So yesterday was the EU referendum in the UK and the result was in favour of leaving. The result saddens me, I laid out my opinion in a post a few months ago.

Two immediate observations:

  • Due to the advisory, non-legally binding nature of the referendum, and the fact that nothing comparable to this has ever happened before, there is still so much uncertainty over what this means for Britain (and areas within like Scotland) and Europe. There is already speculation of a re-vote (hard to see that happening) or that it will never be implemented. No one can say. It’s the very uncertainty that makes it so brutal. Let’s all hope the pessimistic predictions are wrong.

  • Whatever happens, many of my non-British (ie immigrant) friends in London - of which I had many as London was so cosmopolitan - have shared (personally or publicly via social media) that the campaign showed them an ugly side to Britain. That they feel less welcome, in some cases actually scared.

I know it is not the intention of the vast majority of the British people, but as an outsider, a post-Brexit Britain definitely seems less welcoming. Every single interview with out voters quickly turns to the topic of immigration, and how they feel there is too much of it, too many of “them”. As one of “them” (I know, I know “we don’t mean people like you”), that doesn’t feel great. Nationalism and xenophobia are ugly things, and my fear is that this result normalizes such views.

So I offer this post to my EU friends in London, especially those in the tech sector, who are perhaps now contemplating a move, for whatever your reasons. It’s my perspective on the pros and cons of our post-London life in Barcelona. Your milage may vary.

TL;DR - come on in, the water’s fine. It’s not London and that’s why it’s great. The tech scene is smaller, and that’s great too.

Background: my family and I left London just over a year ago, and probably for some of the same reasons that lead people to vote out. The quality of life in London was just not good, especially with two young children. I had hoped to convince my wife we should move to Berlin, we went and tried it out for two months in the summer of 2014, but she eventually was offered a great job in Barcelona, and in May 2015 we moved here.

I arrived speaking no Spanish or Catalan. I had been to Spain many times in the past, though mainly to the Basque region, and only three times to Barcelona - all just the usual 2-3 day tourist visits.

My impressions one year in:

The pros:

  • First up, the weather is unbeatable, especially when you come from London. You very quickly forget that there is such a thing as a non-sunny day. I’m outside much, much more than I ever was in London.

  • The weather is just one piece of an overall massive improvement in quality of life. In London everything was expensive and a slog, here it is affordable and easy. The flat we rent is twice the size of our place in London and costs much less. And has much better tenant rights. I grill on my terrace looking out on the Mediterranean. The beach is not far, nor is nice hiking in the hills above the city. Restaurants are cheap and amazing (though we don’t quite have the culinary diversity of London).

  • The infrastructure. The metro works well and is very cheap, as are cabs. Two streets down from our place is a great public library. There are fantastic museums and parks. In the northern European media (UK, German) Spain is portrayed as some third-world country with dogs wandering in the street. The reality is the infrastructure here is significantly superior to London. My only suggestions for how the city could improve is more bike lanes and allow services like uber. When I feel like going back to London, I do. It’s simple. The airport is a cheap 15 minute cab ride away (not an expensive, hour-long train ride). There are cheap direct flights anywhere in Europe. Several times I’ve taken the kids to school, gone on to the airport and been in London or Berlin for lunch.

  • The city feels very international, but also very much has a unique culture. The huge numbers of tourists, the dual Spanish/Catalan culture, and the many expats give the city a great vibe. It is not London, no place is - you do not feel like you’re in the capital of the world, but there is a dynamic and international vibe. Everyone speaks two or three or more languages. Incidentally I have heard this is one of the big differences with between Barcelona and arch-rival Madrid. I have only visited, but am told Madrid feels very Spanish, not global. Barcelona feels global.

  • On a related note there are tons of international schools. And compared to UK school fees they are very affordable. In all of London there was one German school, here there are three! And many mixed language kindergartens. Of course there are also free public schools in Catalan and I know some foreigners who send their children there and are not at all unhappy. Whereas in London I once had someone tell me to speak English when I spoke German to my son here it is very normal that everyone is doing whatever their thing is. It is polylingual.

