I received a message from Joyce and Henry in the Costa Blanca this week, who are relatively new expats in Spain. They asked me for any advice that I could give them about getting to know people, as they were finding life quite lonely in their new home.
I know that some expats will disagree, but the fact is that for many expats in Spain, their social life exists around a purely bar and restaurant culture. Although this can be an acceptable way of making new friends for those who like bars, it can be a tedious waste of time for others. In smaller communities, such as the Canary Islands, where the choice of social activities is even more limited than Peninsular Spain, there are clear dangers in developing both a sedentary, if not alcoholic lifestyle, which are particularly unhealthy as we get older. On the darker side, we have lost a number of acquaintances in recent years through alcohol abuse, although the victims rarely accepted that they had a drink problem.
When we lived in the Costa Blanca, we found ourselves in virtually an all expat community. Whilst there were some downsides in not getting to know the real Spain, it offered considerable advantages in that we had a social network all up and ready to go. This was a huge advantage; we met many wonderful and interesting people, some of whom we are still regularly in contact with. ‘Balcony Hopping’ became the order of the day, as neighbours would spot us sitting on our balcony in the evening, and there was always an instant invitation to “join us for a drink”. I shall never forget the kindness of so many people that helped us to settle easily into expat life.
Later, as we became more confident with the language and culture, we were ready to move to an all-Spanish community. However, for many expats, this can present a major problem. The Canarians, and indeed many Spanish, are totally family orientated and despite their courtesy and friendship on the surface, it is often difficult for many expats to make the friendships and relationships with their neighbours that they may be used to in the UK. This is, of course, one of the many reasons why expats gravitate towards communities representing their own nationality, which in turn leads to some criticism from our hosts that we are not ‘joining in’ and we are ‘keeping ourselves to ourselves’.
So, back to Joyce and Henry; what are they to do? If a bar and restaurant social culture is not their thing, I usually suggest that newly arrived expats join group language study courses, which are sometimes offered by the local Town Hall. This is often a good way to meet other newly arrived expats who are trying hard to fit in. If newly arrived expats have a religious outlook on life, joining a local church will often offer a great deal in terms of community and friendship. Look out for music groups, walking groups, golf clubs, horse riding, chess clubs and flamenco dancing classes that are often offered by Town Halls too. Mixing with a range of nationalities, other than your own, can be challenging, but also great fun. Dancing and music crosses cultural boundaries, and can usually be an excellent strategy for breaking down initial apprehension and barriers.
When I worked as a newspaper reporter, I used to find that working as a volunteer for a charity was one of the best ways of getting to know other people. I fondly remember British, German and Swedish expats working amazingly well together to rescue and rehome stray dogs and cats. Compassion and the desperate need to do something to improve the plight of many of these poor, unloved creatures did much to unite and create a bond of friendship between expats from a variety of nations.
In today’s turbulent times, with many migrants landing on our shores in desperate need of shelter and support, I know of many expats doing their best to assist them. Helping with translation, caring for children and accompanying migrants to Town Halls, health centres and other official bodies are just some of ways in which expats can help others, as well as beginning to create a social network for themselves.
In short, I guess what I am saying, is that in the very act of ‘putting something back’, we are creating a new life and social experiences for ourselves. So, to Joyce and Henry, off you go!
If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.
© Barrie Mahoney