Inside Spains mini-Britain that 92,000 highly regarded expats call home

Clare Shirley vividly recalled how warmly she and her husband were welcomed by the residents of a small mountain village in the Andalusian region when they decided to start a new life there more than two decades ago. The now 45-year-old said people in the small village of Albanchez quickly started calling her “their English girl” while sharing how easily she – who is bilingual – and her husband – who at the time didn’t speak Spanish – managed to fit in the community. She told “My hubby would help the neighbours move their gas bottles and other items and we used the village for everything and got involved with the local fiestas and had no problems with integration.”

‘Adopted by the village’

Ms Shirley and her family are among the more than 92,000 Britons who have decided to make Andalusia, in southern Spain their home, turning the region into a mini-UK which is home to more Brits than Bath, Chester, and roughly the same number as Lincoln.

The region, which includes popular holiday destinations such as Marbella, Malaga and Seville, counts almost a third of the total of all the British expats who have moved to Spain.

The expat continued: “We had our daughter Lauren while we lived there and she was adopted pretty much by the whole village.”

Her daughter, Ms Shirley recalled, even earned a “Spanish grandad” named Rafael, who would regularly take the toddler for a walk around the village, during which Lauren would be given “sweets, food and juices” by other residents.

The family eventually relocated to a town nearer to a hospital due to health complications experienced by their second child. There, they found more foreigners than at Albanchez, and once again didn’t struggle to integrate.

Ms Shirley said: “Our girls go to school here, have Spanish friends, we are welcomed – partly because we speak the language and because they are very friendly people.

“We only ever had one or two nasty interactions since we moved here in Andalusia but it hasn’t affected us and we really love it here. My husband hasn’t been back to the UK in 18 years.”

Speaking Spanish helped the expat not just to fit in but also to find a job, as she said she was hired by an optician “simply because I was bilingual, I had no experience and have trained up since”.

Language barrier

However, she shared that while her experience has been outstanding, she has noticed “signs of the Spanish not being as open and friendly” when encountering some Britons who behave in an “arrogant and belligerent” manner.

Ms Shirley claimed to have seen UK nationals “screaming and shouting at staff” at a medical centre “demanding service”, a behaviour which made workers more reluctant to speak English. She added: “If I can I usually step in to help the staff to make things easier.”

The 45-year-old went on to claim admin staff at her medical centre were “insulted and spat on” by rowdy Britons, exacerbating the issue.

She added it is assumed people who don’t speak Spanish will head to visits accompanied by someone who can translate for them. However, she also said, the Andalusian health service provides a telephone number where call centres with translators can help.

These more negative experiences, however, haven’t been the norm for British expats.

Linden Greensitt, 54, depicted his family life in the village of Guejar Sierra, located in the Granada area, in an idyllic way.

Speaking about the 3,000-strong village, he told “[There is a] good number of expats, surprisingly, but all are part of the Spanish community, they speak Spanish. The locals are so welcoming, it’s like a return to the 1960s and 1970s in the UK in so much as people know each other, neighbours know and look out for each other.”

The entrepreneur, who, following his relocation, launched Gospain to help people who want to follow in his footsteps navigate the difficulties of moving abroad, said he feels the town is safe enough to let his children “be children” and play outside even after dusk.

Mr Greensitt and his wife Irina, whose Gospain community has grown to count some 25,000 members, initially wanted to relocate abroad to give their children – Sofya and Ksusha Emily – the opportunity to experience a new country and learn a new language.

The pair didn’t choose Andalusia as their first destination when they thought about moving to Spain, and initially spent three years in Javea, in the Valencian region.

However, they decided to relocate somewhere else due to the fact their children – three and six at the time – were required to learn both Valenciano and Castellano in school, a challenge too hard for that age.

Moreover, Mr Greensitt said the seaside city was populated by many immigrants of several nationalities including British, which prompted the English-speaking children to stick together in the playground and decrease their chance to properly learn Spanish.

