I decided to title this blog post ‘Why I Made Spain My Home’ instead of ‘How I Made Spain My Home’ because, in my opinion, the ‘why’ is more relevant to my journey than the ‘how’. Plus, in the future, I will give you more logistical information on how I got here, visa processes, finding a job, studying abroad, etc.
WHY I moved to Spain is something that I don’t think I can answer in a simple sentence. It is the incumbency of my entire story, starting at 12 years old all the way until now at 25. For the sake of the length of this post, I have chosen to share the main gist of the story of my connections with Spain and have left out many details.
I don’t exactly know how far back to go to start the story, because when I think about it, the huge string of events that is my life is what led me to where I am now. I’ll do my best to keep this concise, while adding in the necessary details so that you can come along my journey.
My first contact with a Spanish person was when I was about 12 or 13 years old when I signed up for a mentorship program through my church. The teen girls were paired up with an adult mentor to help guide them through life’s challenges and such. I was paired up with a beautiful woman (whom I now consider to be like a second mom), who happened to be from Spain.
The three-month mentorship program came and went, but we continued to meet weekly for YEARS. She would talk about her home country, cook me typical Spanish dishes, and teach me Spanish words and phrases, all the while guiding me through a particularly difficult time in my life. I think this is what really sparked my interest in Spain, and maybe if I wasn’t chosen to be her mentee, I would not have been as interested in visiting Spain in the future.
Fast forward to college. My freshman year, I got the opportunity to do an international service project with 8 other girls on my cheerleading team where would put on cheer camps in another country while engaging with the children and youth. That country happened to be Spain. I was very excited when I got the news that it was Spain, mostly because it meant that we wouldn’t have to be using squatty potties and eating strange foods (don’t worry, I am happy to say I am a lot more open-minded now, but these were my true thoughts at the time).
Before we left, we were trained on what to expect while we were in Spain and some of the customs that we should be aware of. I thought two kisses as a casual greeting and a daily nap sounded great!
Summer in Spain
My first experience in Spain in Summer of 2014 was an unforgettable one. We helped put on two summer sports and cheerleading camps in Madrid. I met tons of amazing local people and bonded with all of campers (girls from 5 to 15 years old). Please note that at this time, I knew very little Spanish, so most of my interactions were based on smiles, gestures and highly refined Spanglish. I was surprised at how warm the people were.
I was especially surprised when, at our end of the week camp performance, one of my 5 year old campers dragged me by the hand to her mother to introduce us. Her mother was so kind and told me that her daughter would not stop talking about me every day when she got home from camp and that she was wondering if I would be interested in staying in their home the following summer to teach the kids English and do the camps again. I was elated! I quickly accepted and made arrangements with our main contact in Madrid to set up an internship for the next year.
Even though I only spent 3 weeks there, I had an undeniably strong urge to return as soon as possible. I remember talking about it with my teammates after we got home and everyone agreed that it was a great experience, but that next time, they would like to go to a different country or try something different. But I was hooked. As they say, I had been bitten by the Spain bug.
The rest of summer passed and I started my Sophomore year of college. I happened to live in the International block of apartments on my school’s campus, so I met people from all over the world on my first few days back. One day, while at a gathering at one of the French student’s apartments, I met a kid from Spain. He was such a sweet spirited soul and I told him about my experience in Spain a couple of months back. We exchanged phone numbers and decided to do a language exchange the following week. The language exchange never happened, but we did hang out… a lot. We saw each other EVERY DAY for the rest of the year and became best friends. In fact, we became such good friends that he invited me to his home in Madrid the following summer and we spent two weeks traveling from Madrid to Valencia to Andalucia with his family. I was touched at how welcoming his friends and family were even though I couldn’t communicate directly with them, they cooked special meals, threw parties, and showed me around their favorite places. This was nothing like anything I had experienced before and I cherish those moments.
