Bursting The Expat Bubble
“Expats everywhere, including in southern Spain’s Alpujarra region,” writes Spain Correspondent Susan Rensberger, “fall into one of two categories: Those who want to adapt to their new culture and surroundings…and those who want their new surroundings to adapt to them.
“Visiting with expat Anne Hunt over a cup of tea at her bed and breakfast in Alpujarra, the conversation turned to how newcomers to a new country can either enrich their new community or overrun the local culture.
“British tourists and expats fed much of the building boom along Spain’s Costa del Sol over the past two decades. The result was huge apartment complexes over-running many local towns. Anne, who moved to Spain from London nine years ago, explains that many of her compatriots chose to ‘live in a bubble’ of their own culture.
“‘They wanted to eat fish and chips in British pubs and read British newspapers,’ she continues. ‘Basically, they liked the sun and the beach, and that was all.’
“Nerja, a coastal resort town less than an hour south of Alpujarra, was a poor fishing village a few decades ago. Now it’s home to many British expats, British-owned businesses, and urbanisations, or residential developments. It’s one of the places where expats migrating to this part of the world in recent decades could choose to remain in their bubble if they wanted.
“Unlike many of coastal towns, though, Nerja retained its Spanish look, if not entirely its Spanish culture. I’ve met British expats from Nerja who learned the language, culture, and history, became part of the community, and later moved to Granada, where daily life is conducted in Spanish.
“Many British expats in Nerja, however, remained long-term visitors.
“‘When the pound greatly lost value against the euro [after the 2008 global economic crisis],’ Anne says, ‘that was disastrous for many of these expats, and a lot of them left. It was easier for those who had integrated into the communities around them to stay. For them the experience had become about more than the cost of living.’
“A Nerja real estate agent told me that today she meets more newcomers and tourists from Scandinavia, Russia, Canada, and the United States than from Britain.
“In August, when I visited Nerja, the streets were crowded with tourists, as was the town’s famous Balcony of Europe, a palm-lined plaza on a point of land overlooking the Mediterranean. Around me, people were speaking German, Dutch, French, Japanese, and European languages I couldn’t identify, along with English and Spanish. Every store and restaurant had someone who spoke English, to meet the demand.
“I thought of a friend in southern California, a college professor who struggles to keep up with classes that have doubled in size, while pay falls and the cost of living rises. I tell her that she could live better for much less in Latin America, or even Spain, as I am doing now. She replies, ‘But Susan, you know Spanish.’
“Yes, but I didn’t six years ago when I moved to Panama. I moved alone without knowing the language or virtually anything about the country. Though I’m glad I made the move, it was a hard transition. For many people, moving to a new country and culture is enough to take on at one time. Not understanding the language can be one hurdle too many.
“That’s one thing I like about Nerja. This is an area where you could get established using English alone, while you learn Spanish. Once you know the language and have made the transition to living outside your home culture, all of Spain and Latin America are open to you, as well, and the next move is easier.
“Wherever you go, deciding whether to make the community where you live home or to remain a visitor has a profound effect on the quality of your experience. Anne Hunt measures her success as an expat by the depth of her connections with both Spanish and international friends.
“‘I can think of 8 or 10 people who would help me immediately, if I got sick or had an accident,’ she says.
“Even so, integration into the village of Ferreirola, where Anne has lived since 2005, has taken a long time.
“‘I always felt I was tolerated but not really part of the community,’ she explains. ‘Then last year, I mentioned to a man in the village that I would like a space to grow vegetables.
“‘The next day,’ she continues, ‘another man showed up at my gate to say I could use his garden, across the road from my house. It belongs to him and his cousin, and they weren’t using it.’
“When she started working the land, Anne continues, ‘I felt like the darling of the village.’
“The town’s walled gardens and orchards make it distinctive, but many have fallen into disuse. Some people want to build new homes in the old gardens, but Anne and many of the aging residents would rather see them cultivated again.
“‘Now the old men like to stand behind the wall at the top of the garden and give me advice while I work,’ Anne says. ‘One will tell me, Ana, you have to plant your cucumbers now. Another will say, No, Ana, it’s too early! They like to argue about what I should do,’ she says, smiling.”