OPINION: You will never feel at home in Spain if you languish in an expat ghetto

The Local Spain
The Local Spain - [email protected]
OPINION: You will never feel at home in Spain if you languish in an expat ghetto
British people enjoy a drink on a terrace in Ohriuela. Photo: AFP

Heath Savage who most recently moved from the Sydney subrubs to rural Galicia reflects on the difference between migrants andd expats and how to feel at home.


When I go on vacation with my partner we rarely buddy up with other couples, preferring to hang out together. Once, on a cruise to the Isle of Pines in the south Pacific, we met a pair of sisters whom we hit it off with, dined with a few times, and promised to meet up with back home (we never did!)  But that was an exception, and I think it might have been the wine talking.

We’ve moved around a lot in the past 16 years, and as a child I moved continent three or four times before I was 16, so I know a bit about being a newbie in a foreign country. When you move somewhere unfamiliar, it is tempting to flock exclusively with others who speak the same language.

It’s human nature for like to seek out like, and we are tribal creatures. But,I think it’s a trap that permanent residents in Spain (and other countries) really ought to steer clear of. You will never feel at home, nor learn the nuances of the culture and language if you languish in an ex-pat ghetto of your own making.

READ MORE: Expats or immigrants in Spain: Is there a difference?

As a child of five, newly arrived in Australia, my parents were encouraged by other migrants to visit expat clubs. They declined, and made local friends instead. At school, I had pals from Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Germany, and England. I think I may have even met an Aussie or two!

When I lived in Belgium many years later, my partner and I met no fellow Australians, but we did become friends with other English-speakers (we do actually speak English, just not as you know it…) We are mates with some of these people nearly twenty years later, because we have things in common with them, other than speaking the same language or coming from the same continent.

On a night out in an Irish pub in Bruges, some fellow travellers from Down Under overheard us chatting to Belgian friends, and a chant of: “Aussie-Aussie-Aussie…” erupted, to our total mortification.

I know it may have seemed stuck up and stand-offish to them at the time, but becoming hideously drunk on Fosters lager and bemoaning the absence of Vegemite in the Bruges hotel buffets didn’t light our candle, so we slunk out just as they started demanding the pub DJ play “Land Down Under.” I am as True Blue as a goanna on a rock, but I draw the line.

When we lived in London, we avoided the numerous Australian theme bars that sprung up like mushrooms after rain, to the surprise of our English friends, who assumed that we would enjoy a Bundaberg binge among hammered back-packers, bitching about the British weather.

When does one cease to be an expat and become a migrant anyway? I’ve been a migrant all my life. We don’t intend to go home – Galicia is home – so we refer to ourselves as migrants, not expats.

We live here permanently, we have residence, and Spanish driving licenses, we pay tax here. We are trying to marinade ourselves in all things Galician.  We valiantly blab away in our atrocious Spanish to anyone who will listen, and we are “going native” as best we can. We even have nylon pinnies to wear over our clothes while we work in the garden!

Getting into the village scene, making local friends and getting to know our neighbours is not easy, but it’s worth it. We have met some excellent people, and learned a lot about the area we live in; it’s history and culture. We still can’t cope with eating a huge dinner at eleven o’clock at night, because we are asleep in bed! But we do have a go during fiestas. We have to wimp out around one in the morning, though, just as the local pensioners are getting going. Eighty-year-old abuelas dance past us as we slink off home!

Yes, we do meet with other English-speakers regularly, but we try very hard not to attend exclusively “expat” events.

Happily, most of the people we knock around with are of the same view. We have become friends with many very nice people, from all parts of the world, and we really enjoy their company. We actually have a more active social life now than when we lived in Sydney, because we are not too exhausted to go out, and it doesn’t cost a week’s wages to have dinner in a café!

However, building lasting relationships is just as tricky as it ever was, because the English-speaking community is comparatively small. Just as we aren’t everyone’s cup of Darjeeling, some people that we have met in the past eighteen months aren’t ours.

When we meet someone new, I now ask myself: “If we were back in Sidders, would we be mates?” If my internal response is negative, then I feel that there’s no obligation to keep up with them just because we speak the same lingo. And I am very sure they don’t sit at home and cry over me!

Sometimes, you do need to be with people who are attached to a common cultural thread. I think many migrants here are isolated emotionally at times, and this is where organizations like CAB are absolutely invaluable. And sometimes it is just nice to chat without having to search for a word. I get that. I am getting that more as our second year here in Galicia approaches.

On 12th July we will celebrate our second anniversary in Panton. We will chuck a few snags on the barbi, ice the beers in the esky, and we’ll invite everyone we like; expats and locals.



Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also