It's not all gangsters, millionaires and housing developments, the Costa del Sol has some magical secrets as well as the sunshine...
Most northern, and increasingly, eastern, European expats live on the coast to the west of Malaga in a series of (what has become in recent years) overbuilt towns beginning with Torremolinos (near Malaga Airport), and spreading southwest through Benalmadena and the “Stream of Honey” aka Arroyo de la Miel. (Yes, life can be sweet here when you arrive with the proceeds of your house sale, before your capital begins to diminish).
Fuengirola, Calahonda, the renowned Marbella, Puerto Banus (millionaires, yachts, and weekend hangout of revelling expat school students), San Pedro, Estepona, and Sotogrande (an annual haunt of Fergie, the Duchess of York, and the polo patrons), complete the list before you reach Gibraltar.
Perhaps the best kept secret on this coast is the thoroughly Spanish city of Malaga, which for that reason is completely overlooked by most expats as a place to live. The few brave coastal souls who venture there are rewarded with the Spanish language, ambiance, culture, art, music, medieval buildings, semana santa processions at Easter, the spectacular August feria, fabulous Christmas displays like the belens and the pick of paellas, on their doorstep.
Another type of expat family shuns the Marbella lifestyle, or simply wants more value for money, and heads for the hills in and around towns and villages like Mijas, Coin, Cartama, Monda, Ojen, Istan, Alora, Casares and Benahavis. They offer almost totally rural surroundings, surrounded by panoramic views.
There are also bigger towns like the Alhaurins (de la Grande and de la Torre) which have larger expat communities. Most of these areas are less than 30 km from one or more of the international schools, which are overwhelmingly situated between Torremolinos and Estepona, within a few km of the sea. If you choose to live inland, be prepared for chauffeur duties, since many activities are on the coast. If you live on the coast, likewise. There’s lots of coastline.
Shopping malls and commercial centres are popping up in many places. One in particular is large: La Canada near Marbella. Very few of them offer much that is exciting. The most popular supermarket chain is Mercadona, which offers limited choices but works well for basic needs at reasonable prices. Carrefour, Supersol and especially Euromarket offer more variety and quality as do the Hipercors and Supercors which are part of Spain´s flagship departmental store, El Corte Ingles.
Indoor markets ("mercados centrales") and outdoor markets (the latter each held on once a week in neighbouring towns, with each town having a different day) generally offer reasonable value and/or quality for fruit and vegetables, at least on the coast. That said, value varies from market to market and of course stall to stall. There are many who love these markets, and develop good relationships with their favourite stallholders, which can make for better value and quality.
Don’t miss out on the personal touch and charm of specialised shops, where the staff are usually very patient with expats practising their Spanish. These can be found in the mercados centrales, and many parts of the main towns.
Live-in Maids and Domestic Help
Because you need to be cautious about who you hire, finding the right help is best done by word of mouth, as is finding most products and services on the coast. Other parents tend to provide the best referrals.
Traffic, Transport and School Commutes
Many families using some of the international schools need to use the challenging A7 (formerly the N340) dual carriageway which runs near the coast. The upside is that the sea and mountain views and the generally free flowing traffic beat a drizzly London schoolrun any day. The downside is that parts of this road are perceived as being amongst the most dangerous in Europe, due to a combination of fast, impatient drivers, some treacherous bends, and numerous ill thought out slip roads.
Each school has at least two school bus routes, usually along the coast. This can be a great help to parents who either work or who need more practice at zooming onto a road full of budding Alonsos, chased by Hamilton expat wannabes gone native off 50 metre long slip roads.
There is, in parts, a much improved transport infrastructure including the massively expanded Malaga Airport, (the biggest non-hub airport in Europe), and the already very efficient railway line from Malaga to Fuengirola, with many stops, being extended to Marbella and Estepona within a few years. You can also fly to Gibraltar but be careful not to leave your children on the wrong side of the border as one ex-pat managed.
lf you can afford it, private healthcare is popular. Sanitas is a major company in the field, but there can be additional charges, eg. for a specialist referral. A friend recently switched to a German company, DKV, where her family see the same doctors, but at a lower price.
