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Our new life on the Costa del Sol, Spain

by Silke Elzner

It is done. We have finally arrived in Spain. Our new home. There, I said it.

Well, to be honest there are still some things outstanding, in particular when it comes to paperwork. But at least we have physically arrived and we are reunited as a family.

Finally, we know where we ended up. We have found a new home in the little town of Fuengirola on the Costa Del Sol. We have found a good school for the kids and have moved into a beautiful house. And for some unknown reason everything seems to go according to plan. All our dreams did come true, and some of them have even been surpassed. So far, Spain has been really good to us.

But let’s start at the beginning.

El Palo beach in Malaga

Our quest to find a new city to live

Since we only had vague ideas about the area that we wanted to move to we decided to leave the kids with family in Germany and flew over to Spain alone. This gave us the opportunity to explore Andalusia and the Costa del Sol in particular in our own pace and without constant nagging in the background.

We had been to Andalusia before, but of course when you visit an area as part of a holiday the experience is quite different to when you are looking at actually living there. The beach was not our priority this time around, but instead we were looking for everyday comforts to make our life and the lives of our children easier.

We booked a hotel just between the seaside resorts of Benalmádena and Fuengirola, about 20 minutes to the west of the city of Málaga. For the next three weeks this would be our base from which we would scout the area in our search for a new home town. We had set ourselves a reasonable budget for living expenses and rent which actually gave us a huge choice in how we wanted to create our new living environment.

To be honest, the choice was almost too big and we did feel quite overwhelmed. Options ranged from rural places to the big city, from beachside resort to a Spanish city further inland.

We started with an open mindset. It is hard to judge a place just by looking at in on the internet. Our first mission was to find out how a place would feel like when we were actually there.

Street Art in Málaga city

Possible locations for new international residents on the Costa del Sol

On day one we set off to explore the area a bit further. Our first stop was the tiny white village of Mijas. A beautiful little place, your typical Andalusian village as you would know it from an Andalusia travel guide cover. Narrow lanes and whitewashed houses, potted geraniums along the walls. Nice to look at, but to live here? This seemed too far-fetched for us, too beautiful to be a reasonable choice for our family. So we drove on to the next town.

A little bit further inland we explored Alhaurín el Grande, a little town set in the mountains that still has a traditional nucleus that derived from a small village. Narrow one-way streets, tall and ugly apartment blocks but nice views of the countryside. But still, we felt like outsiders here, and things just didn’t feel right.

And so we continued on our journey. The next town had a similar name, Alhaurín de la Torre. In contrast however, this place was much younger looking and modern, with a broad main street flanked by shops and cafés, generous parklands, family-friendly streets. Okay, the place did look indeed very Spanish but somehow it still didn’t feel right. Would it be possible for us to settle in a town like this? With some effort the answer was probably yes, but something told us that we should keep on looking.

Our next destination was a small place called Cártama. Not much more than a village, really. The major advantage here however, was the alluring proximity to a station for the train to Málaga. Still, it felt really quiet. Something became very obvious at this stage: In Australia we would have never thought about moving to the countryside, so why would it be any different in another country? We are city people, born and bred, and a move to a rural setting might have been too big of a lifestyle change.

And so our focus shifted to Málaga itself.

Malaga as seen from the air

Am underrated gem: Málaga

Málaga was such a pleasant surprise for us. The city is abuzz with lively streets and a cheerful atmosphere. It comes with everything that you might need to feel right at home, including a tempting tapas scene, beautiful beaches, great museums and lots of historic sites. It was love on first sight.

But… of course we have the children. Living in a big city is a different story altogether when you have kids. What we appreciate in a city – the bars and the nightlife – is nothing that they would benefit from. In fact, they might actually be quite disadvantaged by the traffic and the unavoidable move into a high-rise apartment rather than a house with garden.

While it was an attractive option we felt that as a family we needed to do better.

But what we learned was that we would want to be in easy reach to Málaga, so that we could have the best of both worlds. We knew that there was a train line connecting the seaside resorts on the Costa del Sol with the city. This meant that towns like Torremolinos, Benalmádena and Fuengirola would be a great option if we wanted to combine a good quality of life for the children with action and adventure for the adults.

