9 things I’ve learned from being “the foreigner”

Monday, December 14, 2015. The date has been looming in my passport for several months now. As of today, my visa is officially expired and I’m on track to legally becoming a foreign resident here in Spain.

Two weeks ago, I had a very enjoyable visit to the immigration office to file all my paperwork and apply for my tarjeta de identidad de extranjero (foreigner identity card), or TIE. It won’t be ready until January 20, and in the meantime I have a handy little piece of paper saying that “yes, she’s applied for the card and it’s being processed” that I can show whenever someone questions my being here  on an expired visa.

It’s an interesting situation to be in, considering that in less than a week I’ll be heading home to spend the holidays with my family for a few weeks. Ever since coming here, I’ve constantly felt torn between these two places that I love so much: the comforting familiarity of the USA that made me who I am, and the foreign excitement of Spain which will help shape me into the person I’ve yet to become. It’s been a thrilling and terrifying three months and I’ve learned so many things during that time. Here are nine of them.

Oh beautiful for spacious skies... 🇺🇸 | Ready for takeoff Charlotte > Madrid, September 15, 2015.
Oh beautiful for spacious skies… 🇺🇸  | Ready for takeoff Charlotte > Madrid, September 15, 2015.

It takes privilege to move abroad long-term

I learned this one before I even stepped foot on the plane. In between gathering documents for my visa (including a medical certificate, which required health insurance and access to a PCP), traveling 12 hours round trip to Chicago to apply for said visa and paying $160 to do so, and buying the plane ticket to actually get to Spain, I had to invest a lot of time and money to get myself where I am today.

Yes, there are Ryanair flights within Europe for $20 round trip, and unbelievably cheap hostels in Southeast Asia. We’re constantly being bombarded with the adage that “you shouldn’t worry about money in order to travel.” And that’s not true. Long-term travel is not accessible for everyone, and realizing this as I started on my journey to Spain was incredibly humbling.

Good sentiment, bad advice.

I’m the weird one now

Like many now-20somethings, I watched my fair share of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody in middle school. One of the running jokes on the show had to do with Esteban, the bellhop, and his stereotypically long Hispanic name.

Spanish-speaking cultures are infamous for their naming customs, which can make their names seem superfluously long to Americans. Everyone here in Spain has two last names: the first being the father’s family name, and the second is the mother’s (women don’t change their names when they marry). For example, if my name followed Spanish customs, it would be Lindsey Zimmerman Mercer.

The tradition of long names doesn’t just exist in Spain – it’s also common in Latin America. Ever hear of Desiderio Roberto Arnaz y de Acha III? No? Think again.

Hint: not Lucy.

My first few days working here in Spain, I was overwhelmed with keeping track of who was María Ángeles and who was María José and who was María del Mar and who was just María, oh and they all have two last names so suerte! It didn’t occur to me that other people here were having the same kinds of issues with my name. “Lindsey,” isn’t exactly common here, and I usually have to repeat it two or three times. I’ve tried using Lindsay Lohan as an example, even though she spells it differently, but a surprising number of people here don’t know who that is.

Not the first time I got this spelling, either.
Not the first time I got this spelling, either.

My internet installation guy almost hung up on me when I identified myself on the phone because he thought I was giving a fake name. I’ve had to show ID to bus driver to make sure my name matches what’s on the passenger list. Sometimes after having to repeat and spell it several times, I consider just going by my middle name, because at least Rita is not uncommon here and would be easier for everyone involved.

I won’t always get it

Like the first and only time I made the mistake of attempting to go shopping between the hours of 2-5 p.m., when everything is closed for siesta. Or even just in everyday conversation, when a Spanish idiom or slang term goes right over my head. After a day that had seemed to drag on forever, my coworker commented that she was “hecha polvo.” Made of dust? Yes, but no: it’s used to mean “completely exhausted.”

It’s hard not to feel annoying or stupid when you have to ask someone to explain a cultural joke or repeat what they just said, but luckily I’ve been able to surround myself with people who are understanding and helpful. I can’t stress the importance of that enough.

