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I know time flies when you are having fun but I can hardly believe it but the 4th anniversary of our arrival in Spain is fast approaching. As a consequence, I have started to reflect on my Spain, the Spain I have grown to know and love.
For those of you who saw the first and/or second of my notes from Spain, I set out below another half dozen of our well-learned “Lessons”.
Lesson 1 – The rain rarely falls in Spain. When my wife, Andrea, and I decided that it would be a major improvement in our family’s lifestyle to relocate to a new country, as I had lived and work for a Law Firm in Paris in the early 80’s, France seemed an obvious candidate.
For many years a January business trip involved attending the MIDEM festival in Cannes in the South of France. It had rained stair rods for most of the years I had attended but I brushed that aside as “Well that’s January for you!” I had seen the Cote d’Azur in all its Summertime glory on many occasions, reflected in the turn of the last century works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and more recently I had been further seduced by the slightly Disneylandesque view of Main Street, France, the region called “Provence”.
I was keen to see if France would work for us. However, when friends, who had preceded us in relocating outside the UK, reported that in fact the uncertain and indifferent weather continued for much of the Spring, Autumn and Winter months with slight reprieve in May leading to a reasonable summer, it was not sufficiently reliable.
Let me be clear, I am not so shallow as to make such a crucial decision on the basis of the weather alone but the idea of the South of Spain as delivering around 300 days plus of Sun per year became a very important draw.
I am writing this in early March 2006 and daytime temperatures are cresting around 20 degree C. We are clear that by midsummer water supplies will be at a premium and we are doing all we can to sensibly conserve stocks now. This brings minor inconveniences but until the local desalination plants are working at full strength we will need to be cautious.
The advice is simple. If the weather in your home country is a major reason for your proposed relocation, and it is, for many from Northern Europe and North America, then do your research and see whether you can better Spain’s Costas and their perfect Mediterranean climate.
Lesson 2 – To add to the pleasure of Spain why not taste it! For many the nadir of European cookery is the finest French Haute cuisine or the friendly and more rustic Italian Trattoria menu. Whilst I really do appreciate the excellence of both, Spain’s signature dishes and exceptional wines, particularly the red (vino tinto) from the Autonomous Regions - that comprise mainland Spain - are no longer a poor third. The Mediterranean Diet with its emphasis on fresh colourful vegetables, smashing fish and meat dishes, inventive “Tapas” plates and the extensive use of fine Olive oil is not the preserve of Spain’s coastal neighbours.
Although, I am certain that there will be many who’ll bemoan my releasing this information to a wider public, but the risk of passing on the pleasure will out way the burden of disclosure. There are many excellent “Ventas” in most rural and metropolitan areas that serve the very best local specialties. These are café bar type establishments that open from early morning for coffee and toasted bread, which you may like to grate with a fresh garlic clove and spread with a light tomato puree, a sprinkling of sea salt and olive oil, serving many steaming plates until well after dark.
At lunchtime, a favourite time for most Spaniards to eat, a “Menu del Dia” (Menu of the Day), often priced as low as €7 ($8 or £5) for two or three courses and a drink is possibly the cheapest and most nourishing way to taste Spain. The starter of a classic Gazpacho soup, definitive Mediterranean cookery and basically “health in a bowl” is a must!
The extensive use of pulses, lentils (lentejas), chickpeas (garbanzos), beans (alubias) and rice (arroz) will have the advocates of the high fibre diet praising you to the hills whilst the sausages, dry cured hams (jamon) and meat dishes such as the classic Estofada (veal stew) will keep any carnivore happy.
Lesson 3 – Learn and speak as much Spanish as you can. Unlike the usual French maxim of “it doesn’t matter what you say as long as you pronounce it correctly” most Spaniards realise that if you are from an English or Germanic language heritage the chances of “school boy” Spanish are slim. Consequently, in making the effort to acclimatise to your new home, complimenting your expat life with a decent level of spoken Spanish can only prove advantageous. In working here I have had to develop a slightly more detailed understanding of the language and it’s been easy to massively embarrass myself in formal meetings conducted in the native language. However, the encouragement that I have received has generally meant that although there’s a level of “it’s the foreigner who’s trying” good hearted gibes it’s a small price to pay and an immense source of satisfaction when you get it approximately right.
I should point out that when I refer to “Spanish”, I am speaking of Castellano which is that form of Spanish spoken by most of the regions of Spain with the exclusion of the Catalunya region. Centred on Barcelona, the locals speak a distinct language called “Catalan”.
Thanks to the European Community, my UK legal qualifications are recognised by my local Bar – the Illustre Colegio de Abogados de Malaga – and they curiously seem keen to have me as a member.
I am convinced that although it is theoretically feasible to practice law in Spain as a non-Spaniard, the Legal System – which differs from the UK and US “Common Law” system – and is based on the Napoleonic Codified Civil Law - mitigates against playing on an even pitch with my local colleagues. As a non-Mother Tongue Spanish speaker it is clear that I may even be a hindrance to a foreign client. There is a somewhat “Civil service” mentality to the administration of “life” in Spain. It has proven much more efficient and substantially more advantageous to our clients for me to work through our legal colleagues within the context of my professional services solutions provider business, “The Rights Group SL”.
Lesson 4 - Nil desperandum – The Costa del Sol is known by many as the “California” of Europe. These two regions have much in common.
The older properties, of which there are relatively few outside the picturesque Pueblos Blanco (White Villages), share the same heritage and a distinctive look that is reminiscent of the Mission in Santa Barbara, California, USA.
