Four years ago, I moved to Spain. In the UK, I had wanted to become a teacher. Applying for jobs and schemes usually had the same result though – ‘looking for someone with experience’. How can you get that experience if you can’t get the job in the first place? However, I soon saw a light shining at the end of a tiny tunnel. A conversation assistant in a Spanish school: great! That’ll give me something to pop on my CV. I’ll go back after a year.
Four years later, and there I still was. TEFL-qualified, experienced, and loving it. Barcelona is full of charms, and I am incredibly glad of my decision to move there. It helped me learn a language, blend into another culture, and taught me so many things.
Four years ago, I was also looking down other small tunnels, in the maze of life. One such was the opportunity to teach in South Korea, as a guest English teacher on a state school programme. I applied, and was interviewed. I pulled out because I was scared. I pulled out because I didn’t think I’d be able to be that far away from home, to live in a culture so different to my own. I pulled out because I told myself I couldn’t do it, and I wasn’t experienced enough. There’d always be someone better.
Four months ago, I began again. I believed in myself enough to apply for a position in South Korea, and wanted it enough to know that I could do it. I wanted to live in another place, experience such a new world, learn a new language, and better myself as a teacher. South Korea, an economic powerhouse steeped in tradition, but pushing itself ever forward into the modern world of technology, beckoned me. So off the radar as a tourist destination, I believed it would give me a true glimpse of life on another side of the globe.
Four months later, here I am, back in the UK, after weeks and weeks of preparation. I’ll leave all that for another day – the hoops I’ve had to jump through, and the endless paperwork I’ve almost wept tears of frustration over, have given me enough stress to last a lifetime and even two panic attacks. Four months later, however, here I am with visa in hand (well, it’s on my desk), and a position with the Busan Metropolitan Office of Education. I’m €700 worse off (not even including the flight), but my heart is lighter and sings with happiness: I did it! I got there! I’m still pinching myself over it.
So now you all know: one of the reasons I’ve been so quiet on here recently. I was planning. Plotting. Scheming for my next great adventure.
After three years in this country, I’m obviously getting very used to my way of life here, and enjoying it a lot. I love how laid-back the culture is, the fantastic food, the sociable aspect of life, and the fact that Catalans don’t take anything too seriously…it’s actually quite similar to home, in many ways. However, there are some things that I find, as a Brit especially, difficult to adjust to. One of the mistakes people make when moving abroad is to say ‘why can’t this just be like home?’, because such a thing will never happen, and this is not my intent. I simply wish to draw attention to the differences for storytelling purposes – it’s only my experience. There are some things that take time to become habit, and some things I even find nigh on impossible to accept. There are also many things that my adoptive country does that are better than those my own does, I hasten to add. Why else would I be here? However, I do find it amusing that a country so close to my own can be so different at times, despite only having an hour’s time difference between the two.
Bars, pubs, and clubs are amazing here, mostly because I’m in Barcelona, which is like hipster central and has oodles of cool hang-outs, particularly in the centre, where I’d find myself the poorest person in the world should I decide to ever live there, as such an abundance of places to sip wine and vermut while munching on olives is never going to be good for the pocket. However, if you decide to go ‘out out’ in Spain, beware. Adjust your schedule some three hours later to what you normally follow. In the UK, we start drinking relatively early compared to those here, and I’ve only just started to get used to that. I made the cardinal mistake of starting at UK times, and suffice to say that at 1am I frequently pined for my bed. What’s the problem, you say? That’s not too early to call it a night. The problem is that here, nobody will even be in the club at that time. You don’t go home until about 6am. The party don’t start ’til the locals walk in at roughly 3/4am. I went to a few clubs earlier than this time, only to be met with a wild west style tumbleweed/tense shootout music moment. No amount of Red Bull makes me capable of staying up until 7am, and the exhaustion the next day is intense.
