This is the first post of an ongoing experiment: Moving our family to another county for one year. Below we dive into the WHY and the HOW. In follow-up posts, we’ll look into differences between the Barcelona vs. American school systems, remote working from different time zones, living like the locals, and surely much more. It all started with an idea…
“I’ve got a crazy idea. Let’s move our family to another country for a year. We work remotely, kids go to a local school, we explore new places…”
“Oopf, that’d be a lot of work. And super expensive. Where would we go? What about the house? And the kids’ school, and their friends?”
one month later, after numerous follow-up conversations…
“I think we should do it.”
six months later, after a lot of planning…
“Are we really doing this?”
We’re going to try. After living in Barcelona for nearly 15 years—with the past year largely covid confined to our small apartment—we’ve decided to voluntary submit our family to an unnecessary experiment. We’re upending our simple life to spend a year in the US.
We didn’t take this decision lightly, and we knew we had to get our shit together to make it happen. Still, I can’t believe we’re doing this. And it’s all happening really fast.
A lot of people have asked us how we’re doing this, so this post is to answer some of those questions. If you’ve ever considered something like this yourself, we hope our story can help you in some way. If you think this is nuts and would never dream of relocating your family for no necessary reason, then feel free to live vicariously through our adventure. You just might change your mind.
If you’d like to follow our journey with periodic updates, leave your email here and we’ll keep you posted:
And now, the seed and its sprouts.
The seed: why we moved our family to the US for a year
A brief background for context. I was born in the US about 40 years ago. My wife was born in Barcelona, in the Catalunya region in the northeast corner of Spain. We’ve been living in Europe for the past 15 years. Our two kids were born in Barcelona and have dual US-Spanish citizenship.
Like so many people around the globe, the 2020 covid-19 pandemic rattled our cage. My wife and I were both fortunate enough to maintain jobs that allowed the shift to fully remote—this was the routine ripple that opened up this crazy idea. We were stuck in our small apartment with kids, without the normal routines and contacts, and we were itching for change.
The first big question: “Where would we go?”
Although we’ve entertained various ideas over the years (Portugal, Sweden, Hong Kong,…), the country was pretty clear in our case: the USA. More on this, along with plenty of nuances, below.
The bigger, more important question: “Why are we doing this?”
There are a few standard reasons that people move. House: they want a bigger one, or a cheaper one. Family: they want to be closer to those they love, or farther from those they no longer love. Work: a new job, or loss of one, is sending them elsewhere.
None of these things were main motivators for us, though family considerations did play a role. So what was driving our desire?
We didn’t want to get caught in the ‘grass is always greener’ trap. This is something we talk about a lot: there is no perfect place. Yes, some places have better weather, more friendly neighbors, and shorter Starbucks lines. But every place has endless to-do lists, bills to pay, broken things to fix, bathrooms to clean, and emotionally challenging days.
And we aren’t unhappy. Barcelona is a great city, the weather is good, and our life is simple. We have a small apartment that suits our needs, we have a routine that we enjoy, and we have people we like being around. Our kids’ school is visible in this photo, and our home is just a few steps away.
So why go through all the headache of trying to move a family of four to a new country? The economics of the adventure certainly don’t work out in our favor.
So really, WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?
Many exciting motivations appear when you start dreaming of distant lands. And while multiple things can help justify the move, my wife and I wanted our main aims to be crystal clear. After exploring numerous opportunities and risks, we agreed on our two main whys:
- To give our kids a full US experience
- To break routine and see the world again through fresh eyes
Let’s start with the first.
Giving our kids a full immersive experience in another culture
Every year since our kids were born (minus 2020), we’ve visited Indiana for a few weeks a year to see family and expose our kids to Midwest America. They’ve also spent time around Spain, France, Ireland, and the UK. But they’ve never lived outside of their hometown of Barcelona, and exposure ≠ immersion. Here’s the type of immersion we had in mind.
Our kids were lucky enough to be born into three languages. They speak English with me, with my wife they speak Catalan (the language of Catalunya, with flavors of Spanish, French, and Italian), and anyone growing up in Barcelona also learns Spanish. They enjoy all three, and have no problems switching languages from one sentence to the next, or translating for their grandparents when the families get together.
Still, it’s one thing to be able to talk to your family, and quite another to interact with anyone, regardless of accent, how fast they talk, or what idioms they use. We figured with a full-year immersion at their age, they should be indistinguishable from monolingual native speakers.
Both of our boys have American passports, and they’ve been to the States numerous times. So they’ve picked up some behaviors and customs of North American culture, but there’s so much more to be absorbed.
