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Ask Ali: Life Behind The Scenes

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Ask Ali: Life Behind The Scenes

New series alert!

When I asked in our reader survey last month what you would like to see on the blog in 2019, there was one request that you all kept writing in — more behind-the-scenes stuff.  Also more quick/easy/healthy dinner recipes, but hey, those were already on the agenda! ♡

So today, I’m kicking off a new lil’ series that I thought we could try out for the year called “Ask Ali.” Each month, I’ll throw out a topic, and you call can throw back whatever questions are on your mind, and I’ll do my best to answer them — some here on the blog, and some over on Instagram stories. We can chat about whatever topics you’d like — cooking, entertaining, travel, blogging, marriage, expat stuff, life with the two snuggliest dogs on earth — you name it, I’m up for it! Granted, by noooo means do I claim to be an expert on any of these topics. But I’m a pretty open book and am always happy to share what I’ve learned.

So this month, I thought we could start with a general topic — “life behind the scenes.” I asked for your questions yesterday on Instagram stories and received loads more than I was expecting, so I will pop back in there today to try and answer more of them on video. But here on the blog today, I’ve tried to distill things down to some of the most-asked questions. If I missed yours, my apologies — hopefully next month!

Speaking of, I vote in advance that next month’s topic be entertaining. So if you have any questions about having people over in your home, leave them in the comment section below or shoot me an email and I’ll respond in February!

Alright, onto your questions!

What does Barclay do for a living? (The most-asked question!)

Barclay currently runs a small community-driven public health initiative in Mali (West Africa) called The Wash Project. It’s a youth-led organization helping to promote hand-washing with soap — a life-saving practice in response to a piece of Malian folklore that has long said, “if you wash your hands with soap, you wash away your wealth.” The project began with educational art projects in schools, which expanded into a months-long boys soccer tournament, which then expanded into a women’s soap-making co-op to meet the demand for more hand-washing stations around the community (!!) and to give women economic independence, which then expanded into a girls basketball tournament, and…we’ll see what’s next. It’s a really cool story and I’m so proud of him and his team on the ground in Mali for all of the hard work and heart they pour into this project.

Is the blog your full-time job?

Yep! ♡♡♡

Why did you guys decide to move abroad? Did either of you have a job took you to Spain?

Living abroad was something that had always been on our bucket list, and we were initially thinking that it would be a fun adventure to plan in 5 or 10 years. But the more we talked about it with our friends — ha, especially our friends with kids — they urged us to go now while we were still kid-free and had flexible jobs that allowed us to work from home. So we decided to just bite the bullet and go for it! And nope, neither of us had a job waiting for us here in Spain. A part of me wishes we had, because the visa and moving process would have been soooo much easier with a company transfer. But we managed to pull it off 100% on our own!

Why did you choose Barcelona?

Barclay and I both really wanted to improve our Spanish. And after considering various Spanish-speaking countries and cities around the world, we decided that the food scene, quirky vibe, and warm climate of Barcelona felt like the best fit for us at this point in our lives. Mexico City was a close second, though, and we both still really hope that we can spend (at least) a few years there at some point in the future.

How long was the planning process before you moved to Barcelona? Was it difficult to get visas?

We first started thinking about an international move (like, for reals thinking about it) in October 2016, about a year before we moved. But Barclay and I were still just dating at the time, so to be honest, I was holding the idea pretty loosely until I knew whether or not we were going to get married. But then — boom! — we got engaged two months later in December. Then planned a scouting trip to Barcelona in February to see if we actually liked it (loved it).  Then decided to just bite the bullet and set a moving date six months later, in October 2017. Then promptly got to work applying for our Spanish visas.

We had been warned that Spain’s visa application process was one of the most complicated in Europe. But the extra kicker for us ended up being that — because I wanted to change my last name when we got married in June 2017 — basically all of the official documents that we needed for our visa applications couldn’t be gathered until after our wedding. That gave us about a month to do all of the usual name changes stuff everywhere and gather all of our visa paperwork. So pretty much the second we landed back in Kansas City after our honeymoon, we hit the ground running.

