“Living abroad is an opportunity to reinvent yourself that rarely exists outside the witness protection program,” says author and travel writer Karen McCann. “You get to hit the reset button on your life.” She and her husband have journeyed to nearly fifty countries, including many developing and post-war nations where they volunteered as consultants to struggling microenterprises. In 2004 they settled in Seville; the adventures of that transition are chronicled in her book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. Her website, EnjoyLivingAbroad.com, includes a wide range travel tips and a weekly blog for expats, globetrotters, and armchair travelers.
I’m sure you’ve never heard this before: where are you from?
Like so many Americans, I’m from “all over.” I was born in California, later lived in Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and eventually made my way back to California, where I met my husband, Rich. On our very first date we talked about living overseas. Instead, as soon as we got married, he took a job in Cleveland, Ohio, where we spent the next twenty years.
And what did you do there, then?
I was a journalist, writing about everything from culture to health to travel, mostly for local newspapers and regional magazines. I did restaurant reviews for one of the magazines whenever their food critics quit or got fired (which happened rather a lot). Checking out the hot new eateries was great fun, but the job was entirely too fattening to do on a regular basis.
How did you end up in Seville?
It happened by accident. We came to visit friends on Spain’s Costa del Sol, which was horribly touristy and didn’t appeal to us at all, but then we took a day trip to Seville. This was more like it: gorgeous old Moorish architecture, great tapas bars, vibrant street life. It was different. Vivid. Real. We were hooked. Rich had just taken early retirement, and we started visiting Seville every spring. Eventually we decided to move there “for a year,” and within six months we realized the city had become our home.
Have you lived abroad before?
Back in the late 1990s, we did two volunteer work assignments in the Republic of Georgia, each lasting several months. That was a lot more challenging. We only had electricity a few hours a day, the markets had almost no vegetables all winter, and our clients at the health clinic all chain-smoked in rooms where the windows were sealed shut against the bitterly cold weather. But I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. The people we worked with were astonishingly intelligent, energetic, and resilient in the face of appalling adversity. I learned a lot from them.
So what’s so good about Seville?
I love the lifestyle. Here in Seville, people dedicate the same kind of time and energy to their family and their social life as they do to their jobs. They don’t squash their personal life into the tiny margins left over at the end of a long work day; they set aside time to be with their families and friends, to eat and dance and sing. Occasionally they make me sing, too, which was horrifying at first, as I am not a singer. But now I’ve grown used to making a spectacle of myself in public; I figure if they can take it, so can I.
And what don’t you like
The state of the Spanish economy is deeply worrying. In Andalucía, as southern Spain is called, the unemployment rate is approaching 40% and it’s much higher among young people, around 60%. We’re losing an entire generation; people in their twenties are either resigning themselves to life on the dole or moving abroad for work. Selfishly, I appreciate the fact that the dire economy has dropped beer prices (40 centimos in some bars!), so there is an upside.
Do you feel like an insider or an outsider?
Yes. I will never be completely accepted as part of the social fabric of Seville, where people tend to socialize with neighbors they’ve known since baptism. I will always be “the American” and a bit of an oddity. But I do have great Spanish friends and I’m warmly welcomed into a surprising number of homes and social settings. I count myself very lucky. And I feel like a true insider when it comes to Seville’s small but thriving expat community. I enjoy hanging out with people from every part of the world, all sorts of professions, and all ages.
How do you support yourself?
I’m a travel writer. I love sharing my best stories about Seville and my travels on my Enjoy Living Abroad blog, and in my books, including Dancing in the Fountain, which describes my transition to expat life. The title comes from one blazing hot night when Rich and I found ourselves sitting on the edge of a big stone fountain. Dabbling our feet in the cool water, pretty soon we were wading, then waltzing in the fountain. An old Sevillano man passing by growled, “Hey you two, is that any way to behave? You wouldn’t do that back where you come from.” And that’s the whole point. Living overseas, you get to try things you’d never do back home.
Any advice for wannabe Sevillanos?
A good sense of humor is essential for surviving the social and linguistic pratfalls you’ll inevitably be taking as you adapt to a new country. Every foreign language is studded with little trip wires, such as the Spanish word embarazada, which sounds so much like the English “embarrassed,” but in fact means “pregnant,” creating endless opportunities for misunderstandings and faux pas. Then there’s the molasses-thick regional accent of Andalucía; studying Spanish there is like trying to learn English in rural Mississippi. The Andalucíans love to talk — at length, at speed, and at the same time as everyone else. In their eagerness to get their point across, they have developed the habit of dropping parts of words, usually their endings. This can be disconcerting because the endings tell you the gender and number of nouns and the tense or mood of the verb, information that is generally considered useful, if not downright vital, for getting a grip on the conversation. You’ll spend a lot of time floundering in utter confusion, but eventually you’ll get the hang of it. Yes, you will!
Is the move permanent?
American friends and relatives are always asking me how long I’m planning to stay here; of course, what they really want to know is when I will come to my senses and return home. I explain that I am home. Seville is where my heart is. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you never know. Some personal, family, or world crisis might compel me to return to the US, or some new adventure might entice me to live somewhere else. So I suppose the truest answer is, I don’t know how long I’ll be where I am right now. But then, does anyone?
Finally, tell us about something specifically Sevillano.
Seville goes completely mad every spring. First there’s the pre-Easter Holy Week, when the whole city closes down and vast processions parade through the streets carrying magnificent old religious statues. They go all day and all night, with marching bands and huge entourages, while people on balconies sing to the Virgin and throw rose petals. By the time Easter rolls around, everyone is exhausted, so thank heavens it’s two whole weeks before the next gigantic spring festival: the Feria de Abril (April Fair). The Feria is a week-long marathon of all-night drinking and dancing that attracts more than a million people every year. And nearly every woman who attends, including me, will show up in one of the de rigueur, eye-popping trajes de flamenca (flamenco outfits). These are long, skin-tight sheaths that erupt into cascades of enormous ruffles from knee to ankle, in staggering combinations of colors and patterns, like lime green with big orange polka dots or great swirls of red and black trimmed with hot pink plaid. These outlandish outfits are worn entirely without embarrassment or irony. In fact, when a Sevillana, whatever her age, size, or body shape, puts on her traje de flamenca, she knows, right to her bones, that she looks magnificent. And so she does.