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Valencia is far enough south to be warm, with a population large enough to offer the amenities of a proper city: great restaurants and market, and a developed public transportation system.© VisitValencia /VisitValencia

The pandemic caused people to behave in all kinds of strange ways. Some formed deep personal attachments to their sourdough starters, others invested thousands of dollars into Bored Ape NFTs and many simply embraced their inner slob and went, what the internet likes to call, “full goblin mode.” I moved my family across the Atlantic, from Toronto to a city I picked off Google maps. It wasn’t exactly throwing a dart at a globe, but it wasn’t far off. The original plan was just to spend the winter in Costa Rica, but the more I researched the less enchanted I grew with that idea.

“Rental rates for houses are outrageous,” I said to my wife one evening after a fruitless few days combing Airbnb and similar websites. Three-bedroom apartments within walking distance of the beach, clean and comfortable, but not extravagant, started around $5,000 a month and only went up from there. “For these prices I bet we could be in a European city.”

Why we chose Spain

A Spanish city was the obvious choice, both for the climate and because we wanted our children to learn the language while also improving our own – that would mean being able to count all the way to 10 in my case.

Having spent some time on the Iberian Peninsula over the years we felt that Madrid was going to be too big and relatively too cold in winter, Barcelona too thronging with tourists, Seville and Cordoba too far inland, Malaga and Marbella too overrun with oligarchs. Lovely places to visit, of course, but not ideal places for a family with a two-year-old and a seven-year-old in tow.

Plaza Rodrigo Botet in Valencia.Josep Gil/VisitValencia

Scanning down the east coast, Valencia seemed to occupy a choice location. It was far enough south to be warm, with a population large enough to offer the amenities of a proper city: great restaurants and markets; a developed public transportation system; easy, affordable access to the rest of Spain, Europe, the U.K. and North Africa.

I also discovered that Valencia is one of the safest cities in Spain, itself one of the safest countries in Europe. COVID was of course still a factor but, despite getting pummelled by the pandemic during the first few waves, it appeared that Spain had learned its lessons and by the winter of 2021 boasted one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

Additionally, of the 38 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Spain experienced some of the shortest school closures. By contrast, like so many other students in Ontario, it felt like my daughter barely saw the inside of a classroom for two years.

With our decision made, we started to grow excited about the trip. Almost immediately, however, a major stumbling block that I really should have considered before launching into this folly presented itself. As non-EU passport holders our trip would be limited to three months.

From visas to lost luggage, how we got there

I visit the market almost every day to work on my Spanish – I can now count way beyond 10 – and see what incredible new produce or seafood the vendors have.Abel Gimeno/VisitValencia

Three months in Costa Rica seemed feasible because the flight is relatively short, and the one time zone difference is not an issue. Three months in Spain, however, with all the disruption and hassle of finding a school for our children, getting settled and comfortable and generally acclimatizing felt like no time at all.

So, we set out to apply for a long-term visa, one that would allow us to stay in the country for a year with an opportunity to extend beyond that. The paperwork was, to put it mildly, arduous: RCMP background checks, fingerprints, fee payments, photographs, health exams, multiple visits to the bank to show that we had enough funds available to support ourselves and, finally, the surrender of our passports to the Spanish consulate.

Then we waited. It was now December and having invested a few thousand dollars and hundreds of hours in labour our goal was in sight. That’s when the reality of our decision began to sink in. Suddenly, the winter weather didn’t seem so abysmal and, besides, spring was just around the corner. Our familiar routine now seemed comforting and reliable, not tedious and predictable. Would we find a decent apartment, would the kids adjust, would we even like Valencia?

To answer some of these questions, and on the advice of a friend who also moved to Europe from Canada we hired a relocation consultant. After some research and a couple of phone interviews we settled on a company called Valencia Expat Services. It turned out to be one of the smartest investments we made.

Long before our arrival we had a few video calls and explained our situation, detailed our budget – approximately half what Airbnb’s in Costa Rica were asking – and what we were looking for in terms of a place to live, and had roughly a million questions and concerns addressed. Since we already had our visa sorted and a school picked out for the kids we didn’t need the full slate of services, so for around €1,000 we got great advice on what neighborhood would best suit our needs, help with setting up our bank accounts, dealing with the bureaucracy around our visas, getting on a phone plan and generally navigating the move.

About six weeks after submitting our visa application our documents were returned, each with its own colourful visa featuring the EU flag in one corner and a tiny toro in the other. We uncorked a celebratory bottle of cava.

Would I have preferred that the biggest war in Europe since 1945 did not break out two days before our arrival? Sure. Did I wake up a couple of times, jet-lagged and borderline panicked when, the day after we landed, Vladimir Putin announced that he was putting his nuclear forces on high alert? Absolutely. Did Air France lose eight of our suitcases? Yes, but in fairness at least I didn’t have to drag them all to the Airbnb we rented while we looked for our permanent apartment and they arrived a couple of days later.

Was the move worth it?

As the jetlag wore off, so did my stress. The kids were warmly welcomed into their new half-Spanish, half-English school and were thriving. With the help of our relocation consultant, we found our dream apartment, a sprawling, light-filled, stucco-ceilinged, art deco treasure on a beautiful street half a block from the largest urban park in Spain. With a bedroom for everyone and a guest room as a bonus we could hardly believe that it even came in under budget.

I visit the market almost every day to work on my Spanish – I can now count way beyond 10 – and see what incredible new produce or seafood the vendors have. Valencian cherries and tomatoes are revelatory, and I love that when I buy an avocado the vendor always asks, “cuando quieres comerlo,” “when do you want to eat it,” so she can pick out one at the ideal level of ripeness. Similarly, the fishmongers are happy to crack open a few oysters or a fresh sea urchin for in-market consumption.

The cost of living is basically a wash: our apartment is a steal by Toronto standards and the kids’ school is relatively inexpensive (for both to attend costs roughly what we paid just for our son’s daycare in Ontario), but what I save on good quality, inexpensive wine is far exceeded by the shocking amount I spend on things like excellent anchovies and really, really good almonds.

I don’t want to underplay what a schlep it was to get here. It was as stressful and exhausting as moving homes – during a pandemic, to a city you’ve never set foot in before, to a country where you don’t speak the language – but hearing the kids drop a new Spanish phrase, spending the day swimming in the Balearic Sea or stumbling across an impromptu flamenco performance by the fountain in the Jardin del Turia makes the whole effort feel small in comparison.

Scanning down the east coast, Valencia seemed to occupy a choice location.© VisitValencia/VisitValencia

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