Blogging has been tough lately. I read about Spain and the posts are mostly about food experiences, or “oh, Spain is so pretty and shiny”, or “Spain is going down faster than a $2 hooker”. What does someone like me, who stands in the middle, post about without sounding like a whiner? It’s impossible.
A not-so typical holiday snap
I’ve made mistakes in the past, and I’m the first to admit that. Fortunately, Spain is a place that allows people to make mistakes and move on. I once had the opportunity to spend a few years living in Spain, and get to experience being an expat in a country where few of my countrymen and women go to live life abroad. So, when I found myself with the opportunity to have the chance to go back to Spain purely as a tourist, I thought that would be a piece of cake. Turns out I was very wrong.
I first went to Spain in 2005, and landed in Valencia on a hot summer day. After the tidiness of the airport in Auckland, the ruthless chaos of San Francisco, the soulless efficiency of Munich, (the then) basic and dilapidated airport was a real sight. I joked to my husband that it was the kind of the place you expected to see live chickens in cages moving along on the luggage carousel. Imagine the laughter when we heard the call of a rooster only moments later – it turned out to be the ringtone on the phone of our friend who had come to pick us up. With suitcases, prams, portable cots and many other baby items, myself, hubby, and our one-year-old and newborn sons got to see Spain for the first time. Lucky I was 24 and had the exuberance of youth on my side; because after Spanair broke my $1000 double pram, my mood wasn’t terrific. I met another friend at the hotel, who said I could get straight into flamenco classes. Bless him, he had only been in Spain a few months himself, and still full of the joys of expat life in Spain. Of course, Spain wasn’t full of flamenco and sangria – it was real life instead.
How many friends can fit in one photo for a magazine shoot? Which magazine? Gente in Italy, I think. Don’t quote me
After my complicated permit to live in Spain was revoked in late 2007, I had only just got the hang of Spanish life. There is a beauty of living abroad; you get the reality of living there, combined with only having to take on the customs you choose. You can understand the place, but not be weighed down with a lifetime of expectations or stereotypes. Expats can really live it up; life is filled to the brim with experiences, trips are taken, foods are tasted, wines flow freely, friends are made, and rose-tinted glasses can get you a long way. You also have reality to pull your head from the expat clouds – your health insurance is a constant drama, your language skills always need work, if your gas stops working you know you will wait two weeks for the repair guy to show up, and visiting the bank is an exercise in endurance. Don’t get me started on the hassle of registering a birth of a baby that has foreign parents, and was born in the Alacant region, not the Valencia region, so you need to blah, blah, blah.
Expat odd moment – because everyone has given money to a billionaire while he wears your homemade apron, that happens all the time
What I learned is that I couldn’t trust anyone in Spain, because as with living there or being a tourist, no two people experienced the country in the same way. One week after I arrived in Valencia, I shared a lift ride with an American woman. Turned out we were going to visit the same friend. Her husband and my husband had come to Spain for the same jobs, and she had been in Spain for several months. She asked me how long I had been in Valencia, and I said one week. Her reply – “give it two weeks before you decide you hate Spain. Everyone hates it, but give it at least two weeks”. (SERIOUSLY – to this day, we still laugh about that). How does that advice help me learn about Spain? It doesn’t. I suspect the reason her husband was a cheat was because he got sick of her complaining. I lived in a community that left me surrounded by expats from many different nations, due to the reason I went to Spain (it was the America’s Cup, that may mean something, it may not. Your call). I had the best of everything in Spain and felt no need to apologise for that. I loved my life there. However, the bubble I existed in was not Spain, it was a lie. It got to the point where many people had no idea about the place, hated so many things and formed a comfort zone around themselves, until we could leave again (note – that’s a generalisation, some people are amazing friends with open minds and hearts). One guy took years to go into Valencia’s old town and then went to the Mercado Central, and had to panic call a friend to rescue him. The notion of Spaniards, speaking Spanish and buying fresh food freaked him out because it wasn’t like home. True story.
I’ll pass, thanks
About a year into my adventure, two friends were talking. One said “should we go to (insert generic closed down bar here)”, and the other said, “no way, it’s always full of whining Aussies and Kiwis.” Ouch. I felt relieved to have never gone there. It burst the expat bubble with spectacular success. When I left Spain, I thought I had built up a realistic opinion of the country. To understand the nation and the culture, I studied the history. I grew to understand the politics and the origins of customs (alas, the freedom of time!). I left Spain with double the number of children I started with, and that in itself opens the eyes. An expert on the place? Hell no, it takes far longer to fully understand Spain. It was never my intention to stay away from Spain, but more important things came my way.
Fast forward six years, far more study, novels written and passionate debates abound, I decided to go to Spain for a few weeks just to help me out with writing, to see friends and soak up the ambiance, which I knew had changed remarkably in my absence. So, would it be easier to be a tourist, after knowing so much about the country? This time, would it be all sangria and sunburn? Nope. I fear knowing Spain well only made it harder.
Valencian manhole cover – as you do
This is why I can’t trust anyone in Spain, because no two people see Spain in quite the same way. If you’re from the UK or Europe, a trip to Spain sounds like nothing much. Everyone does it, all the time. Most go to the same few places, like the Brit and German invasion of the beaches (I hate the beach). I couldn’t read guide books before my trip because a) they suck, and b) I wouldn’t learn anything. After booking my trip, my enthusiasm plummeted. Had I shot my own holiday in the foot faster than King Juan Carlos can take aim at an elephant or family member? But, as I did when I lived in Spain, I decided to grab the opportunity and shake it until its balls hurt. No time-wasting for me!