Trying to get your items bagged before the person serving you starts scanning the next person’s is a challenge that is worthy to have been shown on Gladiators. The stress you feel while attempting to shove your items away, paying for them, and getting out the way, is roughly about the same as I imagine I’d feel if being chased by a bear. Yesterday, when shopping, three people were trying to pack their shopping away after having paid, while the cashier began scanning the next person’s. Going to do the shopping is just an intense version of Supermarket Sweep, but only at the checkout, as in the rest of the shop you’re guaranteed to be held up by someone spanning the entire aisle with their trolley, unaware there are about ten people waiting to get past.
Tutting as a general concept doesn’t exist (there isn’t a word for it, so it’s obviously not done if it doesn’t warrant being incorporated into a language), so I’m confused as to what to do when needed to express displeasure at a person’s actions. If I were Spanish enough, I’d probably just tell someone I didn’t like what they were doing, but Brit clammy hands at the idea of speaking to someone I don’t know, let alone reprimanding them, prevent me from doing this.
Aside from being one of my favourite words (look at how many letters there are when all is pronounced is the letter ‘q’!), on another branch of etiquette, the beloved queue is a beast unknown, or at least one that those here are unsure how to tame. I was vaguely surprised to see a queue forming for the bus last time I went back to the UK, before I remembered that that’s how things are done over there. Here, it’s every man for himself. I often end up boarding last due to my ‘no, no, after you’ habits. I must toughen up and barge on in front of pushchair-weilding mothers, and ignore the elderly, if I really want to make it here.
Spaniards tell you how it is, and I respect them for this very much, but I also am not used to being direct with people. The subtle, seemingly polite language used in the UK when expressing disapproval, which everybody but foreigners understands, is something I’ve (quite happily) left behind. Old habits die hard, however, and it’s frustrating that nobody understands that when I begin a sentence with ‘no offence’, the following ideas are supposed to be taken offensively. Or if I ‘respectfully disagree’, nobody understands that I think the person is a fool. Equally, no fights over who must take the last biscuit here would ever break out. The last item on the plate, called ‘la vergonya’ in Catalan (the embarrassment) is taken by whoever wants it, unabashedly. The first time I launched into a ‘no, you take it’ debacle, I was flabbergasted to see they actually took it. Therefore, I can now take the last food item on a plate without feeling deep shame, which is a fantastic feeling.
Even after three years here, I still hate kissing people on both cheeks. A sturdy handshake is favoured, and I am now in the awkward position where, even if I meet one of my own countrymen, I’ll go for the cheeks, leaving us both to wonder what we have been possessed by. I am now in a limbo where I feel bad if I don’t kiss somebody, but I loathe doing it. Going to a party, or a social situation where one must do the rounds and kiss the entire room, makes meeting up with people a nightmare. Ten minutes of kissing is more than I can bear. Stealing away into the night without having to say the typical Spanish/Catalan goodbye is a success story, in my opinion.
These, to name but a few, are some of the things I have most struggled to adjust to. Of course, these things are nothing but trivial, and amusing for the most part. I can imagine if I were to have moved halfway around the world, the culture clash would have been much greater, so I am lucky to only experience such tiny, and oftentimes amusing differences between our cultures. I’d be interested to hear from others living either in Spain, or other countries, what they have found the most difficult to get used to in their day to day life, aside from language and obvious things that separate you from your host country. Ultimately, these differences help me appreciate the country I am living in, and the country I am from, that little bit more.
The world media reported recently that 80% of Catalans voted a strong YES! to the question of being independent. I saw the headline in numerous papers, which surprised me as I have always thought that those behind the broadsheets really put some research and effort into what they put onto the page. The articles did go on to say that this 80% was only a representation of 2.2 million, not the 6 or so that actually live here, but that is by the by. The grabbing was done. Many who simply read the headlines would be inclined to believe the majority of those who live here are solidly sliding a ‘yes’ into the ballot box.
