06 Mar When the Going gets Tough in Spain
Just weeks ago we had what we thought was a decent plan. We’d nonchalantly rock up in Spain, score a nice apartment in Madrid, get some teaching work and build a life here. Now, after several weeks of continuous setbacks our plans have crumbled; we’re flying back to the UK next week and are contemplating a return to Asia in September.
Before I go any further I want to say that I’m well aware that our trials and tribulations are minor in the grand scheme of things. Even while in the depths of despair I constantly remind myself that we are lucky. We are in this situation by choice. We have work opportunities, money in the bank, a British passport, family we can stay with and for this we are more fortunate than most people in the world. When I’m particularly low, I conjure in my mind the devastation we saw in Leyte, an island wrecked by natural disaster. I remember the people I met there who, despite having lost everything – their loved ones, homes and livelihoods – still got up each day and carried on living. Yes, we are so lucky.
Nevertheless, when you feel trapped in a shit situation that you cannot figure a way out of, it’s hard to see the bigger picture and put your worries into perspective. For various reasons, it’s no exaggeration to say that the past couple of weeks have been some of the toughest we’ve faced since leaving the UK three years ago.
My Third-Life Crisis and Teaching in Spain
I have felt an internal storm building inside of me since the beginning of the year. It began after Christmas with anxiety-fuelled sleepless nights while house sitting in London. I was plagued by a chronic unease over finding myself back in London in my early 30s, in someone else’s home, looking after someone else’s cat with a blank year of half-baked plans ahead of me. Despite my fears, I told myself things would be fine when we got to Spain. We’d fall in love with Madrid and rent a beautiful apartment, my time would be divided between writing, teaching and volunteering. I’d learn Spanish, friends and family would visit us and everything would fall into place.
During our first month in Spain we travelled around the country, visiting the beautiful landscapes and seaside towns in the north. We had an incredible week of sightseeing in Barcelona, a city I genuinely fell in love with. Despite all this, I couldn’t outrun my inner turmoil. When we finally stopped still in Alicante and began applying for teaching jobs the voice inside of me became too loud to ignore, it told me: This Is All Wrong. I finally had to admit that much of my dissatisfaction stemmed from the fact that I’m not doing the kind of work I want to do. I want to write and volunteer, to focus on building up my work experience – even if I don’t earn tons of money in the process.
I feel so ungrateful writing this, as we’ve had many interviews and job offers since applying for work in Madrid, in fact, I’ve never had so many opportunities thrown my way before. However, while I recognise that I’m still going to need to teach part-time to earn money, the thought of teaching adults instead of kids, which seems to be all that’s available right now in Madrid, fills me with dread. In addition, the pay in Spain is much lower than we anticipated; I was shocked that Andrew, with his UK teaching qualifications and years of work experience was being offered work for as little as 8 euros (£6) per hour.
Can we stay in Spain? Teaching and the EU Referendum
Andrew and I spent hours talking through everything and going through our options. Could we go somewhere else for a few months and volunteer, then hope to find better jobs to start at the beginning of September? Should we try and housesit for the next few months and focus on making money online? Should we move to another part of Spain or ditch the country altogether and go somewhere else? We spent hours researching cheap places in Europe to fly to and looked into volunteer options in places as far flung as Nigeria and Nepal. We sometimes thought about just giving up and going back to the UK. We spent a lot of time pining for Asia.
In the midst of all this, news from the UK about the EU referendum caught our attention. In June, Britain will vote to decide whether they want to stay in the EU and if they opt out, we could instantly lose our rights to live and work visa-free in Spain. This is a prospect that terrifies me for so many reasons and not just because it could drastically affect our work and travel options in Europe. This is a topic for a whole other post, but I hate the thought of the UK becoming a cut-off island – economically, culturally, politically – I believe it would be a disaster.
With the threat of the referendum looming this June, how can we commit to building a life in Spain beyond the summer? With all our other doubts about work, Andrew and I finally decided that, although we weren’t thrilled about our teaching prospects in Madrid, we’d stick it out for the rest of the academic year and consider other options for September. While Andrew would work more hours teaching adults, I’d concentrate mainly on writing and teach on the side.
The Shit-Storm that is Apartment Searching in Madrid
Now for the next hurdle: finding an apartment in Madrid. I can’t say we weren’t warned, as many people told us that finding a good apartment in the capital would be tough. We’re no strangers to difficult flat searches though since we lived in London for four years, a city with one of the toughest, most expensive rental markets in the world. During that period we moved four times, suffered through months of damp, cold, living in overpriced flats, dealt with unscrupulous landlords, paid extortionate estate agent fees and had several bedbug infestations. So, we thought we were pretty well prepared for our Madrid flat-hunt – how wrong we were.
