Ever dreamed of relocating overseas? We chatted to Bianca Havas from Your Year in Spain about how she moved to Granada, Spain, for a year with her husband and two kids. As with many things in life, planning was key.
My husband and I had been dreaming of visiting Europe together since we first met. However taking the trip, particularly once we had children, felt elusive. It seemed uneconomical to take a family of four to Europe for a few weeks. Then we realised that instead of just taking a holiday we wanted to aim for a whole year away. We found the courage to talk about it openly and the idea began to take shape. People around us were very supportive, including our employers, who encouraged us to take the year off and assured us our jobs would be waiting upon our return.
The main reason we chose Spain was because we wanted our children to learn Spanish. Spanish is the language of their father, grandfather, uncles, aunts and cousins in Mexico. My husband and I had both lived and travelled in Spain in our early twenties (prior to meeting each other) and we felt it was a place in which we wanted to spend more time. We loved the vibrancy and openness and felt it would be a brilliant base from which to explore Europe and to build a life for a year.
We moved for a cultural experience and a break from our careers.
We didn’t need to live in a major, bustling city. In fact, we wanted to experience life in a smaller, more community-minded place. We considered many places and kept coming back to Granada – despite never having been, it consistently came out on top of the ‘preferred places to live in Spain’ list when tested against our criteria (see below).
Preferred places to live in Spain checklist
- A small/medium city with a significant local Spanish population i.e. not dominated by expats
- A mild climate (important for soft Australians unaccustomed to European winters)
- Castellano as the official language – not Catalan, Basque or other dialects or regional languages
- Accessible to other places for weekend explorations
- An international airport not too far away, so we can explore Europe
- A significant or noteworthy attraction in the city
- An acclaimed university and good schools
Our son was nine years old and our daughter was seven years when we moved. This was an excellent age, as they didn’t need day sleeps and their routines were aligned with ours, giving us greater flexibility. They were also immersed in their activities, hobbies and friends, but still turned to us for support and comfort when things were challenging.
Before we moved, our children had a private Spanish teacher once a week for six months. I already had an intermediate level of Spanish and decided to take an intensive Spanish course at a local school near our house as soon as we arrived in Spain. My husband already spoke Spanish as he was raised in Mexico.
In the year before our departure, we also had a ‘buy nothing new’ policy. This was hard at first for the children, who were gifted experiences rather than material gifts for their birthdays and Christmas, but they eventually understood why we were doing it.
Surprisingly, the year away cost less than if we’d gone for a one-month holiday or if we’d stayed in Sydney.
If it sounds crazy that a year away cost less than a one-month holiday, let me explain. By renting out our home in Sydney, we were able to cover our mortgage as well as our rental expenses in Spain. Rental costs in most parts of Spain are less than half of what you’d pay in Sydney. Our living and travel expenses were covered by my husband’s long service leave that he took at half pay for nine months, followed by working remotely at full pay for four months. We realised that if we hadn’t travelled as much as we had, we might have returned home with savings.
When we arrived in Granada, we were struck by how ‘unstressed’ and ‘unrushed’ people were compared to Sydney. They had time to chat to each other and there was a sense of work/life balance and a prioritisation of real downtime. I don’t recall having many (if any) conversations about mortgages or costs of living as I do in Sydney. The vibrancy of the street life was really different and exciting, and we hadn’t expected that. As it was a small city and because we lived in a pedestrian only part of town, we walked everywhere. We got really fit just by getting around town in our daily lives.
One of the biggest adjustments for us was the different pace and timing of life in southern Spain. Trying to get our friends to commit to a plan even a week ahead was nearly impossible – Spaniards like to go with the flow and ‘wait and see’ how they feel or what else may arise in the meantime. We received invitations to birthday parties three days before the event. At first, this was frustrating for a planner like me, but I eventually relaxed into it and trusted that living life spontaneously with fewer plans actually had a certain magic to it. You never knew where you might find yourself.
The challenges of life in Granada were twofold. Initially, it was mastering the language so we could fully participate in the local life and culture. Once we overcame that obstacle, the main challenge was choosing what we could and couldn’t do within the time we had. Although one year seems like a long time, it went very quickly and we couldn’t fit in everything we wanted to do. Having the children at school helped us to meet other families.
We lived in a very friendly neighbourhood. We became friends with our neighbours and went to a local café for a daily coffee and breakfast. The children’s sporting activities also helped us to meet and integrate with other locals. We were lucky that the Albaicin area of Granada is a pedestrian area, so we were constantly crossing paths with people and stopping for a chat or a drink. The greatest highlight of our time away was being exposed to such a variety of cultures and languages in Europe. Drifting between countries, languages, food and culture was incredibly impactful for us, coming from a monolingual island continent so far from everywhere.
The kids now know that Australia is not the centre of the world. They have a new sense of independence, confidence and adventure.
After having suddenly lost their voices and cultural bearings by arriving in a completely foreign place, and yet managing to adapt, make friends, learn a language and fully participate in a different culture, they’ve had an awesome lesson in resilience, perseverance and sense of personal achievement.
Top 5 tips on moving to Spain
- Choose a location in Spain that’s right for you and your family. Get clear about what’s most important to you and your family.
- Learn as much of the language as you can before you go, or commit to intensive lessons when you arrive.
- Relax and be open to going with the flow of your new country. You’ll have to let go of a lot of the ways you’re accustomed to. Trust that there is something to gain by adapting to the local ways.
- Sort out your finances and how you are going to fund your time before you go, so you don’t spend precious time worrying about money during your adventure.
- Try everything new available to you! Even if you thought you weren’t interested in flamenco dancing, horse riding or playing soccer, do it anyway…you will surprise yourself.
We were having such a life-affirming experience in Spain that I was inspired to write about it via a blog. I was pleasantly surprised when I began to receive messages from people around the world who were interested in taking a similar leap with their family. While we were still in Spain, I assisted five families to move to Granada. I helped to connect them to people I knew in Granada who wanted to rent their houses and I advised them about the schools in the area, opening bank accounts and more. When we returned home, my sister suggested there might be a market for this kind of service and that I should start a business. So Our Year in Spain became Your Year in Spain: a service to help people organise a sabbatical year in Spain. It’s exciting that these families are stepping outside their comfort zone to experience an adventure together and that I can help take some of the stress out for them as they prepare for their year.
During our year in Spain, we became closer as a family unit, since we had to rely on each other more.
Without our extended family and old friends, we had to be more independent as a family. From the experience, our children gained a broader perspective on the world and have come to celebrate and embrace difference rather than be wary of it. If we were to do it again, we would try to go for two years rather than one and we would probably buy a car next time to have more freedom to explore Spain on the weekends and during the holidays.
Other than that, we would do it the same all over again!
40-year-old Bianca Havas is mum to Luca, 11, and Inez, 9. She lives with her husband, Petri, and their children in Sydney, NSW, and blogs at Our Year In Spain. For more on how you can relocate with your family, head over to Your Year In Spain where Bianca provides the info you need for taking your own Spanish adventure.