Taking advantage of a window of opportunity and moving to Europe

Taking advantage of a window of opportunity and moving to Europe

Sable McCleery had an insatiable desire to travel and nothing major holding her back in the USA. She packed her bags and left for Prague and Barcelona where she is located today.  This is her journey and story about life today as an expat in Europe. You can follow Sable on Instagram and Twitter and see her work as a designer here.

WCIL: Where do you originally come from?

I was born near San Francisco, in California and raised in the Central Valley.  I lived in Sacramento and went to college/last lived in San Diego for the last 7 years before going abroad. 

WCIL: Where are you living now?

Now, I am living in Barcelona, Spain. I have been in Europe for a little over one year now. I actually started in Barcelona and needed to leave after one month to go move to the Czech Republic for an undetermined amount of time (wound up being 8 months) and then life ironically led me back to Barcelona where I originally wanted to be about four and a half months ago and plan to call it home for quite some time. 

Expat, Sable in a street in Barcelona

WCIL: What led you to making the decision to leave your home country?

I was in a place, personally, where I knew I needed to take advantage of a window of opportunity in my life. 

I’d traveled to Europe 3 years prior and fell in love with a few different countries and the culture, overall. And when I came back to the states I had developed this insatiable desire to continue to travel. However, I knew I needed to gain more experience in my career since I had only just graduated college. 

Well, I gained 3 years of experience in my field (of Interior Designer) and came to a point where I knew there wasn’t much room for growth  at my current place of work, and I did not want to apply anywhere else in the city, or the state - or country for that matter. I also felt a disconnect from my immediate community…like, I had different interests, life goals and mindset…and to be honest…the dating scene wasn’t so appealing  (a story of my generation, for another time). 

So I thought to myself, “Ok…I don’t have a boyfriend keeping me here, I don’t have a pet keeping me here and I certainly don’t have a child keeping me here…and I am a designer who wants to see the world and travel. NOW is the time, if ever. I will never have this window of opportunity again." Plus, I had a close friend who was packing up to move back to Europe for her second time and seeing this made it all feel very doable to me. So, I made the decision to leave America and try a life in Europe where traveling to an adjacent country cost pennies compared to travel in the States. And ultimately become more intelligent, bilingual, and now with a love around me. As life would have it, I’m happy here only hoping to contribute to the planet and humans’ well being. 

WCIL: What visas did you arrive on and was it difficult or easy to sort your visas out?

I actually embarked on my move abroad quite naively. My friend who was moving back to Europe had informed me that the Czech Republic offers Americans a visa they can apply for without having to go back to America to apply for it, so this was in the back of my head. But where I really wanted to be was Spain - Barcelona. So I started there. I tried to get work at a company I was fond of, and with no luck after one month,  I decided to try my luck in Czech Republic because I only had the 90 days the US Passport allows you, to get my visa process started. There I received the Zivno, which is a one year permit to live there so long as you start a business, have the required amount of money in your bank account, and pay your social insurance and fees. I was approved for that after a few months of paperwork. Within this time I met my now fiance, who was actually from Barcelona, and after 8 months in Czech Republic we decided I would move to Barcelona and we would file for the partnership visa they offer here. 

WCIL: What was the first impression of your new home?

I’d been to Barcelona, and I chose to be there because I’d loved it. However, I’d never been to Prague and had not yet had the “strong” desire to visit, so I went into it a bit blindly, and came out of it quite smitten. I arrived at the start of winter and with a bit of worry in tow because of needing work and a visa. Overall, in time, I began to adore Prague. The language is fascinating to me. The city is stunningly preserved. It’s known that the people don’t “look” so kind but the Czech have been some of the most helpful, funny and fun people I have met. Gaurded & tough, but some of the best. The city is quite small and quaint too which made for it to feel homey and safe. The transportation is also top of the line in my opinion. Lastly, the city is quite inexpensive, although wages are not that high for how hard some have to work. 

