I’ve been longer than normal between posts. There have been reasons, visitors, hospital visiting, flu, and a mental block……….I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rewritten this post. Unlike the first two of this series it hasn’t come together easily. I was so sure about those, sure that the decision I made was right, and sure that the move went smoothly -
Becoming an Ex-Pat Part One: Making the Decision
Becoming an Ex-Pat Part Two: Preparing and Packing
- but thinking back to those first months here I thought of a zillion changes I would make, then changed my mind and scrubbed the paragraph, but thought of others.
Some experiences were entirely personal, a combination of circumstances in which other women probably wouldn’t have found themselves, so not of any interest to anyone else, so what happened once I arrived?
Our idea was that this was a firm commitment, but that we would review how we felt about our move after one year, just it case we hated it, before then we wouldn’t discuss it, because any doubts could be put down to simply “teething troubles”. As it was I never had any serious doubts about living here or wanting to stay. Whilst I had, and still do have, frustrations with certain aspects of island life, I also had and still would have frustrations with British life, so it’s a trade-off. I don’t have Marks & Sparks, but I do have more hours of sunshine than I can cope with!
About a week before we left England I took the kids to the cinema. It was late July, and a month of solid confirmation that we’d made the right decision, at least so far as weather was concerned. The cars had already been sold, and it was raining cats and dogs, and had been for a week at least, so we took a cab to the cinema. Just to give you an idea of how hard it was raining – the cab dropped us at the door, and running from cab to door we got soaked to the skin – literally.
It felt weird a week later, then, waking to a sky so blue that it seemed unreal, and I really and truly pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I reached for a swimsuit and shorts. I can remember them clearly, blue suit with a colorful parrot on the front, which I’d chosen because I thought the kids would think it was fun, and yellow shorts, and I can remember thinking how odd it felt, and that maybe this would be all I would need to do in a morning for quite a while – it was!
So far, so good. The move had been hard work, with my partner here in Tenerife setting up his new business venture, almost all of the actual removal details had fallen to me, including some very complicated problems with one business which emerged just as our decision to emigrate was made. Life had been hectic with two young children, at times chaotic, and I badly needed the lazy days which followed. It was summer, and I intended to treat it as an extended vacation until the time came for the boys to begin school. We didn’t have a car for several weeks, and we spent hours on beaches and by pools, and gently feeling our way around our new territory. Every Sunday was spent exploring the island, which proved to be so much more interesting than I had ever imagined.
In the whole of my first year I had two moments of doubt. One concerned the boys’ schooling, and it could have happened anywhere. It was more to do with an individual teacher than the entire school, but it was the only thing which really worried me. I applied logic and I sorted it out, pretty much in the same way that I would have done had we still been in the UK.
The other moment was simply down to exhaustion I think. In the first couple of weeks, after the upheaval of the actual move, still waiting for our possessions to arrive, without a car and, simply, tired and frustrated, I found myself crying silently in the supermarket because I couldn’t find what I needed. I knew the causes. I was intending to chill out for a bit anyway, but it did make me realize that there were going to be more changes than I expected. Despite being surrounded by names I knew in the supermarket I was also surrounded by the unfamiliar. I couldn’t understand some of the labels (I’ll deal with the language in a minute), nor even the cooking instructions on some products which were familiar. These days there is a much wider range of products available here, but if you are moving to somewhere quieter or less accustomed to catering for foreigners then you will find the same. It didn’t take long to adjust, and shopping was the first, best way to learn Spanish. Smaller shops or supermarkets where you buy separately from the butcher, fishmonger or deli departments are great learning resources! Simply point and ask! I never came across a server who wasn’t delighted to help me learn the correct words for things.
I wasn’t in a mood to do much, but then, nothing much happens here in late July and August anyway. Offices close or only have skeleton staff, or close early because of the heat. Air conditioning was rare, but those traditions remain to this day when most important offices do have air con. It’s just a stagnant time, laziness permeates everything. So, come September, school began, and I began to think about organizing my life.
