by TyLean Polley
I’m a rare breed of American…. the American who can’t stand my birth country. I so despised the United States that I immigrated to the United Kingdom in 2007. I found happiness in England that I didn’t dream could be possible in my home state of Pennsylvania. Now I’m a British citizen with a British husband and a British son, but I still get questioned on why I would leave the Great US of A. Every Brit assumes I only came here for school, work, or because I fell in love with an Englishman. They have it backwards… I came to the UK, because just like my ancestors who came from here and Ireland over a century ago, I was seeking a better life.
This is always a revelation to people who have never been to the States other than Disney Land or New York City. It isn’t all Beverley Hills and burgers the size of dinner plates. Other than the odd tingle of nostalgia for something Pennsylvania-specific (like birch beer or fields of pumpkins), I never miss the United States. On the contrary, even a harmless thought of permanently returning fills me with dread and anxiety.
In December, just days before Christmas, my family and I are moving to Valencia, Spain. We are not even gone yet, and I already miss England. Country pubs, lovely gardens, time for a “cuppa” (I think you may have to be American, where everything is served in to-go cups to appreciate that one).
One of my favourite things in London is the view from the train platforms at Blackfriars. I’ve spent hours appreciating that view, which is slightly different each time. Yesterday, my son and I took the train into London to have lunch with friends one last time before our move, and I felt profound sadness as the thought occurred to me that I might never stand on that platform again. Even if I do, I know from my own prolonged absences from Pennsylvania, it will never be quite the same again.
So why are we leaving? Just like when I moved from America, the true answer isn’t found amongst the traditional ones (work, school, family). The list is considerably long, but the chief motivating factor is simple: British life is slipping out of our hands, and the work-life-family balance is dangerously out of whack. (American culture is invading). In short, we want a better lifestyle.
My husband (a science teacher) is working longer and longer hours and has not had a pay rise of more than a paltry amount since 2010. Likewise, I seem to always be taking on more work just to keep up our financially-strict lifestyle. For both of us, our work is becoming a sacrifice of time that should be spent as a family. The situation of just how tight our budget is – despite our intense work schedules – really hit home for us on a rare night out with friends in London. I can count on one hand how often we’ve been out with friends since our son was born. It had been so long that we had utterly forgotten one of the fundamentals of a night out with friends: buying rounds! My husband and I gave each other a look as we realised that we had only budgeted for a one or two drinks each. A round of pints translates to me as three hours away from my family. Three hours guzzled down amongst five people in less than 10 minutes.
For years, we’ve been faithfully saving every month towards a down payment on a house; yet with housing prices out of control, we still seem to be about £5,000 short of a 5% deposit for a modest 3-bedroom home. As fast as we save, the housing prices rise, moving the goalpost farther and farther. Of course, our savings toward home ownership never took into consideration that for our efforts we wouldn’t really be buying a home that we wanted, merely a home that would be okay. No gardens, no kitchens big enough to fit more than two bodies in it at a time, etc.
We realised six months ago that so long as we remained in the UK, we were never going to be able to maintain for our own children the modest lives that we had growing up, let alone achieve that goal that most parents have: to give our children a better life than we had.
We chose Spain. Our long term plan was to move within three years, and for every job in science teaching that was posted anywhere in Spain, we had a research pow wow to see if it was the right opportunity for us. Several were rejected for low pay or high living costs, but then a job in Valencia was posted. Valencia is the third largest city in Spain, but its cost of living has remained quite affordable. There was no waffling about it, the more we learned about the Valencia, the more certain we were that my husband should apply for the position, and he did, and he got the job.
We should be able to find a home literally twice the size of where we are living now – with a terrace or garden – for €400/month! Buying is the done thing in Spain though, and half of all residences are owned free and clear of a mortgage and less than 20% of properties are rented. We should be able to buy in no time. Economics aside, there are a plethora of other reasons why we decided that Spain was the place for us. First, the language; I have only spoken Spanish to my son since he was two-weeks old, and schooling him in Spanish will give him a native-speaking advantage that I can never give to him.
Second, the compulsory school age is later, and I am of the belief that children are shipped off to schools and nurseries much too young. There is nothing they learn at this age that can’t be taught by a loving family member.
Third, Spain is an extremely child-friendly country, whereas the UK – although much better than Austria – leaves something to be desired. Children are expected to act as miniature adults in public places and parents are given scornful glances by people who are probably thinking, “how dare you bring your child out in public!” There is certainly no shortage of controversy over mothers breastfeeding their babies in public. Then there are small things that accumulate: not being offered a seat when you are holding a child on a crowded train, people not bothering to hold the door open for you when you have a pram.
Fourth – and perhaps paramount – is the quality of life. Perhaps I’m a generational throwback, but I feel that social networking and connectedness is doing quite the opposite. Last month, someone asked me – in condescending dismay – “what is that?” as they saw me sending a text from my 4-year-old non-smartphone. He actually couldn’t wrap his head around my desire NOT to be available and connected at all times; that I get much more pleasure from face-to-face encounters than phony facebook ones. Human interaction is endangered in Britain, as everyone buries their faces in their iPads and smartphones. Maybe this is a problem in Spain as well, (I’ll find out soon enough), but I can’t imagine it could possibly be as pervasive in a culture that is so strongly centred on family life and real social interactions. It’s been three years since I was last in Spain, but I found you could hardly walk down a street in Madrid without a stranger striking up a conversation – and I loved it!
We look forward to hearing about family life in Spain as TyLean and family settle in.