People weren’t kidding when they said that the application process is like a part-time job. I calculated that I spent about 3-4 hours a day working our visas that month. We had to navigate the worlds of private health insurance and short-term apartment rentals in Spain (<– both of which we had to purchase in advance in faith before applying for our visas, which was a little nerve-wracking, especially when I didn’t speak much Spanish). Then there were appointments everywhere — from various doctors offices, to various police stations, to meetings at city hall, the apostille’s office, the bank, the notary and more. Then there was a quick 24-hour trip to the Spanish consulate in Chicago (you are assigned a consulate closest to your city) to finally turn in our mountain of paperwork in person. Then we had to purchase the plane tickets for our big move, which we also had to do in faith before our visas arrived.

Oh, and then we had to repeat about half of that work for our two dogs, ha. ;)

Thankfully, our visas ended up arriving about a month before we moved. Which meant that we could then enter the whirlwind of downsizing nearly all of our belongings, packing what remained into 8 tubs and 6 suitcases (plus some piles in our parents’ basements), and saying good-bye to everyone and everything we loved at home in Kansas City.

Basically, it was nuts. In retrospect, I don’t know how we managed to do it all (on top of getting married) in basically four short months, especially without an employer or a university or family here on the ground here in Spain to help us through the process. If you’re considering an international move, I would budget in at least a few more months. But in the end, we made it. And we are so happy we did!

What do you love most/least about living in Barcelona?

Oh man, I could write pages and pages on this one.

In a nutshell, I would say that I most love:

  • having such an international group of friends: I think that only three of our friends here are American expats, which means that everyone else is from various other countries, which we love!
  • the cultural values here: traveling, walking everywhere, extended time around the table, really good food and wiine, working hard, at least one month of vacation days, recycling, smaller homes and soooo much less “stuff”
  • the climate: total game changer for me, especially this time of year
  • the proximity of Spain to so many other great places in Europe: and on that note, super-cheap European airline tickets!
  • not having a car!!!

And I probably least love:

  • having to deal with Spanish bureaucracy: we run into it regularly as expats, and oof, it is exhausting and not efficient in the least
  • navigating a new health care system in a foreign language: so many of you fellow expats have written to say that this was one of the most vulnerable parts of moving abroad for you too
  • the scavenger hunt that is grocery shopping here: the tiny little markets here were charming the first month, but trying to round up a long list of groceries for recipe testing each week requires so many trips to so many different markets
  • the tragic absence of spicy food: Spain does not do spicy food.

How did you find friends in Spain?

Well, our first few weeks here, we knew a grand total of about two people. ;)  But we joined a Spanish class in our neighborhood early on, which has proven to be an invaluable place to meet great people over the past year. We’ve also met friends through intercambios, which are popular meet-ups in Europe where you can practice a new language. One of my best friends here was actually a blog reader who reached out early on. And then of course, we’ve met friends-of-friends from there.

That said, it wasn’t easy. We’ve had lots of lonely moments missing our friends from Kansas City big-time. And as an introvert, I’ve been reminded that the process of putting yourself out there, meeting new people, and starting friendships 100% from scratch requires so much energy. (Not to mention with the additional layers here of speaking in a foreign language and the nuanced challenges that can come with cross-cultural friendships.)  It was a hard transition, for sure. But thankfully, we’ve been lucky to connect with some really amazing friends in Barcelona and feel like we’re finally finding our social groove here.

Did it feel weird moving into a fully furnished space? (When did it feel like “yours” and not borrowed?)

Ha, good question. Maybe it’s because we were so exhausted by the time we actually arrived here, but the moment we walked into our apartment, we were like — “this furnished thing is freaking brilliant.”

First off, it was just an enormous relief to not have to mess with stocking the place from scratch when we arrived. And second,  while our apartment is not 100% our style, most everything in here is cute enough that it hasn’t felt worth it to buy more stuff…and then have to deal with hauling it all the way home and up four flights of stairs, and then storing the old stuff. (We’re not allowed to discard anything that came with the apartment.)  That said, the place definitely had a strong “beachy” theme when we arrived, so there are lots of seashells and weird beach art and lanterns hidden under our bed. And we’ve purchased some linens, picture frames, kitchen stuff, and a few other small decor details that help it feel more like “ours.” Oh, and lots and lots of plants!

What do you miss most (if anything) about the US since moving to Spain?

I mean, friends and family are at the top of that list, times a hundred. But otherwise:

  • Spicy food: Spicy food. Spicy food.
  • Being able to order absolutely anything you want online: didn’t realize until we moved here that the vast selection, low price, and quick delivery of just about anything you can imagine is only a reality in the USA
  • A reliable mail service: probably about 30% of the packages that have been shipped to us never arrived
  • Anxiety-free phone calls: talking on the phone in a foreign language is the worst
  • Having a backyard for the dogs: four flights of stairs gets old at 11pm a night!

