“But why do you want to live in Spain?” is perhaps the most frequent question I am asked, and perhaps the easiest and the hardest I find to answer.
The easiest because Spain is where I have wished to live for many years, ever since I first visited it, and long before it ever became practical. The easy answer is therefore, “Simply because that is where I want to live.” But that is no real answer to, “Why Spain?”
The hardest because the reasons are deep and intangible, almost beyond words and founded on emotions and feelings. I can recite standard phrases such as “the weather”, “the people”, “the attitudes”, “the food”, “the laissez-faire attitude” and so on, and whilst it may all be true, none are fully the reason.
When asked, “Why not France?” or, “Why not Germany?” or some other country it is easier to answer. The French I find unfriendly, suspicious, morose, secretive and Anglophobic. I would not like to live amongst them. They become more acceptable as you travel south, as they become more latinised, but if that is so then why stay in France? Spain or Italy become better more obvious choices. The Germens, amongst whom I have many friends, are too like ourselves, only more so! More dogmatic and regimented, more festooned by controls and regulations. Better to stay at home than live there. Italy I do not know and have never thought about, although my daughter goes there every year. It could be just as acceptable as Spain but I just do not know or have the inclination to find out at present. Mañana perhaps.
My early pre-visions of Spain, before my first visit, were laid, as can perhaps be seen by the memories of my early recollections that follow, by the pen of Laurie Lee. Poet, lover of Spain and all things Spanish, he paints a haunting picture of the contrasts of the country. The violent passions, the spontaneous gaiety, the beautiful and the ugly, the richness and the poverty, all are there in his writing. His pictures of the people, the countryside, the weather, all made me a Hispanophile long before I set foot on Spanish soil. My first visit to Spain, in actuality, was in 1974, at the age of forty, which was significantly the year before the death of General Francisco Franco Bahamonde better known as simply Franco. As a good left wing radical I had resisted visiting Spain, despite my growing fascination with the country, and although already ensnared by the elusive tentacles pulling me there. But by 1974 all was changing, the end of Franco was obviously near and new ways were already in the air. The future King, Juan Carlos, was in the wings, patiently waiting his time. Times and things were changing and old taboos slackening. So in 1974 I spent ten days touring part of northern Spain on a 175 Honda motorbike with my first wife. The following year we went back with three of our children for a longer period in a Bedford van. Driving through France we entered the north east of Spain above Barcelona, spent some time by the Mediterranean then crossed the width of the country to the Bay of Biscay and so back into France at Irún.
The country was all I had dreamed it to be, the feel was right. Some instances......
Once when staying with friends in a high rise block of flats in Bilbao, their milk was delivered in large churns carried on mules, and poured out into jugs. In the countryside mules and bullocks worked the fields, as they still do in the area I now live in.
One night in a small village miles from anywhere I met up with two farm labourers who spoke no English to my no Spanish, despite this we went on a bar crawl meeting up with on the way a Spaniard who had lived in America, who came along as interpreter. We drank Spanish brandy all night, a far superior drink to the French brandy in my opinion, and they would not allow me to buy a round. I was their guest, it was one of my first experiences of Spanish hospitality. The session finished at 3 am, when we were thrown, gently and apologetically, out of the last bar open in the pueblo.
I tasted tapas for the first time in Bilbao where it is renowned. Not the plastic tapas of the Costas, but real Spanish snacks in small bodegas and bars far from the crowded beaches of tourist Spain. In fact it was after many years and many visits to Spain before I finally experienced a popular holiday coastal area and saw that side of the country.
But in those early visits it was all there to see and savour; the richness and poverty; the splendour and corruption; the hot dusty roads; the cool dark churches; the dry brown countryside; the green bubbling fountains; the still hated Guardia Civil in their tricolour hats (now only seen with dress uniform); the hospitality and friendship of casual acquaintances; the maddening slow bureaucracy; the tumultuous fiestas; the easy going way of life and the sombre contrast of the Mass.
Nowadays Spain is a more settled and a more predictable country, at least on the surface. No longer are the contrasts so apparent. A member of the EEC, all is now politically stable and quiet. But underneath there are still the same currents, and the nature of the people has not changed, how could it after centuries of formation? The hospitality is the same as is the lack of respect for rules and the tendency to anarchy and the ‘mañana’ factor.
On the other side is what Spain is not. Unlike England, money and economics are not the first priority. Does it pay? Is it profitable? Can we or the country afford it? These are not the first priorities. It is not a bland, uniform, regulated country as England has become. lt is not a country where food is ruined by absurd public health rules, life style flattened by overzealous, over powerful, self important and often ignorant public officials of all kinds. It is not a country riddled by class and social barriers, not a country where neighbours do not know or care for each other, or where children are not safe on the streets. Despite the diet of misinformation fed to the English by mendacious politicians, the Spanish standard of living is not low. The cost of living is certainly lower than the English one, there are certainly the same problems of unemployment and poverty, but the Spanish health service is better, their pensions higher, their life style generally healthier and people are happier. The Spanish smile more, talk to strangers, are extremely hospitable, they are freer and, away from the Costas, have less crime.
All this may not answer the question, “Why Spain?” lt may just be a confusion of thoughts and feelings, but that is I am afraid why it is Spain for me, European but not of Europe fully, full of Moorish undertones. The shining jewel of the EEC with a coating of dust is how I see Spain. And if it were not Spain it would have to be Guatemala or Argentina or Peru, and Wendy would not agree to living there at all!