It is impossible to avoid the independent sentiment when living in Barcelona. Even in English classes, arguments are quickly nipped in the bud, through answers of ‘Catalan’, when the students are asked their nationality, and ‘Catalonia’, when asked the name of their country. It takes a great effort for me to stay silent, and swiftly move on. I don’t disagree with their feelings and the strong passion they have, but technically it isn’t a country, as some others in the class have oftentimes felt stirred enough to remind us, demanding to see their classmate’s passport. You can see why I now ask questions relating to MY nationality, or a famous person, rather than bring up the dreaded Catalan/Spanish debate. In an English class, it’s just not necessary.
The streets are festooned with Catalan flags, plastic yellow bows (hang the environment), and proud proclamations of what the householders are voting. It does look pretty to see the red and yellow stripes, especially on a warm summer’s day. I have no problem in seeing people’s pride displayed. It’s just when voices start being misrepresented, not only by the papers abroad, but also by the Spanish government, that I begin to have a problem.
On the 9th of November, an unofficial referendum took place across the region. This referendum had been declared illegal by the Madrid-based government, and attempts to make it lawful were quashed again and again. You can see why Catalans feel nothing but fury towards the government, in what is supposed to be a democracy. They are ignored again and again by those who are supposed to listen and implement change for them. The money they pay in taxes is sent to other parts of the country which are less well off. This is expected, I hear you say – and I agree, but when it gets to the extent that those whose money is being taken are not those who receive, by a long run, then it becomes a problem. Children in other parts of Spain enjoy the advantage of having one computer per child in school. Here, this is certainly not the case. The money is being sent to help less well-off parts of the country, but it needs to be spent in a sensible manner, rather than in such a way that seems to only seek to rile the more wealthy regions. Catalans have held an annual protest on September 11th about these injustices and the right to decide their own future. This year (2014), 2 million people formed a ‘v’, visible from the air, to state their solidarity. In Madrid, and the rest of Spain, it was reported only 100,000 people turned out.
On the 9th of November, 2.2 million people voted in the illegal referendum. I was not one of them. I would very much like to vote. Why didn’t I? Because whilst I agree with the idea that Catalans are not heard and are largely trampled on by the government, I did not see the referendum as ever fairly representing the region. It was organised by a pro-independence institution, and held in schools, rather than officially recognised and government endorsed ballot posts. The weeks running up to the vote, there was no ‘no’ campaign, as there was in Scotland. I only ever saw propaganda relating to the ‘SI-SI’ (Yes-Yes) side. Thousands and thousands of euros were spent on this. I can’t back an election that is biased, nor one that uses money that could be spent on other things instead of producing a skewed vote. In other places, maybe the government would take heed of the millions that stated they wanted independence, but Rajoy (the president of Spain) is stubborn. He will not take the chance – therefore only making things worse. The more you keep people silent, the more they will want to say. Those on the ‘no’ side will change their mind.
I do not agree with those that say the 2.2 million are a representation of the people who would vote in the real election, should one ever be held. I believe the turnout would be as high as it was in Scotland. Some blamed apathy and laziness on the reason for some not ticking the ballot papers – but I doubt something so important, on the day of a genuine election, would be ignored. I want to hear both sides, see what both parties promise me, before I make up my mind. In my view, I feel as if someone followed me around shouting ‘YES’ in my ear for a month, flashing with red and yellow lights so I even thought of Catalonia when I closed my eyes. The arguments are so persuasive it even changed me from a ‘no’ voter for the first half of the vote (Quiere que Catalunya sea un estado? Would you like Catalonia to be a state?), to a ‘yes’.
Artur Mas, the Catalan leader, promises independence within 18 months if he is voted in with a majority in the next local elections. It all seems a bit fishy and tactical. Nowadays, it’s difficult to find such a thing as impartiality, especially in a place such as this, where ‘national’ sentiment is through the roof, to the point I have only seen with illiterate lager louts on St. George’s Day (I’d like to note that those who display such pride, however, here are not made of the same stuff). I can only hope that voices such as mine will be represented should the vote ever be given to the region. A good move to secure more ‘yes’ votes would be to eliminate immigrants from participation. In the meantime, I will continue keeping my head down and my mouth shut, in order not to be dragged into an argument I’ve had a thousand times…and look set never to win.
