Living the island life for Love
Our mum in the spotlight is South African Johlene Orton, who lives with her husband and two children in this popular vacation destination ~ but has it lived up to the idyllic island life they had hoped for?
OG: How did a South African girl find herself living in Gran Canaria?
JO: I grew up in South Africa, spending my childhood in Johannesburg and thereafter I lived in Cape Town for 10 years. I met my now-husband in Barcelona the first time, after meeting him on a dating site (yes, I know!).
He was from Gran Canaria, part of the Canary Islands, Spain. My daughter Teagan was born in Cape Town where we lived together for two years, but we decided to move to Gran Canaria believing it would be better for us as a family and for the futures of our children.
Our son, Luca who is now 5 was born here in Gran Canaria – we speak three languages at home!
OG: What were your first impressions when you arrived in Gran Canaria?
JO: I visited Gran Canaria before moving here as a tourist but living here was completely different. Living in a country where they speak a completely different language and trying to integrate into that culture was super difficult for me and I experienced many lonely moments.
Housing here is super expensive, more people rent here than buy. Most people live in apartments with no outside area, something that was very difficult for me to get used to because I always had an outside space for the kids to play in.
Initially, I missed my family and South Africa a lot but the last 8 years has changed me a lot and when I go back to South Africa to visit I know I won’t move back there again. It doesn’t feel like home anymore, but I sure do miss a lot of things! Especially the food (OG – I hear you – South African food is the best!!)
OG: How have you found integration into the local community?
JO: I’ve met quite a few expats from all over the world through our International church as well as families that moved here to work on a contract basis, and Gran Canarian basketball players & their families, mostly from the US.
The Canarian people don’t have a high level of English and they are very proud people. The same as the Spanish from the mainland. If you don’t learn Spanish, you will be completely lost.
My situation is somewhat different because I needed to adapt to a Canarian/Spanish family-in-law too. Not easy! At all! Because I moved here with my Canarian husband I was not given any help with integration.
However, other expats that came over with a large company or for Basketball were given a lot of help by their respective employers.
My path was more of a lonely one. Children are very important when living an expat life. Family is all you have got and you make sure you treasure every moment you have with them. I think most expats feel the same as I do, well what I’ve seen at least.
OG: What facilities and activities exist for young children?
JO: Most people live in the cities, whereas in South Africa it is the opposite. The play parks, therefore, are normally small among the apartment buildings. They do like celebrating but are not that open to making friends with foreigners. They can be friendly but if you’re a foreigner, you belong in the outer circle.
The Spanish people are more connected with their families than friends therefore parties are more of a family celebration or with your school classmates.
However, things are changing and people are starting to be more open to it. The grandparents are also very involved and often take care of the little children (under 3) when the parents are working. Family is very important here, but not so much the extended family, more the immediate family.
OG: How does the Spanish schooling system work?
JO: Children start going to school at 3 years of age for a 3 year period which is called Infantial. This however is not compulsory. Then they go to primary school for 6 years, and then high school for 6 years. The last 2 years of school are not compulsory and are called Bachillerato.
My daughter is now in 2º Bachillerato (her last year of school) – she will move to Barcelona for University. There are public schools in all areas and the government helps a lot with schooling. You don’t pay anything monthly, only for their school books and stationery at the beginning of the year.
They also have concertadas which are half public/half private, mostly Catholic schools and then there are private schools like the British and the American and various others. Private schools are very expensive. The teachers at these schools are mainly native from England or the USA.
OG: You had your son while living in Gran Canaria, can you explain this experience?
JO: I was pregnant and I gave birth here too. Private hospitals are extremely expensive and to give birth in one of them will cost you around $10,000 for the birth.
You are given your own midwife throughout your pregnancy, however, when I was pregnant my Spanish wasn’t good enough and I could hardly communicate with mine.
My husband had to translate all the technical terms and it made things very difficult. You have to go to another place for your scans, and I felt like I was treated as just a number there.
For your 20 week scan, you go to yet another doctor – this doctor was very friendly though and make us laugh a lot. The maternity law here is 4 months off paid from their employer for the mother. The Father gets 2 weeks off (including weekends).
OG: Are there any other health issues for expats or visitors to think about?
