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He lost his job in the US so moved to Spain and unexpectedly found a new vocation

<i>Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Sitges is situated on the Mediterranean coast
Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Sitges is situated on the Mediterranean coast

By Silvia Marchetti, CNN

(CNN) — For many people, sudden unemployment – especially in later life – can be a time of insurmountable crisis. For Robert Webber, who lost his job as a facilities manager in the US in 2018, it became an opportunity to follow a dream and start a new life in Europe.

Webber was 60 when he unexpectedly found himself out of work. Rather than try to find another job in the US, he and his husband, Dennis Johnson, decided to fast-forward their retirement plans and move to Spain.

Work wasn’t done with them though. And despite the allure of taking it easy in the Mediterranean, they soon found themselves launching successful new careers – even if they still find some aspects of Spanish life hard to adapt to.

“This was the perfect time to move to Europe, something we had been planning on doing after retirement, but since we were both unemployed, we decided not to wait,” Webber says of the move back in 2018.

“Also, the (US) election had not gone as we hoped and we could see the deterioration of the political climate in the US, so we thought let’s give it a try.”

The couple were well traveled in Europe before the move, but decided to pick Sitges, a pretty town on Spain’s northeastern coast, overlooking the Balearic Sea, because of its rich gay culture, access to the Mediterranean, and proximity to Barcelona.

A Bostonian who had come to love the warmth of California, Webber also wanted to enjoy the warm climate year-round and live “below the snow line.”

“Having grown up in Boston, then lived for many years in Chicago, when we finally made it to LA, we said never again to the snow and bitter cold,” says Webber.

At first, Sitges proved to be everything they were looking for. But after a year enjoying the beaches, bars and food, Webber started to worry that all the sunbathing and relaxation might get boring.

That’s when the idea of opening a chocolate shop came up.

Webber had always enjoyed cooking and making chocolates, while Johnson was interested in starting a bakery. The couple settled for something in between: a chocolate boutique called Sweet Sitges that also sells cakes, pies and cookies to order.

‘Their eyes light up’

The inspiration had its origins back in Chicago decades ago when the couple stumbled on an old recipe for Christmas caramels and toffee handwritten by Johnson’s mother. Webber started making the confectionary for friends, who told him he should open a shop or sell the treats online, but at the time it was his “creative outlet” and he did not want it to become a “job.”

Years later in Sitges, the idea of making his passion into a business didn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.

“Seeing someone’s expression when they taste a chocolate that transports them or when little kids walk into the shop and their eyes light up… it just makes people happy and I like happy people,” Webber says.

The chocolate Webber uses comes from Belgium and is sourced from fair trade-certified farmers. He makes most of the chocolates in the boutique, including bonbons, truffles and chocolate bars.

Webber says he strives to minimize environmental impact.

“The shop uses green electricity and we have been eliminating plastics from our packaging. All these things cost a little more, but are important to me and the world in general.”

Originally, the couple moved to Spain on a “golden visa” which grants residency for people who invest over a certain amount in property in the country or make other financial commitments. Since opening the shop, they now have self-employed visas.

“We are residents here in Spain, not citizens,” Webber says. “Spain does not recognize dual citizenship with the US.

“The visa process can seem daunting, it is very detail-oriented, so if you are not good with details, hire an attorney, one that is familiar with the process” and works on the ground.

Traveling light

Webber says making the move to Sitges was relatively easy if quite intense. The couple purchased a home in the town’s old center, after spending a week viewing 10 properties per day. They settled on a condo with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and an office.

The kitchen is large by European standards, with plenty of cabinets and storage spaces. The living room features wraparound sliding glass doors that open onto a panoramic balcony.

They negotiated to buy some furniture from the property’s vendors, so as not to have to walk into an entirely empty home, and used an international shipper to transport items from the US, like a bedroom set, a dining table and chairs, and even Christmas decorations.

“We came over with two suitcases each of clothes and personal items, and our two dogs, and the rest we bought when we arrived,” Webber says.

“Being in the center of the town was important to us, we knew we would not have a car so wanted to be within a short walk to everything, beaches… restaurants, bars, cafes, literally just around the corner from us. We are also just far enough out so we don’t get all the noise from the festivals that happen in this little big town,” says Webber.

The couple says they fell in love with Sitges’ lively cultural scene. It has many religious festivals, a great LGBTQ vibe plus an array of gay bars, clubs, hotels and dedicated Pride events.

It is great seeing everyone mixing and mingling, says Webber.

“We love the vibrant hustle and bustle of the town during all the events and festivals that take place here. We love the integrated gay culture and how families with their young children will take part in many LGBT+ activities.

Late nights

As much as it may seem appealing, it wasn’t easy to adapt at first to the laid-back, slower-paced Spanish lifestyle, particularly to the siesta breaks in the middle of the day.

“When we first moved here, even though we knew everything closed between 2 and 5 p.m., it still took some getting used to. I would go out to do some errands only to realize everything was closed.”

“Another thing was the number of holidays they have here and unlike shops in the US, most close.”

However, the pair say they have now adopted the siesta ritual as an enjoyable Mediterranean pleasure. Webber now shuts his shop until 5 p.m. for a long, “refreshing” lunch break and nap, though he sometimes keeps it open until 9 p.m. as is typical in Spain.

Spanish eating habits remain however hard to digest.

“We still have not acclimated to late-night dining, though with the shop it has pushed our dining later in the evening, which is still early by Spanish standards. Many restaurants don’t open till 8 p.m. and even then if you go and ask for a table they look at you sideways.”

Another challenge in relocating and opening the chocolate shop was not speaking the language, and navigating government bureaucracy.

But Webber says he has been lucky to face very little competition in Sitges.

“When we started there were no other chocolate shops, though there were several shops that sold sweets like turron (nougat) and other candies,” he says.

While living and working in Sitges has turned into a dream, peak season is a downside. Tourists flock to the seaside resort, traffic increases (but Webber now considers himself a local so knows which streets to avoid), as do petty crimes.

But, Webber says, he prefers it to the downsides of life in the US.

“You just have to know your surroundings during peak crime times, even so it is nothing like back in the US. Having lived in Boston, Chicago and LA we have experienced major crimes, shooting, gangs and even a gang killing below our bedroom window in Chicago. Thankfully guns are banned here.”

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