We are now about 2.5 months out from moving our family to Madrid, Spain. We’ve put in for leaves of absence at work, and all of our family, closest of friends, and coworkers have been told about the move. We applied for our visas, sold our home, and are in the process of packing and purging everything we own so that we will be ready to leave Iowa on June 1st. We’ve experienced a whirlwind of emotions, and it’s been a thoroughly exhausting process, but I have learned a few things along the way.
Here are my top 5 helpful tips for any future expats:
1. Don’t procrastinate.
Don’t wait until the last minute to apply for your visa; the process is laborious and takes quite a bit of time. Of course, no two countries require the same documentation, but the process is still intensive regardless. I’ve been so overwhelmed that at times I’ve wanted to give up…either that or simply down a bottle of wine at the end of each day. It seems that whenever I thought that we had everything that we needed, I would receive an email indicating we needed something else or had done something incorrectly.
Our experience has shed a new light on how I’ve always viewed moving to another country. I think a lot of people believe that moving to another country is as simple as hopping on a plane and then just finding a job and a place to live. If people knew how laborious this process is, they would be much kinder to immigrants–especially to those immigrants who have been forced to leave family and friends behind.
None of this has been easy or simple and I feel like I’m in a maze trying to find my way to the end. So my word of advice is to meditate during this process OFTEN. On the day that you apply for your visa make sure that you are prepared and remember to BREATH. My husband laughed at me the entire time because I couldn’t stop shaking and kept saying “lo siento”. If you have children make sure that someone is there to watch them while you are applying. All of your attention needs to be on the application process and there shouldn’t be any distractions.
2. Purge! Get rid of it all!
Save yourself the headache and learn to let go. No, I’m not talking about the family heirlooms, photographs, and grandma’s old tea set that she passed down to you. I’m talking about the replaceable furniture, unnecessary knick-knacks, and the toys that have been piling up for months/years. Nearly every materialistic need you have can be satisfied overseas. (Except peanut butter. It’s not easy to find peanut butter in Europe.)
Anyhow, it’s expensive to ship items, and we’ve heard horror stories about how boxes of personal items get lost and are never found again. That is why we have decided to sell everything, and if there’s an item of furniture or keepsake that we simply cannot let go, it’s going into storage. All other items that are deemed “essential” will be placed in larger suitcases and checked in at the airport when we move. Fortunately for us, our new employers are paying for shipping/traveling expenses and are giving us the option to use that money to furnish our new home vs. taking everything with us.
3. Not everyone will be happy about it.
Your kids might be angry or resentful, but their feelings are valid. Our oldest is now seven and she is not very excited about moving to Spain. Well, except for knowing that there is a zoo in Madrid, of course. I REALLY wanted her to like it, and it bums me out a little to hear her tell people that she doesn’t want to move. But who am I kidding? I’m moving her away from her friends and her favorite school. Of course she’s going to be angry.
But as much as I want her to be on board, it is not my job to force her to love it or make her feel something just to appease me. It’s ok for her to get mad, sad, and even resentful. This is a major life change and it will take time. No need to force it. What I can do is listen to her concerns and share with her my fears as well. We are doing this together as a family and we need to make sure that we stay connected now more than ever.
4. Make an attempt to learn the language.
Although there are several larger cities in other countries that speak English, it is still our responsibility to make an effort to learn the native language. Unfortunately for me, I took French in high school and in college. That isn’t very useful in a Spanish speaking country.
Fortunately there are many very successful resources that are helpful. Although our girls will be taking daily Spanish classes at school, we have still started to introduce them to basic Spanish terms. Our oldest practices with an app called Duolingo and our youngest is read books in both English and Spanish. We’ve also introduced her to Dora the Explorer. For myself, I’ve been using the app Babbel and it has been very helpful. My husband…well, he speaks Spanish so he’ll be our translator if necessary.
5. Get your affairs in order.
Plan ahead for your finances, your medications, and visits with family and friends.
We made sure that we examined all of our finances and created a budget to ensure that the move was feasible before even accepting our new positions. This was NOT an impulsive decision, and we needed to make sure that we had all of our monies squared away.
A spreadsheet was the easiest and fastest way for us to analyze our budget in Iowa and compare it to an expected budget in Spain. My husband went through months of bank statements and used internet cost-of-living calculators. We also went as far as looking up costs of grocery items in Spain. This might not work for everyone, but it helped us. We were able to take our annual expenses, review what we wouldn’t be using overseas, and see if everything evened out with our new salaries. This is an example of how we configured everything and can be used if needed.
Healthcare and Medications
My husband and I also take daily medications that are essential for us to function. Without these meds, life would become exponentially more difficult for us. It is crucial that you check with your doctors and the legality/availability of your medications in the country that you are moving to. Do NOT assume that because it is offered in the States that it will be offered overseas. Sometimes only the generic is offered (which is good if you have a tight budget), or sometimes the medication might not be offered at all.
My husband tried to do a med switch when he was offered a job in Costa Rica, and it was a horrible decision with an unfortunate outcome. It is always better to be safe than sorry. Another suggestion is to see if your doctor can fill out a three month prescription and then get it filled right before leaving. It takes time to find a suitable doctor, so it is always wise to be extra prepared.
Visits (Before and After the Move)
Lastly, when you tell family and friends that you are moving abroad, many say that they will come and visit. Yay, how exciting! Well…it’s not likely everyone will. For example, Spain is fairly expensive to fly to. My sister looked for tickets during the month of October and the cheapest flight for 1 person was over $900. So don’t be upset if family and friends are unable to come and visit even if they really want to. That’s what we have Skype for, right? Before you leave, make sure you get in your girls’ nights, your family reunions, and your going away parties!