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A year in Spain

A  YEAR IN SPAIN?!

 

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We are living in Spain for the year!

We’re an American couple with two boys, ages 9 and 12. We’re here for some good family time and to share the adventure of living in another culture with our children. We are all learning Spanish.  We are taking a break from our busy life in America – a break from our roles and routines to seize what we feel is a precious (and fleeting) opportunity to enjoy our lives together while, as my husband likes to say, “our children still want to be with us.” Although it felt a bit risky and although it’s hard to line up the perfect time and circumstances, we decided to go for it. Life is short.

 

Why Spain?

We considered almost every Spanish speaking country. We ruled out dangerous places. We made notecards with our values on them: sense of community, walkable, access to biking, hiking, surfing, child friendly, festive, safe, unpolluted, accessible to lots of interesting places… We had a clear idea of the kind of environment and lifestyle we wanted.

We let everyone know. We said “If you know anyone who has done something similar, please introduce us.”  We were introduced to many cool families and started meeting up for coffee, drinks and Skype chats. We had conversations with people who had recently been in Costa Rica, Argentina, Ecuador, Spain, Mexico and Uruguay.  We spent weeks considering places like San Miguel de Allende, Bariloche, Buenos Aires, Tamarindo, Cuenca, Oaxaca and more. Saying no to a place after imagining the possibilities was hard every time. I would turn to my husband and say “So, we aren’t choosing this place now but promise me we’ll go another time!” Every place holds wonder.

We had always been drawn to Spain. There are so many reasons: friendly people, olive oil, siestas, rich history, culture, climate, and of course, easy access to the rest of Europe.

When talking with people about places they lived, we always asked “If you were to do it over again, would you still go there?” Many people came right out and suggested that if they could, they would “start in Spain.” The close proximity of fun and fascinating places, history, culture and varied landscapes within Spain is astounding. Look at a map and see what is offered within a short jaunt on a train, a bus or in a car. On this point, Spain is hard to beat.

 

Where in Spain?

We quickly scrawled a few places on our list: San Sebastian, Barcelona, one of the Balearic Islands? These were no brainers, places we knew we would love. But we just as quickly connected the dots and realized that if we were moving to Spain to learn Spanish as a family, we would have to move to an area where they speak Castilian Spanish. We had to let go of Basque country (San Sebastian) and everywhere in Catalonia including Barcelona and the Costa Brava (where the official language is Catalan.) Madrid and Salamanca are considered ideal places to learn Spanish, because the pronunciation is  “clear, standard Spanish.” They went on the list.

But we imagined being near the coast and as much as we love Madrid, we didn’t want to be in a huge city. Having heard many reports on Salamanca’s charms, we were tempted, but we didn’t want to be inland, north; Salamanca felt removed.

We continued asking friends: Does anyone know any families living in Spain for a year? Our list grew. More email and Skype sessions provided us with new introductions and stories from families living in Malaga, Madrid, Granada, Javea, Cadiz and El Puerto de Santa Maria. I started getting excited. I heard first hand from people like us, with similarly aged children, that family life in Spain was good and the children were happy and thriving in local schools. Yes.

 

 

We soon fell for the idea of Andalucía, with it’s unique history, sprawling coastline (Mediterranean + Atlantic) and it’s warmer climate. Malaga, Granada, Cordoba, Seville and Cadiz are near each other; by living in any one of them we could easily enjoy them all. Andalucía offers mountain villages, beachside towns, pueblo blancos and dynamic cities of varying sizes. Granada offered the option to have both skiing and surf; the Sierra Nevada and the Mediterranean are equidistant: only one hour away!

We were extremely busy last year. We did not have time to fly to Europe for a reconnaissance trip. Plus, we wanted to choose our new home together, as a family. We decided that we would fly to Spain in the summer and spend a few weeks checking out our targeted places. We could have a great holiday, get to know Spain, meet up with some of our new friends and figure it out. We would need to have some answers (first choice, second choice, backup) by early September in advance of school’s start on September 10. We wrote several towns on our list, packed eight suitcases and hit the road.

 

 

 

Lifestyle?

At some point I developed our central strategy: We could feel reasonably comfortable enrolling our children in a local public school as long as we knew at least one foreign family whose children were happy there. We talked with lots of people who became dots on a map.

