I’ve moved country twice in my life. The first time, in 1991, I moved from Germany to the UK, and last year, I left the UK for Spain. And I’m finding the whole experience quite different this time round, especially in the areas of making friends, language learning and integrating into society.
It’s not the same changing your country of residence when you’re barely 20 and taking up sticks as a middle aged crone. Also, people regard you differently. In a nutshell:
Moving at 20: they think you’re adventurous and looking to broaden your horizons
Moving at 40: they think you’re eccentric (that’s really a euphemism for ‘insane’) and running away from something (by ‘something’ they mean yourself)
Building a Social Circle
When you’re older, making new friends is a bit like going house hunting at Breezy Point after hurricane Sandy. There ain’t much left still standing, and whatever appears to be holding up, is best approached with the utmost caution.
In their late teens/early twenties, everybody’s pretty much clueless, it’s all a bit experimental, it’s about new people and new experiences. At this tender age, the usual scenario for people leaving their birth country is to study or start a new job. In either case, on arrival, there will be hordes of other eager puppies bounding up to them, tails wagging, desperate to find pals to crack open a can of beer with.
Not so at 40. Proper responsible adults are married and busy chauffeuring their kids to oboe lessons and, in what would be their spare time, they are running themselves ragged looking after ailing parents. Besides that, they’ve also got to earn a living, so there is very little room for anything – or anyone – else.
When you do find someone potentially willing to add a tiny trickle of fresh blood to their social mix, and their conversational topics extend beyond junior’s college applications and organising the remodelling of the guest bathroom, you probably end up being squeezed into a 3.15-4pm slot every other Thursday. And you’d be lucky!
I’ve been in Spain for 14 months now, and my Spanish is probably comparable to my level of English four months after my arrival in the UK. I don’t think my excruciatingly slow progress has much to do with my age, lol, but that it’s down my life circumstances being completely different now compared to the first time I did this.
When I moved to the UK, it was for a job as a Food Technician, which meant constantly flitting between the factory floor, the lab and the offices, communicating with a bunch of different people all day. Eventually, I even managed to comprehend the kind of English spoken on the production line. That was quite a learning curve…
On top of that, I was living with British people, so it was non-stop surround sound. Exhausting for the brain, certainly, but I made swift progress. And within a short space of time, I added le pièce de résistance: a boyfriend.
Today, I’m in quite a different position. I work at home on my own in front of the computer, reading and writing in English. If I didn’t make an effort, entire days could pass by without me having to speak any Spanish at all.
To try and make up for this lack of natural day-to-day exposure, I took Spanish classes for the first nine months. (I never had any formal English lessons in the UK.) I’m also heavily involved in language exchange meetings, and, of course, I spend time socially with the friends I’ve made.
I am slowly improving, but in a far less organic way compared to two decades ago in the UK.
This time, it seems, I’m not sliding as seamlessly into the societal fabric as I did in the UK, despite the fact that all the people I socialise with locally are Spanish, and that I haven’t been ensconcing myself in expatlandia (which really isn’t my style, anyway).
I’m convinced the main stumbling block is that I’m not employed by a local company. Going to work every day and building relationships with Spanish workmates, I believe, would make a massive difference in terms of being regarded as a social equal, i.e. as somebody who shares the same day-to-day experiences.
From the reactions I’ve been getting, being freelance writer with a client base abroad is a somewhat exotic concept for people in a medium-sized Spanish town. In North London, where I lived before moving here, freelancing is a fairly common way of earning a living. People are even more perplexed when I tell them that I pay income tax and social security contributions here in Spain, just like they do.
Lastly, there’s the seemingly trivial matter of appearance, but I think it does have an impact. Being pasty faced and fuzzy haired, in the UK, I blended right in. Not so in Spain. Granted, the visual difference between me and the majority of the local populace is not as stark as if I’d moved to, say, Japan or Rwanda, but I do look suspiciously like a foreigner emanating from snow swept forests of Northern Europe. And once I open my mouth, this is confirmed.
Last week, I was listening to a podcast, where a Brit, who’s been living in Spain for well over a decade with his Spanish wife AND who speaks excellent Spanish to boot, commented on the fact that he was still being treated as a foreigner a lot of the time. I must admit, this didn’t exactly inspire me with confidence. After living in the UK for about half a decade, people there had made me feel as much as a foreign body as Big Ben.
Anyway, let’s see how things develop, it’s way too early to assess this last aspect properly. Sangría season starts again in April, and all my hopes are firmly pinned on that.
[P.S. I’ve written a couple of posts on what it was like for me when I first arrived in Spain – the red tape, the frothing-at-the-mouth frustrations, the little hilarities…]