How to improve your life abroad
Updated: Apr 11, 2019
When we made the move to the Canary Islands back in 2009 there were many things we didn't consider in our quest to find happiness abroad. Ultimately that led us back to living in the UK for 4 long years before we decided to move back to mainland Spain - to the Costa Tropical region of Granada to be exact.
This time around we're hoping we've got it right. Our lifestyle may need tweaking here and there but here are some of the life lessons we've learnt from moving to Spain.
Be warned, this is a long post so if you want a shortened version you can head over to our Youtube channel to watch the video here.
WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR LIFE ABROAD
1. Location, location, location!
When you move to Southern Spain or pretty much anywhere in Europe you basically have a few choices as to where to live. A city, a town, a village or the 'campo' (the countryside to you and me!). Now any of these can be by the coast or inland. Getting the location right based on what you require from life is the key to making your move successful in the long term. Nobody wants to move abroad only to find they made a huge mistake and are bound into a contract, or even worse, a mortgage, for a house in an area they don't want to live.
If you go on any forum, you'll find swathes of comments advising people to rent before you buy. This is very sound advice so please don't ignore it. Also, if you own a house in your home country maybe it would be prudent to keep it for at least the first year and rent it out just in case you change your mind about your move abroad. We may hope for the best but things don't always go to plan. (Check if you'll be liable for Capital Gains Tax after the sale of your property!)
Living in a Resort
When we moved to Lanzarote we found a small two bedroom town house on the outskirts of Playa Blanca. The town had a mix of expats and locals which gave it quite a vibrant fun feel. Many people may prefer to live in a resort so that they have access to many of their home comforts (Cadbury creme eggs being my downfall!) and you can meet many like minded people who are very open to meeting new people and making friends.
However, living in a resort that's popular with foreigners (as opposed to Spanish tourists) does come with downsides. We found that we hardly ever needed to speak Spanish aside from 'gracias' or 'hola' and we ended up paying tourist prices for everything from rent to groceries.
The Canaries are a year round holiday destination but for many other tourist resorts when winter comes the town closes down. You may find that your favourite restaurant or bar has closed for the winter season and won't be open again until March or even May!
Work is also something you need to consider. If you're looking for work in Spain then you may find it easier in a resort but be prepared to only be employed for the summer season and at lower wages than you may be used to in the UK.
Life in a Town
After two and half years I became pregnant with our eldest son, Enzo. I felt the need for a larger property so we'd have more space for family to come and stay. So we moved to a bigger house in the beautiful historic town of Teguise in the centre of the island.
(1st photo - Teguise on a normal day, 2nd and 3rd photos - Teguise on market day)
The town was very quiet throughout the week with a smattering of visiting tourists. Then Sunday came and the town swelled with throngs of tourists and locals for market day. Although it was a lovely town to live in, moving there with a new baby meant that we didn't get to socialise in the same way as we had in our baby free years.
Children's play groups aren't as common in Spain as in the UK either. Plus, most of the locals commuted to the capitol, Arrecife, or to the resorts for work so it took a little while for us to get to know people.
Living in a small town anywhere in the world will come with pros and cons. Many Spanish towns have a fantastic community feel to them, especially when they come together for market days or fiestas.
However, you have to be prepared to learn the language properly. Just being able to order in a restaurant is not going to help you to integrate into the community.
Work will be limited in the area so you may have to commute to a larger town, city or a resort. Almost all jobs will no doubt require some serious language skills.
After a year in Teguise, we'd been visiting the island of Gran Canaria and we discovered a beautiful countryside house up for rent. It had amazing views, a small avocado and banana orchard, a mini basketball court and parking for a fleet of cars plus it came with its own chickens!
It was located in the north of Gran Canaria, an area wondrously beautiful with canyons and pine forests - it seemed perfect. However, some of the Canary Islands suffer from 'La Panza de Burro' (the donkeys belly) which is a low hanging cloud that sits on the northern parts of the islands. While the rest of the island bathed in 30C sunshine, we were left struggling to even see the sun.
