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Interview with Zach Frohlich – an American expat living in Spain

Updated 2 Oct 2012

Originally from Austin, Texas, Zach Frohlich is an American expat living in Spain. He moved to Valencia three years ago with his wife, who is Spanish, to settle closer to her family. Zach has some wonderful insights to share about his expat life in Spain.

Read more about expat life in Expat Arrival's guide to Spain or read more expat experiences in Spain.

About Zach

Zach Frohlich - An American expat living in ValenciaQ: Where are you originally from? 

A: Austin, Texas, USA

Q: Where are you living now?

A:  Valencia, Spain

Q: How long have you lived in Spain?

A:  Over three years continuously now, though I lived in Valencia for a year over a decade ago, and travelled here regularly in the intervening years.

Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?

A:  With my wife.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do? 

A:  My wife is from Valencia and we wanted to settle here to be near her family and our friends. I am a historian and teacher. I teach English classes locally, and university courses online on history and science and technology studies.

About Valencia

Q: What do you enjoy most about Valencia, how’s the quality of life? 

A:  The food! Valencia is famous for its “huerta” (vegetable and fruit orchard/cropland), and one can enjoy the best of Spain’s fresh produce here. Valencia is also a very nice size city, large enough to have plenty of culture and nightlife, but not so large and touristy as Madrid and Barcelona. This combination makes for a wonderful quality of life at a much more affordable price. I should add that another incredible, and often overlooked feature of Valencia are its parks. The Turia Riverbed Park, which runs through the centre of town, is beautiful, and connects Calatrava’s iconic City of Arts and Sciences to the BioParc zoo with miles of public gardens.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home? 

A:  The biggest negative about Valencia is easily the politics. Local governments are corrupt and out of touch. However, this doesn’t really affect day-to-day life (unless, I suppose, you are a public “funcionario”). It just ensures that there is always some embarrassing new story about the local government and its incompetence. On the other hand, I can’t say I “miss” the opposite from home. (There’s plenty of political corruption/incompetence everywhere.) About the only thing I really miss from home is the eternal optimism of Americans. Spaniards can be very negative and self-critical. It is often hard to enjoy how much Spain and Valencia has what with how much griping locals do. The truth is I’ve found few negatives in Valencia that aren’t also true of my hometown Austin, but I’ve had to hear a lot more about negatives here than there. Spaniards just don’t know how good they’ve got it!

Q: Is Valencia safe? Are there any areas expats should avoid?

A:  Valencia is pretty safe, though I suppose one should follow the usual urban guidelines (i.e. don’t walk through poorly lit parks at night). One thing that regularly trips up visitors is that the beach neighbourhood (Cabanyal) is not the nicest area to live in, is very out-of-the-way, and at night can be a bit dodgy. A lot of expats seek housing there, to be near the beach, without realizing that they might be better off in a more central area. There is also a small area in the Carmen neighbourhood (called “el barrio chino”) that is infamously dodgy. Still, Valencia is much safer in all respects than Spain’s number one and number two cities, Madrid and Barcelona.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Valencia? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car? 

A:  Public transport is wonderful here. The metro is excellent and pretty affordable, and the bus system does a great job of covering those areas where the metro hasn’t arrived. One does not need a car, at all, in Valencia. (I don’t have one.) A car only becomes useful if one lives in one of the suburb towns that don’t connect to the metro. Otherwise a car is an impediment (though parking is not so bad). I should add that Valencia has a wonderful bike-share program, Valenbisi, which is cheap and an excellent way to get around town. The City’s Turia Riverbed Park runs through the centre of town, and as such is almost a kind of car-free “bike highway” for cyclists.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Spain?

A:  The public healthcare is great. The wait times can be long sometimes, particularly in recent years due to the economic crisis crunch, but if you bring a book it is not so bad. The quality of care in the public system in Valencia is excellent. I’m less sure about the private options.

About living in Valencia

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Valencia as an expat?

A:  I would say the best areas to live in Valencia, especially for younger expats, are the Russafa and Benimaclet neighbourhoods. They have a lot of action, very cool, hip hangout spots, and a strong sense of community. They also have more expats living in them, so you won’t feel out of place. I know some expats who live in suburbs of Valencia, in Llíria, for example, some of which might be nicer for raising a family, if you like that sort of thing. But I’m an inveterate city-dweller, so I can only really offer an opinion about where to live in the city.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Valencia?

A:  This is hard for me to gauge. It really depends on your income bracket. I’ve seen some very shabby apartments, usually rented by my Erasmus or exchange student friends on a tight budget. And I’ve seen some very nice apartment rentals, rented by American friends willing to pay on the high side of the twenty-something rental market. Everyone I know who is a homeowner has a pretty nice setup. But one can find all levels of housing standards here. One myth I regularly hear Americans say about Spain is that houses never have air conditioning. This is just patently false. I don’t know anyone who owns a home without air conditioning. However, many expat exchange students and teachers rent at a level where their landlords might pass on installing air conditioning. Thus the myth continues.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A:  Compared to my hometown, Austin, TX, it is comparable. In terms of housing, renting is fairly affordable, much cheaper than Madrid or Barcelona, but perhaps slightly more expensive than average local incomes would suggest, due to the Mediterranean effect of foreign visitors. Owning is also not so expensive now, prices are dropping fast, but good luck finding a bank that would give you a mortgage loan! 

