How Carson Studied, Worked, and Lived Abroad in Spain

woman sitting on ledge overlooking countryside

Today, we get to meet Carson, a part-time travel blogger and full-time travel lover who was living abroad in Spain and currently works in public relations in the Big Apple. She loves sharing tales of her trips on her travel blog. When she’s not planning her next trip, Carson loves cooking (and eating) and is always down for a workout. She’s also a very helpful volunteer for the NYC chapter of The Nomadic Network!

How did you start traveling, like really traveling?

Even before starting college, I knew that study abroad was something I wanted to do. I picked my university partly because of its great study-abroad program. There was a whole wide world to explore, and I had this deep desire to see it.

During my junior year, I moved abroad for a semester in Madrid, Spain. It sounds clichéd to say that that experience was life-changing and magical…but it really was! I grew in confidence and improved my Spanish skills, and it redirected my post-college plans.

I was so enamored with Spain that I was determined to return. I applied and was accepted to teach English in Madrid. A few months after graduation, I packed my bags and jumped on a one-way flight to Spain. I spent two years living abroad and working in my favorite place, and I was lucky to have the chance to travel to over a dozen countries in my time off.

woman skiing down mountain in heavy snow

Tell us: What’s it like to live in Spain?

Living abroad is different for everyone. Whether you’re spending a semester abroad or navigating a new country and culture for two years, you’ll definitely be faced with difficult moments. I remember trying to find an apartment when I first arrived as a time of extreme stress. I’ll admit I cried over insane paperwork and government appointments, but these challenges made me more resilient and adaptable.

People often glamorize living abroad, but there are plenty of mundane and even downright frustrating moments. It’s not a vacation all the time.

That said, living abroad was by far the most rewarding, exhilarating, and awe-inspiring period of my life to date.

I made dear friends from around the world.

I became self-sufficient and confident in ways that I never thought possible.

I traveled extensively.

I knocked down walls and stepped out of my comfort zone, and doing so led to some of the most breathtaking views, hilarious misadventures, and deepest friendships that I’ve ever known.

The tough times were overshadowed a thousandfold by the joy I experienced. I would make the same choice a million times over. So yes, it can be difficult, but it’s worth it.

woman posing in front of monuments in greece

What advice would you give to someone wanting to live or work abroad?

Before I left to teach in Spain, I remember so many friends telling me, “Carson, I wish I could do what you’re doing.” I realize I’m very privileged to have the experiences I did that allowed me to pack up and move to Madrid after graduating. But for people who want to spend longer periods of time abroad, it’s very possible. So:

Look for programs like teaching English as a foreign language (they exist all over the world). These paid programs can help you stretch the amount of time you’re able to stay abroad because they pay you and/or cover your living expenses.

Do your research on where you might want to live and think critically about whether or not it’s the right place for you.

Save your money however you can. There are lots of miscellaneous fees that come with moving abroad, so it’s better to have a little financial safety net. You won’t be paid a large salary, but it’s enough to live on. You can also supplement your income by tutoring.

Talk to people who have done it already because they’ll give you the inside scoop.

Get organized and figure out what paperwork you’ll need, how long visa applications may take, and what you need to do to live there legally. There are a number of organizations that will help you with all this if you sign up through their programs. I applied to teach abroad during my first year through CIEE.

You’ll never have all the answers you need, but if you hear that voice telling you to do it, take the leap.

woman standing in clear blue ocean waters on sandy beach

How did speaking another language affect your experience in Spain?

Speaking Spanish enriched my experience in Madrid. Not only did it help with the logistical things, like setting up a bank account, but it allowed me to make local friends, connect with my Spanish-speaking roommates, and understand the hilarious things my students would say.

I’m not a native speaker, so practicing every day was vital to my improvement. Even though I was living abroad in Spain, I was speaking English all day at work, so I had to go out of my way to speak Spanish. It’s funny to think I had to seek out opportunities to speak Spanish in Spain, but I knew a lot of ex-pats who got stuck in an English bubble. I chose to live with Spanish-speaking roommates, frequented language exchanges, and signed up for classes at an academy. I was determined to improve, and my efforts paid off!

One weekend, a Spanish friend invited me to travel to the beach with her and two others. They didn’t speak any English, so we spent the whole weekend talking and laughing in Spanish. Although I was exhausted by the end of each day, I was so thankful to have that experience with them, and I was so proud of myself for using my Spanish.