Work and Paperwork
The first thing was to attempt getting a work permit, or at the least a resident’s permit, register with social security, and change my driving licence. There were countless visits to Santa Cruz and one visit back to the UK, the whole process was confusing and to this day I have no idea exactly why I had to do some of the stuff. It was a matter of muddling from one instruction to the next. It was years before I knew that I should have registered with a local doctor, as we had private health insurance it didn’t come up until I started working. If you are too ill to work you need confirmation from your “official” doctor, not your private one. In retrospect we were too willing to trust the apparently charming con-man who assured us he would get all our paperwork done. That’s so easy to do when you don’t speak the language.
Thinking back to those days, I realize how easy it is for English-speaking people coming here to live now. There is so much more here that is familiar than there was back then, and whilst that is one of the things which bugs me, for anyone starting a new life it has to be easier. The other huge difference, of course, is the EU. Free movement of labor within EU borders means that anyone born within them can move around at will. In July of 1987 getting the paperwork right was a huge pain in the you-know-what, and there were sharks preying on folk desperate to get a work permit. I lost around 500 sterling that way, and I never did get a work permit until the laws changed.
These people still exist, but their market, of course, is now non-EU citizens, and I heard of a case similar to mine only last year. It even sounded as if it might be the same con-man, still around. Anyone non-European applying for a work permit or residence should be very careful, and trust only reputable and qualified people to help. Don’t, whatever you do, rely on information from ex-pat fora, they are, sadly, frequented by far too many disgruntled and bitchy folk, but by all means take a look and check out points they bring up. You’ll find that often they are moaning because they have insufficient command of the local language, or because things are done differently from “back home.” Check with your consulate if you want a list of reliable lawyers or professionals to help you smooth it all out.
Change One: I would check out very carefully anyone asking for money to help with paperwork, even if they claim to be qualified, and I’d do as much investigating myself to confirm everything. The internet makes this so easy now!
Finding a Home
Remember, we had a young family. We’d sold a family house in the UK, and were looking to buy a home suitable to raise our family here. Not everyone is thinking of a long-term commitment like buying a house, I know. For us it was tempting to buy the first home we were offered. It was on a new golf resort which was barely developed, it had a great garden, little traffic and was close to the ocean. There were great little bays of black rock and sand to explore at the water’s edge, and it even came with a daily maid, who worked for a ridiculous wage in those days. We arranged to rent it for a while until we got the feel for our new home, and this is one thing we did absolutely correctly. We knew after a while that the area wasn’t for us, and six months on we began to look for our true dream home. I would strongly advise anyone in the same position to do that, even though there is the extra move involved. I would have gone crazy had I lived on that golf course.
Our subsequent experience was a bit fraught, and may have made a world of difference to my life here. We’d contracted to buy a house in a local village, the sort of place where we would have been a part of the community if we chose to, and where we would have learned Spanish much more quickly. However, at the 11th hour the owner was taken ill, and ordered to bed rest for a long period. He clearly couldn’t sell, and we had a short time to find something else before our lease ran out. No doubt about it, we chose in haste. Part of me has no regrets on several levels the property was perfect for our lifestyle then, and the location was interesting. Neighbors originated from just about every country in Europe, it was very international, but so far as absorbing a real Canarian experience it was fatal. I resurrected my schoolgirl German and a little French, and my Spanish did improve a bit, but not much, as a result of living there. If not a British ghetto, it was an ex-pat one, and interesting without doubt, but it wasn’t a community with roots, and I think we missed out on or delayed an appreciation of Canarian culture, and what is the point of being here, or anywhere, if you don’t absorb the local life?
If you are buying, and I can’t say this strongly enough. Check out the estate agent who is offering the property you want to buy. Don’t just believe all the fancy things they say on their website or advertising, even though it may be true, it is probably also meaningless in the real world. Whilst the internet has made browsing properties so much easier, it’s also made it harder to figure out which estate agents are genuinely honorable and which just have good marketing. Also check out the lawyer you are using, especially if he is recommended by the estate agent. In fact, far better to find your own lawyer rather than use one recommended by an estate agent.
