Our expat columnist Chris Marshall on making the most of your time abroad
Expat Chris Marshall says many expats fail to achieve all the goals they set themselves when they moved abroad
9:51AM GMT 27 Jan 2012
I have written before about the non-profit project that my partner and I have set up here in Spain to help with the re-homing and transport of abandoned and rescued cats and dogs to Germany and the UK, so I won't bore you with the details again! Suffice to say that when we decided to base ourselves in Spain, the plan was to find a way of making a living doing something we enjoyed and to make life more meaningful.
One thing our project has helped us achieve is a greater level of integration and socialisation with our new hosts. We deal daily with the local community: rescue centres, animal lovers and our excellent vet. This integration has been crucial not just for the success of the project, but for the satisfaction we enjoy from our expat lifestyle.
We are extremely fortunate to have found something that we both care passionately about, and can afford to do on a non-profit basis, supported by the blogs that we run and the writing and content that we have contracts to provide.
To be honest it may cost us money each month, but it keeps us out of the bars and cafés and gives us a purpose and structure to our day, something that sadly a lot of expats appear to lack, especially those that haven't moved abroad to work full-time. No doubt expat expert Dr Ben van den Anker would agree; he believes that deliberate socialisation is clearly related to expatriate adjustment and turnoverand requires participation of host country nationals. Or, in other words, it takes effort on both sides, with the onus in my view being on the expat to make the first move.
I have been reflecting on this recently, as I meet more and more people that are doing something that they are passionate about. In general I would say that those that have something to do are a lot happier than those that don't, and that those that are doing something that they are passionate about are the happiest.
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How I devoted my expat life to helping Spain's abandoned animals17 Aug 2011
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European Union in peril without reform, warns David Cameron14 Nov 2011
Do we see our expat status as a temporary measure?18 Nov 2011
Or there's Karen Considine who has a passion for horses and Southern Anadalucia, where she has set up Ride Andalucia. She puts her success down to listening to the people who have lived in the area for years and understanding their way of doing things.
"All it takes is....listening to the people who live and work here and understand these mountains rather than trying to bring in 'the way we do it in Ireland' and, of course, a lot of hard physical slog on a daily basis clearing trails, exploring new routes off-season, looking after the horses and – the part I hate – managing the website, bookings, invoicing and balancing the books!" she says.
A lesson perhaps for any expat looking to set up a business in their new country, Karen is adamant that the success of her business depends on the goodwill, help and advice of local people: local riding groups hire her their horses, or clear trails and find new routes, as do the shepherds and arrieros who transport goods on the backs of animals). Local smallholders allow her to cross their land, and the local hotels and restaurants, despite the ongoing financial crisis in Spain, still manage to give her special rates for her groups of riding guests.
Needless to say the passion need not be for animals. A neighbour of ours is passionate (or is that obsessive?) about golf and over the years has devoted much time to organising competitions and visits to other golf courses for fellow expats. This has evolved into a thriving Friday Golf Society, and recently extended even further with a venture into a golf shop, a far cry from their previous life in the UK.
Of course it isn't easy to combine your passion with making money, as Eye on Spain owner Justin Aldridge, who has loved solving problems and coming up with new projects since childhood, found out when he moved over to Spain in 2004: "We moved over with my new idea, which was to build a website for off-plan buyers to follow the progress of their properties being built. It was to be called Eye on Spain. The idea for it had come about from our own need for this same service, which didn't exist at the time. So I bought myself a book and started learning how to program websites and build databases. Six months in I soon realised that the idea was good but again, I couldn't sell it to anyone. Hardly anyone was paying for the service. Money was getting burnt at an alarming rate and I couldn't see how to turn the idea into something that actually made money. At this point I got lucky. I met someone who taught me one thing that was to change the course of my life and the website. I truly believe that an element of luck is always needed to make something happen. Today, Eye on Spain is a successful business."
Nor need not living in an expat community hinder you. Guy Bell in Valencia set up a Facebook page looking "for something to do" which has become popular and brought people together in many ways: "We live in a very 'Spanish' area and the English and the Spanish don't really mix as much as they could, although in general the Spanish are very curious and are keen to the know the Brits. We started a language and culture exchange too, with help from the town hall, which has surpassed all expectations and last month I met the minister for tourism and culture who is very keen on working with us to attract Brits back to the area." Not to be left out, his wife has fired up a passion for genuine Cornish pasties and English cakes, and the Spanish love them.
Further afield, in Qatar, Victoria Scotthas been busy making a new career for herself after her pilot husband landed a job with Qatar Airways, based on a passion for writing. "I now have a range of magazines I write for here in Doha, covering everything from travel, to food, to music, to business. I’m also the presenter of a radio show on QF Radio featuring the work of the Qatar Philharmonic. Radio is a real passion of mine, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to broadcast, much as I love writing too." As with many expats, Victoria loves the variety that her passion provides, along with the flexibility of work hours, enabling her to still enjoy the excellent weather, and her little boy who was born in Qatar.
Last month I was somewhat pessimistic about what 2012 held in store for many expats, especially here in Spain. Nothing I have seen so far makes me think any different: unemployment rose again in December to 4.42 million, and Fitch, the credit ratings agency, has cut its Spanish growth forecast for this year to zero from 0.5 per cent, following a contraction in the final months of 2011. The low pound continues to add more pressure to those with pensions or rental incomes paid in sterling. Add in falling property prices and it is little wonder that some surveys claim that as many as 75 per cent of expats in Spain want to go home to the UK – although, if all surveys were to be believed, 70 per cent of us expats are both happy and want to go home.
Going home may seem attractive on the surface, but look a little deeper and "frying pan and fire" come to mind, as the UK hovers on the brink of another recession and has the most indebted economy in the world in relation to GDP, if you include private debt.
Doomed if you do, doomed if you don't then? Not necessarily. Maybe 2012 is the year that expats should show some passion and get involved in something that they really enjoy and believe in. It isn't my place to tell any expat what they should do, but hand on heart I suspect that not many expats that aren't working full-time can say that they have ticked off all of the goals they set themselves when they moved abroad.
With all the issues that we will face in 2012, and the resulting reduction in options, to throw yourself into something that you are passionate about and believe in may well be the best thing you can do.