Jane moved to Barcelona in 2003 after spending 8 years in Egypt and completing her Doctorate in the Role of Women in Egyptian film at SOAS, University of London. She now lives in the pretty market town of Alella in the wine-growing Maresme region, north of Barcelona. She is Partner & Head of Content at MumAbroad and also takes commissions for beautiful hand-made quilts. She is married with 3 children.
I went to Cairo in 1992 to teach English for a year, fell in love with Egypt and stayed. After a couple of years teaching English I got a part-time job at the American University in Cairo teaching Film Studies. To get a full-time job I needed a PhD so I moved to London with the intention of returning to Cairo once I had completed my Doctorate. However, I met my husband and we started our life in Barcelona together when he was offered a job here.
I think the challenges for me have been cultural more than practical. Each move has been very different. When I moved to Cairo I was young, with no commitments and looking forward to exploring the world. Leaving Cairo 8 years later was difficult because I had a very established life there and many good friends but in some ways it was a relief – having some time-out from an enjoyable but often hectic life where you never quite knew what would be around the corner. London was very expensive and fairly rigid compared to Cairo. With the move to Barcelona I think I have found a happy medium between the two.
In general I don’t mind being away from my family. We are close but have never lived in each others pockets. Wherever I have lived my parents and brothers have come to visit me. We have never been short of visitors in Barcelona! When we had our first baby then I did really wish my Mum had been closer to home – for practical reasons and for emotional support. Thirteen years later my Mum is still the first person I call when I have a child related question. One of my brothers has grown up boys and they now come to visit without their parents but with friends or girlfriends. I really like the way my relationship with my nephews is developing.
Getting any kind of official paperwork done or documents issued here is challenging. However many originals or photocopies you take along with you to any government office you are always missing something. That is very frustrating!
When we first moved to Barcelona we chose to live in Diagonal Mar as it was close to my husband’s office and we found a very comfortable modern flat to rent for a good price. For the first year that we were living there, however, I did wonder if we had chosen the right location as I found the large blocks of flats in the area slightly soul destroying. But once our daughter was born in 2004 I found it a really easy area to be with a pushchair: everywhere is flat, the pavements are wide and there is a fabulous park nearby with play areas and a lake. When she became a toddler I spent a lot of time at the beach with her, which was a 10 minute walk from where we lived and as a family at the weekends we used our bikes quite a lot.
Our second child was also born while we were living in Diagonal Mar and we found the area to be really easy with young children. We were also walking distance from the picturesque Rambla Poble Nou and in the time that we lived there many cafes, small restaurants and little shops opened up making it quite a vibrant place to live.
We moved in 2009. The main reason we moved was for the school but we also liked the idea of having a bit more space, of having a house and garden. Our daughter started P3 at the Hamelin International School in Alella in 2007. We spent a lot of time looking at schools. I am British and my husband is Italian and we had no idea how long we would be staying in Barcelona so for us it didn’t make any sense to send our children to a local school where they would be immersed in Catalan. We did feel that they should learn Catalan but we also felt that Spanish was as important, if not more important. The only schools that we found where Spanish had equal importance to Catalan were private schools that are trilingual (Spanish, Catalan and English). We went to visit schools in Sarria and Zona Alta, which were just too far away, and then we came across the school in Alella. After 2 years of ‘commuting’ to school we decided to move there.
We are very happy with the school. It is a private, trilingual school that sits somewhere between a concertada and an international school. From P3 to P5 the children have more classroom time in English but once they enter primary education their lessons are split equally between Catalan, Spanish and English. Students have the opportunity to take the International Baccalaureate from 16-18.
I find that the school combines traditional values with some modern teaching practices. A lot of the work is based around projects where the children combine different subjects to work on a theme. Excursions and trips to the theatre also play an important part of the children’s education and the students are encouraged to be autonomous from a young age and it is normal (and actively encouraged) that they go on colonias for 2 nights from the age of 3.