JO: There are hardly any insects here, definitely not Africa. Also hardly any animals, wild that is. A typical animal you´ll see here is a donkey/horse in the countryside where we live.
The weather depends on where you live on the island though. In the south is very hot throughout the year and it’s normal to see people sunbathing on a winter’s day.
In the mountains, where we live, the weather varies and it can be quite cold in winter because of the humidity. However, the island experiences bursts of Calima, which is sand blown from the African desert, and this is hell during Summer times!
OG: What is the typical lifestyle for islanders?
JO: It depends. Some people, especially those working for private companies, work in the morning until 2pm and then they´re off for lunch until 4pm, back at work again until 7pm.
During lunchtime, they normally fetch their children at school and the families have lunch together – lunch is the main meal of the day in Spain and families normally have it together.
The government workers normally work until 3pm. 40% of workers in Spain work for the government and the reason why many people want to work for the government is that when you pass an exam called “Oposiciones” you are ensured a job for the rest of your life.
This can cause bad service in government buildings because just people don’t care about their jobs. On the weekend we spend time with the kids and grandparents. We go to the Mall, and the beach – people love the beach here and there are so many good ones. Even one in the city called Las Canteras which is awesome!
They are very traditional when it comes to food and most restaurants serve typical Canarian food which can get boring after a while. Most Canarians are not very open to exploring other cultures.
A typical dish here is “Papas Arugadas con Mojo Pico” which is boiled mini potatoes with loads of coarse salt topped with a soicey red sauce (mojo picon) which I love! I eat it with everything, including paella, my family-in-law think I’m nuts… .
OG: How do you find the cost of living?
JO: It varies. The cost of living is generally expensive, especially food and housing but on the other hand schooling and medical (not private) is free. Taxes are around 24%. An average salary for a worker with a degree is around $2,000 net per month, but could be more or less. Normally if you work for the government you get 14 salaries per year.
OG: What are some of the important dates and festivals celebrated in Gran Canaria?
JO: Carnival in February – it´s huge here; Christmas (they are not really into Santa Claus); 3 Kings/Wisemen day – 6 January when they swap Christmas presents. Each village/city celebrates the Virgin… of that particular place once a year too then they have what they call Romerías.
Then the Canarian day 31 May where everyone dresses up in Canarian traditional clothes and eats Canarian food. Then there is the celebration of the Virgen del Pino on 8 September & then Virgen Candarlaría on 2 February.
They also celebrate Mothers and Fathers day but these are held on different dates to the rest of the world.
OG: What are the biggest challenges as an expat parent in this country?
JO: Language is a big issue for me. Then there’s also the limited thinking and clinging too much to the customs that make them stagnate and not grow economically.
I love traditions, the Canarian’s too, but they need to integrate those customs with what works in other countries to move forward.
I’m a Christian, most people here are non practised Catholics and they think my belief is a cult. They very much stick to what they know and what their parents do.
It’s hard to find expat products here and the little that is here is very expensive. They don’t have a huge range of fruits and generally, their fruits are of inferior quality. However they pride themselves on their banana – The Canarian Banana is famous throughout Spain, or so the Canarians say 😉
There are lots of things that I miss from home; More food options. More take out options. More entertainment options. Watching a movie in the original version (English).
OG: Would you recommend the expat life in Gran Canaria?
JO: No – unless you know you’re going back to your home country after a time period. Only then yes, because it can be a great learning experience.
If you were coming here to live, I recommend you live out of the city because the housing is cheaper and you can get more value for your money. I would also recommend you get your kids integrated into the Spanish culture from the beginning so that they fit in. I did this with my daughter and it was the best decision ever.
Make friends with expats but also be open to meeting up with Canarians.
Thanks to Johlene for taking the time to speak with Our Globetrotters about her island expat life ~ like many of our previous interviewees, exotic locations to visit don’t necessarily equate to great long-term family homes when there is distance, language and cultural barriers involved.
Have you had an island expat experience? What recommendations would you have for accepting and integrating into this lifestyle?
Click here to see our past GLOBAL PARENTING interviews.
Johlene is also an amazing dessert blogger and travel enthusiast over at Flavour & Frostings – some simply stunning recipes, baking tips and food photography – I can only imagine what she will get up to once she has a full pantry to choose from!
© Our Globetrotters