Category Archives: Living Abroad

The 18-Month Toledo Review – And Where To Next…?

I’ve been living in Toledo for a year and a half now. From the outset, I thought I might stay here for two or three years, and seeing as I’m half way, it’s time for a review.
The main reasons I chose Toledo as my first place to live in Spain were as follows:

  1. It has (or rather, its inhabitants have) the ‘right’ accent. Considering that I moved to Spain with the firm goal to finally learn the language properly, this was of prime importance. The costas sure are nice, but they either speak barely intelligible aberrations of Castilian Spanish, or different languages altogether.
  2. You can be at Madrid Airport in two hours flat by public transport
  3. It’s a (very pretty) small-ish town almost devoid of foreigners (except for masses of tourists). When you’re struggling with a new language, it’s extremely tempting to get sucked into the expat bubble to spare yourself the initial pain. Had I moved, for example, to Madrid first off, I would probably have ended up speaking English or German most of the time, and learning very little Spanish in the process.
Ah, Toledo... I found out today that it's home to 45 convents. But not a single Cake Order! I won't be signing up.

Ah, Toledo… I found out today that it’s home to 45 convents. But not one of them dedicates itself to eating cakes. I won’t be signing up.

Have I considered staying in Toledo for longer… perhaps even indefinitely? Yes. I’ve made some really nice friends here, and my heart aches at the thought of having to say goodbye, but deep down I know that it just won’t do for me in the long term. I need to be in a place that’s bigger and a little more ‘international’.

More frequently than I’d like, I find myself craving face-to-face contact with least a handful of people of different nationalities, and/or with Spanish people who have lived in other countries for a while. The experience changes you profoundly many ways that are difficult to describe, and I have to have some direct exposure to people who can relate to this. Also, I dream about fresh sushi and a gob-scalding curry… but there’s none of that to be had here. It’s ham and tortilla all the way. In short, I miss variety, and not just the culinary kind.

I’ve been ruminating over whether or not I should move to Madrid. At first glance, this would seem the most convenient option. It’s only 70 miles from Toledo, there’s a fairly decent train connection, so I would be able to see my Toledo friends regularly. They also speak Castilian Spanish in Madrid. Needless to say, it’s international, as you’d expect from a capital city.

Trouble is, every time I go there (which isn’t very often, I must admit), it fails to inspire me. I find the city a bit bland and generic looking. On top of that, it suffers the exact same extremes of temperatures that I find difficult to bear in Toledo – freezing cold in the winter and 45 stifling degrees in July and August.

So, now I’m thinking… Barcelona. I’ve never actually been there (embarrassing or what!), but it looks absolutely glorious. It has both sea and mountains, an airport, and sushi must exist there. It just has to!

The one major drawback, apart from being expensive (but then again, so is Madrid), is the language issue. They speak Catalan, although everybody also speaks Castilian Spanish, which is the second official language. And…I have to concede that living in a bilingual city does appeal to me. It’s very international, and I’m sure I’d even find a bunch of Brazilians before long to help me work on my Portuguese. A virtually impossible feat in Toledo!

As it stands, I’m in no desperate rush to move. I’m still enjoying Toledo, I’ll probably be here for another year or so, especially as I’ve got big travel plans towards the end of the year and don’t want to go through the hassle of a move between now and then.

I know that there are a lot of expat bloggers in Spain, so if anyone has any thoughts on this, I’m open to suggestions…

Who Smokes the Most Cigarettes? And What Are The Attitudes To Smoking In Different Countries?

Ah, smoking… a topic that should provide plenty of fodder for an animated discussion. I’m going to off start with a handful of statistics, followed by some observations and anecdotes about smoking culture in the few countries that I have direct experience of.

Eastern Europeans smoke the most
OK, numbers first. The market research company I do most of my freelance work for also keeps tabs on global cigarette sales. And even though I’ve no legitimate business rummaging around in there, I do, on occasions, wheedle my way into that part of the database, goaded by lurid fascination.

