How to Teach English Abroad with Cat Gaa

by Jeremy Bassetti

Have you ever wondered how to teach English abroad? Does the expat life appeal to you? In this episode of All Over the Place, I speak with Cat Gaa about the virtues and pitfalls living as an expat in Spain, her participation in the Auxiliar de Conversacion (North American Language and Culture Assistants) program, and her popular blog “Sunshine and Siestas.”

Cat Gaa left Chicago for life in Southern Spain immediately after finishing college. Originally an English teacher, she has become well-known in the expat community in Spain through the work of her blog and residency services through COMO Consulting Spain. When she is not helping others with moving to Spain, she works as an international admissions counselor for an American university. She lives with her Spanish partner and child in Madrid.


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Transcript

Jeremy Bassetti
This is Jeremy Bassetti. And you’re listening to All Over the Place, a podcast on travel, culture, and the creative life. This episode takes us to Madrid, where I speak with Cat Gaa about the virtues and pitfalls living as an expat in Spain, her participation in the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program, and her popular blog Sunshine and Siestas. Without further ado, enjoy the conversation with Cat Gaa. Welcome to the show.

Cat Gaa
Thank you for having me.

Jeremy Bassetti
So can you just give us a sense of who you are, where are you you are, and what it is that you do?

Cat Gaa
Of course. So as Jeremy mentioned, my name is Cat. I am a Chicagoan in bread but not born. And I am currently living in Madrid, Spain. I graduated from university in 2007. And that was ever after having studied abroad, and I studied abroad in the most obscure place that no one ever goes to study abroad at but that experience that I had over the summer, in Valladolid, leaving with a Spanish family going to a Spanish university, not really having a lot of contact with English. And of course, this was in an age before smartphones. Skype with me when a big thing quite a call my parents with a phone card every Sunday, make sure that we you know having the seven hour time difference between Spain and Chicago. They know right, I’m going to call you right at noon and have to be home and you have to be next to the phone. I really immersed myself in Spanish culture and in the Spanish language, and proudly marched off of the plane at O’Hare Airport after two months abroad between my studies and some travel that I did around Spain. And announced my mother that I was moving back abroad. So I had to finish my university.

Jeremy Bassetti
Sorry, sorry. So so you studied abroad in 2005?

Cat Gaa
Yes, I was studying journalism and International Studies. I’ve done my two year. And the reason I decided to go abroad in the summer was because I was paying for it entirely on my own. But I wanted to have the experience of living in a different culture and learning another language. And it was a great way for me to take care of some of my credits as well. And it was cheaper than going to an out of state university, even though it was at a state university with good funding and good scholarship. But I got a really great opportunity to study through my university, at the University of Valladolid, and got a fantastic scholarship that was essentially just paying for my flights over from Chicago, whatever it was that I wanted to do as far as going out for tapas, traveling on the weekend, and then the travel that I did after the program ended. I went back to the University of Iowa, my alma mater, and finished both of my degree. And in that time, I again was really keen on the living abroad. So I spoke to our office for study abroad, a group of really supportive people. And I do have to give the University of Iowa a lot of credit for, you know, being out, kind of in the middle of nowhere, but still being quite international and globally minded. And one of the peer advisors said, “Listen, I found out about this really great program, where you can teach English, you’d get a student visa, and you’re in Spain for eight months.” So I applied to that program, it is known as the Auxiliar Program, the people who are, you know, who are to this program, but essentially, it’s the North American Language Assistants Program. And it allows North American degree holders as long as their native, their native language is English, to teach in Spanish public, high schools, elementary schools and language schools. So you might be working with little kids, you might be working with adults. But this program was a really great stepping stone.

Jeremy Bassetti
And you did that. Sorry, you did that for about three years?

Cat Gaa
I did that for three years, I was really gunning for Granada. That was where I hope to study abroad. But with finding a program that I could do in the summer that was affordable and and got me the credit that I was actually studying was going to be so difficult that I decided to go a different route. So in choosing where I wanted to teach abroad, I chose Granada and I was placed in Sevilla, which is about three hours west, the capital of the Autonomous –. Yeah, Southern Spain but I want to get as far away as I could, from the winter. Being from Chicago and thinking, well, maybe I’ll live abroad for a year or two, I want to go as far south as I could. And Sevilla is a really great city. And I was only 10 miles west, so I could get to my assignment really easily. And I ended up living in Seville for nine years.

Jeremy Bassetti
Very nice. And that’s where we initially met. And we’ll get to that story in a minute. And I’d like to circle back at some point and talk a little bit more about how it is people can go to Spain and teach English in a minute, but continue with your story. So you’re in Madrid. Now how did that transition from Seville, to Madrid happen. Or, what happened in the nine years that you’re in Seville?

