The expat files: What is it really like to be a long-term stranger in a foreign land?

The number of Britons living abroad increases each year. But it's not all sun, sea and tax havens. Charlotte Philby talks to expats living in Dubai, Barcelona and even Afghanistan.

Charlotte Philby
Saturday 10 November 2012 01:00

Ten years ago, Richard and Mary decided they had had enough of waking up every morning to grey skies, noisy traffic and scrums to get on the bus. They were both retired– he'd been a builder, she a receptionist – and, deciding to actually do what so many of us talk about doing, they sold their ex-council flat in Camden Town and upped sticks to a dusty village in the South of France.

For the price of a two-bed shoebox in a grey north London cul-de-sac, they bagged themselves half an abbey on a sun-drenched lane. Who could blame them? "It was a no-brainer," says Mary: "We had English friends who had a second home in the village and we'd fallen in love with the place. We wanted an easier life." For a while they were living the dream: good food, sunshine, afternoons lazing in the bar, playing boules in the square or taking thef dogs for a walk along the banks of the river. All with some cash left over for fresh croissants in the local boulangerie.

A couple of years in, though, cracks began to show – thanks to that international hell-raiser, the neighbour. In this case, also a boar-hunter. There was a dispute over a piece of land – they said it was theirs, he said it was his; one morning they woke up with a pig's heart nailed to their front door. "We were always going to be the outsiders," Mary recalls. "It turned out the local mayor was married to our neighbour's sister. Suddenly we were extremely isolated." It was time to go home. And yet…

A decade later, Richard and Mary still can't leave: "No one wants to buy the house because of this dispute over the land, and in any case the value has halved since we bought it and the price of property in the UK is still so high." An unfortunate story, perhaps, but in essence not unfamiliar. With the cost of living in the Euro-zone sky-rocketing, Mary isn't the only one feeling the party might be over.

There are increasing numbers of stories of expats starting new lives abroad only to realise that, with a global economic crisis meaning a shortage of jobs, and the cost of living creeping up in traditionally cheaper lands, up close, the grass isn't quite so green. Nonetheless, despite a less attractive exchange rate, global financial insecurity and a dark cloud looming over the Euro zone, if you look at the figures, it seems some of us still can't resist the lure of distant shores.

It is not just Brits. Across Europe – not least in places which have generally been perceived as perfect for the good life – citizens are rushing for the borders. Take Spain where, according to new statistics, tens of thousands of locals are escaping soaring inflation levels in favour of cheaper economies in Argentina, Mexico and Brazil.

And, the number of Brits living abroad is creeping up every year. The top three destinations are Australia – with 1,193,000 British residents at last count – USA (829,000) and Spain (808,000). The strange thing, notes London-born Richard Skrein, who lives in Barcelona, is the number of Brits abroad who go on to live out their days in cultural limbo, hanging out every night in 'British bars' fashioned to look just like those at home, watching re-runs of Only Fools and Horses on Sky, reading imported copies of the Daily Mail, and occasionally popping out to the pool to top up their lobster-tan.

"When you speak to these guys, lots of them will say they left the UK because it 'just weren't English no more… full of sponging immigrants…', at the same time these guys are pushing up house prices abroad, while turning traditional family locals into themed bars… suddenly these towns are neither Spanish nor English," Skrein adds. This is commonly known as the expat bubble, and can be found across the globe, from the Costa del Sol to the Gold Coast; nowhere more distinct, perhaps, than in Dubai, where a staggering 92 per cent of the population is foreign, with many from the West, drawn there for the low tax rates, business opportunities and constant sunshine.

James Khoury, who left Brighton for the Palm Islands seven years ago, says the UK is "a difficult place to move back to" once you've experienced the Friday brunches (for between £60 and £100, Western expats pile into shiny hotel restaurants and gorge on endless champagne, seafood and steak) and low tax rates: "The lifestyle just isn't there," he sighs. But for Pia Heikkila, a Finn by birth but a truly global citizen – she's lived in Turku, London, Afghanistan, Mumbai, the list goes on – she has found the expat life to be insular, and that dealing with it is a matter of pragmatism: "The expat life can be suffocating because it's so confined and small… But if you've been nomadic all your life, you very quickly adapt and learn to take the best parts of a country."

Wherever people go, and for whatever reason – work, a fresh start, a new experience, or in a bid to leave something behind – a number of emigrants speak of being split in two, finding themselves torn between two worlds: "a strange limbo-land," as Skrein puts it. "You hanker for home but the longer you are away, the more your mind creates a memory: home in that sense becomes something that it isn't."