Of course, there is a lot of tourism along the Costa, and places like Torremolinos do not have the best reputation. But we started to focus on places along the train line, quickly falling in love with Arroyo de la Miel, a suburb of Benalmádena. A pretty little old town, a broad boulevard in its centre, lots of local cafés and shops. And in the middle a useful station for the train to Málaga.

At the end of the day we had a much better understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of each location. It’s a very personal decision and what works for us might not necessarily work for everybody else. The next step was to look at schools for the children. We had set appointments with four schools in the area, and depending on which one would make the race we could look for housing in earnest.

Finding the perfect school

Our biggest obstacle in finding a school for our children was of course the fact that the kids don’t speak a single word of Spanish. This makes it hard for them to participate in class, to communicate with virutally anyone around them, and to have a confident and successful start into there new lives in Spain. Our main objective therefore was to find a school that would cater for this and that would take into account that the children would need some time to adapt.

There was one thing we wanted to avoid: We did not want to settle the children into the expat community. We wanted their friendships to be with Spanish kids. Their world should not be a parallel world to the Spanish community around them. On the other hand, we did not want to throw them into the shark tank and let them fend for themselves. We wanted to give them a soft start with as much support as possible.

Private School or Public School?

When you move to the Costa Del Sol you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to schools. Each one of them has a very unique concept and philosophy. There are state schools that are free and accessible to anyone. Some of them are labelled “bilingual”, but don’t be fooled. “Bilingual” is a bit of a buzz word in Spain and the level and degree with which classes are taught in English varies widely.

Then there are private international schools, plenty of them. Many of them attract British families in particular, and they offer a British curriculum and a British diploma. Since we are English speakers but not British we didn’t quite care about the qualifications and we were cautious not to put the children into an all-English environment.

Our wish was a fine line between a certain percentage of tuition in English but with a strong focus on local living. We wanted a school that would attract many local families that would appreciate the great quality of education, and a mix of languages to ease the children into the Spanish language. Some International Schools would offer exactly that.

There was no doubt in our minds that at least initially we would have to pay for schooling. It’s not exactly an expense that we can afford but it’s the right thing to do and only fair to the children who never asked to be relocated to the other side of the world. They would spend all day at school, and so we wanted to offer them the best experience possible.

In the week after Easter we started a week of interviews. We met with four schools to learn more about their pedagogical principles and their approach to a bilingual education.

The kids on their first day of school

Colegio Salliver

The first school that we met with was Colegio Salliver. A Spanish elite school which was well aware of its special status as one of the best schools in the area. We learned that international students are welcomed here but that there was no special plan for children to settle into the new environment. If they didn’t come with Spanish then it was up to the families to catch up on the language. We knew that this was something that we could not provide sufficiently.

On top of that there was no school bus system in place, no summer program, and all in all not many incentives to enrol the children at this school. When we received notification a couple of days later that the children had not been accepted to the colegio we had already decided for us that this school was not for us.

Sunland Novaschool

Our next destination was a school in the countryside, or as they called it full of affection, a forest school. Sunland Novaschool is located inland in Cártama, surrounded by pristine countryside, flowering meadows and the buzzing of insects. A beautiful spot, perfect for contemplation. The school is popular with locals and expats alike, and there is a language program for children that arrive with very little Spanish. Even teenagers have a chance to catch up on the language.

Since the school is located in the country the buildings are spread out over a wide area. The class rooms are connected via walkways and stairs, many in not exactly perfect condition and with quite a few obstacles. I could already see how our children would home with bloody knees and lots of bruises.

All in all the facilties looked a little bit dated and quite “organic”. The campus was hot, dry and dusty, the class rooms dark and not very inviting. Considering that school fees for all schools that we looked at were quite competitive and on the same level, the standard of facilities was not on par. We were not really convinced that this as the right choice for us.

Málaga Institute of Technology

The third school we visited was located on the outskirts of Málaga – the MIT. In its direct neighbourhood was the Technology Park which is hailed as the new Silicon Valley of Spain. A modern and super clean building with tall columns and steps leading to the main doors.

To be honest, we had already ruled out the MIT as a possible choice for our children but we wanted to give them a chance to sell their school to us. Just in case. We weren’t convinced by the very American approach to education, the children wearing black graduation caps for their kindergarten graduation, the parents filming their every move with obsession.

