Leanne Koenen was born in the Netherlands, grew up in Austria, and found her love in Mexico. After several years of living in Mexico, she and her Mexican husband immigrated to Spain for a new life with the freedom of relocation.
You were born in The Netherlands. It's a very beautiful country, a lot of tourists come there. And many expats choose to live there. Why did you decide to change countries? What inspired you to immigrate?
My migration-story already started when I was 13. My parents quit their jobs in The Netherlands, and we moved to Austria where they bought a bed&breakfast. So leaving The Netherlands was not 100% my choice.
But it did open a world of possibilities! I studied tourism and business in Innsbruck, Austria. And in the last year, you have to do an internship and exchange semester. Most people got an internship close to home, like in Germany, Italy, or Austria. I really wanted to go to Nepal. And followed with an exchange semester in the arctic circle: Rovaniemi, Finland.
After my studies, I did not want to get a job, I felt that it would kind of fall into the “regular life” and that it would be “it”. So I got a one-way ticket to Colombia and even missed my graduation because I was still backpacking. Everyone I met in Colombia told me to go to Mexico.
I had no plans and went. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed a full 6 months there and got a job offer to manage a hostel on the Pacific coast. This was really a job I was looking forward to. I went to Austria for 6 months to work and save as much and left for Mexico. Mexico is incredibly diverse, the food is amazing as well as the culture and the people. Also, I just did not want to go and work & live in Austria.
I read on your blog: Mexico, if you were a guy, I would have already asked you to marry me. It's funny because you found a husband in Mexico. How did you two meet?
I forgot about that, haha! That is funny. We met because he took over my job at the hostel! I had a contract for 7 months. I really wanted to stay longer because I enjoyed the job so much. But The owner already had someone coming in 7 months: my now husband. The change was right when covid hit, and I knew I did not want to go back to Europe. I lived so close to the beach we had sun all year long. Life is good there! I got an apartment near the hostel to figure out life and my next steps.
We started dating. After being together for 3 months the hostel owner offered me the job again. That means working with my boyfriend. It’s risky, but we talked about it and just decided to go for it. It was hard sometimes because you headbutt in the beginning. But we figured out how to communicate well, and it only got better and better. That’s probably why we can handle a lot as a couple.
Was it love at first sight?
Not really, he tried for a while to get my attention but his signs were not very clear. We saw each other a lot in the hostel because I passed by a lot to hang out. After getting to know him better we went to a party together and that's where he kissed me and how things started.
They say that when you have people of different nationalities in a marriage it is very complicated. Is this true?
Yes, it's not just the culture but also the language for example. I am also very direct, so sometimes I say things without wanting to offend, but since it's so direct people do get offended. Sometimes things get lost in translation, or I say something you can say in English but it doesn´t work in Spanish. But once we figured out this was a thing we talked about it. The good thing is we are both very flexible and can communicate well.
You wrote me that you both wanted more freedom. What does that mean? Is that why Spain?
After managing the hostel together for 2 years we decided it was time for a change. But where do you go? I have a European passport. For me it’s easy. But he can only spend 90 days in the Schengen area. This makes it hard to travel long term and neither can he work in another country. We were looking for options, and when married to a European you can apply for residency in Spain. After 2 years, you can apply for a passport. That’s our goal and honestly, the main reason we decided on Spain.
Also trying to save up in Mexico is almost impossible due to low salaries. I didn’t really want to move to Europe but agreed to Spain or Portugal because I thought I would enjoy living there. We just want the freedom to move to another country together and get a job: which is a basic right I was born with…
When traveling together, we have to separate before migration. I go to the European line and he to the other passports line. I enter within minutes and sometimes have to wait an hour for him to pass. We decided to get married so we can get him the Spanish passport and build a future.
You got a studio in Granada, but problems arose. What happened?
Bureaucracy is crazy. Here you need the paper of “empadronamiento” which is basically going to the government and telling you to live here now. Our studio was registered as an office and not an apartment. They had to send an office to come to check if we really live in a studio and not an office. They sent that to another office who change the system who then contacts the local government for that paper. But we needed that paper for his residency application.