Sable with horses in Seville in traditional dress

WCIL: Did you know many people in your new country when you moved there?  How did you settle in at the beginning?

I knew a handful of people in Barcelona and I knew one person in Czech Republic - my friend who’d moved back to Europe. And she is actually now living here in Barcelona too! 

The beginning was great. Settling into Prague became difficult and I’d love to say it eased up on me but I had some obstacles. I needed a decent paying consistent job, I needed my own place, I needed clothes for this kind of weather. I developed a foot issue. Had a neck issue for a while. Exhausted my eyes from computer work and exhausted my entire self for a solid month. It only became a lot easier recently after getting settled into a routine here in Barcelona. But I am a whole lot savvier thanks to these experiences. 

WCIL: How do you support yourself abroad?

When I first arrived to Europe I was living on my savings - and money I’d profited from selling my car, furniture, clothing etc. Then I took on a part-part-time copywriting job and some freelance graphic design work. Nothing very profitable or sustaining. When I arrived in Czech Republic I was still working freelance and applying for a couple other freelance jobs. After some time there I actually got a job waitressing. That was my saving grace. Had I not gotten that job I truly think it would have been back to America for me. I am very grateful for that opportunity. In the interim I also got more freelance work as a photographer. I shot some budget-friendly hotels for Expedia in Germany, Poland & Czech Republic, as well as photographed some AirBnBs. 

WCIL : How do you spend your free time?

When I wasn’t waitressing or photographing hotels/airbnbs or writing, I was enjoying the Christmas/New Years festivities in Prague, spending time with my friend who was living there going to cafes and restaurants. I would go to the gym, go on runs through the parks adjacent to where I was living, run errands (on foot, so they might take longer or more organization). 

After meeting my fiancé, we started to meet up every 2-3 weeks and travel to different cities/countries in Europe. In the 9 months we’ve been together we’ve been to 9 countries already! Museums, monuments, wineries, river cruises, city tours, rooftops, festivals, restaurants, performances and more are many of the things I would do in my free time. Typical tourist stuff right? At some point I hope some of these world class cities become so familiar they feel like my second/third homes. 

A Photo of Sable in a beautiful hat

WCIL: How did you meet people in your new home?

In Barcelona, I had friends from the last time I visited, and then I made friends with people who were living in the AIrBnB I stayed at and I also was connected to some people from California who had moved to Barcelona shortly before me. 

As for Prague, as I’ve said, I had my friend who’d moved there from California and her fiancé and roommate were also friends of mine. My waitressing job also allowed me to meet a lot of females around my age group who all spoke English (and many other languages!) so I really felt like I had a solid group of people around me that I could turn to. 

WCIL: Were you ever homesick?  How did you manage that?

Honestly, no. And truly, I never really had a permanent home in California because I come from divorced parents, and lived on my own at 18 and moved from Sacramento to San Diego in a span of 11 years. So overall, there’s a lot of reasons why I don’t “look back” or feel like I have a home to be “sick” for. I very much see a future here in Europe for myself, and my future children. I plan to visit the States yearly to see my family and they will be coming to Europe yearly so I think all in all there’s not much to be sick for. 

I will say, I am quite the sociable person. For example, I go to the gym a lot, and there are moments when you need to talk to the front desk, or ask a person if they are finished with a machine, or ask an employee if a room is available to use and it’s just not possible because I don’t speak the native language (used to be Czech, now it's Catalan). Those moments I can feel quite lonely, if you will. Being able to speak to someone without hesitation or barriers is something not to be taken for granted. But yeah, that’s when I feel the most “homesick”.

How do I manage? I think at the end of the day my frustration turns into motivation. I don’t think that would happen for everyone, but I know I have the mentality that thinks like that - because I want this life. I want  to be inspired to learn more languages. Languages fascinate me, so I see it is a bridge I will one day fully gap. I get emotional sometimes if I’m having a rough day and I don’t beat myself up about it.

