Is it normal for expats to continuously compare everything to their home country? If so, does it ever stop? I’ve been an expat in Seville, Spain for nine years and still find myself wondering whether certain things would happen differently back in England. It’s funny, but even though I’ve lived in Ecuador, Brazil, Australia and Thailand, I still bypass those memories and compare aspects to good old Blighty.
I used to compare an immense amount more than now. Especially in those first couple of years when the learning curve was steeper than the hills in the Andalucían countryside. I used to wake up and think “I’m living in Spain.I’m actually here, making that life I once dreamed about,” but now I often forget I’m away from home. When I remember though, you can be sure that my complicated expat-mind starts picking at things to compare. Here’s what I tend to ponder about.
Food and eating habits
I love British food and, at times, miss the cuisine back in England: a tasty roast on a Sunday, fish and chips on a Friday, and even a quick plate of baked beans if I’m in a rush on a weeknight. Finding quality Asian restaurants is tricky here as well.
I’m a massive fan of Spanish food too though. I’m fond of going out for tapas and love the range of food you can have in one evening. The only time I tend to compare food to back home is when I’m craving something specific like certain spicy sauces, edible Chinese food, or some veggies. Spanish restaurants rarely have boiled peas, carrots or broccoli as a side plate. Vegetarians normally find it hard to get a decent meal. One friend used to joke that the Spanish waiters just didn’t get the fact that she was a vegetarian.
“What, you don’t even eat jamòn – ham?” was the standard response.
It took me a while to get used to the different eating times as well. Typical Spanish hours are anything from 8am till 11am for breakfast, 2pm till 4pm for lunch, snack and coffee at about 6pm or 7pm, and finally dinner between 9pm and 11pm.
I really struggled in my first year. I had an early breakfast before my first class at about 7am, lunch at 12pm, then dinner at 4pm before my classes began in the evening. Then all I would eat when I got in at 10.30pm was a piece of fruit.
“Crazy English,” my Spanish housemates used to say. Thinking back they were probably right.
Since then my wife has persuaded me to eat later. I’d prefer not to, but I don’t finish teaching until 10pm anyway. I love going back to England and eating at a reasonable time so I can go to bed without my dinner still sitting on my stomach.
I’ve always thought of British people as quiet open-minded, warm and friendly. So I was completely miffed when I found out that most of my students who had travelled to England thought we were unfriendly and rude, especially now after living in Seville so long.
I know British people seem to be busy most of the time, and if you’re trying to strike up a conversation with someone on the tube during rush hour then you’re not going to get the best impression of just how friendly we can be, but I have to say that I often compare general courtesy and friendliness in Seville.
One of my sticklers is queue jumping, especially from the older generation. They seem to think that asking a ‘quick question’ to the bank cashier, or steaming in when a new till opens up in a supermarket is not putting anyone out. Back home there’s much more empathy.
Then there’s the general atmosphere when you’re crossing a ‘zebra crossing’ or ‘traffic light.’ Taxis rarely stop at zebra crossings, especially those which have worn away over the years. There’s a crazy, and dangerous, rule with the traffic lights which states that drivers can go, even if it’s green for pedestrians ‘as long as no one is in the way.’ There’s a busy junction at the end of my road with traffic lights and everyday bikers and pedestrians are fighting with car drivers.
Another thing that just wouldn’t happen back home is street hogging. I mean when families or groups of friends walk down the street in a line together and don’t let others pass. After becoming a Dad I’ve realised that it’s even worse if you’re pushing a pram.
I can’t help but compare these aspects to the more civilised and courteous citizens in the UK. Or have I been away too long?
After such a long time here I tend to forget how miserable it can be in England. I only go back for Christmas and in the summer and the weather is as I expect it to be. I normally forget just how sad and gloomy it is for most of the year. Here it never really gets ‘cold’, only perhaps for two or three weeks where we have to wear several layers in the house because we don’t have central heating. Saying that, during the summer, I find myself dreaming of being back in the cooler temperatures.
It’s weird, but where I live, right down the south coast of Spain, not that far from Africa, I don’t actually look forward to the summer. Of course, most of us teachers can’t wait for the break, but mainly so we can escape the heat. At the moment it’s about 40 degrees, but it can reach up to 55. I find myself wishing I was back home, walking in the rain and skipping in some puddles when really I’m gasping for air in the stuffy, dusty parks.
Don’t get me wrong, stress does exist in Spain, especially now with the recession. Times are hard here and a lot of people are suffering, not getting paid, working crazy hours to make ends meet, and losing everything because of dodgy mortgages. So yes, stress does exist.
However, it’s not as intense as back home, from what I remember anyway. The number of working hours is considerably less, as is the cost of living, and that constant atmosphere of trying to ‘be the best’ and ‘have the most’ is not as pivotal, at least in the circles where I hang out.
I get stressed at times, of course, we’ve just had a baby boy and the first year has been tough both financially and time wise, but I guess that’s the same wherever you are with a first kid.
Things do get on top of me at certain times in the year, like with exams at work, or working weekends for extra money, but generally I’m less stressed than I used to be at home. But I was working in Sales and Recruitment, which might have something to do with it.
Work tends to be such an important focus back in Britain, people live to work, here people work to live, which might also explain why there is this looming recession as well.
So it is hard to live abroad as an expat in another country and not always compare to how life is, or could be, back home. I’m not sure if I’ll ever stop comparing, but as long as I’m generally happy that’s all I really care about.
What about you? Do you compare your life to back home? Or have you returned and question your decision? I’d be interested to know your thoughts.
Barry O’Leary has been an expat in Seville for nearly ten years. When he’s not teaching English, he writes a blog A Novel Spain which is about how he sees life in Spain. He has also lived and taught English in Brazil, Ecuador, Australia and Thailand and travelled around the world in the meantime. His non-fiction travel literature book, Teaching English in a Foreign Land, about his adventure as a TEFL teacher has sold over 2,500 copies.