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Interview with Emma G – a British expat in Barcelona

Updated 8 Feb 2010

Emma Grenham is originally from London and now lives and thrives in Barcelona. She is a writer and advisor on expat issues and has a particular passion for kids and parents in Barcelona, producing a well know family guide to the getting the most of the city.

Read more about expat life the city in the Expat Arrivals guide to Barcelona or read more expat experiences in Spain.

About Emma

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: London, England

Q: Where are you living now?

A: Barcelona City

Q: How long you have you lived in Barcelona?

A: Eight years

Q: Did you move with a spouse/ children?

A: No, they all came along here!

Q: Why did you move to Barcelona; what do you do?

A: I came for a month’s break to take a TEFL course and stayed. I now run a family guide to the city – Kids in Barcelona.

About Barcelona

Q: What do you enjoy most about Barcelona, how’s the quality of life?

A: The ease of getting around by foot, bike or public transport; café terraces, the beach, hardly ever queuing to get in anywhere, free and cheap activities for families, great museums and cultural events. You can live a lot for very little.

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

A: Reliability, logic, politeness and common sense!

Q: Is Barcelona safe?

A: Most streets are busy with passing cars and pedestrians until late at night. Unlike London with its residential side streets you rarely feel vulnerable coming home in the dark. Pickpocketing is rife and mugging is growing in certain areas. If you are sensible about where you go and who you are with, then you are usually very safe.

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Barcelona as an expat?

A: Some relocating families like the spacious apartments with communal pools and gardens that you can find in Diagonal Mar and uptown Sarria. I prefer the downtown life of the old town and the Born area which are livelier and give you a real sense of living in the city. We live in Poble Sec which is an increasingly popular area close to the centre, with some good restaurants and great access to the parks and open spaces om the hill of Montjuic,

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Barcelona?

A: A bit like stepping back in time. Most older rental apartments have not been refurbished for decades with semi-functional kitchens and several small bedrooms that offered the best layout for housing a large family.   Renovated and new apartments often lack the quality of workmanship which soon comes to light.   If you can buy an older apartment to refurbish yourself then this might be the preferable option. 

Q: What’s the cost of living in Spain compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A: Rental and mortgage payments seem similar to a city like London - you may even get more for your money back home! Fresh fruit and vegetables are cheaper as well as coffee. drinks and meals out. Clothes, furniture and anything half-decent for your home are more pricey here.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A: Yes all the time! If not then with locals who are married to a foreigner or Catalans who have travelled or lived abroad.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Barcelona?

A: As with most cities, Barcelona locals already have their established group of friends and social life. Unlike in other cities, family members often live close to each other and older people remain urban dwellers rather than moving out to the country. This means people rely on family support rather than that of friends and acquaintances. If you do not know the system you might mistake this as coldness. You often find that an extending an invite to your home for a meal or a play date is met awkwardly. It is more usual to meet on mutual ground and not have people to your home. Birthdays and other events may only be celebrated with the family. It seems that locals are adapting to the arrival of foreigners. Most city dwellers expect to be surrounded by a host of nationalities and cultures and mix with people from all parts. Here it remains somewhat of a novelty and, as an outsider, you are not sure how much you are wanted.

About working in Spain

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Spain?

A: No. As a European citizen it was easy although the process, as usual, was quite bureaucratic.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Barcelona, is there plenty of work?

A: Work as everywhere is hard to come by. Many expats have their own businesses as they are not prepared to accept the low salaries and long working hours that are common here. They also bring with them plenty of new ideas. English language teaching still seems to thrive although the self-employed in general are suffering.

Q: How does the work culture in Spain differ from home?

A: People need job security and are averse to change. Employees remain with the same company for years often with no prospect of promotion. Businesses are often smaller or family-owned and there is not much change for moving up in a company. The labour market is not fluid at all. Perhaps if there were more movement then this might create competition and force employers to pay a proper wage for the right candidates. There is a lack of entrepreneurship, risk-taking and the exploring of new ideas. People accept low salaries and feel powerless. Statistically, 40% of salaried workers in Catalunya earn less than 1,000 euros per month.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?

A: No.

Family and children in Spain

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

A: Public schools are, on the whole, pretty good and there is less worry from parents about the safety of their kids at school than you might find in a city like London. All teaching is in Catalan and there is much focus on Catalan industry and culture. This is all perhaps a little narrow-minded for an expat family who might come from more of an open, internationally-minded culture. This is also not helpful for those who mistakingly come here for their children to learn Spanish or for those on temporary work placements from other parts of Spain. International schools are not as expensive as private schooling in the UK but are often not very accessible from the city centre. 

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Spain?

A: Very good. The public health system seems much more accessible and the private cover is far more affordable than in the UK. They are not, however, so keen on the modern, informed patient who arrives for their appointment armed with a full analysis of their condition researched on the internet! There remains a lot of trust in the doctor’s judgement. The vast majority of practitioners and specialists (even the recently qualified) do not speak English which potentially means they have information gaps on the latest discussions and medical findings. Sometimes the advice appears quite out-of-date and ill-informed.

And finally…

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

A: Remember that Barcelona is a different slice of Spain than you might be expecting. It is a cosmopolitan city that is still hanging on to its old way of life. The population is older than in many cities and your neighbours are more often retired folk than young urbanites. Find out which neighbourhood suits you best before committing to a long-term rental. If you are here for only a short time, look at living in the hub of things rather than one of the residential neighbourhoods that may offer more spacious accommodation but less of the best of city life. Expect smaller apartments with less light but in return a more relaxed, outdoor lifestyle that shamelessly adds a hint of holiday mood to your everyday life!

~ interviewed February 2010

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