What makes a family want to uproot themselves and move to a completely different country?
There is nothing easy about giving up everything we know. Especially when it comes to family and friends. All the things that we grew up knowing and being comfortable with have been replaced with uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Some of our friends thought we were crazy, some also thought we’re brave. I think we are a mixture of both.
Nearly five years on, I feel that I’m finally ready to give an insight into the challenges that we have faced over the years. I hope it’ll help some people like ourselves to have an idea of the realities of what it’s like being an expat family living in Valencia.
WE DECIDED TO FOLLOW OUR DREAMS
Of course moving to a different country is not something we thought about on a whim. My husband and I considered it for a long time. We run our own business from home. We’re a couple of geeks that spend most of our days in front of the computer. Even though the idea of working from home may be a dream for a lot of people, it’s not always as amazing as it seems.
We wanted more from life, we felt restless. We have the opportunity to work wherever in the world we want, why stay in one place? I love the UK and all our family and friends are there, but something was missing. We need to do the best for us and aim for the lifestyle that we wanted. This is when the thoughts about living abroad became more than just a dream.
So, our research began. We considered countries such as Italy, Greece, America, Canada, Asia and even Australia. Some were too far, language too hard and some just didn’t feel right.
We always came back to Spain. But we didn’t want to live in an all British community. I mean what’s the point of leaving England? We wanted a change. I know having a complete lifestyle overhaul isn’t for everyone but this idea seemed attractive to us.
THE BIG STEP TOWARDS VALENCIA
After two years of research and getting things together, we finally thought we’d go for it. We choose Valencia because it seemed like the perfect location. With only 2 hours flight to the UK, seeing family and friends will not be an impossible task.
Compared to the largest cities such as Madrid and Barcelona, Valencia is perfect. We wanted something a little quieter, less crowded and inexpensive. As for the language, we knew that this was going to be a challenge but not impossible. We gathered as much information as we could and enrolled ourselves to Spanish classes before the big move.
THE BEST PLACE TO LIVE
Searching for the ‘perfect’ place to live was another thing. We had an idea of what kind of lifestyle we wanted. The best thing about living in Valencia is that we’re never far from the beautiful beaches and mountains. So even though we opted to live a little bit more inland we know that it only takes 20 minutes to get to the city.
The best places to live in Valencia is also entirely relative. It depends on what kind of lifestyle you are looking for. Of course, if you have school age kids it’s important that you find the right school for them. If you’re a couple who want the quiet life then maybe the countryside is the best for you. Valencia offers so much in regards to lifestyle whatever your age and preference. But you have to know yourself what is the best for you in the long term.
THE REALITY OF LIVING IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
At first, we opted for a rented chalet in the countryside, but with that, also came inconveniences. For instance, going to school. Unless you lived in the town, then you will need a car to drive your children every day. This also applies to going to the shops. It might be great for the first few months but imagine doing it for years?! Back in the UK, we lived in an area where everything was within walking distance. If you choose to live in the country in Spain, then be prepared to drive every where.
After three years of living in the country, we decided that the life in the sticks wasn’t really for us. Even though the idea seemed great at the time we came to the conclusion that it was not practical. We still liked the conveniences. Such as not driving far to do the shopping. Also having the amenities ideal for socialising and the community centre is good for our kids and of course our Spanish!
So, two years ago we decided to move to an urbanisation nearer to our town. Getting to school wasn’t such a chore anymore. A five-minute drive to town was nothing compared to the 20 minutes (1hr 20 mins a day!). What a welcome relief! Living in an urbanisation means that we have neighbours. During the summer months, we have a community centre with a bar, pool and sports facilities. So much better for the kids and our sanity!
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE AND INTEGRATING INTO THE COMMUNITY
Living in a small town also means that the majority of the residents are Spanish speaking compared if you lived in the city. This is especially difficult if you’ve just moved in. Normal errands such as going to the post office, doctors, schools and shops mean that you need to polish your Spanish unless you want to be seen as that ignorant foreigner.
I have found the Valencian people very welcoming and friendly, but unless you make an effort with the language and make the first move then it will be quite difficult to integrate. We have found ourselves in the most embarrassing situations may it be trying to explain what we want or need in a form of broken Spanish or sign language, but you know what, we all laugh and it breaks the ice. They don’t mind so much that you make an ass of yourself as long as they see you try!