Add to that a philosophy that leaned on Far Eastern principles, Aikido and Yoga as part of the curriculum and Chinese as a mandatory subject. We didn’t believe that our children would be in synch with this kind of approach to education.

But then we had a chat with the staff about the philosophy behind all of this, the idea that children these days are bombarded with technology, and that the school would offer the children access to techniques to learn to focus and relax. In this moment we knew that we had found our new school.

The school bus would be extremely flexible, no matter where we would end up living, was an added bonus, and so was access to horse riding in the afternoon for our daughter. It was good that we had given this school a chance, and it also goes to show that you really need to visit a place to get a better understanding of what they are all about.

Colegio Internacional Torrequebrada

The last school that we visited was also a Spanish International School called Colegio Internacional Torrequebrada.

Only when we visited did we realise what kind of unique concept this school follows: Besides normal class room tuituion the children spend a lot of time in large group rooms, sometimes up to 60 chidlren at a time. Here, they are encouraged to work independently on topics, either alone or in groups. They are given access to all sorts of tools and materials, learning spaces, seating arrangements and equipment. We had never seen anything like it before.

What amazed us most was that the children who we could witness in class were incredibly excited about their work. They were focused and proud of their achievements. They showed a surprising degree of maturity and enthusiasm. A fantastic school. If we had found a school like this in Australia I would have immediately enrolled the children there. What an eye opener!

In our current situation, however, we felt that this new pedagogical principle was too much novelty for our children. They would be busy enough leaning a new language, settling into a new class. We didn’t want to bombard them also with a new school concept.

In the end we decided to send the children to MIT. We will send an update on their school days and how they are settling in in a couple of weeks’ time.

Our new house in Spain

Our biggest worry was that would not find a house that we could afford. That we would have to cut down on comfort or location. There are a lot of properties to buy in Andalusia but not so many for rent. But since we were so new to Spain we didn’t want to commit to buying a house, so our options were limited.

Thanks to our scouting we now had a pretty good understanding about locations and everything that we were looking for in a house. In theory, we could picture ourselves in a variety of properties, from apartments to free-standing houses and everything between.

View of our urbanisation

Our domestic wish list

We were clear about our preference of not living in a very rural setting. On the other hand, we were still shell shocked by the noise of Sydney streets, so we wanted to avoid high density areas as well. We wanted for the kids that they would want to play outside, safely and with lots of other children in the neighbourhood. Restaurants and bars in easy walking distance would have been a plus as well as access to the train line to Málaga. We also needed three bedrooms and two bathrooms, access to a community pool, a fireplace.

A big problem was the Spanish way or renting out properties – almost all of them come with furniture. This wouldn’t have been so much of an issue if at least it had been nice furniture. But in most cases the interior was cheap and dated. Many places were ruled out by us just because of that. Our preference was an unfurnished object so that we could easily furnish the place with modern and new stuff from IKEA.

While there is a huge market for properties for sale on the Costa del Sol, there are only few suitable properties for rent. And the closer we got to summer, the more these ads disappeared from the usual renting sites only to re-appear the next day on the likes of Airbnb and so, for a much higher weekly rate, of course.

Our life in a de facto Andalusian village in the middle of the city

The luck was on our side. We visited a house in a beautiful urbanisation in the centre of Fuengirola. The urbanisation was a gated community which was of course great for the kids who could now play outside without us having to worry all the time.

The urbanisation looked like an Andalusian village. Playful and appealing, with lots of little details and lush gardens all around. There were fountains and tiled benches, squares and orange trees. We even have access to three pools.

There is more space in the house that we ever dreamed of. From a cleaning perspective this is of course a nightmare. But we won’t complain.

We even get visited by our neighbour’s cat. A friend with benefits, so to speak. We get all the cuddles that we need but don’t need to worry about feeding the cat.

Our kids can now ride their bikes

The foundations have been laid – we have really migrated to Spain

Now that we have secured a home, a school and a city to live in, we are busy creating this new life in Spain for us. We are keen to learn the language, make friends and build a business that would eventually support us financially.

That’s a lot on our plates but we love challenges. It certainly won’t be easy but the foundations are right and there is no reason in this world to not succeed.

In a couple of weeks we will write another update on our situation here in Spain. I am keen to share with you some of the processes behind the scenes as well as some details about how we experience the local school system.

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