The school moved in 2015 to the nearby village of Montgat to a brand new purpose built building. Now children from 0 to 18 are in the same location. With this move I feel that the school is developing and becoming more international. The growth in foreign students is noticeable, the International Baccalaureate was introduced 2 or 3 years ago, the new school has a small residence for exchange and live-in students and each year there are more native English speaking teachers.
We rented a great house in the centre of the village literally across the road from the school. We had our own small garden plus a communal garden with a swimming pool. We were walking distance from the local shops, the post office and the municipal swimming pool and gym. In the village you can also find a Pilates studio, an osteopath and a sushi restaurant. So we have a real sense of village life but my husband only has a 15 minute drive to work. There is a regular bus service from the village to the centre of Barcelona. Although we moved out of the city we don’t feel that we are far from it.
The Maresme occupies a narrow strip of land in the North East of Catalonia, between Barcelona and the Costa Brava. It’s a very beautiful area that combines the countryside (mountains and vineyards) with the beaches of the Mediterranean. It’s a particularly great area if you enjoy sport. You can run along the coast, cycle in the mountains and windsurf in the sea. The best bit is that you have all this only 20 minutes from Barcelona.
I think we are happily integrated but not completely integrated. My husband and I both speak Spanish but our life is very international. My husband works for an American company with employees from 25 different countries. Although the school the children go to is international, the majority of the children are Spanish and Catalan. I think about 25% of the students have at least 1 foreign parent. This means that the children have a nice balance of friends – some foreign and some local. The children are taught about local customs and at school they celebrate local festivities and we participate in events in the village. I think we are very comfortable living in the Alella but we will never be fully integrated because my husband and I don’t speak Catalan.
I don’t think you need to speak Spanish before you move to Barcelona (unless of course you need the language for work) and you can get by quite easily speaking English in the city. It is a very international city and you hear all languages being spoken. If you do decide to learn the language I think it is easier to take classes once you are here and can be immersed in the language. It goes without saying, however, that you can integrate better if you learn the language and it makes for a much more interesting life here if you speak at least some Spanish. In the Maresme it is noticeable that more locals speak Catalan than Spanish but that has never caused a problem; they easily switch to Spanish.
We bought a house in Alella in 2014. We are just outside of the centre of the village and have views of the mountains, the vineyards and the sea. I love it here and as the children get older family life becomes easier, more relaxed and enjoyable. Our daughter just became a teenager and I am loving the changes in our relationship. I’m introducing her to my favourite books, films and artists and she’s introducing me to singers and musicians I have never heard of.
Quality of Life
I think the whole family has a great quality of life here. My husband has a 15 minute commute to work and we live close to the children’s school. The weather is great – we wake up to the sun most mornings and that alone has a very positive effect. And we are all comfortable in a multicultural and multilingual society – hopefully our children will find it easy to adapt wherever they chose to live in the future.
There have been a lot of changes in the past few years including getting divorced, the death of my father and of course Covid. All difficult and all life changing in their own way. We sold our family house in Alella and I moved with our children to Vilassar de Mar. We live in a beautiful casa de pueblo just 2 minutes walk from the sea.
Vilassar de Mar is bigger than Alella – I would call it a small town rather than a village and as a result has so much more to offer than Alella. It has a busy town centre with a good choice of cafes, restaurants and shops. Carrie, my partner at MumAbroad opened up a co-working, showroom and event space here called No 20 which has become the MumAbroad ‘headquarters’. The co-working is a great mix of international and local creatives and professionals and we’ve found a group of local and international artisans who display their products in the showroom (my quilts included).
My children who are now 18, 14 and 11 are so much more independent here as we are 2 minutes walk from the train station which means I’m not a taxi driver 24/7!
One chapter ended and another one began.
Jane is one of the 9 contributors to #LivingTheDream: Expat Life Stripped Bare, an anthology of personal and powerful stories. Nine women share the emotional and practical realities of the challenges of expat life away from ‘home’.