16-year-old Fabian Svensson moved from his native Sweden to the vibrant Catalan town of Sitges with his family when he was just 13. He talks to MumAbroad about his experiences, the challenges and rewards of making such a life-changing move as a teenager.
You relocated from Sweden to Sitges with your family aged 13. How did you feel about the move? What aspects were you most excited / nervous about at the time?
I remember feeling very excited about the move. I didn’t really think about the consequences of moving. I had my home, family and friends in Sweden, still I wasn’t very worried about leaving all of that behind. The entire moving thing was so new and strange to me that it didn’t even scare me. It felt like we were going to go on a vacation and I did not realise how much it would change my life. I was nervous that I’d have to study much more and I was also nervous that I would maybe never learn Spanish.
Do you attend an International or Public school? What factors went into this choice? Do you think that this helped you to integrate into life in Spain faster?
I’ve now attended 3 different schools, all of which were very different from one another. I came to Spain after the Christmas holidays and therefore only spent about half a year in my first school. Both my brother and I started in a private, International, English speaking school. Our parents reckoned that it’d be easier for us not to take on Spanish and Catalan 100% straight away. However, both our Catalan and Spanish developed very slowly in Escaan (now ISB), therefore I decided to change to a Catalan school the year after.
My second school, Escola Pia, was half private and half public. I quickly integrated into the Spanish/Catalan system after starting there and also made Spanish friends. However, I changed once more and the school my brother and I currently go to, Institut Joan Ramón Benaprès, is completely public. Our family decided that for us to properly learn Spanish and Catalan we had to start in a Catalan school, and we couldn’t be happier with that choice. It’s gone very well for both of us. I now speak both Catalan and Spanish fluently and feel almost completely integrated into life in Spain.
What are the biggest differences in the school systems for you?
In Sweden, the schools generally have much better resources than here in Spain. For example, expats recieve a lot more help in Sweden than they do in Spain, and therefore I believe the Swedish system is easier to integrate into. I have also had quite some trouble with another difference between the systems: In Sweden, as soon as something is going on and something important has happened/will happen, the school makes sure to inform all students’ guardians and maybe not only once but at least twice or three times. Whereas here in Spain it is the students who are informed directly (not their parents), usually only once, so you want to always listen carefully to your teachers, or you might miss out on something important. I’ve had a lot of problems due to this, since all of my friends are Catalan and know the culture very well. Whenever something is happening everybody knows what’s going on, except me. I’ve looked like a clueless fool many times. I don’t believe this would happen in Swedish nor English schools, I suppose they are more used to foreigners.
Did you speak any Spanish or Catalan before you arrived? How important do you think it is to learn the local language?
I spoke no Catalan at all when I came to Spain, and my level of Spanish was extremely basic. I had studied Spanish for half a year before coming to Spain, yet that didn’t help me much. I could not hold a conversation, I only knew some simple phrases such as: “Hola qué tal?”, “Me llamo Fabian”, “Vivo en Sitges” etc. I believe it’s essential to learn the local language. Of course you don’t have to if you only want to live here for a small amount of time. But if you’re planning on settling down and making a life in a new country, I definitely think you should also learn the language.
What was the biggest challenge for you after the big move?
I think that the biggest challenge for me was giving up my old life and trying to make a new one. All I had known was in Sweden and I never realised before moving how hard it would be to leave it all behind. The first couple of months were definitely the toughest ones. I missed my friends, my old school, my old life… I spent almost all of my spare time playing on-line games with my friends from Sweden, it was my way to keep in touch with them and stick to my old life. However I slowly started to get used to enjoying my new life and leave the old one behind. I think the huge turning point was when I started going out with my girlfriend, about 5 months after moving to Spain. Now I’m completely satisfied with my life here in Spain, and have no plans on moving back to Sweden.
Is your circle of friends mainly other expats or locals? Do you feel well integrated into the Sitges community?
My circle of friends is mainly locals. I still have friends in Sweden, however my friends that I hang out with here in Spain are all Catalan and Spanish. I do feel very well integrated into the Sitges community, but I believe I could integrate even more; after all I’m still quite Swedish.
Do you speak Spanish or Catalan with your friends? Which do you feel more comfortable using?
I almost always speak Spanish with my friends since I feel much more comfortable with that language. Even so, I sometimes try to have Catalan conversations just to practise the language.
What has surprised you the most about living in Spain? What are the things you enjoy most about living abroad?
I’m surprised how the Spanish culture can be so different from the Swedish and yet so similar. It’s hard to explain what I mean; you’d probably have to go through the same changes as I have to understand me. Spain and Sweden are both European countries with similar societies. However there are many small details that are different.