What is culture anyway? It’s not something you can learn by reading. Culture is the sum total of all the interactions that take place within a community, company, or country. It emerges from patterns of repeated behaviors and responses.
So the only way to really understand a culture is to be part of it, to engage in the day-to-day interactions over time. And then only way to do that is to live there.
In Barcelona, our kids go to school from 8am to 5pm Monday to Friday. It’s a system that emphasizes the whole child—cognitive, emotional, physical, and social—and I think they do a reasonable job trying to nurture these different aspects. Already in early primary school, there’s a lot of focus on group work, giving presentations in front of the class, and longer-term projects rather than daily homework.
But is this a “good” approach? More importantly, is it the right approach for our particular children given differences in learning styles and aptitudes? Are they being adequately prepared and disciplined for the real world? Who knows. We only have our singular experience to draw from. We hear that US schools are very test-focused, prepping for standardized assessments perhaps at the expense growing more rounded, emotionally and socially sound citizens. Is that good? Bad? True?
Future skill development
Every parent should care a lot about the question: What should we be teaching our children? In our uncertain and quickly changing world, what skills do kids need to survive? I think one answer is crystal clear: the ability to adapt. We’ve known for some time that many jobs available today may not exist in a decade or two. We’ve learned via the coronavirus years that where we need to work has been upended. Having a mind that can shift and adapt to new circumstances, and stay resilient through change, will be crucial.
Another clear answer: empathy. Being empathetic is about understanding other people—their feelings, desires, and perspectives. It’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Although there are some biologically based barriers to being empathetic, empathy is largely a skill that can be developed. A basic input for developing empathy is awareness that other people are different than us. So we figured that exposing our kids to a wider variety of people, thinking styles, and ways of communicating would be a useful experience.
That’s for our kids, but what about their parents?
Breaking routine to become aware of the obvious
After leaving my parent’s home at age 18, I lived in four different homes in Indiana, one guesthouse in the Netherlands, and four homes in Japan. That was all within eight years. Since then, I’ve spent the last 15 years in the same home in Barcelona.
The kids started appearing about 10 years ago, I’ve been with the same company for nearly 6 years, and my wife’s been at her company for over a decade. For a couple who started their relationship dating across the Atlantic Ocean and then backpacking around the world, a minor lifequake (to borrow a phrase Bruce Feiler’s book, Life is in the Transitions) was in the making.
We try our best to keep life interesting and fun with our kids. But even so, routines become monotonous and spontaneity becomes a rarity. Dinners and bedtimes need to happen at regular hours, and the in-between activities become family-focused and predictable. And all that’s great. And repetitive.
More than that, though, there’s a counterintuitive principle lurking in all of our routines:
Our brains have this neat trick: once things become obvious and easy, they get put on autopilot and fade from consciousness. This opens up new mental capacity to focus on novel or more complicated things, but it also blinds us to our most familiar surroundings. Driving a car was scary and complex when you began. Now you arrive home oblivious to how you maneuver through high-speed traffic, and the familiar scenery along the way.
The same happens with routines. Over time, familiar habits slip from consciousness. Regaining awareness of the obvious takes a contrast, a break in routine.
This was another motivator for our move. We believe that breaking our current routine and throwing life into a new cycle will not only open us up to the ways of rural America. The hypothesis is that it will also help us to see and value our lives in Barcelona. Through the contrasting experience, we’ll have a new point of reference for understanding our current routines and realities.
We had other subgoals in mind—like growing together as a family, and exploring the United States—but they all fell under the main goals.
Having clear motivations provides a benchmark against which future decisions can be made. For example, should we spend $30 on a rug for the hallway (which will be enjoyed over the entire year) or on Halloween costumes (which will last an evening)? When matched against our stated goals, the $30 clearly go to the costumes (because trick-or-treating is a stay-home experience for us in Barcelona). Of course you can choose to make exceptions, but it adds a clear frame to decisions like these.
And with our over-arching goals in focus, it was time to take action.
The plan: how we organized our minds to make it happen
The decision was made. Now what? The to-do list felt endless, so clearly outlining the major areas we needed to have in check was essential. For us, those buckets looked like this:
1. Home (US + BCN)
We knew the US was our destination, but where exactly?
We started wide with some places we’ve been through and enjoyed: Vermont, New Hampshire, Colorado, Northern California, the Pacific Northwest. We thought about weather, school districts, cost of living, distance from family, and what we wanted our weekends to look like.
