Spain is such a popular tourist destination for English people. I'm guessing it must be a wildly different place to visit than to live. The majority of Brits see Spain as "sun, sea and sangria." They flock there in hopes of living a carefree, easy life full of fiesta followed by siesta. In the busy tourist enclaves of the Costa del Sol — literally, sunshine coast — surrounding Málaga, in the south, it is almost like "Britain on Sea," with English the dominant language and fried breakfasts as common as tapas on restaurant menus. Many Brits move out here for a relaxed life in the sun, but for those of us who move to a less touristy part of the country, the Spain we encounter is a world apart.
Were you ever one of those British tourists? I holidayed in Spain with my parents several times as a teenager, mostly on the Costa del Sol.
When you first went to Spain to live, I presume you steered clear of your compatriots, especially as you were there to practice language? I first moved to Spain in 2004 as required by my Spanish language degree course at Oxford. I applied to be an English Language Assistant in a secondary school, and although I could state which region of Spain I preferred, I couldn't be specific about the town they placed me in.
Where did you get posted? Alcalá de Guadaíra, a medium-sized town in the southwest, near Seville. With very few other international residents, Alcalá is hardly a traditional expat enclave.
How old were you then? Just 20. It was a little daunting. I was the first in my family to move abroad — or even contemplate it, as far as I know. I had no experience to draw on.
But you already spoke the language? To a certain extent. I wasn't very confident when speaking Spanish, and I had real difficulty understanding the Seville accent at first. Seville is the capital of the autonomous community of Andalusia, an area of southern Spain with many Moorish influences. The Andalusian dialect is famously difficult to get used to, even for Spaniards, as they don't pronounce some letters: mostly "s" and "d" in the middle or at the end of words.
So at this fairly young age, you lived by yourself in a small Spanish town where expats were a novelty. What hurdles did you face besides language? Alcalá was more relaxed and very family- and friends-orientated than what I was used to. It took me a while to adjust to the rhythms. Another challenge was the daily timetable: everything happens later in Spain than in the UK. People in Spain eat lunch from 2:00 p.m. onwards and dinner at around 10:00 p.m. I still remember the first time I went on a night out. My Spanish flatmate warned me that after a night of partying, it was typical to eat breakfast and then roll into bed at about 7:00 a.m. I was horrified and told her I’d be home at 2:00 a.m. Looking at my watch as I re-entered our flat, I realized she’d been right!
What did your students make of you? The boys all wanted to know what I thought about football players such as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, while the girls wanted to know about the latest fashions. The idea of vintage horrified some of them, though: one student wrinkled her nose in horror at the thought of us British girls wearing second-hand underwear, until I reassured her that the trend didn’t go quite this far.
|SPAIN'S ROYAL FIXATION: |
Soon-to-be-royal Kate graces cover
of Spain's leading gossip rag (3.3.11).
Did you make Spanish friends in Alcalá? Yes, because the vast majority of the town’s population is Spanish. That said, it took me a couple of months to make friends, as it was difficult to socialize by myself in places where I might meet people. Eventually, one of my older students befriended me, and I got to know the rest of her crowd.
Can you tell me any stories that help to illustrate fundamental Spain-UK differences? I call these Blind Men's Tales of seeing the elephant. One "sees" the ears and another "sees" the trunk, and so on. Compared to British people, Spanish people draw the line in a different place about what is considered rude. They see — and comment on — the entire elephant when it comes to one's appearance. It took me a while to get used to being stared at and looked at up and down in public. One of my students once asked me whether I didn’t like Spanish food because I’d lost weight: quite flattering but untrue. Another time my male Spanish flatmate enquired whether, after an attempt to style my new short haircut, I was going to "go out with my hair like that." Much less flattering, and needless to say, I didn’t.
|SPANISH DELICACIES: |
Puntillitas (fried squid),
a typical Andalusian tapa,
If you had to design a meal that blends your favorite British and Spanish dishes, what items would you choose? Maybe cazón en adobo (fried dogfish in a sort of pickled marinade) with British-style chunky chips — the perfect Spanglish fish and chips!
Returning to your story: you went back to live in Spain for a second time after finishing university? I returned in 2008 and lived in Seville for three months. Then I moved to Madrid, where I lived for a year. I saw a different side of Spain in these cities. Unfortunately, I also found it more difficult to strike up friendships with Spanish people — especially in Madrid, where I worked for a bilingual company.
When did you start up your blog Tales of a Brit Abroad? About six months into my time in Madrid. At first the readers were just my friends, but I soon found a broader audience among the expat community.
|THE DREAMING SPIRES:|
Christ Church Meadow, taken by Kate
for her Travel Belles article
And now you're no longer a Brit abroad. When did you return to the UK? In July of last year, for a job opportunity. It wasn’t an easy decision. It had taken me a while to adjust to the faster pace of life in Madrid, but once I did, I grew to love the life I had there.
|COUNTER CULTURE SHOCK:|
Rainy and deserted London,
I see you've started up a new blog called This Reluctant Londoner. Well, I'm not reluctant in every way. I like being closer to my loved ones in the UK. In fact, the time I spent in Spain made me appreciate my British family and friends far more, as I saw how much the Spanish treasure these relationships. I'm also glad to have the British print media and TV easily within reach. And, as I report on my new blog, I've been enjoying the UK’s more diverse culinary offerings. One more factor is that I recently moved to Oxford for work and am feeling more settled. If this pattern continues, I might have to rename the blog to "This Contented Oxford Resident."
Meanwhile, you're keeping Tales of a Brit Abroad alive by interviewing other young Brits about their expat adventures. I'm not actually interviewing them but asking them to write about their experiences, good and bad, in their own words. I've learned a lot from these guest posts — not only about life in other countries, but also about how other people look at the expat life, which strikes me as being a highly individual experience.
I noticed that you also posted some stories of your recent travels to Singapore and Malaysia. Do I detect that you might be a Brit abroad again before long and if so, where? I enjoyed the Far East, but I have to say that Spain is the country with the strongest draw for me — I’m sure I’ll live there again someday. For now, though, I’m trying to settle in Britain and establish a career. Ask me again in a couple of years ...
Would you say you've become a hybrid personality, not quite all British and not quite all Spanish? The challenge of moving to another country by yourself really forces you out of your comfort zone, and some people choose to embrace that and make the most of their time abroad, getting to know as much as they can about the culture and seeing all that they can. I like to think I did that and, in the process, became not more Spanish but more confident and open minded. The Spanish way of being more open and approachable rubbed off on me too, and I now find it easier to meet people and make friends than I did before. On the other hand, I'm pleased I left Spain with my la puntualidad inglesa intact. I have yet to adopt Spain’s more casual approach to time-keeping...
|PARTNERS IN BOREDOM:|
Elephants at the Madrid Zoo,