Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age

Becoming an Ex-Pat: Stage One: Making the Decision


I suppose that we all emigrate for different reasons, to get away from something or someone, to make a new start, curiosity, the travel bug, for a better life, for a healthier life, because our company sent us abroad,  or just on impulse.  For me it was a combination of several of those things.

We’d been talking about emigrating, kind of half-heartedly, forever it seemed.  Every vacation renewed enthusiasm, but the dreams got buried under the pressures of the daily grind once we were home. In the end, it was an impulsive suggestion on the part of my then-partner, and a heartfelt “yes,” and a mental punching of the air from me when he broached the subject, even though I’d never been to Tenerife…….I would have gone just about anywhere for the experience, the only proviso being that there would be a decent education for the kids, who were 5 and 3 then.

Looking back now, just coming up to 24 years of living here, I can see that there were stages in arriving at where I am at right now.  I don’t know that it’s the same for everyone.

Stage One starts even before you leave – making the decision.  Ours was spontaneous in the end, even though the idea of emigrating wasn’t, and it probably isn’t the right way for most people to go about it.   Even before you consider where you’d like to be living a year from now, you should think about whether you’re okay about leaving behind family, friends, possessions and places, and consign all the memories attached to them to the filing cabinet in your brain marked “archive”. Observing couples over the years, convinces me that if you are in a relationship you both need to be committed to the idea, open to new ideas and experiences, and aware of the pressure.

You both need to be aware that you are going to spend time in a kind of no man’s land, where you are neither vacationer nor local, and where even tracking down a bag of self-raising flour in the supermarket may present a challenge you’re not used to.  I vividly remember what was probably my third or fourth visit to a supermarket, silent tears rolling down my cheeks, frustrated both by my inability to understand labels, and by the fact that many products I took for granted weren’t available here (and some still aren’t)……said supermarket became my favorite, and I always knew I was home after a time away, when I came back to the friendly smiles and chats with the staff.

Your choice, if not decided for you by work, is likely to be somewhere you’ve visited on vacation or for work, so you may know your way around a bit, but be aware that there is a big difference between being on vacation somewhere, and actually living a normal life there, especially if you are coming to somewhere like the Canary Islands or the South of Spain, i.e. popular tourist destinations.  As the saying goes, if I had a euro for every person I’ve met here who came with the idea that the streets were paved with gold, and he/she would be spending their days lying on the beach I would definitely be rich.  Your expectations need to be realistic.  Yes, for my money, leisure time is very pleasurable here, made easier by the constant sunshine and warm breezes, but unless you’ve won the lottery (and I’ve also seen winners come and blow their entire fortune) you’ll need to work.  Why would you think you need to put in less hours than you would in Manchester or Solihull, Newark or Detroit?

If you don’t have work to go to, then check out the job prospects very, very carefully before you go, that goes without saying, after that, everybody has their own priorities in life, but here are some things to consider:

