Monday, November 24, 2008

Expat Networks

Not too many people who make the big decision to move overseas, do so with the intention of becoming part of an expat community. To me it’s always seemed a little bit odd to make such a huge life-changing move, then upon arrival, immediately go to seek out one’s countrymen en-masse.

Yet in a sense it’s natural and in can also be a good idea. It’s a pity if each new expat arrival has to make the same mistakes as those that have gone before or re-invent the wheel. So all those expat guides plus some local ‘in the ear’ advice and tips certainly play their part in helping settle in.

There are also some differences here between destination countries, and yes, I’m going to make some sweeping generalisations here to get debate going.

For reasons I’ve never really understood, expat ‘communities’ seem much more commonplace in Spain and Portugal than say France, Italy or Australia. Yet oddly they do exist in some parts of the USA, notably California, where some areas of certain cities have little population clusters of British or other European nationalities (I refer here to modern expats and I’m excluding the great city ghetto areas settled in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries by various peoples).

Is this something to do with weather? Do more sociable people go to Spain and Portugal whereas the individualists with hermit tendencies are for some reason more attracted by France or Italy? Do expats in Spain and Portugal feel less secure and therefore in need of drawing the wagons into a circle?

I was talking to someone who once told me that his family had purchased a modest villa in a larger village near the coast in Spain.

They’d obviously examined it thoroughly several times, and had a good drive around the village that looked fine with a few shops and restaurants. Apparently they didn’t discover until after the purchase when they arrived for their first holiday that hardly a single Spanish person lived in the village. All the houses were owned by expats of various nationalities, and every single bar, shop and restaurant was in fact British owned and staffed.

By contrast, I know of one family who moved to France to start-up a traditional British butcher’s shop – it may sound unlikely but it’s true! Once they opened and started advertising, local British residents started coming out of the woodwork attracted by thoughts of pork pies, pasties and so on.

The point is that the local expat community didn’t even know that their ‘enclave’ existed until they started meeting each other by chance in the local butcher’s. They were staggered at just how many of them lived in the locality. They hadn’t gravitated towards each other upon arrival at all.

It’s a mystery to me. Any thoughts or explanations gratefully received!

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