Molly has lived in Spain since 1998 – first in Barcelona, and now in Granada where she is welcomed as a local. In this interview, Molly shares her experiences of living in Andalusia and what she feels expats need to consider before moving here. Her website and social media channels (@piccavey) focus on travel, food and culture.
For more on expat life here, read our Expat Arrivals guide, Moving to Spain.
About Molly Sears Piccavey
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Nottinghamshire, UK
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Granada, Spain
Q: When did you move here?
A: I initially moved to Barcelona in May 1998, from the UK. I then moved to Granada in April 2006. So, I've been living in Spain for 23 years now, between Catalonia and Andalusia.
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: My first expat experience was moving to Barcelona in 1998, when the internet didn't really exist. I had read a few books with very limited information about tax matters and residency, but I was really going into it with the mindset of it being a total adventure.
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved to Barcelona alone. Although I was staying with a Catalan family who I knew from a school exchange programme that I did some years before.
Q: Why did you move to Granada; what do you do?
A: I wanted to move to find work using languages. I had studied Spanish to A level standard but I didn’t want to do a normal university course. I preferred to work in Spain to get life experience rather than just learning the academic side of Spanish.
Living in Granada
Q: What do you enjoy most about Granada?
A: I love the way that most of the day is spent outside. Walking around the quaint cobbled streets, stopping off at one of the squares for coffee or a tapa. The social side of things here is so relaxed and friendly. Also, the blue skies. There is a lot of natural light. Although in winter the temperatures are cool, the light makes the winter better.
Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: In Southern Spain the most frustrating thing is the bureaucracy. Getting paperwork done, or anything to do with local authorities, is so tedious. Even when you understand what you need to do and speak the language fluently, it’s not easy. You have to have plenty of patience and determination to get these things done. Some people even get paid administrators to do these tasks for them.
After so long living in Spain there are few things that I truly miss about England, other than some food items like custard, fish and chips, or a cosy fire at a country pub.
Q: Having lived in both Barcelona and Granada, are there any major differences between the two cities?
A: There are huge differences between Barcelona and Granada. Barcelona is located in Catalonia which is close to France and looks out on the Mediterranean. Granada is in Andalusia in Southern Spain, and is close to Northern Africa. The vibe in each city couldn't be more different. The population in Barcelona is also much larger than Granada: 1.6 million vs. 200,000.
Granada is a charming Andalusian city that has both the Sierra Nevada mountains and the beaches of Costa Tropical at a short driving distance. The climate in the city includes furnace hot summers and delightful winters. Barcelona is a huge cosmopolitan urban sprawl. I adore the city, but it is much less manageable compared to the smaller cities. The property prices and daily expenses are also much higher than in Granada. It really depends what you are looking for. Of course, there are also many more job opportunities in Barcelona.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The main adjustment was the timing of things. In fact, even after all these years I still have to remember this sometimes. The pace of things when doing business or getting anything done is much slower than in the UK or other parts of Europe.
If you want something done quickly, the only way to nudge it along is by sending all the details with the first request very clearly, and being polite. If you chase or pressure anything it may not have a good outcome.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Spain?
A: Housing prices are not particularly cheap in Spain, especially if you consider the wages here. Rental costs in large cities can be very high, and the demand for well-maintained properties is also high. Particularly in University cities.
A few things I noticed that are cheaper than in the UK are dry-cleaning services, shoe repairs and manicures. These everyday things are much more economical than back home.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Granada?
A: Granada is a city that you can walk around, so you don't need to use public transport much here. The main time you’d use it is to take the bus up the hill to visit the Alhambra or Albaicin quarters. So, once you get up the hill you have plenty of energy to wander the streets and visit the areas.
Visitors also take the bus from the airport, or from a bus station, into the city centre. The small red bus that runs on this route has some of the best views. I take this often and never tire of seeing the city below as the minibus rattles down the cobbled streets from the old town.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Granada?
A: Healthcare in Granada is excellent. The university has very good medicine and pharmacy faculties. This has an impact on the local area, as many medical students get used to the city and want to live here after they study. So, the professionals we have in the region are highly qualified. There is also a large scientific community in the city, as well as the Parque Tecnológico de la Salud.