In the current climate, immigration is an unavoidable topic. As the world seems to get smaller, with people moving more freely and countries in general becoming more diverse, it is bound to come up as a discussion point. However, for me, it seems to be something that people discuss in a more negative manner. I see this particularly reflected on social media and through the Internet, always there to give us the most radical views at the click of a button.
I get compositions handed in from students stating it makes them feel nervous to hear languages they don’t understand spoken on the street, that there are neighbourhoods becoming overrun with immigrants. I have heard this a million times over in the UK – the typical, usual complaint that at one point I thought might have had some truth in it. Being pressured by the news, social media, peers, and general public opinion means you form a one-sided opinion that generally only reflects a small part of the issue.
The message, at least to me, is clear – the word ‘immigrant’ isn’t usually used to describe someone from a wealthy, majority ‘white’ country. Whilst reading what one of my students was writing about immigrants – that they have to get a visa to come here, that they speak their own language in the street, that they take over neighbourhoods, I had to stop myself from writing that I didn’t need a visa to come here, and I was still an immigrant. That I spoke my language in the street, and nobody cared. In fact, they encouraged me to speak in it. They spoke back to me in it. They urged me to speak in it to them, so they could hear me use it, and practise it. I had to fight from writing that large areas in the city have become overrun by English speakers, too, but nobody minds. Nobody cares.
After reading so much about immigration, and hearing so many people complain about what it is doing to their culture, their traditions, and so on, I wanted to write about what it is like to be an immigrant – because it is what I am, even if people don’t seem to want to give me that title.
General Public Opinion #1 – Immigrants Should Learn the Language of the Host Country
I totally agree with this statement. However, I don’t agree with people’s expectations. They seem to think that if a person comes to another country, they should be fluent in the language already and not have any problems with bureaucracy, filling in forms, conversing with the doctor, and all the kinds of things absolutely necessary to become a citizen in the host country. I’ll say this for the UK – I think it is brilliant that they translate government forms and informative leaflets. I don’t think doctors and the like should have to translate, but at least written information can be clear for the reader. The fine print is hard. It’s not translated here, and while I do speak Spanish, I come over weak-kneed when faced with my tax rebate form. I have absolutely no idea what to do with it (Spanish forms are notoriously hard). I’d give up a month’s pay just to have all my forms translated. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to speak the language, it just means I want to understand every little detail.
General Public Opinion #2 – It Unnerves Me to Hear Immigrants Speaking Their Language in the Street
What do you want them to speak to each other in? Can you imagine going home to your parents now, and speaking to them in Czech? Of course not. You can’t change the language you’ve spoken to each other in since day one, and nor should you have to. You want to stop people communicating? As long as they speak to you in the language of your country, why should you care? It doesn’t affect you in the slightest. Learning a language is a slow, complex process. I’m trying very hard, and after three years I still struggle. I speak to my friends in English. I always will. I speak to the Spanish and Catalans in Spanish (something that every Brit expat SHOULD be doing, but that’s another matter). I am not going to switch to incorrect, pidgin Spanish when speaking with my friends just to make you feel that one bit better.
General Public Opinion #3 – Immigrants Take Our Jobs
Immigrants have jobs. This is true. But emigrants also have jobs. All those people that left your country are taking somebody else’s job in another, aren’t they? Or is that different? Immigrants from poorer, more troubled countries, as it were, often take the jobs that people really don’t want to do, and will work at them twice as hard, because why would they want to lose the job that keeps them in the country? A person here once told me they hated the amount of immigration coming in, because the people from other countries were taking jobs away from citizens. That same person employed a Venezuelan nanny. The Venezuelan is obviously the cheaper choice. If you really believe that statement, then pay a little more and employ a Spaniard or Catalan – who won’t do the same job for the same price.