It tells me that global per capita consumption of cigarettes stood at 833 in 2011. That’s individual sticks, not packets. Eastern Europeans are the heaviest smokers – Belarus leads the pack (pardon the pun) with 3,080 cigarettes per head, followed by Serbia (2,946) and Russia (2,624). In fact, there are only two countries in the top ten that are not Eastern European, namely Greece and South Korea.

For added context, the four countries I’m going to be referring to in my observations below fare as follows: Spanish consumers racked up 1,378 cigs per head in 2011 (there is a steep downward trend, in 2006 it was 2,127), Germans
1,037, Americans 959 and Brits came in below the global average with 720.

Never make assumptions…
As to attitudes to smoking in various countries, I’m not planning to launch into an all-angles considered assessment, I’m just going to relay a couple of  anecdotes and some personal observations. I realise that your take on things may well differ considerably from mine.

In January 2011, Spain banned smoking in all bars and restaurants. The Spanish have a reputation for not giving a toss about regulations pertaining to behaviour in public spaces, but, much everyone's surprise, people are actually sticking to this one. I took this picture in a local cafe, with the 'No Smoking' sign neatly perched on top of a cigarette vending machine.

In January 2011, Spain banned smoking in all bars and restaurants. The Spanish have a reputation for not giving a toss about regulations pertaining to behaviour in public spaces, but, much to everyone’s surprise, people are actually sticking to this one.
I took this picture in a local cafe, with the ‘No Smoking’ sign neatly perched on top of a cigarette vending machine.

In 2011, at Christmas time, when I’d only been in Spain for a couple of months, a kind new friend invited me along to a pre-Christmas dinner at her house. There were about a dozen of us, and once the introductions were out of the way, one of the guests asked the hostess whether she minded him smoking in her living room. She told him to go ahead. When we took our seats at the table, I carefully chose the chair farthest away from him.

I needn’t have bothered. As soon as the desserts arrived, six people lit up in complicit unison. I sat there, watching what was happening in complete and utter incredulity. I also remember being slightly bemused by my own reaction – I had just assumed that this was no longer a socially acceptable behaviour in the ‘civilised world’.

I had really wanted to stay for the whole evening. All the people were lovely and interesting, and they were making a star effort to engage me in conversation, which I really appreciated, considering my quite limited Spanish conversation skills. One person smoking would have been bearable, but the combined fumes of six people puffing one after the other made my eyes water and my lungs burn. So, with much regret, I took off early.

Cultural differences and changing attitudes

I think my bias is clear: I’m no great fan of smoking. I grew up in a smoke-filled house, and there was no escape from it. My father, in particular, would regularly walk into my bedroom where he kept his tool cupboard, fag* ablaze.

Back in the 80s and early 90s, when I still lived in Germany, it was common for people to smoke while sitting at their office desks. When I moved to the UK in the early 90s, I immediately noticed that there was no smoking in the workplace.

And another thing caught my attention: Like in Spain, in Germany, smoking was (and still is) fairly evenly distributed throughout the socioeconomic classes, while in the UK (and, in my albeit much more limited experience, the US) educated middle class people rarely smoke. If they do, they usually resort to ‘stealth’ tactics, i.e. they smoke in their yards or on the balcony rather than inside their homes. This trend of not smoking in one’s living quarters also appears to have also taken hold in Germany in recent years.

A Spanish friend of mine told me an anecdote about a family visit to the US several years ago. As she and some other visitors got into her (American) sister-in-law’s car, her sister-in-law said, “Please don’t smoke in my car”. This struck my friend as a terribly rude request to impose on one’s guests. She laughs about this now, as she wouldn’t really want people to be smoking in her house or car either, but in Spain this is still quite commonly done and accepted.

If anyone wants to share their thoughts and experiences on this topic, I would love to hear them. But, please, let’s not descend to violently bashing smokers.

*) For the American reader contingent: “fag” is a British slang term for “cigarette”.


[For data source, click here]

Why Move To Spain? The Answer Is Clear.

