Cat is a Chicago girl who's lived in Southern Spain since 2007. Two kids, five jobs and a mortgage later, Seville has become her home. Cat shares her story and tips for expats moving to Spain on her blog Sunshine and Siestas, and she can also be found on her social media (@sunshineandsiestas).
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I grew up near Chicago, USA, a city that is very much a part of my identity.
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: I am currently in Seville, Spain, the de facto cultural and political capital of Andalusia. It’s the fourth largest city in Spain, and the city most synonymous with images and ideas of Iberia: bullfighters, flamenco, whitewashed buildings and the sun.
Q: When did you move here?
A: I moved to Seville straight after finishing my journalism degree in 2007. I never expected to spend my entire young adult life abroad...
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: Yes and no. Seville was my first expat experience, but I have since had a short sojourn in Lyon, France for six months at the end of 2020. It was very different the second time round as an expat!
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved on my own, without knowing a soul, but met my husband six weeks after settling in.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I moved for the adventure, truthfully. I knew that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to go abroad as easily if I didn’t go right after college. I came with the expectation of staying for a year or two and then returning to Chicago to begin my career.
After nearly a decade in the classroom, we moved to Madrid and I moved into higher education. I work for Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus. Which is the American university in Spain. My role is as the communications coordinator for our Office of Admissions, so I am essentially the corporate voice to prospective students and their families. The university is based in Madrid but I have been remote since December 2019 (pandemic notwithstanding!).
Living in Seville
Q: What do you enjoy most about Seville? How would you rate the quality of life compared to America?
A: Like anyone who has lived long enough somewhere, I have a long list of both grievances and things I wouldn’t give up for anything. What I love most is the ability to be outdoors for most of the year, the wonderful museums and cultural events that the city hosts, cheap cost of living and entertainment, and that Seville is large enough to have all of this but small enough to feel manageable. Madrid was too big, and Valladolid, where I studied abroad, was too small.
Things I could do without? Parking is a daily headache, the heat in the summer and damp winters are pretty awful, and there isn’t much industry. Moving to Madrid allowed me to advance in my career and make connections that would have been more difficult from Seville.
People often don’t understand why I have chosen to live so far from my family and the culture in which I grew up. Then they come and see for themselves why this lifestyle suits me – I love showing my friends and family my home, and sharing my new circle of friends and my favourite parts of the city with them.
Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: Apart from being far from my family and raising my kids without having their American family involved more often, I think the work culture is the worst. First, my experience with Sevillanos is that many of them are not too keen on upward mobility. In the three years I was in Madrid, I advanced further in my career than in nine years in Seville. Secondly, the salaries are low and the conditions are sometimes shady. Finally, there is the high rate of unemployment, which has made the work culture more toxic. I have been asked invasive questions during the interview process, such as my religion or intention to start a family, and there’s a culture of, 'if you don’t like it, there’s the door.' I often stayed in jobs for fear of not finding anything else.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here?
A: As it’s been well over a decade, thinking about the hard parts of moving abroad is actually tough! One thing that was jarring for me was having to create my identity in a culture and a language that was not my own. The ways I had always described myself growing up – student, female, journalist – were no longer valid or relevant. That said, I have grown in many ways on a personal level. I have achieved many of the goals that I once had for myself and, though I am rooted in my family and career at the moment, I have the confidence to continue dreaming.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Spain?
A: In America, I’d be considered poverty level because of my salary. But here we live comfortably (my husband is a civil servant) and can provide for our children.
What I love that’s cheap is the food and entertainment. We often joke that we can live like kings because we enjoy being outside and doing low-cost activities like taking the kids to the park, going out for tapas or hiking.
I was shocked at the cost of owning a home and the amount of money that is taken by taxes, but the benefits have been excellent. Healthcare is mostly subsidised by the government and my employer, and I have peace of mind that I will earn all or part of my salary if I am unable to work or become unemployed.
If we ever meet in the US, I am more than happy for you to buy me a steak or a pint of beer.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Seville?
A: Public transportation is what you’d expect in a big city: there is a large network of buses, one metro line, a light rail system and, owing to Seville being a regional capital, getting to and from other places in Spain and Portugal is pretty simple. What is really great about Seville are its bike lanes. The city is flat and easy to cruise.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Seville? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals?
