Every month, Fluency Corp reaches out to clients, friends, or even family, who have relocated to another country for a job, in order to ask them why they moved, how they moved and how they made a new home for themselves in their new country. We are fascinated by their resilience and we want to support others who will be moving in the future. In these interviews, you will find authenticity, humility and also tips for how to make your relocation smoother. This month we interviewed an expat from Spain: Alvaro Gómez-Muro.
Alvaro Gómez-Muro: A Spain Expat
Where are you from? Where have you moved to? And how long did you spend in each country?
I’m from Spain, from Madrid. I thought I was going to spend all of my life in Spain. But in 2010 I was given the opportunity to move to the US – to Dallas. Now I live in Atlanta. In Spain, I lived in various cities.
What did you do in your home country? What do you do now? Is it the same?
Yes and no. I’m a civil engineer. I’m passionate about that. Design and construction in Spain – mid-sized projects – rail and highways. In the US, it was a big change. The size of the projects were significantly bigger – billions of dollars on each project.
Where do you work now?
In the last 6 months, I’ve changed jobs. I’m working for an American company now called DBI. This was a good idea for me, because I think the future of transportation will require far less construction. At DBI there’s an opportunity to be a part of future transportation. We’re the leader in the market for private asset management of infrastructure. I’ll be overseeing Florida.
I’ve always worked for big companies, so this will be a smaller company, and I wanted to get a feel for that.
Even though you were doing similar jobs in Dallas as in Spain, what feels different now, both personally and professionally?
The biggest change was small projects in Spain, more dealing with the client, whereas the focus in the US, for me, was for the project, with some of the largest projects in the nation. And in Atlanta, I’ve returned to a more traditional approach to construction.
So, the biggest challenge in this change was the difference in the clients – in Spain the government is much bigger and the relationship with the customer is different. The customer represents a big force, long term plans, committed to long term vision of transportation. Not at all business driven. Budgets are focused on other things. Not as efficient-driven.
In the US, the clients are more business-driven, and the management style is different.
In Spain, no engineer that works for the government will likely work for the private sector. In the US, you can jump from one to the other. The approach is different.
Also, the size of the projects in Spain are smaller, of course, because it’s a smaller country. There’s never going to be a 2.4 billion-dollar project in Spain. Size and mindset are the biggest changes.
Expat Challenges: Moving from Spain to the US
What were the specific challenges you faced after moving to the U.S.?
In my personal life, nothing major. I came when I was younger as an exchange student – spent three summers near Chicago with an amazingly kind and caring American family. So I was well-versed in the American culture before coming to live and work.
My wife, though, had not been to the US, although she had family in Dallas. The biggest challenge by far was my daughter. She came at 3 years old, and she couldn’t speak any English. It was painful for me to see a bright girl in Spain, doing phenomenally well, have to move and start from zero. She wanted to be social, but she couldn’t. Fortunately, she proved to be very good at languages and we did well. After about 4 – 6 months she could have a conversation just as any other American kid. Today, she can speak four languages: English, Spanish, French and German.
For my employees that came from Spain, it was challenging for me to have a very demanding position at work and also find ways to help our employees and their families come to the country and get used to the culture. Most of them had never been to the US before, like I had, to help with that adjustment.
The credit score was probably the most confusing or new thing to understand – trying to create an identity here for the first time, and social security. Luckily we had BBVA and other banks working with us. But they were concerned about that at the beginning.
When I came in the 80s, it was absolutely hard to buy food that I knew – it was hard to buy olive oil, it was super expensive. And some people didn’t really know where Spain was or who we were. That has changed now.
How did you prepare for your move? Any tips for others?
First, try to find someone already here in the country so you have a point of contact. That makes a big difference, especially if they are geographically close. You will learn a lot of details at the beginning, and you’ll soak that up pretty quickly. But a point of contact is critical.
If you can’t find someone, ask the embassy or the consulate. They want to help you get connected.
First, don’t look at what house you like the most. First, you start with finding the right school for your child, and then make sure you find a house in that school district. It’ll pay off to spend time researching the best schools first.
What did you expect in the U.S. that didn’t turn out to be so?
When I came in the 80s, the cultural distance was the most shocking. You grow up watching movies, and you think you understand a culture. But you don’t. You start talking to them (Americans) and you realize you don’t know the rules of communication, what they care about and more. You can learn a little in your own country, but you can’t really know until you start talking to people and facing real problems there.
Even if you get the language, which is a big deal, getting to understand how people think, that’s completely different.
Small things too – like driving in the US – it feels very different than in Europe. The way you interact with other drivers, the way cities are designed, the way roads are designed, it is very different.
What was harder than you thought it would be?
Probably dealing with the government was harder. Maybe because I grew up there and knew what to expect in Spain, it seemed like it was easier, because I knew it. But the IRS, dealing with the city, and things just like homestead exemption – it’s a ton of money – but if you don’t know about it, you can go for years without that deduction. There are a lot of loopholes and hard things to keep up with in regards to the government.
That first year, from 1 to 10, what would you score it?
10. We had a lot of fun; we were so excited. Everyone in the company was in the same situation at work. The group that came over from Spain and developed a community in Dallas, it was unbelievable. It was hard to keep up with all the activities and the kids running around. It was a very happy time.
What score would you give living abroad now?
I’ve started to be more homesick. That newness in Dallas was incredible and fun. It’s never going to be replicated. I love Atlanta – our home, the neighborhood, the weather. So an 8. I think I might go back to Spain when I retire though.
Being a Long-Term Expat
What are the three top characteristics needed to be a successful, long-term expat?
Open-mindedness. If you think you can have the same life as in your country, you’ll be very frustrated. Those people that seem to be unsuccessful expats, they’ll say they’re not engaging with the culture, and trying to live the same life as before. It will be very frustrating if you do this.
Also, you have to have a certain level of wanting to have a cultural connection. For me, I loved American music, and so I got to see all the bands I wanted to see. I’ve been to all the concerts.
Last is the language. If you aren’t going to try to develop your language skills to a certain level, you will not make it. I’ve seen people stay for 10 years and never develop a strong level, and their lives are not as full.
What role did language play in the success of your moves?
It was key – when I came in 2010, my English level was fairly good, but not where I left it in the 80s. It was challenging by moving to Texas, which was a different accent than I was used to, but I got used to it. Except for those from West Texas. To this day, I do not know what they are saying. Haha.
The language goes also with the culture, so you can make bridges with the locals.