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I know time flies when you are having fun, but I can hardly believe it – the fourth anniversary of our arrival in Spain is fast approaching. As a consequence, I have started to reflect on my Spain, the Spain I have grown to know and love.
For those of you who saw the first and/or second of my notes from Spain, I set out below another half dozen of our well-learned “Lessons”.
Lesson 1: The rain rarely falls in Spain
When my wife, Andrea, and I decided that it would be a major improvement in our family’s lifestyle to relocate to a new country France seemed an obvious candidate, as I had lived and worked for a law firm in Paris in the early ’80s.
For many years a January business trip for me involved attending the MIDEM festival in Cannes in the South of France. It had rained stair-rods for most of the years I had attended but I brushed that aside with: “Well, that’s January for you!” I had seen the Cote d’Azur in all its summertime glory on many occasions, reflected in the turn-of-the-last-century works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and more recently I had been further seduced by the slightly Disneylandesque view of Main Street, France, the region called Provence.
I was keen to see if France would work for us. However, when friends who had preceded us in relocating outside the UK reported that in fact the uncertain and indifferent weather continued for much of the spring, autumn and winter months with a slight reprieve in May leading to a reasonable summer, we decided that this was not sufficiently reliable.
Let me be clear; I am not so shallow as to make such a crucial decision on the basis of the weather alone, but the idea of the South of Spain delivering around 300 days plus of sun per year became a very important draw.
I am writing this in early March 2006 and daytime temperatures are cresting around 20°C. We are clear that by midsummer water supplies will be at a premium and we are doing all we can to sensibly conserve stocks now. This brings minor inconveniences but until the local desalination plants are working at full strength we will need to be cautious.
The advice is simple. If the weather in your home country is a major reason for your proposed relocation – and it is, for many from Northern Europe and North America – then do your research and see whether you can better Spain’s costas and their perfect Mediterranean climate.
Lesson 2: To add to the pleasure of Spain, why not taste it?!
For many the zenith of European cookery is the finest French haute cuisine or the friendly and more rustic Italian trattoria menu. While I really do appreciate the excellence of both, Spain’s signature dishes and exceptional wines, particularly the red (vino tinto) from the Autonomous Regions that comprise mainland Spain are no longer a poor third. The Mediterranean Diet with its emphasis on fresh colourful vegetables, smashing fish and meat dishes, inventive tapas plates and the extensive use of fine olive oil is not the preserve of Spain’s coastal neighbours.
Although I am certain that there will be many who’ll bemoan my releasing this information to a wider public, the risk of passing on the pleasure will outweigh the burden of disclosure. There are many excellent ventas in most rural and metropolitan areas that serve the very best local specialities. These are café bar-type establishments that open from early morning for coffee and toasted bread (which you may like to rub with a fresh garlic clove and spread with a light tomato puree, a sprinkling of sea salt and olive oil), serving many steaming plates until well after dark.
At lunchtime, a favourite time for most Spaniards to eat, a Menu del Día (Menu of the Day), often priced as low as €7 ($8 or £5) for two or three courses and a drink, is possibly the cheapest and most nourishing way to taste Spain. The starter of a classic gazpacho soup, definitive Mediterranean cookery and basically “health in a bowl”, is a must!
The extensive use of pulses, lentils (lentejas), chickpeas (garbanzos), beans (alubias) and rice (arroz) will have the advocates of the high fibre diet praising you to the hills whilst the sausages, dry cured hams (jamón) and meat dishes such as the classic estofada (veal stew) will keep any carnivore happy.
Lesson 3: Learn and speak as much Spanish as you can
Unlike the usual French maxim of “It doesn’t matter what you say as long as you pronounce it correctly”, most Spaniards realise that if you are from an English or Germanic language heritage the chances of “schoolboy” Spanish are slim. Consequently, in making the effort to acclimatise to your new home, complementing your expat life with a decent level of spoken Spanish can only prove advantageous. In working here I have had to develop a slightly more detailed understanding of the language and it’s been easy to massively embarrass myself in formal meetings conducted in the native language. However, the encouragement that I have received has generally meant that, although there’s a level of “It’s the foreigner who’s trying” good-hearted gibes, it’s a small price to pay and an immense source of satisfaction when you get it approximately right.
I should point out that when I refer to “Spanish”, I am speaking of castellano, which is that form of Spanish spoken in most of the regions of Spain with the exclusion of Catalunya, centred on Barcelona. The locals there speak a distinct language called Catalan.
Thanks to the European Union, my UK legal qualifications are recognised by my local Bar – the Illustre Colegio de Abogados de Málaga – and they curiously seem keen to have me as a member.
I am convinced that although it is theoretically feasible to practise law in Spain as a non-Spaniard, the legal system – which differs from the UK and US common law system, and is based on civil law laid down in the Napoleonic Code – militates against playing on an even pitch with my local colleagues. As I am a non-mother tongue Spanish speaker it is clear that I may even be a hindrance to a foreign client. There is a somewhat “civil service” mentality to the administration of “life” in Spain. It has proved much more efficient and substantially more advantageous to our clients for me to work through our legal colleagues within my professional services provider business, The Rights Group SL.
Lesson 4: Nil desperandum
The Costa del Sol is known by many as the California of Europe. These two regions have much in common.
The older properties, of which there are relatively few outside the picturesque Pueblos Blanco (White Villages), share the same heritage and a distinctive look that is reminiscent of the Mission in Santa Barbara, California, USA.
