Intercultural adventures – three colleagues from abroad living in Spain

AT GFT, we pride ourselves with living a truly global approach. In projects, teams and departments we work across cities, borders and time zones. In this scenario, one big factor for success is the development of intercultural competence, which is why we are encouraging colleagues who want to dive into a new adventure and live abroad. May it be for a couple of months like our student Hannah, an unforeseen duration like Dorota or like in David’s case, what seems like half a life-time: We met those three colleagues who are currently all located in our Sant Cugat office near Barcelona, to talk to them about their experiences.

Thank you all for taking the time for this interview. Why not give us a little background about yourselves?

Hannah: I’m Hannah, 23 years old and from Germany, actually born and raised in Berlin. I moved to Stuttgart for an apprenticeship and then continued my studies at GFT. I’m working in the marketing department, here in Spain as well as in Germany, which is great, because I’m getting insights from a country point of view and also from a global perspective.

Dorota: My name is Dorota, I’m Polish and I used to work for GFT in Poland for many years, surviving two acquisitions. During my time there, I was working in HR, Employer Branding and Communications. After helping out my Spanish colleagues from time to time with some Employer Branding projects, I talked to the country and HR boss there and eventually we made a decision to transfer me.

David: My name is David Creer, I’m working in the innovation department here in Spain. I’m originally from the UK and I’ve been living in Spain for the past 11 years. I’ve done quite a number of different things in GFT. Currently I’m focusing on consultancy around blockchain and other kind of innovation products. The reason I came to Spain was not work, but because of my wife, who wanted to move back to her own country. From this perspective, being at GFT has been really good for me, because there’s always been a way to work within a multi-cultural company.

Hannah, in your case the decision to move was part of a study programme, David, for you it were family reasons…

David: Exactly. If you have a partner from another country, it’s quite common that at some point in your life, you’re going to try out living in the other country.

Dorota: In my case, I just wanted to have an adventure and a total change of what my life used to be. I had been living in Lodz since I was 18 and after 12 years in one place I was like… “I really want to shake my world”. One month before receiving the offer, I spent some time traveling through South America and I think without this trip I would not have been able to make this decision, but when I came back I was like “okay, now I’m ready, I can go somewhere else”.

Did you try to learn the language before coming here? Were there language barriers for you?

David: For me definitely, yes. So I did – it’s funny actually – an intensive course in Spanish before I left. Then I got here and I realized that most of my friends and girlfriend’s family actually spoke Catalan… so I was like… oh great.

Dorota: Welcome to the club!

David: Six months of my life down the drain… But, it’s actually good, because then you have the ability to communicate in both languages and I feel like Spanish is also almost kind of the lingua franca in GFT Spain, so it was definitely not a waste of time, but it was kind of interesting.

Dorota: I remember coming here, knowing just a few words and then you go through the streets and try to remember the words and read the names and then you start mixing the languages without even knowing it. When I had my Spanish class, my professor once said: “you know you just mixed Catalan and Spanish in this sentence twice” and then you start just to realize that that is probably what is going to happen for the next few months.

Did you, apart from learning the language – and the right one at that – take any preoperational steps?

David: No, just kinda packed up all my stuff and came over.

Dorota: Yea, one of the benefits of moving to another country is you start going through all your stuff and remove a lot of things you’ve been collecting over the years and you realize, “this is basically all I need”, and that gives you the nice perspective of not repeating that in the future.

David: My wife and me are very much collectors of things – not in a bad way, but like stamps and pieces of arts… So we definitely went through that phase of figuring out what you really need and what you really don’t need.

What was the biggest challenge? Was there maybe even a point when you thought, no, I actually don’t want to do this after all?

Dorota: Well, I came here on my own and I did know some people from work. However, there are times, when you don’t really understand the language, when you don’t read the culture yet and the behaviors and you get lost in the city every day. And at the beginning you have this euphoric phase, you’re in a new place, everything is fresh, everything is nice. Then you hit the phase of not yet being in the comfortable zone, but the euphoric one is over. That for me was a little bit frustrating. But at the same time, all the benefits of being here were definitely stronger.

Language is a big factor though. I did work in English, when I was in Poland, but it wasn’t everyday and not all of the time. And when I came here, it suddenly was one hundred percent of the time talking in English, trying to read in Spanish, listening to Catalan and trying to understand, taking Spanish classes. For the first few months at the end of every day, my brain was totally melted, because I tried to work and I tried to understand. The only moments of relief were when I was calling my mates, my family, just to have a conversation without a huge effort.

Hannah: I was a little bit scared to come here at the beginning, even though I knew it would only be for two months. But during my time here, there was never a moment in which I thought, I want to go home. I felt so welcomed and somehow even at home ever since I’ve been here. So I almost don’t want to go back and that’s also because of the colleagues and the fact that the company culture here is very similar to Germany, very cooperative, collaborative, so there was no reason for me to get homesick.