As for missing family and friends…I Facetime my mom and Grandma a lot. And I touch base with others every so often. It’s been an interesting experience, within friendships, becoming an expat…I will say. I’ve gone through a lot of emotions about it, the type of emotions that make you “grow up” and realize what a true friendship with someone embodies. 

WCIL: What do you miss from your own life?

There’s certain things I miss, like California’s grocery food options, my old bed (miss this the most - it was thee best!), my family of course, my good friends, and sometimes…sometimes…my car. Every time I see my old car out here (a Toyota Yaris) I just have the warmest feelings. It was my first car purchase and such a reliable car with great gas mileage. 

Expat Sable outside a beautiful door in Budapest

WCIL: What do you have in your new life that you never had in your home country?

The opportunity to walk and use metro. Of course there was a transportation system in my city (San Diego) - and I did use it for a 9 month period when I did not have a car - but it’s not a super efficient world-class rail system. I really do like that I am making less of an impact on the environment by not having a car and using the metro and train systems and my feet. 

I also have love in my life, that I did not have in my home country. This is a long story for another time, but I think I’ve known since I was a young girl that I wasn’t going to marry just anyone or have the typical American Dream life. I’ve always gravitated toward being different in one way or another and I knew when I was young I wanted to have a worldly, traveling family. Now, I will. The Law of Attraction is so real, it may take lightyears, but you have to be careful and sure of what you wish because it will come true. 

I have languages all around me, daily. I have people from all over the world around me, daily. Yes, the United States is a melting pot of people but if people are “different” from you, they are not exactly integrated into your culture the same way as people are in Europe. I like the diversity and dynamic here. 

I feel like this list could go on and on because it really is a different world, entirely. Overall I am very, very content to be here. 

WCIL: If you could go back in time to before you became an expat and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

Do your homework!  I really was a bit naive when it came to moving to Europe, as I mentioned. 

I recently found out a fellow Californian in my Spanish Course was able to get a student visa through the school that we are attending. I was surprised considering it’s a privately run school. I thought the student visa had to be done with some sort of publicly recognized school or university. That would have been a great option. Get in touch with me if you want to know. They have great prices and success rates. I’m very pleased with my progress. 

Going into my “European journey”, if you will, blindly, was not wise…and it induced a lot of stress and worry in me for the time being that I did not have a visa, or consistent work. 

Had I gone abroad with the legal ability to be in Europe past my 90 days, I may have been a bit more comfortable. Although…that’s not really my style, and I truly have no regrets because I am so happy with all the experiences, hardships and all, I’ve had. It’s changed me in the best way possible. 

Sable next to the canals in Amsterdam

WCIL: What have you learned about yourself in this new life?

It’s going to sound cliche, and maybe even a bit arrogant, but I really do feel like there’s nothing I can’t handle or accomplish … in my own time of course lol. I’ve known this about myself for some time though (Thanks Mom for the lifelong encouragement) but I have a track record of setting my mind to something and knocking it out of the park. & I think that’s why I embarked on this journey a bit blindly. 

I always look at my life by reflecting on the last year and dreaming up my next year goals, 5 year goals, 10 year goals. It is absolutely astonishing how far you can come on in a year. It’s no surprise I have “Carpe Diem” tattooed on me. I’m no Speedy Gonzalez but I get shit done. I don’t hesitate. I set goals. & make things happen for myself. If I don’t do it, who will? Seeing yourself continuously conquer your goals year after year, and knowing you can rely on yourself in the worst of situations, in the lowest of lows and being able to bounce back, is one of the most unexplainable, best, feelings in the world. 

I think I’ve yet to really identify something new and poignant about myself though. My family might be able to point out something new about me. 

Something I was concretely reminded of, after about 9 months abroad, was that I LOVE routine. I’m all about the circadian rhythm, 8 hours of sleep, eating at the same time each day etc etc. It’s what makes me the happiest and most organized…which in turn means: conquering the goals!…living life to the fullest!

