'America Was Unliveable, So I Moved To Europe'

I was born and raised in a small town in northern Wisconsin, called Ladysmith. I grew up living with farmers and country folk, so it was uncommon for me to cross paths with many people from different cultures. Things began to change when I was 19, as I had finally moved to a bigger city to study, in Eau Claire County, Wisconsin. The population of the city was over 100,000 and I started to meet international students from the Middle East, Asia, and South America, which broadened my perspective on life. I became aware of the richness that comes with speaking a different language, as well as the fact that European culture highly differs from the culture in the U.S.

At the time, I was studying geography and Spanish, as I was interested in traveling and the Spanish language intrigued me. During my studies, I spent time traveling in Latin America and began learning Spanish.

I graduated when I was 25 and after college, I moved to Milwaukee. While living in there, I was employed as a substitute teacher in several Milwaukee public schools and I also became the head of athletics at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. I thought that if I had continued to work in the business world, I could start a business career in the U.S. and earn enough money to achieve my dreams, which at the time, were traveling the world and living in Costa Rica.

Elliot Smith Holds U.S. Flag
Elliot Smith holding the U.S. flag in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, September 2021. Elliot Smith

While living in Milwaukee, a friend recommended a teaching program in Madrid, called English Conversation Assistance. This program aimed to give students a visa, allowing them to move to Spain for more than six months and teach Spanish students the English language. It also gave students a monthly fee of €1,000 ($1,015) as well as covering the cost of private health. After applying for the program, I was accepted and moved to Madrid in September 2019.

Staying in Madrid was essentially a one-year plan, as my goal was to travel Europe and vastly improve my Spanish, before returning to America. I had discovered that in the U.S., being bilingual presents more job opportunities. But in March 2020, the pandemic shocked the country, and my plans to be an English Assistant Teacher were postponed eight months into the teaching program. So, I signed up for a second year to keep my job and stayed in Madrid for an extra year.

The pandemic put things into perspective for me—after reflecting, I realized that I did not want to return to the U.S. for several reasons.

I preferred the lifestyle in Madrid—I call it "street culture." In countries like Spain, the common culture is to spend time on the streets amongst the community, rather than at home, as I did in the U.S.

In America, I feel that we value living at home because more emphasis is placed on having a luxury home and living separate, secluded lives, whereas, in Spain, more value is placed on the community and interacting with one's neighbors.

For example, the outdoor restaurant industry is booming in Spain, as it allows natives and tourists to sit outside and eat. Tables are placed close together, which in turn allows almost everybody to interact with one another. Not only that, but in Spain, speaking to strangers on the street is common. In fact, refusing to greet someone on the street may be perceived as disrespectful, whereas, in America, it is not common for strangers to cross paths and speak to one another.

The Spanish infrastructure plays a part in this, too. It is the norm to live in apartment blocks in Spain, and convenience stores are close by. Being able to walk to grocery stores every day and not have to drive a car is strange in the U.S., especially if one lives in the suburbs, as it is a 45-minute drive into the city. But this is purposeful in Spain, as it allows the population to always interact with one another. I can almost walk everywhere, or take the Metro or the bus, which also allows me to speak with others around me and make friends. That's why when I leave my house at 10 am in Spain, I feel a vibrant, lively energy that I did not feel in the U.S. This naturally makes me feel happier and sets up my day—I value spending time with people.

Of course, the climate has a lot to do with the communal culture in Spain, too. Wisconsin's weather is similar to that of Norway, or Sweden. In the winter, there is very little sunlight and due to the snow, almost everything is frozen. Commuting to work was seen as a daunting task as the roads were frozen, which increased the risk of car accidents. By the time one would arrive home from work at 5 pm, it was dark and the day was almost over. Wisconsin winters can be frigid with temperatures ranging from -30 degrees to -22 degrees.

Having traveled to countries like Costa Rica prior to this, I had known that tropical countries existed.

Elliot Smith in Madrid
Elliot Smith in Madrid, Spain, in December 2019. Elliot Smith

Though I did consider living in Florida to combat these winter blues, I knew that America was an expensive country. Unless I was earning over a specific amount, I felt that I would not be able to enjoy it. Whereas in Spain, the average winter weather would range from 50 degrees to 59 degrees and it is more cost-effective, and though it may become cold, I can still be outdoors enjoying the sunshine and socializing.

Not only that, but the teaching program that I had joined was government-sponsored, which includes a free private health insurance card that gives me access to private doctors and clinics in Spain.

Of course, this is hugely different to life in the U.S., where even if I had good health coverage, if I had to take an ambulance due to an emergency, I may have to owe hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for an ambulance ride, let alone the treatment.

I'd known friends who had paid up to $1,500 just for a check-up in the U.S. This was one of the main reasons why I decided to stay in Spain, too. Thankfully, due to my mom's career, we were offered good health insurance up until the age of 26. But after that, I became worried, as I'd heard horror stories from friends who had to get an emergency ambulance ride due to alcohol poisoning, and had to pay thousands of dollars for that ambulance ride, as a result.

In Spain, this is completely different, as one would pay a small amount in taxes, called social security, which covers health insurance. From emergency surgery, to having a child, or even needing emergency medication, social security covers it all. Though there may be delays in appointments, I am reassured to know that I will not become bankrupt if I have an emergency. In the U.S., our healthcare system is in a crisis, regardless of political standing, we can probably all agree that it needs to change. When my friends from Europe hear about the healthcare crisis in the U.S., they are completely shocked.

Currently, I'm in my third year of teaching. Last year, in September 2021, I decided to transfer to Malaga to continue as an English assistant as I wanted to explore a different city. My aim is to stay there for my last year, until 2023, and continue to travel the whole of Europe.

My passion project is my two YouTube channels. I have an English one and a Spanish one. My aim is to make a living through traveling and documenting my adventures, but above all, I want to emphasize the importance of learning a different language, especially if one lives in the U.S., as these languages will open a lot of doors, as well as broadening our perspective as humans. That's what I try to share in my videos.

Elliot Smith is an Assistant English Teacher in Malaga, Spain. He is also a YouTube Vlogger, recording his videos in Spanish and English.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Carine Harb.