Barry Chattington, 65

Cascais, Portugal

Bloody miserable weather, that's what did it. When my wife Laura and I got together, one of things we thought of was living somewhere sunny; then around the time we had our son Michael, who is now seven, people started letting bombs off; I thought, 'Why am I living here?'. It's bloody freezing, I'm pushing around the pram at the same level of all these taxi fumes and I'm scared to get on the Tube: let's go somewhere else.

First, we looked into Rome because I used to live there, but it's full of Italians who have no volume control and shout at each other all the time. France: my ex-wife lives there, so no. A friend of ours suggested Portugal and I said, 'But it's full of bloody retired back managers' and she said 'No, darling, that's the Algarve.' She said, look north. So here we are in Cascais, 30 minutes from Lisbon; it's very beautiful with more four-star hotels than I've seen anywhere.

I'm a city boy, so when we first moved to the country and suddenly I was surrounded by olive trees but no people and no take-away down the road, it was a shock. But it would have been the same if we'd moved to Wootton Bassett.

Because of the internet, now nobody need know where you are. My wife Laura worked as a project manager in computers when we first came here and no one ever knew where she was. Unlike friends of ours who moved years ago and had to have newspapers brought over by visitors, we've got it all online, and we have Skype, so it doesn't feel like we've gone to end of the Earth.

As well as the good weather, one of the things when you move abroad is you get away from the whinging, moaning British, which is refreshing. The Portuguese are the most wonderful people and having two young children helps; children are a religion here. I used to miss the food but now I've found out where to buy Cheddar cheese and then when people come they bring condiments. It is also great having children who can speak two languages.

There is one thing. When you move to another country there are certain things that you don't know; you lack a background of the culture. Like why no one here talks about life before the revolution in 1974; or, say, when I want to go and see a football match, here I won't necessarily know what they're like, as I would with Arsenal versus Everton. That's the only mystery.

James Khoury, 38


I arrived in Dubai in 2005, looking for a new opportunity in a new place; a friend of mine had moved here and I followed. People come here to make money; if you want to start a business, the UK is isolated, everything happens in line with Europe so if they are suffering then so are we.

Dubai is practically tax-free and starting up is inexpensive, and this is still a hub for financial money coming in from China, Russia and the Arab markets. Apart from certain areas, almost everything is in English and living is cheaper. You can do the same job as you were doing back home, but you have a bit more money at the end of month.

Lots of my Western friends who came here for work have stayed and are raising families because it is cheaper: you can have a live-in maid or nanny, and employers and the government often subsidise childcare, schooling and healthcare.

I live on Palm Jumeirah and work for a buy-one-get-one-free voucher company. My boss is Australian and set up the business in 2001, now it is in 12 countries; she is an example of how an expat can come over here and make a go of it. I was in Singapore recently – like here, it attracts a huge foreign community, the difference is that expats there integrate a lot more with local people. Here things are changing but the mentality is still different; there is such a big group of Western expats it is difficult to mix as much as you might want to with locals.

Around 2008, there was a brief crash in the property market and lots of people left; those of us who stuck it out did so because we didn't know what we would be going back to.

The UK is a challenging place to go back to, the lifestyle isn't there and you get taxed left right and centre. There are things I want to do that I can do here and it's very hard to change those habits.

One thing I miss is culture. They're opening a Guggenheim and a Louvre in Abu Dhabi but what I miss about Brighton is small boutique shops. I've been here seven years now; I love to think at some point I'll go back to the UK but looking at the property market, the financial market, the weather… it won't happen for a good few years yet.

Jennifer Dubet, 31


In France, the reputation of English people is that they are really phlegmatic and really polite. When I moved to England, I realised they are really drunk and really friendly. I came to London to study arts and fashion in 1999. I'm from the South of France, in the suburbs of Toulouse. The quality of life there is really nice, but it is small and not exactly crazy. I had been to London a couple of times as a teenager and thought the whole of the UK was like Camden. For the first three months I lived in Homerton in east London, which was terrifying; my flatmate was held at gunpoint. So when I moved to Camberwell it seemed nice and villagey by comparison.

Because I was studying I met people quite easily. There were a few language difficulties at the beginning; once I moved here I realised I didn't really speak English. For the first few years when I went back to Toulouse everyone my age was partying because there is not much to do there – but now people my age in Toulouse have settled down with kids, but not so much in London. In London the party never stops.