  • For foreigners the tax situation is good. If you come to Spain permanently for the first time for a job you can get a special tax status so that you pay tax only on your income, not on worldwide assets. I still have the pain of US tax, but for EU citizens that can be a phenomenal deal.

  • There is a growing tech scene. It is much smaller than London. In some ways it reminds me of London in 2006, though without the advantage of hosting the European headquarters of many of the big global players. But there are many talented people here, especially developers, that want to build things. There are excellent co-working spaces. Just like flats, offices are cheap.

The cons:

  • There is a definite language / cultural barrier. I have found it a real challenge to engage with non-expats. The burden is on me of course to learn the language, but the dual Spanish /Catalan situation does not help. Nor does the fact that most people speak good enough English and are happy to use it. No one wants to suffer through my tourist Spanish, nor can I blame them. I’ve had Catalan people tell me they prefer to speak English with me rather than Spanish. But language is only one issue. I’ve also had native Spanish speakers from Latin America tell me they find it very difficult as well though. The Catalans are their own society and very family oriented. They have typically lived here since birth and have their own world of friends that they have known since primary school. Everyone says hello and is polite and friendly, but they are not sitting around waiting for a newcomer to arrive so they can invite you over. It’s very unlikely they will ever invite you over. My experience is you will have to work very hard to befriend a local. Happily the expats are the opposite. Everyone is delighted to meet you and hear your story and help. Unfortunately this means that after a year here almost all of my friends and acquaintances are expats. It’s just so much easier. In that regard Barcelona still feels much more foreign than London ever did. But just to clarify, despite arriving with no Spanish I have never had a problem getting stuff done or getting around. People are always helpful, especially if you’re polite and friendly.

  • The flip side of the low cost of living is that there are almost no high paying jobs. You need to either luck into a great situation or create your own job. Most expats I meet here are either already wealthy or effectively doing a northern European (or global) job from Barcelona. I’ve met several people who have virtual jobs - clients have no idea they are not in their home country. They travel back once a month or as needed. If you have a job that is location independent, or are just setting something up, the low cost of living of Barcelona is great. If you want to just move here and find a job, it will be tough.

  • There is a tech scene, but it is still working to hit critical mass. Getting seed funding is too complex, I’ve invested in one Spanish company, the process was much slower and more bureaucratic (the notary system is INSANE rent seeking) than it would have been in London, and, like most EU countries, Spain would greatly benefit from an equivalent to the UK’s SEIS tax regime to encourage investment. Most tech events I’ve been to are “tech”, not focused on a specific technology or domain, so too generic. There aren’t yet enough role models or success stories, though that too is slowly changing. Anyway there is still tons of space to help define the scene here. I’m working on doing my small piece to change that by starting a domain specific event about messaging with a similar format to #geomob, the event I run in London. Our first event will be in September, I should have the details up this week.

  • While in Northern Europe the winter can be a real drag here it is summer that is tough. It gets very hot. In August you basically need to go away as everything closes. We’ll be in Thüringen.

  • There is bureaucracy to suffer through when you arrive. Getting registered, etc. It was a total pain in the ass, it is hard to get the overview and there is really stupid petty stuff like you can’t pay the nominal processing fee on the same day so have to physically come back again. Everyone in Spain agrees this is the case. It really makes me wonder why they didn’t use the crisis as a chance to re-invent things. The UK has done so well at digitizing government with Spain is probably 10-15 years behind that. In general digitisation is still just starting here. E-commerce is just starting. People want to talk, not use a website (though they LOVE whatsapp). Anyway, the bureaucracy sucks but there are companies you can pay to help you. If you are used to the insane costs of professional services in London, they are much cheaper (and typically more responsive!). But once you are set up it is done.

Ok, this post is getting too long, I realize now I’ve wanted to write about my impressions of BCN for a while. Overall if I could magically move to Berlin I still probably would, just because I’d prefer to live in Germany. But life in Barcelona is good and I don’t miss London at all, not least as it’s so easy to go back and visit.

Let me close by saying, please come. First to visit, we’ll eat dinner and drink wine on the terrace, and then permanently. Brexit will cause a decade of suffering. Meanwhile here we thrive in a diverse society with a great quality of life. There is great stuff happening here, and together we can make it even better.