For years I fantasized about picking up and shipping off across the sea to Europe; a one way ticket and an unforgettable experience. People would ask me, “Where do you want to go after (culinary) school?”
“To Spain!” I would reply. This all started years ago before ever going to the Culinary Institute of America. To be honest, I first imagined myself in Spain after the first time reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises at age 21. With ideas of world-class restaurants, vibrant culture, and a life in Spanish (which I speak fluently), I began to set my goal of reaching Spain—one way or another.
In school, a student visa would have been possible, but the cost and the uncertainty (the Spanish government could deny the visa at anytime without refunding the hundreds of dollars spent in the process) brought me instead to Utah for my five-month ‘externship’. It wasn’t until I graduated culinary school that I finally got my chance—I came to Spain as a guest culinary instructor aboard Oceania Cruise Lines’ MS Riviera. I crossed the Atlantic on a two-week voyage, landing in Barcelona with money in my pocket and an insatiable hunger for cultural immersion!
As time passed, I began to fancy myself as some what of a self-proclaimed ‘resident’—“Oh, I’m not on vacation, I live here,” I would say to other foreigners in bars and on the beach. Quite impressed, they would ask,
“So what do you do?”
“Write, travel, play guitar in the street..” I would reply, realizing that while for all intents and purposes I am indeed living here, I am really just a traveler on an open-ended journey.
Finding a place to live in Spain seemed daunting at first, but to be fair, I started with a strong hand. As I did when moving (on blind faith) to San Francisco last winter, I stayed with a friend in Barcelona immediately upon arriving. Though I say that I have no preoccupations about traveling solo to a completely foreign place, I did in fact have friends, a pre-existing knowledge of the culture and command of the local language; all things that will make any such transition infinitely more smooth. I don’t necessarily recommend following friends to new places, as this often inhibits ones branching out, but reaching out to see if you know anyone that knows anyone that lives in your destination city can be invaluable!
All it took was a post on Facebook and a friend I hadn’t spoken to in nearly a year and a half extended an invite to a mattress on her floor that turned into my home for a month. My second month in Barcelona, I lived with a British guy I met here on the street while I was playing guitar (though I spent half of that month traveling through southern Spain, staying for free the whole time with wonderful people from couchsurfing.org).
Note: If your not familiar with couchsurfing.org, I strongly suggest getting involved! Essentially, you create a profile and offer to host travelers for free on your couch/sofa/guest bed if you have one to offer, and in turn you stay with people all over the world while traveling. It’s a cultural exchange, not a free “youth hostel”. The most important thing to remember is that when couch surfing, hosting, creating your profile, or sending out requests (which you should do at least a couple weeks in advance), you get out of it what you put in! I made new friends, saw local sights, and ate great food that I never would have experienced otherwise. Couchsurfing is also an excellent way to start off in a new city while looking for your first apartment (and several times a week in many cities around the world, couch-surfers organize meet-ups at local bars to socialized, drink, and exchange travel tales).
For my third month in Barcelona I am currently renting my own affordable room in a downtown apartment with quite an international bunch (Catalán, Italian, Bolivian, and Swedish) that I found through Spain’s version of Craigslist: Loquo.com.
Living abroad (with Spain as a reference point)
1) If you’re going to stay for more than 3 months, decide NOW and try to get a visa before leaving the United States. A student visa is much easier than a work visa, as the work visa requires a job offer from Spain to initiate the process. When you apply for a student visa you work through your local Spanish embassy to get everything in order, then you fly to Europe. With a student visa it is possible to later solicit a part-time work permit. There are numerous websites with all the painful details (spain.angloinfo.com/)
2) If you’re not staying more than 3 months, pick a place, or two, and live like a native. Your US passport allows you to be in Spain (or any other countries in the Schengen Zone; nearly all over western Europe excluding the United Kingdom) for a total of 90 days without applying for any visa at all. If you are like me and prefer knowing a city intimately (instead of three days each in two-dozen european cities), I would suggest starting by ‘couch-surfing’ or looking for local friends you may already have. The online process of finding a shared apartment wasn’t hard, as during the summer especially there are constantly new rooms opening up, though I did tour some of the dirtiest apartments I have EVER seen before finding my current residence. If you speak Spanish you have greater options, but if not, find an apartment with non-native English speakers who will be excited to practice speaking English with you!
3) Make sure you get a thorough look at the apartment before agreeing to live there and handing over money. There are rarely leases/contracts on these shared rooms, but a deposit is usually given to secure your place. Feel out the mattress, make sure there’s a window in the bedroom (amazingly, one can rent a windowless room here) and ask about the noise level (most apartments in Barcelona have interior air shafts that act like echo chambers, amplifying chatty old ladies, drunk French exchange students, upstairs piano lessons, and frantic pet birds). Look at the bathroom (Water pressure? Outlets?), the kitchen (Functioning stove? Are there pots, pans, and knives?), and the common space (Is it clean? Can you imagine yourself hanging out there? Do they smoke inside?).
4) Walk around to find a neighborhood that’s you! Everyone has different preferences/needs for where in a city they live. While staying with friends/couchsurfers/in a hostel, take some time to walk around the city and soak up the different vibe each neighborhood gives off. Some people want to be in the touristy, party-driven action of downtown, while others just want some peace and quiet (or to live as close to the beach as possible!). Look for an apartment near a metro stop that is within walking distance of some sort of social hub in the city. It’s harder to get people to come hangout if you live more than a couple stops away on the metro… Just try and convince your friends to leave their flat in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to visit you in Queens and you’ll get the picture. I live very close to the major city park at the center of Barcelona and love my proximity to everything!
Living in a new city, no matter the country, can be a scary and trying, but stay strong! Go out, meet people, and keep an open mind—you never know when the opportunity of lifetime will present itself!
Very useful tips, thanks Sam! I am moving to Italy in two months and I really hope to have a great time there, this couch-surfing idea is actually good, I’ll think about it.
This was a great read on a lazy Saturday evening. Its good to see you are going about things in a smart way, and going way beyond the boundaries of exploration that most Yanks set for themselves. I’m gonna share your post with my little sister who is thinking about doing the same thing somewhere in South America.
Barcelona is awesome and I wish I had been able to spend more time there while I was traveling. In my time I have spent a few nights at the L’Ovella Negra and a few days drinking ghetto sangria out on those huge blocks at the end of the bay.
I hope you have a fantastic culinary adventure, and if you ever decide to hop over to the UK and need a place to crash in London or Herefordshire, my family does love guests!