packing it in

I’m done. Spain and I didn’t work out. It’s over.

I’ve learned some incredibly valuable & brutal lessons with this experience. I am grateful for it, even (especially) the painful parts because that’s what is making me grow.

It’s so beautiful here. I got to travel a bit around the country, take a road trip to Granada, go to Barcelona and Segovia and Pino Alto. I’ve been all over Madrid and the outlying areas west of the city. It’s a lovely country full of lovely people and I wish I had known last year what I know now. I would have made some very different choices.

I read recently that 40% or so of expat assignments “fail.” The biggest reasons for their failure is lack of support in the host country, lack of ongoing support from their company/social network, and the general feeling of isolation. I’m not going to list the reasons this assignment didn’t work out. The reasons are legion and some are highly personal. The bottom line is: I called it. I am tapping out. I am moving back to the US next month.

Living somewhere is much different than traveling there. This seems obvious to me now. I uprooted and disrupted my entire life to get here at a heavy personal cost (every kind of cost: financial, emotional, mental, social, spiritual). I’ve lost many cherished belongings along the way, valuable items like my artwork have been damaged, and I’ve spent tens of thousands of non-reimbursable dollars. I’ve suffered worsening depression, ongoing isolation, extreme anxiety, panic attacks, disassociation, migraines, sleeplessness, frustration, fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of absolute defeat when faced with trying to accomplish any small sort of thing, like logging into my home security account (still can’t!). It would be different if these snags and issues had an end date, if they were just part of the getting “settled in” everyone likes to talk about. But there is no end. They are every day. Every day there is a problem. Every single day. This has been my life for nine months. It’s just the way things are here.

I can’t remember the last time my heart felt light. The last time I laughed long and hard, felt true contentment or joy or even just peace, when I wasn’t worried. I worry 24 hours a day. To the point where I am scared for my health. It’s been going on since this whole relocation process started: daily stress, worry, headaches, constant administrative hassles, arguing with people, forms to fill out, more forms, exhaustion, frustration, personal expenses that never end, every time I turn around someone else wants me to pay them for something ridiculous like, I don’t know, the mail.

This is no way to live. I hit a breaking point on September 11th and so I am putting an end to the madness: I am moving home. I am entering my plea: Home. Where there are sanitation services, reliable utilities (most of the time, better than here), where I speak the language and I know people and I know how things work and I can see my friends and maybe, one day, relax again. Only work 8-9 hours a day instead of 10-12. Be able to access medical care and know what the laws are. Have a valid driver’s license. Have an actual life again, one that I like. One that makes me happy. Get my shine back. The truth is, I’ve been through hell here in rural Spain and the fight is gone from me.

A final note: some people I’ve told, they understand or at least accept my decision. Others don’t. They are angry for me, at me, even. How dare you squander this opportunity, you’re throwing your future away, you’re crazy for not staying, keep suffering for another year, eventually it has to get better. I also hear underneath these objections traces of “I want to live vicariously through you, don’t take my dreams away.” People of course are welcome to their opinions about my decision. But until you’ve gone through anything like what me and my husband went through in the past year, the nightmare we endured, your opinion carries little weight. I appreciate the concern, I know it comes from a place of love, but you just don’t get it.

Leaving here is now a matter of survival. Staying is not an option. I don’t know how to speak any more plainly. My life choices are not up for debate, and they’re not subject to committee approval. This is my choice. You can disagree with it, but I don’t want to hear about it. It’s done.

mitigation

So part of my job is risk mitigation. I don’t talk very much about my job, or at all really, on this site because I like to keep my personal and professional lives well and clearly separated. But I was thinking yesterday after work & after I published my last blog post on hating Spain (I don’t actually hate Spain, it’s a lovely country) that I can treat the causes of my unhappiness like I treat security risks. A lot of my aggravation can be boiled down to three main topics: Car/traffic, social isolation/house, and the language barrier.

What if I treat these like risks to my happiness?

Because they are. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they have long graduated from potential risks to actual issues, in progress, heavily impacting my daily life.

The other stuff, the problems with logistics/mail and making appointments and how things (don’t) work here, that is Just The Way Spain Operates and well beyond my control. Those I have to begrudgingly accept. No sense fighting the tide. The things I can control and the things that are giving me the most grief have about a 75% overlap.

This is very good news! 🙂 This means I can take action to mitigate the main issues that are hurting me, greatly reduce my stress and – best of all – increase my overall happiness and quality of life here in Spain.

So that is what I am doing. I am moving into the city, and I am giving up my car. Whew. Already feel better just thinking about it. Having a car in central Madrid is ridiculous, it’s like having a car in Manhattan. It only makes sense if you are a 90 year old half-blind billionaire with a driver. I just don’t need one, and it’s not worth the hassle (or the never-ending parking tickets).

