Recent emails from correspondents in France and Portugal, as well as Spain, have made me question how friendly expats really are towards each other?
Personally and very fortunately, I have experienced nothing but help and support from other expats during my time living and working in Spain and the Canary Islands. Our British and Irish expats were lifesavers to us during those early months when we were living in the Costa Blanca, and who have remained some of our closest and dearest friends. From being given a bed for a few nights by our new and very generous neighbors, when we discovered that we had no water or electricity in our new home, to Christmas dinners kindly delivered by other neighbors when I had a particularly bad case of flu; I have very little to complain about from fellow expats.
However, not everything in the expat garden is quite as rosy. I am well aware of the worries and concerns that many expats have when; for example, planning a dinner party or having friends around for the evening. Considerations such as “Who has fallen out with whom?”, “Who is not speaking to whom?” and “Who has recently slept with whom and does his /her partner know?” are all important considerations for the proficient hostess to ponder over when preparing her paella. Such considerations can override such usual considerations, such as “Is she still vegetarian?” and “He is on a celeriac diet, what the hell can I give him to eat?” pale into blissful insignificance. Of course, such sensitivities have to be taken account of in our home countries too, but they are much more acute within a small expat community and, particularly, within a small island expat community.
Acute hostilities do exist between individuals and groups of expats. The “we are all in it together” is fine for a time, but when one expat appears to be increasing in social standing, doing better than his peers, gaining preferential employment opportunities, or has the audacity to buy a new car or install a Jacuzzi, then all hell can break loose. There are few things worse than a jealous expat.
There tend to be enclaves of particular nationalities in all popular expat areas, with the British and Irish sticking together, the Germans, the Norwegians and French all claiming their own particular ‘areas’, and often complete with their own schools, churches and even hospitals. Unhealthy as this may seem, it is understandable, because it gives a degree of protection in language, culture and behavior that acts as a buffer against a sometimes hostile world, which is usually based upon a lack of understanding of local culture, laws and language.
There is also the ‘Expat Pecking Order’ to consider. This can be a vicious beast in disguise, which one has to watch for. Expats are usually immediately interrogated upon arrival by their peers, such as to where you come from, the number of years that you have spent in your ‘new’ country, whether or not you speak the language and, most importantly, what you do or what have you done for employment in your home country? This final question is, of course, the main indicator as to your placing in the social order of your new group of ‘friends’. It is fine if you are a pensioner, but watch out if you say that you are unemployed. Top of the heap, of course, are those who speak the language, have knowledge of local culture, laws and traditions, those who are sleeping with a native, closely followed by those who had prestigious jobs in their home country, and whether or not you are perceived to “have money”.
Of course, those who do not speak the language are forced to socialize together, whether or not they like it and it is those who are the most vulnerable when ‘fallings out’ and arguments take place. I have heard horrific accounts from several expats whose main reason for returning ‘home’ was that they found their fellow expats to be quite unbearable, and they were lonely because of lack of friends speaking in their own tongue.
Expat feuds can be avoided; for example, I quickly discovered, and particularly as a newspaper reporter, not to take sides on particular issues, such as animal welfare and, of course, local politics. Believe me, for all their good intentions, there is nothing worse than a group of animal welfare expats in dispute with another group of animal welfare expats; it is a bomb just waiting to explode. Despite the well-meaning intentions of both sides, both groups seem totally incapable of seeing the merits and good intentions of another.
My best advice for the intending expat is, above all, learn the language before you arrive and, if possible, develop interests so that you can take part in local activities that involve the native population. In doing this, you will widen your involvement with the local community that you have opted to live amongst and develop a wider circle of friends, and rely less upon the local expat population.
Mind you, there is still nothing quite like a few drinks and a good gossip with someone who speaks the same language and shares the same sense of humor.