When aged 20 I was taken by family friends to Los Angeles’s Century City PlayBoy Club, which was as normal for my hosts as visiting a drive-through Burger King. In addition to the blond leggy Californian girls this visit held a further special charm. The early ’80s represented a time of new experiences and one of particular potency was being in Century City surrounded by satin-clad bunnies and having my first experience of cherry tomatoes.
Together with most of our weekly shopping basket, these little globes of freshness are cultivated locally in Spain, having reached the UK perhaps nearly fifteen years after I first tried them in the US. They are one of many staple foods of Europe now produced here under polythene shrouds right down to the water’s edge, particularly along the eastern Costa del Sol. Very few meals in my house pass without some fresh local produce and the adaptable cherry tomato invariably appears in one course or another!
The expression “Californian” conjures up an image of sun and a bohemian lifestyle: “laid back” or “taking it easy”. Well, Spain has the same scheme, particularly in the South, and it is summed up in the expression “mañana” (tomorrow). A shrug of the shoulders and a sense of resignation that “it’s out of my hands” can drive the average expat mad in bewilderment and frustration.
A failure to learn early on in your relationship with Spain that the more you push the incrementally more difficult your dealings will become, is a recipe for disaster. You cannot shout at a Spaniard and expect them to amend their stance – they won’t. No matter how big your ego is, it will be totally deflated by a notary’s cashier or a shop assistant – I know this from experience. However frustrating you may find it, responding proactively to a complaint is just not within the litany of many Spaniards’ reactions. Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero is alleged to have remarked recently that he is the head of a country comprising over 40 million “Prime Ministers”. This tells us something of the national character.
Advising our Northern European clients to become “Californian” may sound like nonsense. However, I have learned in the last three years of dealing with colleagues and administrators in this environment that you can only work with the system, and it is folly to try to buck it. Maintaining a stress level in the red zone is not only highly unproductive, it’s life threatening. Although exasperation is acceptable, a coronary awaits those who allow the pressure to overwhelm them. Chill a little!
In our working lives we have been able to soften the blow, as it is one of our prime roles to drive the relationship between the adviser and the expat client. We cannot provide a totally stress-free Spain – it really is part of the nation’s charm – but we do work with some excellent advisers who really do make the difference for our clients.
We have known of people for whom the dream of Spain didn’t translate to the reality. They are rare, but a couple I know that recently returned to the UK cited the system as being a major contributor to their unhappiness. Albeit a complete generalisation, Spaniards seem to know how the system can be made to work in their favour. Their logic is infallible; they work to live rather than live to work.
Lesson 5: Give flamenco a chance
At the risk of offending the heritage of our friends and neighbours (particularly those from the Celtic regions of Northern Europe) no distinct musical style is more definitive of its homeland than flamenco. Whether it’s the guttural singing – which is really an acquired taste – the whirling dancing, a prancing horse or a bright guitar chord, flamenco is a brand and for any marketing executive it is short-hand for Spain.
Trust me, there will come a point when you are in a supermarket queue when you will start to drum your fingers in time with the in-store music and you may just be tempted to clap a flamenco beat.
My suggestion, and a topical cure to this inevitable descent into becoming pro-Spanish, is the CDs of Chambao. The skill of Chambao is to marry more traditional flamenco phrasing and style with a modern techno beat to produce the coolest chill-out music – see the advice given in Lesson 4 above – currently available on my in-car CD player.
Lesson 6: The life/work/play/family balance
In moving to Spain, although I suspect that I did work fairly hard in London, the workload I have had since opening our business in Spain has been fairly intense. As a consequence I have had to explore an ability to blend the elements of life such that one doesn’t submerge the others. I am starting to learn, and am aware that I have yet to perfect this skill, but acknowledging that something exists is the start of finding a solution. Unlike much of the time in London, at least my kids now know me by sight!
When there is more certainty about the weather, the ability to plan for outdoors is greatly improved. Much of our family time is spent outdoors; whether it’s the beach, the mountains or the stables it is possible to blend some of these elements into our working day.
The working day starts early and much emailing and many meetings can be done by four in the afternoon, when school exits. After a couple of hours out and about it’s home for homework, baths and dinner during which time my home-based broadband comes into its own and I can handle much of the day’s paperwork.
At least that’s the theory . . . Getting it right will take time but it’s already a more satisfying way to live.
Finally, a small but highly valuable technical note
Spain is about to become less taxing for the non-resident. After several years of pressure from the European Union, Spain’s Executive has tabled a series of measures that the Spanish Parliament will need to pass by the end of 2006 to reduce Spain’s discriminatory practices towards the non-resident property-owning community.
The true value of obtaining a legal “Residencia” (Residency) has been the subject of some question in the past and is usually explained by reference to the different levels of tax suffered by residents and non-residents. Well, no longer. As from January 2007 it is planned that the effective rate of tax paid by a resident or a non-resident on a capital gain made on, for example, a property sale will be equalised at 18%. This is a reduction from the current rate of 35% for a non-resident and an increase for the resident from 15%.
My colleagues tell me that measures already exist to allow the owner of the property – particularly if the property was purchased many years ago – to create a notional price by the actual purchase price being inflation linked. This will mean that the capital gains and therefore the tax to be applied will be effectively levied at today’s prices, thereby reducing some of the burden on Spain’s flourishing property market. Additionally, I am told that credits for the costs of improvements can be taken in further reduction of the tax to be ultimately paid.
I do hope that you’ll find some practical use from this further series of lessons born out of our experiences in Spain. We look forward to seeing you here!
© Mark F R Wilkins 2005 (Marbella)