“So how is Spain?” our friends in Paris asked us all summer. And I didn’t really know what to tell them. To be brutally frank, changing nappies in Spain is quite a lot like changing nappies in Beirut or in Paris. This year will not be the year of discovering Andalucia’s charms. In fact, we did far more of that in just a fortnight, pre-kids, than we have in the ten months we’ve been living here. Hopefully we’ll be freer to do more soon. But apart from this being that awkward stage of family life where naps and bibs and accidents make staying out all day long more trouble than it’s worth, there’s another reason I find that question hard to answer.
When we decided to move back to Europe, one of the reasons we chose southern Spain was that it struck a neat compromise between proximity to family in Western Europe on one hand, and on the other the Mediterranean feel we so loved in Beirut. Spain’s easy ways, good weather and outdoors culture (which will always be ‘plastic chair’ culture in my head) have a lot in common with Lebanon. The summer heat, the home cooking, the way the mountains rise up just behind the coastal towns. People take their kids to work when school is closed, stay out late into the night with them in summer, and view customers with kids as normal, not a nuisance. Just like Lebanon.
On the other hand, I am surrounded by more English people than I ever have been ever since I left the UK 13 years ago. English is spoken in the street everywhere, especially near the beach. I overhear chatter about ‘council tax’, the NHS, fish and chips, cheap beer. Then there are the expressions that I haven’t heard in years too, that remind me of my Granddad. In places where my poor Spanish won’t suffice, important matters at the bank and at the doctor can be discussed in English. I haven’t spoken my mother tongue to a doctor or banker abroad ever. Except three words during labour and he wasn’t listening anyway.
I don’t really aspire to living in “England in the sun”, so I’m very grateful that there are also many people here who don’t speak any English which gives me the chance and the motivation to keep practising my Spanish. But it definitely isn’t the most foreign place to live. Coming from Beirut it feels extremely tame. The consensus among the English here is that the Spanish are terrible on the road. Personally I haven’t noticed a thing so I guess I must be terrible by now too, though I do indicate a lot which is very un-Lebanese. I don’t reverse on the highway either. I don’t run red lights. I’m doing alright, aren’t I?
So how is Spain? Well it’s a bit like Beirut and a bit like Britain. And a bit like Morocco and a bit like France. You get the idea.