General Public Opinion #4 – Immigrants Cause More Crime
Sure, where there’s poverty, there’s a greater likelihood of criminal activity. The poorest of our communities are often the most desperate (but not always). This statement looks at things in the most basic manner. What about the people who steal from the government? You know, those rich people who bank offshore in order to avoid tax? The worst part of that is that it’s legal. An immigrant steals a wallet and the public clamour for justice, to send these people away. The people born and raised in the country are often stealing from you, but they’re just doing it in a way that’s more difficult to condemn. What about all the university students who took out big student loans and then don’t inform the government where they are, or what they earn, in order to avoid paying it back? Good on you mate, you take what’s yours! It isn’t yours – I’m not saying I agree with it either way, but people do this all the time, and it’s cheating somebody somewhere. You just can’t see it directly in front of you, so you don’t care.
There are so many things that can be argued back and forth across this topic. I simply wanted to give people a taste of what I feel as a person in another country, and hope that you will see my point of view as an ‘immigrant’. Before we criticise, we should put ourselves in their shoes, weigh up all the pros and cons, and not jump on the scapegoating bandwagon, which generally looks at things at face value. Consider what you would do in their position. Consider how you would feel in another country. Consider the facts and figures, before jumping to wild conclusions. Hopefully that way, we’ll begin to actually listen instead of giving a knee-jerk reaction to our sentiments on immigration.
Having lived here for over two years now, it is only natural that I happen to have a Catalan boyfriend. I never once imagined I would find myself in a relationship with someone from another country, let alone be IN that country itself, but what I wanted to explain was how we function, or at least, attempt to. I obviously have seen international partnerships, even lived with one, in my first year here, but I had yet to experience how it was to spend a rather large amount of time with someone who (frankly) didn’t really speak my language, never mind let myself fall for them.
My Spanish has come along in leaps and bounds during the last year. Being with someone who doesn’t speak much English, and not allowing myself to fall back on it has come in very useful, particularly for my grammar, which has always been atrocious (largely thanks to actually learning Spanish grammar being atrociously difficult…subjunctive, anyone?). I learn more and more every day, and surprise myself by coming out with conjugations I either didn’t know, or had just half-guessed at, and turned out to be right. One thing I never wanted to be was someone’s student, and I always thought that being with someone from another country would prove difficult in the sense that you wouldn’t want to be taught all the time, in order to actually be able to communicate with that person. There is that awful cliché that tells us we don’t need to be able to speak perfectly to understand the language of love (oh, please), but I think there is only a certain amount of truth in that. My ability to communicate in another language isn’t altogether bad, but I always start to unravel when I have to explain anything which goes above the daily grind, which causes me to think in tenses that are a little more difficult. You obviously must have some basic knowledge of the language to be able to relate yourself, your being, to another person, and for them to appreciate that and understand it. I never felt myself in Spanish, because I’m largely quite expressive, and I just don’t have the vocabulary to be that person in another language.
However, I feel like I’ve formed a different version of myself, that isn’t really that different, but different enough to be noticeable when I speak to my boyfriend, who knows ‘me’ so well. We spend a lot of time together, so of course he knows my stories, knows my little mannerisms, incredibly well, but speech gives us so much of ourselves, shapes our personality, that the difference is strikingly obvious when I talk to my English-speaking friends in front of him. The first time we went on one of our dates and I was told to speak English that night, by the end he told me I seemed a completely different person. One he liked, but one he had never seen. As I grow with Spanish, I become more and more myself, but I cannot truly do so, because of those moments where I have to stop and pause, I search for the word, or I genuinely can’t explain something that is a very important belief of mine, a momentous occasion, a particularly memorable childhood story.
How is it that language shapes us so? Maybe many would argue with me, tell me that cliché is true, a person loves a person, not the way they speak or the way they express themselves; but I can’t entirely agree. Sure, we can know that the person is good, the person is kind, but you need to have that degree of human, level-minded communication. I know I’d go mad if I couldn’t have that.