Cat Gaa
A lot has happens. Initially, my idea was the same thing for a year or two. And then because I had turned down a really interesting job opportunity, I thought, well, if I’ve got the language skills, and I have–being interested in storytelling in journalism, I have a journalism degree, that’s going to have a great effect of what I can work in later. And the turnout teaching me something I did well and that I enjoyed. So once the language Assistant Program kindly kicked me out. And I was kind of scrambling for something else to do. And I was considering going back to school to–to be a teacher or to study Spanish. I had a great offer from a university here in the Madrid to do a master’s program but ultimately decided to take a job offer. I worked at a private school, teaching little kids English. A lot of thing, a lot of screeching a lot of trying to get kids not to put things in their mouth or bite one another. But it was a really great experience. Because I did have the full classroom management experience. I had my foot in the door in a very well connected school. And I did that for two years. The reason that I wanted to leave that particular job was because it was not the best work environment. And I was deciding or maybe realizing that a lot of my interests and my — in Spanish — my [inaudible] things that you do well, we’re more in the communications realm. So I was interested in going back to school to do a master’s in something similar to strategic communication, because I thought that that would get me, my foot in the door elsewhere. And I wasn’t wrong. But I’ll get to that. In order to be able to take this Master’s, that I was offered at a university. It was an online program, a private university out of Barcelona, I had to free up a lot of my time. So I stepped away from the job at the elementary school–at that time was teaching first grade, and I had made the decision that I was going to move on to something else anyway. And I began working in a language school. So I was teaching kids after school, which meant that they would have an hour long class, or maybe an hour and a half, teaching a lot of these big — they were Cambridge exams. And they’re essentially the TOEFL or the IL, or younger students, non academic. And that job evolved very quickly that I became the director of studies. I had an officer after six months, but because I was finishing my masters and really keen on learning as much as I could I put that off until the following school year, and stayed there for three years. I was kind of starting to get the itch that I liked teaching at the Academy, it was a really comfortable job. And it was great because I had my mornings free not just to do the Masters, but then to blog. And I had a pretty big blog for a long time doing some consulting work on the side freelancing. And even something as simple as being able to enjoy going to the market in the morning to buy my produce, or, you know, taking a walk around the city center when the weather was nice, and it was daytime, I think afforded me a lot of opportunity to be able to share, same story. But apart from that, I started looking for other opportunities. But I was also looking at Madrid, Seville is a really wonderful city. But it didn’t have enough for me — At that juncture in my life, I was kind of on 30 years, I was about to get married, I met a Spanish man and we’re looking at other opportunities where I could grow in a different sort of career. So because of his job, he knew that he had a transfer that was eminent. And shortly after I began interviewing, I found out that I was pregnant.

The thing of it was that I had two job offers on the table. So I had to kind of not just consider a big move and a big life change, but also how I was going to let my former job know that I was leaving, and the job offer that I was really interested in that I’d be leaving a few months later for maternity leave. So in my current position, Jeremy, I worked for I worked for the university. I work for St. Louis University, which is an American University in Madrid, it’s connected to St. Louis University in Missouri. But we are recognized by the Spanish government, and that allows us to do what we do, of course, but also to offer degrees. We are a freestanding campus. So my admissions office, obviously has a relationship with the Office of Admissions, in St. Louis, but we, you know, have our own admission standards on process. I think it’s really cool that I get the opportunity to work on a lot of different projects. So even in my day to day, obviously, I’m the admissions counselor for students who apply from my geographic area, which are Western Europe and the UK, subsaharan Africa, and I do our two graduate programs, in addition to launching a new master’s program for next year. So really being hands on with getting the word out and finding the right students. But I also do all our communication. So any, you know, from the time that you’re in the inquiry stage, wanting to know a little bit more about the university to the time that you’re applying for a visa, all of that communication that comes from our office has been written by me, and usually plugged into the correct template. So essentially, the degree program that I did six years ago, I mean, I finished in 2013, is now serving me well, because again, the client communication, communication schemes, I get to work on a lot of cool projects work with a lot of department, which is great because the university is so International. But I still hold on to education, which is a sector that I really enjoy working to. And without my time teaching abroad, I don’t think I’d be very good at the job that I do.

Jeremy Bassetti
Yeah, that’s good. It seems like you have both feet on both sides of the door there.

Cat Gaa
Most Definitely

Jeremy Bassetti
So do you still do the consulting work with Haley?

Cat Gaa
I do. I do. I’m Como Consulting is a relocation bureau is essentially a boutique agency where we take on non European clients who are interested in either moving to Spain, or who are already living here and want to continue living here. And we do a lot of work helping students. You know, look for options here, or we work with retirees who want to live their golden years here. So as far as visas and work permit, or, you know, setting people up with lawyers for taxation purposes or for agency. You know, it’s a helping agency. We do a lot of that, but it is as I mentioned boutique. And we take on a small number of clients, because we really strive for perfection, we’ve got a great record. And I think that’s because we take good care of the people who we work with. And it’s taking all of the knowledge. Yeah, taking all of the knowledge from these 11 year and counting that I’ve lived here and the experiences that I’ve had with Spanish bureaucracy from–you know–even starting with the visa process or knowing how to get over here legally, to doing some of the more I wouldn’t say a competency test, but you getting married getting a university degree validated here. Gettings a driver’s licence — things that don’t come as easily, and perhaps aren’t as straightforward as they are at home country.

Jeremy Bassetti
Right. So you said non European, so target audience, they’re Americans? I take it, mostly?

Cat Gaa
Yeah, we work with a lot of North Americans, especially Americans, and we work with a lot of Filipinos. But we get questions from all over the place. And we do help. For example, we’ve got some clients who were finishing up with who has moved to Spain. Both Americans one had a British passport. So it’s a matter of getting her her for an ID and registered, then having her husband come over and getting them set up with not just an EU passport holder. For the non EU spouse.

Jeremy Bassetti
I see. I see it sounds like there’s a lot of bureaucratic things to deal on that. And that seems to be I remember my experiences, Auxiliar and Seville that, you know, that was often the complaint that we had the difficulties of navigating, you know, the Spanish bureaucracy. But you know, there are quite a few other difficulties that many Auxiliars or expats or, you know, immigrants faced, you know, the kind of the social integration issues that we all struggle with, early on. Did you ever encounter any of those difficulties socially, when you first moved to Spain?

