Life in Spain: The trials and tribulations of retiring to rural Galicia

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Life in Spain: The trials and tribulations of retiring to rural Galicia
Photo: Neticola/Flickr

Heath Savage retired from the Sydney suburbs to rural Galicia. But she insists that doesn't mean she has slowed down.


Some of my misguided friends and family seem to be under the impression that my Golden Years in Galicia entail all-day wine-drinking, punctuated by a spot of light gardening.

Permit me to share: my name is Heath, and I am a workaholic. Sure, I stop to smell the roses; while I am pruning and feeding them, or planting more. I am in perpetual motion. I have ADHD. This can be a friend or an enemy. It depends how I manage the condition. I have never used the prescribed drugs. Meaningful activity and short meditations that help me to focus work much better. Let’s just say: I am never bored.

‘Long-story-short, I worked in London, Los Angeles, Brussels and Bruges, as a chef and bar manager, for 20-odd years. I owned two successful restaurants. One of my favourite jobs was as chef on a Sydney millionaire’s vintage wooden sailing barque - preparing huge seafood feasts for up to a hundred guests. I nearly became Kerry Packer’s personal chef once, but I will save that story for my book!

When I hit my forties it all became too hard: the fourteen-hour-days, the pumping adrenaline rush, followed by the utter exhaustion. Working a six-day week for so many years took its toll on my health. Back then, my idea of a break was to take five minutes out by the bins, sitting on an upturned bucket, while I ran cold fizzy water onto my swollen feet and smoked a cigarette. Lunch was often a slice of bread swiped over the bottom of a gravy pan.

Reluctantly, I hung up my apron and re-trained. I chose counselling, and case management within the broad spectrum of community services. Eventually, I  coordinated a vocational education campus, wrangling a team of ten trainers, and 150 students, in one of Sydney’s toughest western suburbs. I was delighted to find that I could do this sitting down in a soft chair. At fifty-seven, after several serious stress-related illnesses floored me, I reckoned I had earned early release.

The rest, you already know: my partner and I did some research, moved to Galicia, bought an old house, and turned it into a very special place to work and live. Having a garden big enough to grow all my own food and keep animals, while I fulfill my dreams; writing a cook book, poetry and crime fiction is now a reality.

All very inspiring. How do I cope with setting my own schedule and pretty much pleasing myself day-to-day? No longer working on payroll  meant losing a very decent monthly income, so budgeting and financial planning had to become the first point of focus for us. Retirement is not a long vacation. It is a new staging post, and it requires a bit of practise to get it right. Without pensions or substantial savings, retirees are going to have to use any assets they have sensibly. My partner and I both work part-time online for overseas employers. We have to. We set this up before we left Australia.

Finances were only the start. A fear of intellectual stultification plagues me. Initially, I wondered if I would miss the interminable team, stakeholder and board meetings I had to attend daily (please excuse me while I laugh maniacally!) No, I’m coping without them. How about driving around Sydney, trying to find somewhere to park, in order to attend said meetings? Nah. I don’t miss that either. ‘Though I do miss screaming obscenities at other drivers, and the daily dramatic Mexican Stand-off for the one remaining parking space in Sydney. It’s just not the same winding down my window flipping off a stray cow for cutting me up.

Attending professional development courses to fulfill qualification update requirements, which ate up all of my spare time and money are not a part of my life that I gaze back at fondly. Nope. I cannot honestly say that I preferred sitting up until 3am on a Monday maintaining my compulsory PD matrix, to reading a book by the fire. The bliss that I experience when I just sit on the terrace staring contentedly into space with my snoring dog snuggled in my arms is medicine.

Joking apart, it is important to maintain an intellectual life that extends beyond vegging on the couch binge-watching favourite movies, while obsessing about renovations. I have found that revisiting all those projects and interests that never happened because work got in the way is good practise. I refuse to denigrate these dreams and ambitions and turn them into “hobbies.” Exploring the transferable skills that I have is exciting and energizing. What was I good at in my professional life, that can be adapted, or used now to earn some income? Retirement is not about passing the time.

Photo: Heath Savage enjoying her retirement.

Let me flip that: retirement is not about trying to justify having all this precious time to enjoy. The race is run. I crossed the finish line exhausted. I have earned a rest. A proper rest. Not five minutes on an up-turned bucket out by the bins. Besides, I quit smoking twenty years ago.

It’s all about balance. Not my forte! Yes, I still rise at six, sometimes five. But I allow myself the luxury of returning to bed after breakfast if I feel like it. The dog approves. I like to try to complete an hour or two of garden or house-work each day. The incidental exercise is beneficial, and it means not having to pay someone else to do it, like I used to when I worked full-time. I like to spend a couple of hours watching Youtube videos of things that I am really interested in: currently, I am enjoying an activity known as “Mud-larking” (treasure hunting on riverbanks), as well as craft and cooking videos. In the evenings I sometimes binge-watch movies, or tv series, and I read. Most importantly, I make time to write each day. Not enough, but I am getting there. Then, there is a little English teaching, for the extra income, and just because I love to teach. I am bloody good at it too. That gives me the professional self-esteem fix I sometimes need. You should never retire from what you do best, I think. Just seek new ways to use the skills.

I am not a finance expert, but I know that few people are fortunate enough to retire solely on savings and pensions, so a little income is essential. I also found that registering as Autonomo, and teaching just a few hours per week, makes better financial sense than paying through the nose for private health-care. This also gets you into the Spanish social security system, and contributes towards a Spanish pension. Please don’t rush to correct me. This works for me. You have to make your own enquiries and seek your own professional advice, as I did before you make important choices.

I am sure that most of you who are reading this are in a similar position to mine, so I won’t preach to the choir. I know that I need to throw as much enthusiasm, creativity and energy into my retirement from full-time work as I did into my careers. That’s how I roll. What’s the alternative? Atrophying agonizingly in a world of beige and daytime television? One retires from a career, not from life.




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