Moving Countries: It doesn’t get any easier with practice

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!

Language Acquisition
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.

Social Integration
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…]

Advertisements

19 thoughts on “Moving Countries: It doesn’t get any easier with practice

  1. NorthernStar

    Well, I am still mightily impressed by the way you have made friends and a new life for yourself : ) Sangria has a season!? No one told me that! Booking my flights NOW…!

    Like

    Reply
  2. italkyoutalklanguages

    I can sympathize with the Brit on the podcast – after 12 years of being settled here, having a business and being fluent in the language, people still ask me when I am going home, and marvel at the fact I can use chopsticks, drive a car, have a bank account, pay tax, eat rice and know my way around town!

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I can sort of understand it if the cultural gap is very large (although it must be wearing for the no-longer-so-foreign foreigner), but I just don’t expect it to happen within Europe. We’ve got so much shared history, a broadly shared culture and shared values. Sure, there are differences, but they aren’t generally divisive. I’m still under the (maybe erroneous?) assumption that once I’ve mastered the language properly had have got to grips with cultural reference points, I’ll be assimilated.
      I realise, of course, that by now, I’ve no hope of ever fitting into any culture 100% 😉
      What a challenge it must be for you! I’d have loved to have gone to Japan to embrace the experience of getting used to something much more fundamentally different.

      Like

      Reply
  3. Kristin

    I completely agree with you. Normally, at a certain age, people tend to stay where they are and where they already have a set of friends that needs no additions. So trying to find a way in can be difficult. Also, I believe that we are more shy of opening up to strangers, as we often feel the pressure to prove how successful we are in life. It took me a while to shed away those layers and be my authentic me when meeting somebody for the first time, but a lot of people never do, and those are quite frankly boring.
    Languagewise, I am facing the same struggles like you. I mainly communicate in English and German (or Genglish), and given that I used to speak the Spanish language quite well in my 20s, I am not very pleased with my slow progress now.
    And then, yes, I also can relate to your point of “sticking out”. I have a very white skin which makes people stare at me, and even if I talk in Spanish to them, very often they answer in English. Probably to be polite but I always feel as if I were not speaking the language well enough…
    Thanks for this thoughful post!

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Thanks for your response, Kristin. It certainly does take time to make friends – years rather than months – and that goes for any age. I’ve actually managed to find a bunch of good people here, and it’s mainly a matter of putting in the time and effort. The thing is, I can’t see myself settling here “for good”, so that means I’ll have to do it all over again at some point. It’s a conundrum…
      I imagine Mexico to be even more challenging for Europeans wanting to settle.

      Like

      Reply
  4. roamingtheworld

    I give you props for uprooting yourself and trying anew in a new country with a different language. I’m only 2.5 months into my 2nd year as an almost 30 expat in Basque Country after a year in Andalucia and I’m finding it challenging. I’m meeting folks but lately, I’ve been wondering why I’m doing this to myself, if you know what I mean. Spanish still alludes me- I’ve improved a lot but am still far from the goal…

    The holiday season certainly doesn’t help!

    Hang in there! I hope some wonderful changes are just around the corner for you!

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Yes, the holiday seasons and one puente after another surely are a challenge. I mean, this week all I could hear on the radio was about the puente starting at 3pm on WEDNESDAY. So, they take half the week off because of one actual day that’s a designated holiday (Thursday). And then they wonder about productivity being low…? I don’t think Germans or Brits actually work any more hours than the Spanish, but it’s the distribution of those hours that seems to be the problem. I’ve got various thoughts on this, which may warrant a post. I shall expect hate mail in response, lol.
      I guess you’re having the added problem that castellano is not the first language in the Basque Country and neither, one could argue, in Andalucia.
      Why are we doing this to ourselves? Coz it feels really good to have overcome these problems…the satisfaction further down the line is immense. Alters your way of thinking and perceiving the world forever. Great stuff 🙂 And thanks for commenting!

      Like

      Reply
      1. roamingtheworld

        Yes yes yes.
        True about why we’re doing this to ourselves. I’m learning so much and even in the thick of it, I remind myself there are lessons I must learn. Going home early won’t allow me to escape what I must learn!

        And yes, I agree with the productivity too. I was under the illusion Spaniards had it better than other places but now I realize, it’s not all that it seems. I look forward to your posts.

        Luckily in Vitoria- I hear Castellano everywhere but it’s just focusing, praciticing, speaking on the daily that I need to do. I wonder if I’ll ever master it yet I know I can if I put my energy there!

        Like

      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to master it if it’s one of your priorities. I do think maintained focus and persistence matter more than any supposed “talent”. I know I’ll get there, albeit at a much slower pace than I had first envisaged. Nothing ever goes according to plan, lol.
        How long are you planning to stay?

        Like

  5. Loving Language

    Making friends when you’re portioning out to a demanding job and children is a much more complicated formula. Good insight. I try to find ways to socialize with my kids in tow–but not too boring.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      But on the other hand, kids attract the interest of other parents and instantly give you common ground to talk about. Puppies work well, too, I’ve heard, lol.
      Seriously now, it’s never easy, especially when you’re older, regardless of your life circumstances. I do get that.

      Like

      Reply
  6. Jennifer Avventura

    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) … you nailed it on the head for me with that statement! Thank you. I’ll be 38 in October and have been living in Italy for almost 6 years. We’ve decided that I would go back to Canada for a season to work, as there is nothing here in Sardinia for the winter months and we aren’t getting any younger. People certainly pass judgement; often thinking ‘again, there she goes, will she ever settle down.? 🙂

    Like

    Reply
  7. Anna

    Oh man, this is mildly disheartening, especially for a post-30 gal. My Scotland plan is: move to a farmhouse with my laptop, make friends with the regulars at a local watering hole in a fishing village, ride my stallion every morning, meet a wild Huntsman in the Highlands. Are you saying it’s not as easy as it sounds?

    Like

    Reply
  8. Karolyn Cooper

    I’m late to this post – it came up as a “related post” below today’s butchered heads…not sure why?! Anyway I agree about the difficulty of making friends as you get older. Expat communities are an exception – everyone is desperate for new friends to replace last season’s friends who have just left. But in settled communities it’s hard. I put people in boxes too – “she’s my yoga friend, it would never occur to me to invite her to a non-yoga event”.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      WP makes some curious associations between posts sometimes, LOL.

      You’re right about the ‘settled communities’ thing. It’s almost impossible to integrate, not only because people’s lives are already full, but also because not many will be able to relate to your “itchy feet”, or to the emotional upheaval that you’re going through.

      Like

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s