How I Became an Expat

by | Feb 17, 2022 | Global | 1 comment

Becoming a long-term expat was no easy ride. When I first left the UK for Seville, Spain, I was planning to return within a year or so. All I wanted to do was learn Spanish, teach English, and practice my guitar—and not even the flamenco guitar… but so much more happened.

Upon my arrival in Seville, I was about as comfortable as a polar bear in the middle of the Sahara Desert. I’d just spent a couple of years traveling and teaching English around the world. The last country I worked in was Thailand, where I’d lived like a king.

Beautiful Seville by  J.A. Alcaide
Beautiful Seville by  J.A. Alcaide

I’d formed a decent crowd of expat friends, the students were extremely respectful and well-behaved, and life was great. I wanted to be nearer home though, which is why I left Thailand and chose Spain.

In my first job in Seville, my wages barely covered my costs of living. I found the locals extremely hard to click with, and my students were far too demanding.

After about a month, I was all set to return to England, get my P.G.C.E. qualification and become a secondary school teacher.

Then I Met “The One”

That plan was interrupted by a rather special Sevillana lady. She was actually my student (she was 21, and I was 25), and from the start, we had a special connection. Luckily, her course only lasted three months, so once it finished we started to go out officially.

Getting to know a Spanish woman was tough at the start. We were both beginners in each other’s languages, so we used to converse with the language of love, and also a mini pocket dictionary (this was before smartphones and Wordreference).

There were a lot of cultural differences between us. Her family was pleasant, but at the start, I wasn’t convinced they really took me in. I guess they thought I was going to take her back to England. As my level of Spanish improved, so did my understanding of her culture, background, and way of living. Soon we really fell in love.

I still felt like an outsider in Seville, though. I found the society so traditional and closed-minded, and it was hard to fit in being a guiri – foreigner. Making friends with the locals was hard. I’d often get ripped off in bars and restaurants, and Seville just didn’t feel like home. I was in love though, so I battled on.

Luckily, I got a better job working for one of the best language academies in Seville. They were a very professional company and offered great training. I became an actual teacher, plus, my earnings went up, as did my standard of living.

As my level of Spanish grew, so did my confidence and ability to converse with the locals. It really helped in my job. I even understood Sevillanos as well.

I became a huge fan of their religious festival here too, called Semana Santa. As I got on better with my wife’s family, they joked with me about taking part, but I didn’t really feel as if I could because I wasn’t religious. I preferred to be a spectator instead.

Celebrating Semana Santa by fotografo59
Celebrating Semana Santa by fotografo59

After five years, I made a commitment. I surprised my wife by taking her on a weekend trip to the countryside and proposed to her. She said yes, of course (those were her words). It wasn’t until we got back to Seville and told her family that I realized what I’d let myself in for. Marrying a Catholic and getting married in a Catholic church would mean becoming Catholic myself.

At first, I was completely daunted about religion. As a kid, I hadn’t really been brought up with religion. I went to Scouts, but that was about it. My father is Catholic though, so when I told him I was thinking of becoming Catholic, he was overjoyed. I had to do catechizes, all in Spanish, and learned a lot about religion. I still have a few doubts about it all, but I have a greater understanding now. It’s not as terrifying as I thought it might be.

We got married in September 2011. It was a wonderful wedding in one of the oldest churches here in Sevilla. The year after, I also participated in Semana Santa as a Nazareno. Being part of a 600-year-old procession was an honor, and I’ve done it most years since. It was a completely enlightening and powerful experience.

The Missing Piece

But there was still something stopping me from feeling completely integrated into society. I had a decent job, a wife, and my level in Spanish was quite high, but something was lacking. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I became a father.

When my son was born in September 2013, I felt part Spanish. Making a child with someone from another country binds you with that country on another level. You appreciate the country more and want to learn about it, not only for your sake but also for your children.

A life complete by Barry O'Leary
A life complete by Barry O’Leary

Our daughter was born in March 2015, and since then we have bought a house on the outskirts of Seville, where life is more chilled.

Now that our children are at nursery and school, we’ve made so many more friends with the local community. People in the villages are more chilled and open to starting new relationships. In the center, everyone keeps to themselves.

I guess I changed in a way as well, though as I became more confident with the language. Having children gave me something in common with other parents, too. I’ve also made good friends with other expats in the area; most are English teachers as well, as that’s the main job over here for expats.

I still miss my home country and family back in England, but we see them regularly. It’s hard not being able to see my children play with my nephew and niece as much as we’d all like, but there’s not much we can do at the moment. Right now, I’m happy here, with my Spanish wife and two Spanish kids. Finally, I feel integrated, and not such a guiri as when I first arrived. It was a hard ride, but now it’s worth it.

Did you meet your “one and only” abroad? Are you raising children? Let me know if you have questions.

by: Barry O’Leary