Relocation Pain – The ups and downs of the path of integration in Catalunya, Spain
I love blogs about living overseas and have enjoyed following a few. They have helped me and inspired me a lot. I would say however, that we are very very good at writing about the wonderful experiences or the amusing anecdotes of our times overseas. I read less about the cold hard frustrations of living a life abroad. Of course maybe this is because we don’t want to appear negative or be labelled as a moaning Minnie (my current fear as I write this). But as I have more than once exclaimed out loud to my husband “No one told us it would be this hard” (pretty much the same mantra when parenting kids too…no?) and as I wished I had had some foresight into these realities I feel I will include it occasionally in my blogging.
Don’t get me wrong I absolutely love living overseas and Catalonia is a wonderful place. It is stunningly beautiful, culturally and politically fascinating and is full of wonderful open helpful people. In fact most of my experiences have been fantastic. I am in love with the country. So I hear you asking me, “why the breaking point? It sounds fantastic?” Sarcastically you may even ask; “Does the cava gets too warm? Are there too many beaches to choose from? Is the sun too hot? Is it that there are just too many fiestas?”….
The reality is it does depend what you want from your host country. If you move with open expectations and a desire to live and just experience the surface of a county it is great and pretty easy. If you are here a few years and are after the sun, the mountains, the food, the fiestas then you will be very happy. Many people are only in a country for a few years due to work and this how life will be; a wonderful “experience”. Also if you move and are happy to hang out with people who speak your own language or local people who like to speak English too (there are many), you will be fine. Life will be easy. If you are happy you can learn the essential language you need to get by. You will always find people to help with the tricky bits, friends will rally to help you with those complex negotiations; the doctors, the schools etc. These things will still frustrate you but you will get past them. However if you really want to establish a life abroad; deeply embedded in the community and you want to feel like you belong, well this is when it will get hard. There will be twists and turns along the way and days like I’m having today! You will of course find it easier if you have married or in a relationship with someone from your host country; this gives you a relative passport in, or if you come with the language you will be running ahead too.
When I left home I had set my heart on living a life like the one I left behind, and no I don’t mean in an English life in an English community with all my favourite products bought from “the local British shop” while I enjoy the best of the playa and the local tennis club… I mean a life where I chat (not just in broken Spanish or Catalan) to my neighbours, where I engage in local events (not just watch them with curious delight), where I can volunteer in the community, where I feel a part of where I live, where I understand and engage politically and I learn and function as I did at home. Now this is a challenge! Plus I haven’t always taken the right steps along the way and the journey feels long, windy and at times arduous. I’m also not even sure where the summit of the “integration mountain” is or if it will be possible to reach!
I do try hard…. the language is the first one. I’d say I am a good conscientious student and I progress slowly but I wonder today will I ever tell (or understand) jokes or sound intelligent, will I ever speak eloquently in my second language? I do try to make local friends and the community is very responsive, (I’d say they “suffer” my language skills well). I am included and I am welcomed, but without the depth of language it is truly truly hard… I am so far off it. I should bask in the glory of my friends and acquaintances praise at my progress, but days like today I can’t… I hit a wall. I want to knock on a friend’s door, chat, laugh and joke freely over a cup of coffee and have that fluidity I had at home. I also spend time learning; my recent venture is out with community leaders finding out about the systems in the town and the political issues. I read the paper (like a child with my finger following the words and my phone on internet mode to help with those tricky idioms) I ask my friends to explain how the country and society works/thinks… it going ok and bit by bit my understanding is starting, but the history of a place is rich and affects so much that I can’t make sense of now…. I take so much for granted that I knew though osmosis at home. I’ve also got a voluntary job or two as I try to re-establish (or in the case of job number two; reinvent) myself and this helps, but I miss (again without language and the understanding of the systems) the ability to take up a professional role which I had at home and feel I am part of something.
One thing that has held us back is putting our children in an international school. We chose one in relation to my husband’s employment as initially we expected to be moved around Europe. We chose one that had a high percentage of Spanish and Catalan children attending and that taught both languages. We have discovered however it is not a “local” school and therefore adds another hurdle to integrating within our local community. Due to our choice too all of our language acquisition is slower (we don’t have to use our Spanish/Catalan in the school context) Plus it is always been easy to sink back into socialising within our own language set or to end up with our children permanently being invited out in within these circles. We have done our best to locate out of school programs to counteract this and promote local language and friendship acquisition in the community but again it is slow….
So there are days, like today, when I put my head in my hands and still feel we have a million miles to go. I miss the ease of our old life; where I never thought about these things, I took them for granted. But at time like this you have to be reflective. You need to see the progress you have made and not to lose heart. When I think back to the first night out with the Spanish/ Catalan school mums when just listening made my ears bleed and my head spin after just three hours, or my first confusing trip to the pharmacy when I came home with many cold remedies when I went for stomach medicine… I need to listen to myself speaking in that pharmacy now; questioning doses and asking questions, chit chatting about local events etc..
I once read an article by a friend, who lived here many many years and is married into a Catalan family, about the concept of “integration” and I was hoping he had the answers and would impart them, yet was disappointed to read he felt it was such a complicated concept and he wasn’t sure if we would ever be fully integrated. I do still remain still positive and hope my ideal is still possible. I’m still dedicated to putting in the effort but now realistic the journey is long and there will be days when the tears of frustration dominate but like most things in life the hard work pays off eventually – I will eventually get out what I put in!
Fleur moved from the UK after giving up a much-loved career to bring up her children abroad. After initially missing their old life, and struggling with the adaptation process, Fleur says she would now struggle to leave Catalunya after falling in love with the life and people. She has now re-invented herself as a writer and blogger.