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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.


Kym Hamer said...

I loved Seville when I went there in 2002...I was a tourist and loved it for all the obvious things that made it different - although trying to decipher a tapas menu with 2 fellow travellers in order to avoid any red meat dishes was a tad frustrating - despite swotting up with the pocket language guide, we kept forgetting what the 'red meat' words were!

ML Awanohara said...

Funny what you say about language. When my hubby and I went to Spain some years ago (first time for both of us), we found that our lack of Spanish-speaking ability was far more of a hindrance than it had been elsewhere in Europe including France (notorious for insisting that outsiders attempt to speak French) or even other Southern European countries (eg, Greece).

Unlike me, hubby is something of a polyglot (Japanese by birth, he also speaks English, Chinese, Indonesian, and German). So for him it was a rare sensation of frustration and helplessness, this inability to ask for the things he wanted.

Whereas I actually found it somewhat refreshing to be talked at in rapid, native speaker's Spanish as compared to Japanese or Chinese. At least there were words I could recognize! Hmmm... Upon reflection, perhaps I should revise my earlier post about language, dissing the Romans.

I further reflected that, had I spent as many years in Spain as I did in Japan, I'd be a lot more fluent in Spanish than I am in Japanese...

Could this help to explain why so many Brits stick to the tourist areas? Attempting to venture into the heart of Spain without linguistic skills is not for the faint of heart!

Kate said...

A different Kate, but answering ML's question anyway.... it could well be. When I was growing up there, French was the first foreign language that was taught, with German coming second. Few schools seemed to teach Spanish.

While this may excuse Brits' tendency to stick to tourist areas, it does not, however, excuse their predilection for opening British pubs on the Costa del Sol and serving copious amounts of lager and chips and egg when there is so much good Spanish cuisine. For heaven's sake -- can't we exist for a fortnight without chips and ketchup?

ML Awanohara said...

@ Kate, of Marmite & Fluff
LOL on the chips and ketchup. The only nation I know other than Britain who is so attached to their native food is Japan. Japanese tourists find it a struggle to go for too long without any Japanese food. Is it a "small island nation" thing? On the other hand, Japanese food is healthy compared to typical British fare. So it kind of makes sense in their case.

@ Kate Turner
Can you suggest ways for us adults who are non-Spanish speakers to prepare for a trip to Spain? Bearing in mind that adults find it harder to learn language (something about our brains shutting down...).

Kate Turner said...

Interesting comments! I do really think that Spain is one country where knowing even a little of the language will get tourists very far, and without any knowledge of Spanish they might become a bit 'stuck' outside the Costa del Sol - as the other Kate pointed out, the former lack of Spanish teaching in UK schools could explain the fact that so many Brits stick to these areas. I also think it's to do with the fact that these resorts were some of the first to be marketed to Brits, so there's a long tradition of holidaying there. Until recently it was seen as a cheap 'home from home' in the sun, but perhaps the exchange rate will change this.
I think learning a few simple phrases and taking a phrase book or dictionary is fine. As long as you make an effort, people are very willing to help visitors. Also, the Spanish use plenty of hand gestures, so if in doubt, a bit of miming could be a good idea!

ML Awanohara said...

@ Kate Turner
Well, I practiced a lot of miming in Asia, and it has certainly come in handy in many a tourist situation over the years -- but less so in Spain, I have to say, where blank or angry stares were quite common.

Thinking it over, I don't think it was just the language we found intimidating. Our first (and only) trip to Spain was over the Christmas break, and its chief purpose was to see a Spanish friend of mine who was (still is) an expat in London. She and her young daughter were visiting her family in Madrid for the holidays.

My husband and I flew into Madrid and after a few days, took a very comfy Mercedes bus across La Mancha to Benidorm, on the Costa Blanca. That's actually where we meet my friend, who was getting her sun and siesta after spending time with her family. I think she chose Benidorm as, after living in England for so long, she felt quite comfortable with all the British and German tourists, and it has good deals.

We felt differently, though, and for us the holiday improved once we rented a little car and made some day trips to the little towns and villages along the coast (although at that point, we exhausted my friend, who had to translate for us!).

On New Year's Day, we drove south, I can no longer remember to where. At some point during the outing, my friend decided to call her daughter's father in London to wish him a happy new year. We were both taken aback when she walked up to a pay phone and got through to him right away.

Noticing the look of surprise on our faces, she said: "Did you think the phones don't work here?"

We had a laugh about it, but the truth was, there is something about Spain that makes it seem more cut off and less modern than the rest of Europe. Historically, it has been cut off, and maybe because of living in Japan for so long -- which, too, was cut off from Asia -- I sensed that the Spanish rather enjoy their position of isolation and like the Japanese, don't take to outsiders easily.