We are off-the-beaten-path kind of people and we wanted to immerse in a very Spanish way of life, however we needed to know that our children would be welcome at school and a bit of openness- some familiarity with “outsiders” felt necessary. We were adamant that our experience be different from our life at home in Northern California. We knew that if we weren’t careful our lifestyle in Seville could be similar to San Francisco: a swanky apartment, dinner parties (with other English speakers) and weekends at the beach. So we thought a lot about what we wanted and what would be “interesting” for us. We would not have a car; we would walk and bike, take the bus and rent cars for weekend trips. We would live in town, smack in the middle of a village or small city.

 

 

Schools? 

There are basically three school options here in Spain: Public School (Colegio Publico) Private Spanish School (Concertado) and International School (taught in English). We wanted our children in a Spanish school so that they would benefit from total language immersion. The right Concertado is a great option (some are bi-lingual, English and Spanish), but this requires advanced planning: fall enrollment requires selection, application and matriculation in the spring. And the best private schools, as is true everywhere, can be highly competitive, making admission difficult (our children are new to Spanish, remember). A list of International Schools is fairly easy to come by and there are many good ones. I went to International Schools when I was growing up in Southeast Asia and I received a great education and loved them. If we were planning to live in Spain longer term with middle or high school age children, I might choose an International School. But for 1 year? Spanish school! The language immersion and the cultural experience would be rich and we would supplement their curriculum at home.

Early on we decided that we wanted our children to attend a good, local school. This would require us to identify communities with well rated schools. We looked at smaller, tight knit, family centered neighborhoods. Provided that we could find the right school, and provided they had space, our children (visa holding residents of Spain for the year) would be welcome- and their education would be free, as it would be in a public school in America.

I knew from speaking to people on the ground, and reading expat blogs, that it would be possible to walk into a Colegio Publico a few days before school’s start (this year it was September 10) and say “Hello, We hope our children can go to school here.” If space is available, you’re in. If it’s not, you’re not. (For the record, I only met one family who did not get into the school they hoped for and they arrived in January). Our strategy was to line up 2-3 preferred options (places to live) and choose from whichever had availability in their best school. We retained consultants in the different locations to lay the groundwork. This was very comforting. (See list of Consultants below).

When we visited targeted places during the summer, we wandered into school yards with our boys so that they could hang out with local kids; our youngest would cruise around on his scooter and the boys would weasel their way into a soccer game. Whenever possible, we made contact with local families so we could get a good feeling for the place.

We had a wonderful time.

 

 

Where did we choose?

By the end of August we had fallen in love with Vejer de la Frontera and nearby El Palmar Beach. Immersing might be easier in a small town, plus we could surf into late fall and then again in the early Spring. Cadiz Province wowed us with its warm, friendly people, lovely back roads, varied towns and villages, unspoiled coastline, biking and hiking terrain and the availability of some of Europe’s freshest seafood. We could catch continental flights in Jerez and access Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Malaga by car. Plus, the proximity of Huelva and southern Portugal sounded really nice. And yet, our children worried that Vejer was too small; our oldest son warned that it might feel like a ghost town in winter. “Can we come back and hang out, but live somewhere bigger?” he asked.

My husband and I loved Seville. We often talked about how we would spend our time when our children were in school. We wanted a place with a great school and lifestyle for our children but we also wanted an inspiring environment for ourselves. In Seville we imagined endless opportunities, ducking out of the house and having a rich and exciting world at our doorstep. We considered leafy, family friendly neighborhoods near the city center but worried about gaining school entry in such desirable neighborhoods. We faced a catch-22 situation; we might lease an apartment and not get into school. In such case we would have to go to the nearest school with availability, which could be miles away. Truth was: we may get into our desired school and we may not. While we loved Seville we decided our children’s education was not negotiable and we also didn’t want a lifestyle in which we were driving back and forth across town.

