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Friday, March 25, 2011

The Rain in Seville ... Was Simply Marvelous, Says Ex-Expat of Andalusia

This wannabe full-time travel writer left her native Lancashire behind to study Spanish at Oxford University. After almost 10 years of alternating between Oxford and Spain, she has now repatriated to the UK, where the rain isn't quite the same.

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.

Is it true it's always sunny there? I'm remembering the phrase: "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain..." Most of Spain's rain is in the northern mountains. But even in the south, I've been caught in downpours more than once. By the way, the Spanish translated the My Fair Lady lyrics as La lluvia en Sevilla es una maravilla ("The rain in Seville is marvelous...").

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.

Soon-to-be-royal Kate graces cover
of Spain's leading gossip rag (3.3.11).
Do the Spanish have as many stereotypes of Brits as Brits do about them? Of course. Their more positive images of us include la puntualidad inglesa (English punctuality). The images I’m less keen to associate myself with are of hooliganism and drunken partying. Many people asked me if it rains all the time and if we all sit down for a cup of tea at 3:00 p.m. every afternoon. More serious questions are about politics and the Royal Family, who are almost as famous in Spain as they are in Britain, for some reason.

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.

Puntillitas (fried squid),
a typical Andalusian tapa,
courtesy Wikimedia
One of the biggest thrills of travel is the chance to try out new foods. You lucked out in being posted to Andalusia, which is renowned for its tapas and especially seafood. Did you develop any new favorite eats? I'm a pescetarian, meaning I eat fish but not meat. However, before moving to Alcalá I would only eat white fish prepared without any of the "nasty bits" such as the eyes and tail. The friends I made in Alcalá insisted that I enlighten my tastebuds. By the time I left, fried andaluz-style fish (pescaito frito) had become one of my favorite dishes, and I now love squid, prawns and other seafood. Oh, and I grew to love olive oil on toast, something that causes great bemusement now that I'm back in England.

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.

Christ Church Meadow, taken by Kate
for her Travel Belles article
And I believe you also write for some other travel sites? I started writing for a travel site for women, called Travel Belles, shortly after starting my blog. My contributions include a two-part series on my life in Seville and a piece about Oxford. The latter marked the first time I'd written about the city that’s been my home on and off for almost a decade. As I was living in Madrid at the time, I can detect my own nostalgia in it. I also write freelance for Rough Guides when I can.

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.

Rainy and deserted London,
courtesy renaissancechambara
What were your first impressions upon coming back to the UK again: were there any elephants in the room that weren’t there before? Leaving Madrid at the height of summer for a relatively cold and rainy London was quite a shock to the system. I had to fight my instincts to book the first flight back to Spain. It was also my first time living in London, which didn’t help. Everyone in London seemed in more of a rush than in Madrid and hence less friendly and communicative. Even though both are capital cities, London is bigger and more stressful to navigate. In Madrid I spent a lot more time just walking around the city, even at night. It felt safe because so many Spanish people were out and about for the paseo, dining with their families until late. I also missed Madrid's lower cost of living, its more efficient public transport system, and the excellent coffee.

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...

Elephants at the Madrid Zoo,
courtesy Ludo29980
Last but not least, did you see any elephants in Spain? I guess you didn't see bulls as you're a pescetarian? Even though bullfighting originated in Andalusia... No, no bull fights for me. And I saw just one elephant — in a zoo in Madrid. It didn't look very happy, though.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Before, During and After Shocks: A Former Expat Reacts to Japan's Superquake

One of several broken picture frames
in our niece's Tokyo apartment,
just after the quake.
March 11, 2011, 6:00 a.m., New York City. My husband's cell phone rings super early and I wake up. I assume it's his work colleague in Tokyo, calling about the story they are is writing on whether Japan's prime minister will be forced to resign over the latest political funding scandal.

Unusually for me, I can't get back to sleep. I get up and go over to my husband at his computer and ask: "So is Prime Minister Kan stepping down?"

"No, no." Looking over his shoulder, he seems a little surprised to see me. "There's been an earthquake in Japan. A big one."

"Does that mean Kan is saved?" I have a one-track mind, and besides, I'm not really awake, not fully taking things in.

"Saved by the earthquake...for now."

I stagger over to my computer, and the earthquake news starts rolling over me, in waves as big as a tsunami. OMG, can this really be happening?

I turn on CNN. Yes, it's happening. Not only that, but it looks like Japan has just had the kind of earthquake I dreaded for all those years when living in Tokyo.