But am I wrong about that?

Michi said...

Seville is one of my favorite cities here in Andalucía!

Great interview, I could relate with a lot of the aspects of being an expat in Spain. Especially the time-keeping, getting used to the difficult Andalusian accent, and everything being done at a later time (I felt like I was always hungry when I first moved back).

You're always right, about how living abroad makes you appreciate the family and friends you left behind even more. Though I definitely wish mine were closer...

ML Awanohara said...

@ Michi
I appreciate your comments on the interview, and I'd also like to give a shout-out to your blog on life in Andalusia, I Heart Mondegreens.

I originally found out about Michelle and D-Man (her lovely Spanish husband) through Mary Anne Oxendale's blog, A Totally Impractical Guide to Living in Shanghai, where Michelle is #4 in a "totally impractical" interview series.

At the end of that interview, Michelle says that she and D-man are currently on the look-out for opportunities in Southeast Asia. Having seen the elephant in both Europe and Asia myself, I heartily approve and will stay tuned to their adventures...

Kate Turner said...

Thanks for the comment Michi, I'm going to check out your blog now.

ML, I have to say that Spaniards being unwelcoming to outsiders really wasn't my experience, and it hasn't been for any of my friends who have moved out there either, even the ones without Spanish language skills. It may depend on the individual/area - I could completely understand why some (especially older) Spaniards in areas such as the Costa del Sol and Costa Blanca around Benidorm might feel some resistance to tourists & expats, especially Brits.
There's an interesting article on the Guardian website about British expats in Spain and integration:

Esperanza vaquerin said...

Leah, you have a good memory, Must have been pretty unhappy to go to Benidorm for Christmas that year. I think at the time I just wanted to be out of London....Havent been since. Must find he photos of that trip. Remember going to Elche with you and Susumu and New years Eve.Where were we?

I must admit that I dont feel spanish or english, feel like a tourist in Spain and a foreigner in London. I guess I am just a Londoner now. I remember somebody asking me where home was and I replied Home is where my daughter is....

Displacement is a fascinating subject that I am very interesting subject. I think your blog is clever and well written, Must Keep a closer eye , had missed your last entries . Wd you send me a link when you write an entry?
Keep the good work Lea ! Hope we meet again in the future,

Ps I have never like the word expat , I feel it has negative connotations

ML Awanohara said...

Espe, thanks so much for your comment. No doubt you also recall how I finally mastered: ¿Dónde está la catedral? I haven't forgotten it since!

I also find it interesting what you say about feeling like a tourist in Spain (how else could you go to Benidorm?) and a foreigner in London. Calling yourself a Londoner may be a good way to resolve the situation!

I, too, don't like the word "expat" -- it has so many negative connotations, some of which I've already written about on this blog.

As you know, I've just now started up a new blog, a collaborative venture with two other writers, called The Displaced Nation. Like you, I find the concept of displacement rather fascinating. It's usually used for people who are forcibly displaced, but I think it's also interesting to explore for those who have chosen to displace themselves: what are the consequences?

Espe, I will be relying on your continuing support for the lumbering elephant as well as TDN! xx

AZ said...

I recently returned with my kids from a two-week trip to Andalusia. We, too, found it helpful to know some of the language apart from the usual gestures. My two teenage daughters were eager to try out the Spanish they’d learned at school. And thanks to the universal language of play, my 9-year-old son had no problem communicating with Spanish kids when joining a pick-up game of soccer outside an elementary school.

A German friend of ours who is fluent in Spanish had warned us that people in Andalusia speak Spanish as though they have “marbles in their mouths.”

While sherry tasting in Jerez, we met a British couple who’ve been living in Southern Spain for five years. They said they enjoy the small-town life and the travel opportunities. They particularly enjoy the weather, of course, though find the summers a little too hot for their tastes. (During summers, everything has to be done by 10:00 a.m.)

One complete surprise was that we would end up crossing the Plaza Major in Madrid at the same time as Prince Charles and Camilla. It was the first time the pair had been to Spain in ages. Flattering to think they would copy our itinerary!

My cousin, who used to live in Madrid, gave us several bits of advice. One was that the Spanish would never say they don’t know something even if they don’t; they’ll always have an answer. The other is that it doesn’t matter what you wear, the women in Madrid will still look down on you and make you feel shabby.

Probably the biggest challenge to our trip is that ham is the pride of the area, and every tapas bar has several hams hanging from the ceiling, and my children no longer eat pork now that we have a pot-bellied pig for a pet – who, btw, is a follower of this blog.

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