Mr Greensitt, from Salford, found Andalusia cheaper – with a four-bed property in need of some renovation works costing his family around £60,000 and monthly expenses amounting to £1,200 – and more suitable for his daughters’ needs.

Explaining schools there are bilingual but most of the children speak only Spanish, he said: “It was brilliant, the children made friends easily, they helped out with English lessons so became kind of celebrities and most of all their language improved beyond recognition, because they only had Spanish to think about.”

Speaking about his experience as an expat, he added: “As an expat living in a small town is different, and I think an expat living in coastal areas may have a different opinion. We here are assimilated into the community whereas expats in coastal areas tend to be transient and stick together, they are not absorbed into the community and they form groups, so it is us and them!

“So there is friction and it also stems from the fact that in places like Javea, house prices are pushed through the roof and local Spanish people find it difficult to buy.”

Housing market

The issue of costs rising for locals as a result of foreigners relocating may also be present in this Andalusia. Foreign buyers in the region accounted for 15 per cent of all transactions in the real estate market recorded in 2022, some 3.5 per cent higher than in 2021, a property market report by Knight Frank showed.

Of the total, British buyers accounted for 16.31 per cent of all foreign purchases last year, with Swedes in second place at 8.82 per cent.

Sophia Lennon, sales manager at real estate agency Next House Almeria, told the region has experienced a rise in both housing prices and demand over the past two years.

This happened particularly in Almeria, where Ms Lennon said “it is still cheaper to invest in a property and a good lifestyle”, adding properties there are still a good value for money compared with other parts of the region. The good weather, second homes and relocation abroad are the driving factors behind this, she believes.

Asked about her clients, she said: “We deal with many British people, I could say most of our clients are British, approximately 70 per cent of them. Mostly pensioners that are looking to retire and enjoy a relaxing lifestyle while others are looking for holiday homes while they are still working in the UK and looking for a near future retirement in sunny Spain.

“Andalusia in general is a very desirable area for many foreign people, being famous for the amount of sunny days a year, the good weather in general, its Mediterranean gastronomy, fantastic virgin beaches and most importantly the high-quality style of living in relation to value for money.”

British immigrants, she added, are “contributing to the Andalusian community” rather than creating issues for locals, and helping “in the economic development of certain parts of Andalusia” including Almeria, where “most of them are investing in the property market”.

Juan Antonio Delgado Ramos, MP for Cadiz at both the Andalusian Parliament and the Spanish Court General and member of the left-wing Unidas Podemos party, conceded foreigners buying properties in Spain could have an undesirable impact on the wider real estate market.

Asked whether he sees the large quantities of Brits in Andalusia positively or negatively for the region, he told “Everything has its positive side and its not-so-positive counterpart. Normally, Britons who come to Spain have a good level of purchasing power. Coming to settle in Spain costs money and not every British person can afford it.

“But of course, the fact that foreigners with a higher purchasing power arrive in Spain means that on some occasions and in some sectors prices rise here, for example, houses on the coast and residential areas.”

Among the positive aspects of having a large number of Britons immigrating to Andalusia, the MP mentioned the wealth and culture imported to the region by Britons, as well as the fact they adapt easily to local customs and respect the rules.

Mr Delgado Ramos noted Spain is a rather cosmopolitan country thanks to the large influx of tourists visiting it every year – some 80 million – and immigrants, which helps Spaniards being “very accustomed to dealing with people from other countries and very welcoming to citizens from whichever nation”.

Sharing a similar cultural background with Spaniards, Britons can easily integrate into the country, he explained.

Locals “highly regard” Britons in Spain as they generally move to the country after falling in love with it, its culture, its climate, its traditions, its people and its way of life, he noted.

The politician also touched on the potential issues arising from language barriers, saying Spaniards’ level of English is “in general acceptable” due to the large number of tourists they regularly deal with.

He added: “But I also believe that someone who moves to live in another country has to learn, at least a little, the language of the country that is going to be their new home.”

Cases where Britons and Spaniards can’t at all understand each other, are likely “isolated”, he continued, before adding: “Both sides have to make an effort.”

Additional reporting by Maria Ortega.

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