Don't get on with the food, lingo or people. Wish you were here?

British expats who settle in Spain are no more likely to integrate than tourists. Katy Guest reports
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The Independent Online

It's a common rush-hour fantasy: sell the cramped flat, kiss goodbye to the pasty-faced relatives and make one last dash through the stinking traffic and the pouring rain to the airport. A new life in Spain promises sunshine, sangria and siestas. But a survey released this week shows it delivers little more than beer, EastEnders and fish and chips.

It's a common rush-hour fantasy: sell the cramped flat, kiss goodbye to the pasty-faced relatives and make one last dash through the stinking traffic and the pouring rain to the airport. A new life in Spain promises sunshine, sangria and siestas. But a survey released this week shows it delivers little more than beer, EastEnders and fish and chips.

Each week, there are television programmes that show real people snapping up villas with sea views for less than the price of a central London parking space. It is clearly inviting. More than 160,000 Brits officially live in Spain, but the figure could be closer to half a million, as many are wary of registering.

Around a million new homes will be built for the mushrooming foreign market - many of those for Britons - with estimates showing that up to two million of us will take up full or part-time residence in Spain in that time.

Yet the study from a leading British academic might make potential emigrants think twice about moving.

The cliché of the British expat is sadly true, it has found. Instead of sangria we are no more daring than Stella Artois. We eat fewer bocadillos than beans on toast. And our attempts to speak the lingo are malo.

The report, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found that half of Britons who move to Spain never read a Spanish newspaper. Half watch only English TV. A third don't have any Spanish friends or workmates. And, while they join classes in everything from Egyptology to Scottish country dancing, fewer than one in five can hold a conversation in Spanish.

Dr Karen O'Reilly of the University of Aberdeen spent two years talking to European expats in Spain. Her aim is to show Spanish councils how best to help their new citizens integrate. Her findings show they have a lot of work to do.

"People don't know there are regulations about car number plates, driving licences, registering with town halls, registering their children at school," she says.

As a result, only 9 per cent of Dr O'Reilly's respondents have ever voted in a local or European election in which they are eligible to vote. In some places expats make up a third of the population, but many are not registered, meaning official population figures underestimate their numbers by up to two thirds. More than half the expats have used Spanish public health services and two-thirds have children in Spanish state schools - but many admit that they are not paying enough in taxes and national insurance.

Dr O'Reilly blames the rash of TV programmes helping viewers to buy property abroad. "They're all about getting away, not about what you do when you get there," she points out. "Rules and regulations don't make for good programmes."

But Amanda Lamb, the presenter of Channel 4's A Place in the Sun, argues that they can only help so much. "We take them to the point of finding the property and then they're kind of own their own," she says. "But the advice we give them is to make sure they research everything.

"Spain is a classic example. About 75 per cent of Brits who buy there won't even get a survey done. It's harder to find surveyors in Spain so people tend not to bother. The consequences of that can be immense. I met one woman who bought a house on a hill. She woke up one morning and found the whole garden had slid away."

But it is easy to see why the Eldorado lifestyle is so attractive, with more than 300 days of sunshine a year and a much lower cost of living. A bottle of white wine to sip on a sun-drenched terrace can cost as little as 50p, while at in the UK you would be hard pressed to find one for less than £3.

A three-storey home in rural Granada can be picked up for little over £60,000, while recent studies have shown the average cost of a home in the UK is more than £170,000. Fuel costs can be up to a third lower.

Fernando Villaldo, an official at the Spanish embassy in London, is optimistic that we will eventually swap our fish and chips for paella. "We know about young people eating beans for two weeks on a package holiday, but if they settle - yes, they bring some food with them - but they adapt very well to the healthy Mediterranean diet. Besides, everybody knows Spanish food is nicer than English. There's no doubt they enjoy it."

'A lot of the English stick together'

Stephen Manser, 31, is originally from Colchester, Essex. He and his partner Kelly, an estate agent, have lived in a village near Malaga in the south of Spain for three years. He works as a landscape gardener.

"We live in an apartment in a complex where all the other people are Spanish. My Spanish is reasonable. I get by, but it can be difficult. I have had problems trying to communicate sometimes, but Spanish people are reasonably tolerant.

"A lot of the English stick around each other. They don't mix with the Spanish. Some people haven't even bothered to learn the language.

"It is difficult to make friends with Spanish people. I've probably got about three Spanish friends, that's it.

"You do sense resentment. They complain about the amount of foreigners, congregating together and causing trouble in bars. But they don't realise how much money they have made from foreigners."

Linda and Bill Gilroy left London two and a half years ago and bought a house in western Spain, near Jerez. They are both retired.

"We had been thinking about moving to Spain for a while," said Mrs Gilroy, 58."You get so much more for your money in Spain. Our property has almost trebled in value since we came here.

"We're getting by in Spanish but it is difficult. If I go to the shops or restaurant I know the different types of fish or meat. I understand what people say but I don't have confidence to start a conversation. Bill says it takes him an hour to have a conversation that ought to last a minute.

"You've got to change your way of life to go and live in Spain. You still get people who have been here a few years who won't ask for a beer in Spanish. Most of the English people have got satellite TV."

Steve Bloomfield

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