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Expats' exodus as Brits give up on la dolce vita

For many, the weak pound, rising costs and a scarcity of work have soured the dream of a better life in Europe

On Monday evening, after 19 years in Italy, the British writer Steve Farrand walked out of his flat in the city of Livorno, Tuscany, for the last time. Having spent one final night on Italian soil in a local hotel, Farrand then headed for Pisa airport: destination Stansted, and a permanent return to the UK.

It had been nearly two decades since Farrand drove the 1,200 miles from Oldham to Livorno in a battered Volkswagen Golf, fell in love with Italy, and decided to try to carve out a life there. But while his writing for UK publications provided a fairly steady income, the combination of a weak pound, the recession and the rising cost of living made his Italian life increasingly precarious. When the offer of a job in Bath came up last month, he took it.

Farrand is far from alone in ending his expat dream. According to research by the UK foreign exchange specialists Moneycorp, 70 per cent of Brits living in mainland Europe are now thinking of moving back. The biggest factor is the drop in sterling's value against the euro, by roughly 30 per cent over the past three years. Compare that with 2006, when it was estimated that more than 200,000 Britons emigrated from the UK, with France, Spain and Italy the principal destinations.

For long-haul removal companies, business is flourishing – in one direction at least. "Since the start of last year, we've had an increase of nearly 50 per cent in people coming back to the UK," said Vince Robinson of removalstofrance.com, a Kent company specialising in European destinations. "Some of the smaller UK removal companies are struggling to get enough vehicles out there to cope with the demand because there's not so much of an outbound market."

Mr Robinson dates the start of the "comeback boom" to early 2009. "An awful lot of people began saying the cost of living had increased in Europe. It's been mainly retired couples [one in five of all British expats worldwide], who've seen the value of their pensions fall by over 30 per cent because of the exchange rate... And if people still want to go to Italy, they are buying much further south where it's a lot cheaper."

The recession has left some Brits trapped abroad because their foreign property has lost value at the same time as their British savings have become worth less abroad. "Some people have been hit badly from both sides," says John Goldie of Moneycorp. "On one hand, their pensions have dropped because of the exchange rate, and, on the other, they've sold their UK properties."

Although Germany is the European country that expats are apparently keenest to return from, Mr Goldie believes the considerable presence there of British armed forces – around 50,000 – may have distorted the figures. He thinks Spain, second on Moneycorp's survey, is the country that has the most expats thinking about packing up.

On the ground, Mr Goldie's impression is easily confirmed. "Everybody's feeling the pinch," says Silvia, who moved with her husband, Ken, to southern Spain in 2002. "It's the young British couples with children who've had it worst – the ones who sold their businesses and properties in the UK, burned their boats, and now can't get work out here. They're living hand to mouth."

Many expats, Silvia says, supplemented their British income with local work. But as the Spanish economy is suffering its worst recession in decades, some parts of the unofficial job market available to Britons have shuddered to a halt. "All the odd jobs, the plastering and teaching private English classes, which used to bring in a few euros here and there, that's all drying up. We're scraping along, but if this situation continues, we'll have to make some serious recalculations."

Mick is a former Anfield taxi driver whose El Rebujito bar in the Spanish village of Fuente de Piedra caters largely – as his weekly curry and quiz nights suggest – for the 300-strong British community. "Older people on pensions are suffering so much," he says. "That third of the money they've lost, that's their going-out money. Just in Fuente de Piedra next month three couples are going back; one for health reasons, another because they can't get a job. It's something people are talking about all the time." Trade, he says, has been affected by the exchange rate, "particularly in the last two summers, and bills keep going up. It's hitting everybody really hard. Having no money puts a strain on relationships, too – that's why one couple I know are leaving for the UK".

In nearby Mollina, which has two huge, largely British-owned mobile home colonies, Mick claims "things are even worse; quite a few people are going back. If you're just keeping your head above water, you're doing well."

In Spain, 85 per cent of British expats say the weak pound has hit them financially, according to Moneycorp's survey. In Germany, it is 67 per cent, in Italy, 66 per cent. Small wonder, then, that in Spain – the only G20 nation to remain in recession, according to the International Monetary Fund – where an estimated one million Britons have permanent or semi-permanent residence, 37 per cent of expats are reported to be contemplating a one-way ticket back.

As for Italy, where up to a third of expats are now said to be thinking of a return, some Brits' financial woes stretch back further. "Life suddenly got a lot more expensive with the introduction of the euro [in 2002]," Steve Farrand says. "There weren't any real checks on the prices when they swapped them over from the lira. Since then it's got worse. And on top of that, with the economic recession, it's been tougher finding work."

Any kind of mass return or economic doom and gloom, though, is by no means Europe-wide. In the Dordogne, France's most British region, business owners are adamant that the English-speaking community continues to flourish. "It's true that six years ago, when I moved here, just to talk to an estate agent you had to make an appointment – there was so much demand from Brits, and that's no longer the case," says Tony Martin, who runs Aquitaine Computers in Eymet, a tiny Dordogne village where almost a third of the population is British.

"The differences are minor. Estate agents tell me the middle-priced properties are not selling as well as before, while renting's becoming more popular; and some people want to move on from the Dordogne to different parts of France which are cheaper. However, the lifestyle out here is still too good, compared with the UK, for most Brits to want to return."

"Yes, there is a problem, and some people have panicked," says Marzi Fiske, who moved to Brittany with her husband, Tony, in June 2007. "But in our part of Brittany, at least, there's no major rush back; we have a wide circle of British friends and we know of just three couples who are returning."

Returning, of course, is as drastic a decision as leaving in the first place, and remains very much a last resort. According to one recent survey by a British website specialising in life in France, frenchentree.com, 9 per cent of Brits who were living in France in 2009 returned – although five times that number said they had said goodbye to family or friends returning, or knew somebody who had gone back.

The return voyage, if made, is not easy. For Farrand, "it's a massive, massive end to it all – so big I couldn't face staying with friends my last night in Italy and opted for a hotel instead". Others are more phlegmatic. Jan Shepherd, who left Spain in 2007 after a year without work, says she "ended up seeing it as an extended holiday".

In her case, perhaps it was. Neither she nor her husband, Roger, spoke Spanish and their decision to live in an isolated inland village while looking for an advertising job or bar work proved more complicated than they had expected. Within 12 months they were back in Britain, perhaps wondering why they had left in the first place. Should current trends continue, they will not be the last "ex-expats" to do so.