People underestimate us

Monday, December 7, 2015. 11:30 a.m. Allgäu Airport, Memmingen, Germany. A group of mostly Spanish passengers is lining up for Ryanair flight 2542 to Málaga, Spain. Well, mostly Spanish save for a handful of Germans, along with me and my friend Lauren.

There’s two lines side-by-side: one for “priority access” (AKA you get to put your stuff in the overhead bin first, and that’s about it), and the regular peasant  normal passenger line. If you’ve flown Ryanair, you can probably envision what it looked like: just one big massive clump instead of two separate and distinct lines.

A Spanish lady who apparently had priority access was upset that Lauren and I were standing too close to *her* line. Having heard us conversing in English, she began to complain about us to her travel companions in Spanish: “The guiris don’t know what they’re doing. They’re in the wrong line. I’m going to be very upset if they are allowed on the plane before us.”

Mind you: there were no distinct lines. It was a massive conglomeration of passengers, and we were far from the only offenders. Our boarding passes clearly stated that we were not in the priority group, so even if we tried to sneak ahead and go first, we would be told to wait anyway.

Neither of us acknowledged her. Instead, we picked up our conversation right where we had left off – this time, en español.

The woman turned around, and I will never forget the look on her face. It took everything in me not to crack into a Blair Waldorf-approved smirk.

Hearing your native language is like a breath of fresh air

Whether it’s my coworker who only speaks Spanish wishing me “good morning,” or my boyfriend, who isn’t very comfortable with English, sweet-talking me in my first language, it’s so nice when people make the effort to communicate with me in the way that I understand best. I’m not by any means saying that everyone should be expected to speak English with me, but it’s a nice little surprise whenever I hear it and almost always puts a smile on my face.

…most of the time.

I was in line at Mercadona a few weeks ago, waiting to check out. In front of me was a British couple. As per usual, the cashier asked if they would like a bag: “Bolsa?”

“No, that won’t be necessary, thank you,” the man replied in crisp English.

It was clear from the look on the cashier’s face that she hadn’t understand a word he’d said. The poor woman was left standing there holding up the plastic bag for a few seconds before the dude caught on and shook his head.

It was annoying to witness. Why, if you are in a foreign country, do you not even make the effort to speak the local language? I understand that learning another language is not easy for everybody, but you can’t even muster up a “no, gracias,” especially if you understood the original question? A little bit of effort goes a long way, and I’ve lost patience for other English speakers here who think that the rest of the world can and should speak their language.

“Illegal” immigrants can’t always help it

I know this is going to be the most controversial point on this list. While there certainly are people who willingly enter a country without obtaining the proper documentation, there are others who do everything they can to stay somewhere legally and still come up short. Visas expire, appointments to apply for residency don’t coincide, and soon enough you’re technically “undocumented.”

It almost happened to me. Within days of my arrival in Spain on September 16, I made an appointment to apply for the aforementioned TIE. In order to be here legally, I needed to have at least applied for the card before my visa expired December 14. The first available date at the immigration office? December 2. I cut it close, but still made it. Others I know weren’t so lucky, and ended up getting appointment dates after their visas expire. In that case, there’s often nothing they could do.

It’s not always a perfect whirlwind storybook adventure…

From dealing with the above-mentioned immigration paperwork to having to concentrate twice as hard just to maintain a conversation, sometimes all I want to do is collapse into bed after a long day of Being Foreign and sleep for 12 hours. As a recent college grad, I’m doing my best to navigate adult life – on the other side of the world and in a foreign language to boot. Sometimes it’s hard. A lot of times it’s hard.

…except when it is.

This past weekend, I walked with my boyfriend through the city center of Córdoba and marveled at the beautiful display of Christmas lights that glittered on every street. I’ve stood alone in Federico García Lorca’s bedroom, which was about the size of the dorm single I lived in sophomore year, and cried actual tears of disbelief that my love of the Spanish language had come full circle. I’ve shared so many laughs and smiles and memories with people who have welcomed me into their culture with open arms. And it’s moments like that which make the struggle all worth it.


Author: lindseyzimmerman

I'm a marketing pro, writer and cat person from Columbus, Ohio living in southern Spain since 2015. Usually drinking manzanilla, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once).

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