Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Thinking of relocating abroad? You can learn to live without baked beans.

Going back and forth to the UK on the ferry is often a good chance to catch up with other English people who spend time or live permanently in Spain. As there are few English people here in Asturias it is interesting to hear others' experiences. The past few times I have seen a large increase in the number of removal vans returning to the UK and heard many stories of how the dream has been shattered or at least tainted for some.

The economy in Spain is suffering and people are losing jobs or taking cuts in income. The Euro exchange rate for the British pound and the value of savings and pensions has suffered for a couple of years and will probably remain unpredictable for sometime to come. It is really disappointing for many but not the sole reason some are eager to return and regret relocating. I am sure that one reason for many is that they fail to readjust to life in a foreign country and never truly come to terms with a life lived differently.

Luis and I were talking about our past 6 years here and how well we had adjusted to life in a different country and we both agreed a short blog post outlining our experiences might help inform others who dream of relocating to different climes.

If you were to ask us if we made the right decision, the answer would be without doubt, yes. Of course there are continuing reservations about what the future might bring but as we are now, we feel fortunate. The grass however, isn't always greener on the other side. Things do go wrong. Understanding how things work in your new society, getting to grips with social nuances and of course the ability to communicate effectively in a foreign language is a big learning curve with many challenges and hurdles.

To succeed you have to accept that living away from everything that is familiar, can be hard. If you don't, your life in a foreign land will be difficult and will potentially erode your dreams, disintegrate your plans and possibly damage your relationships with those you love.

We can only describe our experience buying a house in a rural community, an hour from any cities but close to several small towns where the Spanish come on their summer holidays. There are few foreigners living here compared with the south of Spain and most people do not speak any English.

Here are some of the key issues that we think people should consider before relocating:

Location: What is the climate like? This sounds an obvious one but you'd be surprised at the number of people we come across who have only ever visited in summer before buying and forget that places can be cold, very cold and wet.

Dream homes in the middle of nowhere or on the side of a mountain are great when young but have you tried cutting a lawn on a 45 degree slope or travelling long and difficult journeys to shops and business. Telephone and internet connection may not be possible despite what estate agents tell you. Remote areas can be lonely places. If you are renovating a mountain house you need to consider that costs will be higher as access for deliveries of goods will be potentially problematic and expensive.

Language: Conversational Spanish is difficult at the best of times but talking about business or negotiating a mobile phone contract or ordering goods can be complex without specialist language skills. Face to face conversations are so much easier than the telephone or written word. Understanding legal documents and processes is a challenge. Expressing feelings in a foreign language is limited for many. Your social and cultural reference points are different which in it's self can hinder communication.

Medical: Unless you are retired and registered as resident then medical cover can be complicated. You can seek out treatment using your European health card but if you require longer term treatment or investigations it could prove problematic. Also, if communication is difficult, this can add to the stress and influence the treatment you may or may not receive. Even if your medical or nursing staff speak English it is likely to be as poor as your Spanish.

Social: I mentioned earlier that social and cultural references may differ. Here in Asturias people are very friendly but don't neighbour other than chatting in and around the village. It would be rare to be invited for something to eat or drink but that should not be taken as not being accepted, it is just how it is. The nuances of social etiquette are interesting to learn when living in a different culture. There are lots of groups, social gatherings for fiestas and a few cultural events throughout the year but your social life will be very different to what it was in the UK.

Family and friends back home: You miss them, of course you do. You might get more family and friends visiting but it puts your relationship on a different footing to what it was. It was unlikely that in the UK they would stay with you and certainly not for 1 or maybe 2 weeks. It is also crucial to remember it is their holiday as well as a visit to see you.

Occupation: There is one thing that is key to settling in another country and that is keeping occupied - having a sense of purpose. If you need to work then that can be difficult given the ongoing economic problems and high unemployment rate. Over 50% of under 26 year old and 22% of the general working population are unemployed here in Spain. Language, once again is an issue for many as learning specialist vocabulary related to a profession or occupation is not covered in standard Spanish courses.

If you do not need to work then it pays to remember that you cannot holiday 12 months of the year.
Keeping your mind occupied with meaningful and worthwhile activities is vital. Hobbies and interests will need to be developed and maybe solitary pursuits especially if you struggle with the language.

Legal: How things work such as insurance, buying and registering a car, paying local taxes, registering and opening a business, contracting workmen, buying a house, renting a house, making wills and a hundred and one other things... are different and need to be fully understood before entering agreements, signing contracts or employing services. The law is different. Many find this aspect too complicated and choose to ignore it or cut corners which in the long run, leads to problems.

Along the way Luis and I have made mistakes, taken chances, become stressed out of our heads, laughed at some of the things we have experienced, been saddened by seeing relationships fail, felt heartened by the generosity of strangers and learned a lot about ourselves and others along the way. One piece of advice we would like to pass on is spend time in the area you eventually want to live in. Go on holiday at different times of year, live like a local, learn the language and be prepared a live a different life. If you are prepared for uncertainty, readily accept change, have the ability to problem solve, can remain positive and keep a sense of humour, then do it. It has been six challenging but very happy years for us.

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