Aged 20 I was taken by family friends to Los Angeles’ Century City PlayBoy Club, which was as normal for my hosts as visiting a drive thru Burger King. In addition to the blond leggy Californian girls this visit held a further special charm. The early 80’s represented a time of new experiences and one of particular potency was being in Century City surrounded by satin clad bunnies and having my first experience of Cherry Tomatoes. These little globes of freshness are, together with most of our weekly shopping basket, cultivated locally in Spain having reached the UK perhaps nearly fifteen years after I first tried them in the US. They are one of many the staple foods of Europe now produced under polythene shrouds right down to the water’s edge particularly along the Eastern Costa del Sol.
Very few meals in my house pass without some fresh local produce and the adaptable Cherry Tomato invariably appears in one course or another!
As a dictionary definition the expression “Californian” conjures up an image of sun and a bohemian lifestyle. “Laid back” or “Taking it easy”. Well Spain has the same scheme, particularly in the South and it is summed up in the expression “Mañana” (“Tomorrow”). A shrug of the shoulders and a sence of resignation that “its out of my hands” can drive the average expat mad in bewilderment and frustration.
A failure to learn, early on in your relationship with Spain, that the more you push the incrementally more difficult your dealings will become, is a recipe for disaster. You cannot shout at a Spaniard and expect to amend their stance – they won’t. No matter how big you ego is, it will be totally deflated by a Notary’s cashier or shop assistant – I know this from experience. However frustrating, responding proactively to a complaint is just not within the litany of many Spaniard’s reactions. As Spain’s First Minister, Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero is alleged to have remarked recently that he is the head of a country comprising over 40 million “First Ministers”. This tells us something of the national character.
Advising, our Northern European clients to become “Californian” may sound like nonsense. However, I have learned in the last three years of dealing with colleagues and administrators in this environment, that you can only work with the System, and it is a folly to try to buck it. Maintaining a stress level in the red zone is not only highly unproductive - its life threatening. Although exasperation is acceptable, a coronary awaits those who allow the pressure to overwhelm them. “Chill a little.”
In our working lives we have been able to “soften the blow”, as its one of our prime roles to “drive” the relationship between the advisor and the expat client. We cannot provide a totally stress free Spain –it really is part of the nation`s charm – but we do work with some excellent advisors who really do make the difference for our clients.
We have known of people for whom the dream of Spain didn’t translate to the reality. They are rare but a couple who I know recently returned to the UK cited the System as being a major contributor to their unhappiness. Albeit a complete generalisation Spaniard’s seem to know how the System can be made to work in their favor. Their logic is infallible; they “Work to Live” rather than “Live to Work”.
Lesson 5 - Give Flamenco a chance. At the risk of offending the heritage of our friends and neighbours – particularly those from the Celtic regions of Northern Europe - no distinct musical style is more definitive of its homeland than Flamenco. Whether it’s the guttural signing – which a really acquired taste - the whirling dancing, a prancing horse or a bright guitar chord, Flamenco is a brand and for any marketing executive it is short hand for Spain.
Trust me there will come a point when you are in a supermarket queue when you will start to drum you fingers in time with the in store music and you may just be tempted to clap a Flamenco beat.
My suggestion, and a topical cure to this inevitable decent into becoming pro Spanish, are the CDs “Chambao”. The skill of “Chambao” is to marry more traditional Flamenco phrasing and style with a modern techno beats to produce the coolest chill out music – see the advice given in Lesson 16 above - currently available on my in car CD player.
Lesson 6 - The Life/Work/Play/Family balance. In moving to Spain, although I suspect that I did work fairly hard in London the workload I have had since opening our business in Spain has been fairly intense. As a consequence I have had to explore an ability to blend the elements of life such that one doesn’t submerge the others. I am starting to learn, and am aware that I have yet to perfect this skill, but acknowledging that something exists is the start of finding a solution. Unlike much of the time in London, at least my kids now know me by sight!
When there is more certainty about the weather the ability to plan for outdoors is greatly improved. Much of our family time is spent outdoors, whether it’s the beach, the mountains or the stables it is possible to blend some of these elements around our working day.
The working day starts early and much e mailing and many meetings can be done by 4.00 pm when school exits. After a couple of hours out and about its home for homework, baths and dinner during which time my home based broadband comes into its own and I can handle much of the day’s paperwork.
At least that’s the theory…. Getting it right will take time but it’s already a more satisfying way to live.
Finally, a small but highly valuable technical note. Spain is about to become less Taxing for the Non-resident.
After several years of pressure from the European Union, Spain’s Executive has tabled a series of measures that the Spanish Parliament will need to pass by the end of 2006 to reduce Spain’s discriminatory practices towards the Non-resident property owning community.
The true value of obtaining a legal “Residencia” (Residency) has been the subject of some question in the past and is usually explained by reference to the different levels of tax suffered by Residents and Non-residents. Well, no longer. As from January 2007 it is planned that the effective rate of tax that will be paid by a Resident or a Non-resident on a Capital Gain made on, for example, a property sale will be equalised at 18%. This is a reduction from the current rate of 35% for a non-resident and an increase for the resident up from 15%.
My colleagues tell me that measures already exist to allow the Owner of the property – particularly if the property was purchase many years ago – to create a notional price by the actual purchase price being inflation linked. This will mean that the Capital Gains and therefore the tax to be applied will be effectively levied at “today’s prices” thereby reducing some of the burden of Spain’s flourishing property market. Additionally, I am told that credits for the costs of improvements can be taken in further reduction of the tax to be ultimately paid.
I do hope that you’ll find some practical use from this further series of lessons born out of our experiences in Spain. We look forward to seeing you here!