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Living on the Costa Blanca Spain

"I had assumed that after twenty years of dealing with the vagaries of diplomats and international business executives, and the traumas of distressed citizens who passed through the British consulate, I had seen all of life in all forms and that nothing could ever surprise or shock me..." 

But then I never anticipated that the guest house here at our Costa Blanca “finca” would be rented in the noughties by so many ill-prepared new arrivals moving down from the UK.  We have since sold on that accommodation and farmland, but the new owner is still sheltering the occasional straggler. 

Local real estate agents send them over to B & Bs, or others with space to spare, like a modern day wagon train: extended families arrive with motor-homes laden with all their worldly possessions.  What can they be thinking? Most do not speak Spanish or even possess a phrase book. It is not just plumbers and electricians – but professionals in sales, insurance, HR. All believe they can snap up a property, and find suitable jobs and far better healthcare or education for their children.  It can be done.

Others we have collected from the airport, loading their baggage and dogs and cats into the trailer. We share their ups and downs.  And when they are up they are up.  But, when they are down, are they down.  They have sold everything. Nothing to go back to.  It is sink or swim. It can be done.  But, as they trained us to say in the FCO, “ take some advice and get it right before you go!” Unfortunately, very few do that.

“Hands up. I left my brain at the airport” groaned the ex-company director who lodged with us for eight months. During that time his car was impounded by the police for lack of proper paperwork.  His homesick wife lost the job offer she had lined up after she and their daughter ran off and left him. They came back, but the daughter left a second time.  The wife was mugged while shopping in Alicante. 

He himself had planned to work for the company supplying his new home. But he fell out with them over ”irregularities” (no planning permission) and he lost his job. His father died in UK. It was a major family upset. Then his dog and cat fell sick. A major battle with the Irish builder of his house resulted in an iron bar over our guest´s head and a trip to A & E. Told to take the house down by the council, the ownership of “his” land is also part of a legal battle. His poor mother now has had a heart attack. It can be done.  Dreams can come true; but, so can your worst nightmares.

It is not all bad. This was indeed an exceptional case. Usually we just had the run of the mill guests: an eccentric Tom and Barbara filling our yard with their Good Life* and vanloads of tropical plants, all the way from deepest darkest Dorset. We only had to call out the vet once at midnight to put down a dog that bit his owner. Only one guest who was a reject for the part of Brad Pitt chased me around the village begging me to elope with him.

Only one camper sabotaged his best friend´s caravan and messed with our electrics. Only one financier turned out to be a suave confidence trickster. Only one British painter we hired was a convicted strangler. Only one person injured himself after diving drunk into our swimming pool.  Only one guy regularly went out at 11pm and rolled back in at 5am attempting to set up an escort agency, having failed to persuade a fellow guest to run his hotline for bookings. 

Only one British neighbour refused to allow a telephone engineer to visit because he was a black man.  Only one pair found it too hot and sunny here in winter. Only one conservative elderly English couple appeared to be trading in packets of Class A substances. 

And only one British lady found Dolores too dull and Spanish - but she had not stayed with us. Now, she, like a number of others it seems, has returned home. 

And so is Dolores dull? Well no, not if you are prepared to work hard at integrating into the life of the community. It is a small market town where everyone knows everybody else – just like many other small towns and villages on the Costas. The fiestas are taken as seriously as anywhere else in Spain and terrific fun. It has most facilities: good shops, bars/restaurants, discos, fairs, gyms, social, sports and other community activities organised through the Ayuntamiento (town hall) including free Spanish classes for foreigners. 

It has a Guarderia (municipal nursery), three state primary schools and a modern secondary school, and an efficient medical centre. Private international schools can be found 15-20 minutes away in the city of Elche, along with US-style shopping malls, cinemas and so on. Beaches are equally nearby.

I personally never have a dull day. But then, I am not normal. At least, not in the eyes of the other British here. The Spanish jury is still out.  Compared to other parts of the world where I have lived, this is by far the easiest. But this time, I am not here just for 2-3 years on a posting. I have decided to make it my home, which is rather different. We are not like most of the other Brits for whom this is the first time outside UK. I was born in England, as was my daughter, but then she grew up in Latin America. My husband was born in Canada and my son in Mexico. We sit ¾ of the way across the Atlantic (meaning we are probably more North American than British in our hearts and minds. We find ourselves seeing our fellow Brits as foreigners see them, not as they see themselves).