The above photos were captured on one journey from the south of Gran Canaria to our house in the north. You can see the Panza de Burro in the 1st photo as a pale grey cloud and it's still miles away!
Many parts of Spain (and especially the Canaries!) have a micro-climate. It can be glorious on the coast but just a mile or so away on a hill you may be sat in the clouds. The temperature can vary quite a bit too. Generally, the coast is cooler in the summer months compared to inland areas and then it switches in the winter - the coast is warmer and the inland areas tend to be colder.
Spanish houses are not generally built for winter. You may have a lovely fire or wood burner but in general the houses have no double glazing, central heating or insulation. We found ourselves spending the winter dragging in boxes of wood from about 4pm (luckily our landlord had prepared the house with a mountain of wood for us) and snuggling up with hot cocoa and blankets in the night.
Be prepared to drive everywhere!
Living in the countryside can be a lovely tranquil experience but if you rely on the local buses you may end up stranded waiting for the next one to come along. Not that they're unreliable, it's just that there may only be one an hour or a few buses a day. Once, our car broke down and we spent a fortune in taxis to get our shopping home and life grinded to a halt until we got our car back.
Having lived in cities all around the UK, we knew that we didn't want to move to a Spanish city. Now with two young kids in tow, we've decided city life is definitely not for us.
That's not to say that it's a bad thing! Living in a city or its suburbs can be a lot of fun, just as it would be in any country. Everything is right on your doorstep - restaurants, bars, museums, events - albeit maybe a tram, bus or train ride away. Work tends to be more available and there's normally a large expat crowd to get to know.
The downsides are the same for any country - increased crime, increased pollution, less space, less time (due to commuting) and more noise.
Before you make your move, make a list of all the things you enjoy or need in life and then prioritise them. Like us, you may think country living would be great but then realise that you'll forever be a taxi to your kids or decide it's just too isolated. Or you may want a huge garden to tend, a private pool and peace and quiet. Everyone wants different things out of life, just try to understand what those things are beforehand and then start researching your areas.
2. Connect with others
When we first moved abroad we were still stuck in our own little world with the same mindset that we had living in a big city in the UK. We wanted to find people who were like ourselves, the same age, similar interests etc. and we wanted them to be locals. This just didn't happen.
When we lived in the UK we made friends through work or through shared interests but without those two groups to help us, we found that friends didn't just fall into our lap. We had to work at it. It may sound silly that we didn't realise this at the time but I think sometimes a little bit of hindsight can help you to learn more about yourself and your situation.
Connecting with as many people as possible will help you to feel more at home. Be friendly even if you're still rubbish at the language.
Try to chat to the old lady at the bus stop or the local shop keeper or the dog walker you see every morning.
Always say hello to your neighbours but don't ostracise yourself from your own community, and make an effort with other nationalities as well as the locals.
3. Be sociable
This follows on from the above point. Don't just limit yourself to saying hello or hoping that your local shopkeeper recognises you each day. For the first year of living abroad, try to say 'Yes' to everything. At least until you find yourself some good solid friends, then you can ease off and have your hermit like days. Everyone has their off days but just try to remember that you have a limited amount of time to make an impression on someone. If people keep asking you out and you say no to them all the time then they'll eventually stop asking. If you only ever give a curt nod to people instead of a welcoming smile then they'll assume you don't want to know them.
In my opinion expats from any country are some of the friendliest people you will meet. That's not because they're a different breed of human, with crazy social skills. It's mostly because they're in the same situation as you. They want to get to know more people, to build that circle of trust and to not feel lonely. Loneliness is a really big deal in the expat community. Having made the leap to move to another country and having left behind family and friends many people may find themselves homesick. The best way to deal with this is to get out there. Overcome any confidence issues you may have so that you can improve your mental well being in the long term.
