Where I’m from, most people do not move out of state, let alone abroad. In my family of working-class New Englanders, women definitely do not. I’m from a small town in Maine, and moving to the “big city” of Portland (60,000 people) is usually journey’s end. Despite its size, Portland is very much a LGBTQ+-friendly destination.
By 24, I had achieved the dream of moving to Portland. I was working at an inbound call center, which is as horrible as it sounds. While I was assisting customers with car rentals in Europe, I was daydreaming of the life I had always wanted: to travel and live abroad. In the rare moments between phone calls, I spent my time scrolling through photos of faraway destinations. Lake Como, the Alhambra, and Gaudí’s Parque Güell were waiting for me, and I knew that I had to start making moves fast. If I didn’t, I could see how easily I could wake up one day and be 50 years old and still living in my familiar bubble. I decided that I would move abroad by 30.
The problem was that I had no clue how to do it. Scrolling Facebook one day, I saw posts from a college classmate who had moved to Madrid through the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program (NALCAP). Organized by the Spanish Ministry of Education, the program contracts native speakers to teach English in public schools in Spain. I had no teaching experience, no child care experience, and had never even been to Europe. Thanks to a semester in Havana, I already spoke Spanish well, though, so I decided to go for it. The prospect of living in southern Europe conjured romantic images of enjoying tapas on cafe terraces, and the program’s offer of free health insurance didn’t hurt either.
I had carefully prepared my application documents for months so that I would be sitting at my computer, ready to submit them right when the application opened at midnight on January 9th, 2018. The application allows you to list your top three preferences for which region you would like to work in, and preferences are met on a first-come-first-serve basis. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. When I ended up applying two weeks late, my application number indicated that there were already over two thousand applicants ahead of me, many of them dreaming of living in Madrid just like I was. I hoped that I would at least get one of my backups: Cataluña or the Basque Country.
After applying, there was the long, anxious wait to find out what region I would be assigned. Eager for my dream of moving to Spain to become a concrete plan, I obsessively refreshed my email every day. As a bisexual woman who was struggling to come out of the closet, I hoped to live in a major city like Madrid or Barcelona. There, I knew that I could connect with other folks from the LGBTQ+ community. I had already researched neighborhoods like Chueca in Madrid and envisioned myself living in such an LGBTQ+-friendly destination where the metro was even painted rainbow colors. I also wanted to live in a major city where it might be easier to access EMDR therapy, a specific type of treatment that helped with my complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD).
Finally, on May 24th, I saw the email in my inbox. I was sitting at my desk at my customer service job, palms sweating, and I clicked on the email. I read that I had been assigned…Valencia? I honestly had never even heard of it before. I was disappointed but promised myself that I would be open-minded. After some Googling, I felt reassured that living on the Mediterranean in the land of paella and oranges would not be so bad. I also still had hopes that I would be placed in Valencia city, which is the third-largest city in Spain.
I had to wait even longer to be notified of the exact location of the school where I would be working. On July 2nd, I received an email with the address of my school in Crevillent, a town of 28,000 people located half an hour inland from Alicante. It was not the metropolis that I had been hoping for, but I was determined to be optimistic. With that one email, after months of waiting, my dream had suddenly become a stark reality. Now, everything was up to me. I had two and a half months to get my student visa. I also had to quit my job, empty my apartment, and set up a new life in Spain.
Fortunately, the visa process fell together fairly easily. Emptying my apartment, however, proved to be more complicated. I had no idea how permanent my move was going to be. Would I like living in Spain? Would I enjoy teaching? Should I get rid of all of my possessions, or should I store them in case I regret the move and want to come back? Should I leave my life in a way that I could easily pick up where I left off? Or should I tie off loose ends so that I was free to roam wherever the future might lead me?
In the end, I decided to free myself. I sold or donated all of my possessions (except for a small box of sentimental items that a friend kindly stored for me). When I headed to the airport, I brought all that I owned: two suitcases and a backpack. After a tearful goodbye, I watched my best friend drive away.
Suddenly, the overwhelming wave of reality hit me. It was just me and my dreams, standing there in the doorway of the airport, and I was absolutely terrified. I had never had any role models in my life to advise me as a woman solo moving abroad. No woman in my family had lived the independent life that I had always longed for. I desperately wanted to call my friend and beg him to come back. I wanted to explain that I had made a terrible mistake and must have temporarily lost my mind.
Yet, while I didn’t have any personal role models, over the months since applying to the program, I found inspiration in the stories of others. At first, I sought out online expat networks in search of logistical advice. But over time, I realized that they offered something much more important: emotional support. From blogs to Facebook groups to YouTube videos, expats’ vulnerable testimonials were what gave me the courage to imagine forging a new path for myself. Finally, the moment had come to create my own story—I just had to take that first step into the unknown.
This week, I am celebrating my three-year anniversary of moving to Spain. Embarking on this journey is the biggest risk that I have ever taken. It is also hands down the best decision that I have ever made. Living abroad has nurtured my personal and professional growth in ways that I never could have imagined. I have become more flexible, patient, and confident. Problems that would have overwhelmed me in the past now do not seem so daunting.
In part, I have gained these skills due to the unpredictable nature of NALCAP. I have been fortunate to work in two wonderful schools in small Valencian towns where the staff and students embraced me with open arms. My first year, the English teachers at the school accompanied me during every class and had concrete lesson plans that they wanted me to follow. My second year, I began working at a school in another town, Alginet, and I was responsible for planning and teaching every class on my own. (Per the program guidelines, there was always a teacher in the room during each class, but the teacher did not speak English.) While there are guidelines for the position, in reality, it is up to each school to decide what an auxiliar’s responsibilities are, and this inconsistency can cause confusion but also encourages problem-solving skills.
NALCAP and LGBTQ+
Another unpredictable aspect of NALCAP is the yearly stress of waiting to receive the location of your next school. After completing my first year teaching in Crevillent, I requested to be moved closer to Valencia city. I was fortunate that I was moved to Alginet, a town 45-minutes from Valencia city. However, the Ministry of Education could have assigned me anywhere in the region of Valencia. It is often up to chance. After living in Valencia for two years, I had to face the unfortunate fact that NALCAP has a three-year limit on living in the Valencian region.
I was forced to apply to move to a different region. Again, I was in the situation of anxiously waiting to hear where I would be living and hoping that I would receive one of my preferences. I was lucky to be granted my first choice of Andalucía. In August, I was notified that I will be living in a small coastal town in Almería province. This left me one month to figure out how to move to this unknown place without a car. Solving these types of problems is now my normal rhythm of life.
Moving Abroad and Finding the Right LGBTQ+-Friendly Destination
I often think back to that crucial moment when I was standing in the doorway of Logan Airport. There were a million reasons to not walk through that door. I had so many fears: Would I be able to find mental health care? Would I make friends? Would it end up being an LGBTQ+-friendly destination where I could be myself? My journey living abroad has been an unexpected road with its share of ups and downs. Along the way, I have faced some very difficult moments. Yet, honestly, I have never once regretted my decision to take that step forward. In the most difficult moments, my consolation has always been remembering that this is not a life that was given to me, but rather one that I have built. And it all started with taking the incredible (yet terrifying) risk of building a life that I love.