Talk about mixed feelings. One morning was spent on a tour to El Escorial (yes, a organised tour group – don’t hate me, I’ve done enough self-loathing for us both) and those on the trip seemed to have a good time. They felt like they were educated and saw all the sights. I felt rushed and given info I already knew.
Toledo – you will have to hold a gun to my head to make me visit again. I imagined the battle for the Alcazar during the civil war, but all you will find there are tour groups led around by disinterested chain-smoking guides who don’t take you to the best sights. But who decided which are the best sights? That’s the trouble, the Spain I know and want to see and that of others are totally different. I remembered that piece of my own advice and carried on alone.
All I could hear was the sound the customs officer would make as he had a heart attack upon my return home
Avíla and Segovia – two places I don’t know well. I met up with a gay couple and a lovely English woman, all on a getaway from work and we had a good day out. Was it Spain, or the people I met? The people and the upbeat attitude.
Barcelona – I felt conflicted the entire time. I went out one evening and had laughs with friends and had a good time. Was trying cheese the highlight? No, it was getting an evil glare of a balaclava covered riot policeman outside the town hall building during a protest. Some people don’t put that in their holiday scrapbook, but I thought it was awesome (until the batons appeared). I was relating to the angry mob who are upset at the state of Catalonia. I got to tour civil war Barcelona and feel like I had received a meaningful connection to a city, but got plunged straight back into Americans complaining outside Starbucks that the coffee doesn’t taste like it does at home. (Tip – YOU’RE NOT AT HOME) But then, many don’t give a toss about the history of Barcelona, so who is right and who is wrong? No one.
Romantic postcard image meets reality of living here
Madrid – I wanted to see a bit of civil war-ness and the weather thwarted me. There is still the park, the art museums and the hell that is Gran Via to see, but I didn’t want any of them, though I wandered briefly for specific paintings. I popped into the Dalí exhibit at the Reina Sofia and got crushed by tourists, but then went to their civil war exhibit and had the place to myself (happy dance time). Many other people did enjoy the Prado et al, though. But, the city redeemed itself, in the people I met there. You gain more Spain-ness in a ten minute chat at a bullfight with a guy named Emilio than you can standing in the Prado (Disclaimer, I have ‘done’ the Prado in the past, so whip me with the tourist cane again). I see the Prado paintings and think of them being smuggled to safety during the war and how half a million refugees in France were left to freeze and die while paintings were covered and warm. Does anyone else care? Maybe, maybe not.
Valencia – finally a place where I could breathe! Familiarity with the world’s greatest little city makes a holiday. But do you gain anything out of sangria in a cheap restaurant with English-speaking waiters? So people might, but I didn’t. People flock to the Arts and Sciences, and it’s great, but I feel like I’ve only seen the city when I see a couple kissing in the park (wow, that sounds pervy). Showing a Valencia tourist around the city makes me want to cut my eyes out, but standing at the baseball field watching a portable cricket pitch being set up feels like a good way to spend an afternoon. If I recommend that as a sight to see, people would think me mad.
Easy little streets to navigate. And by easy, I mean you will never get anything delivered – ever
Cuenca and Teruel – I didn’t give either of these places enough credit. I just didn’t want to visit (is that awful?) I might try Teruel again (with the right people) while meandering out in Awesome Aragon, but Cuenca? No way.
See what I’m saying? You can’t trust anyone in Spain. No two people can see it the same. I went there with no expectation, and found it hard to dig through the shiny veneer of tourism to find what I felt would make a successful holiday. Every time I sipped a sangria, I felt like I had let myself down (because I don’t like it much, a bit meh. Don’t worry, I tried plenty of other drinks too. No glass went undiscovered).
See? I visited the craft beers, like any good tourist
I Spain I loved –
Buying hairspray at the Mercadona where I used to go food shopping
Sipping wine in Cuenca
Imagining fascist troops in Teruel
Standing the summit sign at L’Oronet
Getting evil looks for talking about Franco in Madrid
Laughing with a maid because we couldn’t get a door open
Taking the No. 19 bus in Valencia
Paying for an umbrella in a Madrid junk shop
The young guy named Carlos at the Cuenca tourist office. He got to try his English, I got five minutes company in an otherwise dull excursion
The Spain I hated –
People who ignore the ‘no photos’ rule! It’s not there to ruin your holiday, they have a reason!
How much Valencia has changed (total foreigner nostalgia moan right here!)
Barcelona – I failed to have anything in common with the place (and I tried!) Though, El Raval was nice
Driving anywhere (and I was only the passenger! Should have gone by train)
Walking around Madrid (the place seems so down on itself these days) Wander Lavapies to wipe out this feeling
Not finding the right mix of alone time and time with friends (yes, my own fault)
The fact my old Valencian neighbourhood is not only devoid of my family and friends, but devoid of all life and soul (thought I was on the scene of a zombie movie!)
English menus (who orders the ironed sepia?)
Complaints from others about Spain (yep, I’m complaining about complaining)
Oh, it’s that time yet again
I can’t trust anyone in Spain, because they won’t see the place like I do. By that theory, no one can trust my opinion either! You will just have to go and experience it for yourself! Will I go again? Hell yeah, I have no doubt about that. The beauty is, I have the power improve my Spain experience every time I visit, because the country gives so much choice. However you enjoy Spain, all power to you. Pick your holiday companions carefully, because if they see it totally different, you could find frustration under every tapa. A civil war researcher and heavy on the political and economic conversationalist like me can’t enjoy Spain with tea-sipping, bullfight and flamenco inquisitor with the dream of Spanish romance in the orange groves. Lucky Spain is big enough for all of us!
When the everyday places are this beautiful, who cares who is right and wrong?
Up next… back to serious posts… Teruel and the back roads of Valencia and Aragon
Click here to see previous posts in the series – Spain 2013 in Review