Foreigners are welcome in Costa del Sol: Even if they never learn Spanish

Costa del Sol is a popular place for northern Europeans to enjoy their retirement. And for the Danish pensioners, Club Danés is an attractive place to meet other Danes. But how do the Spanish people feel about the fact that many of the foreign residents never learn Spanish? Photo: Jesper Gynther


For the Spaniards in Andalusia, it is more important that the many foreign residents from northern Europe register and pay taxes than learn Spanish

It is Friday at noon and outside of Club Danés in Fuengirola is Bent Flindt trying to hang up three flags: one is red with a white cross, the second is red-and-yellow with a crown, and the third is white-and-green with two lions and a woman.

As a pensioner, Mr. Flindt enjoys spending time in the club, where you can play petanque, do gymnastics, paint a picture – or do practical stuff like hanging up the Danish, Spanish, and Andalusian flag.

The Dane has lived on the sunny Spanish coast for 13 years and has attended the Danish club throughout the years.

“For me the club is everything,” says Mr. Flindt, who has also been the president of the club for the last three years.

Spending time with the local Spaniards was never an option for him.

“I am so unfortunate that I can neither speak English or Spanish so for me it’s pure happiness to be part of this club. I come here almost every day for a couple of hours and to enjoy a cup of coffee,” he says.

Bent Flindt has lived in Spain for 13 years to much delight. But he will probably never learn Spanish. Photo: Jesper Gynther

Mr. Flindt and the rest of the members of Club Danés are like many of the other foreign residents from northern Europe who live in Costa del Sol; they are all retired, and many can’t speak Spanish even though they have lived in Spain for many years.

It has been like that since the first foreigners began to settle down in the area in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

And the percentage of foreigners in Costa del Sol only seems to grow. In Fuengirola one third of the population are now foreigners and in the neighboring municipality, Mijas, 46 percent comes from outside of Spain.

But how do the local Spaniards feel about this invasion of non-Spanish-speaking people?

Do they feel that Spanish culture is under threat – or are they more happy about the fact that the northern Europeans, like Mr. Flindt, provide the poorest region in Spain with a much needed economic injection?

 

Sources: The Spanish National Statistical Institute (INE); Mikkel Larsen, communications coordinator at the Danish embassy

A generation problem

Before we hear how the Spanish people view the situation, let us explore why so many foreigners can’t speak Spanish.

Is it because they don’t want to or what is the reason?

According to Lis Faarup, director of Club Danés, it’s hard for many of the Danish pensioners to learn a new language partly because of their age but also because they live in an area where it is possible to only speak your mother tongue.

“The pensioners watch Danish television and buy groceries in the Danish supermarket. Their everyday-life is very Danish influenced even though they live in Spain. And when you don’t need to learn the language then you don’t,” she says and adds that many who try struggle a lot with the Spanish grammar.

One of the places, where the Danes can get their normal groceries from back home is in the Danish shop Vikingos Minimarket which is located in Mijas near Club Danés. Photo: Jesper Gynther

 

 

Another thing that makes it more difficult to learn the language is that many don’t live in Spain throughout the year. Because of the extremely hot summers, they usually spend those in Denmark. And when they get back to Spain they want to spend their time on other things than learning Spanish, says Iben Snell who is priest at the Danish church in Mijas, Margrethekirken.

“In the time they are here, they maybe enjoy more the surroundings than they sit down on a school bench. And the need to make yourself understandable in Spanish has become smaller because more and more Spaniards want to learn English, especially on the coast,” she says.

It’s different for the ones who move to the area at a young age. They usually learn the language because they work with Spanish people or are romantically involved with one.

The latter was what happened to Ms Faarup from Club Danés. She moved to Spain with her parents when she was 15 years old and later on she got married to a Spanish man. Therefore, she has spoken Spanish fluently for many years.

“Everything depends on the age. If you work then you get integrated into the Spanish society. And if you have a Spanish girl/boyfriend then your everyday-life will also be Spanish,” she says.

For the 63-year-old Dane Hans Hugo From, it was because of work that he learned Spanish.

He has worked with Spaniards ever since he moved to Costa del Sol in 1997: first, he worked one year as chief of administration in the kitchen shop Vordingborg Køkkenet. And for the last 20 years he has been employed at Helle Hollis Car Rental, now as the director – both are Danish companies but with many Spanish employees.

