Integrating in Spain - Easier Not To?

Published on 07/07/2008 in Expat Life

Brits Integrate Into The System

It’s true that for many expats the initial  intention to integrate is there, but when they realise how much dedication is required to be proficient in Spanish and that you can get by without it, they just don’t bother. Instead, they get their bearings and integrate into the system by finding out about  el padron, their entitlement to the health service and generally master the practicalities of everyday life. They just carry on as they would have had they moved to another town in Britain. They seek out familiarity and go to the shops where they don’t need to do too much communicating. It’s safe and easy to live in a cocoon in Spain. It doesn’t matter that it’s Spain, it could be anywhere providing the sun shines.

Stick To Their Patch

The truth is they get by fine like this and keep themselves to themselves catching glimpses of Spanish life from the sidelines. If they need to buy clothes they fly back to the UK or those on the Costa del Sol cross the border to Gibraltar for Marks and Spencer and Next. It is easier to stick to what they know and not complicate their lives by incorporating too  much Spanishness. They may be living in Andalucia but they will probably never venture out of their patch except for return trips to the UK and you will never hear of them planning trips to Cordoba or Seville.

Same Schools, Same Food, Same Friends

If they can afford to they will send their children to private international school so they can continue with their education where they left off. They will continue to cook the same kinds of foods but using Spanish ingredients. Although, they will smile, gesture and wave politely to the locals, it is easier not to enter into conversation. They are happy like this, not bothering anyone as they have their support system. They don’t only mix with other expats because they dislike the Spanish, on the contrary, they regard them with great affection as they have never had to get to know them.

The Brits That Integrate

They are not bothering anyone but those Brits who consider themselves integrated are very quick to look down their noses at them in disgust at their ignorance. As far as they are concerned, anybody who comes to live in Spain should immediately learn Spanish like them,  make friends with all their Spanish neighbours and only eat in Spanish restaurants.

They regard them condescendingly as uncultured and take pleasure at ridiculing their overtly British ways in Spain including their dress sense and feeble attempts at communicating by speaking loudly and flapping their hands about. On the other hand, the Spanish do not object to the British way of segregating themselves and to an extent choose to ignore them. Okay, secretly they might resent the amount of construction that has taken place and the rate of development due to the influx of Brits but they don’t protest through the streets or confront them about it. Generally, the non Spanish speaking Brits are made to feel very welcome and the Spanish will usually go out of their way to communicate in their best English.

The Lonely Integrators

So do those who do make an effort to embrace the Spanish language and culture enjoy a richer life in Spain? You would think so as they make their time in Spain a real learning experience. However, I believe that generally the non integrators are happier without the stress of integrating and constantly seeking out ways to improve their Spanish. They are far less vulnerable to culture shock and experiencing the horrible feeling of being the ‘underdog’ when trying to communicate in a foreign tongue. In fact, sometimes those who seem to be integrating with the Spanish whilst speaking fluent Spanish with the locals are actually the lonely ones and are missing out on all the networking that goes on amongst the expats.

Spanish Students In Britain

If I think back to my days at university, I remember that the behaviour of the Spanish students in Britain was not unlike the typical British expat in Spain. They kept themselves to themselves in their own little groups and didn’t make friends with the British students never mind the locals. They had their own hang outs and mixed with other Spanish people despite their reason for being in the UK was to learn English.

However, they were very unapproachable always surrounded by at least one other countryman so they didn’t get a chance to mix with Brits. The only chance they got to speak English was in shops or with other foreigners as their housemates would all be Spanish too. In fact, they would be better to send them to the Costa del Sol to learn English amongst the expat community. So, if even young people with open minds find it a challenge, it is obviously natural to stick to your own when outside of your comfort zone. I used to be very critical of the typical expat living in their enclave but now I understand that even if the intention is there it can be difficult to find an entry point for even the best Spanish speaker and life is easier not to get stressed by it.


Written by: Susan Pedalino

About the author:

Women In Spain

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Rob in Madrid said:
25 August 2009 @ 19:41

I have very little interest in integrating, I much prefer to live in my English bubble, even up here in Madrid it's possible to avoid speaking Spanish all day. The main reason is the difficulty in learning the language. You either have it or don't, that is the ability to learn a language. Inspite of having a German wife and living there for 7 years I never got beyond a fairly baisic level of German. Spanish, forget it.

totanaliz said:
28 September 2008 @ 15:47

I have to disagree. I have integrated into life here, after learning to speak Spanish to a good level, and I love it. The negative tone of the article will stop many from trying to learn the language and embrace a new life.
I have a wonderful Spanish best friend, Maria, wife of a goat farmer, and we go to family gatherings, parties and socialise. Our kids are best friends.
We walk twice a week, and although I make mistakes with my Spanish, she helps me along and I wouldn´t have it any other way.
Forget the colonies of ex-pats, sitting with a G&T, get out there and make an effort.
It takes time, persistence and effort, plus the ability to laugh at the little misunderstandings and mistakes you´ll make, but it is definitely worth it!

barmadu said:
28 September 2008 @ 10:27

The non-integrated life described is a sad sounding one indeed. Like living a guided tour holiday where your entire life is seen through a bus window.

I don't think its a question of looking down your nose, but getting off that bus.

Tillo2 said:
08 July 2008 @ 11:24

While I agree with some points you make. I am a Spaniard who fully integreted in the UK life style. The first year was hard, and yes you stay around your people, but this is mainly because people gets bore with you when the conversation dries out because you can not speak the language, and it takes take to convey what you want to say. When I learned the language, then it all became easier and I made my all my efforts. I think it is very sad to see an article like this when you have choosen to live in another country.

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