You want to live abroad? What is the secret of settling in and being happy in your new country? In a nutshell: being open-minded and proactive. Oh, and cycling. I started as a tour guide on a bicycle this year and I love it. It never crossed my mind to be a tour guide in the past, but somehow it came on my path and it suits me. Tour guiding is social, it is outdoors and it keeps me fit. It is the perfect job alongside my other job: writing.
Two questions I get asked on a daily basis by my Dutch tour guide clients: how did I end up in Valencia en what is life like here? Everyone on holiday always secretly wants to figure out if they could move here too and what it would take to make it happen. “You are so lucky to live here”. Let me tell you.
1. Only sunshine is free
Living in Spain has nothing to do with “being lucky”. It takes a long time and many headaches to make the decision to emigrate, to plan the move, to make it happen. It takes a lot of effort to settle in, to navigate around your new country and all the new rules and systems, to try and speak a new language. And of course, to start earning money. There are a lot of hurdles along the way. If I tell people that the average wages here are around €1,000 net per month full time, a little bit of the glamour soon disappears. Living abroad can be amazing, especially when there are 300 days of sunshine year, but you still got to pay the bills.
2. Reinvent yourself
To live abroad and be happy means you have to be flexible and proactive. The alternative is to be stuck indoors waiting for something to happen.You’ll soon end up being pretty lonely. And broke. You also have to put set ideas a side about who you are and what you do. You have to reinvent yourself a little bit. My career has always been in arts marketing, but when you move to Valencia, you’re simply not going to be able to find a similar job. Speaking Spanish is one thing, but Valenciano, the lingo of the public sector, is another. And then there is the high unemployment rate down here, which basically means saying goodbye to your previous line of work.
3. Be realistic and flexible when you live abroad
This is the second time in my life I have emigrated. Age 26 I moved from the Netherlands to Scotland, to be with my now husband. Not too big a deal when it came to cultural differences, but it still took a while to feel at home. In the Netherlands I had left a pretty decent job in the cultural sector. Expecting to “just continue my career abroad”, ended up being an illusion. I applied for a few jobs that were in my field and at my level, but my English was not fluent yet in terms of professional jargon and I made a complete fool of myself at one interview. I can still recall the shame, frustration and sadness I felt afterwards.
Now I could have done two things: go home and give up, or get back up for round two. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, right? I however chose to be realistic and go for something a bit less ambitious that would at least get my foot in the door. I soon got hired as an admin assistant at an arts centre, and a year later I got promoted to their marketing manager. Learning the language however is often the only way to get anywhere in a foreign country. If you don’t, then that law degree or masters in business administration is not going to get you very far. You just got to start somewhere. If that is in a coffee shop as a waitress for a year (nothing wrong with doing that forever either by the way), then enjoy it and pick up the language while you work.
4. Transfer your skills and find your niche
What skills do you have that are transferable? What are you good at? Other than that as a Dutchie I was born on a bike, I have always been a communicator. I am good at writing, am creative by nature and I like helping others. I’m a practical ‘tick those boxes’ kind of girl. Those skills are useful in all kinds of jobs, you just have to recognise them and put them to good use. With high unemployment here in Spain and not speaking Spanish much yet, I decided to set myself up as a freelancer, or autonóma, in marketing for expats.
In a city like Valencia however, there are many other expats doing similar things and the competition is high. Time to zoom in and stand out from the crowd. Yes, I can design a WordPress site, a flyer and I can keep a facebook page alive, but my strength lies in writing. And I am bilingual: I speak and write fluent English and Dutch. Although I focused on English speaking clients at first, soon I received more requests for web content in Dutch. I unexpectedly realised that is my niche. Writing web content in Dutch. Who would have thought.
5. Look for local clients…or go online
If you live abroad and are looking for clients s a freelancer – whether you are a writer, designer or even an English teacher (another job usually available for foreigners), you can do two things. You can advertise your skills locally and try and find clients nearby. The other thing, which I found is what most other expats do over here, is go online – and work remotely. Sites like Upwork, Fiverr and others enable you to attract clients from all over the world. This means you can also do your job anywhere in the world. The digital nomad is born! Even better is to bring existing clients with you. If you set yourself up as a freelancer abroad, then you can offer your clients back home prices VAT free, as countries have a tax agreement for these kinds of payments. And offering things without the added VAT is of course attractive.
6. Talk to lots of people: be visible
Unless you have all your clients online, it pays to show face. Go to network events, especially those with other expats. Talking to people might bring opportunities. If others know you are looking for work, friends, things to get involved with, sooner or later something will come up. For the introverts this is not always an easy thing to do, but it is pretty much essential if you want to get out of the house and integrate.
Even ‘showing face’ in local Facebook groups can help you become more visible. It’s been vital for me, especially in Valencia, to get to know people, look for work, make connections and feel a bit more part of the community. Social media has its flaws, but it has also made it so much easier to find like-minded people in a new environment. If you are self-employed being visible on social media is very important. Advertise your services to other expats or locals and before you know it, you have your first little contract – which, if you’ve done a good job, may lead to more.
7. Learn the language when you live abroad
First it was English and the local Scottish dialect Doric, now it is Spanish – and even Valenciano – it is a constant adaptation process. If you want to live abroad and just be in your own little bubble, not learning the local language will keep you there for sure. And no, it isn’t easy, but what in life is? Lucky to live here? No, hard work, baby. You feel like a right idiot a lot of the times and you sometimes feel you’ll never ever going to be able to hold a conversation…but you just have to keep going, mistakes and all. Tranquila.
Anyone who has ever moved abroad (to a non-English speaking country) has had to learn a foreign language at some point. The other day I heard a great phrase that applies to all of us migrants:”A foreign accent is a sign of bravery.” I’ll take that. Bit by bit. Poco a poco.