Cat Gaa
Without a doubt. Without a doubt. I came to Spain, kind of knowing the person who had told me about the program, she was also based out of Serbia and worked in a small town nearby. This woman happens to live in an apartment building with a lot of people who are in the same situation, lots of Europeans, and she kind of fell into a friend group very easily. Whereas for me before people started connecting on social media. I mean, this is in the infancy of Facebook, when I came over here, and Twitter was kind of vague, but not really, I really struggled with first few months, because I lived with a Spanish girl, who had her own friends, and a German girl who was not interested in socializing very much, she was very homesick. And it was difficult for me to meet people. I’ve always been an outgoing person, I’ve never had a problem making friends. And for whatever reason, it was, it was difficult for me when I first came over, and some of it had to do the language. I was really keen on having non-American friends, but you know, and I do think there is a place to have friend from your, you know, either your culture or language or something similar to kind of, you know, talk about the mundane life. But It wasn’t until I took a chance with somebody who I’d met online, said him having a Halloween party, you should come I had nothing to do, really wasn’t interested in going, and I went end up meeting a lot of people their money for themselves. And I met the woman who introduced me to my husband. So you know, I think the key to making friends abroad is putting yourself out there. And I always liken it to people, especially the students who I work with who are young and are kind of in that transitional phase–is that it is like college, no matter what time of your life you live abroad, you kind of have to leave the proverbial door of your dorm room open, kind of see what comes along. And I see it is great now that people connect beforehand, you know, on LinkedIn, or they’re finding expat groups on Facebook or on meetup. Even in Seville, the number of permanent American residents has grown drastically in the last few years that, you know, meeting more and more people who have decided to stay or who are interested in coming. And maybe they don’t have much of a connection to Spain apart from having come here for a vacation. But people who are interested in sharing with other people and, and it goes a lot further I think then having a common culture and the common language, wanting to be able to share things like Thanksgiving, or, you know, hey, I’d really like to make chocolate chip cookies and I don’t know where to find vanilla extract. It’s kind of having a home base for when, I don’t know, I always say that the valleys are really low, but the mountains are really high when you live abroad, because those emotions are so much more impactful than if you’re you know, back home where you’ve always lived in you can kind of say, Okay, well, I’m having a bad day, I’m gonna go to Dairy Queen and have a blizzard. And that’s the end of it. You can’t get a decent milkshake in Spain. So you know, you find other ways to cope. For me it was a frappuccino, paying five euros for a frappuchino.

Jeremy Bassetti
Go to El Corte Ingles glass and find what you can.

Cat Gaa
Exactly. Well, now there’s a Costco in Seville one in Madrid. So, I have my all beef hot dogs when I need them.

Jeremy Bassetti
So did you did you? Did you know Spanish? When you first traveled to or studied abroad in, in Spain? Or did you learn that and pick that up while you were there?

Cat Gaa
I thought I knew Spanish when I came to Spain. For the most part I did I could get around, I tested into the highest level in my–at the university program offering. Unfortunately, it was for Americans, and we didn’t have any Spaniards in my class but, you know, I think that I made a big effort to learn from my host family. I lived with a younger woman, she was in her early 40s at that time, and I still go and see her. Now she’s only two hours away from Madrid. I was here in early September visiting with her and her family. And that kind of set me in a course to not only want to know Spanish, for practical purposes, but really kind of delve into the different parts of of the Spanish linguistic heritage. And that’s something that’s really great. I think living in Spain is that it is so different between regions. And I use Spanish in my job, of course, at home because my husband is Spanish, I have to say when I go to the supermarket or down to the bar to have a beer, you know, so. When I moved to Spain, I knew the basics. And now a lot of my co workers, none of whom are from the south originally, laugh at me because I use a lot of expressions from the south. That stated is really difficult I think when you learn textbook Spanish to come to a country where, you know–I never used the vosotros form, the third person informal plural, until I studied abroad. So it was just a matter of me saying, Okay, I have to remember if I’m talking to a group of people who aren’t elderly, I can I just have to add “ice” at the end of every conjugation. And that was kind of how it started. And maybe when I eventually took the DELE exam, I took the C1 exam in 2011 already. And, you know, in studying, I said, Why know that this is the way it is because this is what I hear in the street, but I don’t know the mechanics behind it. I don’t know what all these rules are. And, and that to me was interesting, because I was teaching languages at the time, and I was, you know, trying to teach students patterns and how to put things together and it was kinda futile. So did I know Spanish? Yes. Did I speak Spanish, kind of,.I learned Spanish without a doubt. They say, necessity breeds, whatever invention, or whatever it is. And and that was certainly the case with me and Spanish.

Jeremy Bassetti
Right. And I’m assuming the host family kind of awaken the Spanish that you had studied already. Yeah. And it seems like, you know, for students that are studying abroad, or even Auxiliars who are going abroad, you know, the one of the biggest kind of social faux pas is to get too closely attached to American friends, and in some ways that might kind of impede linguistic growth, but also impede a connection with the host culture, in this case, Spain, by relying on the American students, or the American travelers, or expats, or whatever. So it’s a delicate balance, you need that social network to complain, right? To commiserate together and to complain about all the things that you need to complain about. But at the same time, you don’t want to kind of rely so much on that, because you’ll know, you know, you’re missing out on so much.

Cat Gaa
Yeah. And I think it’s also a matter of–when I decided that I wanted to stay in Spain longer than my a lot of years on the language assistant program, I said, I really need to invest, and making friends not only with local cuz this was, of course, at the height of the financial crisis, and a lot of we’re moving away from the smaller cities and towns. But I said, You know, I want to eventually raise a family here, and I want to have friends who are going through the same thing. And I still feel like I’m lacking that I have a son who’s nearly two years old, but I wanted to invest my time and my energy, and people who I knew was stick around. And maybe I missed out on some really great friendships. And you know, there are people who have come and gone who I have stayed in touch with, and who I talk to you often– I have a friend who I talked to every day, and she moved away, I think five years ago, but you wouldn’t know it. And there are others, who–we talk every once in a while or you comment about something on social media but in the end, it’s, you know, I had to be a little bit selective with where I was spending my time and–and that made me I think, force myself to make friends with more Spaniards as well.