I have never been happier. I live in a fantastic city, I love my job, and to speak candidly, I am finally in a place where I can say I’ve been lucky in love – but I am not my true, whole self with this person. I very much like my Spanish-self. She’s funny, interesting, a little silly and stupid; but this is because she has to be, to provide entertainment which is lacking without an ability to make puns, jokes, spin great comedic stories. She’s clever, but clumsy in the way that she speaks, because she can’t find the words to express what she feels. But that part is understood. Although I cannot express my true self, here is where I think the cliché holds true: others can see what we really want to say, what is really underneath – it is only lack of knowledge in a language that doesn’t permit me to do this. That said, one needs so much more than just awareness of another’s personality to truly love them.
I wonder what other international pairings feel about this. I do not read so much about what it was like for them, only soppy love stories of feelings conquering all language barriers, but I would like the nitty-gritty, the deep, real detail. I often imagine what it is like for couples who speak two very different languages, so spoke in English when they first met to communicate; was it frustrating for both of them? Or is it a gift for us, that we slowly get to unfurl ourselves to another person, giving piece by piece of information slowly as we learn how to do so, instead of having that ability to let the other know all about our innermost thoughts and emotions? I had the difficult side; the one speaking in another language all the time. However, doesn’t that mean he has to be the patient one?
I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m learning, and growing with this person, not only in personality, as we all do, but also in language skills. The time will come when I can return the favour in English, We are giving each other so much more than just company and enjoyment. We are earning life skills and making the most of them together. And, the best part really is, that when arguments arise, at least we can both just pretend it was because we just didn’t understand what was being said…
I’ve been sick for a while recently, what with a root canal and needing three fillings, topped off with a throat infection, and then finally a standard season-change cold. I then finally fell prey to what La Rambla is famous for here (pickpockets), and had my phone stolen, although I’m not really surprised, as I’ve been pretty lucky to keep all personal possessions in check for almost two years now. For this, I haven’t felt too inspired recently, even though there have been a few things I’ve wanted to write about. So, finally, when it’s a beautiful, sunny day off for me, I’m going to sit inside my stuffy room and write rather than go and enjoy those rays. What in the Spanish has got into me?
Our school has had a different sort of week, what with the bank holiday in the middle of it; normally if there’s a bank holiday set at that time, people don’t come to classes the day after, so they were all cancelled, and instead we ran some different activities. Seminars, and the purpose of my writing; conversation classes. Running from the lower levels to the higher, and separated into two, we casually chatted with students rather than being in our usual positions behind a high table. Time and time again people clamour for conversational English; really wanting to practice. We were provided with certain topics to discuss, and certain ones to avoid (Catalan independence being a big no-no, for example). Time and time again, we diverted from the original topics to differences between our two nations.
You simply can’t avoid it. We try and try to find common ground, and whilst on the surface we’re all the same, and just people all in a society together, the basic differences and the subtle cultural changes always crop up. From living here for over a year now, I think I’ve managed to gauge an idea of what the Spanish see as the typical Brit. Now, it’s not scientific, nor do I pretend to be highly accurate, or intend on offending anyone, but my findings are as follows:
1. People in the United Kingdom have no idea what a vegetable is.
You may think I am exaggerating this point for humour. Please think again. This is almost a direct quote from a student yesterday, who told me that supermarkets in London did not contain vegetables. I’d really like to know a) which supermarkets she went to and b) if she visited each supermarket in the Greater London area. Naturally, I disputed this idea, but after being asked where I was from (the North of England), it was decided by general consensus that I was not the authority on London, despite having a brother living there, and having visited there multiple times more than they all had.
I am so sick of the idea that we don’t have any clue about cooking, and that the Mediterranean diet is the best in the world. I love the food here. But it can’t hold a candle to a good Indian dish. I’m hoping as immigration increases here, so will awareness of other food and cultural delicacies. I can’t find a great deal of stuff that I use to cook with in the UK, which is such a pity as I really think a nation which prides itself on its food should be more accepting of importing other foodstuffs rather than sticking with the staples. I call on you, Spain, to start selling more than one type of cream, proper fresh milk as standard, have more variety of winter fruits, and have the bog standard ingredients for a chicken korma on hand in the supermarkets. Then tell me the English don’t know cooking.
