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Interview with Billie – a British expat in Spain

Updated 17 Jun 2015

Billie is a British expat living in SpainBillie Jago is a British expat living with her boyfriend in Valencia, Spain. Over the past five years, she has worked as an English teacher in various countries across the world. She has lived in Turkey, China and Thailand, but says it's Valencia that has begun to feel like home.

About Billie

Q: Where are you originally from? 

A: Portsmouth, UK

Q: Where are you living now?

A: Valencia, Spain

Q: When did you move here? 

A: January 2014

Q: Did you move alone or with a spouse? 

A: I moved alone.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do? 

A: I have spent the past five years travelling the world teaching English as a foreign language and I have taught in various countries such as Italy, Turkey, Thailand and China. As well as this, I have spent time travelling around Southeast Asia to Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore. I then decided to work in Europe, as I hadn't spent a lot of time closer to home. I arrived in Valencia to teach, and shortly after this, I fell in love with the city. I am very happy to now call it home.

Living in Spain

Q: What do you enjoy most about Valencia? How would you rate the quality of life in Spain? 

A: Valencia offers something for every type of person. It is a city that always has something going on, whether that’s live music in the park or midnight marathons. Living in Valencia is much healthier compared to the UK due to the warm weather most of the year, which makes it much easier to exercise and spend time outdoors. Every day here, I fall in love with the city a little bit more. The architecture is incredible, and every single street or alley has something spectacular to catch your eye and capture your heart.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home? 

A: As I have spent most of my adult life living and working in different countries around the world, I believe the best thing is fully immersing yourself in any culture you find yourself in. For this reason, I don't often miss the UK as a country, but sometimes it can be difficult to be away from close family.  Valencia is, however, very accessible for family and friends to come and visit. By metro, the city is only around 20 minutes from the airport. 

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Valencia? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock in Spain?

A: The level of English in Valencia is fairly low compared to most other European cities. This, for me, was the biggest shock. I came to Valencia with no previous knowledge of the Spanish language, and the majority of people I come across day to day have little or no experience in speaking English. 

When I first arrived in Valencia, I was also very surprised at the times in which people eat meals. Lunch is usually around 2pm and this, in turn, makes dinner time at around 10pm. I found it very difficult to adjust and to become used to eating at “unusual” times, but after returning to the UK for a holiday in December, I realised I had become, in a way, Spanish!

Q: What’s the cost of living in Spain compared to the UK? 

A:  The cost of living in Valencia is very cheap compared to the UK. I have rented two apartments since living here, and both have been in the range of 450-500 euros for a three-bedroom apartment. Water and electricity bills per month are rarely more than 80 euros combined. Salaries may be lower than in the UK, but the prices are very relative. Most restaurants do a menu del dia, including three courses and a drink, for around 8 or 9 euro. 
At the moment, the only places I have found particularly expensive have been Irish or American bars. A bottle of water in a supermarket usually is no more than 50 cents, a beer in a bar no more than 3 euro at most, and fruit and vegetables are next to nothing in the independent grocery shops scattered around the city. 

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Valencia?

A: I haven't yet felt the need to purchase a car. Valencia is quite small, so it’s very easy to travel across the city. As I work as a private English teacher, I spend every day travelling from one place to another, and it never takes me longer than 25/30 minutes to get anywhere. Buses are very frequent, and you can get either a bus or metro for 1.50 euro one way. Bono tickets are also very easy to buy, making it cheaper for 10 journeys, on either mode of transport, at a cost of 8 euros. Valencia caters for biking, with bicycle lanes covering the main areas of the city which are very flat. Valencia has a Valenbisi system, in which you can buy a yearly pass for just 29 euros, and there are over 200 bike stations where you can simply take a bike and ride to your destination, and park it at the nearest available stand. 

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Valencia?

A: Although I haven’t had to take a trip to the hospital, many people I speak to here recommend private health insurance. The reason for this is that some services with specialists seem to only be accessible with private insurers. I have visited both a dentist and a dermatologist since living in Valencia and both of these have been more or less the same price as they would be if you paid privately in the UK, if not a little less.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Valencia?

A: Valencia is a very safe city, in my opinion. Although the level of homeless people appears to be fairly high, it’s a very well lit city and feels very safe to walk later in the evening. Many people you speak to in Valencia suggest staying away from the Cabanyal area of the city, which lies next to the beach, because it’s known for pickpocketing (I had my bag stolen from me one evening near to the beach, but I was not paying as much attention to it as I should have been). As with anywhere in the world, as long as you pay necessary caution to your surroundings, you are sure to be safe. 

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Valencia?

A: When I first moved here, I rented a room from a Spanish lady, for 170 euro per month with bills included. The room was sufficient, and I had free roam over the other communal rooms in the house. A lot of streets have advertisements on lamposts, advertising affordable rooms for rent. Another way to find accommodation would be online, with both private listings and agency listings available. I went on to move into a one bedroom apart for 500 euro per month, plus bills. This apartment was brand new and refurbished, and I have come to realise that this is very important when looking for a place to stay. Many of the apartments in Valencia are very old, so it is recommended to rent a newly refurbished place. A lot of apartments can also be very dark due to the shape of some of the buildings, so looking for a light place is very important, especially in the summer months when temperatures soar. 

