“Seen through Mediterranean eyes, we English are a cautious, fussy, elderly-minded people, living without large ideas among a litter of temporary expedients: far too taken up with the problems our muddle creates for us to have much faculty left for practising the arts of life.” Thus wrote Gerald Brenan on his return to England after the tour of Spain about which he wrote in “The Face of Spain” (1950). Spain had captivated him, as it does so many of us, yet he at least in part fell into the trap of seeing the host country through rose-tinted spectacles, and seeing only the negatives of the home nation.
This outlook, and its polar opposite, can be seen to this day in the modern home of the written word: the internet and Facebook forums. There are British people in Spain who will not hear a negative word spoken of their adopted country, and who react to any criticism with their standard (and tedious) cry of “Well if you don’t like it, why don’t you go home?” In equal numbers there are the detractors. A mild and justifiable comment that electricity prices are rising, that the internet can be slow in isolated mountain hamlets, or that a favourite bar is slightly marred by a “lack of attention to detail” in the toilet department, rapidly spirals downwards into a general attack on Spain, someone describing it as “a third-world country” and someone else following this up with “If it weren’t for us, they’d all be riding around on donkeys”. This is, I suppose, the general nature of the internet. It seems to force people to extreme positions. I assume (and for their sakes, I hope) that at home they do not spend the entire day firmly glued to these polarised outlooks. Even those who can describe Spain as a third-world country presumably spend some of their day enjoying the excellent food, stunning countryside, and warm acceptance by our very-much first-world neighbours? Even those who will hear no criticism in public, presumably sigh as they lay out the rugs for the winter and think back wistfully to the days of UK wall-to-wall carpets and centrally-heated luxury?
Brenan, to be fair, wrote that paragraph on his return from a three-month tour in 1950 revisiting his old stamping grounds and visiting new areas, and within a few more paragraphs expressed openly exactly this struggle between negativity and positivity, finding in the end a degree of equilibrium and recognising the good and the bad in both countries. That equilibrium that any emigrant or immigrant seeks. That balance, and a way of managing loyalties to two countries and two cultures.
Everyone has to manage that their own way. Some do it by not visiting their homeland, and rely on the attraction of the Mediterranean to ensure that a regular stream of friends and family come out to visit them here in Spain. Personally, I love my visits “back home”, though I do feel like a visitor, and feel that although the outward flight from Málaga to Bournemouth is in one sense “going home”, I know full well that it is the return leg, Bournemouth to Málaga, that is bringing me “home”. Yet I do feel “at home” in Dorset, whilst at the same time feeling like a visitor. Just as in Colmenar, in Shaftesbury too a walk to the Post Office takes hours, as I am hailed by old friends and distant acquaintances, dragged off for a coffee or a visit to the art gallery, lunch dates made, and the usual town council chaos unpicked and dissected. A stranger stops me in the High Street and asks me the date of this year’s Shaftesbury Local Food Festival, though I passed on the mantle of organiser many years ago and the food festival merged with the town’s arts festival and changed its date. I have no idea when it is, though people still assume I do.
Maybe it is all about roots. Although newer, my roots in Spain already feel deep and permanent. Although long-standing, my roots in the UK feel more shallow, but still strong. Different, but balanced.
And “difference” is a key word here. Mostly I would argue that “better” and “worse” just don’t come into it. Yes of course, in a few superficial areas – I am amazed that the 10€ and 20€ buttons on petrol pumps have not yet made an appearance in the UK. That every remote mountain bar has automatic lights in the loos to save energy impresses me every time (even while loo paper is all-too-frequently absent). On the other hand, electric power showers are unheard-of in rural Andalucía, and any request for cashback at Spanish garages and supermarkets is met with a blank stare. Some useful and simple inventions have simply not travelled between the countries, despite the huge number of people travelling in each direction. Different. Not better, not worse, just different.
In that awful, gut-wrenching, equilibrium-shattering month following the referendum, I thought at first I would be forced to move back to the UK. Not something I want to do, but it would hardly be ghastly. Then I thought I would have to take Spanish citizenship. Again, not my preference, but I could do it and already have the language. Then I realised that probably my post-Brexit future is simply a matter of visas; more paperwork, more expense, but nothing insurmountable. So I went back to visit friends in Dorset last week with a renewed commitment to and pleasure in my dual life in two campos. Many friends (both Spanish residents and UK residents) have reported an “atmosphere” in the UK, a post-referendum unpleasantness. Maybe in Dorset we are sheltered, but I didn’t sense it. Yes, of course I am aware of horrendous hate crimes against immigrants in many parts of the UK since the referendum, but I spend my time either in London (which continues to thrive in its relaxed multi-cultural Remain-voting environment) or in Shaftesbury (where the Arab guy who sells The Big Issue was told to “go home” the day after the vote, but has experienced no negativity since then).
Nowhere is perfect, and nowhere is truly awful. I always used to love going on holiday, and by the final day I always used to get excited about going home, too. Now I love Spain, but it has not replaced the UK in my heart; I’ve just made more space to fit both in. New friends in Spain have not squeezed out old friends; there’s space for them all.
I missed the snow in Spain last week, and enjoyed a sunny week in Dorset. The weather seemed to be on the turn as my plane taxied away from the gate at Bournemouth. Thick frost on the aircraft windows looked like snowflakes; two hours later over southern Spain the snow on the distant Sierra Nevada glistened though Málaga had shed its temporary dusting of snow and was bathed in winter sun. Two countries, and both are home. Not better, not worse, just different.
© Tamara Essex 2017 http://www.twocampos.com