Are you planning to have kids? And would you have them in Spain?

Short answer — we would love to! 

How do you stay thin and in shape being surrounded by so much food all of the time?

I work out about five days a week — partly to help burn off some of those taste-testing calories, but honestly nowadays, mostly for my mental health. Exercise and sunshine seem to be the two most important factors in helping my mind feel good. So especially this time of year, it feels like a non-negotiable to get through those winter blues. I typically do 30-minute workouts here at home using either Barre3 or YogaGlo online. But we also walk soooo much more here in Spain than we used to back in the States, which feels great. And we live on the fourth floor with two dogs that need to go out regularly, so there’s that too. ;)

First thing you do each morning?

Barclay brings me coffee in bed each morning, which I still can’t get over. ♡♡♡

What are you reading right now?

Nine Perfect Strangers, by the author of Big Little Lies. I rely on light page-turners to get through the winter!

How is your home always so tidy? Or at least, it always looks so clean on Instagram!

Lol, it’s definitely not always tidy. But the short answer is — we have very little stuff here!! We really only brought clothes and kitchen supplies with us here to Spain. And honestly, after spending months going through two houses full of stuff and giving away basically everything we owned back in Kansas City, we have zero desire to accumulate more than we need here in Spain.

We’ve been watching Marie Kondo’s new series on Netflix this week and joke that moving abroad is basically the Tidying Up process to the extreme — because it really is!

How’s your back…and Barclay’s eyes?

My back is still about the same. But I’ve found a good new orthopedic surgeon here who has been helping us evaluate some things, and I’m hoping to make the most of our cheap Spanish healthcare and get back into physical therapy in 2019. And amazingly — Barclay’s eyes cleared up!! We were told that he needed double eye surgery when we moved here, but had to wait nine months for our insurance to kick in to cover it. But during that time, Barclay found a new doc who gave him some different meds, and he’s doing much better.

How much sleep do you guys get there?

Lol, this is a good question because we’re convinced that Spaniards don’t sleep!!! Ha, well at least most of our friends usually get to bed after midnight on weekdays and stay up well into the morning on weekends, yet still somehow manage to make it to work by 8 or 9. I’m still not quite sure how they do it. ;)  We’ll stay up late with friends when we’re hanging out socially. But otherwise, I’m convinced that 8 hours of sleep is pretty much the best thing in the world, so we try to get a full night’s sleep when we can.

Have you found a faith community? I lived there in college (15 yrs ago!) and never found one.

Short answer, we haven’t. We looked around pretty extensively for a new church home in Barcelona when we first moved here, but couldn’t find a place that felt like the right fit for us, which was a bummer. (Especially because it seemed like that would have been such a helpful way to meet people early on!)  Coming from a really tight-knit church community back in Kansas City, it felt disorienting not to have a faith community here. But in time, we’ve come to see this as a season in life where we now have space for different spiritual practices. And when we do feel the need to be in a sacred space, we’re lucky to have one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Barcelona just a few blocks away, which we love visiting.

What are your thoughts/plans on coming back to America and does the current political climate factor in?

Barclay and I are both news junkies and follow American politics daily. And even though we’re an ocean away — whew — we feel deeply about everything happening right now back home. But I will say that being abroad and talking about politics here with our European friends has brought some helpful (and humbling) perspective. While people here are sympathetic to everything going on right now, pretty much everyone here comes from countries who have had their own fair share (or usually, more than their share) of political turmoil. So they’re quick to remind us of how America has been uniquely lucky to enjoy relatively smooth sailing up until now. And they’re also usually quick to turn the conversation to the current political mess here in Spain, which has been a nice reminder that America’s not the center of the world. ;)  They’ve been good for us.

But yes, we see ourselves returning to the States at some point. When and where is still TBD.

What’s your go-to dinner recipe lately?

Thai green (or red) curry.

What is that complicated trash can in your kitchen that I’ve spied on Instagram?

Ha, it’s a recycling trash can! Spain is incredibly serious about recycling, and has bins around the city for five different kinds of trash. So we have — yes — five different trash cans here. (One each for food scraps, glass, paper, plastics/metals, and miscellaneous.)

