Nowadays my love-hate-mainly-just-hate relationship with Ryanair is quite a big part of my lifestyle, so I guess it’s only fair to credit Mr O’Leary with his part in our ‘Story’. But this was 2006, and Ryanair were having one of their legendary £1 flight sales. Remember those? Before airport taxes and take-off levies and oxygen-in-the-cabin surcharges, when you could actually pay £1 and fly somewhere, if you were flexible and fast. Of course for family holidays we still mainly did the package thing, as it was affordable and easy, and generally our precious fortnight in the sun was it for the year. But at that point, after recently experiencing an intensely difficult few months in work and family lives, I decided that Richard and I were going to have a weekend away – just the two of us, for his birthday in the New Year.
By then we had a second young daughter to consider, but as my Mum was very happy to have both the girls for a couple of days there only remained the choice of where to book. A random search of the cheapest flights in the sale – I was quite a whizz with that internet thing by then – offered us the Spanish city of Valencia. Too bad because I had quite fancied Barcelona actually, but apparently this place was nice too and similar, even if I wasn’t sure exactly where it was until I looked at a map. It was a close run thing against Amsterdam, which was also in the sale, but the fact that it was going to be January clinched the deal – I thought a bit of sun might cheer us up. And for £1 and no tax – yes, those were the days – well, we could even manage a decent hotel too. So I booked it up fast before the special offer expired.
Locals thought we were crazy sitting outside bars in January sipping cocktails – of course naturally we’d think that now, and laugh along at the stupid touristas! But a grown-up child-free weekend away was such a rarity at that point, and it was so amazing to be away from London and work hassles and the sadness of recently losing Richard’s father… It was such a badly-needed break. We giggled and celebrated and marvelled at the oranges on the trees, and the calm cheerfulness of the city at night, with people socialising and smiling at each other – so different from being on holiday in a resort, but also so different from what we knew at home. Taking a taxi out to the beach the next day we took our shoes off and paddled, amazed that such a glorious beach and marina could be so close to where people lived and worked. You could probably just get on a bus, just like at my Nana’s house all those years ago…
Yes, in January most of the other people around us kept their shoes on even though it was a beautiful day, and probably thought the tourists were going nuts again. But at one point Richard nudged me to point out a man walking down the shoreline, incongruously dressed in a business shirt and tie, briefcase in hand – but in his other hand holding his shoes and socks as he too paddled as he walked along the beach, with his impeccably-tailored trousers rolled up to the knees.
I don’t know the name of that hombre de negocios, but I wish I could thank him. Because he truly planted the seeds of change deep within the mind of my other half – a man from the North East of England, who’d never felt truly settled in the home counties for sure, but not previously seriously considered emigration.
At this point my market research business was going well, and I had been working from home for some years. But we were finding that running a business from home was a growing strain on family life, having strangers in our home and getting slowly strangled by health and safety red tape. We’d been talking about moving out even further from London, perhaps to Wales –in fact we had started to look at schools and houses there even, although not in any urgent way, we didn’t feel sufficiently motivated to make it happen.
Suddenly in Spain on the beach that day, as the man in the suit paddled his way along in front of us, our visions and horizons exploded. We found ourselves talking instead of ‘if only’, rather ‘what if’, and looking at the real possibility of trying a new way of life. I was reminded of that childhood conversation with my Nana, that when you were a grown-up you were actually allowed to choose, and go and live at the seaside if you wished. Were we grown up enough, was our business and financial security grown up enough, to make that decision now? Here we were in the midst of a thriving sunny city, with this incredible beach a few minutes from the heart of it all… people did live here and work here and have a Mediterranean lifestyle and culture, and it was only 2 hours – and £1 – from London.
We had to go back to basics, defuse the initial wave of enthusiasm with a long hard look at the facts, and examination of our real priorities and motivations. We knew that the move had to be a positive one, towards what we wanted, not away from that we did not. We had to examine why the Wales dream had never really been followed through, what were we truly looking for as a family, and where could that best be satisfied: Spain, somewhere rural in the UK (part of me still apparently dreamed of homesteading in the Hebrides, provided there was broadband and indoor plumbing), or somewhere entirely different…
We started by clearly identifying our priorities as a family:
- A small community for our girls to grow up in, somewhere where people looked out for each other, and each other’s kids.
- A culture where children of all ages – in fact all generations of society – were visible, welcome and valued, a place where family mattered.
- A place where we could enjoy a healthy climate and an outdoor lifestyle, where the girls could grow up playing on the beach or climbing trees, instead of glued to a screen. This may have been the biggest psychological drag on the initial Wales plan, the fact that so many of our visits there were away from the peak summer season and as such massively constrained by the area’s changeable weather.
- Good infrastructure and communications – we knew we would always have close ties to family and friends in the UK, and that business would depend on frequent and affordable business trips. The £1 flights were already a rarity, environmentally the costs of travel could only increase. So we had to cross New Zealand and Canada and suchlike straight off our list.
- The right resources for family life were also vital – hospitals, schools – knowing initially we would be doing this on a trial basis and International/English schooling would be a prerequisite. A lot of the countries in the part of the world we were drawn to simply couldn’t tick all the boxes.
Although we both loved Greece we had to think about the difference between holidays and real life, likewise Cyprus and the Canaries – although we loved visiting my Dad’s place in Lanzarote, for us cheap flights were going to make the difference. Portugal was affordable, but lacking infrastructure, likewise the former Yugoslavian countries that we had no experience of anyway. Researching French and Italian living costs and doing the sums, we realised everything was pointing us back towards Spain.
Later that year we went back, and visited the South and North Costa Blanca, focussing on the areas where we had identified suitable schools. We knew at once we had found the right place when we turned away from the concrete corridors south of Benidorm and discovered the mountainous and dramatic coastlines of the area around Javea and Denia, and the village towns inland from there – when the school investigations all pointed there too, things began to fall into place.
We started to talk to letting agents, and do our sums in earnest. This was 2007 remember, the credit crunch was something to do with repossessions in the US, and based on the exchange rate at the time we felt we’d be pretty comfortable once we made the move! We would have breathing space for Richard to find a job (hands up who remembers “jobs”!) in the local area, and assuming we could successfully let our Surrey house we could choose a home in Spain that would match our dreams – even the unimaginable luxury of a private pool.
Coming back to the UK with our plans hugged tightly to our hearts brought an abrupt check-in with real life. Whilst dreaming and planning on the one hand was incredibly exciting, the reality was a lot of difficult and uncomfortable conversations to be had with people we cared about, and tough decisions to be made.
But I will write more about that soon – for now it is the 4th anniversary of the day our overladen Landrover pulled up outside our first home in Spain. We did it – it took longer, and was more difficult, complicated, expensive and challenging than we ever imagined. However, we made the move to Spain.
A couple of weeks ago I was back in Valencia with the Writers And Bloggers About Spain group – a wonderful tribe of diverse creative and intelligent individuals who all share a passion for this curious country, and had come together for the weekend to celebrate, learn and explore. I pointed out the café where we had had the big talk, the beach where we saw The Man, the landmarks of life that brought us to this point… years later, here we are. Living surviving and just about thriving in Spain. I am writing. Business is keeping going, through economic circumstances we never begun to imagine. Our girls are growing up out of doors in a small friendly community – bilingual, well-adjusted and integrated Europeans. Our family are all well and happy – even the ones who had to make massive adjustments to our being further away.
The details of the dream may have varied in the execution, but as for the dream itself – we are living it. I am so happy about that.