The grass is always greener: What living overseas teaches you

Our neighbour hates us. He hates us in a strange and pathological way. We don't know why and we don't know how long he's harboured these feelings, but we do know that he is not a fan.

We live on the same level of a small apartment block. There are only three other flats on our floor: one of those is empty most of the time; another is home to a lovely older couple who pinch our young child's cheeks and ask after his health.

And then there's apartment 5D. The guy who lives there must be in his 50s or so. Balding, with tufts of grey hair on each side of his head; seems to like the combination of off-white jeans and white denim jackets.

And he won't talk to us. He won't smile at us, he won't say "hola" to us, he won't look at us or even acknowledge our presence, even if we're standing right next to him waiting for the same lift and saying hello. Completely blanks us. He barges past us in the lobby without a glance. He greets other residents and sometimes even chats to them. But us? We don't exist. He hates us.

The reason for these feelings is impossible to definitively gauge, but you have to draw the conclusion that the only difference between our little family and all of the other people who live in our building is that we're not from San Sebastian. We're not Spanish. And more importantly, we're not Basque.

We're not from around here, and sometimes, in cases like this, you really feel it. Some of the locals here enjoy having us stay and live in their homeland and they show us that we're welcome. Some people most definitely do not.

And this is the thing you discover after a reasonable period of living somewhere else, of shifting your life to another part of the world in search of perfection: it doesn't exist. Nowhere is perfect. Every country or city or town has its downsides, every place has its idiots from 5D.

I've lived in San Sebastian, in the Basque Country of northern Spain, for nine months now, and in some ways it's everything I hoped for, everything I wanted that my home in Australia was not.

There's culture here, rich and ancient and passionately displayed. There are festivals and parades and other celebrations held just about weekly. The food is spectacularly good, so good that you forget what it's like to live in a place where you're not surrounded at all times by affordable, delicious cuisine. The access to greater Europe is amazing. The local scenery is incredible.

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The passion of the Basque people, too, is intense and moving. The social nature of their lives is inspiring. The immersion in another place, in another culture, in another way of being that long-term travel allows you is life-changing.

But this place isn't perfect. It's not the dream. It turns out that Basque Country is something of an unrequited crush: I may be in love with it, but I'm fairly sure it doesn't love me back.

People here are hard to break down. I've found that the Basques are mostly very friendly – but they don't want to be your friend. They already have their "cuadrilla", their tight circle of friends forged during childhood, and they have no desire to extend it. People will smile at you and they'll say "kaixo" and they'll welcome you into their bar for a drink or their shop to buy groceries. But they don't want to swap numbers and become besties.

<i>Locals can be hard to break down.</i>

Locals can be hard to break down. Photo: Getty Images

There are also attitudes in Spain and the Basque Country that feel pretty old-fashioned and outdated to me. There's a measure of casual racism here that's shocking. There's little interest from locals in other cultures or the wider world. There's also a refusal to embrace some of the simple technological advances that have made our lives easier in Australia: small things like automated check-outs at supermarkets, restaurants that have websites with menus posted on them, and even Uber, which doesn't exist here.

San Sebastian isn't perfect, because nowhere in the world is perfect. That's what you learn from an experience like this. As a short-term tourist you can very easily ignore a place's shortcomings and convince yourself that you're in paradise, but as a long-term resident you have to face up to the inevitable faults.

Stay for a long time, and things change. Stay away for a long time, meanwhile, and things change just as noticeably. Australia, and your view of the place, is altered by experiences in another country. You begin to appreciate its admirable qualities and not worry so much about the annoyances. We seem so friendly to me now, so inclusive, so multi-cultural.

Of course, the grass is always greener. I'll get back to Australia one day and pine for the pintxos bars of San Sebastian, for the relaxed lifestyle, for the focus on family and food and enjoyment over things like automated check-outs and Uber.

I won't, however, miss the guy from 5D.

See also: Why is it white people are 'expats' and everyone else is 'an immigrant'?See also: The 13 things travelling overseas teaches you about Australians

Have you lived in another country? Have you discovered downsides as well as good things? Is anywhere perfect? Have your experiences overseas changed your view of Australia?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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