David: The only moment for me was when I was first learning the language and taking it out of the classroom environment and speaking to people in real life. People speak quickly, they don’t always have the patience to listen to you and that’s the point when you think, am I even capable of doing this? Maybe I don’t even want to do this. When you are a child you just sort of pick up languages, you are not so self-aware and more confident. As an adult, it is a lot more difficult to just go for it.

Dorota:  Especially at work. You have a certain image of yourself and then try to speak a new language in a professional environment and the suddenly the confidence is gone. That’s frustrating, but you have to swallow your pride and live one of our core values of being courageous.

Mentioning a corporate value, let’s ask a corporate question: did GFT help you in any way to make this transition easier?

David: I’ve asked all the people I work with to speak Spanish or Catalan with me and I tried not to switch back to English, because that’s really the easiest thing to do. Thanks to my role I have to travel quite a lot, which actually means that I get to go to London, which is quite nice, because it means to have an excuse to go back home.

Hannah: As a student, our colleagues have shown me equal support, which I really appreciated. They gave me tips on where to live, go for dinner or drinks and so on. Additionally to that, there is also a financial bonus for the time you are in another country. You will still have to organize the main things on your own, look for a place to live, find out how to get to work and so on. To me, it was perfect, because I had support, but still needed to take responsibility and as we all know, you grow with the tasks given to you, especially, if you’re in foreign country on your own.

Dorota: To me, the most supportive point was already knowing the people I would be working with in the future. I also had a dedicated person to answer all my questions… and I had many questions… I also received the reallocation bonus, so that was like the official support, but to be honest, it really was all about the colleagues. Even in Poland: A co-worker from GFT Lodz helped me find a flat, which is a very difficult thing to do remotely. She overheard me talking about it and coincidentally knew about a place that was free to rent. Somehow the puzzle pieces all came together like that.

Looking back, what would you say how long it took you to feel at home?

Hannah: I knew I was going to be here for two months only, but nonetheless I felt at home from the very beginning. This might be different when you know you will be staying for the rest of your life of course.

Dorota: It’s very difficult to say, but I guess I really, really felt like Barcelona was my place after one year. In between, it’s a very strange feeling, because when you go “back home”, you notice you no longer belong there, but at the same time you are not fully integrated in your new world either. It starts to feel better and more comfortable the moment you really start speaking the language on an everyday basis. This really helps with making you feel like belong, because everything is less of a struggle and more a relief.

David: I personally went through stages, too, as Dorota described it: Not feeling at home in your original city is the moment when you realize the other place may be your home. This is where you live now and this is where you have set your roots. You don’t necessarily have this instant feeling of like “I’m at home here”, but it’s like “I’m not at home there”.

Did this experience change you?

Dorota: Definitely. It’s such a push out of your comfort zone and just puts you on a totally different track. I felt more attentive, more observant, more alive even and appreciative of what is happening. For many reasons this can be a very good thing and in my case, it helped me become more patient with many things. Learning to accept that some things just take time and it’s worth to just enjoy life in general a bit more.

David : And little things change as well: When I first moved here, I was on time for every meeting, maybe even five minutes early and now my attitude towards this has completely changed. Because not in GFT specifically, but also other companies, punctuality isn’t such a big deal here as in certain Northern European countries, is it? In the Mediterranean, there’s a completely different mentality towards that. For example, the speed in which I walk is very different to when I first moved here, because in London, people move quickly, as they have to commute long distances, whereas here, people just take it a lot easier. This whole “change your mind” set also comes down to little things, very small changes.

Hannah: Even after two months, I realized that all people seem to be enjoying life more and taking it very easy. Not in a lazy way! This is something I really want to take back to Germany.

Talking about punctuality and stereo types… Are there any funny anecdotes that come to mind?

Hannah: It´s so hard to get used to lunch at 3 pm!

David: So I’m here eleven years, but I’m still have my lunch at 12 o´clock. I can’t think of a specific anecdote, but several occasions, when learning Spanish and I was just trying to put my foot in and meant to say one hing, but something else comes out, and I think: “ why are these people laughing at me? “ I mean you probably said you want to put the elephant on the table or something like that and that’s happening all the time …

Do you have a tip for give who are taking the same steps you did?

Dorota: Don’t be too hard on yourself. You might get lost, not know how things work, how to do your taxes – all the small things you’re used to know how to handle. And you will feel like you’re an adult and you should know how to do it, but there are surprises waiting around every corner. My advice is to just breathe in, breathe out… Ask for help. I’m very proud that this year I was able to do my taxes on my own and in Spanish! It just takes time. It all seems scary at first, but overall it’s such a mind opening experience. Worst case, you are going to find out what you don’t want. But if you find them – the things you were looking for – then it’s just perfect. 

 Thanks for the interview!

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