Jeremy Bassetti
Yeah. Speaking of friendships, I was trying to think about, Cat, when it was that we first met and I can’t recall the the genesis of the friendship. Do you have any recollection as to when we first met precisely?

Cat Gaa
I want to say was through a mutual friend.

Jeremy Bassetti
That’s what I want to say as well, but I can’t recall which friend. Maybe Monica? Okay, maybe it was Monica. But I don’t know how I met Monica. Oh, I do. Okay, yeah. What’s through Monica. So, Monica was working with some other group and the director contacted my school. I was working at an institute in Triana. And I forget the lady’s name, but she was working for this lady who was doing a consulting thing for English speakers, and she was contacting the school about it, or something or another. And I met Monica through that situation, I think, then you and I met through Monica.

Cat Gaa
Okay, that’s the funny thing about, about it is that everybody knows, somebody knows somebody. I often time, you know, I find that or, I had a friend messaged me the other day and said “Oh I met one of your friends.” They couldn’t recall her name where she was from nothing about her. I said, “you’re not helping me at all.” You know, it’s like, when you live somewhere long enough you meet different people, and especially those of us who have kind of stayed, but I think when we met, I think there was also a language assistant when I was in my third year, because that’s when I met Monica.

Jeremy Bassetti
It was 2010 when we met.

Cat Gaa
Yeah, so I was still a language assistant at that point. So very much in the same, you know, mind frame that, hey, we’re just here. We’re having fun. We have this really cool and cushy gig to get paid a little bit of money. We live in Spain, and let’s go do something fun.

Jeremy Bassetti
Let’s go drink a lot of wine. Yeah.

Cat Gaa
Let’s go drink a lot of wine. Let’s hang out until all hours in the morning and then roll up to school. And, you know, and I sometimes get nostalgic for those days when, right? Well I guess I don’t get nostalgic for trying to make 700 years a month work but..

Jeremy Bassetti
The Liberty and the fun.

Cat Gaa
That’s it. The liberty– you know, you don’t have to show up for work at eight o’clock in the morning. actually responsible for people.

Jeremy Bassetti
Now, even though, even though, you and I actually we know each other, you know, you do have this sort of, I guess reach or this sort of friendship with many, many people that you’ve been cultivating through your blog, Sunshines & Siestas, right? So I mean, I think–this–I don’t know if I told you the story. But now I lead students abroad every year and we were working with a tour provider and the sales person that we were dealing with, she was helping us plan our trip and we told her we wanted to go through Seville and she had studied in Seville and she actually relied a lot on your–your website to help her kind of navigate the entire process and the social situations in Seville. And I said “Oh! you know Cat? You know Cat too.” And she’s like, “Well no, no, no, no, I know her through her blog and I called her my guardian angel because she helped me out and…” X, Y, and Z. But I mean, I mean, I think your reach and your impact is is real. And it’s really helpful for a lot of young expats over travelers who are trying to go to Spain. So how, how long have you had that blog?

Cat Gaa
I started Sunshine and Siestas–and by the way, thank you for the compliment… Because, you know, with a toddler and a full time job where I do a lot of comwork, it’s sometimes hard to say, I have people who like reading my blog, and I enjoy writing. And this is something this is a project that I’ve had for so long that it would be be silly, it would be sad for me to just kind of say, all right, well, I’ll just let it live out its days and its domain name until, you know, I decided not to renew my domain mapping. But um, I started Sunshine and Siestas right before I moved abroad. So, at that point in time, it was called Olivares Bound. And it was kind of a I don’t know what to call this blog. I’m not thinking about being a blogger, I just want to have a place where I can write because it’s cathartic for me and this was before social media. So I had nothing to do in the afternoons after I got done with working. And eventually I moved from blogspot to WordPress. WordPress is self hosting, one blog became another became a bunch of freelance work. But Sunshines and Siestas for me was kind of like a virtual–and still is– is a virtual love letter to Andalucia. And I think well, now I live in Madrid. But I don’t write that much about Madrid. I write about expat life. And I think expat life issues. And they are always the same no matter where you go and some of it is practical. How to get a residency card or what to do, you know, if you want to go on a tapas crawl in Seville. But other posts–my latest post was a little bit more personal about how it was that it came to live abroad and kind of circling back after so many years of reading a book about another expat’s life in Paris and deciding I wanted that life. And it’s really afforded me not just opportunities, because it was mentioned in my interview at St. Louis University, I mentioned when I didn’t interview at the US Embassy here in Madrid. So people know about it, even you know, it’s a niche blog, I’m not a huge blogger, I don’t have millions of followers. I mean, I don’t even have two thousand people who follow me on my Facebook page. But um, you know, it’s allowed me to share the love that I have, for this place that I’ve called home for so many years– for me Seville is still home, even though we live in Madrid. And it’s also allowed me to connect with a lot of people. I’ve met a number of people through my blog and say, “Hey, I don’t know, I’m sure you have a million friends and maybe you don’t want to meet.” You know, I’ve tried to find time to meet people who read my blog to say “thank you” to have a beer with them to say, here’s one of my favorite places, you can come back here the rest of the week, and they’re going to take really good care of you, whatever you want to eat whatever dietary restrictions, however much you want to drink. So, yeah, I don’t know. I think that Sunshine and Siestas is a really big part of my story. And even though professionally, I’m not necessarily making a benefit from it. What has brought me on other levels has been really important.

