months in the US by this relocation) are still sitting in a humid warehouse in a Louisiana swamp, waiting on a ship. I suspect all of my books, paintings and anything cloth are ruined by now, covered in mildew or mold and stinking to hell.

It’s my great great grandmother’s bone china. It’s my Canon DSLR. It’s all of my original artwork (30+ pieces of original work) that’s been exhibited in various art shows in New Orleans. It’s my library of 2,000+ books that has taken me decades to build. It’s my grandfather’s coin collection. It’s irreplaceable items I have obtained and cherished from around the world. It’s the rest of my clothes, my shoes, my record player and records, my furniture, my kitchenware, small appliances, linens, bath towels, almost everything material that is dear to me and everything that makes a house a home. It’s my husband’s things, his grandmother’s quilts, his tools, his clothes. It’s our stuff. We need our stuff.

This relocation, by my estimate, has cost me roughly 10,000 USD out of pocket so far. My husband thinks it is more. My savings are completely wiped out. We are broke. And more expenses, such as these Spanish driver licenses, keep popping up with no warning. I had to pay 850 USD last week to refill the oil in our water heater in order for us to have heat and hot water. We went without showers for 4 days until I got paid so I could buy the fuel. The house has heated flooring – no HVAC. And that will happen roughly every 3 months, that expense, if we want consistent hot water. My husband discovered that the underground rain basin for garden irrigation has a giant hole busted in the bottom, so it looks like I’ll be paying for whatever water the gardener (we don’t want a gardener but were told we have no choice) will use when he does the yard. At peak rates during the summer. It’s going to cost a fortune.

One of the major attractions of this move was living in a country with a low cost of living on an American salary. Our hope, our main goal, is to save money here while we live in Spain so that we can buy a house when we return to the US. At this rate, we will never be able to save money for a house. I was also hoping to pay down a lot of debt. Instead we are increasing our debt by being here and drowning in this money pit of a house we don’t even own. With no recourse, no way to break the lease that we know of since we don’t know renters law in Spain, because despite asking repeatedly for legal help from our relocation company for the past two months as we watch this house fall down around us and the bills skyrocket, we have still been given none. In short, we’ve been ripped off and are being made to eat the cost personally.

This situation is mentally exhausting. Keeping up with the latest legal requirements, tax requirements, bills and utility issues is a full-time job. I started smoking again, I’ve gained three pounds and I am drinking way too much Rioja. We have no support system on the ground. We are scared to drive anywhere in case we get pulled over and ticketed again. We are outside the city and nothing is in walking distance. We are together 24/7 and my husband is so bored, he needs his machinist shop set up so he can start work but again, that takes money and I am hemorrhaging cash every time I turn around. We have lost water, power and internet all in one week due to inadequate power supply, random water cuts no one told us about, and a mistake our consultant made – putting our internet under her personal phone number. We receive our power bills in PDF attachments over WhatsApp. No one can tell me when the water bill is going to autodraft. It took us a month to get our Spain debit cards. Meanwhile we had no access to the 1000.00 USD in the account. They simply forgot to mail them. For a month.

I have learned that this area is prone to home invasions, which now explains why everyone in our neighborhood has huge dogs that bark constantly. The fun thing (not actually fun) about home invasions here in Spain is that once someone breaks into your house it is very difficult to legally remove them. They can squat in your home, using your kitchen, your bathroom, taking your stuff, doing whatever, for weeks, and if you forcibly remove them from your home you can get arrested if they get hurt or even claim to get hurt. It is absolute insanity. So that’s something I live in fear of every day now. Fun.

Our internet was out for nearly two weeks last month before we managed to get it restored. And only then because our landlord, a native Spanish speaker, helped us. It took three phone calls and a few transfers to different departments to even get the right person to do the order. Customer service here is abysmal. It’s a joke. Service people show up whenever they feel like it, early or late or the next day (the famous “manana”). This (expensive) house is falling apart. Curtain rods and shelves fall off the walls and the place is furnished with crappy IKEA bedframes and cabinets. There is a disgusting sewage smell that comes from the upstairs bathroom randomly, usually when it rains, that we cannot get fixed. So the whole house occasionally smells like raw shit.

Most of this may be culture shock. But for now, I am not happy with this relocation experience and most of it has to do with how horribly it’s been mishandled before, during and especially after the move. We are so, so unprepared and I feel like we’ve been set up to fail. We should have been taking language lessons as soon as our belongings were packed and taken away last year. We should have been given resources to meet other expats, legal information on driving, renting, utilities information, all of the practical matters we need to know. Instead I have been told to “use Google” and “be more resourceful.”

So, with Google translate, hand gestures, broken Spanish and French and the kindness of strangers, we are getting by.

I hope I will have a happier update in a few months. I hope then I will look back at this and say “Wow, I was so sad and stressed in March during the rough adjustment period. Things are much better now! I love Espana! Also check out my new Spanish driver’s license, woo!” Right now, that feels impossible. It has been impossible to relax and truly enjoy this country so far. What was supposed to be a happy, exciting time was instead a complete ordeal of hurricanes, homelessness, constant moving, drama, incompetence, setbacks, paperwork and chasing people all over the place, forcing them to do their jobs on a weekly basis. It was completely exhausting and demoralizing. We are still exhausted and demoralized and the constant badgering, lack of help, miscommunication and lack of support persists in new, daily, frustrating, expensive and confusing forms. I truly DO want to love it here, we both do. We have been looking forward to this move for so long, looking forward to living in Europe and experiencing a different way of life.

Peine forte et dure (French for “hard and forceful punishment”) was a method of torture formerly used in the common law legal system, in which a defendant who refused to plead (“stood mute”) would be subjected to having heavier and heavier stones placed upon his or her chest until a plea was entered, or death.

I feel like stones are piling on my chest, each one representing a unique problem with this move over the course of the last fifteen months. I feel like I have a mountain of rocks on my sternum that I’ve been carrying around and it’s starting to crush me. I am one or two stones away from pleading. That said, I am determined to stick it out. We both are. We are neither one of us quitters.

I wrote this post in part because I could not find anything else like it on the internet, on expat blogs, etc. No one talks about this. It all seems so very glamorous, moving overseas, starting a different sort of life, the interesting little towns, the scenery, the history and magic of old Europe. And it is interesting and beautiful here, no doubt. But it’s not all castle ruins, excellent food and Insta posts. It’s fucking hard. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

I desperately want to fall in love with Spain. I think that I will, in time. Learning the language is helping. There are things about this country that I like quite a lot. Most of this isn’t Spain’s fault; the fault lies partly with me for not taking more initiative, for being naïve enough to think the help we were promised would be adequate. Once it became clear that was not the case, I should have tried something else.

I accept some blame. Now I will try something else, starting today. I am resourceful, it turns out. Watch me resource.

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