Favorite new snack you’ve found in Spain?

Two words: digestive cookies.

How are the pups?

Ridiculously cute.

Ever since Henry went blind, he has become our trusty little shadow 24/7, always wanting to snuggle. But he’s also fearless about navigating his way around the apartment and the streets of Barcelona, and we’ve even figured out how to play fetch with him again!! It used to be his favorite game before he went blind, and we’ve learned that he can follow the sound of his ball rolling slowly across the floor. It’s ridiculously adorable and he’s so stinkin’ proud every time he finds it!

Fiona is her angelic self as always. She never causes problems, plays sweetly with Henry (when they’re wrestling and he loses his sense of direction, she’ll go nuzzle him with her nose to reorient him, which melts my heart), and only asks for belly rubs in return. We love her!

Ask Ali: Life Behind The Scenes

Thanks for reading, everyone!

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41 comments on “Ask Ali: Life Behind The Scenes”

  1. Thanks for sharing, very interesting!

  2. Love this series!

    I’m already looking forward to next month. What is your go-to menu for a stress free dinner party?

  3. DIGESTIVES! We buy them here at World market and are OBSESSED. :D

  4. Would you be willing to share how you actually moved everything? We are looking at an international relocation to UK and trying to figure out the best way to move our things and our fur baby.

  5. Read every word and watched your Insta stories. This series is going to be so fun! :)

  6. I’ve so enjoyed following your life in Spain! The tidying up and living with less is definitely a solid take away. Henry and Fiona are adorable:) I remember reading your story about their harrowing trip to Spain. It literally made me tear up! So happy you are all doing well.

  7. I have some really good friends who are missionaries in Barcelona!

  8. Your pooches are so sweet (and you guys too!). Not sure if this will work in Spain – 14 years in Turkey (with the most basic postal system) taught us that mail addressed to a business address was far more likely to be delivered than stuff addressed to our home. We also discovered that, as long as you weren’t bothered about having express delivery (which costs loads), paying slightly extra at the UK end to simply have a tracking code on the mail ensured that pretty much everything arrived. Am guessing you can do similar from the US. We also noticed that small parcels were far more likely not to get intercepted at customs if the sender had filled out the customs sticker accurately and in detail – ie, writing ‘chocolate’ or ‘mascara’ (yes, really – no waterproof mascara in Turkey) rather than ‘cosmetics’ or ‘confectionary’, the stuff was more likely to get to us.

    Another thing that might work for you too – for packaged foods (and kitchen equipment) you are struggling to get hold of, try – they generally deliver to Europe in 2 – 3 days for standard delivery (they say it can take longer, but in practice it is usually really quick, even to Turkey where we are not EU) . They charge a per parcel fee plus a per kilo charge, but it is quite reasonable and often loads cheaper than paying local prices for imported stuff. It’s sometimes worth getting together with friends and putting in a decent order, then sharing the costs, or just make a list and get a delivery once a month.

    For an amazing array of herbs and spices (really fresh and packed in resealable foil pouches), try – they deliver anywhere in Europe for a small charge.

    Thanks for the great blog – one of the few things I love dropping in to my inbox! Adiós

    • Jayne,

      I just have to ask- where in Turkey are you? I lived there for 5 years as a little girl on Incirlik A.B., when it was still an active base, and we did so much traveling along the coast up to Izmir. It was such a wonderful country to live in.

    • We live in Kas, on the south coast – so a whole day’s drive from Adana. We are just in the process of moving back to the UK (kind of – doing half and half at the minute). I think Turkey may have changed just a little from what you remember!!

  9. Looking forward to this series. My questions is what are your top recipes for hosting a dinner party?


  10. I loved reading this!!! Every morsel!!! So happy for you both!!! You are clearly making the most of your experience there. Thank you for sharing!!!

  11. Your happy personality makes my day.

  12. Loved this update and glad you guys are enjoying Spain! I had to laugh because I lived in NZ for 7 years and now have so much anxiety over using the phone! No one could understand my “thick American accent” as they called it. I’m from the Midwest! I can’t imagine that coupled with a language barrier, yikes!

  13. Love this idea for a series, Ali! ❤️❤️❤️

  14. Thank you sorry much for sharing. It has wonderful to go along on this ride with y’all.

  15. WOW – I LOVED this post…thx for all of the answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. I guess I just love reading about you/your life/your honey/Barcelona/etc. Guess I should REALLY be thanking the other readers who asked great questions!

