Spain is medieval while being ineffably modern – that’s why I live there

7 mn read

Spain has been my second home since the 1970s, so, for me, moving here in 2019 was a no brainer. I’d say it has felt far more like home to me since 1973 than Britain has. We emigrated to Nairobi when I was 10, then Spain when I was 12. I had not expected to return to the UK when I was 15, and pretty much always felt like a fish out of water after that there. I’d become ‘foreign’ and no amount of trying to fit in, losing my tan, chopping off my long wavy, sun-bleached hair, learning the lingo (‘alright?’ has to be responded to with ‘alright’, not ‘yes’), could really disguise my ‘otherness’.

I moved to Spain again a year before the pandemic landed and just under a year before Brexit hit, so it’s been ‘interesting’. I came here with my partner but had no unrealistic expectations about the likely longevity of our relationship. I thought we could enjoy some time together in this beautiful country but that went pear-shaped straight away as he imagined he had more power, legally, than he did and started to be obnoxious to an intolerable level rather than manageably obnoxious some of the time. After a while, I recommended he return to the UK and he did, which was a huge relief.

I had intermediate level Spanish which stayed at that level because it was impossible to really practice other than during my twice weekly classes during the two years of pandemic lockdowns and relative isolation. It is steadily improving now that I can socialize and take weekly art classes. Learning Spanish before moving to Spain is both essential, and a courtesy to the people of the country in which I am a guest. The thing is that I love Spain with a deep passion and have the need and drive to familiarise myself with the language and culture as deeply as possible.

I moved to a Sevillan pueblo, an Andalucían white town of 18,000 people, mostly Spanish, with a scattering of Brits, Moroccans, Germans, Chinese (they run the huge shops which sell everything from batteries, to slippers, to Christmas decorations, to electrical goods – rather like Woollies, or Woolworths, used to in the UK), French, and Ukrainians amongst others.

But it’s about as undiluted and authentic a Sevillan town as you can get, with a large population of much respected Gitanos, or Gypsies. We are just, today as I write, entering Feria time, meaning shops close, banks close, cafes and restaurants close because the entire world and her husband are at the Feria from tonight (when the lights of the event are switched on by our lady mayor at 10:30 pm) until Monday. It ends on Sunday but everyone will be recovering on Monday so it’s also a holiday, very civilized! Like everything here, heart, soul, funds, work, creativity and spirit will have gone into concocting a celebration for everyone from the smallest child to the very most elderly to enjoy. It will be a blast and then next week we will pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and be back to our normal routines, with such revelry becoming a memory and the pleasant thought that next year, we’ll do it all over again!

I already knew about the magic of Spain. We lived here 1973 to 1976 when I was an impressionable young teenager. The smells more than anything else are ‘home’…dark tobacco, the baked earth, certain perfumed cleaning products, herbs ground underfoot in the countryside, cologne, paella cooking. But I did not know just how magical it was going to be, to be wrapped in this blanket of pleasant routine (coffee and toast for breakfast at the local café 3 minutes away), warmth, friendliness, and a certain kind of pleasing etiquette. ‘Buen día’ or ‘Bueno(s) dia(s)’ in the morning for and from everyone; ‘Buenas tardes’ in the afternoon; and ‘Buenas noches’ at night.

Spanish life, institutions, towns, municipalities, entertainments, are exceptionally well organized. Never mind the Germans or Austrians having everything ‘running like clockwork’, they’re not a patch on the Spanish. This can be disconcerting for foreigners, but this isn’t an ‘advice’ piece, it’s a descriptive one. There are many Facebook groups for figuring out practicalities.

I meet people here who rather proudly tell me how much they detest flamenco, how they really couldn’t manage to learn the language, how much poor workmanship goes into Spanish this that and the other. Truly if you have a colonial mentality, if you are not prepared to love, respect, and cherish Spanish culture, people, language and mores, then do feel very free to choose another country to emigrate to, or, here’s a thought, stay where you’re comfortable, at home. I have a bias,

I admit, I think people who don’t ‘get’ Flamenco have minds closed off to the essence of Spain and have simply imported Britain to Spain without ‘minding the gap’. I think that not learning the language betrays a deep disrespect. And I firmly believe that dismissing this rich and exciting culture is to miss out on life.

Within flamenco we experience or witness ‘duende’ and the author Frederico Lorca wrote ‘The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.” A duende is a spirit creature, a fairy, so to embody duende is to transcend your mortal being and allow yourself to be transported, possessed, hopefully benevolently. Watching the dance and listening to the song, you sense it. There is something other worldly happening and it makes the hairs on the back of your neck rise, if you let it. ‘With our feet we will stamp the poverty, the hardship, the deep misogyny, the oppression, the loss of a child, the mother’s sorrow, the father’s having been out of work for 20 years, into the hard floor, and we will let the duende rise up through the soles of our feet to power our voice, our body, our soul with a passion of expression’. This is Spain.

At the horse spectacle in the bullring, with my daughter and her boyfriend looking on, we watched various people in costume expertly riding and performing a form of dressage. A young falconer in a leather tunic and leather wrist straps rode bareback and the birds glided to his wrists as he cantered. He climbed onto the back of the horse, falcons aloft. Carriages painted in red, black, and gold swept round the bullring with their cargo of men and women in Trajes de Feria, the costumes we tend to call flamenco. It was a feast for the eyes and the senses. It was medieval, as so much here is, whilst still ineffably modern. The Spanish did not have medieval ironed out of them by the renaissance, and post renaissance and later industrialism. They kept its spirit, the shade, the light, the lamplight glistening on water, the fairy soul of the duende.

This is why I moved to Spain.

On a more socio-political note, Spain is all about community with the inclusion and exclusion that this entails. The communities are tightly knit in the pueblos and in the cities. In my four years here, I have set foot in a Spanish home twice and have never been invited to a meal at a Spanish friend’s home, bearing in mind the pandemic stopped everything dramatically, because Spain took lockdown very seriously indeed. I eat at restaurants and cafes alone very often and am usually surrounded by families and couples. I am used to it. I admire this focus on community and the stability and continuity it provides. The local ayuntamiento or council provide a mediation service so that if families fall out, bridges can be built. There was a shooting a couple of years ago when tensions between two families grew too big. The council stepped in to mediate. I have not yet heard the outcome.

Such a community welcomes foreigners but is not patient with us or necessarily thinking about ways to include us. That is more likely a few years down the line when it’s clear we are not going, and we are part of things, and good people. Eye rolling is not uncommon when we are struggling with a phrase or sentence but I don’t blame people. It’s really hard to break the smooth flow of a good conversation to figure out what someone is trying to say and many Brits speak a ghastly garbled Spanglish which is an offence to my ears, let alone the Spanish. So they roll their eyes and I fight inwardly to keep on trying to say things, even when it’s tempting to give up. You have to be robust to be a foreigner in another country. You are stripped of status, of cosy at home- ness, that feeling that you are in the bones of a country and it is in yours. You are learning new things all the time.

But this too is why I love Spain.

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