As a newspaper reporter in Spain’s Costa Blanca, I quickly came to love and admire some of my fellow expats, who were enthusiastically determined not to let old age and growing infirmity get in the way of having a really good time. Clubs and associations flourished everywhere and new ones seemed to be appearing all the time. From salsa classes, brass bands and stamp collecting to tap dancing for the over eighties, there really was something for everyone to enjoy. I sometimes wondered how they all had the energy, as we were summoned to various neighbors’ terraces for “a quick drink” that rarely ended until two o’clock the following morning.

It came as some surprise when a British Consular official in the Costa Blanca announced to me during an interview that, “One must remember that the Brits come here to die.” The comment astounded and puzzled me, as the evidence that I had was completely to the contrary. British expats did anything and everything but move to Spain to die. I had never seen a livelier bunch of over seventies! Looking back, if the truth had been known at that time, it was the British Consular services in Spain that was nearing the end of its useful life, as it continues to be managed, mismanaged, reorganized, renamed and repackaged into near oblivion, which demonstrates a far shorter shelf life than the average British expat living in Spain.

I think, and hope, that what the now retired and substantially elevated consular official actually meant to say was that the majority of retired British expats in Spain move to the country as a permanent, and not a temporary, venture.
Most intend to enjoy their retirement living in the sun, in a dream home, taking life easier and doing the things that they always wanted to do. Most have no intention of ever returning to the UK, and will enjoy an active retirement until they expire.

I contrast this to expat life in the Canary Islands. One of the few things that I dislike is the transitory nature of life on the islands. It is very difficult to make and keep friends who intend to stay for any length of time, and truly regard the islands as their permanent home. I know many people, after all it is a small community, but my heart sinks when I hear them talk about “going home to the UK”. By the time that we get to know them as friends, it seems that most have either lost their jobs, relationships have been destroyed, they are in financial difficulties or they cannot stand the heat (in more ways than one). Many realize too late that to truly enjoy life on these beautiful islands, they also have to put
something back. Low pay, long hours, periods of unemployment and poor employment prospects really do have to be taken into account, and the less than-determined expat quickly realizes that there is no such thing as a free sunbed.

Unlike the Costa Blanca, many people that we know come and go after a few months or a few years. Very few intend to stay on the islands and make it their home. Of course, there are exceptions, but these are few. If I return to the comment made by the British Consular official in the Costa Blanca, I would say that people move to the Canary Islands to work, and certainly not to die. Sadly, due to the recession, and even before the recession, there are not jobs for all and many return to the countries of origin sadder, but wiser.

We all value friendships, and I don’t mean cursory acquaintances, such as the “You must call and see me sometime” brigade, but those for whom you have a genuine empathy with and feeling for. These are the people that you would do anything for and know that it would be reciprocated. True friendships are rare and I guess most of us would count ourselves fortunate if we have enough true friends to match the fingers of one hand.

Island friendships are difficult to sustain and lack the support structures of the Costa Blanca. I now often find myself subconsciously gauging just how long new friends are likely to stay the course on the islands before I invest too much time and energy in getting to know them properly. Experience tells me that within a few months or a couple of years, most will return to the land of their birth and will become just another name on a Christmas card list.