Jeremy Bassetti
Right, right. And so yeah, and I think this is one of the important misconceptions that many people have about bloggers, is they kind of envision, you know, this monetized living this digital nomad who’s kind of cashing in, right through all the content they’re creating, but it’s not always like that, right? And there’s some real growing issues. When you’re writing a blog when you’re first starting out. And even when you’re kind advanced, like yourself, people often think that the blog life is is one that has an allure of freedom and an income. And that’s not always the case. But it does reach and have an impact. And I think, you know, if you don’t do it for money, which you shouldn’t, because you won’t make any money off of it, at least you’re doing exactly to help people. Right. And that’s what it’s all about.

Cat Gaa
Exactly. I think. I kind of have a love hate relationship with the blogging industry. And I think a lot of people and even those who make this a full time job kind of feel the same. But you know, like, image is a big deal and having a pretty site. And, you know, sometimes I personally hate writing for SEO, I think it’s really impersonal. And it’s just repeating the same keywords over and over and over again. Like, that’s what makes people successful. Whereas I got a really great compliment from Karen McCann, who is an expat writer who’s also based in Seville, and she said, when I started reading your blog, it was like having a conversation with you. And, and for me, that was really all I needed to hear. Because the end of the day, I’m kind of writing for myself in my small group of followers. And, you know, I have my little corner of the internet. And that’s why I don’t really care what other people think about it. And I think one of the I should I should make this photos or go back and add some more keywords or say, you know, the spacing off or I have a typo there. But eventually, that was my plan before I had a baby. And still haven’t happened two years later. But, you know, I think the core the heart of the blog isn’t about know writing to be on the first page of Google.

Jeremy Bassetti
Right. Right. So what is, what’s the fate of Sunshine and Siestas? Are you going to continue doing that, but to write more generally about kind of expat issues, or immigration, those types of things in conjunction or kind of to align it more closely with what you’re doing with your consulting work?

Cat Gaa
That’s a really great question. And I think that as my son is getting older and older, and trying to carve out some more time to, to work on some of these creative ventures that I put a lot of time and effort and, of course, some money into. Mostly what we’re doing with Como Consulting is working with people one on one, you know, kind of providing some before and on the ground consulting. And a lot of times, it’s just reassurance that they’re doing everything correctly. And I think it says a lot that Haley and I have been through so many of those… those worries and those issues and those frustrations. A lot of what Sunshine and Siestas is, is more based on Spain cultures, Spain travel. And there is some of that on the Como website. But there’s a little bit less of our voice, I think, and it’s kind of more of a how-to. So my plan is to keep writing and keep renewing my domain name and start, I think 24 drafts, I was able to sneak in about an hour’s worth of time yesterday on that post I’m writing about to Trujillo– a really fantastic medieval town that not a lot of people know that about two half hours south of Madrid, and hope to have that published within the next two weeks. And it’s really, you know, working on digital, digital resources, I think both for expats, and for people just traveling to Spain, and maybe nobody reads it, but it’s out there, I’ve done it, I enjoy it. You know, I do have a dozen emails a week, and not just “Hey, we want to advertise on your blog, but I want to go to Spain, I read your story.” And some of it is asking for advice. And others are just saying thanks for writing necessarily interesting.

Jeremy Bassetti
That’s gratifying to get.

Cat Gaa
Most definitely.

Jeremy Bassetti
So. So, you’re alluding to some of the time issues that you have, and I assume the motherhood has a big role in that. And those issues? How is it that you’re balancing your kind of creative life with with your child?

Cat Gaa
Well, that’s a really fantastic question.

Jeremy Bassetti
Day to day?

Cat Gaa
I think it’s really a day to day thing. I, I do a lot of my big projects work on the weekends or once he is asleep. So I am prescribing to the very American bedtime of 8:30 at night. And he’ll usually go down and that at least gives me some time to sit on the computer because a lot of times after a full day of work and sitting in a screen and they’re coming up with creative copy and running a digital campaign, I don’t have the energy for it. So a lot of that work falls on the weekends, or maybe in the afternoon, I want to head to the gym instead so you know i… i do what i can when I can. But I also don’t force myself to publish. And I’m plowing through the book, “Trust Me I’m Lying.” And it’s about a PR guru who kind of lies his way up the chain and is able to manipulate the news media. In today’s day and age, it’s a really good read to kind of understand, you know, someone who predicted that fake news is going to be a thing, because he had, I would say started over but he definitely had a hand in it. And… you know, just to hear, that people who work for the Huff Post, for example–just to throw out a name–have to write five articles today. So they don’t have time to to really invest in how they’re crafting their article or the right quote and the right sources. What I mean, you know, I use Wikipedia. I’m not going to lie. But you know, I’m not a trusted news source. Let’s say if I’m writing about what year Trujillo was founded, and it was founded by, so I try not to pressure myself. I try not to take on more than I can chew as far as freelance work. It’s really got to do with time. I would rather take on something come over and do some consulting work because I really enjoy that rather than writing on the blog. And it really just comes down to a matter of time. I used to published three times a week on Sunshine and Siestas. So, I definitely cut down. If I can post once a month, it’s usually good.

Jeremy Bassetti
So we keep on talking about you as an expat and expats this and expat that. And you know, I was reading an article the other day, and it was pedantic. It was an academic article on on expats. And the author made a comment that, you know, most of the academics think or classify or define expats as those who are living abroad on a temporary basis. So I guess the question that I’m going with is, when is it that you’re going to, I guess, acknowledge that you are an immigrant now? Are you getting there? Or, or do you still consider yourself as an expat as a temporary thing? I mean, you have a husband, you have a child, you have deep roots now.