A: Healthcare in Spain is both private and public. For years, I adhered to the public system because of its convenience and, as a young person with no pre-existing conditions, I would rarely do more than a check-up once every two years and a trip to refill my allergy prescriptions.
Unfortunately, budget cuts have been rampant since long before the pandemic, so getting an appointment was becoming difficult, but you need a referral before seeing a specialist directly. When I became pregnant with my second child, I had to first go to my GP and get blood drawn, despite having a positive pregnancy test and all the signs. When I returned, she referred me to the midwife and then to the gynaecologist. We moved to Madrid right when I moved into the second trimester, and my records were 'sealed' in Andalucía, so it was like starting from scratch.
I eventually had both children using my private insurance and have received a great level of care there, too. Private insurance is what I think I’d get in the US – direct access to specialists, private hospital rooms for overnight stays, more comfortable waiting rooms.
Knowing I won’t be bankrupted if I have an accident or illness is a relief, and the doctors I have come across in Seville in both the private and public sector – general medicine, OBGYNs and paediatricians – have been patient and present with me.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Seville or Spain? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Thankfully, Seville is a city that does not have the levels of physical violence, gun violence or rings of organised crime that you might find back in Chicago. Most of the crime that does happen is vandalism, robbery and theft, as well as domestic violence. I feel safer at night as a woman than in the US, though the streets are not well lit.
There are some periphery neighbourhoods that you’ll hear about when looking for a place due to higher levels of organised crime. But no matter where you are, be careful to always lock your doors, never leave anything visible from the street that is of value (same goes for your car) and be aware of your surroundings.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Seville? What different options are available for expats?
A: This is a difficult question to answer as Seville was still recovering from the 2008 crisis when the pandemic hit. This city revolves around tourism, so rising costs because of tourist flats were edging out people who’d lived in the historic centre – money talks, after all.
We bought a house in 2014, right before housing prices were forecasted to go up. Most of Seville’s offerings are apartments, though some neighbourhoods have small houses that share at least one wall with neighbours.
The utilities are what really get you, as well as VAT on those bills. As a homeowner, we pay for electricity, water, access to our own parking garage, internet, etc. Because we have a house, we don’t have what’s known as comunidad, or general building upkeep. Taxes are calculated on both the property’s value and size in square meters, along with the square meterage of the lot on which it’s built. We pay 100 percent of that since we own a home, but flat owners would divide this tax, called IBI (impuesto sobre bienes immuebles), among the other dwellers in the building.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Definitely. Living in the suburbs means more space and less cost. Seville is a small city and easy to navigate. Many expat families choose to live outside of the city limits in towns such as Dos Hermanas, Tomares, Bormujos and Valencina de la Concepción. Many of the British and international schools are located in the suburbs, too.
There’s also an American military detachment in nearby Morón de la Frontera, so you’ll find families in Utrera or Jerez de la Frontera from time to time.
My family lives in the Triana district. It’s part of the historic centre so it feels lively without being overrun by visitors to the city.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups?
A: There’s an interesting saying: 'A Sevillano will invite you for dinner, then never tell you where he lives.' In my experience, meeting locals is easy, as they are jovial, friendly and open to others but it can be hard to get to know someone on a deeper level.
People in Seville rarely move or study away, so they have the same social circles for decades. This makes coming in as an outsider difficult. My husband’s friends have always been wonderful to me but I have only gotten close to a few of them.
Racism is also something that Spain is starting to reckon with. For decades, during the Franco regime, Spain was closed off to immigrants – in fact, when I came to Seville, I rarely saw anyone who was not white. People fit into boxes (e.g. an East Asian person was always Chinese and either had a restaurant or ran a bazar shop) – I was immediately typecast as a typical American student looking to make merry and find a Spaniard to gallivant with. As more people immigrate to Europe and to Spain, we are starting to see these rifts.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Well, there were no apps and social media was practically non-existent back in 2007. That said, many of the friends I made the first year, as difficult as it was and as lonely as I felt, are still in my life. At that point, I treated it all like college – I would never turn down a social event, I tried to find ways to join a class or club or find something that was happening for young people.
