A chat with Carrie Frais, Head of International PR at Lucas Fox and founder of the MumAbroad websites
Carrie Frais worked in TV and Radio Journalism in the UK for 15 years before moving to Barcelona in 2003. In 2008, she established the MumAbroad websites for Spain, which offer advice and recommendations for families relocating or living in Spain, France, Italy and Germany. Carrie currently heads up the International PR department at Lucas Fox, where she focuses on international marketing activities and expanding the company’s global profile. She lives in Cabrils on the Maresme Coast and is married to Lucas Fox Partner Tom Maidment with whom she has two children.
JC: You moved to Barcelona in 2003. Why did you decide to relocate to this beautiful part of the world? Was this a difficult decision to make?
CF: I first visited Barcelona in 1991 the year before the Olympic Games and instantly fell in love with the city. Barcelona was being transformed and there was a palpable excitement in the air, which stayed with me. When I went back to London I trained as a Broadcast journalist but throughout my career in Journalism I could not shake off the feeling that I should be living in Barcelona rather than London! I met someone at a wedding in 2002 who told me that he also wanted to live in Spain. One year later we were living in Barcelona and three years later were married. So, in answer to your question, no not a difficult decision to make!
JC: What were the main practical challenges you encountered when you made the move?
CF: For the first 3 years of the ‘move’, both my husband and I commuted to and from London for work. It was a time when the pound was very strong and short haul flights were ridiculously cheap so it was a great way to earn a living and also have a lot of free time. It was an indulgent, memorable period of our lives but when I fell pregnant with my first child, it was impractical to continue with this jet-setting lifestyle. It was at this point that we relocated permanently to Barcelona, which presented the usual challenges of finding a place to live and to look for Barcelona-based work. Tom (my husband) had a chance encounter with Alex (Vaughan) who offered him the opportunity of establishing the Costa Brava office of Lucas Fox. The rest, as they say…
JC: Are there still challenges you face on a day to day basis?
CF: Tom and I both speak Spanish so language is not generally an issue, except for example, in situations where specialist vocabulary is a big advantage such as in a doctor’s office, communicating with a plumber or appealing a parking fine! My daughter’s Catalan homework also presents its challenges as do some of the less progressive administrative processes of local government.
JC: In 2008, you founded the MumAbroad websites, what inspired this venture?
CF: My daughter was born in 2007 just a few weeks after a British friend of mine had her first child. We found ourselves a little lost when it came to finding child-friendly groups and activities in the city. They did exist, but were poorly advertised and if they were, they were aimed at local parents rather than parents from the International community. We decided to put together a family-friendly online resource for expat parents which would offer advice, information and recommendations in English. We also created a forum where parents can connect and share concerns and gain advice. The company started off being Barcelona-wide but we soon expanded to the rest of Spain, and then to France, Italy and Germany.
JC: Has Barcelona grown more “expat friendly” during your time living here?
CF: The tendency for me is to say ‘yes it has’ but in reality the city probably caters to the foreign community as it did ten years ago. Now that I am settled with a good network of friends, the daily challenges have diminished and whilst one may get the impression the city is more in line with the needs of the foreign community, it is simply the other way round.
JC: Is there an established expat community in the area where you live? How important is this in your day-to-day life?
CF: We moved to the Maresme region five years ago and at that time I only came across a handful of expats there. The number of foreigners living in the region has escalated hugely since then, partly due to a good International school (Hamelin) and the affordability of larger homes compared to the centre of Barcelona. International Estate agencies (can’t think who!) are also marketing the area whereas before they focused mainly on areas to the south and west of the city such as Sitges and Sant Cugat. I have a close group of friends who are hugely important to my life. Because our own families live in other countries, these friends often become surrogate families, and unique friendships are made.
JC: Do you feel well integrated into the local community?
CF: Not as much as I would like. As my children go to an International school, many of the parents live in Barcelona or not within the village (of Alella) so conversations tend to be superficial. Also I think that one automatically gravitates to expat mothers who share the same values and can empathize with the unique challenges of bringing up children in a foreign country. We do tend to attend local festivities and events – of which there are hundreds!
JC: How do you feel that the attitude to children and parenting within Spanish culture differs to in Britain?
CF: It is a delight not to be living in a ‘culture of blame’ which Britain has grown to become. In the UK, a teacher is unable to help a child who has fallen over and hurt his/herself without another teacher being present for example, due to the country being obsessed with abuse. In Spain, teachers, grannies and shopkeepers can engage with your child without fear of suspicion. It is the way it should be. I also think that children are given a lot more responsibility at an early age in Spain, partly because they start school so much younger (at 3 years) and partly because there tends to be a culture of self-responsibility from such a young age.
JC: What is the area like where you live?