Q: Any suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?

A: Valencia is divided into barrios, with each area being completely different to the next. It is also separated by the Jardin Del Turia gardens, with one side being slightly cheaper than the other. For younger people, the university area is very cheap to live, in terms of eating and drinking out of your home. However, the apartments are usually rather large around this area. 

An up- and- coming area is Ruzafa, in the south of the city. This area is vibrant and lively at night, but can be overcrowded during the Valencian festival of Fallas, as this area is where the main celebrations take place. The area of Canovas can be slightly more expensive to rent, but it has an array of restaurants, cafes and bars readily available outside your door. Carmen is a neighbourhood within the historical part of the city, and the apartments are a little bit older yet with stunning facades, but transport options are limited and you can expect to pay a little bit more for a smaller place. 

I recommend living in the area that is most suited to you. For example, if you use a lot of public transport, then the university area is great. For me, as I travel to people’s houses for class, I live near to the gardens, on the road to the beach. This is because I love the beach, yet also nature, so I get the best of both worlds!

Meeting people and making friends in Valencia

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners?

A: Spain has only been a democratic country for a short amount of time, and the people can sometimes be a little close minded. Having said that, there’s been no obvious discrimination against me personally, or of anyone I know. In the summer, there is the occasional wolf whistle or shout of “Guapa!” – meaning beautiful – from men to female passers-by!

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? 

A: Having lived in Valencia for well over a year now, I have met some great people. There are English quiz nights, language exchanges, and Irish bars where you can go and easily meet people. The language exchanges, or “intercambios” are in almost every bar in the city and you can meet people from all over the world while practising other languages. I have been very lucky to meet my current partner in Valencia; we met in an American bar by chance. 

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? 

A: I have been a little disappointed with the way Valencian people keep themselves at a little distance, but I honestly believe this is due to the low level of English the majority of people speak here. I have met some fantastic Valencian people, but unfortunately nothing has really led to me being able to socialise in Spanish. My advice would be to go to intercambios, which are advertised in almost every bar or cafe window, and to meet people that way. There are also plenty of English-speaking exercise classes within the city where you can mix with other expats; currently I attend an English led yoga class. 

About working in Valencia

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?

A: As I am from a country within the European Union, I did not have to obtain a visa. However, upon working in Spain you do need to obtain a DNI (an identification number) as you will need this a lot of the time, including when it comes to opening a bank account and paying tax.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Valencia?

A: Most Valencian people you speak to talk about how bad the economy is due to the crash which happened a few years ago. However, in my opinion, I have seen very little in the way of struggling Spaniards. Of course, the strength of the Euro is forever changing, so money earnt here will probably not go very far if you return to the UK. However, I live very well and as I mentioned previously, the cost of living in Valencia is more than reasonable. I came here to work as a private teacher, for myself, and it has been feasible to remain in my position without turning to an academy for work.

Although it has taken some time, I have established a good reputation within the area of private teaching and this has led to a lot of word-of-mouth students. I began by advertising my classes on three websites, and people of all ages and levels contacted me through these. Many Spaniards like to use Whatsapp as their preferred method of communication, which is good for me with my low level of Spanish! I would recommend working for an academy, unless you have the motivation to continually ensure you have enough classes to fill the day by keeping constant contact with students. The best way to get an academy job is to actually be here, as in my opinion, internet applications very rarely lead to a job.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? 

A: Valencia still takes a siesta for a couple of hours at lunchtime, which makes it difficult to plan when to visit a particular shop or restaurant as it is likely to be closed. In this respect, Spanish people do not generally work as hard or as long hours as we do in the UK. This differs, though, with English teaching. English classes will almost definitely take place in the evenings. It can be very difficult for academies to give teachers classes in the mornings or afternoons, but you can be sure to probably work on Saturdays. My advice would be just to be prepared for the difference in time in Spain, as things are definitely a lot later than one may be used to in the UK.

Family and children in Valencia

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?

A: My boyfriend and I are lucky enough to do the same job; he teaches more advanced students, and I teach younger and lower level students. As long as you can both find work here, I believe there should be few difficulties. Valencia is a warm, welcoming city and it, in itself, encourages people to want to stay here and find a good job for themselves. 

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions? 

A: As a private teacher, I have taught children from various schools and so I’ve had the opportunity of knowing many of the schools in Valencia very well. There are bilingual schools and private schools with a high level of English. The standard of education in these schools is very high, although many of them are known for being religious schools. Spanish people you speak to suggest that public schools have a slower pace of learning due to the mix of children in the class.

Valencia also has “concertado” schools, which parents pay a small amount of money each month. These schools are both government and parent funded, but don't really provide any specific advantage over public schools. Valencia also has a British school, French school, American school, and a German school. 

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?

A: Once you arrive in Valencia, you will find it hard to leave. It’s a city like no other, that offers absolutely everything you could need in one place. In my opinion, it is a risk worth taking in regards to coming here, and finding a job once you have arrived. This is definitely the best option, so you can network with other expats in the city and maybe even find a job that way.

~ Interviewed in June 2015

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