2. British people have no concept of a life of sun and believe that Spain is practically The Caribbean in comparison to their own dreary climate.
As it rains in Britain every day of the year (except for maybe one day in August, and that memorable time at twelve o’clock last Saturday), Brits are impervious to rain. We mustn’t notice it. It is just like white noise for us. We should probably be out gallivanting in the streets the moment a downpour shows itself. I hate rain. Everybody hates rain. It makes my shoes wet. It makes me look like a crazy Einstein with a finger in a socket. My washing doesn’t dry. I have the same feelings as the Spaniards about this weather…but no, no, no; when it’s raining I can’t complain; when it’s cold I can’t shiver, because I should be ‘accustomed’ to it.
It’s actually colder in winter here than it is at home…
3. People in the United Kingdom are incredibly polite and friendly (when on their own turf).
4. We drink an awful lot and are lairy, loud, and irritating when on holiday.
I am inclined to agree. When drinking with Spaniards, I pace myself much more. I went out recently and lined up the shot of Jaeger with a glass next to it, dash of Red Bull at the ready. In I dropped the alcohol, and one, two, three, down the hatch. One go. My companions, on the other hand, struggled to do it in one. More like in three. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, by the way. I don’t class it as a talent to down-in-one one part Jaeger two parts Red Bull. This said, it’s something most university students, and indeed twenty-somethings, have down pat. The culture here is much more relaxed as regards drinking. I genuinely think they drink more than we do; the difference is the speed. Your average holidaymaker here drinks in the space of an hour what a native here drinks over five hours, or the whole evening. No wonder the seaside resorts are full of idiots hurling themselves into pools from balconies, and getting tattoos on their bum cheeks. No wonder the residents have this idea of us.
5. We look like lobsters the minute we step onto a beach.
100% true. Even worse for the Irish.
6. British women wear a lot of make up and wear very little clothing.
7. We’re all fat.
Again, I’m going to find it hard to dispute this one. Well, I don’t really want to. Obesity rates in the UK are shocking, and I’d really rather this stereotype wasn’t true, but it is. However, I would like to say that it isn’t because we cook everything in butter (because we don’t…I like my vegetable oil, thanks). I think it has more to do with our more commercial-centred and less family-orientated society, and availability of fast food, plus abject laziness.
I’m worried for Spain, though – the amount of sugar they eat here surprises me, especially for such a ‘healthy’ country. Having lived with families of the country for a while, I saw it was commonplace for a child to have hot chocolate (like Nesquik) every single morning. To me, that’s already too much. But then, I wouldn’t give my kids the standard UHT milk they get here, it tastes far too synthetic and horrible. I’d have to spend more and get the fresh milk, which you can find here, but it’s not so common. Hot chocolate is often drunk with cereal in, and many children have biscuits for breakfast, which I find absolutely ridiculous and not at all a substitute for a healthy brekky. People who give their children biscuits for breakfast in the UK, are to the best of my knowledge, not seen as the shining examples of parenting. The sugar levels must make these kids, who already have to study absolutely ridiculous amounts, go completely berserk by 9:30am. The morning break usually consists of a croissant, or more biscuits, and in some cases a sandwich (which I’m sure would make a better breakfast, but what do I know…). A yoghurt can’t be eaten without ten spoons of sugar added to it. What happened to the nice, fresh taste of natural yoghurt? I’m shunned like a leper when I tell people I really don’t want extra sugar, or, in fact, any, thanks.
I sound like I’m being incredibly rude about a country where I’ve chosen to go and live, and has been very good to me so far. I’m not; I promise. There are so many good things here. I just want to defend a few points that are so often said about us and our silly little nation; mostly for the purposes of humour, and to see if any of my fellow countrymen will nod their heads along with what I say, as may some foreigners.