At one point, we googled “best places to live with kids in the US.” At the top of lists like this we saw Carmel, Indiana, about 30 minutes from my parents house. Our initial idea was to live somewhere new, not the place we visited every summer. But zeroing in on Indiana hugely simplified things, and put us closer to family. It just made sense.
The next step was finding a house. We honed our lists of what really mattered, also asking the kids what was important to them. The basics:
|Must||– Standalone house with yard|
– Can walk to town with shops and activities
– Near parks and big green space
– Near a good school system
|Maybe||– Kids can ride bikes in neighborhood|
– House has stairs (kids added this)
– Can walk to school
|No||– Apartment (we’ve got that in Barcelona)|
– Making things more complicated than necessary
When it all boiled down—and completely unexpected from the beginning—we decided to rent a house in my hometown of Pendleton, across from the public park and river. The town is a bit smaller and more familiar than we initially desired. But it checked all the boxes, made the whole move much easier, and put a big smile on my mom’s face.
The next question was what to do with our home in Barcelona (BCN). After considering Airbnb and subletting, we decided to save the hassle and budget some funds to keep our apartment empty for a year.
Takeaway: Dream big, but keep it as simple as possible. There will be enough complications along the way. Don’t add more if you don’t have to.
2. School (US + BCN)
Finding a school for the kids went hand-in-hand with pinning down a place to live. This search was made easier by the decision to move to my hometown: they would go to the same elementary school that I went to, just like they go to the same school my wife went to in Barcelona. Circle of life.
Now the hard part: calibrating grade levels.
One totally unexpected difference between Spain and US schools ended up being our (second) biggest headache, and certainly our most difficult decision. In the US, the cutoff date for starting school is usually around August—before then you start this year, after then you start next year. The cutoff date in Spain is the beginning of the calendar year. So all kids born in 2012 are in one grade, kids born in 2013 are in the next grade, and so on. Our oldest child, with an early-year birthday, fell into the same grade in both systems. Our youngest kid, with a late-year birthday, was a year ahead of his US counterparts. What to do?
We spoke with administrations experts at the American School in Barcelona, we talked to ex-school superintendents in the US, we took standardized placement tests. In the end, there was unanimous agreement: it wasn’t clear. Each option had pros and cons, but he’d probably be okay in either grade. We had to decide.
My wife put it best: we’re going to have to work closely with our kids this year and next year, regardless of what grade we put him in.
She was right. In the end, we opted to put him in the lower US grade, with the plan to skip him back into the higher Barcelona grade track when we return. This put him with kids his own age this year as he adapts to a new language at a new school in a new country, but back with his old friends the following year. This is our biggest uncertainty and risk, and only time will tell how it plays out.
Another big don’t-forget: school vaccines. All schools require kids to be vaccinated against all kinds of viruses and bacteria like polio, tetanus, and chickenpox. (Is one more for covid-19 really such a big deal?) So we got the list of required shots from the US school, made sure our kids already had them all, and got the medical records translated into English.
We also informed their Barcelona school about our plans so they’d know why we didn’t register for school next year, and that we expect to be back the following. Not a big deal, but something to consider.
Takeaway: Huge unexpected decisions with no clear answers will always arise. That’s life. Don’t become paralyzed. Gather different perspectives, play out different scenarios and worst case outcomes, and move forward conscientiously.
What will the boss say?
As mentioned, my wife and I have both been remote over the past year. But what will it be like waking up six hours behind our Europe-based colleagues? Our plan: squeeze all meetings and communications in our US morning, then we’ll have focus time to work uninterrupted on projects during the afternoon, once Barcelona heads to the bars.
Given our lines of work—me in a tech startup, my wife in a fertility clinic—I figured it would be easier for me than her. I was wrong, and the whole arrangement became much more complicated than expected. It worked out for the better, but it’s is a long story that I’ll follow up on in another post.
Takeaway: You never know what they’ll say until you ask. Do it early and strategically.
When it came to money, we had two major considerations: budget and currency exchange
Budget. How much will this cost? Our plan was to live simply, and experience frugally. Even so, experiences add up.
To make sure we weren’t about to dive into a black hole, we opened up a Google sheet and started making some best guesses. We researched school expenses, utility bills, gym costs, car and health insurance, gas cost and average drive distance per day, and grocery prices. We outlined travel desires and budgets, and factored in holidays and birthday expenses. Then we balanced it all against expected income, earned in euros.
Currency. How do we get euro to dollars? Both my wife and I work for companies based in Spain, and we’re paid in euro into our Europe-based banks. That doesn’t do us a whole lot of good in the US.
