The Expat: Liana Neal

Liana Neal.
Liana Neal.
Liana Neal
From: Barranquilla, Colombia
Age: 36
Profession: Photographer and founder of XpatLifeBA
Education: Fashion design at Universidad Taller 5, Bogotá, photography at Quito’s Alliance Française.
Last book read: Unauthorized autobiography of Julian Assange
Last film seen: Superman with my girls
Gadget: Blackberry

Many people who decide to change gear and move to another country often take their time to get to know the place or find somewhere to live. Not Liana Neal. While she was living in Ecuador, the Colombian mother of two and president of Buenos Aires International Newcomers (BAIN Suburbs) had a flash of inspiration one night, and two weeks later had relocated to Buenos Aires.

She says: “More or less the first time I came here was to move here. We’d been living in Quito for six years but I didn’t fall in love with that city. I woke up one night at three in the morning, literally, and told my husband ‘we need to move, darling’. Obviously he said ‘what?’ and I said ‘put the lights on, this is serious we’re moving. And I think we’re going to Argentina.’

“I liked the sound of Argentina for some reason. So we got in touch with a relocation agency and I convinced my mum to come and take care of our two daughters who were six and one at the time. A week later she arrived in Quito, and that night we were in Buenos Aires. That was six years ago.”

With the help of a relocation firm, Liana and her British husband Piers were shown around the city, dipping into tango shows and eventually saw Martínez, the neighbourhood they would live in.

“I just wanted a change and I didn’t want to move to Europe as I know I’ll have to do that with my girls at some point. And if you don’t make a change immediately, you stay in a comfortable zone. But it felt right. Buenos Aires is a big city with lots of culture and nightlife and while Quito is very sweet, it’s not the same. And once the decision was made, we moved two weeks later,” she adds.

Although Martínez is not exactly at the heart of BA culture, it has lots of plus sides to it, Liana says.
“The girls’ school is five minutes away, we have a pool and a garden and great weather to use it, it’s close to the river. And in 20 minutes you can be somewhere else — in Quito the traffic doesn’t move for 20 minutes.”

Life in Ecuador was quite different, although one aspect that transferred over to her BA life is having foreign friends.

“We lived in a relaxed, residential area but Quito is so small, you could reach the centre in 10 minutes. Geographically, it’s incredible, but it wasn’t easy to find theatres or culture. The weather was a lot cooler and unluckily I didn’t have many Ecuadorean friends as we didn’t really click.”

liana 2With Argentines, however, it’s a different story. Liana says: “I love them a lot! They are also very special, like Colombians, but they are very welcoming to outsiders, plus they love the accent. I always get asked what I’m doing here — ‘why aren’t you in Colombia?’ And I always explain that Buenos Aires is an amazing city, and that’s why I’m here.

“That said, I never knew that it would work out. I knew we needed a change and that it had to be on the same continent, and from the people I’d met before and the books I’d read, it was the one place that had a European touch with the crazy South America that I like!”

Despite living abroad for many years, Liana says her Colombian identity remains strong although it comes in waves.

“I notice it more, if I’m surrounded by Europeans, that the way that I view some things and how I like to live is very much part of my nationality. But when I meet other Colombians, I feel less so. And that’s when I feel the impact of my life as an expat for the past 14 years.”

Having divided her time in London as well as Bogotá and Quito, Liana is very much suited to the expat tag. “I wouldn’t change my experiences as an expat for anything. It’s the most incredible adventure and I’d advise everybody, even just for one year, to do it. My kids are citizens of the world and I think that’s really positive.

“My eldest was born in Bogotá, and she says she is Colombian. But the youngest was born in Quito and she says she is 100 percent Ecuadorean — she even asked for her flag to put up in the classroom at school!”

“My life has evolved a lot here and when I arrived, there was a whole world of opportunities. The week we moved, a friend from the British Embassy threw us a huge party so we met 100 people over empanadas and espumante. I loved it! They were all expats so we made lots of connections. Then I created the idea for a TV show called Expat Life in Buenos Aires to show what a fantastic life you can have as well as the issues about leaving your country. The show was on Travel & Living channel and it went back and forward for a year but it didn’t work out for many reasons.

“I continued studying photography here, then I went to study theatre and was a dancer in Phantom of the Opera. I also studied jazz and did a performance at the Teatro Astral on Corrientes — I always try to immerse myself with the culture. I also learnt to ride and competed in show-jumping; I love Argentina for giving me and my daughters that new passion.

“Although I walked away from the TV show, the idea about connecting expats never died and as I met more people, I’m now working full force like a train on XpatLifeBA, a private members’ club that creates new experiences in the best places in Buenos Aires.”

Thanks to her own living abroad adventures, Liana is an ideal leader for BAIN.

“As part of that work, BAIN receives about 300 families every year, and there is a large turnaround every three years, the normal posting for a diplomat. But what I’ve noticed is that big companies are closing, and CEOs aren’t sent here — somebody else lower down the scale comes — while the ‘blue’ dollar situation works for some people, while others get scared and prefer to leave.

“With respect to BAIN, lots of newcomers need help with the transition, and simply getting out of the house. The husband is never there, the wife is at home with three kids crying all day, going crazy, she can’t call any friends as she doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t speak the language, and is scared to go out onto the street because ‘this is South America’… these situations can be really complex. I meet people in these situations because without BAIN these people would never leave the house, and have no idea what to do or how to socialize. Some multinationals and embassies freak out newcomers with so many warnings that they never even leave the house! Other people get sent to North Delta. What would you do there? If we’re in a bubble, then they are in a double bubble!”

There has been talk of an expat exodus that kicked off in 2012, but Liana has noticed it most more recently. “What is hardest for us, is to see good friends leave every three years and then suddenly they shut down and leave. The group that we thought would be here with us for years has gone. And about 70 percent of them have left — in the past month. Over six years, there are waves thanks to the three-year cycle, but there are also people who choose to leave and that was really shocking. They say ‘we don’t know what’s going to happen here, we don’t feel safe,’ things like that, then they’re out.

“It was very hard the first time as I was close to the two girls who left. When you’re an expat, friends become your everything. It’s hard, but it’s the way it is and you know it’s coming. This winter I felt like an orphan as so many people left. I drive around and see all the empty houses, ready to rent, and I’ve been thinking ‘who should I call?’. It’s one of the hardest things as an expat.”

Buenos Aires Herald, July 27, 2013
Ph: Mariano Fuchila

If you enjoyed this interview, you might like this piece about hotelier Tom Rixton.

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