  16. The mail thing is CRAZY! Where do they go? Is it from people or things you order online? Mail or private carrier? I’m fascinated by this being from the US and there’s a huge uproar if packages go missing!

  17. I’ve hosted some groups of ladies (6-10) for dinner & it always feels very comfortable until the end. Any tips for closing out dinner parties? Everyone wants to (or feels obligated to) stay & help wash dishes, but I don’t need 10 people to help in my little kitchen! How can I gracefully end the party and not make anyone feel bad got not helping clean up?

    • I have that same question. I have a small kitchen and it is so much easier to do the clean up myself!

  18. Maybe it’s the soft focus of the camera but I think you need to feed Barclay more!

  19. I love reading your blog! I have been a fan for years, though I don’t think I’ve ever commented before. Your recipes have their own section on my Pinterest board. Thank you for being open and honest with your life.

  20. This was a delightful read, Alli! Thank you for taking the time to answer so thoughtfully.

  21. Love you and your blog and I’m looking forward to more Ask Ali! You mention that you are an introvert. How do you balance that personality trait with entertaining? I have great plans to entertain but when it comes right down to it I struggle actually having people in my home. Thanks.

  22. We’ve been to Barcelona twice (albeit, too brief of a stay!)
    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this! Thanks for sharing your adventures!!

  23. I would love to put in a request for the travel topic! You guys take so many great trips and I would love to hear how you do it, both planning-wise and financially!

  24. Glad to hear you found a good orthopedic Dr. For your back!
    Here’s hoping for a healthy 2019 for you and Barclay n the pups!
    P.S. it is 28 degrees right now in New Jersey. Barcelona sounds good right about now!??

  25. Love the questions and responses. Thanks for allowing us into your lives.

  26. I’m from Australia and have lived in both Spain and the US. I hated the phone in the U.S when I lived in Texas because no one understood me, even to make a hair appointment! Also bangs are something we call a fringe! When living in Connecticut it was not an issue.
    I lived in Barcelona and also in the north of Spain. All wonderful but I think I remember warning you about trying to buy ingredients in an old post before you left. I am trying to figure out how you are managing to cook green thai curry over there? And spices? 12 kinds of paprika and not much else! Fun times though!

  27. Thanks for sharing your beautiful story. You have such talents. I could read about you and your family all day. I am looking forward to more recipes and future Q & A’s. Love hearing about your two little sweet hearts. Dogs are the best! Keep doing what you do!

  28. Enjoyed reading your synopsis! Here’s a hug from home…

  29. Omg, I hear you on missing spicy food. It’s so hard to find here in Europe! Even the food that our friends consider “spicy” tastes so mild to us. ;)

  30. This is so great! I followed along for all of your single posts and love now hearing about your married life in Spain!

  31. I’m already loving this series!! It’s a dream of mine to live in another country for at least a year. It’s fun to read about your adventures in Spain.

  32. it’s probably the nosiness in me, but I love these kinds of posts. it feels like mini escape into a different world kind of like reading a book :) Thanks for sharing, can’t wait for the next one!

  33. While you’re looking for a new church home, take a look at I stumbled across him in 2007 and never looked back. Then there’s in Redding CA. Also came across them about the same time, but living in CA, I’ve been able to also visit. You can listen to podcasts from their website, or watch a week at a time whenever you want.

  34. Thank you for sharing your story ?

  35. I’m also an expat, now outside Guadalajara, México and I love your blog and recipes. I empathize with the issue you have in regards to not having access to the basic spice blends we buy in just about any US grocery (and, conversely, how we shop daily and FRESH for everything…almost no frozen foods here.).I’d love to see more posts for your homemade versions of those spice blends typically found in US pantries. I routinely make and store your Cajun spice and would like more suggestions, if you get the chance to incorporate them. ¡Mil gracias!

  36. Hello! Your pictures are so beautiful! What do you use to shoot your food photos?

  37. After doing the same about a decade ago (living abroad, listening to Europeans take on America) – and now with several years perspective… even my best of european friends that I still have today have zero understanding of the “American thing” that we are as a nation. So be humbled by their perspective, yea, but also don’t let it trouble you. We have much more freedom than they can comprehend, and yes we take it for granted. If anything, I hope it can lead you to appreciate the United States even more.