Living the Expat life: Barcelona to Berlin

Job, home, and food tips for Americans moving abroad.

People often ask us how we do this. So on our second time around, we thought we’d share some information and tips.

The dream to live and work abroad began back in the 1990s for Lisa and took more than a decade to bring to fruition, but it happened.  Knowing where to start is part of the challenge.

When it came down to it, we had to think very carefully about where we’d actually like to live. Being outdoor chicas, climate was at the top of our list. We also thought about food, affordability and proximity to people we knew.  We decided we preferred to have at least one job in the destination country, and the security and safety net that provided. So Lisa pursued a teaching job in an international school.

After much consideration, map exploring and discussions, we set our sights on Barcelona, Spain, for our first destination abroad. From there things moved quickly. We set up a visit to check out the city, and Lisa arranged informal interviews at two international schools.

Barcelona sight-seeing

The process for Berlin was a little different. The job opportunity presented itself, and then we evaluated if Berlin was a fit for us. We had visited friends here in 2015 before our first move back to the states, so we had an idea of the city. After securing a contract, Mary was able to visit again and scout out our new digs while here for a work conference.

Berlin highlights from 2015 visit

Not in education? Try other pathways like:, Monster, or US Jobs. You’d be surprised at what is out there for people of all ages and skills. Depending where you want to go in the world, you could also volunteer with an organization like the Peace Corps, or study abroad, and with some preparation, teach English as a Second Language.

Once you’ve decided where you’re going, the hard work starts. Living in other parts of the world sounds magical and romantic. But be prepared, there’s a lot of hard work to make it happen, before, during your time abroad and upon departure.

Preparation is a beast. For those who don’t have many possessions, or responsibilities to maintain at home, it may be easier. But more and more people of all ages are seeking out these opportunities, even in retirement. It was a great way to clean out and decide what is really most important to us. We also found someone to look after our cat at home. We miss him, but it’s the best for all of us.

House, bike, packing preparations for Barcelona move

Visas are another essential part of relocating somewhere else in the world. In both Berlin and Barcelona, the schools helped us with the necessary information and steps, but there was still a lot of documentation and preparation on our side.

For our move to Barcelona it took a total of 4 visits to the Spanish consulate in Los Angeles before we even arrived in Spain. Berlin has been a different experience and most of the visa preparation is happening on this side of the pond.


Mary waits at Spanish Consulate in Los Angeles, 2013

It also takes a certain amount of money to make this all happen. What helped us? The school reimburses us for work related expenses. We save up for months ahead of our departure. Credit cards that give you frequent flyer miles can be very helpful, but must be paid off ahead of time. It’s best not to have debt to worry about, as it also limits the adventures you can take in and around your new home.

With visas and temporary visas in hand we head across the ocean. Arrival can be as overwhelming as the preparation and departure. We arrive with at least 4 very large suitcases, 2 carry-ons and two bikes. Getting around is not so easy, but in both Barcelona and Berlin, there are taxis waiting and able to accommodate us at the airport.


Arrival in Barcelona, 2013

For both destinations, we rented a flat ahead of our arrival. The schools in Barcelona and Berlin were both helpful with relocation support, although we are totally responsible for all the costs. This gives us a certain peace of mind during the transition, especially if there is someone on the ground to take a look at the place.

If you’re not fortunate to have this support it’s best to try and find some good contacts to see what’s available. There are lots of blogs that write about this. Here are a few: Barcelona Adventuring — our blog from our time in Barcelona! tips for European travel too; ExBerliner – expats in Berlin, news, jobs; Vegan Nom Noms — not just for vegans, general expat advice for Berlin.  You can also use a search engine using “expat [city name here].”

From travel companies to expat blogs, you can find a lot of information about what’s available, reasonable prices and what to avoid.

Arrival is not just about a place to land; quickly all your basic needs come to the forefront.  You need to figure out food, communications, transportation, local customs and safety, to name a few. Here are some tips of resources we’ve found to be very useful, at least in Western Europe:

Food: many of the big cities we visit have a wide range of foods and restaurants from around the world. We found Greek, French, Italian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern foods in restaurants, markets, stores and street food.

If you haven’t seen it already, check out our post on Thai food in the park, a great surprise for us here in Berlin.


Communications : We often reflect on how fortunate we are to be adventuring at this moment in time. There are so many resources that make communications easy. Here are a few we depend on:

  • We begin our international travel with setting up temporary international calling on our cell phones in the US. This guarantees us both calling and data access, until we are able to access wifi and set up a phone account.
  • Wifi is top of the list. We’ve found it to be much more affordable than in the US, and relatively easy to get set up. Our flat in Berlin has provided us wifi and included it in the rent. Even if it’s not in your flat, there are many cafes you can visit and access the wifi for free.
  • Skype has also been very important with family in the US. We purchased a Skype phone number so parents can call us at a local number in the US, and leave us a message, if we are not available. Skype video calls are free.
  • Whatsapp is also amazing. From free international text messages via wifi to international calling to others who also have the app. A similar feature also available on Facebook.
  • Once we are able to set up a bank account, which requires having an address, we then can set up some type of cell phone service, which we have found to be much more affordable than in the states.

I think back to my cousin who went to Africa in the 70’s and can’t imagine what communication was like. I imagine they only had letters and telegrams (when necessary) for communication, or perhaps a very expensive phone call on occasion.

Language differences is also an important thing to consider in moving abroad. We both spoke and understood basic Spanish when we moved to Spain. Even though the primary language in Barcelona is Catalan, we could usually get by with Spanish. But neither of us speak German yet. So we rely heavily on Google translate, the phone app comes handy, especially with its audio features. We have also found many people understand basic English in Berlin, even if they don’t like to admit it.

Transportation: Transportation is usually at our fingertips with bikes, buses, metros, taxis (when needed). It’s actually a bit of a relief from the all-pervasive American car. We are happy to be walking and walking and walking each day, whether for a meal, or to a train, or just enjoying the sights around us.

Safety: It’s difficult to evaluate safety in these times. There are issues and incidents everywhere around the world. But we certainly think about this in the process of getting settled. First we research  where we want to live. It’s helpful to get a sense about the city, what are common tourists locations (not always the safest, as they can be targets for thieves). This takes some work and it’s helpful to find people who are living in a place to gather information. Common sense is important, along with being aware of your environment. Buildings commonly have front security doors, and it’s important that your flat has a solid locking mechanism. Know the emergency numbers you might need. In Europe, you call 112 instead of 911.

And then there are places like IKEA, that collect many euros via  expat purchases in cities across Europe. Las Chicas visit there only once, if possible, to pick up items we can’t easily find in other locations around the city.  Here’s a little glimpse of our Berlin IKEA  trip  including tiny elevator welfie with under-the-bed storage containers and more.

So there you have it, a little window into Las Chicas’ adventures moving abroad. Of course, this is only a sliver of our experience. We are just beginning our newest journey and look forward to developing new friendships, visiting again with the friends we made in Spain, and extending our understanding of the world from this different place.

© Lisa Howells and Mary Reynolds, 2017


One thought on “Living the Expat life: Barcelona to Berlin”

  1. Awww yay, thanks for sharing my blog! Was awesome to meet you both on Sunday! This reminds me I need to go to Thai park soon!


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