I got self-employed here (otherwise we can’t apply for residency, I need a job or be self-employed in Spain, have a place to live and insurance). I had been working as a virtual assistant on the side, so it was a great chance to start freelancing full-time. It suits our lifestyle better, and I love the freedom it brings. My insurance didn´t go through, and I was waiting and waiting. But there is no like number you can call to. You also can’t see a human being in the office, because you need an appointment.
However, they do not give appointments because they are too busy. Basically, you are just running in circles. After one and a half months it finally worked out though! It just takes a long time until someone finally points you in the right direction and really helps you.
What advice do you have for those planning to move to Spain? What should you pay attention to so that this does not happen?
It’s not something you can easily avoid… It's just the system here. So come prepared, with savings, the right paperwork, and patience! We needed a lot of papers with an apostille so it's a lot of organizing. And speak the language and get your NIE number from the Spanish embassy outside of Spain.
Now you're in Spain. How often do you pause and say to yourself, "Wow, now I live here!"
Just yesterday we received the official answer to the residency application: it's positive! Just now I feel I can really relax and enjoy myself.
Before I was worrying a lot if it all would work out. Because we signed a lease for the studio for 6 months (it’s the minimum they give you and you need a 6 months lease for the paperwork). Do you worry a lot about what if they don’t give him the residency? He can’t legally work without residency, so it's financial worries as well. What if he needs to leave after 90 days? What if it doesn't work out? Where will we go? You don’t know how long it will take.
Now it feels like 100 kilos fell off my chest. Granada is great. The city is beautiful, the food is good as well, and the atmosphere is also amazing.
Many people think an immigrant's life is like a fairy tale because he lives in the country of his dreams. What is the hardest thing about immigrating? The loss of friends? A new way of life? Which is more difficult?
It’s for sure not a fairytale. It involves a lot of paperwork. I did lose some friendships, but I also gained so many new ones. Sometimes when I was sad, I would hear from old friends: but you are in Mexico, how can you be sad? I really like living in new countries and spending some years or months there.
Except for the paperwork, I don’t find it that difficult. I really enjoy moving and living in other countries! If you don’t know the language it can be hard, but I learned Spanish pretty quickly back in Mexico. Here in Granada, they speak very differently; sometimes, I have a hard time understanding their dialect. I now have many friends who have the same lifestyle.
What helped you overcome it?
Just trusting my gut feelings and keep learning about the country, culture, and language.
What do you do now?
I work as a freelancer (virtual assistant) and am building it out to full-time. It’s so much fun, and I can work on myself so much. It also allows me to work anywhere.
Some years ago, you started “ the hardest hike of my life”. hiking around the Annapurna massive. Was it that hard? Such travels help you understand yourself better. Is this true?
The hikes itself are not difficult. The altitude and the amount of hours you hike make it hard. Growing up in Austria, I am used to hard technical hikes. Trekking for more than 2 weeks does something with your mindset.
Do you like to travel?
Yes, in any form. Before moving to Spain we traveled in a van for a while in Mexico. And I also love backpacking & in general, just exploring new countries.
What makes travel different from immigration? Were you able to be a nomad, or do you need a real home? One place you can always go back to
Immigration is a step further than travel. You are really trying to build a life in a new country. That’s a lot of work, and can he be heavy on a relationship as well. Whereas travel is all-around fun! When immigrating you maybe have to learn a new language, consider the culture, and really in depth learn about your new country. Of course, there are people that migrate and keep their own little expat bubble, but I prefer to really get into local life.
The first thing many people ask is: where are you from? And I have a hard time answering. I mean my nationality is Dutch, but I haven’t lived there for so long and have trouble speaking Dutch correctly. Whenever I am in The Netherlands, people ask me where I am from and why my Dutch is so good… I also don’t feel Dutch neither Austrian. It’s weird. I don’t really need a real home. Spain is for sure also not our forever country, we haven’t found that yet.
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