It's recommended to have a mix of coverage here. For some medical issues the public system is needed and for others private healthcare works best.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Granada or Spain? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Granada is a safe place for locals and visitors. The dodgy area of town is the north of the city, which is nowhere near any tourist attractions. No one would end up in this part of town by accident, it's just residential.
When it's busy like at Easter time or during local festivals pickpocketing tends to increase, as opportunists make the most of crowded streets. Some parts of the Albaicin are labyrinthine and are made up of tiny alleys, which are not on google maps. I would avoid these in the evenings especially.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Granada? What different options are available for expats?
A: Granada is not a major destination for expats. They tend to head to places like the Costa tropical, Lecrin Valley or Alpujarra, preferring rural or coastal locations.
The city itself has several neighbourhoods that would be good for expats. Many like to choose the Albaicin, but I find it impractical. Refuse collection and getting car parking spaces can be a problem. I prefer the Realejo, which has equal amounts of charm but is more accessible. It is also more central.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: The Realejo and the centre of town. I think that some of the surrounding areas of the city such as Armilla or Cenes de la Vega can be good options too. They are close to the city yet have more competitive prices for rentals. They also offer more space with outdoor areas or garages.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Granada?
A: In Granada, the population is mainly Spanish, with some immigrants from South America or Northern African countries. Locals here are wary of outsiders, but I wouldn't say that there is racism. It is more like looking after their own. If you are from Northern Spain it would be difficult to integrate into local circles initially. Being considered as a local here takes a very long time.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy?
A: Meeting other expats is easy, although many come and go. Not many seem to stay for the long term. Meeting friends from the local area is more difficult. Language exchange or sports activities are probably the easiest ways to interact with locals here.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: I have a mix of friends here. Locals and expats. To make friends with locals the main thing is to be able to speak Spanish of a very high standard. Although people here say that they speak English, it tends to be at a very basic level. So, although they may be able to serve you in a shop, a conversation about local politics or the situation in the UK would almost be impossible.
Working in Granada
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: When I moved to Spain I got a job with a fixed contract in a Spanish company. After contributing to the Social Security system, and being from a European country, getting a residence permit was practically automatic. Things have changed a lot since then.
I've done all my legal, residential and financial admin myself over the years. I find that it is important to actually understand the intricacies of the process. I like to know what I am signing and what implications it may have.
In Spain, the most important document to obtain at the beginning of your time here is called the Padron. It's a register to show that you live in a specific municipality. This document then allows you to request further documents and permits.
Q: What is the economic climate in Granada like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: At the moment, the unemployment rate in Granada is extremely high. In January 2021, the rate was 27.8 percent. So, if you don´t speak fluent Spanish and don't have a specific skill set it would be very challenging to find work.
Many expats choose to teach English, or work in tourism. This often means low pay and antisocial hours. English classes are often given in the evenings as after-school or after-work activities. Tourism is generally busier on weekends, bank holidays and over the Easter or summer holidays.
To find work, the two main sites to look on are Linkedin or infojobs.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Granada or Spain?
A: If you wanted to open a business here in Spain I would recommend getting a good accountant who knows local laws and regulations. They keep up with any changes and grants, and their advice will save you trouble and money. They don't need to speak good English, they just need to give sound recommendations.
In Spain, you have to pay to run a business every month, whether it makes a profit or not. The system is not set up to encourage or promote new businesses. Initially, it can be very difficult to launch a new project here.
Family and children
Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in the city?
A: Granada has lots of attractions for children, with one of the best places being the Science Museum. The museum is 229,660 square feet (70,000sqm) of exhibits, both indoor and outdoor. This is great for very hot days as it's air conditioned.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: Schools here are allocated according to your home address, so you need to choose your location first, then decide on the local school. As this is not a big expat area there are not so many bilingual or international schools, but there are a few. I would recommend that children mix in with local children to get a full immersive experience. It’s the most fulfilling way for them to learn.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Granada or Spain?
A: I would highly recommend anyone looking to move to Spain to rent a property for at least 6–8 months before buying a home. Often people purchase properties in a hurry and then when they want to resell, things don't work out as they have huge problems finding a buyer. This could be because the price they paid was too high or, if there are too many properties available in an area, there may not be enough demand. If you rent for 6–8 months you will get to see an area during the summer and winter months. Things can change dramatically, as seasonality in Spain affects the local population and its habits.
► Interviewed March 2021