The way estate agents earn their commission here is probably not what you are used to. They don’t work for a percentage commission as they used to do in the UK (I have to say I’m so out of touch with there that I don’t know if they still do that, but an average commission used to be around 2% of the sale price). It’s very hard to get estate agents here to commit to a realistic valuation of your property when you’re selling. In fact, they often ask you what price you have in mind, and then stick their commission on top – so if you’ve undervalued they make a whopping great commission, and if you ask them to value then you still run some risk. Of course there are decent ones, and the only way to find out is to ask, and ask and ask again until you are certain that they are as honest as possible, and keep a sharp eye yourself on advertising of similar properties in the area. That said, if you have a good agent, who knows more about selling your property, the agent or the guy next door who is a retired school teacher? Take the gossips with a pinch of salt again, and remember, at the end of the day, if you are selling, the agent doesn’t get paid if he doesn’t sell, so it isn’t in his interest to over price your property, nor is it in his interest to spend a fortune promoting your property if you have overpriced it yourself.
If you are renting, make sure that you have a proper contract. I’ve heard, even recently, of people being told to leave properties with no notice on a landlord’s whim. Make sure you know the length of the contract and when any rent increases are due, so when you want to leave you can do so when you want to, and if you want to stay the rent won’t be doubled overnight.
Change Two: Well, no change, really. We took our time (about 9 months) looking around until we found what we thought was the right property, subsequent results were a one-off thing, given that scenario again, I’d have put stuff in storage if necessary, until we found the right location. We didn’t have any problems with agents because my ex was working in the sector, but in any event, we ended up buying privately.
Learning the Language
So, after the first few weeks, not house hunting, not working, and kids ensconced in school, what did I do? Well, actually, I did a little “under the table” work for a short-term project, but other than that, looking back, I wonder. Sure, it was priority to make sure the kids were safe, and feeling okay about it all, but even so I let myself down. At the beginning I was a bit thrilled at how easily I was picking up Spanish vocabulary. I’d done both Latin and French in school, and both helped in recognizing and learning words, so it came easily and quickly, and having come, stuck, but didn’t evolve. I did take some classes, but the trouble was that the entire class was held back by a very nice, but totally language-challenged man. He asked so many questions (many foolish), that, most of us gave up. We weren’t getting anywhere. Much better, if you can, to get one-to-one lessons, or even better two-to-one. I can speak from experience now because I’m teaching ESL, and the best classes are two-to-one, because there is still an additional person from which to bounce ideas, but not so many that you get bogged down. Eventually, I registered to take the “O” level (or whatever it’s now called) Examination with the British school, although I continued my private lessons I had to take the exam at a qualified examination center, and having registered it gave me the motivation I’d lacked previously, and I did well.
Speaking the language / interacting with local folk is a Catch 22 situation. Without the language you can’t interact so well, and without the interaction with native speakers you can’t improve your ability to speak the language. The best advice I was ever given (although it took me ages to act on it) was, “Don’t be afraid to try. No-one is going to laugh at you.” That was so true when I eventually did summon up the courage. Oh, shopping was a doddle, and eating out even more so, you can manage without being able to decline a verb, no problem, but getting to know someone, or take part in a community is hard unless you get to a sufficient level. It’s also embarrassing to go to the tax office/hospital/social security department/accountant and take an interpreter. English and Germans have this in common. We don’t bother to learn the language of the country in which we reside, mostly it seems that other nationalities do. I know that’s a vast generalization but overall it’s true, at least it is here on this island. One of the reasons, of course, is that so many places do speak English or German, but it’s totally, totally wrong and stupid not to try to speak as much as one can, given that some people have different learning capacities than others. I’m still embarrassed far more often than I should be by my mistakes or lack of knowledge. My level is now sufficient for my daily life, for friendships, for the courses I’ve done (including one fairly complicated course in immigration law), for the volunteer work I’ve done, for shopping, for going to see a movie, for most medical visits, for town hall visits and for reading local newspapers to keep up with happenings around the islands, but it often falls short on the complicated stuff, like the ongoing traumatology visits for instance. That said, I always remember the “Don’t be afraid” advice, and these days I plunge in before realizing that possibly the necessary vocabulary is lacking – much to the embarrassment of my sons at times!