After hours spent scouring housing websites, having Andrew call estate agents and private landlords (thank god he can speak Spanish, otherwise our search would never have gotten off the ground) and going to several viewings, we finally had to admit that it was impossible to find a short-term rental already equipped with wifi that was comfortable for me to write and work online from. To have any chance of finding somewhere we needed to sign a year-long contract, provide proof of work, pay hefty agency fees then wait weeks for internet to be installed.
Our one last hope was renting short-term through Airbnb; we found a beautiful two-bed flat with wifi and agreed to pay over the odds (850 euros per month) to rent it until June. Days later the owner emailed to pull out of the deal. Andrew was forced to back out of a job offer because we had nowhere to live and we were back to square one.
Our New Plans and a Return to Asia
You might well be thinking: what the hell did we expect to get when moving to a major European capital city at the wrong point in the academic year? Yes, we were deluded, we had been spoilt by the years we spent in Asia, where we took for granted extremely low living costs, high wages (at least for teachers in Vietnam) and a great quality of life. Despite my love of planning, I feel I finally dropped the ball with our move to Spain, I didn’t research enough beforehand and because of that we underestimated how expensive life here would be and how little we’d earn.
On the brink of despair, I remembered an email I’d received about working in English immersion camps outside of Madrid. On the off chance, I emailed over our CVs, we had interviews and were offered jobs on the spot. Now, we have work lined up for April, May and June in locations around Madrid, with most of our accommodation, food and transport costs included so we’ll actually be making and saving money. We’ll be working with kids on school trips, playing games and sports with them, doing arts and crafts and having fun. I hope it’s going to be a great experience.
In the meantime, we are flying back to the UK next week before we start work in April. Madrid has given us a bit of a mental beating and we need a breather to recover and plan for September, which will likely involve a move back to Asia where we can continue with our separate work goals, live well and be happy.
If anyone reading has gotten to the end of this long, convoluted post, thanks for sticking around. I don’t want this to end on a bleak note, so here are some lessons I’ve learnt from this whole experience:
Spain: it’s not you, it’s me. I cannot blame Spain for this rough patch we’ve been through; it’s a beautiful country and we love the laid-back aspects of its culture, the focus on food, friends, fiestas, fun and not working too hard. We are still excited to spend much of the spring and summer here working, exploring and learning some Spanish; we just don’t want to stay long-term right now.
We miss Asia. I had no idea this was coming. When we left Vietnam last May, I thought it would be a very, very long time before we’d even think of returning. Now, aside from the fact that Asia offers some of the best work options for us and the chance to live a good-quality life where we can save money, I just feel in my gut a deep draw to that corner of the world. I miss the energy and pace of life, the markets, massages and people, the temples, the smell of incense and the constant sunshine – just the feel of Asia. Right now, we’re considering a return to either Thailand or Taiwan in September.
Home is where the heart is. As great as it may be for travelling, we’ve had enough of living in Airbnb accommodation. We’re thoroughly sick of being crunched up in a room in someone’s home, having to ask every time we want to use the kitchen or the washing machine and work hunched over our laptops in bed. I crave a space of our own and regularly pine for our lovely, cheap apartment in Hanoi. I dream of having my own writing desk and book shelf, a sofa piled with cushions and blankets, a teapot and place to put away all of our possessions. We’ve realised that over the next couple of years we need to work hard to afford a home of our own and Asia is the ideal place to save money to achieve this dream.
Travel is still incredible. Wanting our own home doesn’t mean we want to give up on travel. There are still plenty of places we crave visiting and we have no plans to give up our dream of a location-independent life of simplicity, we just want a home base to give us some security. Despite the tough times, these past three years of travel have been the best of my life. I don’t regret leaving the UK for one second as the experiences we’ve had since then have been life-altering and have forced us to constantly re-evaluate how we want to live our lives. I think travel broadens your prospects in life and if we’d have stayed in London instead of leaving to travel, I believe I would have ended up seriously unhappy and riddled with regrets.
We are so lucky. Once again, this experience has taught us how lucky we are to be able to travel in the first place and to have so many options and opportunities. It reminds me how fortunate we are to have each other to lean on and amazing family who support us and agree to take us in at a moment’s notice. We are incredibly grateful for everything we have.