As I take in the scenes of devastation, part of me breathes a huge sigh of relief. I wasn't there! For me, earthquakes were the biggest wrinkles on the Japan elephant, one of the features of life in that part of the world that I could never quite get used to.

Just as pressure kept building under the plates of the earth's crust that lie beneath the Japan Islands, pressure kept building inside the worry-wart region of my brain: how would I cope if the next really big earthquake struck? (Question inside my question: What was a nice East Coast girl like me doing in an earthquake-prone country like this?)

But relief at having escaped that fate is quickly followed by guilt. Why am I thinking about myself rather than others less fortunate?

The people who've lost their lives or loved ones.

The people who are still alive but surrounded by water and debris with no way out.

The people who made it to makeshift shelter but are desperate for food, water and heating...

Photo of Matsushima Bay,
courtesy Wikimedia
I'm thinking of the victims and I'm also thinking of places. Years ago, I went to Sendai on a company trip when I was working for a Japanese advertising agency. Sendai is of course the city in Japan that was closest to the quake's epicenter. It bore most of the brunt of the tsunami.

My work colleagues and I spent a pleasant morning touring nearby Matsushima Bay, ranked as being one of Japan's most famous sights for its many small islands (shima) covered in pine trees (matsu).

The sea looked so tranquil on that day. Never in a million years did I imagine it would one day generate huge waves that would pummel the Japanese coastline.

Our word "tsunami" comes from Japanese. I guess I should have known better?

The Ghost of Earthquakes Past

The last major earthquake in the Tokyo area was the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 (7.9). It claimed 140,000 lives, mainly from firestorms. The quake took place in the middle of the day, when many people were cooking rice. Fire spread rapidly due to high winds from a nearby typhoon.

According to seismologists, such major quakes are periodic, occurring every sixty years or so. For the past 25 years, they've been predicting another big quake along a major plate boundary southwest of Tokyo, which like its 1923 predecessor, is likely to devastate Tokyo, Yokohama, and Shizuoka.

No one was therefore expecting the Great Hanshin or Kobe earthquake (7.3) of 1995. I was living in Tokyo at the time and remember watching in disbelief as some 200,000 buildings collapsed, along with much of the city's transportation infrastructure. The death toll rose to more than 6,000. Some 26,000 were injured.

Likewise, no one was expecting a massive quake in the northeastern part of Honshu, which like Kobe was not considered one of the island's most vulnerable areas. The Sendai earthquake occurred in a subduction zone, where the Pacific tectonic plate slides beneath the North American one. The plate boundary off the coast of Sendai may not have suffered a rupture like this for more than 1,000 years.

Earthquake Drill!

ARK Mori Building, Tokyo
Even in Tokyo, which was far from the epicenter, the March 11 quake struck hard, with buildings "swaying like trees in a breeze" as one American visitor put it.

Hearing such accounts brings back vivid memories of my own time in the city.

"ML-san, you go first!" my Japanese colleagues cry. We are standing on the plaza next to the ARK Mori Building, the 37-floor office building near the Roppongi area of Tokyo, participating in a mandatory earthquake drill. Our task is to make our way through a tent where they've simulated the kind of fire that might take place in the wake of a catastrophic earthquake.

The next thing I know, I am on my hands and knees, trying to feel out the edges of tent. I can't see anything, the smoke is so thick.

Later I tell off my colleagues for putting me in such a frightening, humiliating position. They laugh and say it was for my own good.

Around this time, I decide I don't like working in a skyscraper. Every time we have a tremor, the building sways, and I get seasick — and suffer from severe headaches for about a week afterwards.

Japanese earthquake kit,
courtesy Mr Wabu (Flickr)
After this drill I seriously consider getting an earthquake kit, with transistor radio, bottled water, flashlight and so on.

In the end, I don't bother with the kit, but I do get a small flashlight that I keep in my purse, as a kind of talisman to ward off the Big One.

Minor Tremors Can Be Fun

Upon learning of Japan's monster quake, I reflect, as I have countless times before, on what a difference a few shindo (seismic intensity, literally "degree of shaking") can make. Believe it or not, little earthquakes can be fun.

I'm thinking all the way back to my first sojourn in Japan, on a research exchange in Yokosuka, about 31 miles south of Tokyo.

I've just come home from a drinking night with some Japanese friends. I fall asleep as soon as my head touches the futon on the tatami mat floor.

I awaken around 3:00 a.m., noticing the pendant lamp on the ceiling swaying around.

Am I still drunk, or is this my first earthquake?

If the latter, it's not as bad as I thought.