Hans Hugo From has worked in Spain for 21 years. Many of his employees are Spanish so he speaks the language fluently. Photo: Jesper Gynther

“At Vordingborg Køkkenet, the owner and the owner’s daughter spoke Danish but all of the 25 employees only spoke Spanish. It was super nice for me because then I got a speed course in Spanish and quickly learned it,” says Mr. From.

He is far from being the only Dane who has moved to Costa del Sol to work. Especially in the last 15 years, many have decided to do the same and that also means that the percentage of Danes who speak Spanish is increasing, says the Danish Consul in Málaga, Marisa Moreno Castillo.

“The people who are on a pension live here but they don’t do anything to get involved in the Spanish society. It’s different for the ones who work. They need to get involved with the Spanish people because they need clients and suppliers. And they all speak Spanish very well,” says the consul.

What is the difference between a guy from Denmark and one from Madrid?

Although most of the Danes in Costa del Sol doesn’t speak Spanish it doesn’t seem to be a problem for the local Spaniards.

In general, they seem more pleased about the fact that so many foreigners have settled in the area.

In Fuengirola, where 33 percent are foreigners from 130 different nationalities, they even take pride in the fact that the municipality is so cosmopolitan.

When you live in Fuengirola it doesn’t matter if you come from Spain, Sweden, Finland, Denmark – or from Senegal or Trinidad and Tobago. Everybody is the same; all are Fuengiroli and feels like from Fuengirola, says Rodrigo Romero, Councilor for Foreign Residents.

“Here you never feel strange or uncomfortable or people don’t look at you as if you were something apart from the rest of the city. That’s a great thing. I don’t know if this is the case for the rest of Costa del Sol but I know specifically this is how it works in Fuengirola,” says Mr. Romero.

Rodrigo Romero sees no problem with foreigners who never learn Spanish. But he believes it is a big advantage if they learn the language – to get the maximum out of the Spanish experience. Photo: Jesper Gynther

The reason for the openness can be found in Spain’s almost 50-year-long history of tourism which means that especially the Spaniards in Andalusia are accustomed to foreigners.

That is something that becomes clear to the locals themselves when they go to other places in the world, as told by Javier Rodriguez, who used to live in Prague.

“I remember a bus driver once stopped the bus to tell me to shut up. And it was just because I was talking – not very loud – but in Spanish. But here for example, if you are on a bus and you see someone talking in Danish or Polish, they don’t care. It is normal for us,” says Mr. Rodriguez who himself spends a lot of time with foreigners as the owner of the company Expat Agency which helps foreigners with paperwork when they move to Costa del Sol.

Fuengirola is one of the places in Spain that has been most influenced by tourism and foreign residents.

When that started 50 years ago the population was only around 5,000 people and now the number is 85,000. Some could find that overwhelming but on the other hand, it also means that practically everybody has the same in common: they are all people from the outside who have chosen to move to Fuengirola.

“If we, in the end, have more than 50 percent who come from outside of Spain then ok. That is perfect. What is the difference between a guy from Denmark and a guy from Madrid? I don’t mind, for me, everything is the same. It is people that have decided to come to our city because it’s a great place for living, so we are glad to have them here,” councilor Romero says.

Spanish culture is not under threat – it’s almost the opposite

When you walk around in the streets, the influence from the foreigners is clear. Many shops, pubs, or dentists have names that say they are either Scandinavian or British.

Some of the sales persons might not even speak Spanish but that doesn’t raise any eyebrows from councilor Mr. Romero.

He doesn’t fear that the Spanish identity in the community is under threat. In fact, he thinks that many of the people who move to Fuengirola adopt the Spanish way of life instead of holding on to their own lifestyle from back home.

For example, people stay out until night, have tapas, and walk in the parks and go to the beach.

“People are not coming here to do their way of life. At six o clock, all the Nordics are in the streets and in Sweden, you would probably be at home. But not in Fuengirola,” Mr. Romero says and is backed by the Danish Consul.

“The Danish people usually adopt the way of life here. They like the culture, the food, the music – and of course also the weather,” says Ms Castillo.

The Danish Consul in Málaga is, in fact, Spanish. However, speaking Danish is not necessary in order to work as a Danish Consul, says Ms Castillo. Photo: Jesper Gynther

However, there is a big difference between the Danes and the local Spaniards when it comes to the choice of clothes as told by Mr. Rodriguez from Expat Agency.