If you do plan to spend some time abroad, I highly recommend committing to learning at least some of the local language. It’ll open you up to new experiences and friendships.

Share your favorite thing about Spain?

Spain has stolen a (big) piece of my heart. I think every traveler has one or two places that they love so deeply that they can’t even put it into words. For me, that’s Spain. Madrid quickly became home because I developed such a strong network of friends there. It started during my study abroad, when I was placed with a host mom who treated me like her own daughter and with whom I still stay in touch.

When I returned to teach abroad, I quickly found a great group of people to adventure with. The group of friends and friends-turned-family that I found in Spain are what make it so special. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the “no pasa nada” lifestyle and long nights filled with tapas and vino. I sure do miss croquetas!

traveler scuba diving near clownfish and coral

What’s one trip that really stands out in your mind?

In April of 2019, I had the opportunity to visit a friend from the Maldives. She had stayed with my family as an exchange student seven years prior, and we’d stayed in touch. She always told me to come visit her in the Maldives, but it seemed like a distant dream. Then, last year, a lot of pieces fell into place, and the far-off dream became reality. We spent a week riding motorbikes through local islands, scuba diving, and eating endless amounts of coconut and tuna.

I was definitely nervous before the trip, because it was one of the “biggest” trips I had taken, I was going halfway around the world alone, and I hadn’t seen my friend in over seven years. But I had an incredible experience thanks to her hospitality and kindness. I never would’ve learned so much about the Maldives and gotten to explore the beautiful country without her.

Have you ever been scared of traveling solo?

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous or anxious about traveling solo sometimes. I tend to overthink and worry about what could go wrong. While I make choices to help me feel safe, I’ve also seen that opening up, taking chances, and connecting with people on the road often leads to the most unexpected and heartwarming experiences. I had a fantastic New Year’s celebration in Budapest with a group from Mexico. A nice man in Amsterdam paid for my train ticket when he noticed I was having trouble with my credit card. Little moments stand out more when you travel solo.

People are good, I like to believe. When I’m feeling anxious, I’ve learned to keep pushing. Now I purposefully take solo trips, something I never would’ve imagined myself doing a few years ago.

woman traveler posing near lake at dusk

What is your travel style?

I’m all about the trusty backpack. With Madrid as my launchpad, I hopped around Europe with my turtle-like pack. Seven days in Greece? Fourteen days in freezing cold Prague, Vienna, and Budapest? A weekend beach trip to Barcelona? No problem. I’ve gotten pretty good at fitting in the essentials. I’ve also come to love staying in hostels and look forward to whom I might meet.

I’ve never done a multimonth trip. Living abroad, I always had my familiar bed to go back to after a few days of traveling. I found that really worked for me and allowed me to stretch my wings but also have a home base. Still, I would love to do a long-term backpacking trip soon.

What is something you’ve learned while living abroad and traveling?

Oh, I’ve learned so much!

At the end of the day, we’re all much more alike than we are different. Take chances and say “yes” to opportunities. Things might be hard, but they will be okay. Spend quality time with people you care about. Sometimes the small things in life really are the big things.

For more practical advice, I’d say: pee when you can (not only when you need to), pack light, and always carry snacks!

Why did you choose to join The Nomadic Network?

After my two years in Spain, I made the (very tough) decision to move back to the US and settled in New York City. I quickly realized how much I missed being surrounded by people who felt as passionately about travel as I did. I knew that New York must be full of other travel lovers; I just needed to find them. Luckily, a friend invited me to a meetup with The Nomadic Network, and I felt right at home.

woman traveler posing near lake at dusk

How has your view of traveling changed since the coronavirus?

Because of the pandemic, I’ve become even more aware of how important it is to take advantage of opportunities and to say “yes” when you have the chance. Never take anything for granted. You never know when something could change your plans — like a global pandemic. Life is short! Take the trip!

What’s in store for your future travels?

When it is safe to travel again, I’m definitely excited to book a trip. Coronavirus hasn’t crushed my travel bug in the slightest. My family wants to visit some of the national parks in the western US. I’m also planning to visit Thailand next year and hopefully spend a few weeks traveling around.

Tell us how we can follow your journey!

I have a blog dedicated to my travel adventures and musings on life abroad: Europe Calls Blog. You can also find my travel profile here.

NOTE: Carson is an awesome volunteer for The Nomadic Network in her area. If you’d like to be a volunteer for one near you, feel free to sign up here.

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