The Satisfying Risk of Expatriating on the Cheap

Expat Spain

The Satisfying Risk of Expatriating on the Cheap 

The true story of how American expat Nick Hilden settled in Spain on less than $200

By Nick Hilden

Global Living – Issue 9 | Novovember/December 2013

As we wove our way through paths formed by a series of chain-link fences separating us from the rubble of exposed steel girders and broken cement, I told my girlfriend Ashlee that I did not remember Camino de Ronda being so disheveled, which was putting it lightly. Here and there we came upon a crater littered with yellow construction tape and other debris. Everywhere was the sound of jackhammers and construction equipment. Slow moving lines of people made their way down the chain-link paths as if filing into a refugee camp, or a prison.

It was a slightly abrasive entry into our new home of Granada, Spain, where I had visited briefly as a college student seven years prior, and which I recalled with a fondness for its beauty and tranquil atmosphere. I can report happily that I have since learned that Camino de Ronda – one of Granada’s largest roads – is simply undergoing a facelift which involves the installation of a city-wide metro system, and that the rest of Granada on a whole is still run through with a sometimes subtle but often fantastic magnificence.

Anyway, I’m not here to sing of Granada’s many glories, but to relate how, and perhaps why, Ashlee and I ended up there. The reason we found ourselves walking through the chaos of what we now refer to as Granada’s ‘Third World’ was because I recalled that there was one of the Cortes Inglés superstores in the area, and that was the only place where I knew we could find bed sheets, towels and basic kitchen utensils.

It was a rather stressful moment. You see, we had just arrived in town that morning following 24 hours of airports and connecting flights, 16 hours in Barcelona, a 10-hour train ride through night, and now we had an apartment, some furniture, but none of the comforts of home. We’d had almost no sleep in two days, and we were suddenly on the hunt for the things that would make our new apartment livable – towels and the like.

You may be wondering why we hadn’t spent a couple of days in the glorious city of Barcelona where we could have seen the sights and had a few nights of rest. The simple answer is that we were broke – very, very broke – and our last 170 dollars were reserved for food and linens. We had no precise idea of when more money would be coming in. A hazy understanding of where and when money will arrive is an occupational hazard for freelance writers, but it is even more speculative when you have just expatriated and suddenly find yourself having to make a new life far from the comforts of your own language.

It was January of 2013, and we had decided to drop everything and head for Spain just four months earlier, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for saving up a nest egg when you work in the financially-scattered profession of a writer. The whole process had been rather straightforward – we bought plane tickets, found an apartment online (taking care to avoid scammers, and there were a few close calls), then saved every dime we could. I sold my bicycle for what felt like pennies on its actual value, just 200 dollars, but that 200 dollars turned out to be all we had left upon our arrival, so it was a good decision.

I’ve known a number of people who expatriated, but they’d always done it with jobs waiting wherever they were headed, or at least a healthy savings to make the transition doable. When we announced our plans, all of our friends and family thought that we were either crazy or that we wouldn’t go through with it. How can you afford to move to Spain when you’ve been borrowing money to pay rent for the past six months?

But we had to do things on the fly, because we knew that if we had held off until we had more security, for the safely bulging bank account or the perfect job waiting in the distance, it never would have happened. Maybe it would have, but after some discussion Ashlee and I decided that we’d rather risk everything on following our dream rather than risk the dream by doing nothing at all.

So there we were, walking through an unrecognizable landscape of rubble, my language skills resting somewhere slightly above sub-par with Ashlee’s at zilch, looking for a store that had existed nearly a decade earlier but which, from the looks of things, could very well not be there anymore.

To make matters worse, we had foolishly made our move in the middle of winter thinking, “It’s Spain! Who needs jackets?” As it turns out, the high mountain country of Granada is insufferably cold in January. We had brought very little in the way of warm clothes, and we certainly didn’t have the money to purchase anything but the basest of essentials. Within just a few days of our arrival, we would wake up to the scenic yet frigid view of the city’s snow-covered rooftops. Beautiful, yes, but hardly the sunshine paradise that I remembered of Granada’s late spring months.

After a good deal of searching we came to the place where the Cortes Inglés had once stood. Hm. We still needed sheets.

In my (what was at that time) horrendous Spanish, I asked a passerby if she knew where the Cortes Inglés had moved. After only a bit of confusion she informed us that it had moved nearby, just one street over. Ten minutes later we were wandering through the store, half out of our wits with exhaustion, trying to find affordable pans and reasonably-priced linens. We decided that we would get a single towel and share.

Then we were off across town, through Granada’s ‘Third World’, then up toward our home just off Gran Via. We only got lost a few times.

Back at our apartment we proceeded to revel in our simple purchases, simple in price and utility, but amazing to us because they were ours and they were to help us make our place in Spain. This was our new world, one that featured a castle gazing down at us from the hill above … and one with tapas (free plates of food that are often provided with every drink ordered at a bar or café) and flamenco. We counted our remaining funds – less than 40 euros. Those tapas were going to come in handy.

After a while we took our laptops downstairs to a little café advertising Wi-Fi (pronounced “weefee” by the Spanish), and we checked in on our various job prospects. Waiting for me I found an unexpected email promising a hefty deposit and more to come. Writing about treadmills. Another asked if I could provide something about the Alhambra castle. Yet another informed me that a local plaza was being dedicated to a famous musician, and could I please cover the inauguration and they would pay me later. Things seemed to be working out.

Nearly one year has passed, and they still are. Winter turned into spring, which became summer, and now we’re working our way through a beautiful autumn. Friendships have been forged, and many a tapa enjoyed.

Let me tell you – there is no reward without risk.

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