WCIL: Tell us about some of your highs and lows of being an expat in a new country

Oof, where do I start! 

From the moment I was at the airport taking off to Europe I began to have obstacles. 

First one was: Long story short - I was misinformed by my airline about the luggage weight prices so I immediately lost $400 of my savings. That’s like one month of my American bills. Super upsetting start. 

Then, in the background, I had met a guy right before leaving the States and, stupidly, being the hopeless romantic I am, I invited him to come visit me in Europe. BAD idea. He was basically a stranger I’d decided to spend 3+ weeks with. Let’s just say I discovered he wasn’t exactly mentally healthy. It really dampened my vibe. Like extremely. I was so broken that I’d chosen to make such a foolish move and had such bad judgment in character. In a matter of 3 weeks I was in a manipulative, unhealthy, depressing, bad vibe, scary relationship. All I could think, was how to 1) get myself out of this & 2) get my mojo back? My Europe life was supposed to be this amazing new start, not a depressing giant question mark of “Why did this happen”? And it lasted longer than the 3 weeks because he was holding some of my possessions hostage until I paid him money. It was awful. I tell myself I dated the worst so I could know when I met the best next. Now my life is literal 180º from how I felt then. 

One of the highs was (and is) having one of my best friends here in Europe. Not only is she a world traveler, but she is business-minded like I am, she is hilarious, and just an all-around girlfriend. I’m not close with my sister so I gravitate toward my girlfriends immensely and treat them as sisters. I need my girls and having her here has given me so much hope and inspiration. I actually stayed on her sofa for a month and a half while I got situated in Czech Republic with my visa. 

Another “high” or “blessing” was my landlord, shout out to Radka!, in the Czech Republic. She was an angel. Which I was so grateful for after having two 92 year old angels as landlords in San Diego and having heard so many horror stories about bad landlords. She thoughtfully stocked up my brand new - empty - apartment with the basics like cutlery, cookware, bedding, etc which saved me a ton of money. Not only that but she was always willing to help, inviting me to her family events, we would go to the farmers markets together, coffee…she was just an incredible person. A saving grace you could say. That studio that I call a shoebox, was beautiful, newly renovated, had everything I needed, a great location and mine. This gave me a lot of hope. 

Traveling to, I think, 12-14 countries in one year has been one hell of a high. My mind is working on a whole new level. Not everyone gets to experience what I have... or have their paradigm shifted as I have. I am very grateful for that.

There were other hardships, a lot to do with airlines(!), (and wonderful things) but as I’ve said somewhere once before… hardships become difficult to remember the further in the past they get - for me at least. It’s not something I hang onto in my mind. 

Sable in a restaurant in London

WCIL: Is there anything else you'd like to share about your experience?

Hmm…. I’m a woman of faith and if you’re reading this and you are too, and you have a burning desire to travel, do it. & Keep. your. faith. There are so many wonderful people in this world. Your kindness and honesty toward people will welcome many blessings into your life. My faith in humanity and my religion keep me going in such a crazy world.

A closed mouth does not get fed and you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Make your dreams come true. 

Also, one very useful tip, whatever country you go to, make sure you know how to say “hello”, “thank you” and “goodbye” in their language. Nothing can start you on a better footing than respecting people’s culture. Make Google Translate your best friend and download the offline app if you’re worried about data. Also download the offline map of the area you’re going to from Google as well.

WCIL: What would you say to anyone considering an international move?

DO IT. Don’t hesitate - but do your homework. Save your money. Become really good at what you do currently. And just don’t look back. It’s 2018 and we can take planes to visit our loved ones, Face Time them etc. If they truly love you, they will want what makes you happy. Just go, be social, be open-minded, and be kind. 


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Alison Johnson

Alison is a travel junkie, digital nomad and the co-founder of www.wherecani.live She has lived in 7 countries on 4 continents and is passionate about opening the world up for others.

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