Apart from a small US savings account that we decided we’d pull from while there, we also used Wise (formerly TransferWise) to move money from our Barcelona bank to our bank in the US. Wise worked great for us—easy with cheap, transparent fees. Just be aware that if you’re moving more than $10k a year, the IRS is watching.
Takeaway: When it comes to money, you don’t want to come up short. Think about the big outputs, the routine expenses, the special occasions—then add 10%, and expect you’ve still overlooked some things.
There were two main legal issues to consider: taxes and visas.
Taxes. I pay taxes to the Spanish government. As an American citizen, I also have to claim taxes in the US. (The US is one of the only countries in the world that taxes US citizens who live, work, and also pay taxes abroad. This despite the face that billionaire citizens and companies, like Donald Trump and Amazon, pay next to no US taxes. Go figure.) Because of my modest salary, however, tax credits exist that restrict what I end up paying to Uncle Sam.
Our biggest learning was the 183-day tax rule. The simple version: you are considered a primary tax resident of whichever country you spend 183 days (half a year) or more each year. Income taxes in Spain are much higher in the US, so leaving Spain before the 183-day mark would make me a US resident and therefore lower my taxes.
(note: although we talked to tax and financial experts about our specific case, I by no means know what I’m talking about here. If you get in touch with me though, I’m happy to share more about the little we learned.)
Visas. Me and my two kids are US passport holders, so we can come and go from the US as we please. My wife is Catalan, and her Spanish passport only allows her up to 90 days with the ESTA visa waiver program. So she needed a special non-immigrant visa to be able to go for an extended visit.
We spoke with everyone we knew that had experience with (non-)immigration visas. We learned that the coronavirus pandemic was restricting most travel into the US, and there was a huge backlog of applications for people like us who should qualify for an exemption to the restriction. We started the application six months before we planned to leave. We had to fly by July to arrive in time for kids to start the school year.
After three cancelled appointments, a rejection for an expedited appointed, a reversal of that rejection, and a three-hour train trip to Madrid for the interview, they rejected her application in person. The visa is a non-negotiable. Emotional rollercoaster.
After 6 months of hustle, and 9 months of dreaming, it appeared we had to wake up. But it turns out there is something (legal) you can try in this case, and we were fortunate that it worked for us. So if you’re in a similar situation, email me and I’ll be happy to share what we tried.
Takeaway: Talk to people who know more than you, and leave plenty of time. And don’t give up when dreams come crashing down. Lift your head, and find the next best option.
What if, what if, what if…
As we progressed, numerous doubts appeared.
Q: What if we hate it?
A: We might. It’s a risk. But we probably won’t, we’re only committing to a year, and if we don’t try it now, we likely never will.
Q: What if our companies say ‘no’ to remote work in a time zone 6-hours away?
A: They could. But we’ve already been remote for a year anyways, so they might not. And if they do… we go anyways. This was a big stake in the ground: my wife and I clearly committed to each other that we wouldn’t let work be the blocker.
Q: What if something happens and we have to deal with the American insurance and health care system (which totally sucks)?
A: It does totally suck, but I won’t get into that now. We bite the bullet, and buy traveler’s insurance that will probably cost lots and cover little. But we’ll be covered if something dire happens.
Q: What if our kids don’t adapt well to the school?
A: They might not. But kids are pretty resilient, especially if their parents are fully committed to being aware of their children’s feelings and needs, and being there to support them when they need a hug.
And this led to another cornerstone of this process: get the kids involved.
This wasn’t a project that my wife and I undertook after the kids went to bed. We got them as involved in every way we could. We showed them photos of the school, and kept them posted with all our plans. We asked what they would need to be happy there (a house with stairs and a yard, they said). We asked if they had questions, and let them know we’d be there if any worries popped into their minds. We also made a huge full-room-long paper roll-out timeline, and they helped us plot goals and milestones along the way.
When life quakes, pack your bags
And now it’s time to fly. These final weeks leading up to our departure have been insane.
Figuring out US health insurance, enrolling kids in their US school, negotiating remote work conditions, setting up utilities and internet in a house we’ve never been inside, planning a two-week RV road trip out West as soon as we arrive, saying goodbye to friends and family in Barcelona, and of course packing four people’s bags for a year in another country with four distinct seasons—one big suitcase, one carry-on, and one backpack each. That’s it.
I can’t believe how fast this is going. And I know the experience itself will go just as fast. Onward, into the future, with eyes wide open through the present.
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