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Expat Life

An expat explains: ‘Why we left Cuenca for Europe and why we came back’

By Tom Ashdown

I have seen a number of articles on this website and others that discuss the reasons why people become expats. I have also seen articles about why expats decide to move to other towns in Ecuador or to other countries, and why some of them go back home, usually to the U.S. or Canada.

I was one of those who wanted to continue being an expat but wanted to try out another country. But that’s not the end of my story.

When my wife and I decided to leave the U.S., we narrowed our choices down to Spain and Ecuador. I had spent almost a year in Europe in my early 20s, part of it taking college classes in Florence, so I knew something about it. We had done our research and visited both Spain and Ecuador before we made our decision. After we chose Ecuador and Cuenca, we were satisfied that our decision was the right one. My wife settled into a new life, made friends and developed new interests, and I continued doing my software development work on a part-time basis.

Malaga, Spain

Even though I found Cuenca a great place to live, I couldn’t get Europe out of my mind. My thinking was that I was a product of western culture, not Latin American culture, and that I would be more comfortable in Europe. I had an idyllic vision of Europe, partly from my time spent there as a college student. I thought of sidewalk cafes, cheap wine, easy travel to the great cultural centers of the world, and a way of life more in line with what I had become accustomed to before I moved to Cuenca.

My thoughts focused on Spain and over a period of two years my yearning for Europe grew to the point that one day I suggested to my wife that we move. She was reluctant at first, but she is also an adventurer, and agreed to go.

After going through the udual bureaucratic hassles to qualify to live in the EU, we chose a small town a few miles north of Malaga and rented a picturesque cottage. The town had the outdoor cafes I wanted, cheap wine and was close to a big city, and Malaga is a gorgeous city although terribly hot in the summer. We drank the wine and made the trips to the great European cities and took in the culture that I thought I was missing in Cuenca.

Almost from the beginning, however, I felt things weren’t right. It was not the idyllic Europe I remembered. I had not paid enough attention to the European immigration situation or the high level of unemployment in Spain, and I quickly became aware of a deep sense of despair and anger in our community. Many of the people who lived there had been laid off from a factory that closed ten years earlier and had not found new jobs. These were people who had known a relatively good standard of living for years but were now among the ranks or the poor.

Our house was broken into two times in less than a year. My wife was mugged although not badly hurt, fortuntately, just off the town square. I realize that crime happens everywhere, in Cuenca too, but I felt that in Spain and in our town, it was part of the downward spiral of hopelessness and that it would probably get worse. We also sensed animosity toward foreigners.

I realized something else. Europe is in decline although most people refuse to accept it, and there is nothing in sight to change it. The standard of living in general is much higher than in Ecuador, but it’s headed down, and the signs are visible. The birth rate is spiraling downward and statistics show that traditional Europeans will be a small minority of the population within a couple of generations. I won’t get into the details, but the immigrant problem is huge and is rapidly changing the culture of Europe. There seems to be no plan to handle it. There is very little interest on the part of most immigrants to assimilate.

Ironically, despite the decline, I found Europe to be overrun with tourists to the point that it negatively affects the life of locals — and of expats too. Yes, it brings in needed money but its benefits a relatively small portion of society.

French and Spanish newspapers are filled with opinion pieces decrying the fact that Europe is becoming a museum — even a mausoleum.

Not giving up entirely on Europe, my wife and I tried out two quaint towns in Italy, one in Tuscany (we had read the book) and the other near Rome. We found the mood — as well as crime – even worse than in Spain. As in Spain, we made friends and heard the tales of woe, and how things used to be. The laptop that replaced the one that was stolen in Spain was stolen, and I had to buy another.

Almost at the same time last December, my wife and I decided it was time to come home – to Cuenca. We missed the smiles and sense of optimism of a country, despite its many problems, that is on the rise, and not declining. We’ve been back for six months, having to repeat the arduous process of getting residency again, but know that we made the right choice.

Some friends say we didn’t give Europe a chance, and that we didn’t try out places outside of Spain and Italy, and they are right. However, in spending several months in France, Germany, the U.K., and Belgium, I saw the same despair I saw in Spain and Italy. I also saw the large numbers of immigrants looking for a better life that probably doesn’t exist.

I offer this as a personal story and realize the experiences of others are different than mine. I make no claims of one place being better than another, which, unfortunately, seems to be an obsession for people planning to become expats.

When people ask why I came back to Cuenca I say it was for the smiles.