The link below gives a good overview, and shows that in order to access publicly funded health care, you need to be paying into the Spanish social security system: www.andalucia.com/health/facilities.htm.
However, if you choose to use the public system, and you suffer an complicated leg break, (surprisingly common, because of some very uneven pavements!), make sure you avoid all major public holidays, as you could wait some days for an operation or even a decision on whether to operate because they can be short-staffed.
A major consideration is that much of the patient care in public hospitals is done by family members. If you are in a public ward, its not unusual to find your Spanish neighbour regularly visited by numerous relatives all talking at the top of their voices!
Many expats use Helicopters Sanitarios, a health insurance company with a 24 hour home doctor service, intensive care ambulances and hospital transfers.
Owning a Business
If you own a business, beware of Spanish bureaucracy. Petty (and not so petty) corruption and excessive taxes can often cause problems.
There sre many lawyers and gestorias (who take care of all your registration requirements). You will often find these and other professionals well represented among the Spanish parents, many being bilingual, at some of the international schools. David Searle´s widely acclaimed and regularly updated "You and the Law in Spain" is an excellent source of information for all areas of law most likely to affect you.
Of the expats with families at international schools, who are able to enjoy a good lifestyle here, most do so through established businesses they own, often in their home countries. There are also many honest, hardworking expats, who have found a niche in the market and have succeeded here with their own small businesses.
Relatively few expatriates in the expat school community, work as executives for overseas companies, with the attendant perks such as school fees paid.
Often, or at least one parent may be a teacher, which means in most schools their children enjoy free schooling.
For those who at some point have to or want to work for others here, you should know that there are relatively few honest, secure, well paid employment opportunities available to expats. Most of the English speaking jobs here involve no or very little basic salary and of course no benefits of any kind. Paid holidays, social security, health cover, and maternity leave are very hard to find. Where a basic salary is offered, it often turns out to be a draw against future earnings. The situation has of course been exacerbated by the collapse of the real estate industry.
By far, the largest section of the expat job market here is sales related. Whether the earnings are good or not, the work is often in fraudulent, or at least in economical-with-the-truth businesses. These include the timeshare property, investment and claims industries. Many expats who have lost their savings due to failed attempts at setting up a business end up working in such companies out of sheer necessity. Shift work is common, with the early shift being popular with mums who want, or need, to work during school hours.
So be wary of big earnings opportunities advertised in Sur in English, the widely circulated English speaking newspaper. Usually the earnings are not so big. Where earnings are high, they seldom come from providing a good service to clients. Being bilingual helps, though even then many of the jobs are still sales related, and in any case often low paid.
Telephones and Computers
The main national phone company, Telefonica, still tries desperately to behave like a monopoly and can be a source of great frustration for many. It´s probably the company the Spaniards themselves most love to hate. It’s not uncommon for people setting up businesses and homes to be told that they’ve run out of lines. Some end up waiting for months. That said, in my experience, they have been very quick to install home and simple business lines, but especially where you upgrade or downgrade your requirements, they can be incredibly inefficient and obstinate when you try to correct their billing mistakes.
The good news is that, if all you need is a basic service to include ADSL, and you stick to that arrangement, you will probably have no billing or service problems. Also make sure that your connection allows you to use VOIP (computer phone) services like Skype and Raketu. Free national and local calls are part of the Telefonica package.
Beware of using cheaper landline phone services than Telefonica, and especially beware of switching away from Telefonica, who have often succeeded at using their ownership of the landline grid to make life very difficult for people who would otherwise prefer to have nothing to do with them.
To summarise, therefore, even where you use the dreaded Telefonica, you are less likely to encounter problems for your home line than for your business line needs.