What turned things around for me was interning at a tourism company that focused on students. While I knew the students were transient, I did have the chance to interact with young Spaniards who would attend our parties or language tandems. They may have had ulterior motives, but it did allow me to foray a bit more into Spanish culture.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: Currently, it’s a mix of both. Having other American women to lean on has been key as I have moved through different stages of my adult life – particularly motherhood – but I do have some close Spanish girlfriends. My biggest gripe now is that we are all busy with one thing or another, so I mostly look to make plans in which I can bring my children. When I do have the chance to escape alone, I tend to see my American friends.
Working in Seville
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process?
A: Visas for Spain can be complex undertakings, especially given the current climate. The North American Language Assistants programme was my stepping stone. Working as a language teacher in a Spanish school, assigned by the government, meant I was given the paperwork, stipend and health insurance to qualify for the student visa. There were very few immigration firms at that point – in fact, I did visa and immigration consulting from 2012 until 2017 because there was a large gap in the market.
Most citizens of countries such as the US or the UK will find getting a work visa very difficult, unless a company is willing to hire them. Many come on student visas or non-lucrative visas, which is similar to a retiree visa.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: I consider myself fortunate to work for an American boss but with the benefits of a Spanish company such as leave and paid healthcare. In previous jobs, there was always an air of, 'if you don’t like the conditions, there’s the door' that makes changing jobs or asking for a raise so difficult.
Working in Spain often means long hours for a liveable salary but no opportunities to get rich unless you go into business for yourself. Paygrades are determined by law, so this means that raises can be few and far between. It’s common to hear of people who stay with the same company for their entire career, though that’s unthinkable in the US.
Another large difference that comes to mind when comparing it with the US is the siesta culture – businesses operate at odd times of the day (i.e., banks are only open until midday) or shut entirely for the month of August. Working from home before the pandemic was unthinkable. One benefit? Your work hours are your work hours, and very rarely do people do any work outside of the office hours.
The culture surrounding work is becoming more flexible and globalised, I’d say.
Family and children
Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in Seville?
A: My kids are still quite small, so we are quite ok with parks, walks and heading to the countryside. My four-year-old is adventurous and likes museums like the Alcázar palace, the aquarium, any nearby castles and anything with animals, like Granja Escuela Cuna in nearby Espartinas.
A great newsletter is Sevilla Con Los Peques (Spanish only), which shares weekly things to do in the area – theatre, themed days, festivals, etc.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: One of my children is in day-care, and the other is in infant school. Spanish education exist on three planes: public and funded by the government, private and paid for by tuition, and parochial, which is partially subsidised by the government and also by religious orders. What makes things more complicated is that curriculum and teacher training depend on the autonomous community.
We opted for a private school for our elder son for several reasons, and one was because of my work in a university. I was also particularly concerned about rote learning in the Spanish public system, rather than project-based work that promotes cross-curricular thinking and independence.
One of the biggest drawbacks is that the school is not in our neighbourhood, so our son really only sees his friends during school hours. Once the pandemic is over, however, we will put him in extracurriculars near our home so that he can make friends.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Seville or Spain?
A: Research really is key, and a vacation does not count. When you have to settle, there is a lot more to think about than a neighbourhood or getting around – it’s deciding what to bring with you, exchanging or getting a driver’s licence, enrolling kids in school, bringing pets, etc. Many people need 18 months or so to get all of their things in order and apply and wait for their visa to be processed.
Expat life can be extremely lonely, and it has its difficult moments – I have no shame in owing up to having a number of American and other expat friends because their shared experiences allow me to make my life here richer.
The American Women’s Club is a wonderful network of English-speaking women in Seville, many of whom have lived here for decades. Seville has the benefit of not being as transient as other expat cities, so once people settle – particularly with families – they tend to stick around.
I also urge people to remember that living abroad means that things will not be exactly the same as in your home country. In fact, there is very little about my life now that mirrors how my life in the US was prior to moving, other than working 90% of my day in English. Americanisms are creeping in more and more as I raise my kids but we are ultimately trying to blend the best of both worlds.
►Interviewed in September 2021