CF: Maresme is located between Barcelona and the Costa Brava and boasts 50km of beautiful coastline, renowned vineyards and one of Spain’s most beautiful natural parks. One weekend I can be sipping a beer at a beach bar and the next I can be on the ski slopes of the Pyrenees. It’s this unrivalled quality of life the region offers that seems to appeal to many foreigners.
JC: How would you describe a typical day?
I really can’t as no one day is the same for me. It will generally start with me hauling two children out of bed, taking them to school, commuting to Lucas Fox’s HQ in the centre of Barcelona, attending meetings, answering endless emails, stealing a few chocolates from the Property Lounge, picking up the kids and collapsing on the sofa.
JC: Do your children attend a local school or an international school? Why did you make that decision?
CF: They attend the International School in Alella – Hamelin. With two British parents, we were concerned that their level of Spanish may be compromised if they attended a public (state) school where the language of instruction is Catalan not Spanish. Hamelin’s classes are more or less divided into equal amounts of English, Spanish and Catalan. As we have decided to stay living in Catalunya I do sometimes have concerns that they may be somewhat cocooned within the International environment, so we shall see what options arise when they are coming up to Secondary education.
JC: When you first arrived in Spain, did you speak Spanish (or Catalan)? If not, was this a priority to learn?
CF: Both Tom and I studied Spanish at University and our level is good. However, we have both failed to tackle the Catalan language so far, because we are able to communicate well in Spanish. Still, it is a poor excuse, and it is on my list!
JC: Overall how important do you think it is to speak Spanish (or Catalan) when relocating to Barcelona and Maresme?
CF: You can get away with not speaking Spanish in the centre of Barcelona, but your experience in the city will be hugely enhanced with even just basic Spanish. Once you move out of the city, I think it is essential to speak Spanish and if you move further into rural Catalunya then Catalan is a necessity if you want to be accepted by the (often nationalistic) local population.
JC: For you and your family, what have been the greatest benefits of living in Spain?
CF: Being immersed in a culture I love, being true to myself, beach summers and healthy winters.
JC: Did you choose to have your children in Spain? If so, how was this experience in a foreign country?
CF: I did not consider going back to the UK to have my children, as by that point I was probably not part of the Health system there. It is difficult to compare the experience I had to anywhere else, as obviously this is the only experience I have had. Approach to birth tends to be fairly clinical here and the use of epidural commonplace (I did not complain). However for some mothers who prefer a more natural approach to birth, it can be hugely frustrating.
JC: Can you envisage ever returning to live in the UK?
CF: At this point in our lives I can’t but we would be foolish to say ‘never’ as things can change. The only time we considered it was when I first fell pregnant and I was concerned how I would manage with a new baby without any grandparents nearby. This has resulted in a few frustrations (no on-tap babysitting etc) but the pros most definitely outweigh the cons.
JC: What advice would you give to others considering relocating to Barcelona, particularly with young children?
CF: Unlike some expats enclaves such as Geneva, United Arab Emirates or Australia, there is not such a structured set-up to help smooth the relocation process, but that can often make it a more rewarding experience. Be prepared to do a lot of the research yourself, learn some Spanish and just do it!
JC: Can you describe in 3 words what you love most about living in Maresme?
CF: Space, beach, mountains.
JC: In April 2013, you took on the role of Head of International PR at Lucas Fox, overseeing PR and Marketing activities for Barcelona, the Costa Brava, Mallorca, Marbella, Ibiza and the Maresme coast. In recent months, the company has continued to gain extensive media coverage, both nationally and internationally, In your opinion, what makes Lucas Fox so unique within the international luxury property market?
CF: Lucas Fox is the only independent real estate agency in Spain which was established to specifically target high end clients. We know who our clients are and avoid the ‘hard sales’ approach. We also appreciate that many of our clients are not only looking for a property but also aspire to a certain lifestyle. I also believe that our international team offer a level of customer service and professionalism way above that of our competitors. Our expansion has also been helped by a well structured in-house PR and Marketing team (but of course I would say that), a multilingual Business Development Department as well as excellent Web designers and developers.
JC: 2013 has been an exciting year of transition for the company, which has tripled its sales revenue, undergone a re-branding, launched two new Property Lounges in Barcelona, established a brand new Residency in Spain Joint Venture and opened offices in Marbella and Maresme. What does 2014 have in store for Lucas Fox?
CF: So much! We are soon to be launching a state-of-the-art App which not only will encompass an easy-to-use property search facility but will present the user with a plethora of original content including regional guides, insider’s tips from our staff, interviews with clients, relocation advice and celebrity gossip. I think it will be an invaluable resource, not only for those looking to buy property in Spain or Portugal, but anyone who is an aficionado of Spain’s lifestyle and culture. We are also developing a new Lifestyle Magazine (LiFeStyle) both digitally and as a bi-annual paper edition, creating a unique one-stop-shop development company, establishing new Property Lounges in Sitges, Barcelona’s Zona Alta and Palma, consolidating our Residency in Spain venture plus a few more surprises… not sure when my next holiday will be!