Expats and Schools
If you have sufficient capital and/or income (preferably both) then life as a family with children at international schools can be and usually is very agreeable. That is, (especially in some parts of the coast), providing you are comfortable with or can deal with the peer group influences found at some of the more expensive schools. Image, more so on the coast than inland, counts for a lot. At the extreme end of the spectrum, I know of 16 year olds enlisting the help of cosmetic surgery: botox, and, astonishingly to many less sophisticated parents like me, the occasional breast implant.
In some secondary school circles (off campus, of course) there is easy access to alcohol. Meantime, it’s not unknown for their mothers to while away their children’s school hours by holding naked waiters lunch events. So, if that doesn’t appeal, be warier than I was of naively accepting poolside invitations where you’re told you’ll be “in for a treat” and then finding to your horror that they meant more than the food!
Such positives as the weather, the simplicity and relative safety of the environment, the magnificent natural surroundings and the richness of cultural life continue to glue many expats to this coast. The cost of living remains low, (especially if you are already used to paying school fees, which can be much higher elsewhere in countries like the UK) in spite of big increases in food prices. This applies even to those who have fallen on hard times financially, many of whom remain determined to stay here, and say that they will never go home. Some have lived here for forty years.
Life for Expat Children
Children usually love the coast and its hinterland. Most teenagers are attracted to the idea of studying elsewhere when they reach college age, but are happy at school and would prefer to complete their secondary schooling here. One interesting comment made by a very level headed 16 year old whose family recently returned to live in the UK is that the general knowledge of some of his former classmates in a top school near Marbella is abysmal. He thinks some of them lead such insular, comfortable lives that it blunts their desire to step out of their mental and physical comfort zones.
There are many privately owned expat businesses and voluntary organizations which run a wide variety of activities and clubs. They include acting schools which give your child opportunities to appear in plays, musicals and the annual pantomime at Salon Varieties in Fuengirola, a popular English speaking theatre. There are also football clubs, a small youth orchestra, dance schools, cub and boy scouts, brownies and girl guides.
An excellent and inexpensive way for your children to mix with Spanish speaking children is to take advantage of the many inexpensive cultural and sporting facilities offered through the local ayuntamientos (town halls) and polideportivos (sports centres).
Communicating and Integrating with the Locals
Integration with the Spanish takes much effort and perseverance. Many expats find that it never happens. There are major cultural differences. The Spanish tend to have very large extended families. Such differences are very apparent in hospitals. Your fellow patient in the neighbouring bed may have up to thirty family members visiting at any one time, all speaking in loud voices!
The siesta culture with the split working day remains prevalent, and it is perfectly normal for Spanish (and the many Latin Americans) to be out at weekends till after midnight with very young children. Also the Spanish prefer to meet in restaurants and cafes rather than invite people to their homes.
At school events it is common to find Spanish speaking parents mixing with each other, while Brits do the same. Making the effort has its rewards, even if it doesn’t result in life-long friendships. In recent years, some Spaniards have resented the pressure on the health and education services created by the influx of foreigners. Nevertheless, there is a delightful, down to earth simplicity and friendliness about the people here, especially if you show respect and try to speak their language.
In Andalucia, most expats find understanding the locals particularly difficult, thanks to the region’s dialect and accent. Your experience of life in Spain will of course, be richer for having learned the language. I’d recommend an intensive course at a good language school, lasting at least a few months, when you first arrive here. Armed with this, you can try to train your ear for street Spanish.
For most of us, most of the time, there is little need to learn more than basic Spanish well. You can always pay, or take along a Spanish speaker, when you need to take care of permits, licences etc. Otherwise whether your life is one of leisure or in the workplace, expats here tend to live their lives immersed in the English speaking world (or perhaps another European language if they come from other European countries).
All in all, notwithstanding the occasional challenges that most parents experience, nearly all children and teenagers who come to live here, soon grow to love the lifestyle here. If and when the time comes to leave, don’t be surprised if you have a rebellion on your hands!
Links and Recommendations
The Foreigners Department in most ayuntamientos (town halls) along the coast is an invaluable port of call.
www.transl84u.com. Professional translation service for personal and business needs.
Gestoria: Prisca Prymar (Fuengirola, phone 952 467224) is highly recommended.