Tracy Carmen Watkin is a freelance writer who didn’t just kick the 9-5 for a new career; she left her brand new house in California, and uprooted her life to Europe. She’s since authored a Greater than a Tourist guide to Barcelona, but she’s still figuring out her new culture. Perhaps she always will be, but she’s OK with that.
Wise is a new way of managing your money internationally for a fraction of the price of a bank or PayPal. This is the continuation of our Lives Without Borders series, in which we speak to people whose careers and lifestyles have transcended borders.
I was afraid to tell my parents at first.
My husband and I never thought we’d leave the US permanently. I loved my job in property management in California, but it still felt like the corporate rat race. I didn’t really know there was another option. Then, in 2008, we went on a small trip to Europe with my family. We visited Prague and Paris, and I saw a different culture, a different pace of life. It really appealed to me. A year later, we started planning to move there.
I was kind of afraid to tell my parents at first, but I also thought—well, it’s kind of their fault! It was their idea to go on that first trip, which was when we fell in love with Europe. When we finally told them, they were really excited. My mom has since told me, “I wish we had done what you guys are doing.”
People would ask, “how long are you going for?” To myself, I thought—"forever." But I didn’t say that because I didn’t want to look crazy. So my husband and I agreed on a time frame—“we’ll tell everyone we’re going to go for three years and see how it goes.” Now, I think it just feels like home.
Our first trip was with our family’s church. We worked with gypsy children in Prague and a small start-up in Paris. Then, when we first moved to Barcelona, we did some beach clean-up works and homeless outreach projects. It was very eye-opening. I feel differently about these trips now. Americans sometimes go to a country, spend money to travel and think that we are doing good. A lot of time, however, it’s for us. We get more out of it and think, “oh, I did my good deed for the year.” But there’s a problem when there’s a disconnect between you and the culture. I don’t know if people fully realize that.
It’s hard every day to live in a different country.
We currently live in the countryside between Girona and Barcelona, and I love the Catalan culture. We first moved to Barcelona city-center and felt at home very quickly. Spain, and especially Barcelona, which is the capital of Catalonia, has a very deep and dark history—some of it quite recent.
I think people should want to go to other countries and explore new cultures, but it’s important to understand them, too. It's important to take a step back and ask “where am I?” Speak with a local, ask them what they think about their life, their history and government.
We brought our dog when we moved, but she developed cancer within the first 6 months and eventually we had to put her down. We spoke very little Spanish and it was overwhelming. Somehow, the whole thing forced us into local friendships way earlier than we expected. There was a dog grooming shop on our street, and we asked the owner for his help. He called hospitals for us, and even closed down his shop to drive us to the hospital. While this was a rough time, we really appreciated these new friendships that we made.
We had quite a battle with residency. For a good 6 or 7 years we were just trying to figure out—“Are we moving back in three months? Or will we get to stay?” It might have been easier to apply as a married couple, but since I’m a feminist, I suggested —“Let’s apply separately!” I got approved but my husband got denied.
We knew he’d eventually get accepted after my successful application, but for 3 years he couldn’t travel outside of the Schengen Zone, so he couldn’t go back to the US.
Even if I live here for 50 years, there’ll be language and cultural barriers.
I don’t feel like I’m great at languages. I’ve studied Spanish and Catalan a lot, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say I’m fluent. I’m not sure if I’m just being hard on myself, though.
Over time, I started to feel more like a local, like I belonged. An opportunity came to write a book about Barcelona as a local. It’s called Greater than a Tourist. I was really excited, and I spent a lot of time speaking with my local friends to ask for advice and have them read it.
Writing the book gave me the confidence to find more writing jobs so I can work remotely doing what I love to do. Wise helps me with that as well. Thanks to the borderless account, I can easily get paid from anywhere in the world. Before Wise, we were losing so much on exchange rates. The money seemed to be disappearing. Also, banks here are so slow, and we had a limit on what we could withdraw. It took 4 days for my husband and I to withdraw our paychecks! And then we had to carry the cash around, which was stressful. Wise has made it much easier, I can simply do it from my phone, which has been really helpful.
Even if I live here for 50 years, there are always going to be language and cultural barriers. I sometimes feel like I’ve been living in between, and I feel a pull in 2 directions. I am part of the community here, but I’m aware that I’m from somewhere else. I think I’m simply aware of it, rather than trying to reconcile it.
I miss small things. Pumpkin-scented candles, for example! You can’t get those here! But I don’t feel very distant from home when I can text my mom or my brother and they reply back within seconds. And while we participate in local traditions, we also keep traditions from back home. That’s how we successfully live in between.
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As told to Chris Hockman, exclusively for Wise. Photography by Debora Olalla.
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