Cat Gaa
Yeah. It’s a really great question, Jeremy. Because I think there’s a lot of misconception around the the word expat, that is a pretty little word. And it’s for people who are privileged enough to do it. And I mean, that’s just the fact that I’m privileged to do what I do and to have made a life here and to even have it have been something possible as an American, you know, kind of someone had the right passport and I guess, the ganas and the gumption to do it. But for me, making Spain long term really was a year by year decision, until I decided to buy a house in 2014. And this is going to sound terrible. I don’t feel like an immigrant even though. And maybe it’s just because I don’t have a Spanish passport. I haven’t taken those steps yet. And you know, if I have actually have everything that I own here, I never owned a car in America, but I own one here. You know, I own a house here, making me a first time homeowner. The idea isn’t to move back to the US, but I won’t say it won’t ever happen. And I probably should start calling myself an immigrant and especially in the climate today that I hear people put down immigrants and our country.

Jeremy Bassetti
Right. Right. Right. expats, according to this article, or, or people who live temporarily abroad, because they work for kind of a giant, you know, multinational corporation. So there is that kind of sensation that these expats are relatively well connected and well paid and are just passing through. But it seems to me that, you know, your experience is quite different. And I haven’t met Haley, I don’t recall ever meeting her. But it seems to me that, you know, she and some of your other friends that you’ve met are kind of in similar situations, right. And putting down deep roots, as opposed to, you know, this transitory parenthesis. Right here, “we’re teaching in Spain.” or “That one time that I lived in Spain, and now I’m going to go back to my home country.” You’re doing something that’s something more,

Cat Gaa
It is a big decision to make. Because I mean, you know, people talk a lot about sacrifice, and a lot of the salaries are lower, but I think that would, what I’ve gotten out of living in Spain, has been so much more than I might have, if I were living in the US, maybe a lot more than salary. Obviously, I’d like to get paid more money for what I do. Or I’d like to not have a big mortgage hanging over my head or to have more retirement savings. But you know, the quality of life that I have here and the life that I’ve built for my son, I think, far outweighs what I might do in the US. And there comes a point, no matter how long you’ve been here if its, you know, eight months of a teaching me things, should I do this another year? Should I go actually get a graduate degree? Should I start a job? Is there someone waiting on me at home, or my parents expected me to bat the back? And my parents were like, well, you’re an adult, you can make your decision, obviously, you want you to come home, but you’ve got to make that decision. And I have friends who have been abroad now for 11 or 12 years who have said, Now I feel that pull. After this many countries and this many cities, and this many job. Now’s the time for me to go back home because I want to have a family and I want to be close to mine. And, you know, I met my husband shortly after moving to Seville, and we’ve grown together as adults. And I don’t know that he would be as happy in the US as I am here. But you know, I have a lot of other friends who have said, Okay, well, this is what it is like Haley, for example, that I really want to become a Spanish citizen, because this is my home now. So she hasn’t Spanish passport. In my group of American friends, there are eight of us. And one has applied to be a Spanish citizen half of us are married, and the other say, well, I’ve got this really great job here. And this is home for me. But there’s no and I think there’s this idea that you have to make it work and that you can’t say I will give it a good go. And it’s not for me or I want something different, or I want to try a new place. Because I know people who have lived in Seville [inaudible]. I said, Well, I think that to really love Seville and love the life that I had there and have to go somewhere else to experience something different. And and my friend has to move to Jakarta two years ago, said there’s no way Im moving back to America. She’s been there for two years, she’s got the option to come back to Spain. But she said, but that’s not what I want, either. So, you know, it’s, it’s different for everyone. And she’s the one who pointed out to me, I’ve had so many roadblocks between the visa between ex boyfriends between issues with Spain in general. But I might have been in the there’s no reason for me to leave and everyone I want to leave, it’s going to be on my terms and I can’t feel bad. It maybe it didn’t work out the way that I wanted to. Right? You asked her her fine. And when we both to truth at all, I’m gonna marry my Spanish work next year, we’re gonna have kids. I’m going to work in an international school.

Jeremy Bassetti
How… you know, how would you recommend that someone moves to Spain? I mean, what steps would you recommend that somebody take? Maybe somebody fresh out of college? Do you recommend that they go through the Auxiliar Program first to get a taste of it? Or, you know, how would you approach that question?

Cat Gaa
I happen to have a fantastic experience in the Language Assistant Program. There’s a lot of I think it’s a lot easier to just complain about the negative stuff in groups or on blogs. You know, and there are payment issues. Not everyone likes teaching, not everyone likes kids, and that’s okay. But I’ve also found that there’s a lot of privilege around the whole I’m an American, why do I have to get a visa? Why can I just go abroad and get a job. And there are a lot of different ways to live in Spain legally. But I think that the Auxiliar Program is a really great stepping stone because you do have a legal visa, you’re earning time towards residency. After three years, there are a lot of different ways that you can modify your visa scheme so that you’re able to stay here legally, whether or not you want to start a business. You know, a lot of people do the what is called a “pareja de hecho” which is esentially a civil union. That’s what I did to be able to extend my visa and be able to work. So there’s a lot more as far as options than there were 10 years ago and even five or six years ago. But I think that the Language Assistant Program is great, because it does give you a lot of free time to explore other interests. I spent a lot of time blogging, but I also took long walks around the city, I took a French class, took flamenco. Other people like to travel every weekend, other people are doing a Masters online. So it’s a way– some people see it as a means to an end. And that end been living in Spain for a little while. But for me, it was a career stepping stone. And I don’t think that I would have gotten a job in a university without having an idea of the school system in Spain, knowing how to talk to young people and building a rapport. In my old job, I talked to parents as well. So for me, the Auxiliar Program was a really great way to kind of land in Spain, learn some skills, learn some Spanish, meet people. And I don’t think I took advantage of my time as a language assistant as well as I could have. hindsight is 2020.

