Moving Abroad

Migel Jayasinghe

© Copyright 2021 by Migel Jayasinghe

Photo of Algorfa, Spain.
Strange to think that less than two decades or so ago, we hadn't even thought of visiting Spain on holiday, let alone settle down there to a life of leisure and retirement. I think it was probably when Barcelona hosted the Olympics, that our eyes were opened to the potential of swapping our high season timeshare week in East Sussex, for something similar, in and around Barcelona. In 2001, my wife and I planned to spend a week in the holiday resort of Salou, a few miles south of Barcelona. We decided to fly from Stansted airport to Barcelona and to rent a limited mileage Mercedes car that Easyjet airline was promoting at the time. We had to get to the city of Barcelona from the international airport before we could rent the hire car from the Easyjet office. The airport was a fair distance from the town, accessible using the Metro underground network. We did not want to spend unnecessarily on a taxi to get to Barcelona.

I don’t remember exactly how far Salou, the seaside resort was from Barcelona, perhaps no more than 50 km. Having spent a few hours getting acquainted with Barcelona, we managed to get to Salou before dark, using the newly built AP7 motorway. We could easily have used the N332 and saved on toll charges, but we could not risk travelling at slow speeds on a possibly congested highway. As it turned out, our fears about congested roads were groundless during that late spring break. We booked into a pre-arranged holiday resort in Salou, Costa Brava, on the north-eastern coast of Spain.

We had heard about a town, Torrevieja, further down the coast in Costa Blanca, from the holiday literature we received prior to our coming to Salou. According to the World Health Organization, Torrevieja was rated the second healthiest place on earth, second only to Salt Lake City in Utah, USA. Feeding themselves on a Mediterranean diet of fresh fish, vegetables and fruit, and surrounded by salt lakes, its inhabitants reportedly continue to enjoy longevity exceeding10 years over the average human lifespan. Our naiveté was such that we thought we could travel down to Torrevieja directly by train from Salou, to spend the day there exploring. We didn’t know then that neither Salou nor Torrevieja was a town served by the Spanish RENFE passenger railway network.

Before our visit, the possibility of moving permanently to settle in Spain may have fleetingly crossed our minds, but we could not have been serious, as we were both still in full-time employment. Yet, although my wife Sue had a few good years left at work, my state retirement age was almost upon me. I knew I was getting old since for the first time in my life I had to resort to the use of dentures, when most of my decaying front teeth had to be extracted.

Now, I must admit that our first holiday in Spain did not exactly have an auspicious start. We got late for the scheduled flight. As my wife pointed out, in the first place, I had not allowed sufficient driving time to reach Stansted airport from our home in Croydon. To add to our problems, when I was driving our old Toyota Carina halfway down Wellesley Road in the centre of Croydon, I realized that after the morning ablutions, I had not placed my newly acquired temporary denture back where it belonged – inside my mouth. We had to rush back to retrieve it from where it lay on top of the wash basin. I still thought we had more than enough time, but this was to prove not to be the case. We hadn’t bargained for the bus ride from the car park to the airport. The outcome was that the plane we were due to travel in, took off without the two of us, as we were running down the walkway frantically waving at it. I am ashamed to think that at the time, we must have stupidly believed they would stop, apologize, and take us on board. But no, that did not happen; we were left high and dry.

Luckily, there were seats left on the next plane due to leave one hour later, but we were required to pay an extra £50 each, as some kind of penalty surcharge. That meant £100 less spending money on our long-awaited holiday. To my welcome surprise, my wife remained calm and dignified and, to my recollection, didn’t appear too aggrieved.

The one-bedroom holiday apartment in Salou, had all what we could expect from a 5-star holiday resort exchange. There was a large kidney-shaped swimming pool right in the middle of the apartment complex. The beach was a short walk away. To our surprise, we were required to pay a few Euros, to rent seating space on the beach. We later discovered we could spend the whole day, entirely free, on Torrevieja and Guardamar del Segura beaches, which were equally good, if not better. Of course, we would have to take with us our own sunshade and folding seats.

We had bought advance railway tickets in London, which we were told could be used anywhere in the EU countries. Now, we thought of making use of them, since the rented car mileage was restricted to a daily average of 50 miles (unless you were prepared to pay a lot more for extra mileage. We remembered that Cutlark International (not their real name), a well-known property agent, was advertising in the UK, low-cost trips to Torrevieja, billed as the second healthiest place on earth. Without having their sales literature to hand, I can’t remember how we got hold of their telephone number, but we did manage to talk to them on the phone. I doubt if we owned mobile phones as far back in time as 2001, but we did make contact with Cutlark International. It is more than likely that we used a public telephone on the street opposite our holiday apartment.

When we explained to them that we were already in Spain on holiday, just north of where they were, the woman on the phone at Cutlark International assured us that if we came along to their office the next day, they would be pleased to show us around. She insisted that there were never-to-be repeated, fantastic bargains on properties of all types in Torrevieja. They were the only property agents who had access to them.

We finally discovered that we could take a train from Tarragona, the nearest train station, only as far as Alicante, from where we would be constrained to take a bus, since there was no train service from Alicante to Torrevieja. We had no idea then that the tickets already bought were not valid for travel in their original form. We learnt, much later, that the tickets had to be validated on each journey, since passengers were allocated to carriages and to specifically numbered seats. When we got on the train at Tarragona, the guard looked at the tickets, shook his head, said something we did not understand and left us standing at the entrance to the carriage, even when it was obvious that there were vacant seats. We did not understand a word of what he was trying to tell us in Spanish, and he immediately stopped the spiel when he realized this and busied himself with other work. Half way through the journey he relented and showed us to two seats not far from the entrance. The fact that we were allowed to travel on the train in the first place, we later realized, must have been some kind of personal dispensation on his part.

