Spain is a major destination point for expats from all over the world. Figures from the Spanish government show there were 4.5 million foreign residents in the country in 2007 – that equates to 10% of the population.
And with good reason. The country boasts a high annual sunshine quota, beautiful landscapes, warm and friendly people, a vibrant cultural life, a good healthcare system, and low taxation and living costs (at least compared to its European peers). But while there are many plus points to a life in Spain, there are challenges to bear in mind too.
So for anyone considering making the move, here are 10 ways to make the transition easier.
Learn the language
Understanding the native tongue will be the biggest aid to integration. Yes, you may get by in shops using hand gestures and Pidgin English, or by asking someone that can speak the lingo to help out when visiting the doctor or in phone conversations with the local electricity company. But a lack of local language skills will leave you isolated. It can also breed misunderstanding, resentment and fear. And a fear mindset is the last thing you want to be lumbered with in your new dream home.
Enjoy the climate
One of Spain's biggest attractions is its climate. So get out in the sunshine. Make the most of the outdoors lifestyle that it affords. Relish the chance to engage in your favorite pastimes or hobbies, whatever they happen to be: playing golf, cycling, sailing, or simply taking a stroll on the beach. After all, isn't that one of the reasons you wanted to move in the first place?
And why not take the opportunity to try something new, perhaps something that wasn't feasible where you lived before. It could be as energetic as skiing or scuba-diving, or as leisurely as painting.
Adjust to the Spanish Clock
Timekeeping is a flexible concept in Spain. While in Cádiz some years ago a tourist information guide joked to me that only two things start when they say they're going to in Spain: one is football matches, the other the bullfights.
I would add a couple of others. One is the trains, which are almost Swiss-like in their punctuality. The other is when it hits one o'clock and the shop shutters go down for siesta.
Other than that, take any estimate as to when something will get done with a pinch of salt. That way if it happens on time you'll be pleasantly surprised, and if it doesn't you won't be disappointed.
By European standards Spain is a large country, more than double the size of the United Kingdom. And it varies widely from region to region, not only in its geographic features but in its climate, language, traditions, music, architecture, history and the outlook of the people. There's the passion and heat of Andalucía, the dry remoteness of Extremadura, the lush forests and craggy coastline of the north. So get out and see something of the great country you're living in, enjoy its beauty and diversity.
Enjoy the Food
Spain may not be able to match the gourmet reputation of France or Italy. Nevertheless, there are many wonderful, and highly regionalized, dishes to choose from, with those of the Basque country held in particularly high esteem. So pick a restaurant and order something you've not tried before.
Spanish wines, meanwhile, do enjoy international renown. But again, there is much more to enjoy than just a Rioja red or a bottle of cava (however good both may be). Pick a local vintage then and get tasting!
Go to the local fiestas
Extravaganzas such as the bull-running in Pamplona (San Fermín), Sevilla's Semana Santa and Feria de Abril, or Valencia's Las Fallas have become famous around the world, and are well worth a trip if you can make it.
But every village, town and city has its own monthly schedule of saints' days and feast days too, events that have a particular significance to the local community, and in which they take great pride. Some mark the grape or the olive harvest, others celebrate the horse or the catch from the sea. Many hours are spent making costumes, preparing floats, organizing processions. So if possible get involved, and at the very least go and watch to see what life in your new home is all about.
Support a football team
While bullfighting is considered the national sport, and is the most archetypically Spanish, football is by far the most popular. Teams – particularly in La Liga, the top division – are followed with fervid interest. As with so many other aspects of Spanish life there tends to be a carnival atmosphere at the games too. So pick a team and get caught up in the excitement. If nothing else, it will give you a topic of conversation with the locals.
Watch Spanish TV
The quality of programming may not be great always, but watching Spanish TV shows will not only help your language skills, it will give you great insight into the Spanish character, and how they interact.
For instance, in the daytime chat shows you'll find everyone speaking over the top of one another, while in game shows such as ¡Allá tú! the contestants are tactile, supportive and lavish in their congratulations with one another. Meanwhile, the comedy programs seem to involve a lot of cross-dressing!
Understand the social norms
There is a different social etiquette in Spain. In Britain and North America there is an emphasis on politeness, manners and order. We expect people to say please and thank you, to wave an acknowledgement if we let a driver through, to queue properly.
By contrast in Spain the language is such that the long-winded politeness of English (“would you be so kind as to ...”) just doesn't translate. There is more directness, which to us may border on the rude, but isn't seen that way in Spanish. Queuing occurs, but is less of a rule. And it is rare for motorists to stop at pedestrian crossings.
Come to recognize such differences. Accept them. It will save a lot of frustrations.
Drive with Caution
Every year, particularly before major national holidays, there are reports all over the news warning of the number of injuries and fatalities that occur on the Spanish roads. Get behind the wheel a couple of times and you'll understand why: excessive speeding, crazy overtaking maneuvers, sporadic use of indicators, kids not fastened into safety seats ... so stay alert and expect the unexpected.