I’m looking forward to being around people again, people who speak Spanish all day long. I’ll pick the language up much faster in the city with such an increase in exposure. I will get out of this IKEA-junked villa, away from the massive power bills and the random water cuts and horrid commute times, and I will downsize my life to an apartment and walk all over the city instead of driving. It’s time.

A Bad Spain Day

Yesterday I had A Bad Spain Day. It’s really been the whole week, but let’s focus on yesterday. Yesterday, I had an appointment three villages over to get a minor medical procedure done. In and out, the whole procedure takes less than five minutes. Well because of traffic, it took me nearly an hour to get to the doctor’s office. I have learned to take what Google Maps tells me and multiply it by 3 to get an accurate estimate of how long the commute will actually take here, so that’s what I did, and I made it on time. An hour. For what should have been a 20 minute drive.

Why an hour? Aside from the usual nightmare traffic, I had to park a 10 minute walk away in this village because the parking in Spain is scarce and complicated (multiple zones with their own rules, time limits, and half the parking pay machines don’t work). So I parked, I took a photo of the business directly across the street from my parked car in case I could not remember where I parked, and I started walking. (Yes I should have dropped a pin. I will never make this mistake again.) I hiked up a foothill or two, through the city center, around some construction and eventually made it to the doc, did the thing, even filled out paperwork in Spanish (my language skills are improving!) and paid and left. It was very cheap. The same procedure costs me 75 USD back home; here it was 6 Euro.

So then I go to walk back to my car. I stood outside the doctor’s office and googled the business where I parked. It gave me an address. 12 minute walk. Fine, seems a little longer but I’ll just follow the directions. Keep in mind the humidity is around 10%, the sun is in full blaze and I’m wearing old sandals and I forgot to bring water. (I am always, always thirsty here, and my skin is like paper.)

Well, naturally, the directions were wrong and they took me clear across the other side of the village away from my car. The business had moved but they left their old signage up. I called them. They didn’t speak English and they laughed at me when I tried to speak Spanish to them asking for the old address. I wandered the streets in the sun for nearly two hours, trying and mostly failing not to panic, up and down steep, slippery sidewalks and panting. I went into a Farmacia and, using Google Translate, explained I was looking for this storefront and showed the lady the photo. She gave me the same address as Google did, which was no help, but at least she tried. My next step was polizia, but living in New Orleans for 20 years trained me to avoid police at all costs unless I am actively dying and maybe not even then. It was a last resort I ended up not taking. I got nearly 10,000 steps once I finally found my car again.

How did I find my car? I went into Google Timeline and retraced my steps from the parking spot, locating a business near the car and then googled the business name and entered directions for it. Another 12 minute walk back across town in the heat, sweating, thirsty, near tears and very frustrated. By this time, it was 1PM and I had a work meeting at 1:30. I made it home and only 3 minutes late to my meeting, driving through countless roundabouts, waiting for endless streams of pedestrians to cross, complete gridlock in the city center, and then around construction zones and around parked busses and then nearly had an accident merging onto another roundabout when a woman cut me off because I wasn’t speeding fast enough for her through a 20KM pedestrian zone. (The drivers here are horrible.)

And none of this, none of this stressful hours-long ordeal was surprising or new. I was laughing in my car on the way home, of course this is happening. Of course I’m going to be late to a 1:30PM meeting from an 11AM appointment “20 minutes away.” OF COURSE, BECAUSE SPAIN.

Suffice to say the charm has worn off. It’s been 8 months and I’m entering the “this shit sucks” phase of ex pat life. When I see cobblestone “streets” that can barely fit one car down them, I am no longer inspired to take photos. I am grumpy because I know driving on them is going to be awful and stressful and Google Maps is not going to be accurate at all and I’m likely going to get lost. I am not charmed. I am annoyed.

This ex pat situation is not easy. Often, it is not fun. It is an Experience(TM) for sure. I’m not even going into the complete fiasco that has been DHL trying to deliver a package to me for FOUR DAYS now and fucking it up because they entered the wrong postal code and tried to deliver it to some sketchy barrio in south Madrid Tuesday. I’ve already paid for the package and it was supposed to be here Monday. Multiple customer service requests, emails, missed phone calls and in one instance, me cussing out a chat bot (not my finest moment) later, it is again out for delivery today. I have no hope that the package will ever make it to my house. I will be shocked if I ever receive it. I will be further shocked if I receive it and they don’t try to shake me down for more money upon delivery. Everything here is COD. I have to keep cash in the house to pay the mailman if get mail from the US or else he takes the mail away and I have to go pick it up at the post office, which is not open on weekends, and weirdly does not charge me if I go there to get it. Hm.

Today I am focusing on the long term goals I’ve made. Home ownership back in the US. I’m on Zillow checking out places I’d like to live once I return. Meanwhile, I have to go run all of my garbage myself two towns over and hope I have water service when I go to take a shower later. Because sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the water cuts off with no warning for hours, at least once a month. Usually at the most inconvenient time. Not that there is an especially convenient time to lose water service to your house for hours.