For example, what people discuss, what they tend to do in their free time, food etc. You notice all of these details as you spend more time in the new country. For me, the move has been an instructive and fun experience. I get to know two new languages, a new culture and new people and friends. I really like having had this experience and all it’s given me. Some other good things about my new life here are: the weather is nice, I can swim in my pool and I don’t spend as much time in front of the computer and the TV as before. Something else that I really like is that I spend much more time with my family than I did in Sweden.
What would you say are the main contrasts between the Swedish and Spanish lifestyle? How does life compare for young people?
In Spain it’s much more common to go out at night and meet with friends at different places such as restaurants. In Sweden we almost always met with our family friends at either their house or ours, whereas now we’re more likely to go to a restaurant. This also happens for teenagers. Laws on consumption of alcohol in Sweden are extremely strict. You may only buy alcohol in one specialised store, but here in Spain you can buy it at normal grocery store or other shops. As a minor teenager in Sweden you stand no chance of entering in a bar, club, disco etc. But in Spain it’s not as strict, and therefore teenagers tend to hang out at discos and not at home. My friends in Sweden organise all their parties at home and never go to any discos or bars. Also, young people in Sweden tend to stay home more during day, playing games or watching TV. In Spain, young people go out more.
What do you miss the most about Sweden? Is there anything Swedish you would like to bring to Spain?
There are many things I’d gladly bring to Spain. Some things I often think about are: Swedish milk – in Sweden we drink milk a lot, and it tastes much better than the milk here in Spain, which is barely drinkable; water from the tap – in Spain we always have to buy bottles of water and it’s just much easier when you can get nice and fresh water directly from the tap; candy and chips – the taste and quality of candy, chips and other such deliciousness is way better in Sweden and the price is actually lower there. The quality of normal food from grocery stores in Sweden tend to be much better than in Spain, but it’s also more expensive. A mix between Swedish quality and Spanish prices would be great.
What benefits do you think you have gained from living and being educated in Spain?
I think that this experience will prove to be very useful for my future. For example when it comes to finding a job, I can look for one not only in Sweden but also in Spain, USA, England etc. Also, knowing more than one language is definitely something to make your curriculum more interesting, wherever you are. I also think that it has been a big challenge for me to move here, so I’ll for sure be ready for future challenges. I’ve worked hard and will be ready to work hard in the future too.
How would you describe Sitges to someone who isn’t familiar with the area?
Sitges is a typical tourist town. It’s almost always got great sunny weather and a lot of tourists walking through its narrow streets in town or along the beach walkway. Sitges is characterised as a gay town, which you quickly notice. But it’s also a party town. Almost every weekend there’s something going on, something to celebrate. There’s the carnival, Fiesta Mayor, and other saints days and things to celebrate. Sitges is a very beautiful town situated by the coast, so there are lots of beaches, nude ones, gay ones, and just normal ones. You wouldn’t get bored if you moved here since there’s stuff going on all the time, it’s very alive.
Can you name your Top 3 Sitges hangouts?
I’m not really sure. I’m not the type of guy that keeps track of the hangouts very well. But the piers are for sure one of the top hangouts. There are always lots of people there, especially at night teenagers hang out there. I suppose the beach walk could be a place where people meet up, but usually when you meet up with friends you walk around in town and don’t really stay in the same place. Another place where people usually meet up is Cap de la Vila, where the big pharmacy is. A lot of people also meet up at some of Sitges’ many discos.
What advice would you give to other teenagers whose families are moving over to Sitges or Catalonia?
I’d recommend that they start in a public Catalan school, and not an English one. It doesn’t necessarily have to be public, but I think the public ones help you integrate better into the Spanish/Catalan system. It will be extremely tough the first couple of months. You’ll have to work really hard and focus on your studies. But it will also be worthwhile.
You will quickly learn both languages, integrate into the system and learn to understand the Spanish/Catalan culture. It’s always good to try to practise your new languages a bit in your spare time if you have any. Perhaps not the first year since you’ll be very busy, but maybe the second one. I’ve started reading books in both Spanish and Catalan and it’s really useful. During the long Spanish summer holidays you might forget some words or so if you don’t practise.
I also recommend going to the Spanish cinema instead of the English ones in Barcelona. It’s extremely annoying in the beginning when you realise the TV and the cinema are all dubbed, but you’ll get used to it. All these small details will help you improve your language(s). Also, start a sport, it really helps to make new friends and become one of the group. Even though you go to school with people they’ll all have friends and it might be difficult to find one, especially since you aren’t in full control of the language. When you start a sport, you will have something in common with people from your class and/or school, and this will help to make new friends.
Don’t give up! You’re going to want to give up, but don’t do it, things will get better.