The Reality of Moving Abroad in Your 20s

Featured Image: Natalia Senanayake

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It’s been approximately four months and two days since I packed my bags and left my small suburban town for a new life in Barcelona, Spain. After all the chaos I experienced finding a place to live, opening a Spanish bank account, and adjusting to the pace of life here — I can finally breathe and reflect upon my experience in Barcelona so far. To be quite frank, it hasn’t been this incredible life-changing experience that I imagined it would be.

When I first thought about moving abroad, I pictured myself lounging away at the beach sipping endless amounts of sangria and traveling to a new country every month. You know, the kind of vibe you get from those TikTok travel accounts that make you want to catch a flight right this second. I really, really wanted that. I had just graduated from college and I wasn’t ready to fulfill the expectations of a post-grad. Get a corporate 9-5, maybe move out of your parents’ house if you can afford it, cry yourself to sleep every night because you’re now officially an adult — that whole thing. I wanted something more than that, and I’ve always had a passion for traveling ever since I was a kid. I’ve visited over ten countries in my 23 years on this planet (thanks to my parents’ shared love of travel), so moving abroad while I was stuck in this uncomfortable “in-between” chapter of my life just seemed like the right thing to do. 

Now, I knew going into this that it would be hard. Not only would I be moving to a whole new country, but I would also be starting a brand new job as an English Language Assistant at a high school in Spain. While I mentally prepared myself to expect the challenges and obstacles that come with moving abroad and starting a new job, I was also anticipating that those challenges wouldn’t feel as heavy because I would literally be living in Barcelona. There’s no way I could be depressed or lonely if I was living my best life in Spain, right? Wrong. 

For starters, I’m never really prepared for just how rude people can be. Obviously, nasty people exist in every city and country all over the world, but when you deal with them head-on it’s never easy (especially when you’ve just moved to a new country and have no idea what you’re doing). The process of opening up a Spanish bank account was one of the worst experiences I’ve had here in Spain. The bank thought they could take advantage of me because I’m American and charge all these extra fees to open up a “free” account. Apparently, they do this to most foreigners without their knowledge, but the process of getting it removed from my account and closed for good is still ongoing. I’ve experienced other instances with people being rude to me simply because my Spanish is still improving and my accent is clearly American. So, that was not fun to deal with in the slightest. 

Something else that really disappointed me right from the start is the lack of diversity in Barcelona, and the widely accepted casual racism as a result. Now, I am fully aware that this is a European city and that obviously most people are going to look European, but I was shocked to hear the way some Spaniards talk about and act around people of color here. I could write a whole other piece on this, in fact, maybe I will, but it was really disheartening to go from such a diverse area as the New York City metropolitan area to a place that just felt so backward in terms of representation and diversity. My students even told me that they don’t learn about colonization in school and that they thought Native Americans were extinct. It’s also probably worth mentioning that I am a mixed-race woman, and there have been instances where I was treated differently compared to my white friends in the exact same situation. A little fishy if you ask me…

So yeah, the subtle racism here had me really discouraged from the beginning. I also had a hard time dealing with the fact that I was alone in a new city by myself. I never thought I would be the person to really miss my small town and get homesick, but those intense feelings of loneliness hit me like a ton of bricks after the first month of moving here. In all honesty, I probably cried once a week in the beginning because I genuinely thought I made a mistake moving here so soon after graduation. I really missed my family and my cats (that was probably my hardest goodbye), and it got so bad to the point where I wasn’t even enjoying myself on this new adventure that I chose to embark on.

I love to travel after all, so why wasn’t I falling in love with my life here in Barcelona?  

This experience definitely comes with its pros and cons. On one hand, there are times when I feel so lonely and broke that I just want to drop everything and move back home. On the other hand, I have learned so much about myself and what I need to be happy that I never would have discovered or appreciated if I stayed where I was. I had to force myself to become independent and take on challenges that would’ve seemed way too scary to me about a year ago. I’ve met so many cool people here and experienced such breathtaking places around the city that it makes the cons feel a little less heavy. 

Even so, do I think moving to Europe in your early 20s is overrated? Yeah, a little bit. I think social media really romanticizes the idea that traveling while you’re young will automatically fill whatever void you may be feeling. It’s important to see the world and experience new cultures but not at the expense of your happiness or mental well-being. Everyone’s experience is different, and it’s really what you make of the situation that determines how much you will enjoy it. It’s a privilege to even be able to travel like this in the first place, and I don’t regret taking this leap because there are a lot of lessons being learned here (very challenging lessons at that). I do wish, however, that I thought a little bit more about the reality I would be facing as a young, broke post-grad in a new city. Lesson most definitely learned.

nataliasenanayake

Natalia is a recent Rutgers University graduate with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies, and Creative Writing. Born and raised in New Jersey, USA, she recently moved to Barcelona, Spain where she works as an English language assistant. She loves all things cats and coffee, and creating content is one of her biggest passions.

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