I’ve said many a time why I love it here, and I promise I’ll sing Catalonia’s praises next time; providing no more pickpockets take advantage of me, and illness doesn’t plague me any longer, so I can start to go out and enjoy the wonderful weather.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into one of Willy Wonka’s eclectic dreams should you visit the seaside town of Vilanova i la Geltrú come Carnaval weekend. Late afternoon and forgotten sweet wrappers litter the floor, men dance around in traditional hats that wouldn’t look out of place on a garden gnome, and women wave shawls above their head, shouting in jubilation. What’s this all about?
Les Comparses, of uncertain history, perhaps originated in Italy, but nobody’s really sure; and I can’t unearth anything myself. This Sunday festival is the pinnacle of Carnival celebration in Catalonia; it’s completely unique, and an utter spectacle to see. You must be invited to attend, as it is a couples’ celebration, and all must be in ‘parells’ (pairs). All couples gather in various bands throughout the town, each belonging to their own group which sports a specific colour, pattern, or design, for the men’s traditional costume. Men wear suit-jackets and a ‘barretina’, which is the aforementioned hat, traditional throughout Catalonia. Men also carry a large square of cloth, fashioned into a bag, which holds a large quantity of brightly coloured sweets (we’ll get to that later). Most of the women are dressed similarly, in a flowered shawl and skirt. They wear a flower in their hair which may also correspond to the individual group’s colour scheme. Some 8,000 people take part in the celebration, and come 9AM in the morning, all couples are gathered in their meeting-places, sipping the first beer can of the morning, and getting into the festive spirit.
I was lucky enough to be invited this year, and I’m so glad to have been part; watching from the sidelines, as many tourists and locals alike do, just wouldn’t have been the same. We gathered outside the bar, our meeting point, ready for the ‘bandera’ (flag) to lead our procession, waving it through the small streets of the town. As the flag leaves, the flag-bearer following the designated route, the couples link arms and skip along the streets, most clinging onto a can of Estrella or San Miguel as well as their partner. The procession weaves into squares and small streets, and out come those sweets, being thrown at passers-by, onlookers on balconies, and members of other parading bands (or just your partner’s face and friends, even if it is forbidden to throw them into ‘la cara’). Skipping through the streets continues throughout most of the day, stopping at participating bars to grab more beer, or something stronger, and the bands continue on, growing merrier and merrier as the day passes.
I’m not altogether sure why the sweets are thrown, but as more and more tiny weapons are hurled into the air, the floor becomes a sticky mess of wrappers and trodden-in caramels or bonbons. A sugary film covers the tiles in the plazas, and the participants’ shoes become sweetie high-heels, papers and big lumps of sticky boiled God-knows-whats attached to the bottom. The more you drink, the less disgusting it feels, and you begin to forget. It’s all part of the fun, anyway, and it’s worth launching mini-missiles for a few hours of feet discomfort.
The processions finally lead their way to the Placa de la Vila, where the anticipated event takes to place: the big sweet war. Here, we wait patiently, crammed into each other, accompanied with the sounds of the marching bands that have played along with us all day, and loud shouts of ‘In-de-pen-den-cia’, which often, understandably at Catalan celebrations, is heard at large gatherings. Finally, the great event commences, and we all proceed into the square, circling it, skipping together still, the girls swinging their shawls, and the boys clinging on to their remaining sweetie-stash. A countdown is begun, and a grand roar goes up upon zero, as the girls run to the side of the square, desperately covering their faces and heads with their shawls, huddling together, and the boys lob sweets at each other, high in the sky, until their bag is empty. It’s quite a spectacle to be seen. After all the sweets are thrown, the groups dance and celebrate in the square, drinking, continuing the merriment, and posing for pictures.
I had seen pictures and videos beforehand of the event, but it’s true that it really didn’t prepare me for this rare experience, that comes but once a year. I’m lucky to have taken part, and hope I’m fortunate enough to be able to participate again in the future. I would suggest to anyone to go and see this utter spectacle; you really won’t be able to believe your eyes, as my words can’t capture this beautiful tradition as well as the experience can.