Expat’s Lament

By Elyn Aviva

It’s another discouraging winter day in Oviedo, Asturias. Grey and wet, dark and cold and rainy. From my window, I watch the relentless mizzle (a mixture of mist and drizzle) dribbling from the sky. Not to mention the occasional sleet.

Another dismal cold winter day. More accurately, a dismal December, a dismal January…. And so far, a dismal February. Locals tell us that it used to be worse. Much worse. The rain went on for months. How did they survive, I ask in desperation? The locals shrug their shoulders in resignation: “Es lo que hay.” “It is what is.” They just did. Privately, I tell my husband, Gary, those who couldn’t adjust to the Asturian weather either died young, left, or failed to reproduce. Only the genetically adaptable were up for procreation.

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I’m used to snow and cold, having grown up in Iowa and lived in Colorado and northern New Mexico—but this is different. There’s no light reflecting off the brilliant white snow to brighten the day. No glittering icicles to make me smile. No sharp clear blue sky lit by a golden sun. No. All there is, is grey, damp, bone-chilling dismal.

I would plan to escape, but I don’t have the gumption, the energy, the imagination. Inside my head feels just as damp and grey as the weather outside.

What were we thinking (or not thinking!) when we decided to move to Oviedo a year ago? For eight years, we had lived a successful expat life in Girona, Catalonia (northeastern Spain, near the Mediterranean). But the summers had become increasingly hot (weeks of mid 90sF), and I melt at anything over 82°F. For several summers in a row, we had fled our comfortable apartment, our compatible companions, and flown to Cornwall to get out of the heat. We’d be gone for a month or more, checking the Catalan weather reports on a daily basis, waiting for the temperature to drop. It was a temporary, disruptive, and expensive solution.

A year ago we realized there had to be a better way—for example, moving to a place in Spain that wasn’t as hot in summer, perhaps somewhere along the northern coast. A friend suggested Oviedo. It was a match made if not in heaven at least on earth. Cooler, rainy clime, beautiful natural surroundings, only 15 miles from the coast, surrounded by lush green mountains. Capital of the principality of Asturias, with two resident symphony orchestras and an opera house (for Gary), easy to get around on foot, charming architecture in the Old Town, and people who consider it a matter of pride to be welcoming to strangers.

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We rented an air B&B in Oviedo for a month and soon decided the city would be ideal. We found an amazing apartment (7th floor, on a pedestrian street, with jaw-dropping views of the cathedral, a doorman, and less expensive than Girona), packed up our stuff, and moved.

There’s a song that goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone….” And that sums up our move to Oviedo. We had mistakenly thought that because we knew how things “work” in Girona, we would know how things “work” in Oviedo. Wrong. Every province (and Asturias is a very small province) in Spain functions slightly differently.

In Catalonia we were covered by public health services. Before moving to Asturias, we went to the main health-services office in Oviedo and asked if we would be covered in Asturias. We were assured we would be. We even went to our local clinic and applied for new cards. A few months later, after never receiving the cards, we learned that in fact we weren’t eligible. We’d been given wrong information. However, the health-clinic clerk assured us, the rules were always changing, so maybe in a year or two….

We changed from one Sabadell bank branch in Girona to another Sabadell bank branch in Oviedo. Then we learned that they weren’t exactly the same company, and we had to open a new account, and, somewhere in the change-over process, they forgot to shift our automatic monthly rental payment…. (We only learned about this oversight when our landlord stopped us in the hall and casually mentioned we hadn’t paid our rent for a month or two…... I was horrified, but he wasn’t worried. “No pasa nada,” he said with a reassuring smile.)

We learned that the process for renewing our long-term residency cards in Oviedo—which should be the same as in Girona since these are national, not provincial cards—is different. And we learned during our renewal appointment that, although when we moved to Oviedo we had gone to the Town Hall to register ourselves as residents, in Asturias we should also have gone to the Foreigners’ Office and registered with the police…. Fortunately, they didn’t fine us or throw us into jail.

A year in, we are still trying to figure out where to purchase products that we had bought without difficulty in Girona. Shops in Asturias divide up merchandise differently than in Catalonia, so what might have been available at a “para-pharmacy” in one place is only available at a pharmacy in the other. And the products stocked are different as well. Sigh. Thank goodness for Amazon.es!

Our safety net of knowing how to do things and where to go has been jerked out from under us. Several of the initial welcoming offers of “We want to show you our favorite places” are still “on offer” a year later. People’s lives are busy. An in-law got sick. A new grandchild arrived. An exam has to passed. Or… the weather intervened. The rain. The snow in the mountains. The sleet.

With shock I realize how falsely confident I had felt, living in Girona for eight years. I knew how things worked and how to make things work if they didn’t. I had a contact list of reliable handymen, of doctors we had consulted, of acupuncturists and massage therapists—and not least, an excellent hairdresser who knew just how to cut my hair. Gone, all gone. Washed out to sea in a flood of drizzle and mizzle and rain. Starting over again. From scratch.

But wait a minute. I’m not usually so full of gloom and doom. I need a plan. Maybe I need a special lamp to give me substitute sunlight. Maybe I need a brief excursion to a warmer, sunlit locale. Maybe I need to give myself a shake and reconsider my situation. After all: we love our lifestyle. Walking everywhere. Fresh produce, fresh-caught fish in the market. A gorgeous view. A new group of friends, some of whom we really connect with. An excellent weekly Tai Chi class, great massage therapists, exceptional wholistic dentist, and new sites and sights to explore. Peace and calm in this tranquil backwater of a city, unlike the raging political maelstrom of Catalonia. I make a “gratitude” list and count my blessings.

Outside my window, now I see sunlight. Blue sky. The clouds have cleared. The snow glitters on the nearby mountains; the puddles in the streets are drying up. People are coming out of their apartments to soak in the sunlight and smile at each other. Suddenly, everyone is happy. Including me. The weather, like my mood, has shifted. I realize that maybe—just maybe—the sun has been out for some time and I hadn’t noticed. Once my inner gloom lifted, once I shifted my “inner climate,” the outer gloom seems to have lifted as well.

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Gary and I put on our light jackets (it’s 60°F!), leave our umbrellas behind, and go for a walk in the nearby San Francisco Park. The grass is lush and green, even in February; many of the trees still have their leaves, even in February. Ducks quack and preen in the tiny stream that flows through the park. The fragrance of roasting chestnuts wafts through the air from a nearby food stand. We sit on our favorite bench, beneath a towering Himalayan cedar, and I admire the blue sky floating behind the green-needled branches. How fortunate we are to live in Oviedo.


Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist who lives in Oviedo (Asturias), Spain. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” To learn more about her books, go to pilgrimsprocess.com and “Elyn Aviva Writes” on Facebook. To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, visit fiberalchemy.com. Elyn’s latest novel is The Question – A Magical Fable.

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