  • If English is not the first language of the country, and you don’t already speak Spanish/French/Mandarin/Whatever, how realistic is it to expect to learn a new language?  Do you already have a second language?  Have you learned foreign languages in school?  If you’ve done other languages you’ll almost certainly find it easier to pick up a third.  There are places, and this island is one, where you can get by for years without speaking the local language (and believe me, here, there are lots of people who don’t speak a word of Spanish even though they’ve lived here for 20 years!), but it narrows your job prospects, restricts your social life, and at the end of the day, what is the point of living in a foreign country if you are not going to fully appreciate the experience?  I’m ashamed that I don’t speak Spanish as fluently as I should, but I have enough to listen to the local news, understand events I go to, and carry on conversations.  If I couldn’t do those things I would be living in my own little vacuum, and not getting anything out of or putting anything into the local community.
  • If you have children, then schools are going to be a top priority.  My partner was buying a business here, so work wasn’t an issue (though buying a business abroad is a whole, other, fraught subject!), so being comfortable with the school by kids were going to attend was at the very top of my list.  We chose a British school, because at that time, Spanish schools in the south left something to be desired, the area being very much in a stage of development, where services were struggling to catch up, but if there are good schools around, then there is no better way for kids to integrate than via school.  They’ll find it tough at first, but they invariably latch on pretty fast to both language and customs, and the whole family will benefit too.  You may want to either home school them or get them private English lessons, though.  At the end of the day, it’s their first language, and they will need to be competent in it in future.
  • Thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly check the paperwork you need to become resident and to work in your new country.   Don’t blow a thousand euros/dollars on an airfare, and then find out that you can’t work, or even live for more than 3 months in your new country.  If you are a national of an EU country then it’s a doddle these days, but 20+ years ago we found that although my partner, as the owner of a business, was able to work at first, I wasn’t.  I couldn’t even officially work in the business, and I also had to go back to the UK a couple of times chasing up a missing paper.  Not the end of the world, but inconvenient and costly.  Speak to people who’ve already done it, local ex-pat fora are useful for this, but be aware that they are often haunted by people who have some gripe or other, who often refuse to learn the local language (which causes then endless misunderstandings and problems), and that their experiences are personal to them.
  • Check out how the local health service works, and if you are entitled to use it.  Likewise, check out health insurance.  This is not an area you want to be wishy-washy about.  It’s important.  You don’t want to break your leg, and end up with a bill for thousands of euros which is going to curtail your lifestyle for the next ten years!
  • You will want to keep in touch with people back home.  Find out the cheapest way, because you will run up exorbitant phone bills if you don’t.
  • Check out whatever is important to you: a decent hairdresser if you like to look just so; is there a satellite tv system which will allow you to keep up with your favorite soccer/baseball/sports team; is there a gym/golf course/tennis courts …. and if not, does it really matter? Are there any local customs or religious practises which may be at odds with your personal beliefs?  How long would it take you to get back home in an emergency (a family member gravely ill for instance)?  Are there decent internet connections?  Can you buy camera/computer/whatever spare parts, your favorite make-up or get shoes in your size?  There are probably 101 things I could name, you know what your own hobbies and pastimes are, so make your own list.

Still thinking about it?  Then you’re ready for Stage Two.  More about that soon.



Author: IslandMomma

Exploring island life and the freedoms of Third Age: Challenging myself every day: writing, traveling, snapping pix, running & teaching ESL

4 thoughts on “Becoming an Ex-Pat: Stage One: Making the Decision

  1. Good advice! We didn’t look into any of these things before emigrating, but then we were young and optimistic, and my husband (then my boyfriend) had his first job, and the company did all the organisation. We arrived not speaking a word of the language, and though the employees were all given a Dutch course straight away, the partners had to wait for a few months.

    I remember walking around the supermarket with a Dutch-English dictionary, and one particular time when I asked someone to show me where the sugar was. No matter how many times I repeated the word (pronounced incorrectly, but not that much), the guy in the supermarket didn’t understand me; I had to point to it in the dictionary first. This at a time when my Dutch was already at a reasonable level. Some people just don’t want to understand. It also took me months to work out that Dutch orange squash is sold in tins, not plastic bottles; no wonder I couldn’t find it!

  2. It was lucky for me that I came to live in a country whose language evolved from Latin, because I’d done it in school (although failed miserably at it!), and it was an enormous help. It surprised me. Now I find when I go to Italy I can get by quite easily with a combination of Latin and Spanish! It’s also a delightful language to learn because the Spanish are a nation of “talkers”. They love to chinwag about just about anything, and are so helpful if you’re learning.

    My tears were not so much directly brought about by frustration as by exhaustion, a combination of handling most of the move single-handedly, and some person problems I thought I was escaping. I’m not usually nesh about that kind of thing. It must be so much easier now to move around within the EU. Back then I couldn’t even get a work permit, and the paperwork was horrendous.

    I had to smile about the orange squash. It’s those little things which remind us that there are differences sometimes, don’t you think, for all that the world is becoming more the same? I spent ages looking for eye-make-up remover tissues in Boots last time I was in England, and the reason I kept missing them was because they are made and packed so differently from here…….no tears that time though!

  3. I am having a delightful time reading through your blog! I’m about to emigrate to the Republic of Palau, but as an ethnically native ex-pat (my parents emigrated to the United States in the 1970s). It’s amazing to see all the reasons people decide to become ex-pats and just as much fun to see what they do for work in their new homelands!

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