Based in Andalucia for the last 17 years; I know I’ve changed far beyond what you would expect with the mere passing of years.
The “duende”* of Spain – along with its people – have firmly embedded themselves into my soul, and I can’t imagine the place that I call home being anywhere else.
Baby Steps of Discovery
So how did I land up here in the first place you may be wondering? Well, while I jokingly blame the now very ex-husband, in truth I essentially nagged him into submission after a succession of wonderful holidays in Turkey in the halcyon days before all the tourists got there.
A hothouse human and loathing the cold, after a fabulous 3 day excursion to the ruins of Ephesus, I was hooked and made up my mind that in the not too distant future I wanted to live in a country which not only had a better climate than the UK but also a completely different culture.
As fate would have it, chartered accountant Mr H happened to be working for company which had very strong ties with southern Spain so from my perspective it was a simple case of persuading him that moving head office to where operations actually took place was a no-brainer.
We arrived in February 1996 and two years later we amicably divorced – unfortunately yet another casualty in the annual 50% of ex-pat couple newbies who call it a day. There was no third party involved but the “duende” had already worked its magic on me and we’d simply grown apart. In those two years, I’d discovered the joys of dancing until dawn, come to terms with my sexuality which until then had laid buried, qualified as a personal trainer, picked up the language, managed three gyms, set up as self-employed and run a marathon.
I was no longer content with supporting my Financial Times reading man and bugger the charade of playing ideal corporate wife especially the bit about spending time with people I didn’t like!
What Sort of Person Thrives in Spain?
Subsequently the ex returned to Old Blighty along with his new wife and two sons who were coming up to school age although I have to say that this was long before the current mass exodus that started back in 2008.
Their sunny dreams of utopia suddenly shattered, thousands of disillusioned have fled over in the the last couple of years, many of them seeing no other option apart from flinging themselves into the welcoming arms of the UK benefit system. It was too difficult for them to stay and figure out how they could change their own way of life to suit the rapidly changing environment.
Spain forces you to change anyway and it’s always been a question of “adapt or die”. Perhaps more appropriately “change your mindset, adapt and integrate”. Even as a naïve newly arrived ex-pat when common sense should tell you “caveat emptor”, I’d be surprised if you don’t end up with at least one hard learning experience.
Most of us have had dealings with any combination of the following: corrupt lawyers; supposedly “master builders” and “UK trained” electricians who fail to deliver; financial advisors who would be just as comfortable selling real estate as investments; real estate agents whose assurances “the access to the property is over this dry river bed but it never rains” prove false.
On top that catalogue, I’d also like to add the inconsistent and high level of Spanish bureaucracy that would try the patience of a saint until you finally accept that’s how things work here, and get over the fact that a seemingly simple task like going the bank can take an entire morning!
Those who continuously complain about Spain instead of enjoying what is has to offer are usually the ones who stubbornly refuse to even try to learn the language let alone – heavens forbid! – use it in daily life; whose lives revolve around their favourite programme on their Sky TV system; patronise only ex-pat businesses, socialise in ex-pat bars and only speak to fellow Brits. They don’t move out of their self-made ghetto and then expect the Spanish to think the same way as them. Why, they muse, aren’t things as easy and black and white like the UK?
Personally, I haven’t seen an ex-pat that fits that description since 2010.
More than ever, living in Spain demands that you embrace the existing culture as it is, warts and all. It helps to read about the rich history of the place to understand why things work the way they do. You can prod, poke and challenge but in the end it’s neither right nor possible to attempt to change the mentality of an entire nation.
What We’re Doing to Remain Here
In the midst of what was already a very weak social benefit system, biting austerity and high unemployment (30% locally in Málaga province; over 50% aged 16-24), Spain’s saving grace is an unwavering sense of community. For Spanish nationals, that means the extended family. For the rest of us, we lean on our ex-pat networks and those who have become true friends across many nationalities.
A growing bartering system is rising up; the exchange of favours, skills and goods. The old adage “an Englishman’s home is his castle” no longer rings true. People are opening up and re-acquainting themselves with the real meaning of “compassion” and “being human”.
When people lose their jobs, businesses go bad or fail to generate enough income to match monthly outgoings, creative and lateral thinking is the result.
Those who are surviving and some even thriving have been been savvy enough to build portfolio careers, often more as a result of character and luck than design!
I may identify with music as my profession but also spend some of my time helping people who are modern day nomads sort out their international tax issues; I house sit because I love animals and it fits in with everything else; sometimes I find myself coaching beginners on the joys of the internet; in January with a colleague from the US, I’m launching a new web site while at the same time seriously contemplating a series of short term care work contracts in the UK.
The saving grace of all of us who still call Spain “home” is adaptability: using our existing skill sets and developing new ones to meet the needs of a changing market. I’d say it’s having an entrepreneurial mind set and open attitude that you most need in Spain right now but actually it’s always been that way to a greater or lesser extent.
I honestly don’t know what lies ahead for ex-pats in Spain. I’ve learnt not to look too far ahead or put all my eggs in one basket.
Yes, things are difficult locally but they are globally too and I don’t think that a sudden knee jerk move to another country in Europe or back to the UK is going to radically improve most people’s situations.
If you’re prepared to take responsibility for your own economy, be adaptable and willing to turn your hand to anything if necessary, then you’ll stay on anyway and that’s what many of us are already doing.
Spain is different. Are you?
“Duende (spirit, magic) is there to challenge us to keep our ears open to the ‘dark sounds,’ to keep our touch with the earth and with the ghosts of those who have come before, to never refuse the struggle which is needed to keep the spirits working on the side of truth”
Marion Harrington is a lifestyle entrepreneur, freelance clarinetist and location independent tax specialist who you’ll find lurking most days on all the usual social media channels. She lives inland on the Costa del Sol and shares a house with the French spousette Ana, 2 mad dogs and a colony of 5 cats.