Fast forward to several years later, and I am lying in bed in my apartment in central Tokyo. It's again around 3:00 a.m., and the building is shaking like crazy.

I try to picture myself heading out to the local shelter dressed in a nightgown and with my hair in curlers. "Just not happening!" I turn on my side and go back to sleep, an expression of amusement on my face.

Even during the daytime, the little ones can be fun. They are a conversation piece (where were you when it happened?) and a meeting stopper/interrupter, something office workers relish as a break in their routines.

There's also a practical reason for liking the less serious tremblors. The more little earthquakes you have, the less likely a big one is. Pressure is being released instead of building.

My Only Big Earthquake Experience, and a Moderate One at That

When God-awful things happen to innocent people, other human beings can find it traumatizing as well. They tend to relive emotions from similar, or even remotely similar, events in their own lives.

This time, because I actually lived in Japan, I'm replaying in my head my first scary quake, even though it doesn't in any way approach the scariness of the March 11 quake, the largest in Japan in recorded history.

I'm back in Yokosuka, sitting in a packed-out medical clinic, the only non-Japanese in the room.

I know only a few words of Japanese and am feeling a little intimidated, especially as I'm surrounded by people all of whom seem to be staring at me.

Actually, I can't really blame them. Most of the Americans who live around here belong to the U.S. naval base. They have their own doctors. That makes me an oddity in a public health clinic.

Eventually, my name is called, and I find myself in one of the doctor's cubicles. His desk is rather cluttered, and he, too, looks disheveled. I wonder if he's overworked and underpaid? He says he doesn't speak much English. I say I don't speak much Japanese.

Just at this moment, the room begins to shake. Nurses start running back in forth, and I hear some of the patients in the waiting room screaming "Jishin!"

"Earthquake?" I venture to the doctor. (Talk about learning language in context!)

He is sitting back in his chair, with his eyes closed, looking very Zen.

"Yes, earthquake," he says very slowly in English.

"Um...should we get under the desk?" The books on the shelf above us are rattling. I don't fancy a medical tome falling on my head.

"It's...okay," he says, and at that very moment, the shaking, which has been gaining in intensity, subsides.

Later I find out it was a moderate earthquake (6.7), and I congratulate myself for having the good sense not to take the pedestrian flyover when walking back home from the doctor's.

The Morning after the Tohoku Kantō Great Earthquake

March 12, 2011. I wake up today thinking about how much I admire the Japanese people for their gaman, or stoicism, in the face of major disaster.

So many of them are reacting to this catastrophic event with dignity and calm. Even more incredibly, some in the Sendai region are already hard at work clearing out the mud and rubble from their homes and other properties.

As for me, I'm starting to fret again. What if this earthquake is just the prelude to another, bigger one, as happened so recently in New Zealand?

Seismologists by their own admission are appallingly bad at predicting where and when the next deadly quake will strike, let alone the conditions that will produce a tsunami. I'm now thinking we should implore our family and friends in Japan to consider living somewhere other than the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Perhaps I'm overreacting? Moving is no guarantee against being blindsided by disaster, whether natural or man-made.

Speaking of which, Japan's natural disaster appears to have precipitated a manmade one, as officials now presume that partial meltdowns have occurred at two nuclear power plants. (Will horrors never cease?)

But back to my main point: no one here in NYC anticipated 9/11. Who's to say another place will necessarily prove safer?

Still, there is something a little creepy about not being able to trust the earth beneath one's feet.

And what about the water? I am remembering the waters of Matsushima again, so blissfully tranquil that even the famed Edo poet Matsuo Bashō was at a loss for words.

And now it's our turn to be nonplussed. In the battle of Man vs. Nature, it can be hard to remember that Nature holds a lot more cards. Or to put it in terms of this blog's central metaphor: don't be seduced by the elephant's majesty!

Question: Where were you when you heard about Japan's big quake, and what were your first reactions and thoughts?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Life's a Jolly Holiday: Why I'd Rather Be the Expat than the Tourist

On morning strolls with my two dogs, I often pass by the Student Travel Association office, New York University branch. Until recently, it had a poster of The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, in the front window.

Maybe it's the effect of mid-winter doldrums, but nearly every time I spotted that poster, I became possessed by the need to step into the world it depicts. If only I were Mary Poppins, I said to myself, and had her power of leaping into pictures.

As anyone who has seen Mary Poppins knows — wasn't it everyone's favorite film as a kid, or was I an Anglophile even back then? — Mary, Bert, and her two wards jump into one of Bert's chalk-pavement drawings. They land in an animated countryside, replete with merry-go-round and dancing penguins.