We associate more with the Spanish in the village than with the British community (whom the locals refer to as “your lot”). We are still outsiders, but we are not like the other Brits who mainly stick together in a big, cosy Anglophone cocoon in large modern estates (usually close to original tiny villages) known as “Urbanisations”. More about those in due course…

A typical week for us (now that we have ceased coping with members of the Addams Family as guests) might include dance classes, going horse-riding or swimming, cycling or walking along the country lanes and wallowing in the glorious sunshine, clear blue skies and fresh air. I teach English and drama part-time and my husband works with a Spanish solicitor assisting him with his British clients.  

Neighbours of ours are key players in the HELP Association charity for the Torrevieja and Vega Baja area and we would like to become more involved there too. The charity works closely with the Consulate, essentially offering assistance in a myriad of forms to all ages of distressed expats.

I would strongly recommend anyone moving to the area to check out their website and become a member on arrival – there are a number of  branches up and down the Costa. We also participate in various social events organised through contacts made at the Anglican Church here. At home there is always plenty of gardening to be done, plus painting, decorating and general maintenance too on country properties. So much for a quiet life and chilling out. 

As someone said to me recently, the only way to make a small fortune in Spain these days is to arrive with a very large one. Finding steady work and decent pay after you have arrived is almost impossible without a proper command of the language and professional qualifications acceptable in Spain. It can take months to have UK qualifications (for example, in nursing or childcare) verified and transferred. So, all too often people  simply give up on getting over the bureaucratic hurdles. It is all too difficult. Finding yourself exploited by shady “businessmen” willing to employ you without a proper contract, social security or even minimum wage is, however, a doddle.  

In their rush to make it to the dream home in Spain, many people seem to overlook the fact that the Costa Blanca economy has revolved solely around traditional agriculture/horticulture and tourism. In the last decade or so, the housing boom has provided opportunities for those in the building trade and there is a demand for English speaking services in the Urbanisations but everyone is now fighting for market share and there is little else here apart from local small family-run industry with no openings really for outsiders. The local Universities and International Hospitals/Schools in Elche and Alicante have vacancies  but generally staff will be highly qualified and recruited elsewhere.

The Spanish are welcoming to all as it means business for them. Expat entrepeneurs (and I use that term loosely) are not always so pleased to see new arrivals, especially those who represent competition in their field. Cooperation can be minimal as people fiercely guard their patches, keep in tight-knit social groups and feel threatened by the slightest intrusion by outsiders. Thus, those not in with the in-crowd blame the Mafia. 

By which I mean: In the early days, those coming down to Spain to reinvent themselves (ex-cons or other failures or misfits) set up English-speaking services operating in the black market and made money from the non-streetwise retirees who turned to them for help when unable to communicate with the legitimate businesses in the Spanish language. Often these rogue trades had (and have) no qualifications or experience but still managed to corner the expat market – or so they thought.  

Now with increasing numbers of people moving here, they try and freeze out newcomers with all manner of dirty tricks to try and hold on to their position. They turn especially nasty towards those who are legitimate business people with competent Spanish, who view these old hands as the "Mafia" since they all have associates conspiring - it seems - to jealousy thwart any attempt by genuine tradespeople to succeed here.

Needless to say those in the black market do not pay tax or social security (either here or UK) and run into difficulties as a result. If you run your own legitimate business, no problem there with boredom. No, that’s eased by all that paperwork and bureaucracy to sort out: tax, social security, licences and so on and so on. This mountain of foreign activity, albeit non-pressured, sandwiched between short working hours and long siestas is perhaps what so many people find difficult to hack. 

Any savings will be spent supporting the family while job-hunting. It is also costly to sort out the legal mess you land in if you have bought a house which, in the haste to profit from the property boom, has not been legalised properly by the builder. “But, why didn´t the estate agent say anything about that?” “Well, could it be that s/he was economical with the truth in order to sell you the house?” Lawyers here never have a dull day. 

Hours, days, weeks, months, years even go by as occupants of newly built-for-Brits villas attempt to get themselves a phone line, electricity supplies, a postal service, and gas bottles. It is as though urban planning has been almost unheard of. Local farmers have sold off unproductive parcels of land to developers and they have all made a fast buck without consulting the town hall about an access road or street lights, let alone a post box. 