My favourite thing about this city is the people, there is always something exciting around the corner. Hardly anyone is really from London; because everyone is from somewhere else you become like a surrogate family to each other. I am closer to some of my friends here than I am to my own family. I find my relationships with my friends here are very different to the ones my friends in Toulouse have with one another. When I go back, all my old friends are nit-picking at each other. But with my friends in London, we appreciate each other; we haven't bonded because we all grew up together, but because we all chose each other.

I will always be French but I definitely consider myself a Londoner. I have stopped having 'pink glasses' when I look at the city but I am still amazed every time I go over Tower Bridge; it is like living in a postcard.

People in London care less about what people do for some things, for other things they care more. If I smoked when I was pregnant in Toulouse people would not say anything but if I wore a green jacket everyone would stare at me.

Pia Heikkila, 42


I grew up in Turku, the third largest city in Finland. When I was 19, I moved to the UK to work as an au pair. At that age, you think you have the world at your feet. It was really exciting living in the glittering lights of London. I didn't speak English terribly well but I never felt unwelcome; London is so cosmopolitan that I never felt it wasn't my place. In 2005, I got a job with Al Jazeera and travelled around the Middle East. For a while I lived in Doha but I couldn't stand it. The expat life anywhere can be suffocating, and gossipy, because it's so insular and small. In Doha, I was living in a shared house with other journalists, which was like being back in college; hanging out with the same people all the time. I had very little contact with the locals; although I made some other friends from the region I felt isolated from the country.

In 2008, I went to Afghanistan to work. I still didn't speak Arabic. I anticipated it might be lonely and I knew it would be incredibly heart-breaking because of the war and the history, but most of all I anticipated adventure. Back then, people were slightly freer to travel around the country, I used to walk around the bazaar by myself and I didn't feel under the male gaze. You have to respect cultural conventions – as a woman you don't go out in a sleeveless top, and you wear a scarf.

In Afghanistan there is sadness everywhere, but at the same time it is the most magical place I've ever been. The first time I saw the mountains I was mesmerised; there is an incredible, wild, natural beauty. At the same time it is such a backward country and so cruel, particularly to women. To me as a writer it is full of stories, mad and sad. I came across so many amazing places, like Helmand: I remember taking a helicopter ride and looking out and thinking this would be a prime tourist spot if there weren't people killing each other.

Now I live in Mumbai. I miss my friends and family because I'm no longer part of their lives, but if you've been nomadic all your life you very quickly adapt and learn to take to the best parts of a country. In London you see people and they talk about this and that, and I am completely out of it. Now there is Facebook which helps a little but you go away and come back and think what the hell is Mad Men? One thing I can't get used to is not being able to swim in icy water. I can get pretty much any food in India and Afghanistan, but swimming outdoors in the ice like we did in Finland, I miss that desperately.

Richard Skrein, 29


I left London 11 years ago – as soon as I could – and moved to Mexico, then Newcastle, then Brighton and eventually Catalonia. I enjoy being a foreigner; when you first arrive somewhere new, even buying a packet of chewing gum is exotic. But there are also sides to it that are tiresome, like you never stop being an outsider no matter how long you live somewhere. Everywhere has a different name for it: in Mexico it is 'gringo'. Here it is 'guiri'. Speaking to the 'lifers' out here, the ones who have married and stayed, they never stop being foreign but they also stop being where they're from. They will say to you, 'I'm certainly not Catalan but I'm not English either'. You end up in this interesting space between two cultures.

Many people fall in love with Spain. I l fell in love with Andalucia, tapas, wonderful wine, the fire and culture, the dusty afternoons, but you move to Barcelona and realise you haven't moved to Spain, you've moved to Catalonia and all those neat stereotypes go out of the window. Culturally there is a weird thing that happens with expats, you become less English because you become naturally integrated; but in a weird way you also become more English. I watched the whole Jubilee and Kate and William's wedding; I drink more tea here because it's a little bit of home. You hanker for home but the longer you are away from home, then in your mind home becomes something that it isn't.

Now trips to London are holidays. Even after coming back from a lovely weekend in London visiting my gran and my beautiful nephew, who of course I miss every day, I come back here and find my shoulders relaxing. I find my pace slowing down as I step back into my city. It is a strange juxtaposition. As a tourist you get the sense that Barcelona life revolves around Las Ramblas, but now I avoid it like the plague.

I live 300 metres from there but I live a parallel life with tourists. In my neighbourhood in the Gothic quarter, tourists are all around yet I go to my butcher or baker or grocery shops and it's like being in a little town, chatting with the grannies and shop-keepers. When you're a tourist you don't see the daily life that is going on around you.

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