After our super road trip around the country, I started my internship, planning camps and events for children in Madrid. I was living in the home of my favorite camper from the year before, and I had a leadership role when the new service team came to Spain from my university. I started to actually be able to use Spanish to communicate and I got to know some really amazing and dynamic people; people who, to this day, are like family to me. We laughed, we cried, we shared so many amazing experiences and by the time summer was over, I could not see myself going back to California when what I had here was so real and so good. I had, yet again, this unexplainably strong desire to be in Spain. So I did what any wise, logically thinking person would do and I dropped out of my university in California to study abroad at a university in Madrid. (Please, take note of the sarcasm. I do not recommend that anyone make any crazy decisions like that because of a ‘feeling’, but I must admit that it turned out to be the correct decision for me at the time).
I studied at the university in Madrid for a whole semester and continued to get involved in youth groups, language exchange groups, volunteering, etc. I felt so alive, and in some weird way, I felt like I was living my true reality. I can’t reiterate enough how much the people that I was surrounded by added to the experience. When I look back, I don’t even really remember the university courses I was taking, I just remember the good connections I had with the people. I don’t exactly know how to put it into words, but I was able to be the truest form of Mara when I was living in Spain.
If you don’t know this, it is very complicated to get a visa as an American in Spain, and the wisest decision for me, after that semester, was to return to California and finish my degree. So that is exactly what I did.
Visiting with Family
I didn’t forget about my people in Madrid, though. I actually went back in winter of the following year just to visit everyone and spend Christmas with my friends. My mom and grandmother tagged along and we visited Barcelona and Madrid together. I was secretly thinking that it was a great opportunity for them to see where I might be living in the future so that they wouldn’t be worried about me moving to a foreign place. I was able to introduce them to my friends, and it was so fulfilling for them to see where I was and who I was with, and for them to understand WHY I wanted to spend my time there too.
Senior year of college rolls along, and the harsh reality of “what are you going to do with your life after you graduate?” hit me like a ton of bricks. Not in the way that you’re probably thinking, though. I had a plan. I always had a plan, and I was going to be a medical doctor– I had gotten impressive grades, scored an amazing internship in a hospital, taken the MCAT, submitted letters of recommendation and applications. The only thing was, I couldn’t get myself to sign any acceptance paperwork for any school. I was so confused, because this is what I have been working for and wanting my whole life!… or was it?
Right around this time, I stumbled upon an opportunity to study a Master’s degree in Barcelona, Spain and work at a school in the heart of the city. I thought that it could be the perfect escape route from medical school. Maybe ‘escape route’ is the wrong term to use, but it was God’s way of reminding me not to do things for others, but to listen to my heart and follow where I was being led. So I accepted. I turned down medical school and I decided to move to Barcelona, Spain.
I moved to Barcelona and it was NOTHING like my experience in Madrid. I wasn’t constantly surrounded by amazing people and I had to fend for myself in a very complicated, politically charged time, studying a masters and working at a school. It turned out to be nothing like I expected. After a few months, I questioned if I had made the right decision and desperately longed to move back to Madrid to be back in my fairytale with all of my friends and familiarity. I wasn’t happy with my masters program, I wasn’t happy with my job, I wasn’t happy with my living situation, and there were harsh political battles going on. I just wanted to leave. But God had other plans.
I scored a job with a company that had a much more professional and exclusive values that would sponsor me to help get my papers so that I could become a legal resident of Spain. I started a new masters in something different altogether that would help me advance in my career. Almost two years later, I am still working for that company and will be finishing my Masters degree in Spring of 2020.
My time here so far has not been easy and I am not sure it will ever be. Every phase in life comes with its challenges and I am learning how to be an adult, a professional, and a significant other all at once in a place far away from my family and from what is familiar to me. I must say that I am much more grounded now and have made some quality friendships here which definitely have helped keep me going.
So, why did I choose to make Spain my home? Put simply, I am supposed to be here. I like to explain it as, in the same way someone has a vocation for teaching or is really fond of animals, I am supposed to live in Spain. I am here because I want to be here. The amazing food, the warm, people-centered culture, the sunny beaches, and universal healthcare are all just perks. After years of feeling like I wanted to be here, I took the leap and now I am realizing my dream.
I cannot predict the future, but I know that Spain is where I want to spend my life. It is a great place to get a good education, raise a family, learn about culture and history, or just get away from the hustle and bustle of American society. Not to mention, the general lack of blatant racism and descrimination is always a plus in my book.
So there you have it, WHY I made Spain my home. Thank you so much for reading and be on the lookout for my next post about studying abroad in Spain.
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