But in the case of this poster, I'd be landing on a train that's just left Paris for Venice just as a math teacher from Wisconsin (Depp) encounters a femme-fatale-and-a-half (Jolie).

Okay, maybe this 'oliday won't be so jolly (haha) given that the poster's tagline reads: "Perfect Trip. Perfect Trap." But what would be the fun of travel without a whiff of danger about it? Even in Mary Poppins, the chalk-painting scene ends in a madcap horse race that has us kids on the edge of our seats ...

So that's this winter's escapist fantasy. The only thing is, I can't quite sustain it. By the time I've finished walking my dogs, I'm having my doubts. I just think the plot could have been so much richer, and more convincing, if the Depp character had been an expat, not a tourist.

In my experience, being a tourist rarely affords such exciting opportunities. Or if it does, you're far too preoccupied with how you're going to get to your hotel without being ripped off, fend off jet lag, and find a cash point machine that takes your Cirrus card, to appreciate the thrill of mysterious strangers. And you certainly don't have the psychic energy required to give their intrigues the time of day.

But spending chunks of time overseas: that puts you in the kind of zone where you're open to the idea that anything can happen (it often does). Little by little, life takes on a cinematic, unreal quality.

Here is why I think an expat's life is so much more film-like than a tourist's:

1) An expat gets the chance to play many roles — with wardrobe changes to match.

There I am, all those years ago, flouncing around in my Laura Ashley dresses and Liberty print skirts as a graduate student at a British university.

Oh, and there I am again, a housewife in a provincial English town, sporting my Marks & Sparks separates.

And now look: I've moved to Japan and am approaching a glass-fronted office building in a demure Audrey Hepburnish suit adorned with silk scarf and pearls. Goodness me, was I really wearing my hair pulled back in a snood back then?

Irene Dunne is one up on me:
I have the opera-length pearls
but no opera gloves.
And look at me now: I'm setting foot again in the United States. My clothes are so exotic compared to what everyone else has on (not saying a lot since many of them appear to be in gym clothes), I could almost be a modern Countess Olenska, from Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Like Irene Dunne who played her in the 1934 film, I have a slightly foreign accent and elaborate hair style. (Come to think of it, I had the nickname of "countess" in those days — no joke!)

2) You want danger? Expats are far more likely to encounter it than tourists.

In England, I experienced everything from serious crime to fear of terrorist attacks. It was an era when people traveled into Central London with a certain trepidation lest the Provisional IRA had left another car bomb outside Harrods. It was also an era of unemployment, linked to rising crime.

Japan, too, despite its reputation for being safe and staid, offered dangers aplenty. I was in Tokyo when the Great Hanshin earthquake struck Kobe and pandemonium ensued. And, little did we expats suspect that just a few months later, we'd be coping with sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. Several people perished in the station just down the street from where I lived, and there were warnings for several weeks afterwards about further attacks. That was pretty petrifying.

3) The old adage is true: the longer you stay in a place, the less you know about it.

Expats in Japan can relate.
Perhaps I'm exaggerating — memory has a way of distorting things — but I don't remember having many days as an expat when I wasn't baffled, beguiled, or confounded in some way.

England is the land of the lace curtain, something Agatha Christie, the Queen of Mystery, understood all too well. (Don't know about lace curtains? They permit you to see out while others can't see in...)

As for Japan, that's a country where most foreigners feel as though they've stepped through the looking glass because pretty much everything is the opposite of what they've experienced before. And unlike Alice, most do not emerge unscathed.

At about this point, you're probably thinking I've forgotten about how life overseas can be just as humdrum as it is back home. All I can say is: get with the program.

Chances are, if you're reading this post, you're the kind of expat who, if the going gets really rough, as it has in Libya right now, can expect to be rescued by your government in a plane or a boat.

So take it from me, your resident repat: time to own the aura of glamor, danger, and allure that goes hand-in-hand with a privileged expat existence.

And don't be afraid of looking like a fool when swanning around in your kimono or Scottish Highland kilt. The Tourist itself had pretensions of being a Hitchcock-style thriller, only to be lambasted by critics. Nevertheless, it got a Golden Globe nomination — in "comedy."

No shame in that, though I would expect your version, which will be entitled The Expat, to succeed in paying homage to Hitch, since you have the material. And you know the other good thing about that title? It anticipates the sequel: The Rex-Pat.

Now if that doesn't scream Oscar potential, I don't know what does.

Instant Poll: Which one gets your vote when it comes to thrills and glamor: tourist or expat?