All other aspects of cost of living are much cheaper in Valencia than in the States. Food, particularly quality fresh food, is very affordable here. Dining out isn’t bad, especially if you take advantage of the lunchtime fixed “menús” . Nightlife, clubbing and barhopping, is also much less expensive than the rest of Europe, which is why all the Europeans love to come here for it.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A:  Since my wife is from here, I mix plenty with the locals. They are wonderful. Locals in Valencia love foreigners, particularly Americans, and are very curious about them. They are very proud of their city, which they rightfully feel is underappreciated. I’ve been shocked by the horror stories I’ve heard about xenophobic sentiment in Barcelona, which has not handled its saturation with foreign tourists very well.  (You’ll notice a theme in my comments... As the third largest city in Spain, but one of the least known abroad, Valencians are constantly comparing themselves to the much better known #1 city Madrid and #2 Barcelona.)  So this means that Valencians will gladly share with you what they like best about it and welcome visitors.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Valencia?

A:  In my case this was very easy, through my wife and then later through work. However, I do know that, like most continental European cities, it can be hard to make good friends if you don’t have a local connection. Locals have their group of old friends, and just normally aren’t looking for new ones. (Though this is probably true for everywhere on Earth.) Meeting other expats, on the other hand, can be quite easy. One specific suggestion to English-speaking expats: go to Portland Ale House, Finnegan’s, or Sally O’Briens if you are looking for language-exchanges or expat communities. These three locales have become well-known local institutions for that, and are a helpful crutch if you are ever feeling lonely and homesick in Valencia.

About working in Valencia

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Spain?

A:  Nope. I came on a fellowship and stayed on a spousal visa, with which I am allowed to work here. I’m also in the process of applying for Spanish citizenship, which so far has gone very smoothly. For Americans, I think visas are pretty straightforward affairs. I also know plenty of Americans who are “sin papeles” (undocumented workers), and yet don’t worry much about it. My impression is that the local government doesn’t want to expend resources ferreting out Americans living here without proper documentation.

If your readers will pardon the editorialising, I’ve been pleasantly amazed with Spanish bureaucracy on this front. When my wife lived in the US, immigration paperwork was a nightmare, and bureaucrats were frighteningly obtuse. By contrast, Spanish bureaucrats are professionals, highly competent and even friendly if you approach them as such. I’m beginning to suspect that the perception that Spanish bureaucracy as Kafkaesque is a product of naive expats not speaking Spanish well and never having experienced the analogous procedures in their home countries.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Valencia, is there plenty of work?

A:  I would not say there is “plenty of work.” It is no secret that there is an economic crisis here in Spain. If you are under 30 and without work experience or specific skills, it is a tough time to get a job here. And if you work in construction or real estate, also very tough. Now the good news: the foreign reporting of Spain’s economic crisis is heavily exaggerated and out of touch. Among my friends here unemployment has not been a problem. A more common problem is under-employment, where people make do but aren’t able to advance or fully use their skill set. More good news: English-speakers operate in a different economy. So most of the newspaper reporting about things in Spain don’t really apply to them. Expats face a competitive market for jobs, there are plenty of expats coming here looking for work, but there are jobs for them.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A:  I’ve noticed two main big differences. First, Spaniards don’t live for work the way Americans do. (Weekends are weekends and work hours stop at the workplace.) This also means that, even though they may have lots of work socials, they don’t really look for a social life in work, and tend to get their close friends elsewhere. Second, the daily work schedule is different. Spaniards start at 9am, take a snack break with their co-workers around 11am (this is one of those work socials I was mentioning), have lunch from 2-4pm, and keep working until 7pm. So things run later in the day than back home. 

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move? 

A:  No. I came on an academic scholarship, and my wife and friends and family here helped me settle in.

Family and children in Valencia

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?

A:  Not at all. My wife is Spanish, so the only problems she had was a little reverse culture shock, and adjusting to professional life here, since she had only ever worked professionally in the States.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?

A:  I’ve heard public schools are great in the city, and perhaps less so in the suburbs. (Understanding why this is so requires a very complicated lesson on the Spanish public employee job point system.) There are some highly recommended American and British private schools in or around Valencia, but one should be very careful about private schools in Spain, since standards are notoriously lower for teachers.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?

A:  To enjoy the city and relax about any uncertainties or anxieties they may have. Valencia is a very laid back town, in this respect a lot like my hometown Austin. It is not so big as to be intimidating, yet not so small as to be boring. And Valencians are very kind and helpful. While it might be hard at first to make “close friends,” you will find most people will be warm and supportive and won’t hesitate to help you if you ask. With time, I have come to find that Valencia is not so different than any other modern, Western city, and so if you are coming from that you will easily feel at home here...

Oh, and (shameless self-promotion), read my blog! There are a lot of out-of-date stereotypes about Spain and Spaniards, which unfortunately many naive expats arrive here with and continue to perpetuate. I’ve been trying through the blog to show some of the dynamism, diversity and forward thinking in this country which often gets missed by outsiders.

~ Interviewed September 2012

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