Looking back on that crazy year we emigrated, I remember how our news had a strange and polarising affect on those around us. Of course there was a close subset of mainly family whose feelings were more around the fact that we and our children were going to be a lot further away, and that was very hard for them to take, we completely expected that. All we could do was listen to their response, try to explain our motivations, as many times as necessary, and talk about why we felt that physical distance needn’t be quite the barrier it initially sounded like.
Because I was used to working very closely with colleagues and clients on a daily basis who I never saw face to face, it was easy to take this closeness for granted and come across as dismissive of those for whom our news was a terrible shock. And we knew that no amount of communications technology could replace a cuddle with a beloved grandchild, or the easy pleasure of an evening eating and drinking with dear friends. After varying periods of time, the people we loved all became at least resigned to our news. Even if some would never be encouraging, they were at last accepting. And relieved that we were approaching things on a trial basis, rather than irrevocably burning bridges in our wake.
But the impact on our wider circle of family, friends and acquaintances was more curious. People either immediately ‘got it’ and were thrilled for us, admiring the fact we were going to go for it and sometimes even expressing envy, talking wistfully about their own unfulfilled dreams of a similar nature… Or, it seemed, they were really upset – not just people who were going to miss us personally, but some who seemed totally baffled and even angered by our choice, or took it personally as a rejection of them and their lifestyle: how we live not good enough for you any more then..? People whose feelings couldn’t be explained in terms of bluster covering the idea of losing and missing us, and often people whom quite frankly we didn’t feel we owed any kind of detailed explanation and justification of our decision. In some it was an anger that seemed reminiscent of bigotry, how stupid and naïve were we to be selling out in this way? The louder they protested the more defensive and pointless it seemed, and the more we withdrew from the pointless circular conversations with people we weren’t going to miss.
We tried to focus our time and attention instead on the people that mattered – family, and friends, and business associates/colleagues. Oh, and two little girls, whose lives were going to change for ever in a very short time Did we ever question whether we were doing the right thing? Goodness yes, lots of times, and we went over and over everything, digging deeper into our personal motivations and worries, determined to make the right decisions for everyone we cared about.
Between the Spanish evening classes and the endless skyplussed ‘Place in the Sun’ episodes we talked and talked that year, as we project-managed the biggest event of our lives. We worked out tensions and mismatches in our own drives and intentions, and co-operated closely as a team – especially when at times we felt besieged by life and circumstances externally. But I think we remained very conscious of the need to continually reality-check and ground ourselves, not simply to react to other people or events: is this what we REALLY want, still… we identified the crucial stages and critical paths within the plan, the turning points when we were committed to varying extents, and we talked it all out endlessly.
A year of furious planning was still ahead of us. I remember 2008 as containing a lot of lists… Lists in Excel and Outlook, lists on Post-it notes and in planners, lists on big pieced of flipchart blu-tacked up all over the house. Terrified we would miss something vital, I dreamed in tickboxes and to-dos.
Houses to visit, questions for schools, schedule for ridiculously expensive cat vaccinations. Things to buy, things to get rid of, things to eBay, stuff to simply let go and dump. Office things to relocate, plan for getting a left hand drive car, insurances and documents, things to scan and back up, jobs to prepare our house for letting out… who to tell and when, how to manage things with work and families.
It was a blur of a year really. Every time we crossed something off one of the lists, it tended to generate a dozen more checkboxes – every question was answered with further questions. Things we thought would be simple were horribly complicated, such as thinking I could simply remain employed in my current role but live somewhere else, after all this was all part of the Europe without borders, right? I would like to think that had we known the extent of the hassle and stress and complications our move would entail, we would have gone right ahead and done it anyway… but I am pretty glad, on reflection, we embarked on the whole thing so naively.