 My advice to anyone considering a move is this:

  • Do plenty of research first.
  • Come down and rent before deciding on a place to buy.  
  • Be wary of signing up to a new-build property. It is far safer to go for a re-sale that has title deeds, taxes etc all fully documented. 
  • When you have identified what you consider to be a suitable property, consult an independent lawyer to check out all the paperwork - do not rely on recommendations made to you by the estate agent.  
  • Seek out other expats who have been here a while (the local newspapers have details of all manner of clubs and societies) and get their take on the area.
  • Chat to the neighbours of the property you have your eye on - what do they know now that they wished they had known before?!

Town councils are now being forced to address the old haphazard building of new homes and enforce legislation. But they cannot magic electricity or water supplied out of thin air. The reality is that in some areas, there is no water or enough power to cope. Because so many expats do not "sign-on" with the authorities, they do not appear on any census and therefore authorities do not get appropriate levels of local funding to provide municipal services. Of course, these ghost inhabitants are the first ones to complain!

If you do fall madly in love with a rural property, and even if it is legal, be prepared for power cuts or your power to be from a generator. Your water may have to be brought in by truck for your storage tank and/or pool. You may need to build your own cesspit. If there is no sign of a telegraph pole, you may have to go into the nearest town (turn a blind eye to the dead cats and dogs on the lane...) to use the phone box or Internet café. The vast majority of people survive on mobile phones and microwave IT systems and satellite dishes to communicate with the outside world.

Obviously though, in a power cut you cannot recharge your phone, log on to your email or watch the BBC. Leaving the comfort of the UK: just the idea of this, to most people, is the Third World.

The working generation and people with children are fairly new arrivals to this area. Until now, the main group of northern European ex-pats (for it is not just the Brits who read “Driving Over Lemons” but also the Scandinavians, Germans and the Dutch) were the baby boomers: those taking early retirement for a life of sun-worshipping and golf. 

The Costa del Crime crowd with previous convictions also found their way here early on and now run the highly successful English-speaking pubs, building and various other services in the thriving black market. Easily identifiable by their white transit vans, they are all called Mick, Bob or Dave. They all enjoy The Mirror, watching Big Brother on dodgy TV hook-ups, and a curry. The more discerning or eccentric Brit moves further inland where North African and Eastern European gangs operate, providing great business for the English speaking security companies installing house alarms. The lowest form of life in this new social order needs no explanation. It was that friendly British Estate Agent who sold you the house.  

The language barrier prevents many from integrating and hence they look at Spanish life as if through a window, with their homes and daily routine taking place in the above mentioned “Urbanisations”. In those enclaves, Spain is fast becoming Hispanic Australia. 

It is far more economical than moving to the other side of the world. You do not have to go through immigration (at the moment!) and you can drive down. Those who have had holidays in Mallorca think they will give it a go as it is looks better than Bolton. Everybody does it and survives so why can't they? Well, again, many do not survive as they come down here on a wing and a prayer and to resolve or escape problems (family, financial) for which just moving to the sun is never going to be their real answer. 

Fortunately, for the frustrated English speaking population of baby boomers, many of the old familiar faces from UK entertainment have now recently arrived to help out. So they can tune into 1970s BBC Radio 1 DJs or catch their fave 1960s/70s band LIVE! at a local hotspot for a hippy-hippy shake. 

It will be interesting to see what impact the changing demographics have upon our children´s future. It is all a two sided coin actually – without the massive influx of Brits we would all have had far fewer options in terms of social life / work. It is difficult to break into the local Spanish community even with language ability as the majority of Spaniards´ social lives and indeed job offers revolve around their extended families – cousins, in-laws etc “go local” wherever we can, yet at the back of my mind there lurks an uneasy feeling that it’s not enough…that one day there will be some form of a backlash. It must already be brewing. 

In a new block of  60 flats that opened on the outskirts of Dolores, for instance, only two are owner/occupied by Spaniards and they must feel like foreigners in their own country. About six retired British couples live there full-time, too, and the remainder are all British-owned holiday homes. Typically, the Brits on the whole do not assimilate which means that British supermarkets and pubs have opened up even in Dolores. For now I am enjoying buying undies at C & A and English paperbacks, but when bingo arrives with karaoke and quiz nights on the town square, I just might have to bite the bullet: ring the Essex man with the van and move on.

*For puzzled non-Brits, "The Good Life" is a reference to a 70s sit-com featuring a jolly spunky couple blithely pursuing their self-sufficient alternative lifestyle (complete with livestock)in a tidy, conventional London suburb.

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