OPINION: You will never feel at home in Spain if you languish in an expat ghetto

Heath Savage who most recently moved from the Sydney subrubs to rural Galicia reflects on the difference between migrants andd expats and how to feel at home.

OPINION: You will never feel at home in Spain if you languish in an expat ghetto
British people enjoy a drink on a terrace in Ohriuela. Photo: AFP

When I go on vacation with my partner we rarely buddy up with other couples, preferring to hang out together. Once, on a cruise to the Isle of Pines in the south Pacific, we met a pair of sisters whom we hit it off with, dined with a few times, and promised to meet up with back home (we never did!)  But that was an exception, and I think it might have been the wine talking.

We’ve moved around a lot in the past 16 years, and as a child I moved continent three or four times before I was 16, so I know a bit about being a newbie in a foreign country. When you move somewhere unfamiliar, it is tempting to flock exclusively with others who speak the same language.

It’s human nature for like to seek out like, and we are tribal creatures. But,I think it’s a trap that permanent residents in Spain (and other countries) really ought to steer clear of. You will never feel at home, nor learn the nuances of the culture and language if you languish in an ex-pat ghetto of your own making.

READ MORE: Expats or immigrants in Spain: Is there a difference?

As a child of five, newly arrived in Australia, my parents were encouraged by other migrants to visit expat clubs. They declined, and made local friends instead. At school, I had pals from Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Germany, and England. I think I may have even met an Aussie or two!

When I lived in Belgium many years later, my partner and I met no fellow Australians, but we did become friends with other English-speakers (we do actually speak English, just not as you know it…) We are mates with some of these people nearly twenty years later, because we have things in common with them, other than speaking the same language or coming from the same continent.

On a night out in an Irish pub in Bruges, some fellow travellers from Down Under overheard us chatting to Belgian friends, and a chant of: “Aussie-Aussie-Aussie…” erupted, to our total mortification.

I know it may have seemed stuck up and stand-offish to them at the time, but becoming hideously drunk on Fosters lager and bemoaning the absence of Vegemite in the Bruges hotel buffets didn’t light our candle, so we slunk out just as they started demanding the pub DJ play “Land Down Under.” I am as True Blue as a goanna on a rock, but I draw the line.

When we lived in London, we avoided the numerous Australian theme bars that sprung up like mushrooms after rain, to the surprise of our English friends, who assumed that we would enjoy a Bundaberg binge among hammered back-packers, bitching about the British weather.

When does one cease to be an expat and become a migrant anyway? I’ve been a migrant all my life. We don’t intend to go home – Galicia is home – so we refer to ourselves as migrants, not expats.

We live here permanently, we have residence, and Spanish driving licenses, we pay tax here. We are trying to marinade ourselves in all things Galician.  We valiantly blab away in our atrocious Spanish to anyone who will listen, and we are “going native” as best we can. We even have nylon pinnies to wear over our clothes while we work in the garden!

Getting into the village scene, making local friends and getting to know our neighbours is not easy, but it’s worth it. We have met some excellent people, and learned a lot about the area we live in; it’s history and culture. We still can’t cope with eating a huge dinner at eleven o’clock at night, because we are asleep in bed! But we do have a go during fiestas. We have to wimp out around one in the morning, though, just as the local pensioners are getting going. Eighty-year-old abuelas dance past us as we slink off home!

Yes, we do meet with other English-speakers regularly, but we try very hard not to attend exclusively “expat” events.

Happily, most of the people we knock around with are of the same view. We have become friends with many very nice people, from all parts of the world, and we really enjoy their company. We actually have a more active social life now than when we lived in Sydney, because we are not too exhausted to go out, and it doesn’t cost a week’s wages to have dinner in a café!

However, building lasting relationships is just as tricky as it ever was, because the English-speaking community is comparatively small. Just as we aren’t everyone’s cup of Darjeeling, some people that we have met in the past eighteen months aren’t ours.

When we meet someone new, I now ask myself: “If we were back in Sidders, would we be mates?” If my internal response is negative, then I feel that there’s no obligation to keep up with them just because we speak the same lingo. And I am very sure they don’t sit at home and cry over me!

Sometimes, you do need to be with people who are attached to a common cultural thread. I think many migrants here are isolated emotionally at times, and this is where organizations like CAB are absolutely invaluable. And sometimes it is just nice to chat without having to search for a word. I get that. I am getting that more as our second year here in Galicia approaches.

On 12th July we will celebrate our second anniversary in Panton. We will chuck a few snags on the barbi, ice the beers in the esky, and we’ll invite everyone we like; expats and locals.


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Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.