More visits to Spain followed, and introducing our daughters – then eight and three years old – to the idea of a complete change of life. Of course the littlest took things in her stride, not being quite sure what Spain was but glad it was to do with holidays and the beach. But the older one had plenty of questions and concerns of her own, that we had to make time to address. We took them to Javea for a holiday and a taste of life by the sea – but unlike most holidays this one involved two ‘taster days’ in different schools, an invaluable process that also helped her make some friends to keep in touch with and ask all the things we couldn’t help with because we were not eight years old. Being able to talk and find out more about everyday life for British kids in Spain made a huge difference to her, and lead to some lasting friendships.
For us a critical point on the project path was confirming the school and wiring them a deposit – at that point it was real and we had committed a wedge of our actual money. Now just had to find somewhere to live! Even though at that point due to personnel challenges in my business we had already accommodated a delay in our plans, we were all back on again for a midwinter flit, so long as we could find a home.
A final grown-ups only weekend reccy and finding the perfect house followed, only for it all to fall through and the landlords to pull out, about 5 weeks before we were due to leave. We had people actually wanting to rent our house in Surrey, which was excellent, but we felt scared to sign the contract and make ourselves effectively homeless just before Christmas! Around the same time, our child-carer pulled out on us at a few days notice… because she was suffering from stress. Richard ended up leaving his work in the UK several weeks earlier than planned, causing more financial strain on an already massively tight situation.
Looking back it seems like every single aspect of the move took longer, caused more stress, and cost more than we had ever expected, but somehow it all came together. The last few weeks were absolutely insane, and at one point involved Richard flying back to Spain for a few hours then home again, literally spending about 2 hours in Javea once he had driven from the airport, just to sign the contract on the house we finally found – but some things you simply had to do face to face, including making a final decision on the right place to live. A mismatch in contract timings meant that all four of us shacked up with my sister and brother in law for a few days, before spending our last week in the UK with a larger group of family down in Wales.
Then a couple of days before the start of 2009, we piled our lives into a crumbling old Landrover – who’s gearbox had been replaced in the previous 48 hours – and finally, driving through the snow of the Pyrenees with our life strapped to the roof, we at last went to live in Spain.
Since then we have moved house several times, and moved school once. We now feel that we have truly settled in the place we want to raise our kids. We live close to the sea in a small town in the Northern Costa Blanca, we can walk to the nearest town, stroll onto the beach, and drive to school in less than 10 minutes. We are about an hour from the regional capital of Valencia, but strangely rarely go there now, when everything we need is right here on our doorstep.
Of course the recession has made life harder, and the Euro/Sterling exchange rate still dominates our monthly financial planning… Richard’s plan to work within my business for a few months then ‘find a job’ is easy to laugh at retrospectively, but remember when we were first planning to move, there were jobs advertised locally. Jobs that didn’t require you to be either a trilingual sales whizz or regularly taking your clothes off.! But for now, we’re just glad we are both able to do work that is not dependent on the local economy.
In addition to business trips, we still visit the UK as a family a couple of times a year, and welcome visitors more frequently here. We’ll always have very strong ties to London, Wales and the Northeast. Even though our children now have more Spanish friends than English, it’s very important to us that they grow up with all the benefits of an international perspective and outlook – alongside the community and family oriented lifestyle we love here. They are also getting old enough to spend time on visits to family in the UK without either parent being there too, and enjoying the chance to extend their attachments to grandparents and cousins in the UK on their own terms and not defined by Mum and Dad. We don’t know where in the world they will eventually choose to study, live and work, and can’t know what the world of their future will look like, but no parent can ever know that. All we know for sure is that we want to leave as many doors open to them as we can.
So, that’s our story. Every family’s is different and unique, and we aren’t anything special, we’re just two parents trying to have a happy family life and do the best for our kids and ourselves. We aren’t ‘successful’ by many of the ways our old friends in Surrey and London would define it – but we feel rich beyond our dreams living the life we have, the way we want to live it. We know that our continued settled life here depends on a range of factors, some of which we can influence and some we cannot, and that the future for Spain on a macro level is far from easily assured – but right now we and our girls wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.