Some of you might recall a post I wrote a while back entitled There Are Only Four Valid Reasons For Moving Country. While I was working on this,  I remembered an amusing phone conversation I once had with a fellow freelancer before I decided to move Spain. (I didn’t know him personally, I got his number from one of my clients.) He very kindly agreed to have a chat with me, for which I was (and still am!) very grateful. He gave me some valuable tips on freelancing from Spain, including the need to pay a whopping €254 monthly to social security, which, had he not warned me about it, might have toppled me off my chair when I registered as self-employed shortly after moving here.

But I digress… now, this guy had made the move from the UK a few years ago with his wife and kids. In the middle of imparting his wisdom to me, he suddenly asked, “And why is it that you want to move to Spain? It  is really important to be clear about your motivations before you do something like this. Never do it on a whim”, he went on, ” you need a sound enough reason. Do you know why we decided  to take this step?”

I sat there, in spell-bound anticipation, receiver pressed to my ear, waiting for his profound revelation. “I shall tell you,” he continued, “the weather. The weather with a capital ‘W’. We don’t care all that much for Spanish culture or the food or the people. We don’t really have much contact with them. But we just love the weather here”.

My friend sent me this picture she took in January this year, when London weather reaches the height of shittiness. This bus stop is a few minutes up the road on which I used to live. Ah, memories... ;-)

In January, London weather tends to reach the height of shittiness. My friend sent me this picture she took a bit over a month ago. This bus stop is a few minutes up the road on which I used to live. And now that I’m looking at this, I can almost see (part of) the freelancer’s point 😉

‘Moving’ to Key West… Shall I or Shan’t I…?

My Caribbean holiday has come to an end, sigh. I’m back in freezing-cold Toledo, suffering from a severe attack of the post-holiday blues.

I usually feel a bit lacklustre after a trip, that’s nothing new, but this time I’m more deflated than usual. The episode has made me realise just how much I miss my friends Vicky and Ian. Vicky is a long-standing, close friends of mine. She was my landlady and housemate for many years in London, and when she got married, she and her husband Ian bought a house three minutes away from me, so we continued to see a lot of each other. In 2011, the two of them decided to move to Key West. This provided the impetus for me to leave for Spain, which I’d been wanting to do for a long time anyway.

During my visit, Vicky and Ian were running a concerted campaign for me to come and live in KW. Their houseboat has a self-contained apartment on the lower deck, which would be ideal for me.

I am seriously tempted to take them up on it. Well, just to clarify, we’re talking about a temporary ‘move’ here, i.e. for a few months, rather than a permanent arrangement.

Here are the pros:

1. Instead of words, I give you this:

A Key West beach...aaaaaah...

A Key West beach…aaaaaah…

2. Spending time with Vicky and Ian, needless to say.
3. Vicky’s glorious cooking (in one of her many professional lives, she was once a chef.)
4. KW is very convenient. For example, everything is within cyclable distance, it’s one of the very few towns in the US which is perfectly adapted for cyclists. An important consideration for me, since I don’t drive.
5. Key West is very international, which I like, and this includes a large Spanish-speaking community.

And the cons:

1. The organisational hassle of living in two places. My official residence would continue to be Spain.

2. Blasted visa issues… Ideally, I’d like to be in KW for six months. I can stay in the US for 90-days on a standard tourist visa, that shouldn’t be a problem, but I may run into difficulties when I try to re-enter the US for the second time shortly after the previous three-month-stint. I’ve no desire to settle in the US permanently, Europe is home, but US immigration officials have the reputation of being a suspicious lot.

Time-frame wise, I’m thinking early 2014. It’s quite possible that I’ll be spending the last three months of 2013 in Brazil. A friend of mine is really keen for us to go there together, ostensibly to learn Brazilian Portuguese (but mainly to have a rollickin’ good time, lol), and I’m definitely game, but nothing’s fixed yet. 2014 is also the last year of Ian’s current working visa. He’s highly likely to extend it, but you never know where visa issues are concerned, and I wouldn’t want to miss out on a great opportunity like this by leaving it too late.

I guess my plans will solidify for the next six months or so…

Taken by a kind waitress after Vicky's birthday meal last week. Vicky and Ian at the back, two of their friends (Graham and Frankie) in front, me in the middle.

