In addition to stuffing the hire car’s glove box with paper maps, this time we’ve brought on our house-hunting mission a laptop PC and newfangled (for this time in 2006) route finding software. It’s the Lite version, given away free with some magazine or other, so on launching the program it’s always keen to remind me that some features may therefore be ‘missing, or limited in performance’. Maybe that’s why it drew a blank at breakfast time when we asked it the way to a small village called La Puebla de Sancho Perez, where we have a room reserved for tonight. The low-tech paper equivalent gets us there without incident, however.
It’s lunchtime on a blindingly bright day in May and shade outside is hard to find, so the bar in the little hostal is disappointingly full – the little Spanish I know from UK-based lessons leaves much to be desired, and I prefer to make a fool of myself to as small an audience as possible. Nevertheless we make our way in, wheeled Samsonites trundling behind us, and find a space by the counter.
“Si?” enquires the barmaid, indicating with a sweeping gesture the beer pumps, bottle-laden shelves, and coffee apparatus.
“Later, maybe.” I manage. “We have a reservation here. Can we take our luggage to the room?”
A moment’s silence follows my clunky Spanish, before she turns abruptly away to serve someone else. A soft chuckle comes from the chap at my elbow.
Sue and I exchange glances. What went wrong? Maybe my delivery wasn’t perfect, but I can’t imagine it was bad enough to cause offence?
The next time she passes I pluck up courage and try again. “Excuse me, miss … our luggage? To the room?” This time she all but runs away along the bar, then buries herself in some task that’s out of my eye line. The fellow next to me is now chortling openly, and there are smirks and giggles from some of his buddies. Devastated by my obvious ineptitude in having fallen at the very first hurdle, I begin to wonder if this whole project is beyond me. I turn to my amused neighbour with an apologetic shrug.
“Is my Spanish really that bad?”
“Not at all, amigo mío, I understood every word you said,” he laughs, “but she only started here last week, and she’s Russian. She has hardly any Spanish at all – we’re lucky if we manage to buy a beer.”
* * *
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. I have no idea what her personal situation was, or what had brought her to backwoods Extremadura – but, at perhaps twenty or so years old, she was trying to hold down a job under another country’s administration, in a foreign culture, in an unknown language, a very long way from home. What hoops she’d have to jump through about visas, right of residence and a host of other issues I can’t even begin to imagine.
Connected, as many of us are to one extent or another, to the UK expat community it’s sometimes easy to forget that Spain entertains many immigrants, from our Russian friend above, to Romanians, Africans, Chinese and more. Additionally, through the course of my life so far (be it in the UK or in Spain) I’ve met Jewish refugees who escaped the Nazis, Armenians and Bulgarians who fled the fall of the communist bloc and Africans who arrived in Europe after arduous journeys in open boats. The vast majority have one thing in common; for whatever reason, they had a better chance in life by going to a foreign land bearing little or no money, property, rights or language skills, than they would have had staying at home.
Another class of intrepid emigrant does so through personal choice, but eschews the comforts of his or her EU citizenship and instead chooses to set up home in a place such as Cambodia, the Philippines, Belize or Chile. Ladies and gentlemen, I salute your courage and pioneering spirit.
It may have seemed quite a step to take at the time, but swapping a house in commuter-belt Surrey for a chalé in Alange did not turn me overnight into Joshua Slocum or Vasco de Gama. I started my Spanish adventure already having the legal right to reside here, a ready made network of help, and, if it all goes sadly or hilariously wrong, the ability to be back in my homeland in a matter of hours by land, sea or air.
So, when confronted with any the million minor irritations and indignities of living in Spain – such as the red tape, the language barrier, the cultural differences, the bizarre horario, or the lack of real ale or decent tea – I feel obliged to stop my whinging, get a grip, and work out the common factor in all of these ‘problems’ that a true pioneer would shrug off with contempt … me.
After all, people like me who’ve simply popped round to the country next door are very much Expats Lite – with, at least in my case, quite a few abilities ‘missing, or limited in performance’.