I spent a lot of time teaching private classes, I was more interested in making money than maybe making connections. Of course, like my blog, my blog has helped with that. But I had friends who were internet study abroad companies or marketing companies traveling on the weekends, or they said, Okay, well, even the small town in Andalucioa was great. But now I have to go to Madrid because I want to start making connection. Spain, when it comes down to it, it’s all about what they call “enchufe.” “Enchufe” is the the word for plug, like something you plug a lamp into or your laptop. But it’s kind of the way that people get jobs, it’s not good enough to be the only person qualified, you have to know somebody. And that’s from anywhere far up in the government down to being a secretary at the language school down the street. So perhaps I could have been a little bit more or I might have, you know, taken a coding class. In my free time, I was either watching Arrested Development, or blogging or teaching private classes. So…

Jeremy Bassetti
Why not? So, so the Language and Culture Program Culture Assistants Program, it’s basically a program that’s put on by the Ministry of Education and Culture, I believe, and they just for for the listeners, this is a program that the Spanish government essentially gives you a visa, and you’re legally working for–technically, I think you’re on a student visa when you go when you go abroad, but you’re on a student visa, and you’re being an assistant at a school of some sort in Spain, helping teachers teach their subjects in English or helping them teach English, typically, and you work for about 12 to 15 hours a week. So it’s very, not very time consuming. This gives people the opportunity to live in Spain, as you say, and kind of learn about the culture and, and enjoy their time there. I think it’s open. I think it’s open to people who have a bachelor’s degree, but the age restriction I think caps out at around 60. So it’s virtually virtually open to, to everyone.

Cat Gaa
Most definitely there. There are a number of Languages Assistant Programs and the first one, or the granddaddy of them all. It’s the Ministry of Education, of course, because it is a free program. So you don’t have to pay any application fee, you get the letter of invitation, and health insurance information that you need to get a student visa. But from there, you get a stipend and you get health insurance. There are other programs such as CIIE, where you pay, but you get a lot more on the ground help you get. I don’t want to say a better school placement, but you might be closer to a capital city or a large city. Whereas in the ministry for you can be placed 2 hours from an airport, which is kind of the risk that you run if you are outside a big metropolitan area. And then there are a number of other programs that have kind of spread it out like Beta which work with private schools rather than public school. And there’s one called Conversa. Some are kind of build your own design, because you can choose when you start, where’s the Ministry program is a little bit more rigid. But I think it’s a fantastic way get people over here. And some people will do it for a year or two and move on. A lot of people after that experience might decide to get their CELTA and they teach abroad, for example, in Asia, where you get paid a lot more. Other people decide to go back to school afterwards. And when you consider that probably 2500 people are doing this program a year, or these programs maybe more. No there must be more.

Jeremy Bassetti
There are considerably more.

Cat Gaa
Yes, I mean, maybe I can say 5000 people, this program started, I think two years before I came. So that’s a ton of people who kind of pass through and–you know, and there’s this whole, I don’t know how effective it is maybe students really aren’t learning, but there’s contact with the culture. And I think a culture that was so closed off to the rest of the world for so long. Under the Franco regime, or who’s you know, student’s parents who may have never left Spain. It’s an interesting way for students get to know other cultures and other people. I happened to really enjoy that I got the chance to work with people to teach them about Chicago and about American culture, of course, the language and because I did non linguistic area, I was working with teachers who may be but I don’t know how to put this concept that we’re learning in music into English, or how can we make it interesting and allow students to practice when they should really be playing the recorder, but I have to have them speak in English too. So, for me, it was a fun challenge. And I learned a lot. I was fortunate to get a fantastic placement. I mean, I felt like another teacher I didn’t feel like the player in the corner who got called under redirection where… which is kind of one of the downfalls of some of these programs that don’t have a lot of overhead. They just kind of okay, well, somebody is English speaking and they’re going to go into the classroom and do what you will. Right. So you know that that’s kind of the hard part the experience differs. I know people who have left after a few months, because they decided it wasn’t for them, or they were placed too far away from where they wanted to be. I got a phone call from someone who I’d been talking to online and she said “I just got played. And it is a teeny tiny town.” It wasn’t a teeny town, it was considerably much larger than most places by she was really disappointed. Ended up loving it because she said, You know, I kind of took it at face value and said “Well, it is eight months.” And listen, I’m gonna live in Spain again, that was the ultimate goal. She was in a city that had a huge Erasmus population. So lots of European students coming over to study abroad. She’s by the beach.

Jeremy Bassetti
What more could you ask for?

Cat Gaa
And I said, You know, I have friends who live there, my first year. And I was going to visit them all the time, we had great friends, it was cheaper to live there. And they really enjoyed their experience. It just wasn’t like, Look, I’m living in Barcelona, Valencia and my beach, and so beautiful and big city big airport. So, you know, that’s, I think one of the things that upsets me the most is when people complain about being placed,. And I think you know how many people would love to do a program like this and have a year where they don’t have to pay back loans, maybe they don’t have that hanging over their heads, or they’re not committed to working somewhere because they think what they have to do, they can kind of use this as a year to find out more about themselves to travel. My mom was like this considered with your super senior year and 11 years later. I mean I got responsibilities and a kid now, but, you know, it’s still, I still think that my life is more adventurous now that I might we’re back home in Chicago like I had planned on,

Jeremy Bassetti
For sure. And you know, being placed in a small town I think comes with its very real benefits, you know, it’s cheaper, and also the– the ability for, for the traveler to immerse herself into the culture, I think, you know, that opportunity presents itself much more so in a small town than it does in a larger city like Seville or Madrid. So arguably the takeaway, and especially if the person has an open mind, there are opportunities to, to grow often are higher in smaller cities than they are and larger ones.

