In our Expat Interview series, we talk to expats all over the world who are involved in doing something which our readers would be interested in hearing more about. It could be work, running a business, or involvement with a charity.
In the chair today is Peter Lavelle, a UK resident who came to Spain with his Spanish girlfriend (who had previously spent two years living in London) in January 2012. Fortunately, his boss was flexible enough to let him keep working from Madrid, and so he’s maintained his job as a blogger for foreign exchange broker Pure FX.
BE: What did you do before you moved to Spain? Did you travel much?
Peter: I’d visited a few countries before moving to Spain, notably taking a trip from Helsinki to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway in 2008. It meant three weeks of more or less living in a carriage, and took me through Moscow to Lake Baikal to Ulaanbaatar. I’d also been to Virginia in the US, where I met a friend who I’d only previously known through a poetry-writing website on the net.
Work-wise, I blogged for foreign exchange broker Pure FX before I came here, which (fortunately enough) is what I’m still doing.
What led you to become an expat in Spain?
My girlfriend is Spanish, and at the end of two years in London decided she’d had enough of the rain and cold, and took me back to Madrid with her. In addition, I’d always wanted to learn another language, and being in Spain seemed a great opportunity to do so. Something to tick off the bucket list as it were!
Have you any advice or tales to tell about the relocation process?
Having Susie, as a native Spaniard, to help me with the process of getting inducted into the social security system, and getting my NIE (foreign residency card) has been invaluable. If you come to Spain without any Spanish, I think you’d be left with no choice but to hire someone to help.
That said, the Spanish people are very friendly outside bureaucratic matters, and if you’re able to communicate what you want, good will can take you a long way. I managed to open a bank account with no more than “Quiero abrir una cuenta corriente, por favor” for instance.
What observations do you have about expats living in Spain during the current economic crisis? Any advice?
I think this’d be a difficult time to relocate to Spain, unless you’ve secured employment beforehand. After all, there are literally tens of thousands of Spaniards leaving the country to find work at the moment, so the chances of finding a job here unless you speak fluent Spanish are nil.
Moreover, I’ve found that the standards demanded of ESL teachers are surprisingly high. You might’ve read that anyone and his aunt can get an ESL job if they’re a native speaker, but in fact in most places experience and a decent qualification is requisite. Perhaps the crisis has killed off casual opportunities.
That aside, I imagine living as an expat in this crisis is the same as living at home. You feel a little less certain about the future, and are probably a bit more cautious with your spending. Mostly though, you just get on with things.
Do you have time for any hobbies? How do you like to relax?
I go on conversation exchanges a lot, which has been a great way to meet people and enjoy Madrid. I wish I could say it’s helped my Spanish, but most of the time we end up just talking in English!
That aside, I spend a lot of weekends seeing different parts of Spain. I’ve been to Valencia for instance, Sevilla, as well as the cities around Madrid such as Toledo and Segovia. This country has a magnificent cultural heritage, and the landscapes are out of this world. If you think Spain is just sand and sangria, spending a little time here will really open your eyes.
What was your most scary (or fun) experience of being in Spain?
One of the scariest parts has been the current crisis with Bankia. I initially opened an account with Caja Madrid here, which is one of the banks affected. Being in a position where you think, “Yep, I could actually lose my money here,” isn’t pleasant in the least. In fact, I’ve remitted as much as I can to the UK, I’m that concerned.
For fun, it’s always nice when you enter a bar, attempt to order something, and the barman applauds your efforts and presents you with a free tapa for them!
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve eaten? Where and why?
There’s a little restaurant not far from where I live called El Cortijo, which is a flamenco bar (it does not, as you might expect, have anything to do with farms). Two or three nights a week, you can book in advance, and enjoy two courses, plus 90 minutes of flamenco for about €15.
In fact, the food was terrible when I went, yet it was totally redeemed by the flamenco, which was on this intimate stage with about 20 people watching. There were two female dancers, and I really got caught up in the intensity of it all. I’d recommend it, the food aside.
Many thanks to Peter for sharing his experiences and thoughts with us. Plenty of food for thought for anyone fed up with the UK who assumes that they can just walk into a job overseas; if only life were so simple! That said, Peter’s story shows that if you’re willing to put in the effort and don’t mind taking a few risks, it is still possible to make your way abroad and have some fun doing it – even in difficult economic circumstances. And if you need foreign exchange advice, check out Peter’s blog posts for Pure FX.
Would you like to be interviewed on British Expat? You don’t have to be rich or famous – just doing something interesting. Please do write in if you’d like to take part.