“We’ll just go for a year or two…”
I’m Zoe. Mum of two, wife to one, who has been completely winging it as an expat in Barcelona for almost 10 years. Even after all this time, I can often be found pining for English convenience while I navigate life in an unfamiliar language, in the land of challenged bureaucracy. Now, don’t get me wrong, if I was told that our life in the sun ended tomorrow and we were hoofed out of Barcelona and back to lovely, green, English speaking, home of Marks and Spencer, Blighty, I can confirm that I wouldn’t be happy about it. I choose here! There, I said it. For the last 10 years when asked by friends and family back in the UK, ‘when do you think you’ll be back?’ and me brushing it off with, ‘oh, one day, when we’re ready’, I think I can firmly (ish) say that I am not sure if it will happen. Well, not just yet.
Seeing my 4 year old navigate the Catalan and Spanish language with ease, I have realised that this is a life gift that would not be on her agenda, let alone mine, if we were living in the land of Marks and Spencer. So it’s this that may keep us here. Oh, that and the €1,70 caña, 320 average days of sun, the beach and the quality time we now have with family and friends (yep, we are the oddballs that love going back to our family homes for extended trips).
Let’s go back to the beginning. April 21st 2012…
I wrote a Facebook status on this day. Back in the time where people did that. All it said was ‘This is it!’ at Terminal 5 Heathrow. I knew ‘it’ was moving to Barcelona, Spain. But I had no idea what ‘it’ really meant. I mean, I didn’t even have a winter jacket packed as assumed that it would be positively summer-like. How wrong was I?!
We had a bit of handholding in the beginning with the help of a relocation agency, which was amazing given we spoke zero Spanish. We didn’t even really know that Catalan was a thing. Oh, the naivety. So we found a good apartment, with a good landlord (unheard of, I know), and in a good neighbourhood (back when Poblenou was cheaper and uncool). Fortunately I had no pressure to find work, instead deciding to try new things for the year or two we were here. Friends and family visited loads and I managed to make a few friends. All of the above sounds like an easy start, right? I guess it kind of was, but it wasn’t all sunshine.
Our first social night out. A pub quiz with new colleagues from my husband’s new job. Impression time. ‘So what do you do, Zoe?’ Pause. ’Uh, nothing… yet.’ Until that point, I never thought my job defined me… until I didn’t have one.
No job equals no income. To husband: ‘The weather is warming up. Is it ok if I go to H&M and buy a couple of t-shirts? A grand total of €10’. I cringe even thinking back to this conversation. He obviously thought I was being ridiculous. We made the decision to come here together. I gave up my financial independence to do so. From now on we are a team, a financial team. That was completely new to me.
It turns out those friendships that I initially made were transient. It took me a while and a good few friend dates until I learned that ‘moved here’ can mean ‘for a few months’ to some people. I needed to learn the longer-term expat friendship code, fast!
Spanish wasn’t going to fall into my head as an ex-colleague once told me. It certainly wasn’t going to fall into my head while I was living in the very Catalan neighbourhood of Poblenou. It’s taken 10 years of trying, failing, trying some more, patience, tears, tutors, hard work, no work, and many deep-end situations, to not break into a cold sweat every time the phone rings.
We got married. That was one of the deep-end situations. All I understood when our vows were being read at the Registro Civil was ‘compartir las responsibilidades domesticos’. Pity the husband didn’t get that one.
We’ve also done two home renovations with local builders; two more deep-end situations. They were pretty stressful but less stressful than the buying process. Navigating a property purchase in your own language, in your own country is challenging enough. Doing it here felt like we were in a dark room, trying to find the door out to our new apartment, but instead, that door went to another dark room, that led to another. We got there in the end but we did feel blind and helpless throughout the entire process.
The biggest deep-end came from having kids. Or not having kids for about a year until we finally lent on the wonderful world of science that gave us two IVF girls. Surprisingly, being a bit language blind in this process was a blessing. Less questions. More ignorance. Less stress.
Fast forward a few years, and two kids later, and the reality of life with no extended family network to lean on when we need time together as a couple, time alone, time to do errands without juggling an irritable baby started to set in. Would I change it though? No (she says through gritted teeth). Let’s get the grandparents out to stay instead!
But, it’s ultimately been amazing. An amazing learning curve of new experiences, friendships, and adventures. I have travelled the country and ticked off most of the famous Spanish fiestas. I have found friendship in a group of 70 odd-year-old women (las abuelas) who continue to love learning English. Our class is their weekly therapy session away from health issues, family problems, and loneliness and it’s my window into a local, historical, and genuine Barcelona. I’ve learnt the expat friendship code and found some keepers, who are just as invested in life here as we are. I can just about hold my own in [error filled] Spanish. I finally learnt how to take a good photo… and even occasionally earn money from it. I have just kick-started a new venture that fits perfectly with my life, that makes me smile, and has brought back my business mojo.
This new business venture of mine is called The Colour Edit, where I sell earrings designed to make us feel good. Like the smell of fresh bedsheets kind of good. Or a much-needed cocktail with old friends kind of good. They are like a little splash of happiness… in a pair of earrings. I am also using this venture to help others by donating 10% of every sale to a charity that tackles issues like homelessness and domestic abuse. I firmly believe that happiness should be shared. I am also using sustainable packaging because we all need to look after the world’s happiness too.
Follow me on Instagram and join my new venture’s adventure (@thecolouredit_). Oh, and if you want some feel-good ear bling, then feel free to buy a pair (www.thecolouredit.com)! Thanks for reading about my expat journey. I wonder if there will be another 10 years?!