Us expats in Spain certainly like to communicate – and not just with the folks back home. Grab a café Americano and let’s have a chat shall we? After all, it’s a lovely day, once again…
Amongst the most interesting things about meeting new people here, that still inspires me after several years, is “The Story”. Since moving to Spain I have met hundreds of fellow expats from every walk of life, some of whom I have had many things in common with and others nothing much at all, some people I am naturally drawn to as friends as I would be in any environment, and others the ‘friends of circumstances’ that you initially meet simply through proximity or your kids or shared activities. Some I feel close to, others less so… But, however diverse and varied their backgrounds, attitudes and motivations, the one thing I know I share with every expat I meet is that we chose to be here.
To leave behind the country we grew up in and make a new life for ourselves someplace new – that’s a really significant unifying factor. Whatever else we may or may not have in common, it inevitably makes for an immensely powerful connection. Part of what drove me to start this blog was an obsession with people’s personal stories, the narrative behind their move from the UK to Spain.
Relocating to another country is not an easy or spur-of-the-moment thing, not for most of us anyway. Of course it’s fun to talk to people who jumped in their car with a few hundred quid in their pocket and headed south from Calais till they found their little corner of paradise and never looked back – but most of those stories date from back well before the recession bit hard, and tend not to be told by people with children or businesses to manage. Or at least, the longer version of their story is a bit more complicated, and had rather more planning going on first – the romance of simply loading up one day and rolling on out sounds great on paper, but life wasn’t like that for us or for most people we know here.
For the majority of us expats in Spain the decision to up sticks and move was costly and challenging, and often involved upsetting people who cared about us and had understandably took our ongoing proximity for granted. It wasn’t something we did flightily or on a whim, indeed instead it took an unbelieveable amount of planning, expense and forethought. So, when I meet someone new, I am really interested in what drove that process, drove them hard enough to overcome all the obstacles… what is their story, of their need to move to Spain?
‘The Story’ has lead to some amazing conversations, from the most unexpected sources. And can often fuel a friendship for so long that it dominates everything else. I can feel I’ve got to know someone really well, because we have talked in detail about our personal motivations and values around this huge decision – and then I realise some weeks later I am not sure what they actually do for a living, or whereabouts it was in the UK they used to live… in many ways I don’t know anything about them at all! Occasionally this ultimately fragile sense of intense connection is abruptly and horribly shattered by this newly intimate acquaintance letting drop some casually racist or homophobic remark, or some act that makes you suddenly realise you actually have precious little in common after all.
Of course, being thrown together by our initial “expatness” does help a bit with getting past the facts that really don’t matter at all, in terms of developing friendships and connections. Ironically, one of the things I hated about life in the UK (but didn’t realise how much until I we left), is why ‘and, what do you do?’ is usually the second question exchanged with any new acquaintance. As soon as you know their name, the next thing you need to do is pigeon-hole and define them in terms of an occupation or industry – which will also suggest to you quite a lot about how and where they live, what their lifestyle is like, what car they drive and so on. Certainly in London, where you get such a mish-mash of posh areas side-by-side with social housing and so on, people immediately seem to zero in on occupation as a quick classification system.
In such times of career mobility and flexibility this seems a total anachronism, yet in the UK at least it persists. Very much a function of the outdated class system: is this new acquaintance above me or beneath me, and as such should I in fact even be talking to them? If you don’t believe this phenomenon exists, try living as my husband did for several years, as a northerner with a manual trade who had the temerity to take up residence in Surrey…
Here in Spain it’s far more fragmented still, especially in the international coastal communities. You can easily find yourself sharing a barbeque with the local mayor, a gardener and villa maintenance man, and navy submarine commander – but not be sure who is which until it comes up in some other context.
And anyway the mayor also runs the corner shop, and the gardener used to be a finance analyst in Buckinghamshire but prefers a simpler lifestyle now her children have left home. The guy with the pool cleaning van at the next table actually owns three villas, because he bought at the right time, though he looks after them all himself now since the lettings slowed down, it’s saved him a fortune learning to do stuff himself that for years he paid other people to do. And the broker who spends most his working week in the City really envies the pool guy for spending weekdays in the sunshine, and feels a special kind of bloke envy for anyone who gets to spend a lot of each working day driving around in a van with the window down getting a one-armed tan.
None of it matters, we are all there because we chose to be there and that’s what counts – and we might not get around to talking about the work stuff for ages. Until it unfolds naturally, as it will eventually, as part of their Story.