Moving to Spain
How a California couple found a new life in an ancient town in Catalonia
Our voyage to Catalonia, in the northeast corner of Spain, began close to 50 years ago. Both of us were 16 when we first separately fell in love with Europe and its cultural idiosyncrasies during extended visits there. One of the many reasons we married was the shared feeling that we belonged more in Europe than in our native U.S.
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In 1999 we started looking for a retirement spot where we could visit France easily but live in a place that hadn't yet been dragged into total modernity. We found it in the ancient village of Peralada, inhabited over the centuries by Neolithic Iberians, Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Franks and Catalan French. The resulting mix of history, culture and language is one of the richest in the world, and Catalans are some of the most industrious, intriguing and fun-loving people we have ever met.
Peralada mixes medieval architecture and small-town ambience
Peralada is located in Alt Empordà (akin to a county in the U.S.), a 25-minute drive from France and from the Mediterranean Sea. The geography is stunning. Guarded by the Pyrenees to the north, deep forests to the south, the ancient volcanic plateau of Olot and Garrotxa to the west and the Mediterranean lapping its eastern edge, the area offers skiing, hiking, golf, water sports, museums, wineries, Romanesque churches and lovely seaside villages.
We selected Peralada because it has what we were looking for: medieval architecture, small-town ambience, good restaurants, beautiful countryside nearby and modern services. Police, health care and high-speed Internet access are readily available. The town even has a castle, the Castell de Peralada, which hosts an international music festival each July and August.
Our move from the San Francisco area took three years from initial visit to actually arriving with our furniture. We retired from our work as civil trial attorneys in 2002 and moved to Spain in 2003. It took some time to close down things in the U.S. and set up shop here—getting initial visas, finding a local lawyer, buying a house, outfitting and furnishing the house, establishing a bank account and initially finding people to translate for us. The immigration paperwork continues, as every year or so new residents must renew and update their documentation. Permanent residency status is granted only after 10 years.
Peralada has medieval architecture and a castle, surrounded by beautiful countryside.
"Moving to Europe!" may sound glamorous, but this is not going on vacation. You have to do everything you would back in the States—get utilities set up, learn where to shop, find medical care, take out the garbage—except you must do it all in a foreign language, adapting to procedures and customs that can be incomprehensible at first.
For example, we decided to buy a car. No problem buying it, because we had the necessary paperwork ready to go. But, unknown to us, to register and actually drive the car, we needed additional documentation—and in a hurry, or they wouldn't deliver the car! Nothing gets done in a hurry here, so after recruiting our lawyer, our banker and a local friend to push various bureaucratic buttons, then driving more than 100 miles in one day and visiting three different government agencies, we obtained the required documents.
Lesson learned: The primary requirements for living here are infinite patience and an inexhaustible sense of humor.
Finding new friends takes effort. You want to fit in, but you can't speak the language well enough at first to get beyond pleasantries. And the male-dominated Catalan culture made the transition tougher for Melissa than for James. However, over time, with practice and a bit of ingenuity—including hosting cocktail hours and dinner parties, apparently not the norm here—we both have made many close friends.
Each day is still an adventure, even after living here for eight years. There are frequent fiestas and open markets, and our neighbors always have news of the local world. Most shops close at 1 p.m. and reopen three or four hours later. Lunch hour typically is 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 10 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Our daily routine starts with James making breakfast, doing the daily shopping (while walking our dog), and then getting down to writing, his current avocation. Melissa exercises each morning, then gets to work on her laptop, dealing with financial and administrative issues.
She also tackles the complications of having our feet in two countries. Each year Uncle Sam expects not only tax returns from expats, but also a complicated form identifying your foreign bank accounts, regardless of the amounts deposited or source of the funds. And this on top of Spanish taxes! Luckily, some of those can be offset against U.S. taxes and vice versa.
We take long strolls in the countryside surrounding Peralada, which starts a two-minute walk from our front door. The major decision of the day is which wonderful local restaurant to go to for lunch. Dinner is normally at home around 9 p.m.
About once a week we go on a shopping/touring excursion to France or an interesting spot we haven't yet seen in Catalonia. Within a 45-minute drive in any direction are medieval villages, fortresses and historic cities such as Girona and Besalú; an additional hour takes us to Barcelona. Within one to three hours are the treasures of southwestern France, including works by Picasso and other masters at the Museum of Modern Art in Céret; Port-Vendres, a medieval fishing port; Carcassonne, celebrated for its fortifications; and Toulouse, sort of a mini-Paris.
Dollars and Cents
When we first arrived, the cost of living here was about 70% of that in the U.S.; now it's about 90%. Clothing, electronics and sundries generally are about 20% more expensive than in the States, vitamins at least 50% more—but food and travel are about 25% less. Particularly economical are the weekday fixed-price lunches, ranging from €6 to €20 (about $8.50 to $28), which can include an appetizer, main course, dessert, wine and bottled water.
A medium-size home costs about $400,000 at current exchange rates, while a two-bedroom apartment goes for about $180,000. Expect to live comfortably here for $2,000 to $4,000 a month on average, depending on your lifestyle.
Medical services are free to anyone residing in Spain. Drug costs are minimal, about 90% less than in the U.S. Medical facilities are modern and accessible, and we have found the level of medical treatment to be equal to or better than that in the U.S. Low-cost supplemental insurance is available until age 70 if you want such amenities as a private room and such conveniences as a shorter wait for treatment and the right to select your own physician.
We love the Catalan region. We have retired here, but don't feel retired. Instead, we feel involved with our new friends, many of whom have already become old friends. We also keep in touch with old friends and family from the U.S., including James's two grown children from a previous marriage, visiting there a couple of times a year and welcoming them here.
But we don't miss the American lifestyle. We are fascinated learning about a culture more focused on family and less focused on work than in the U.S. yet still committed to getting the job done. We feel challenged in learning foreign languages and busy because we have the time now to write those novels and commentaries we never had time to write before.
In short, it's a healthy and stimulating way to finish out the second halves of our lives.
This is part of a series of travel stories in which Americans living overseas, full time or part time, profile their adopted locales.