Another contender was Granada. We were attracted to Granada because of its setting in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. We had read about the positive experience of an Australian family who had lived there the year before. We stayed in a cool, medieval neighborhood (a Unesco World Heritage Site) called The Albaicín. It felt like one of the smaller white villages (pueblo blanco) that we had loved, but it is situated within the city of Granada. Our children loved it right away. By the end of our first day in Granada they were begging us to stay. My son Theo said “Granada is perfect. It is a small village and a city; In Granada we could have both. We could live in the cozy Albaicín and walk a few blocks to a modern city center.” My younger son Elliot said “We get to ski and snowboard in the Sierra Nevada and we can take Mommy to her beaches anytime; it’s only 1 hour away, right?!” My husband was excited about the endless mountain biking trails and I was excited about the near complete lack of cars in this, our would-be neighborhood. The cobblestoned pedestrian lanes were dotted with warm, outgoing people. I imagined how our children could roam freely and safely here in this magical place overlooking the Alhambra. But Granada is cold in the winter and somewhat removed; there are no high speed trains to Madrid and Barcelona. Most European flights, and certainly the cheaper ones, depart from Malaga, requiring an extra step when traveling by plane. Also, as wonderful as the Albaicín is, we wondered about living in a Unesco World Heritage Site seemingly inundated with tourists. Were we straying too far from the authentic Spanish experience we had in mind?

The school sealed the deal for us. We had heard a lot about a unique Colegio Publico situated in the Mirador de San Nicolás. There were few foreign children but enough to have paved the way for others and a beloved Spanish language teacher who works with expat kids in small groups. Our first morning in Granada was a Friday and we knew the school office would be open in preparation for school starting the following week. We wandered into the office, smiling politely, eyes wide open. We waited in line behind an American guy who was discussing enrollment for his 4th grade twin boys. When he was finished he introduced us to the school secretary and mentioned that it was his sons’ birthdays; he invited us to the party and gave us his nearby address. Within a few hours we had met teachers, been approved for admission and our children had friends. Was it really so easy? Yes. Was there any way we could head back to Seville at this point? Not really.

Over the next few days we found an apartment a short walk from school, pulled their backpacks out and walked them to their first day. We had no idea what school supplies they might need or when they would eat lunch. Our children did not speak Spanish. But our children had a few friends and that was all they needed to start. There was no trepidation, no tears. They were ready. So we began our year in Spain.

 

VISAS and other Preparations?

There is a growing body of information available on the internet outlining the steps required for an American family to live in Spain for one year. When I first began this process only 10 months ago, there was very little and most of it was geared toward Europeans.

Just this week, here in Spain, we closed the loop, the long loop which formed our “Non-Lucrative Residential Visa” process. Just this week: December 2014! This process began back in March, with printing checklists and calling government offices around the US. There were many documents to compile in preparation for our meeting as the San Francisco Consulate General of Spain, including financial documents, FBI reports and recent, certified birth and marriage certificates; everything had to be reissued, signed, notarized and sealed. Plus, everything would need to be translated into Spanish by a certified translator. Due to being well organized and over-prepared, our meeting with the Consulate went smoothly. And to our amazement, we received notice that our visas were ready within 6 weeks; we had braced ourselves for 2-4 months wait time.

What I have learned from completing this process myself is that each person’s experience is slightly different. What documents are required depends on which Consulate you apply to (Miami? Chicago? San Francisco?…) and which Foreigner’s Office (Oficina de Extranjeros) you connect with upon arrival here in Spain (Seville? Cadiz? Granada? …) Every province has one and you will have to report to the office of the province where you’ll live.

Here are my 3 key suggestions to help you:

1.   Gather firsthand information from others who have recently been through the process, giving priority to those who are visiting the same office locations as yourself. Read information provided by all bloggers, relocation consultants and chat room threads. Download instructions and forms from your regional Consulate General of Spain (every region has one; you must go to the Consulate General of Spain for your region.)

2.   Be over-prepared. The more documents the better. (Sorry trees!) Have more copies and photos that you think you will need. This applies to Consulate visits in the States and also for your visits to the Foreigner’s Office once you arrive in Spain. Expect things to be time consuming and difficult and be pleasantly surprised if they’re not.

3.   Establish support on the ground. There are several very cool people who provide relocation services here in Spain and they may be a huge help to you in the planning stages. Additionally, if you hit roadblocks once you arrive in Spain, having the relationship in place may save the day.

These are the names in my little black book. They consult students, individuals and families moving to Spain.

Lisa Sadlier –  Family Life in Spain (in Malaga Province)
Hayley and Cat –  Como Consulting (in Seville)
Paul Shoulders –  Ole Solutions (in Cadiz Province)
Bianca Havas –  Your Year in Spain (in Granada)

Good Luck!

 

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