Change Three: Learn the language as quickly and as thoroughly as you can, by whatever method is right for you. I totally reject that it’s impossible for some people. You just have to find the right way for you. I ‘ve met people with little education who can’t write a word of Spanish, but who can speak almost like a native. Even on an island like this where your own language is common it will open up so much more of life to you, more experiences, deeper relationships and better understandings. Afterall, just WHAT is the point of being here if you are simply continuing to live the same life you lived back home? Just what are you either contributing or gaining from your ex-pat experience?
Becoming Part of the Community
- This is the biggest change I would make if I was immigrating now. I would find some way to take part in my local community as quickly as possible. First, of course, you need to learn some language, but you will be amazed how little you can begin with, and how quickly it will improve if you actually HAVE to speak it.
- If you have children then the easiest way is through the school, volunteer when there are plays, fiestas or sports events, make costumes, drive the kids to games, make cakes, anything. Perhaps these are not the people with whom you will end up being friends forever, but it’s a beginning, and other parents will be thrilled that you are making an effort to be friendly and learn about their traditions.
- If you are working in a local business then it’s even easier. If you’re doing that then you must already speak sufficient language. Take every opportunity to get a beer after work, join in the lottery ticket buying, get in the coffees, lunch, dine or party with your colleagues. Again, maybe they won’t end up being bosom buddies, but it’s the first step on the road. Don’t be shy, your efforts will be appreciated.
- If you have no kids and you’re working in an ex-pat business it’s not so easy, granted. This is where choosing the right location to live comes in, local bars, cafés, shops and other businesses are useful ways to meet folk if you live in the right place. If you are part of a couple you have to make a bit of extra effort, not to sit in the bar and just gaze into each other’s eyes, you have to be friendly and make contact with other customers! Go to the local fiestas and events eat, laugh and dance with your neighbors.
- If there is an opportunity for volunteer work then do it. Opportunities will vary according to where you are and your language level. My personal experience came via the Cruz Roja Española, where I found that a considerable number of volunteers in my local branch were ex-pats of some nationality or other. Stopping a lady in Adeje the other day, who was dressed in a brand-new Protección Civil uniform, to ask for directions, we realized that she wasn’t Spanish, and didn’t even speak it that well, but I’ll bet my bottom dollar she’ll be speaking like a native this time next year, and will feel good about being a part of and contributing to her local community.
- Take a course. Most local authorities, here and elsewhere, these days offer all sorts of courses, or at least advertise them on behalf of groups or schools. If you pop into Arona’s Casa de Cultura you will find information on courses in photography, make-up, yoga, flower arranging, languages, design, theater and movement and alternative medicine this month, next month it may be different kinds of music, folk dancing, painting, pottery or making jewellery.
- If you are a sports enthusiast it’s probably superfluous to say “Just do it”. Sports activities are just great ways of getting to know other people. Don’t let lack of language stop you from joining a gym or a football or cricket team or whatever! I repeat – quickest way to learn is to share an interest.
The biggest change I would make and the best piece of advice I could give anyone is embrace your new life and all it offers you with passion and energy. Don’t be shy, don’t procrastinate. You emigrated for a reason. You wouldn’t be wherever you are if you didn’t have spunk and curiosity. It might be that they deserted you after all the upheaval of moving, it might be that you are a bit overwhelmed at first by the strangeness of it all. It might not be what you expected, worse, better or just different, but life is what YOU make it, wherever you are.