Cat Gaa
Exactly. Exactly. I met a girl as one of those cases where she could I read your blog before, I can’t believe I’m sitting next to you in an airport waiting for a plane. And she and I kept in touch. And she was living in a tiny town. That was about halfway in between Sevilla and Malaga and I–we were both flying to the same city on two separate flights on two separate airlines. So we met up and you know, kind of struck up a friendship and this town must have had 2500 people in it. And she’s been back– she’s from Canada, but she’s been back to visit, because she said I met so many wonderful people living in this town. But we got so involved with, you know, another North American. She said we take cooking classes on Mondays, and then we we give group language lessons on Tuesdays and Thursdays and on on Wednesday, we might go into the next biggest town because they have like, you know, they have a couple of other language assistants and it’s just the bus ride? So they were really, they were able to live, in my opinion, a very rich cultural experience that I might not have had that first year because I was just looking to have American friends and do American things and, and spend my hard earned euros on frappuccinos rather than, you know, going out and trying to make Spanish friends. So I wouldn’t say that I was envious of her because Sevilla is a really fantastic place to live. But, you know, I said, you know, this is the kind of attitude I think you have to have moving abroad where you say, “Alright well, maybe I wanted to be in a bigger city or close to the airport or to the beach, but I’m gonna take it for what it is and see what happens.

Jeremy Bassetti
Right, right. Well, we’re getting kind of close to our time here. But I wanted to ask you, one final question. How has living abroad kind of changed you?

Cat Gaa
So I’ve lived my adult life in Spain. And people want to ask me now, “Well, what is it like to live in America? What’s this? Like? What’s that like?” And it’s hard for me to say because I, I kind of came over in the advent of social media and things are maybe simpler in those days. But I think that living abroad are kind of going outside your comfort zone, no matter where you are–because you might be from a small town, for example, my friends in small town in Iowa who went to live in Minnesota. And said “Well, I’m a lot more resilient, because I have to do a lot of things on my own.” You know, I think that I would have been comfortable comfortable with it moved back to Chicago, or stayed in the United States, and maybe I wouldn’t have had the chance to travel as much and to try new things because I feel like moving abroad has emboldened me, and a lot of my choices. And there’s times when scarier flustered and I called my mom on the way back home today was like, I just so frustrated, and some of it is really trivial but you know, I think that that kind begets why it’s important for me to have American friends and have a, you know, some sort of relationship with my culture and my language by it. But ultimately, I think that I’m living my best life. Hashtag blessed. But, but really, it’s fun in a challenging to live abroad. And I think that that’s why I’ve been so interested in making it work and kind of making Spain my home. I don’t know, where, you know, I will be taken to next. You know, we’re interested in maybe moving abroad or moving somewhere else in Spain and, and I got a great compliment from a very close friend of mine who I met on my early days in Sevilla. When I announced on my blog two years ago that I was moving to Madrid, and it was kind of a post that I was writing in those early days.

Jeremy Bassetti
Was it the “breakup letter?”

Cat Gaa
Yeah, my breakup letter. And I’ll read it every once in a while. And I’m feeling homesick for Sevilla. And, you know, someone was like, Oh, I feel so bad for you Seville is so beautiful, Madrid is “ick.” And my friends very quickly, said Cat can make life anywhere. And you know, not to toot my own horn. But I think that, because I’ve done it before. And you know I’ve got the tools to be able to do it. Again, it’s not something that you know, we’re shying away from and my husband hasn’t had that opportunity to live in a different culture or in a different language. And maybe that’s what our next.. our next big thing is, I don’t know.

Jeremy Bassetti
Maybe the next time we have a conversation, you’ll be somewhere else?

Cat Gaa
Exactly. Exactly. You never know.

Jeremy Bassetti
Yeah. Well, look at it’s been really good to talk to you again. It’s been a while and you know, I appreciate the time that you cut out of your day to to talk with us. And can you just let us know where we can find you online and I’ll put everything in the show notes.

Cat Gaa
Most definitely. Well, I will put in a small plug for St. Louis University, American University fully accredited degrees in Madrid. So if you’re thinking about studying abroad, interested in Spain, the language programs, maybe in in English, it’s a really cool place multicultural. Lots of great programming for students whether they’re looking for the cultural or linguistic immersion or just to be in Europe. You can find me there. I again do do different things. But I’m happy to put you in touch or to answer your questions about studying abroad in Spain. You can also find me at my personal blog, which is SunshineandSiestas.com. Or you can find me on Instagram @sunshinesiestas as well if you want to see what life is like on a day to day And finally if you’re really keen on moving to Spain, ComoConsultingSpain.com It’s kind of a happy guy about how to move to Spain.

Jeremy Bassetti
Very good. Thank you. We will be sure to put all those links in the show notes and follow your beer adventures on Instagram. Yeah. And next time we meet will have a beer and kind of relive the–the um

Cat Gaa
The glory days.

Jeremy Bassetti
What I’m thinking about is carnival.

[Laughs]

Jeremy Bassetti
Right. Well, thanks again, Cat. And we’ll be in touch.

Cat Gaa
Thanks for inviting me. great to talk to you. Bye. Bye.

Jeremy Bassetti
I hope you enjoyed this episode of All Over the Place. Please consider supporting the show if you find it valuable. You can do this by subscribing to the podcast on your favorite app, reviewing it, following me on social media, or by supporting the show directly via Patreon. Links can be found in the show notes and on travelwritingworld.com Thanks for your support and farewell


Intro music: Peach by Daantai

Last Updated on 3 September 2020 by Travel Writing World

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