Pic taken by a kind waitress after Vicky’s birthday meal last week. Vicky and Ian at the back, two of their friends (Graham and Frankie) in front, me in the middle.

Food Culture Clashes: Hogging One Big Plate vs. Sharing Lots of Little Ones

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a Spanish teaching podcast, in which a couple living in Madrid – Ben, a Brit, and Marina, Spanish – were discussing random things they did not like about each other’s countries.

The topic of food had to crop up. Now, you might expect a Spaniard to complain about British food, but Marina focused on quite a specific aspect, which actually applies to how main meals are served in probably the majority of European countries and beyond, including Germany, the US and Australia.

Marina said that it drove her mad how, in the UK they, cram all of the food onto one plate: the vegetables, the potatoes, the meat – everything tossed onto the very same piece of crockery. She preferred the Spanish way of being served a vegetable starter, followed by a dish holding the meat, and the potatoes on a separate plate. She found that mixing it all up ‘cancelled out’ the flavours.

My dinner at home just the way I like it -  a jumbled, frolicking mess. And with lots of veg

My dinner at home just the way I like it – a jumbled, frolicking mess. And with lots of veg – always hard to get when you’re eating out. I expect my Michelin star is in the post…

What often happens in Spain, when eating out with friends, is that the food is shared. Such a meal might consist of any number of small portions (“tapas”), half-portions, or of larger main dishes, which are placed at the centre of the table. Everybody has their own empty plate in front of them, and just helps themselves.

On the whole, I like this way of eating, because you get to try a much greater variety of foods, including new (to you) dishes, which you may not have been brave enough to order as your main meal. If you’re a bit suspicious of the fried blood sausage or the baby eels on toast, you can stick to fries, mushrooms and steak. You can always order more later.

The most obvious drawback is that you have to reach some sort of consensus before ordering, and if one of the party absolutely hates a particular food, or has an allergy, then it won’t be part of this evening’s dining experience. However, this is not usually difficult to navigate, because North London and Spain are worlds apart, and, where this issue is concerned, in a good way. In North London, what you get on a communal dining occasion is this:

  • I’m vegan
  • I don’t eat carbs after 7pm
  • I’m allergic to button mushrooms
  • I have a gluten intolerance (but only when it’s non-organic)
  • I’m not touching dairy
  • My acupuncturist said I have to avoid damp-causing foods
  • Is there anything kosher on the menu?

In countries where food is commonly shared, there’s very little of this kind of bollocks.

The other minor drawback of sharing food is that part of your mind is preoccupied with thoughts like “how many of these delicious croquetas can I wolf down without looking too greedy?” or “I probably shouldn’t fish the biggest, juiciest chunk of pork out the casserole as soon as it touches down on the table”.

Then, there is the pesky issue of the last morsel of something really tasty left on the plate. Who’s going to have it? It has to be negotiated in some way. Half the time, it just sits there, all lonely and forlorn, until the waiter eventually clears the plate away. I do wonder how many tonnes of food are wasted each year that way for the sake of ‘etiquette’ rather than because nobody wants it.

You don’t have to be concerned about any of this when you’re just served your very own plateful of Sunday roast, dish of lasagne or whatever. It’s all yours to enjoy, to poke about with, and to leave to one side what is surplus to requirements. You can offer your fellow diners a taste, and that’s it.

This his reminds me of another podcast I listened to a couple of years ago, in which a Mexican girl talked about the faux pas she committed when she first arrived in the US: taking food off other people’s plates without asking first. Now, if anyone tried that with a chocolate cake I was eating, they’d probably lose a finger. I was brought up in a barn, and my caring-sharing streak only goes so far.

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…]

There Are Only Four Valid Reasons for Moving Country Aged 25+

When you’re young, you get away with pretty much anything. You can wear your pants below the ankle, collapse, pissed as a fart, over a receptacle designed to hold doggie doo dahs, and you can move to any old country in the world without anyone batting an eyelid.