We did not carry any luggage. It was just a day trip. With absolutely no acquaintance with the Spanish language at the time, how we made to Torrevieja that day, still remains a mystery to me. Finding the bus station after alighting at Alicante railway station must have been quite a trial. I must admit I don’t remember how we managed it. Even more astonishing was the way we found the offices of Cutlark International in the centre of Torrevieja. There, we had the shock of our lives to be told that it was not the right day for us to have come to see them. All the agents or reps were attending an all-day training session. There was nothing they could do about it. We felt betrayed and utterly disgusted. Why didn’t they tell us this before – only yesterday, when we were on the phone to them? They had treated us with utter contempt. We resolved never to have any further dealings with that estate agent.

Sadly, that was not to be the end of our woes. It was well into the afternoon, and we hadn’t eaten anything since the morning continental breakfast of croissants, fruit juice and coffee. We repaired to a tapas bar that we had seen on our way to the estate agent. We ordered a couple of small beers and some tapas, the very first time we had encountered the latter, although we had heard of them. They tasted very good, fish and meat, and did not cost the earth. Everything was fine, until I bit into my second or third piece of tapas. Then suddenly, it went ‘PATAS’; that was the sound of my temporary denture breaking in two! How I managed to hide my face from the public for the rest of our holiday is not a subject I want to dwell on.
Trying to board a train at Alicante, without the tickets being properly validated, we were turned away by the guard in spite of our protests and pleas of ignorance. By the time we had managed to get the tickets sorted, we were forced to take a later train and ended up in Tarragona late at night requiring us to hire a taxi back to our resort in Salou. The taxi, obviously a minicab, was not metered, and the fare was arrived at after some haggling. I remember giving a lift to another late arrival, but gallantly refusing when she offered to pay her share of the fare. Our resources now dwindling fast, again it was surprising that Sue, my wife, made no complaint.

Driving in Barcelona alongside multi-lane traffic was nerve-racking, but we survived. The Gaudi architecture was not something one could have seen anywhere else in the world – anywhere else even in Spain. We took the tour bus and circled the town, stopping off at interesting points, and re-boarding the next bus. Although we could not get inside Picasso’s house, closed that day, we walked miles in the sun to see the Miro exhibition. Indeed, we had to have the help of a local youth to find Miro, after a very long and hot climb in the sun. I tipped him with a few Euros and Centimos, all the loose change I had in my pocket. The climb to Miro was well worth the trouble.

We managed to see quite a bit of Barcelona, before we finally hobbled back home to Croydon, much relieved that the holiday had ended without lasting damage.
It took four years of visiting the Costas of Spain, exploring the Torrevieja and Guardamar areas with a handful of property agents, before we finally sold our home in Croydon and settled in the brand-new property ‘of our dreams’ in Algorfa, just north of Torrevieja. It was inland, and roughly equidistant, about 14 km, from both the seaside towns of Guardamar del Segura and Torrevieja. Later, on a local free trip arranged by one of those organizations selling Merino wool mattresses and bed linen, we were pleased to hear our tour guide declare that officially, Torrevieja and its environs were now rated by the WHO as ‘the healthiest place on earth’ for human habitation.
Since our arrival in Spain in November 2005, my wife and I have enrolled for Spanish classes, first privately, and then on classes arranged and subsidized by the local ‘ayuntamiento’ (Local Council). Living in an urbanization away from the local people means that our everyday use of the language has taken somewhat of a back seat. It is still very much book learning and speaking only within a classroom context. Local TV channels broadcasting news and popular programs go some way towards filling the gap, but the temptation to view only British channels is very strong (except that my wife eventually got addicted to Spanish ‘soaps’).

Although we hear in the pages of the free weekly newspapers that British expatriates here are experiencing difficulties due to what is regarded as Spain’s bureaucratic inefficiencies and failures, (or the ’mañana’ mindset), we ourselves have not experienced any such problems. State run medical facilities are free for seniors. For example, at age 70, I exchanged my soon to become invalid British Driving License for a Spanish one, after appearing before a medical panel of two, who tested me to see whether my reflexes and eyesight (wearing spectacles) were in good order. For oldies like us, this procedure needs to be repeated every two or three years.

We were pleasantly surprised that for a nominal fee we could watch displays of flamenco dancing, choral and instrumental musical extravaganzas, attend jazz festivals etc. at several venues in Torrevieja and its environs like Rojales and San Fulgencio. Once we even watched the Kirov ballet perform at the Torrevieja Teatro Municipal. My first attendance at a bullfight, with my wife desisting, was during the local fiesta in Algorfa, a few years back. Many people love Torrevieja because of the abundance of golf courses in the area. I ride a bicycle around the urbanization to keep myself fit. And of course, we both have a dip in the community swimming pool during the hot summer months.

Throughout the year we’ve had friends and relatives visiting us, and have already made coach trips to Madrid, Valencia, and other less well-known, but equally visit-worthy venues. Occasionally, we go out for meals with friends, some of whom are our neighbors in the urbanization. Best of all, I have taken up creative writing, a lifelong, at times dormant, hobby, but still with a burning ambition to win recognition.

We have been living the good life in Spain, possibly because someone once told us that Torrevieja was among the healthiest places on the planet. Unfortunately for us, when Brexit came along, we doubted our capacity to serve out our allotted life span in these sybaritic surroundings. So, with a heavy heart, we relocated to the UK. We now live in a rented retirement flat in Purley, within the London Borough of Croydon. The final chapter of our lives happens not to be what we had envisaged even a few years back.  

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