I’ll write a more comprehensive post about all of the What the Fucks I’ve encountered here in Spain later. I made a list last night. 30 Things I Hate About Spain. The list is growing more today. I’m in a bad mood. I am pissed off I can’t even get an optometrist to contact me to make an appointment so I can get new contact lenses. I am wearing the wrong prescription and have daily headaches and vision problems and eye pain and no one will write me back so I can translate it to English and request an appointment. I am pissed off I can’t get a vet to write me back about getting my kitty’s shots and annual check up. Everyone says “just call.” NO. It is not 1995. The internet exists. Email exists. I don’t speak Spanish well enough to “just call.” DHL called me five times this week and no one on the other end spoke English when I answered, I tried to explain in broken Spanish and got hung up on, and so I gave up trying to explain an address to them that they have already fucked up twice.

It seems like every minor task, every mundane, should-be-simple chore like going to the eye doctor or getting my annual check up or updating a delivery address is a massive ordeal involving multiple phone calls, WhatsApp messages, fighting horrific traffic for hours, multiple mistakes to fix (a mistyped email address with my home security company, a fat-fingered postal code with DHL, the list goes on, and it happens more often than not and always takes days to resolve if it even gets resolved), and no one is in a hurry to do anything, there is zero sense of urgency, and everything takes at minimum half a day. I am EXHAUSTED. Everything is a fight, is unnecessarily difficult and time-consuming, I can’t depend on basic services like the mail or water to work consistently, and I have very little help.

I’m not in love with Spain today. Not at all.

I know eventually I’ll reach an equilibrium and take the bad with the good and appreciate my time here with a better perspective, but I’m not there yet. Right now I am tired and right now I am feeling very fed up. These things, these inconveniences and headaches and so on, they are fine if you are on vacation and they’re tolerable, even quirky, for a week or two or hell even a month, and they make a great story to tell once you return home and are comfortable, where things makes sense and generally work correctly. But for multiple years? Living like this? It wears thin.

So long for now

I’ve kicked off two book-length writing projects about our move to Spain and they are progressing nicely. I’ve also picked up an ambitious translation project to help me learn Spanish.

Happy to report our stuff finally showed up last week – eight months later – so the house is looking and feeling more like a home.

For now, I’m suspending content development on this site in order to focus on my writing projects. If/when my books get published, I’ll post an update about it here.

Life is good in Spain. We’re exceedingly fortunate. Work is going well. We figured out how to run the pool. I got a portable A/C for the house. The cat is fat and happy. Yes, life is good.

Hasta pronto.

The reservoir

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I went to a reservoir park.

We spent an hour hiking around. There is a quartz line running down toward the beach about 30 ft long, and big chunks of white and rose quartz all over the ground.

Great spot for rock hounds like us.

Great spot in general. I’m looking forward to going when it gets a bit warmer.

Burnout

This thing has a name: expat burnout.

It helps to put a name to it. And it helps to know this is common. Even expected.

Today I had a chat with a friend/work associate of sorts in Barcelona that made me feel somewhat human again. I needed that social interaction. We’ve been hermiting probably too much and it’s time to go out into this world, meet some people and practice our Spanish.

And, whoa, this afternoon I gave this favorite a listen. It’s been a dream of mine since I was in high school and heard about Miles Davis and specifically this album (on vinyl, still have it, in the shipping container in Louisiana) to listen to it while in Spain. So here we are. 🙂 Dreams do come true.

Writing down the worst of how I feel – it helps me to name it, then drag it out like a thrashing, recalcitrant demon into open daylight, examine it dispassionately and then let it go. Acknowledging that yes, this shituation is pretty fucked up and yes, I feel sort of lost and my husband and I have been through a prolonged ordeal together throughout this move, and yes, we haven’t been our best selves all the time like when I burst into tears at the grocery store because I didn’t know we had to weigh our own produce and put the little sticker on the bag for the checkout lady but it will get better, it has to get better, let’s make sure it gets better for us by supporting each other and taking some risks and meeting some new friends and BE here, really try to be here.

It helps.

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.

fun times shopping on amazon.es

Dawn dish soap is ungettable in Spain. Instead, we have soap called Fairy.

If you want grits, be prepared to pay. And wait.

That’s 50 Euro, not dollars.

And if you like Sweet Pea body lotion from Bath and Body Works, I have bad news.

hey, but free shipping!

I could post more examples, such as how it took us a solid month to find baking soda in the grocery stores. Also, forget Uber Eats or pizza delivery if you’re outside the city. We have one restaurant that delivers to the house, a very good Indian place 30 minutes away. Minimum order is 75 euro and it takes 2.5 hours with no updates or tracking, you just have to hope it shows up.

It’s an adjustment.

File this one under culture shock.