There are several popular ways of approaching the latter: you can sign up for an organised student binge drinking expedition (the infamous Erasmus programme), you can bum about on a beach while your hair slowly corrodes into dreadlocks (“gap year”), you can opt to cook, clean and be pelted with snot balls by vicious whelps for a pittance (au-pairing) or you can inflict permanent damage on your vocal chords explaining the present continuous to a classroom full of hormone-crazed teenagers who don’t give a rat’s arse (Teaching English as a Foreign Language).

But be warned: Once you officially enter into adult life, say, aged 25+, it’s an entirely different kettle of fish. From then on, to avoid social disgrace, you need ‘legitimate’ reasons to justify taking up sticks, and there are only four that count.

1. You’re fleeing an evil regime
If you’re at risk of having your head lopped off or your genitals torched, you’ve got to get yourself outta there, no question. And good luck to you.

2. You move for a job
But watch out! One of the following criteria must be met if you don’t want to go raising eyebrows:

  • You are unemployed and can’t, for the life of you, find a job in your country. In fact, you’re so overqualified that not even a charity shop will have you
  • You’ll be earning considerably more dosh abroad
  • The move presents a major career advancement. [So, instead of a non-descript admin bod at home, you’ll be Head of Office Supplies in your company’s Mongolian outpost (or rather, four posts, as these will be holding up your “office”), and in charge of a whole stationery cupboard all by yourself. In a country where staples count as an official currency!]

3. You move because of your husband’s job.
Blogspace is packed with expat wifies suffering it out with their exiled petrochemical engineer spouses.
After much initial wailing and chest beating, she has not only come round to the idea, but she’s positively excited about the whole thing. Needless to say, hubby’s company has organised the whole translocation affair, from packing up every last ceramic figurine she won’t be able to live without, to air conditioned accommodation in a hermetically sealed compound and free leisure club membership for the entire tribe.

Once the moving stress is over and the last doily has been lovingly laid out by the live-in maid, wifie can finally relax and get on with her own new job: sending hourly updates back to the civilised world on how the well the little darlings are settling into international school (aw, they are so adaptable at that age!), which  – just imagine!! – is attended by two bona fide natives.

Imagine the sheer thrill when the freshly baked expat couple is invited over for dinner by one of hubby’s local work colleagues! Finally, she gets a chance to experience, at first hand, what life is really like on Mars. She takes reams of snaps of every dish from four different angles, so that she can extoll to her friends back home on how much fun it was to scoop up every morsel with her bare hands. And it was all delicious, of course. This makes a delightful change from endless photo coverage of camel/yak/llama rides. And the day after, she’ll be posting the recipes, instead of pics of bruised body parts.

[Strangely enough, expat blogs written by guys whose other halves have landed a job in foreign climes are about as common a sight on the interwebs as giraffes strolling through Greenland. I mean, just imagine the scenario… resigned to twiddling his thumbs to the beat of economic dependency on the missus, and his career prospects reduced to a smoking stack of ruins for all eternity, his balls would drop off in an instant.]

4. Retirement
Aaah, finally, after four gruelling decades,  you stand liberated from the shackles of your 9-5 existence. There’s nothing stopping you now from making a new home in an idyllic land, where the sun appears in the sky for longer than twenty five consecutive minutes at three-week intervals. Yes, UK readers, I can hear your collective sigh…

Needless to say, you wont have to bother yourself learning the language of your destination country – everybody there speaks English – and you’ll just “pick up”  the necessary pleasantries to flatter the locals with. Also, your native country’s laws and social norms will continue to apply to you wherever you are.

If you believe any of the statements in the previous paragraph to be accurate, you may want to consider relocating to a nice care home near Chichester instead.

So, now you know all there is to know about legit rationales for deserting your country of birth. As for the number of whimsical ones (“och, because… I just fancy a change” or “to see what a proper curry really tastes like”), which are guaranteed to induce looks ranging from mild incredulity to outright horror on the faces of your born-here-and-shall-die-here compatriots, the sky is the limit. If you happen to have any good ones, I’d love to hear them. The more frivolous and idiosyncratic, the better.