MISSING THE THINGS WE TOOK FOR GRANTED BACK HOME
Things such as getting a parcel delivered or having a decent internet connection was also a problem. Especially if you live a little out of the way. Unfortunately, some parts of Spain is still a little behind when it comes to these things.
During our first year, it was particularly frustrating that we couldn’t have any parcels delivered to our home. Even though we were advised to have a post office box (apartado) in town to take our deliveries, sometimes the courier couldn’t even find that!
Running our business from home also means that our internet connection needs to be reliable. This was our first priority when looking for a house. Unless we opted to live in the city then we need to accept that we will never have super fast (fibre) internet!
Thankfully we found a company that delivered a ‘decent’ internet connection through WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) so far so good and it delivers enough for us to work without problems – most of the time!
REGRET TO HOMESICKNESS
No doubt the first year and a half were the hardest.
Doubt, homesickness, regret are just some of the emotions I went through. As much as I prepared myself for the changes there were times when I questioned whether we have done the right thing. Normal things became huge challenges and I worried continuously about the children.
The language was a huge obstacle. Even though we learnt Spanish a year before moving, nothing can really prepare you as soon as you start living the reality of being an expat/migrant in a different country. There are times when I felt so overwhelmed and frustrated. That’s when regret started to play on my mind. But of course, quitting is not an option, we knew that this wasn’t going to be easy.
GETTING TO GRIPS WITH THE SPANISH EDUCATION SYSTEM
If you decide to put your child into a Spanish school, then be prepared to do a lot of hard work!
It is also better to get them started as young as possible. Even though it’s not easy, your child will have a lot more time to learn. With two languages to learn; Valenciano and Castellano, they need all the help they can get! There is no obvious help when it comes to helping your child with Valenciano and Castellano subjects. I had to do my own research and ask around to find out what help is available for parents like myself.
Spanish schools also give out a lot of homework, this can prove difficult if your child is still getting to grips with the language. There had been times when we have been so overwhelmed with it all. My advice is, do not be scared to ask for help. Whether it’d be in a form of private tutoring or asking the teachers what is the best way to tackle your child’s homework!
PRIVATE EDUCATION IS NOT ALWAYS THE BEST OPTION
At first, we thought that putting our child in a well known private school will be a lot more beneficial than putting him in a public school. We had the idea that IF we paid for his education, then it will be better for him in the long run. How wrong were we?!
For three years the (private) school lead us to believe that he was doing well, and his grades ‘proved’ otherwise. But then it started to dawn on us that he was not progressing as much as we would like. There was also the issue of the distance I had to travel to get him to school on a daily basis. Forty minutes there and back twice a day, five days a week. I wasn’t getting anything done.
We spoke to other families British and Spanish who also pulled their kids out of ‘that’ school. They all had the same complaint. The school was more interested in the money than actually helping our kids. It was a business.
After that realisation, we decided to pull our child out and enrol him into the public school. There we found out that my son was very behind. The teachers couldn’t understand why we were told that he was doing well when he wasn’t. We felt cheated and angry.
We thought that by paying for his education that he will be better off. He wasn’t. We had to start all over again. I felt so guilty and I wish I placed him in the public school in the first place. It has taken a year and a half to get him back to the routine of things. Thanks to the help of his teachers and extra tutoring, he has finally reached the level he should be.
Moving to any country can be intimidating and we have made some mistakes and learnt many things. But it has also provided us with the lifestyle that we have dreamt of. The Spaniards, Valencians, in particular, have been welcoming. We have experienced adventures that would never have been possible if we would have stayed back home.
Overcoming the language barrier is tough unless you are prepared to invest your time to learn. Be a part of the community. Yes, you will always be known as the extranjero, but once you have attended a few parties, socialise with the locals then they’ll soon think that you’re actually OK!
Since living here, I have become more resilient and resourceful when it comes to parenting. I have the obligation to make everything work for my child and have found abilities and strengths that I didn’t know I had!
As an expat parent, you will find that you will have a little or no support network. That is why it’s important that you build relationships within the community that you live in. Ask around, speak to other expats. The local council or ayuntamiento usually have information on what is going on or available in your area.
Once you have overcome homesickness and those niggling thoughts about ‘back home things were easier’ then you can move forward and create the life that you have always imagined. Of course, it will not always be perfect, but in time you’ll certainly look back and be proud that you had the courage to take a chance and make it work.
Are you an expat family living abroad? How did you overcome the challenges that you and your family faced? Would you do things a little differently and what kind of advice would you give to a family who is considering living abroad? I would love to know! Please leave your thoughts below.