“When I go home, I am sitting with my coat and are freezing here at the beginning of April. But all the Danish people are on the beach wearing shorts. My girlfriend is Polish and she is also surprised: ‘Aren’t they cold?’ That is something, I find very funny,” he says and recalls another experience:

“I remember, I was visiting an apartment with one of my Danish clients and he said that there was no air-conditioning. And it was in April or something.” And then he said: “No aircon, no agreement.”

Javier Rodriguez has three or four Danish clients a month at his company Expat Agency that helps foreigners to settle down in Costa del Sol. Photo: Jesper Gynther

What about the money?

The skeptics might say that the only reason the Spanish people tolerate so many foreigners who don’t speak Spanish is because the foreigners have a big wallet.

The living costs are much lower in Spain than for example Denmark and that is – along with the sun – what have attracted many Danes to enjoy their retirement in Costa del Sol throughout the years.

Combined with the fact that the foreigners hardly take out any money from the public finances in Spain makes them very attractive to have as residents, says Martin Norrbom and Mugge Fischer from the Danish magazine La Danesa which is located in Mijas and writes for the Danish residents in Spain.

“If you come down here and don’t have a nickel, then you continue to have no nickel,” says Mr Fischer and is backed by Mr Norrbom.

“The foreigners, who settle here, they have money to buy and put in the society. Being mayor in Mijas must be fantastic,” he says with reference to the fact that the 46 percent foreign residents have made Mijas to one of the wealthiest municipalities in Spain.

And it is true that without foreigners, Mijas would be a very different place. Currently, 70 percent of the economy in Mijas comes from tourism, according to the mayor of the municipality, Juan Carlos Maldonado.

“We are an open society because it is also important for our economy. We receive many foreign people and it’s good for our economy,” says Mayor Maldonado.

Without foreigners would Mijas be a very different city, says the mayor Mr. Maldonado. Photo: Jesper Gynther

However, after the financial crisis, which led to big unemployment in Spain, they have tried to find other sources of income.

“We are looking at different sectors so it’s won’t just be sun and beach we live off in the future. We want to have something to do and activities 365 days of the year,” says the mayor who thinks the foreign residents can help make that happen.

“For us, foreigners are good not only for the economy but also for developing our economy,” he says.

In Fuengirola, the economy also depends a lot on tourism and foreign residents. And one of their main goals for the future is to get every foreign resident registered.

Right now there are many people who don’t register and that costs money for the municipality because they then miss out on taxes.

“For every person that is registered in Fuengirola we get maybe 270 euros. And that helps us keep the streets clean, and keep the flowers, trees, parks, and beaches in best conditions. And the best way to do it is to register in the town hall,” says councilor Romero, who guesses that if all were registered the number of foreign residents could be around 40 percent of the population.

Spanish not required – but advised!

Whether or not it is because the foreigners bring wealth to the municipalities on Costa del Sol, it is a reality that the local Spaniards don’t see it as a requirement that you learn Spanish in order to be a resident there.

However, it can be a good idea to learn Spanish, says Councilor Romero from Fuengirola.

“I think they should learn Spanish. Not because they need it – you can easily spend the rest of your life here speaking English without any problem – but you miss a lot of things if you don’t speak Spanish,” he says and mention events like theater, music concerts, and cultural activities.

“It is much better to know Spanish to really live the Spanish experience. But it is not a requirement to live your life here in Fuengirola.”

Mr. Norrbom from La Danesa agrees.

Martin Norrbom and Mugge Fischer (on the bike) also thinks that learning Spanish is a good thing if you want to experience more while you live on the sunny Spanish coast. Photo: Jesper Gynther

– Of course, you get much more out of being here if you speak the language. If you isolate yourself to only speak your mother tongue, you are pretty limited.

– But I also do understand, that it can be a pretty hopeless task for the many pensioners who go to Club Danés and play petanque, to learn the Spanish language, he says.

Back in Club Danés, there will be no petanque today, unfortunately.

It is sunny 320 days a year in Andalusia but not this day. It is pouring down but the two players Trine Clausen, 86, and Preben Holm, 69, have decided anyway to show up.

Not to play but to enjoy each other’s company.

– We have an agreement that if it is bad weather then we come here anyway and eat lunch together even if we can’t play, says Mr Holm who may not speak Spanish but still are enjoying his time on the usually sunny Spanish coast.

Trine Clausen and Preben Holm both enjoy spending their retirement in Costa del Sol – and to meet in Club Danés to play a game of petanque. Or to have a good lunch when the weather once in a while offers rain. Photo: Jesper Gynther