Look for groups in your area to join that you're interested in. Meetup.com is a great website for finding new groups and Facebook has lots of groups or forums to ask about them. Take up a new hobby that has regular meetings. The amount of expats and locals playing petanque down on our beach is unreal!
If you have kids then look for local play groups. If there isn't something in your area then why not set up a group yourself? Or try and chat to the other parents at the school. That's how we've met so many new friends here.
Many places also have language exchange groups (known as an Intercambios in Spain) or you may find groups on Facebook that try and connect people for language exchanges one on one. This is great because not only will you make a few friends but you'll also learn the language. Which brings me onto the last point....
4. Learn the Language
Wherever you are in the world, whatever you're doing, learn the language of your new home. And I don't just mean learning how to order in a restaurant, that should be the absolute basics! I mean you need to take a course, whether online or with a school. If you can motivate yourself to learn at home then do that - there are plenty of apps and YouTube videos to help you learn.
When we first moved to the Canaries, I knew practically nothing. I taught myself at home with the help of the internet and I could get by but I was rubbish in all honesty. What little skills I had took a nosedive after having Enzo and then our move to the UK further annihilated my language skills!
So, this time around, I've finally started a language class. Amazingly, the local Ayuntamiento puts on free Spanish classes for foreigners and there's about 14 of us in there. Spaces are limited so get yourself off to the town hall to sign up for it as soon as you arrive and have your paperwork in order. I have an hour and a half lesson twice a week but I need to kick myself up the butt to do more at home.
If the classes are full then you can always join a private language school. The price varies but between 90 to 110 euros a month is normal for 2 lessons a week in a group. If you're feeling flush then get yourself a private tutor for some one on one tutoring, this can set you back about 15 to 20 euros an hour but has the advantage of being planned around your life.
Ivan's Spanish is a lot better than mine, mostly because he has a better head for languages and he has a better memory. He's still going to the intercambio occasionally though as well as meeting with friends who speak Spanish and he pushes himself to talk to local people every single day.
At four and six, the kids are the perfect ages to pick up a new language. They both attend a state Spanish school and Enzo has Spanish lessons twice week through the school for free. Tai is just absorbing it as he goes, there's no need for us to give him the extra tutoring just yet as he seems to be doing ok without it.
If you're moving with kids then check with your chosen school if they provide language lessons. They have been invaluable for Enzo and I really think they've helped him to settle in more quickly. For older kids, you may need to budget for private tutors, to help them with homework as well as learning the language.
So where do you start?
There are so many things you can do to make your life happier as an expat. I wish I'd realised some of them before we moved the first time but as with most things, we learn from experience.
If you're thinking about making the move abroad, or if you've already moved, I would start by looking at your life and deciding on the things that are important to you.
Get yourself a notepad and jot down all the things that you can think of.
You may dream of having a villa in the countryside but the truth is that you may be better suited to apartment living in the city. Or vice versa. Only you can decide what is going to suit your lifestyle. It's an important part of the process and one many people overlook, especially when you have the lure of a large property with fantastic views or a picturesque Instagram worthy white washed village.
Next, make a conscious effort to socialise. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Don't feel guilty for needing people who speak your language for the first few years but try and build relationships with the locals too.
If you're not already fluent then make sure you set aside some time each day for learning. Stop watching English language TV and switch to Spanish (with subtitles if neccessary!) Read the local newspaper or a book or go to the theatre. Just remember that immersion in the language is the key to success.
I have to say though, that this is the happiest I've ever felt for any move I've made in my life. I feel that Ivan and I have grown as people by understanding what we need out of life and how to achieve it. I don't always practise what I preach though so having written this blog post I'm hoping it'll remain ingrained in my memory to help me through those anti social days.
Have you moved abroad and found any other ways to improve your day to day living? Or are you struggling to build a life that makes you happy? Or are you planning on moving and worrying about how you can go about making new friends?
Drop me a comment down below and let me know about your own experiences.